How I went from suicidal to owning a successful tech start up

The Arkeo founder, Jana Dowling, shares her very personal business journey


Two years ago I suffered a severe depressive episode where I spent five weeks under 24-hour watch as a high risk suicide patient.

It’s safe to say that this was the worst time of my life. As I was coming out of the episode, I realised the impact of what had happened to me; it didn’t just happen to me but it happened to my friends, family, work colleagues. Everyone was affected by my illness.

I knew that I wasn’t well enough to work so instead I took my recovery on like it was my job and started to track everything I was doing. I built a tracking system and I used the data from it to make decisions because I couldn’t always trust that my feelings or thoughts would propel me in the right direction.

It worked and I was back to work within three months but felt that I wasn’t very good or useful. A friend had given me a job as their personal assistant and to be fair I was awful for the first few weeks. I couldn’t even book in meetings properly, she was very cool about it and would just tell me not to worry, to try again and she’d make jokes that her clients weren’t going to leave her because I was bad at sending out meeting requests. Which was in fact entirely true.

Subsequently, I kept meeting people who like myself were feeling bad, had lost their jobs, we’re about to lose their jobs or hadn’t been able to get back into work. So instead of just listening and being sympathetic and empathetic, I decided to do something about it and I set up “The 888 Collective” - a social enterprise focused on helping people with mental health issues get back into work.

I originally wanted to open a café and a shop but I looked into how much it would cost and came to the conclusion that it would have been a financial “black hole” so instead I bought a second-hand Panini machine and found a free shed space in East London and started selling tea and toasties. I hired anyone with mental health issues who wanted work and paid them for their time while sharing my own experiences with them as well as my tracking system.

After three months, the first person I hired left me to train as a professional barista and later went on to work in a café in East London. She wasn’t the only one. I realised that teaching my tracking system while giving my staff in-work mentoring was a great working model so I developed it into a course. I delivered the course for free to anyone who showed up and at the end of each course I would persuade a cool East London restaurant to let us take over for a night and put on an event that was fully staffed by The 888 Collective graduates.

It was awesome to see people working hard, using my tracking system and changing the direction of their lives.

While helping everyone for free was rewarding in itself, it wasn’t sustainable as I wasn’t getting an income and it was hard to keep the enterprise going. Eventually I met someone who could see the potential in what I had built, not just for those struggling with mental health issues, but for everyone - and Arkeo mental fitness was born.

My tracking system has been turned into an app and the training has been developed further to educate users about mental fitness. My way of looking at mental fitness is; we all have it, it goes up and down at different times in our lives and its impacted by lifestyle, life events and world events. The MyArkeo app helps users to track their mental fitness taking their lifestyle choices, patterns and habits into consideration.  It’s not about abstaining from anything that we know isn’t great for us, or completely changing who we are and how we live, it’s about making informed decisions with a view to keeping mentally fit. In the same way we do with physical fitness.

Version 1 (releasing in September 2019) will be a full active mental fitness management tool , helping users to prevent periods of low mental fitness and set targets to improve mental fitness.

As a business, we deliver this tech and training into organisations to enable them to better manage mental fitness in the workplace

It was important to me that we create tech for social good so 5% of subscription fees are directed to our social enterprise, Arkeo Empowerment, (also known as The 888 Collective) Arkeo Empowerment delivers free personal development and mental fitness management courses to people who find themselves out of work due to low mental fitness. We provide free theatre workshops and talent shows and in 2021 we will be releasing our first fitness clothing label using artwork, poetry and designs sent to us by Arkeo Empowerment users.

I hope in time, our corporate Arkeo subscribers will offer work placements to our Arkeo Empowerment Graduates so we will complete the circle of getting people with mental health issues back into the workplace.

We’re building much more than a corporate answer to a topical and prominent issue at this time - we are building a fitness brand for your brain.

I haven’t made it here alone Barclays Eagle Labs have helped me to progress through my raise phase and I’m really excited to continue to work with them over the coming months.

Having inclusive and open conversations with a company like Barclays changes the game for small start-ups like mine. They listen and help.

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