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Company of the Month: MeeToo

MeeToo ‘makes it easy to talk about difficult things’. The digital peer-support app, launched in 2017, is designed to give young people (aged 11-25) a free, anonymous and safe space to talk about what they’re going through and get support. Since launch, the app has received numerous awards and had over 60,000 young people register to use the service.

MeeToo have recently joined MedCity Community, a free online membership platform for life sciences and healthtech SMEs (details below). We spoke to Co-Chief Executive, Kerstyn Comley, about this and their success so far.

MeeToo beginnings

Suzi Godson and Kerstyn Comley, Co-Chief Executives of MeeToo, began their startup journey in 2014, with a conversation in an East London sports hall. Suzi – a journalist, psychologist and sex and relationships columnist for The Times – and Kerstyn – an IT consultant with a background in engineering and data science – were both self-confessed workaholics, struggling with the idea of sitting still and watching their daughters’ trampolining class. But, as Kerstyn says, “timing is everything”. At the time, Kerstyn was exploring new work projects, and Suzi had the nugget of an idea for an app to support young people with sex and relationship advice.

The core of the idea was a way for young people to talk anonymously about things they found embarrassing, but, importantly, rather than a ‘like’, other young people would have a way of showing empathy, by saying ‘Me too’.

“The classic example is “I’m 17 and I’ve never been kissed”. They think they’re the only one. But when an 18- or 19-year old replies saying ‘Me too’, they immediately realise this is just normal and the worry is diffused.

I was hooked by this idea from the start, but at the time Suzi and I didn’t know each other, and we didn’t know the problem well enough. So we took about 18 months to really get to know each other. I’m a big fan of ‘The Lean Startup’ and we really followed it by the book, doing lots of research and small-scale tests,” explains Kerstyn.

It was through this user testing, when they tested an early iteration in three local schools, that they realised the need for much more than ‘sex and relationship’ advice, and quickly broadened their scope to wider mental health and life support.

Peer-to-peer support with checks and balances

The app itself hinges on the premise that anonymity makes it easier for young people to talk about themselves without judgement. They receive support from peers, which builds their confidence online and in real life. Giving and receiving empathy and support between peers creates a virtuous circle for the young people using the app. Those that post their problems and questions gain support and advice, and those that post replies grow in confidence through helping their peers.

But, when dealing with young people, safeguarding is a clear concern. The app addresses this through human moderation, a grading of posts and the input of qualified counsellors. Users are banded by age, so they only see posts from a peer group of a similar age (and, hence, experiencing similar issues). All posts are pre-moderated before they are published, and those that raise serious concerns are quarantined and dealt with directly by trained counsellors. And a group of volunteer ‘super peers’ – all Psychology undergraduates who gain course credit from their university – post model replies to posts and make sure no post goes unanswered.

As Kerstyn explains, the beauty of this approach is in the scalability of the support they can provide:

“With two full-time-equivalent moderators and two full-time-equivalent counsellors, we can support 6,000 young people a month. You couldn’t get near that with one-to-one counselling, or even with something like a helpline. Some helplines quote support costs of around £5 per call. With MeeToo, we can provide a year’s worth of support for around £40. At a time when many CAMHS services have long waiting lists, the potential for us to make an impact is very strong.”

And the impact does seem to be strong. In 2021, the Evidence Based Practice Unit – a collaboration between UCLʼs faculty of Brain sciences and the Anna Freud centre – conducted an independent evaluation of the MeeToo app. The study, which was funded by Innovate UK, found statistically significant evidence that using MeeToo improved mental health in young people. And MeeToo’s own research has found that 95% of their users say the app helps them.

From altruistic origins to monetising

The early development of the app was funded through grants and donations, with a key benefactor being the Texel Foundation. But, while their aims and objectives would meet the Charity Commission’s definition of a charity, Kerstyn and Suzi quickly saw this path wasn’t for them. They formed a social enterprise business in 2018, and see this as the best way of reconciling their altruistic origins, with the need to fund a tech solution and maintain a sustainable business.

As part of this plan to fund their solution, they are now looking to NHS and Local Authority commissioning groups to commission their MeeToo early intervention services. They’re currently running pilots with three areas – Somerset, Warwickshire and Staffordshire:

“One of the things that’s really clear is that, if you want to be successful with early intervention and prevention, you have to engage people. The whole of the NHS is designed around crisis care, but if you want to tackle issues early, you need to build trust through engagement. The conversations we’re now having in the NHS are around leveraging our expertise at engaging with young people to ensure they benefit from the app, and we’re seeing really positive results in our pilot areas.”

The power of data

Another strand to their plans to monetise the solution is founded in its power as a tool for research:

“The app is generating incredible insights into young peoples’ mental health. Every post and reply that comes in is categorised and risk assessed. We would never compromise confidentiality, but when you put all of that together in an aggregate anonymised form, it tells us a lot about the issues young people are facing in particular areas. It can be used by schools to inform interventions that are tailored to their student body, or by commissioning groups to inform the services that are needed in particular areas.”

The data is particularly useful, given the diversity of their user base. MeeToo’s statistics show that the proportion of users in various different groups, including Black young people, Asian young people and those in care, closely mirror the makeup of wider society. That 40% of users are boys, is also striking, given that males are less likely to seek help for mental health problems.

Future developments

Immediate future plans for the company include expanding on these revenue streams, as well as adding more awards to add to their ever-growing collection. As we spoke, Kerstyn was preparing to head to Dubai, as MeeToo had been selected to represent British social enterprise at Expo 2020, and she cites two Tech4Good awards, along with a host of others, as standout achievements.

They are also midway through an investment round, seeking to raise around £1M to expand their senior management team and prepare to scale the business, with potential to grow further in a number of English-speaking territories.

While Kerstyn admits to the usual challenges of navigating the NHS and scaling a team, they remain undeterred and ready for growth, leaning on support where they find it. As well as growing their network through MedCity’s new Community, MeeToo was part of the 2019 Digital Health London cohort (where they also gained support from MedCity), have been part of Teach First’s Innovation Incubator, and Kerstyn is currently part of an all-female cohort of London & Partners’ Silicon Valley Comes to the UK.

When asked for advice for other female would-be founders, Kerstyn’s response is bullish:

“It’s an amazing time to be a female founder. There are so many awards and specific mentoring programmes designed to support women. And there’s a really inspiring community of female leaders in tech. There’s really no excuse not to do it – you just have to hussle and get on with it!”

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