Building Successful Businesses podcast: Tim Barker

Read Time: 14 Min

In the latest episode of our Building Successful Businesses podcast, we welcomed Tim Barker, CEO of Kooth plc, and the winner of the UK Tech Awards Tech for Good Category. We chat to Tim about how Kooth is helping individuals and businesses with the ongoing challenges around mental health, how he has used psychometric profiles to improve his leadership skills, and the surprising place you might have seen his code before. 

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Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” where we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of their success and the lessons they’ve learned on the way. I’m Fiona Moore. And today, I’m delighted to be joined by Tim Barker, CEO of Kooth plc, the online mental wellbeing community. So, first off, Tim, congratulations are due. ECI is a sponsor of the UK Tech Awards and you were the winner in the Tech for Good category, the latest in what looked like a long line of accolades?

Tim: Thank you, Fiona. I’m exhausted from attending literary galas and events. But, yeah, we picked up three awards, and I think it’s a testament to where we are as a nation that a mental health service provider gets the recognition that we did. So, yeah, really humbled by that and really, really proud.

Fiona: And for those who haven’t heard about the business, tell me a little bit about what Kooth does in that mental health service provider space.

Tim: Absolutely. Kooth predates my time as CEO, we’ve been around for 20 years. And over that time, we have built and become the UK’s largest digital mental health service, especially for young people, 10 to 25-year-olds. We are a close partner to the NHS. We are commissioned by 90% of regions across England and growing in Scotland and Wales.

In order to tackle this growing global challenge of poor mental health, which one in five of us needs support for every year, we make it an open-access service. You don’t need to go to your GP and register. It takes one minute. And we provide a range of different tools and support options for individuals, whether that be a text live chat with a professional counselor, engaging in a community to get support from people that have been where you are, or just accessing therapeutic helpful content written by our own users and our own practitioners.

We went public in September 2020. As I mentioned, after 20 years then overnight success, we got an award for Newcomer last year, and we’ve grown in no time over the last two years from about 170 people to just around 400 today.

Fiona: And obviously, you mentioned 20 years, with the mental health space, did it take time for it to digitalise and embrace that tech element of the Tech for Good?

Tim: Yeah, probably the first 15 years, really, was around trying to help champion and evangelise the internet as a means of delivery for mental health care. But if you think of some of the challenges that there are around, for example, stigma, it’s hard to reach out to say you need help.

So, we can provide a service where you don’t need to divulge your identity, you have a login, but it’s not tied to your email address or phone number. So, there are some huge advantages that you can get in terms of reach, anonymity, accessibility, that are hugely valuable about providing and supporting the whole population’s health. 

Take an area like Cornwall, huge geographic area, lots of remote populations there. The internet can really help provide access to these professionalised services that we’ve built and proven over the last, say, 15 years. So, it’s been a huge evangelism, and then things really picked off probably in 2017 to 2019, when there really became a recognition that this could be a valuable part of the jigsaw. Clearly, it’s not a replacement for face-to-face counseling, but to run alongside it.

Fiona: And the pandemic must have had quite a big impact in lots of ways. Obviously, it’s had quite a big impact on an individual’s mental health, I think it’s helped to maybe destigmatise and help people have more discussions about mental health, but it’s also impacted accessibility, people actually being able to have those face-to-face meetings. How did the pandemic impact Kooth as a business?

Tim: Probably all of it has been touched at some point in the last two years, we’ve all gone through the huge change here together. So, there’s a few things that we saw, one is just an increased demand for our service. It’s been an increase about 30% this year, over last year it was about a 40% increase. That’s not just an increase in volume of people that we’re seeing, but the types of issues that we’re seeing as well.

We support primarily younger people, so 10 to 25-year-olds, up to Gen Z people in the workplace, and 25% of people we’re seeing have got suicidal ideation. That’s grown significantly over the last year. Students, people in work, just a lack of motivation, and that thing of, “Why am I doing this?” And then arising issues like self-harm or eating disorders.

And it’s also about the stresses and strains on our own organisation when you’re dealing with trauma every day, looking after the well-being of your own workforce is important. We’re seeing that not just in our own business, but also in many businesses. HR is dealing with issues they’d never had to deal with before.

They’ve gone from perhaps looking at mental health as something you might provide as an insurance benefit to actually then thinking, ‘we need a corporate strategy around employee wellbeing, normalising mental health in the workplace.’ So, a lot of the work that we do now is with corporates. And while things are improving, 50% of employees would never talk about their mental health to their manager for fear of what the implications might be. So, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Fiona: You mentioned 2017 as a sort of, turning point. So, if that was the last five years, what do you think the next five years look like in overcoming some of those barriers around mental health?

Tim: If I could find the positive from the negative of COVID, it’s definitely put mental health on the mainstream agenda. I think the next five years will be about how you can create a more integrated approach. When you’re looking at the huge amount of demand, we need to open up access to support services much earlier. If you go to your GP and you need help, you need to qualify to get a level of threshold of illness before you can get professional help.

We just need to change that because all we’re doing is pushing people away until they really get to a point of desperation. So, over the next five years, I think what you’ll see is a lot more embracing in progressive organisations, normalising mental health as part of a modern business culture.

