Mental health advocate, metal musician and motivational speaker Johnny Crowder’s peer-support startup finds a receptive audience around the world.
Johnny Crowder, 30
Founder/CEO, Cope Notes, Tampa
Johnny Crowder likes to say he’s a survivor first, then an entrepreneur. As a teen, he battled depression, anxiety, OCD and suicidal ideation that stemmed from growing up in an abusive home. Seeking to understand more about his own mental health, Crowder studied psychology at the University of Central Florida, where he learned about how the brain works. He became a mental health advocate and speaker for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, work he continues today. He’s also the lead singer in the metal band Prison.
“When I was younger, I didn’t dream one day I’d be CEO of a tech company. I grew up with a lot of different mental health conditions, and it was really difficult not being able to connect with people, feeling not understood and also not liking a lot of the mental health resources that were available,” he says. So, when he couldn’t find an affordable tool for mental wellness, he thought, “Why don’t I fix that?”
Crowder’s startup, Cope Notes, combines psychology and peer support to help people with their mental well-being. Earlier this year, Cope Notes won the People’s Choice award at the ninth annual Startup of the Year summit, a national gathering of tech firms, venture investors and others in the startup world.
Crowder says Cope Notes is an outgrowth of his own efforts to weather the mental health challenges that he’s experienced since childhood. Years ago, he tried leaving sticky notes with positive messages around his house. The notes helped him at first, but soon there was no surprise factor, and he ignored them. Then he thought of text messages: Easy to deliver, hard for the recipient to ignore, and they could pop in at random times.
To test his concept, he sent a positive, unexpected message to a group of friends and associates. “People texted back saying, ‘You’ll never know how much I needed that.’ And I was thinking, ‘No, I won’t, because I didn’t know you needed it at all’ — it was sent out of the blue.”
Wanting to reach a wider audience, Crowder set out to scale the concept, and what became Cope Notes launched in 2018. Once or twice a day at random times, a text message brings a positive message or tip about well-being, sometimes with an exercise inviting a reply. The random messages also interrupt negative thought patterns as recipients read them. No two people get the same text at the same time. Subscribers pay about $10 a month, and the service offers family plans.
The short notes aren’t personalized — there is no AI involved. In fact, the service collects no health information. But our brains personalize the messages, just as his test group did, Crowder says. The messages also are written by peers with experience in the types of mental health challenges suffered by at least one in five Americans.
The notes also can be kept by the recipients if they need a reinforcing message later. “You can think of Cope Notes like a digital journal that you can say whatever you want whenever you want inside of that text thread,” Crowder says.
To date, Cope Notes has delivered more than 1.6 million text messages to 25,000 people in 97 countries. A smartphone is not required. More than 100 governments, school districts, businesses and non-profits offer Cope Notes to their constituents. That constitutes 75% of Cope Notes’ revenue. Florida clients include Hillsborough, Manatee and Orange counties, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, and Centerstone, a mental health and addiction center.
COVID brought a surge of interest from those organizations. “Leaders are opening up and saying: ‘Wow, you know what, I don’t know what everybody’s going through. I don’t know what level of support everybody needs. And, in fact, probably every single person who works here or every single resident in our city or county could probably benefit from some mental health support,’ ” Crowder says. “Our goal is to impact the masses, making mental health care preventive, interventional and accessible.”
Crowder limits the text messages to one or two daily. Too many texts and recipients come to expect them, and fewer than one a day isn’t consistent enough to form new neural pathways, he says. “We use ecological momentary interventions, or EMIs, to train people’s brains to think in healthier patterns.” A recent University of South Florida study of Cope Notes showed a reduction in depression, anxiety and stress in users after 30 days.
Crowder says Cope Notes wouldn’t exist without his music career, when he toured the world with his heavy metal bands, first Dark Sermon and, since 2017, Prison.
“The beta versions of Cope Notes were developed on tour. People in every city we played at told me what they were looking for in a peer support resource. It’s been astounding to see the metal and hard-core community step up and be vocal about behavioral health and to weigh in on the creation of a resource that they can now afford to use.”
Crowder also credits band life with teaching him about running a business. Booking tours, maintaining relationships with managers and labels, designing and selling fan merchandise, managing finances — it’s all business. He also reached out for help from the Florida Small Business Development Center at USF early on and is a member of Embarc Collective, a Tampa-based startup community.
“Cope Notes has been molded and shaped by tens of thousands of people all over the world,” he says, “and I feel very, very fortunate to get to do the work that I do every day.”