Cogent Conversations: Episode 16
Sarah La Roche, COO of Smiling Mind.
Covid-19 Mini-Series - Smiling Mind
“Our model is to support young people and children through the influencing systems that surround them. We’ve primarily focused on schools and parents in the home environment to be able to do that. We’ve noticed absolutely huge spikes in usage from those two particular audience groups as they’ve sought to live life in this new and really stressful environment.”
– Sarah La Roche, Smiling Mind
Covid-19 has impacted us all. It’s changing the way we live, the way we do business and the way we interact with each other. We’ve seen businesses react in a range of different ways, and decided to use this time to share some inspiring stories of digital business who are innovating to survive and thrive. In this short mini-series we’ll share stories of how businesses are managing this from the coalface, how they’ve changed their product/strategy and how they’ve made it all happen with remote teams, and what they see for the future.
One of our values here at Cogent is Wellbeing. The wellbeing of the people who work at Cogent has been of paramount importance during this time of rapidly changing context.
Similarly, Smiling Mind has wellbeing at the centre of its purpose; specifically the wellbeing of young people, equipping them with what they need to thrive and excel in life.
For them, this new context has meant rapid change on multiple fronts. The use of their already popular meditation and mindfulness app has grown by over 165%, and they’ve had to adjust from running workshops and training in-person, to delivering them digitally.
In this episode we speak with their Chief Operating Officer Sarah La Roche about their new normal.
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Meet the hosts
Adam has led digital business, consulted to start-ups and corporates, run co-working spaces, and created his own podcast. Currently, he’s a Product Manager at Cogent, helping organisations verify their venture ideas and enable them to evolve their culture.
Mark’s an angel investor and the CEO of Cogent. Mark’s a sought-after advisor on topics spanning from fundraising to strategic planning and market entry. He has a unique perspective on digital businesses globally, and has play a key role in some of the most successful projects we’ve worked on.
Full Episode Transcript
Adam Murray: This is the Cogent Conversations podcast made by the people at Cogent. Cogent Conversations is about understanding all the things that go into making a digital business thrive, helping create these types of organisations is what we love doing best. We also want you to have the opportunity to take the learnings from the best of what Melbourne has to offer, so you can apply them to your own business. To learn more about Cogent, check us out at cogent.co.
Sarah: Youth was always the focus. The kids were glued to their mobile phones and to be able to access this audience, they had already identified at that time, that technology was going to be absolutely integral. It really was about meeting them where they were. And accessibility was always one of the core pillars of our organisation and the goals of our organisation. So I suppose our viewpoint is why not insert a good use of technology into an environment people are already using? So that’s the way we look at it, as more of tech for group sort of standpoint. And if this is a way that we can maximise impact, then that’s something that we should be doing. I’d have to say it’s been pretty successful to date. So I think it was a good choice.
Mark: Welcome Adam, and welcome Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you.
Adam Murray: Thanks, Mark.
Mark: We’re a few months into lockdown here in Melbourne now, and it’s really hard to talk about anything but coronavirus right now. It’s impacted us all immensely, and in particular, our mental health. In this short podcast series, we’re interested in exploring some businesses that have found an opportunity in the pandemic, and an early view of how they see their place in the world change by the new normal we’ll enter post-coronavirus. So Sarah briefly, how has coronavirus impacted Smiling Mind?
Sarah: Briefly! Massively. Like every organisation, really, but perhaps in a slightly different way for us. We’re a mental health-focused organisation, that’s really focused on delivering tools to people across the world that can be readily accessed, but we also do a lot of face to face training. So that’s obviously had a huge shift. We’ve had to rework all of our programs into virtual delivery models. So we’ve had a really big focus on how we can do that over the last month.
Mark: I’ve got about five questions already. Sarah, Smiling Mind has an initial founding focus on children. Could talk about that a little bit more? Obviously now, as a parent myself, I’m certainly seeing mental health as a bigger issue for children. How has that affected you?