We’re all hiring Gen Zs, and they come to business with very different expectations, and do not come with a stigmatised view of mental health. So, I think what you’ll see is how you can embed this into your corporate culture to help destigmatise it because we are all human, after all, CEOs included. And then from a healthcare perspective, bigger focus on early intervention, so that we can turn the demand down from that acute care and solve the problem when it’s a one-pound problem as opposed to a thousand-pound problem.

Fiona: It feels like over the pandemic, companies in particular, have really started talking about it a bit more and being more open, and actually moving away from just talking about well-being to mental health and well-being, and being a bit more transparent about what that means.

Tim: We exist in an ecosystem of other technology companies and obviously, organisations like Headspace and Calm have done a good job of opening the dialogue and discussion. We go a lot further than meditation in our services as you might imagine, but I think all of those things are people climbing the ladder around what does progress look like around creating a mentally-healthy organisation.

If you look at the performance of your organisation, it’s the performance of your people. And that’s measured on potential minus their interference. Why wouldn’t you want to remove interference that’s blocking them from achieving their potential? If it’s a challenge at home, or you’re a guilty parent, as I’ve been in the past, or you’re worried about imposter syndrome – help your people because that will just help the performance of your organisation.

I think connecting the dots between the mental health of your individuals, and the performance of your business has yet to be fully done. And I think that for the organisations who figure that out, that’s a game-changer for them.

Fiona: It’s definitely something we see across our portfolio. We think in terms of people and culture, and we look at how engaged the staff at the portfolio companies are, and a key part of that is feeling like the companies care about you. And a key part of that is then really caring, not just in terms of what your life is like at work.

Tim: I’m old enough to remember when that wasn’t the case at all, you punched in and out, you did your hard labour. But now you’re right, whether it’s a duty or responsibility, or basically if you want to become a place where your employees never want to leave, then you need to treat them as humans. That more rounded approach, and I think as you mentioned, engagement tools have been great because they start to shine the light on these challenges. So, it’s a really good precondition for organisations like Kooth to come in and help tackle them.

Fiona: So, you mentioned punching in and out. So, if we go back in your career, to the start, what was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

Tim: I did a degree in computer science. When I left I wanted to work on hard, technology problems. I ended up working for a company that did complex real-time software. Fiona, my code still runs to this day on the Channel Tunnel train, I should have you know. I wrote the code for the auxiliary toilet backup system. And I’m literally not joking. If you have to…

Fiona: It’s a claim to fame.

Tim: If you need to flush twice, mine’s the second flush, that’s my code running. But, you know, it was a company of about 600 people. Looking back on it and what really influenced me there was the CEOs and the directors of the company were incredibly accessible. Every Friday afternoon, they’d hang out in a conference room, you could go and meet with them and just talk about anything.

They knew your name. I’d always come in the view that CEOs were unapproachable, ivory-tower types, and so to actually have access to senior people and to learn from them, and just engage with them as individuals was incredible when you’re 21, 22. And that’s something that stayed with me, which is, do not be the ivory-tower CEO, do not build a culture of fear that when you go in the room, people are too scared to tell you what’s happening in the business.

FionaIs that something you found harder in terms of remote working, that accessibility point as a business leader?

Tim: Only if you yourself don’t make the effort. The thing I do miss out on is the serendipitous water-cooler moments. So, we’ve done our best to try and recreate those. We all use Slack and we use a service called Donut, which allows us to connect with random employees across the organisation. So, I do my best, I try my best to try and create online serendipitous moments to connect with people across the business.

Fiona: And when I was looking through the businesses you’ve worked at, you were a CEO at Koral before it was acquired by Salesforce and DataSift before it was bought by Meltwater. One of the things we’ve spoken to with other CEOs as part of this podcast series is that they said it can be quite strange going from running a business to watching it from afar, or even within a different role in the wider group. How did you find that transition?

Tim: They were both very different. With Koral, we were an acqui-hire. So, that was a team of six, a small company of six people that were acquired in versus, with DataSift, we were a more established organisation. I suppose the thing for me was it depends on whether you’re going in with a strong vision that the company that is acquiring you is going to help you accelerate, or whether you are going in to be subservient to their vision.

And so, with Salesforce, they had a plan, and I worked for their plan. With Meltwater, I had a plan. And I came in with them to help me accelerate my plan. I think that’s probably the difference of it really, which is whether you’re going in based on the strength of your vision and seeing that as a catalyst.

In both cases, it takes some adjustment to go from calling all the shots to presenting to the exec team to get their blessing across that. But the thing that you learn as CEO…how can I best put it…is you’ve got to be low ego as a CEO. You’ve gone through every challenge, so you cannot walk in the room with high ego as part of that, you’ve been humbled so many times often along your journey. 

I don’t take this personally, but sometimes it works out great, sometimes it doesn’t. I think Meltwater is working out well. Salesforce, we missed a huge opportunity there that companies like Dropbox and Box ended up taking a bigger slice of the market. But, you know, that was a decade ago.

Fiona: You mentioned earlier, obviously since you joined Kooth, the business has IPO-ed. Tell me a bit about the run-up to that process and how you found it?

