Interview with Cathy Wassell, founder of Teen Calm

Read how her teenage daughter’s mental health crisis inspired Cathy Wassell to launch Teen Calm, a subscription box for anxious teens and tweens.

What’s your career background?

I’ve been in marketing for 25 years, most of that as Sales & Marketing Manager for an international bookseller. For most of that time I have worked from home, so I am very much no longer office material!

When I was made redundant, I did something I should have done years before and set up on my own as a marketing consultant and then a digital marketing agency owner.

How did your career change after having children?

My oldest son was born when we were living in East London commuting on the Central Line. We had no family nearby, and no friends who would have been able to look after him in an emergency (as all were working in Central London like us).

He was enrolled in a nursery but every time the Central Line went down, with no other tube lines servicing our area, I was paranoid I wouldn’t be able to get back in time.

So we decided to move out of London, and my husband got a transfer to the Birmingham office, I have to say we have never once regretted the move, but it wasn’t really a career move. If anything, it meant having a career (in the publishing industry at least) was much more difficult.

However, I cut down to working three days a week, to spend time with my children.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

To start a marketing consultancy was pretty much a no-brainer for me – that’s what I had been doing for many years.

Recently I started a new business with my then 14 year old daughter. Teen Calm is a subscription box for anxious teens and tweens, and it was the brainchild of my daughter who was diagnosed autistic at 13 amid a massive mental health crisis.

Things were hairy for a while, and we realised just how dire children’s mental health services are in the UK (and have since discovered that are just as dire in the US and Australia, to name but two).

From Facebook groups we realised that there are many thousands of children around the country too anxious to go to school, desperately unhappy and thinking it’s just them. But it’s not.

At Teen Calm our main message is that you are not alone, nothing is insurmountable, and there are strategies and tools you can use to help you feel less anxious.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

We needed a project to help my daughter get involved in something rather than spending the whole time lying on the sofa – a form of distraction if you like. Teen Calm became that distraction. Not only to help her but to help as many anxious teens and pre-teens as we could.

So, we started to think about brand colours and logos and messaging, and I discovered that a 14-year-old with no marketing training can have surprisingly strong opinions on the subject.

What’s your USP?

Our USP is that we totally get what our target audience are going through, my daughter gets the anxiety and as a parent of a child who has gone through mental health trauma I get all the worries and stress that come with that.

But we know that there is hope, even if we have to avoid what my daughter calls ‘toxic positivity’! Because that’s apparently too cringey. Running a business with a teen can be quite restrictive…

Who’s your target audience?

The parents (or grandparents) of teens and pre-teens who may have anxiety, perhaps because of school, bullying, neurodiversity or a combo of all three.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

So far we have been completely organic, but as I am a Facebook Ad Strategist there will certainly be ad campaigns in our future.

We’re lucky that we have some big influencers in the field of neurodiversity and mental health as followers on our social media channels. Friends and colleagues have also been stars at sharing.

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

So far, sending a box to be reviewed by a popular autistic YouTuber. He did a long enthusiastic unboxing video and it generated us good sales.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

We are still very much in the system – fighting for an EHCP (Educational Health and Care Plan) and under CAMHS and Social Care. My daughter has not been at school for a year or so.

Navigating and, typically for a SEN parent, having to battle all those systems is exhausting and demotivating. But she has a specialist school place in September so we hope that will work out.

Frankly in the last two years I’m just glad to have pulled my agency through while dealing with all of that. So Teen Calm feels like bringing new life into the world and the birth of something positive.

And your proudest moment so far?

I’m very proud of my daughter who has dragged herself back to a relatively stable and happy life with very little help – and sometimes actual hindrance – from the authorities who supposedly help in this country. Now I’d like nothing more than to help other people in the same situation.

Why is this work so important to you?

I run a Facebook group for families of autistic girls, and I know just how difficult it tends to be for girls to get a diagnosis of autism and ADHD. They mask, the signs are not picked up and this eventually causes huge mental health issues.

As long as GPs, teachers, social workers and CAMHS staff are not adequately trained this will continue so those who can need to help families in crisis, and show that they are not alone and that there is hope.

Who inspires you?

So many women in my circle, but especially my Go With The Pro co-founders Clare McDonald, Gemma Windham and Nicole Osborne who have all run their businesses through adversity and still supported each other.

How do you balance your work with your family?

Not perfectly that’s for sure! My daughter is with me all the time so I work when I can and weigh up when she needs me and when she wants me to leave her be. Of course, right now in COVID-19 lockdown we are all together so it will take some days to work out a new balance.

What are your top three pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

  1. Do your research well. Don’t just assume there is a target market for your idea. 
  2. Build your audience before launch. If you have no audience, you have nobody to buy your product.
  3. Ecommerce needs capital. Be aware that you will need to source and pay for products without necessarily having the orders to back them up.

Find out more about Socially Contented, Go With The Pro and Teen Calm.