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Why this 20-year-old entrepreneur is tackling mental health in startups

Techly's Business Success Series

‘Rollercoaster’ is a word Ben Coughlin frequently uses to describe his experience as a young entrepreneur, and his voice betrays the exhaustion of going through so many dramatic highs and lows.

But who could blame him? At 20 years of age, Ben is already running a successful swimming coaching startup called Backyard Coach, which operates in Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

He was also recently appointed Chief Student Entrepreneur at the University of Queensland’s startup pre-incubator, Idea Hub, where he inspires and mentors other young innovators.

Besides, any sense that Ben’s journey has been a little overwhelming is quickly eclipsed by his evident intelligence, infectious enthusiasm and, importantly, his commitment to self-growth.

But how did all this come about?

Ben’s childhood was anything but ordinary. The son of a geologist, he grew up in Spain and Peru before returning to Brisbane to finish high school.

After adjusting to life in Australia and grappling with the period of uncertainty most young adults experience after graduating from high school, he chose to study a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Queensland.

But Ben himself admits that, at least for a time, he wasn’t always focused squarely on his studies, with much of his time spent playing sport and running a business out of his own bedroom.

“I think I spent more time doing my own thing than actually learning about the degree,” he says.

“I read a little bit about e-commerce and selling things online, then I started my first business. I ordered about 500 battery-powered phone cases from China and sold them in the US on Amazon and eBay.

Ben Coughlin (right) is excited to tackle his new role as Chief Student Entrepreneur at the UQ Idea Hub.

Ben Coughlin (right) has quickly settled in to his new role as Chief Student Entrepreneur at the UQ Idea Hub.

“At that stage, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I enjoyed it because I was working for myself.

“I managed to sell all 500 cases but wasn’t able to make my money back,” he laughs.

That was 2015, and by the end of the year he had ditched his e-commerce business and taken up coaching.

“I noticed parents were reaching out to me for private tuition for their kids over the holidays. I was seeing these parents wanting more one-on-one tuition and I saw that coaches wanted more jobs, so I realised that I could connect the coaches with the parents.”

And thus, in 2016, Backyard Coach was born. Catering to a variety of sports in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, Ben’s second startup cuts out the middleman by connecting coaches with parents who seek one-on-one tuition for their child.

The business got off the ground through the UQ Idea Hub, where Ben now works, before going through an accelerator called ilab.

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Ben clearly identified a gap in the market: it didn’t take long for Backyard Coach to become inundated with bookings that they couldn’t fulfil.

“It was crazy,” he says. “We just couldn’t keep up with the number of bookings and clients we were getting – we couldn’t actually find enough coaches.”

So, in October 2017, Ben made the decision to focus on swimming and cut other sports from the program, and instead of treating the coaches as contractors, he actually started employing them – a move which has helped the business continue to grow.

“When we were running the old system, it was fantastic but we couldn’t even fulfil a third of our bookings,” he says.

“We were talking to coaches and they didn’t want to be contractors. They wanted the security of a job, they wanted to be employed and they wanted to have insurance paid for them.

“We had to switch to that model if we still wanted the business to keep working and growing, so it’s been the best decision so far.”

Ben Coughlin delivering the pitch for Backyard Coach.

This transition came with its own set of problems, but Ben says his biggest challenge has been more of a personal one.

“The hardest has just been the rollercoaster ride, the highs and the lows, and there are some really high highs and some really low lows. It’s a challenge to separate your own self-worth from the worth of your startup.

“I had a really big low last year. It was kind of a burnout, but I didn’t really know it was happening at the time and it ruined my work-life integration.”

However, Ben set about overcoming this hurdle with a profoundly active approach. Rather than go through it alone – which, he says, is what many solo founders tend to do – he took it upon himself to reach out to the startup community and find out how other founders deal with these mental health issues.

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“I put a survey out to the general public and got a great number of responses. It was covering mental health issues in startups, and I’ve had people from all around the world answer it,” he says.

“I wanted to see how everyone else is coping with it so the next time I launch a startup, which will hopefully be very soon, I can do it the right way.

“It’s been really interesting. What I’ve been able to do is really look at the root causes of depression in startups and those really low lows that entrepreneurs can go through. One in three founders is depressed, which is a terrible thing.

Ben Coughlin speaking in his new role as Chief Student Entrepreneur at the UQ Idea Hub.

Ben Coughlin speaking in his new role as Chief Student Entrepreneur at the UQ Idea Hub.

“I want to make the research public, but I’ve noticed that all the lows entrepreneurs go through are amplified when they’re a solo founder. It’s really tough when you go through a low and don’t have someone to keep you on track and keep you accountable.

“Running your own business is one step forward, 10 steps back. People fail to set short-term goals and therefore can’t see the progression and celebrate it.

“They feel like they’re always moving backwards and always failing. As a result, they lose motivation, they lose passion and that’s where it all begins.

“Entrepreneurs often feel like they always have to be energetic and say ‘everything’s great!’.”

Even with Backyard Coach and all this research on his plate, Ben is keeping an eye out for his next opportunity to launch a startup.

“I actually deferred the last semester of my uni degree just to teach myself how to program and how to be a software developer, so I’m really interested in seeing if I can develop a software as a service at the moment.

“But I’m still really trying to find a problem to solve at the moment, I have some ideas but I’m a very keen believer in it’s about finding the right problem before moving to the next step.”

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About the author

Andrew is Techly’s Editor. Loves: weird gadgets and the Collingwood Football Club. Hates: olives and cardboard boxes.

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