As an entrepreneur, Theodoric Chew’s startup experience could rival that of his older peers. Over the years, he’s built a string of startups and gained extensive experience in the VC circuit under his belt一all before hitting his late twenties.
A walking testament to how building a dream is possible with relentless hard work and the sheer will to succeed, Theodoric did not follow the traditional Singaporean template that many would constitute a rite of passage一choosing instead to forego a degree to get first-hand, practical experience in startup operations. After all, no university degree could teach him what he’s learned from rolling up his sleeves and putting in the work amongst seasoned professionals.
While he admitted that his journey was a dismay to his parents at the start, his unconventional route in the school of hard knocks has equipped him with the knowledge he needed to realize his vision.
Together with his co-founder, Anurag Chatani, they created a radical new approach to mental wellbeing support that’s easily accessible to the under-served APAC market一a region where awareness needed to be nurtured. This came to fruition in the form of Intellect. In just 2 years since its launch, Intellect has risen to be Asia's largest and fastest-growing mental health technology company, with over 3 million members and a prestigious clientele that include regional unicorns and Fortune 500 powerhouses.
How did the young founder manage to overcome the stigma surrounding mental health and scale the company to incredible heights? We sat down with Theodoric to find out exactly that, along with how Intellect managed to crack the Asian market, his approach to overcoming impostor syndrome and why he thinks we’ve grown leaps and bounds in our regional perception towards mental health.
In a sense, it was both professional and personal. Professionally, I’ve been in the tech space for quite a number of years. I had my first startup 7 years ago. When it got acquired, I worked at different startups and accelerators in the VC space as well.
On the personal side, I have been through my own mental health journey. At 16, I experienced my first panic attack. I went through the typical Singaporean journey of studying hard to get on a good path but that resulted in a lot of anxiety. This led me to see a therapist, during which I saw the first-hand benefits of working with a professional. After that, my journey went from coping with my struggles periodically to actually helping me better myself and develop my strengths.
What became clear to me was that if more people knew how helpful therapy can be, as opposed to its overall perception, it would be something that anyone would be more open to. Seeing as all of our peers struggle with work and the different stresses of life, yet we don’t have the outlets we need for simple, relatable care. That’s how Intellect started.
At the start, it was hectic and confusing as we tried to figure everything out. Back then, it was just me and my co-founder, Anurag. Together, we tried to validate what we’re trying to build and really scale it up once we had our MVP. From the early days of Intellect, we knew that our problem statement was that people needed support but how do we provide this care? This is core to what we’re building here. The biggest learning was that everyone struggles but not everyone has the tools and awareness to get the support they need. Our job is to make that easy and relatable.
That said, it was turbulent at the beginning. It was back in late 2019 when we started. Prior to COVID, mental health was seen as a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have. Fast forward to our beta launch in April 2020, that was when we saw a shift in how the world perceived mental health, albeit progressively. There was definitely education needed on the funding side as well as awareness for users and clients.
I think if you speak to any founder, it’s always a very painful process. I think for us, it was harder as mental health was such a nascent space here. Thus far, no one has managed to crack the Asian market in terms of mental health tech. However, we managed to get strong early backers at Insignia and Y Combinator一who are also early backers of Aspire一and that eventually grew to a stage where we are pioneering and breaking new ground for mental health in this region. It took over a year for us to see that active movement.
As I shared, I chose not to go to university. For me, what I thought was most valuable to what I wanted to build was getting actual operating experience such as working with startups and companies, eventually leading to building something of my own. That was the route I opted for, which, at that point of time, was high risk一much to my parent’s dismay. Thankfully, it panned out well.
The obstacles faced was getting everyone on board that this unconventional route could be okay. Early on, I was always asked why didn’t I venture into a more established tech sector instead? Mental health tech required us to build awareness before we could scale up. What drove me was our problem statement as it stems from something that I’ve experienced myself. I believe that everyone can relate to what we’ve built at Intellect一it’s just how big or small the issue is.
Definitely. If you truly think that you have no imposter syndrome, you must have a lot of support [laughs]. From the peers I worked with in the earlier days of my career to the people that I now manage, most if not all have had more experience than I’ve had and probably know more in their respective functions than I do. While it’s easier said than done, what was key for me is to understand that most people don’t have it all figured out but it’s important to have a clear sense of what you’re trying to do and moving towards that direction一not just as a founder but as an individual.
Subconsciously, I like being the underdog that builds and improves一having the mindset that we can still make something out of it even without the resources. With Intellect, we came in initially as an underdog player as we’re not the first to tackle the mental health tech space. But we’re doing it in the best, most comprehensive way we can.
What worked out was having an inner narrative, being clear as to what my strengths were and not being someone I’m not一I’m not a seasoned veteran in the space. However, I have a clear vision for what I’m building and I’m able to execute that.
The top three values for me as well as with the people I’m looking to hire as well are mainly:
At this point in time, mental health awareness has grown rapidly but we still have a long way to go. In our post-COVID world, individuals, corporations and government bodies are more aware of the importance of mental health. In certain capital cities and countries in Asia, we’re seeing a leap in crises rates一and yet, there’s not enough mental healthcare in place yet. However, it’s rapidly picking up over the past year. I foresee that it will continue to grow and even surpass that growth this year and the years to come. In time, it'll become a staple as we’ve seen in the US and many parts of Europe as well.
On the work side, my day-to-day has evolved quite substantially from handling everything myself while working alongside a small team to now managing a bigger team to drive their respective functions and also work with the leaders of our departments closely. This ensures that we’re on track with our strategic direction. On top of that, there’s also hiring and fundraising, which is what every founder needs to do to build and scale their teams.
My top tips are to be patient and to be resilient.
On being patient, success takes many years to build. We see that Intellect is growing quickly in the past few years一this is similar to most success stories. You must have the patience that it may not come right away but if you keep chipping away at the right direction, eventually it will happen. You just need to keep working towards that.
On the other hand, resilience is also key. Rejection is part and parcel at any stage, whether you’re at pre-seed, Series A, B, C and even IPO. You’ll constantly get rejected by different investors, partners, customers and even team members. What’s crucial is to not let yourself get put down by rejection. While you may have moments where you feel let down, it’s important to pull yourself up again.