Sarah: Yeah, hugely and our model is to try and seek to support young people and children through the influencing systems that surround them. And we’ve primarily focused on schools and parents or the home environment to be able to do that. We’ve noticed absolutely huge spikes in usage from those two particular audience groups as they’ve sought to live life in this new environment and this new really stressful environment.
April, in particular, saw over three times as many parents signing up to use the app compared to the same month last year. And we thought March was our biggest month in general, but it turns out April is now our biggest month ever in the seven-year history of the organisation in terms of new app downloads. We had 165% growth this April versus April last year in general.
We’ve launched seven new family programs in the last two months and one of those programs is the third fastest-growing program that we’ve ever seen. And it’s only been live for about two weeks. So I think the need is definitely there from parents that are dealing with kids being in the home and secondary to that, teachers who are often parents also trying to deal with a situation where they’re educating students from home as well.
Adam Murray: What about in terms of the organisation itself, Sarah, what mindfulness challenges are you finding within the organisation and new ways of working, and how have you gone about adapting your culture to make sure that your people are doing well through this time?
Sarah: We’ve been working from home for about eight weeks, I think. We made that decision early on. We do, as I said, face to face training in schools and workplaces across the country and we want to be able to protect our people from risk and also doing our bit in the community to help protect the broader community. Although we are a small organisation, every little bit helps. So we actually made that decision quite some time ago.
As a technology-led organisation and a very, I suppose, open-minded and flexibly-led organisation, for us, that change has been quite smooth in terms of our ability to actually work and collaborate together remotely. We’re set up using cloud systems. We have Slack, we have Zoom, we have all of those ways of people being able to connect with each other. So in terms of the practicalities, I think it’s been relatively smooth.
Now, of course, that has resulted in changes in the way that we work. So, and I’ve heard other people talking about this as well, but Zoom fatigue or video call fatigue has set in, as people required to collaborate with people on things that would have just been incidentally sorted out if you’re face to face. So there’s definitely been a huge number of meetings and we’re trying to look at ways that we can address that. We’ve looked at doing more regular check-ins as a team. We actually just ran a survey on how people think that we’ve responded to the crisis, and it was really overwhelmingly positive.
So we’ve sought to try and address factors influencing people’s wellbeing. We’ve implemented an EAP program, which we never had before. We do daily mindfulness sessions that are available to anyone who’d like to participate. So there’s been a range of different initiatives that we’ve implemented to try and ensure that we have a culture that’s supporting wellbeing, as well as the job security of our people, which is a tricky balance to find as we’ve sought to secure additional funding and projects to support the sustainability of the organisation.
Mark: I was fascinated by the statement there about daily mindfulness. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Sarah: Yeah. So I suppose we are a little bit lucky because we are a mindfulness organisation. It is the core of our offering. We have some amazing staff, psychologists, content creators, and facilitators who are able to actually host those sessions for us. So they’re done virtually every day. Of course, we also offer a freely accessible tool through our app that can be accessed by anyone globally. There are hundreds and hundreds of mindfulness activities and meditations that live within that app that other organisations could utilise for their people. But of course, we’re seeking to utilise the resources that we have within our organisation to better support our people as well.
Adam Murray: You talked a little bit about supporting, maintaining the ongoing viability of the organisation as well. You touched on some of the ways you’ve had to change your programs. I’m interested in particular how you’ve gone about reorienting and how you’ve made that decision, then conveyed it to your people?
Sarah: As a not-for-profit, we have a large number of programs that are funded by philanthropic measures or philanthropic institutions that are rolled out as grants. We also have sponsorships with major brands. Those programs all have delivery requirements that go alongside them that are related to our impact work. It was integral for us to look at the situation and determine how we were going to be able to meet the needs of these projects in an environment where we were not able to meet anyone face to face for an unspecified amount of time.
