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Tampa entrepreneur texts the way to mental health

Margie Manning

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Johnny Crowder, founder and CEO of Cope Notes, was part of Tampa Bay Innovation Center's third Innovation Accelerator cohort. File photo.

Music helped Tampa entrepreneur Johnny Crowder deal with his mental health issues.

Now, Crowder is tapping technology to provide a mental health resource to others.

Crowder, the lead singer in metal band Prison, is the founder of Cope Notes, which provides daily affirmations through text messages that offer advice and encouragement.

The subscription-model business is approaching its second anniversary in March. Since it launched, more than 273,000 texts have been exchanged and almost 11,500 lives impacted. Cope Notes went international last year and has users in 79 countries. This year, Crowder is focused on Cope Note’s enterprise division. He wants to partner with schools, businesses, hospitals and insurers to provide the texts to people both with and without diagnoses.

“A lot of people think mental health resources should only be used by people who have experienced trauma or tragedy, or people who are living with a diagnosis, but more than half of mental health issues are not diagnosed or treated,” Crowder said. “We’re trying to connect with wellness programs or insurance providers to get this into the hands of people through the systems they already trust, like their work or their school.”

Cope Notes signed deals last year with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, USF Health and Insurance Office of America. “We are working on a ton of deals with other colleges and insurance providers and some Fortune 500 companies for their wellness programming. That’s what will help us reach the amount of people we’d like to reach, by partnering with those institutions instead of trying to usurp them,” Crowder said.

Sticky notes

Nearly one in five U.S. adults, about 47.6 million people, experienced some form of mental illness in 2018, according to the  National Alliance on Mental Illness. About one in six youths between the ages of six and 17 also experienced a mental health disorder.

Those disorders make being a normal kid almost impossible, said Crowder, who was attending Hillsborough High School in Tampa when he was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

In addition to therapy and medication, he turned to music to help understand and deal with his diagnoses, writing songs about his struggles with suicide, abuse, mental illness and addiction.

“I’ve always loved heavy music because it’s honest and raw. When I’m in a show, I’m around all these kids wearing black clothes and ripped jeans and dyed hair and tattoos and piercings, and I’d think I’m in a room full of people who feel as misunderstood as I do,” Crowder said. “To me, it’s an opportunity to write songs that address these issues and bring people hope … I view it as an opportunity to get on stage in front of all these tough guys and say it’s okay to hug someone and talk about your feelings.”

While touring with his band, he also got an associates’ degree in psychology at University of Central Florida. In 2011 he became a mental health advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“I had been doing peer support through NAMI and I realized that a lot of people needed something in-between whatever resources they normally used. For me, I would go to therapy one day and have a great session and then for the next six days I would backslide. I didn’t have a maintenance tool … and I started realizing nobody had an everyday resource,” Crowder said. “I had been leaving sticky notes around my house to interrupt my own day with some sort of prospective shift. I wanted to create something that would do the same thing for other people except they wouldn’t be able to tune them out, because for me, if I saw a sticky note on my mirror, I would read it a couple of times and then I would start ignoring it. I wanted to create something that would have that element of randomization and surprise.”

Cope Notes from Jan. 4 and Jan. 5

He decided texting was the best way to deliver the messages because emails and push notifications from apps often are ignored, while 90 percent of texts are read within three minutes of delivery. In addition, users in a beta version of Cope Notes said texting was their preferred method of delivery.

The texts are delivered daily, but the time of delivery is random, making it less likely the recipients will ignore them.

“Our content is completely varied. We have a text library with hundreds of messages. They are advice or encouragement or a prompt you can journal back and respond to,” Crowder said.

The messages are written by people who have experience overcoming trauma and mental illness, and are reviewed by mental health professionals.

Because Cope Notes regularly engages the brain differently than other resources, the messages ensure the consistency required to permanently establish healthier mental and emotional norms, according to the company’s information deck.

Revenue model

Cope Notes’ revenue comes from subscriptions. Advertisements could alienate users, Crowder said, so he’s tried to keep the subscriptions affordable. They are $9.99 on a monthly basis, $8.99 a month on a yearly basis and the enterprise offerings are $7.99 per month per user. There’s a free trial period before a user signs up.

“You don’t need an insurance plan, a doctor’s note or a diagnosis. We don’t collect names or addresses. It’s completely confidential and anonymous,” Crowder said.

Crowder has bootstrapped the company so far and expects his own investment to be bolstered by revenue this year from newly-signed deals. Depending on the timing of that revenue, Crowder is considering outside funding, but not actively looking for it.

Cope Notes, with a staff of four as well as contractors working on specific projects, is headquartered in Tampa in part because Crowder lives in the area.

“I’ve lived in Tampa my whole life and I see the trend that Tampa is growing in the entrepreneurial sense, in the tech arena, in the health arena. I would rather stay and invite other people in than to go try and join someone else’s club and go broke in the process,” he said.

“I think Tampa’s healthcare and tech and entrepreneurial scenes are budding right now, and I’m very fortunate to live here circumstantially.”

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