Tim: So, we IPO-ed during lockdown. I suppose the first thing that we went through on that is, ourselves and our brokers, was a complete experiment to us. No one had ever IPO-ed during a pandemic, no one had ever done an IPO roadshow over Zoom. So, that was a learning exercise. For those of you that are listening that haven’t done a public listing, it’s very different compared to a VC process, which I’ve gone through the majority of my life before.

VC process is you build your pitch deck, you go out with your hockey stick projections of hyper-growth, smart people do their due diligence on you, and at the end of that, hopefully, you get funding. You’re really selling a dream, and a vision, and a passion. Public markets is very different. I learned a lot there. It’s really about the commitment you’re making for growth to the market.

And you will be measured severely on hitting that. The big surprise to me was in building your pitch decks and presentations and documents – everything goes through legal verification. Everything you say needs to be proven, which is very different to raising money through VC. I’ve found it a really interesting process so far…ask me in 5 or 10 years, but it’s been a really enjoyable process.

Fiona: It must give you an awful lot of rigour because it has to, I imagine.

Tim: You need to have got your finance systems, your forecasting…you kind of need every team to be ready. I think that was one of the things – your business is as strong as your weakest team. So, you need every team to be ready to go public. Also, in doing your roadshow and your IPO prep, you and the CFO are gonna be out of the business for three months, so you need the rest of the team to be able to manage without you, and they did a great job.

Fiona: Now, you’re the CEO of a publicly-listed company, what has that business success taught you about yourself as an individual?

Tim: Yeah, a couple of things really. I suppose what I’ve learned is I am quite an inquisitive learner. I do take a huge interest in every aspect of the business. I’m keen to learn more about that. I think you need that because no one wants to join a call with the CEO when you can tell their lights have switched off and they’ve stopped listening.

So, I think, to my benefit, I am an inquisitive learner. And of course, one thing that we’ve adopted across Kooth and I’ve used in the past, is to learn myself through self-reflecting on the psychometric profiles I’ve done along the journey. The latest one that we use at Kooth is a color wheel analysis. I’m strong on leadership, vision, motivation, and passion, but I do need people around me that are great finishers, that are well organised or very data-driven individuals. I think what I’ve learned from that is what team do I need around me, for me to get the best out of myself.

Maybe the final thing is, because of my own nature, and what I’m drawn to, I am an ideas person. Something I learned at Salesforce was an annual planning process, which if anyone wants to Google it, it’s called V2MOM. I won’t go into the weeds of it, but it’s about getting organisational alignment and focus from senior level to every individual in the business.

I’ve realised that only not benefits the organisation, but it stops me from changing plans every three months around what we could be doing next. So, it’s a good stabilising factor. I’m a builder. I like building things. I like innovating and moving fast.

Fiona: It’s always slightly scary when you get a psychometric profile back, it’s, like, a window into your soul. And you do realise that there’s things you’re not good at, and I guess the challenge is how you’ve come to terms with that and fix it to some extent.

Tim: That’s right. And there are things individually to work on then there’s things about how that team is balanced. If you look at color wheel, as an example, it’s quite a simple approach. You’ve got four dominant colors: your yellow, which is your innovation; your red, which gives you your drive; your green, which is your empathy; and your blue, which is your analytical.

We’ve all got elements of those in us. But I think what it also means is you can consciously dial up in any of those areas if you just know you need to. I would encourage it for everyone, because we’ve all got areas we gravitate to unguided, right, whether you’re a data geek, or you’re really focused on empathy or listening. So, we’ll all have something to learn, and maybe destigmatising psychometric profiles is something we should be encouraging.

Fiona: And other than that, is there any other advice you’d give to business owners at the start of their journey?

Tim: It really is the journey you need to be in for not the destination. Do not start a venture on the hopes of the destination you can get to for two reasons. You’ve got to wake up every day on the journey. And it’s hard to motivate yourself if you haven’t got that passion. Remember, burnout is because you are not working on things you’re passionate about. So, you cannot force passion and purpose.

You need to focus on things where you will wake up every day and be happy even if you didn’t make a success out of it, because you would have felt that you spent your time wisely. And maybe the other thing is that culture and values can’t wait. I’ve joined organisations that had no defined values, and your values do set your company culture. Do not delay those, because your values are, what’s the worst behavior you’ll let go in your organisation?

And I think unless you set strong values, the use to hire, retain, and fire on, you’re not gonna build a company culture at the end of that. And often I see that being delayed and pushed out. Do that on day one.

Fiona: Tim, thanks so much for talking to me today. I think it’s quite clear in terms of the purpose of Kooth, which must really inspire both you and the people who work there. And I look forward to hearing about the future and seeing how it goes. Thanks.

Tim: Nice talking to you, Fiona. Have a good day.

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I take a lead on progressing ESG initiatives for ECI and its portfolio, and sit on ECI’s ESG Committee. There is a huge opportunity for companies that can take a lead on areas such as D&I and sustainability, and ESG is now intrinsic to running a successful business. I also manage marketing activity across ECI and you may recognise me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses."

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