You know, we do a lot of delivery work in schools. We do a lot of delivery work in workplaces. So as an agile and entrepreneurially led organisation, we actually took that opportunity to work together, collaboratively across teams, to determine what we could do to evolve the face-to-face components of our model to be virtually delivered without compromising the integrity of the program. We’re just so proud of our team who’ve come together amazingly to actually turn our entire face to face delivery model into a virtual blended online learning and online face to face model in a matter of six to eight weeks.
Which has meant that we’ve been able to overall continue to deliver on the requirements of all of our programs. And it’s been really well received by the participants of those programs, being teachers and in some cases, parents, individual users, whoever it might be. But our ability to continue to support people in this time was really important and was paramount at the end of the day. I feel confident that we’ve been able to meet the needs of our programs as well as support the community. You know, it’s a really strong time of need.
Mark: As the CEO of a company, I’m keenly aware of the mental health of the people who work at Cogent. But at the same time, particularly in the early days of coronavirus, I realised that their stress levels were just so high and so omnipresent. I actually couldn’t help a lot in that time at all. Have you, through the programs you deliver, is that something you measure in a way or have a sense of the levels of stress across the people participating in your program?
Sarah: Yeah, actually we’ve just launched a new feature within our app called Wellbeing Check-In. That is a sophisticated way of measuring people’s wellbeing across a variety of factors, including stress, relationships, sleep. It gives users the ability to track their responses over time in relation to how often they use our product, our tools. We’ve already had a million responses to that Wellbeing Check-In. That is a really powerful tool that we will seek to evolve over time to meet a variety of goals.But for the individual users, in particular, it gives them the ability to check in with themselves regularly, which is a core foundational element of mindfulness trait anyway but also gives us the ability to understand how our programs might be positively impacting members of the community as well. So as we build upon the key research pillar of our organisation, that is an element that we’ll definitely be looking to build up.
Mark: That’s great. Actually just, coincidentally, I’ve got a team working on that very issue now and I think basically you’ve just solved all their problems.
Sarah: Well, I’ll be happy to talk you through how it works. It’s all using validated measures. So it’s a pretty robust tool.
Mark: Yeah. I’ll be doing a cut and paste, I think, into the Slack group, that’s working on this.
Sarah: Happy to help.
Adam Murray: There’s some pretty, I guess, acute and apparent challenges right now to mental health, and you’ve responded to many of them. I’m wondering what, as an organisation, you’re anticipating might unfold over the coming months as well and how people’s needs might evolve from where they are now, but particularly from where they were six months ago, say.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s interesting, and we’re spending a lot of time looking at people’s habits around usage in particular. Our area focuses on providing people with tools to support good mental health all year round. There are lots of other amazing organisations that seek to support people through more acute stages of mental illness. Whereas Smiling Mind is very much focused on the prevention area. So our work is about how we can help people form habits around good mental health practices.
That’s why, at the heart, our tools and resources, particularly in the app are freely available to as many people as possible. We’ve already noticed that users are meditating 20% more frequently now than they were this time last year, which shows that the need is greater. People are often still using it as a treatment tool, of which it can be very impactful. But over time, our goal is to seek to help people to utilise it in more of a preventative way.
We’re about to launch a program called Mindful Month, which we’ll be launching on the 1st of June where we’re seeking to help them form that habit around good mental health practices. So it’ll be 30 days of mindfulness activity that you can participate in for free through the app. We’ll be promoting that through our channels very soon. But effectively, that’s how everything we do is around enabling people to engage with the content easily and form habits to help them for the long term.
Adam Murray: Yeah, it makes sense. Some of the things that have been apparent for me, I guess in the rapid change is, it’s uncovered a lot of assumptions that I’ve had, that I wasn’t aware of. In fact, just of my values and ideas, I had about ways I thought I needed to live. And I’m wondering how that might apply to your organisation. Like what this rapid change has uncovered within Smiling Mind in terms of some of the assumptions about the way you going about doing business in your business model. And what of those might stick or transform the way you do business ongoing?
