Mar 2, 2011
In 2009, I completed my MBA at Imperial College Business School, London (sorry, not MIT). Without a doubt, my favorite class was the core practical entrepreneurship module known as IED: Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Design.
On the premise that the best way to teach entrepreneurship is by doing, all MBA students were invited to submit proposals for IED projects. At the end of 2008, London – along with other global financial centers – was very much in the depths of a financial crisis both fiscally and emotionally. As a Psychiatrist, I thought I could see a commercial opportunity to create a kind of “walk-in, de-stress clinic” for stressed-out city workers. This would offer massages, therapists and pampering – all in peaceful surroundings. I was thrilled when my proposal was chosen as one of five projects that an MBA team was allocated to work on. For the next 6 months, my eclectic and multidisciplinary team consisted of a Director of Finance, a Human Resources Consultant, an IT geek, a design student from the Royal College of Art and a manager from the Civil Service.
It didn’t take much time to appreciate just how challenging – and ultimately unviable – the business model for the “de-stress clinic” I originally imagined would be. Occupying any floor space in London is expensive, so we needed a high footfall to cover the costs of rent and employees. In addition, we were competing against individual preferences to go to the gym, to a nearby bar or home to “de-stress”.
After reluctantly making the decision to drop my original plan, we went back to review the evidence for what might work to tackle stress in the workplace. During one of our meetings, I suggested that cognitive behavioral therapy (aka CBT) might provide transferable techniques to apply to the problem we were trying to solve. Developed by Beck and Ellis in the 1960s, CBT is a form of therapy. Large-scale studies have demonstrated that CBT is as effective, or superior, at treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety, as pharmacological interventions such as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors such as Prozac). Also effective in a computerized and group format, CBT works by challenging negatively held core beliefs. It influences behavior patterns through a range of techniques including mood diaries, socratic questioning, and gradually exposes the individual to stressful tasks.
Since the 1990s, CBT techniques have been applied with success to individual coaching. My MBA-team hosted a series of focus groups – with coaches, Human Resources Execs and target end-consumers – to explore whether CBT would be of interest in a corporate setting. Our focus groups with experienced coaches revealed that in corporate culture, acknowledging stress was acknowledging weakness. We realized that we would have a much stronger value proposition if we could make our service related to a positive aspiration. “Leadership” seemed to be a popular, albeit vague, aspiration amongst our targeted urbanite population – a feature strongly associated with “success”.
In a therapeutic context, CBT produces measurable improvements for conditions such as anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders. We developed a program called “CBT for Leadership” that would apply these techniques (rather than therapy per se) to improve performance and productivity in individuals who did not have a mental health condition and who may or may not be stressed. Thus CBT4L was born.
Collaborating with a team of clinical Psychologists, we came up with nine core topics that otherwise high-performing individuals may experience and which could be addressed by improving an individual’s sense of control via CBT techniques. These topics included, for example, giving presentations, negotiating, resolving conflict and self-confidence. Clients could choose areas they specifically wanted to work on as a bespoke program over the course of six sessions.
In summary, over the six-month period that this module ran, the original project underwent a dramatic transformation. At the end of the course we were runners up in the Imperial Business School Business Plan competition (2009). This culminated in the – rather terrifying – opportunity to present to a Panel of experienced investors who gave us positive feedback and encouragement. Fuelled by naïve enthusiasm and optimism, we proceeded to register ourselves as a limited company in England, open a bank account, create a logo and secure a domain name. That was about as far as our energy got us before the original team disbanded and we became distracted by other priorities. We reconvened a few months later to see if our original enthusiasm about the idea could be resurrected but the chemistry and commitment amongst the original team had gone. By this stage the MBA itself was complete and people’s lives and careers were motoring ahead in other directions.
Success as an entrepreneur is often defined by exiting a successful company. CBT4L has yet to enter the market. Maybe some day it will, maybe it won’t. The success of this experience for me was the introduction into the rollercoaster and intoxicating world of being an entrepreneur. Jeffrey Stibel wrote that entrepreneurship is a personality trait. He also described entrepreneurship as a disease (2010). Whether a personality trait or a disease, it may not always be a good thing. It can be unpredictable, addictive and most enterprises will fail, irrespective of the energy, relationships and time invested. Crucial to being an entrepreneur (or for me, a doctorpreneur) is not giving up, even if at first you don’t succeed. So if CBT4L makes sense to you as an interesting idea to pilot and develop further, let me know. I look forward to transforming this fledgling concept into a commercial success! You heard it here first!