Sarah: Yeah. It’s a scenario we’re thinking about a lot, in terms of how we work in particular. We actually have just taken on a new lease, we’re growing and we need more space. What we want to understand now is what is the role of that physical environment in a world where it’s been proven that we can work very effectively outside of that environment? So how do we actually use that space to build things like a stronger sense of connection to each other, stronger ways of collaborating, creativity building, but most importantly, that social connection piece and building a really strong culture around our organisation?
So for us, we want to make sure that we are enabling people and empowering people to work in a way that suits them and their lifestyle, because I truly believe that that is how we will get the best out of people and that people will feel happier either coming to work every day or working from another location, but contributing to the overall purpose of Smiling Mind and that in turn and then enriching their lives. So that’s something we’re really focused on at the moment.
And leading by example, as the leadership team in that space, I think we’ve shown that we’re fairly resilient to and adaptive to change. And that’s been really rewarding to see, having evolved our entire program offering in a matter of weeks from a very small and isolated remote team, has just shown us that if we can handle that and bushfires earlier in the year, we can probably handle pretty much anything. That resilience and that adaptivity again are core traits of mindfulness, but something that I’m really proud of us being able to respond to as well, which just I think will increase our chances of being relevant long into the future if we can continue to act that way, even as we grow. It’s that agility, that’s so important I think.
Mark: Sounds like you worry a little bit about being relevant. I don’t think it’s something you need to worry about.
Sarah: No, it’s more about making sure we’re providing the right tools to people in a way that’s really accessible to them.
Mark: As we play out with remote schooling, have you had to adapt your product set at all or are hoping to adapt to your product set for children?
Sarah: So our work primarily focuses on educators. We take a dual approach, which is to enable and empower educators to take care of their own mental health. And then utilise and model that behaviour with the children that are in their classroom. As I mentioned, we are unable to deliver a lot of that resources and training that requires face to face interaction. We’ve actually fast-tracked some other programs that we were working on, digital-led programs that we were working on to enable that facilitation to happen more quickly.
We’ve actually been running additional webinars on top of that for educators who are obviously going through really tough times at the moment around self-care and enabling them to actually, taking care of their own mental health as a first step. So yeah, we have remodelled our entire program, but more from a sense of being able to continue to deliver it virtually during the times when we’re not able to do that.
Mark: Do you see that as a semi-permanent remodelling? Do you think you’ll ever go back to how you were before?
Sarah: That’s the million-dollar question at the moment. I mean, although it’s been extremely challenging for us to do that, it’s also a major opportunity for us to be able to look at other ways of delivering our programs without compromising the integrity of the learning outcomes and actually measure and assess the impact of those. We’ve actually already seen a really big increase in the number of schools signing up to the program since we evolved it to be online, which shows that perhaps there could be some longterm benefits in us continuing with that modality as long as the evidence and the evaluation components stack up. So yeah, I think it’s actually been a really positive experience for us and I’m really interested and excited to see where that goes from an evaluation point of view.
Mark: Do you feel one-on-one or one-to-many human connection has an important role still?
Sarah: Yeah, and that’s an interesting part of it. We are still able to and our virtual model is not just about e-learning. So we actually are still utilising the experience of our psychologist and facilitators to lead those sessions. So there’s a combined model, and then we’re doing more followup sessions with schools who are able to then ask questions from really experienced people. So it’s actually building a stronger community of practice. Whether or not we would ever completely remove from our standardised model, any element of face to face interaction, I’m not sure, but it’s certainly up for debate.
Adam Murray: I have a specific question that is about technology and mindfulness, and the tension there, that you probably think about regularly being a technology company. I guess the general feeling that technology is a source of this being less mindful as well.
Sarah: The irony of that. It’s certainly not a thing that’s lost on us. I think from the foundations of our organisation’s origins. In 2012, when Smiling Mind was founded, the idea of mindfulness being delivered through technology and in particular, a mobile device, it was just so radical and so misunderstood or unproven that there was a lot of concern from when our founders went out to try and validate the model and get buy-in. Many founders were met with criticism and concern. It was around the same time that Headspace, the mindfulness app launched as well. So we were certainly pioneers of this space.
I think the modality was important because the founders had really identified that their kids’ use was always the focus. Their kids were glued to their mobile phones and to be able to access this audience, they had already identified at that time that technology was going to be absolutely integral. And really it was about meeting them where they were. And accessibility was always one of the core pillars of the organisation and the goals of the organisation. So I suppose our viewpoint is that, why not insert a good use of technology into an environment people are already using? So that’s the way we look at it, as more from tech for good sort of standpoint. And if this is a way that we can maximise impact, then that’s something that we should be doing. I’d have to say it’s been pretty successful to date. So I think it was a good choice.
Adam Murray: Yes. It seems like it.
Mark: Do you have a vision of where that technology might take you in the future beyond the phone or beyond the version of the phones as we think of them now?
Sarah: In terms of our product or in general?
Mark: Your product specifically, yes. In terms of how you might deliver differently in the future.
Sarah: We’re always looking to technology and related solutions to support us and enable us to create impact and deliver on our goals. So it’s something that as we grow, that we will consistently be looking to leverage, whether it’s through AI, robotics partnerships with social media providers, for example. They are all enablers of our ability to create an impact in the community. We’re already working on web-based tools and resources for particularly the school and home communities that sit outside of our app and the mobile device. And ways that we can start to bring resource tools and communities we’ve practised with together into an ecosystem that’s accessible for people outside of that environment.
So I think our product and technology teams, our research teams, our learning teams are always looking for new ways to embed technological advances in different mediums and ways of learning into our program ecosystem. So definitely we will be continuing to evolve. What was innovative and pioneering seven years ago, changes over time as people’s consumption habits changed. So we need to continue to do that to stay relevant.
Adam Murray: I’ve just got one last question for you. If we think back to why we’re doing this series, which is around the abrupt changes that organisations have faced, maybe it’s for you to reflect on personally or as the organisation, but can you think of a change or something that’s happened as a result of this that’s been surprisingly good and perhaps something that has been surprisingly not so good as well? Something that has taken you a bit by surprise in both directions.
Sarah: I wasn’t surprised about this, but the good is that our team has come together to help identify ways that we can support the community. I mean, the passion and the enthusiasm of everyone in the team from the moment that this crisis began has been unbridled. So I’m so proud and I’ve been so happy to watch that happen and see how each member of the team in each functional area of the organisation has actually contributed massively to our ability to support the community, whether it be through our Thrive Inside program that we launched within 10 days of COVID-19 unfolding to better help support the community through every operational and administrative area of the organisation.
That’s been amazing to watch, but of course, that has come at a cost with regards to how busy we all are every day. And so, I suppose our job as leaders within the organisation is to help to identify ways that we can relieve that and to better support our people. And that’s not always immediately obvious either. We’re really seeking to try and do that in any way that we can, whether it’s through additional resourcing or whatever it might be, through wellness initiatives and so on, as I mentioned earlier. So I suppose that’s kind of the balance that I’ve noticed around the really good, and then obviously the effects of that, which we’re trying to balance and manage as best as we can.
Adam Murray: Awesome. It’s so good to hear all of that. That is really exciting. It’s amazing the impact that you’re having and how adaptive you’ve been able to be. So, thanks for taking the time out to share all of that. I’m sure it’s helpful for everyone who’s listening. Help us get the word out there about all the great digital businesses in Melbourne by sharing an episode you love with a friend or by rating and reviewing this podcast through your favourite platform. And finally, if you want to tell us about how your business is thriving, or you know of another digital business that is having an amazingly positive impact, the best way to do that is through emailing us through firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m Adam Murray, and I look forward to hearing your story.