2023 Fellow Johnny Crowder (he/him) states emphatically for the record that he “never, ever, in a million years,” planned to start a company; all he’d ever wanted was to tour with his heavy metal band. What became Cope Notes, the Tampa-based startup dubbed “the text[sic] big thing in mental health” by Axios began as a series of conversations Crowder had about his own experience with mental illness and healing. The company part? That came many years—and lots of on-the-job learning—later.
Johnny Crowder has never been the kind of founder who reads VC blogs for fun. He’s never been the kind of founder who would scour Y Combinator for the latest startup trends or acquisitions during commercial breaks or while waiting for the bus. Quite the contrary, in fact. Most of the time, Crowder recalls, when he wasn’t doing anything else (and, honestly, even when he was) he was listening to music, or else whaling on his electric guitar in a neighbor’s basement. That’s the life he always imagined for himself, and, for a time, the life he pursued full-time as a young adult.
So it’s safe to say that he’s as surprised as anyone else to find himself a part of the 2023 Fellowship, a full-time founder at the helm of a rapidly growing mental healthcare startup.
“This whole world [of entrepreneurship] was unknown to me,” says Crowder, chuckling. “I just grew up with severe mental illness and didn’t want to use any of the treatment options [available to me]. When I eventually began treatment and it was actually making a difference for me, I would tell people about what was helping me—medication, therapy, prayer, reading, journaling, etc.
Everybody I talked to would say, ‘I’ll never do any of that,’, and I’d say, ‘I know! That’s what I said. But I did it and now I’m better. Please try.’
A lot of times they’d still say no. And I just wanted to create something that they’d use [to help get into treatment]. So I really had no idea about the company or anything like that.”
With an approach rooted in positive psychology—and validated by research—Cope Notes delivers daily mental health support to subscribers via text message. Crowder, a peer recovery specialist with an academic background in psychology and brain science, recalls that Cope Notes’ earliest incarnation “wasn’t even really a product—it was a service.” Users could book an appointment to chat with Crowder about what they were going through. As demand for his time and services exploded, he realized that such a personalized, one-on-one delivery model was unsustainable. Time management—and self-preservation—would be the first of countless entrepreneurial lessons Crowder would learn in real time.
Crowder may not have had much in the way of formal business training, but he wasn’t totally unprepared for the task; his work as a touring musician equipped him with the creative problem solving, determination, and can-do-it-ivism he needed to bring Cope Notes to life.
“I come from a DIY punk hardcore metal background, so I’ve designed every T-shirt any of my bands has ever printed,” laughs Crowder. “ I’ve designed our album art. I’ve written our lyrics, I’ve booked our shows, I’ve promoted our records. So when it came to making something [like Cope Notes], I was like, well, how hard could it be?”
Touring as a musician—even a musician with a record deal, representation, and the support of some of the largest independent music labels in the world—had required Johnny to figure a lot of things out as they came up. Starting Cope Notes, he says, required that same kind of learning.
“[As a musician,] I’d figure out how to buy a domain name, how to create a website, how to book venues, etc. Everything had this air of like, well, I don’t know how to do it, but I’ll just figure it out. [Building Cope Notes] was really that over and over again on so many different tasks, until I finally thought to myself, ‘Oops, I think I made a company.’”
Fast forward to the present: Cope Notes has recently surpassed 30,000 lives impacted, and Crowder still finds a way to tour the country, booking as many gigs as a speaker in the entrepreneurship and mental healthcare space as he does to perform with his heavy metal band, Prison. He’s a man who likes to stay busy, and, true to his punk rock roots, to stay learning.
“What made entrepreneurship feel possible for me was that I wanted to make something. [Just like with music,] it didn’t matter that I didn’t know how to do any of it. It mattered that I wanted to build it, and because I cared, I knew I could make it happen. I could figure it out.”
Crowder emphasizes the importance of seeking out education—and opportunities like the Future Founders Fellowship—to his ongoing mission of figuring “the entrepreneurship thing” out.
“Every single day [at Cope Notes,] I’m wrong. Every day I find a way to do something better. Every single day I learn something that I can’t believe I didn’t learn the day I started my business. So there’s this continuing education component [that led me to Future Founders.]”
Joining the Fellowship, Crowder reflects, has been instrumental (pun intended) for his growth as a founder.
“I haven’t been in the entrepreneurship space even half the time that Future Founders has,” he notes. “So if I care about what I’m building, I can never stop learning. There’s lessons to be learned for me here.”
Equally, if not more valuable for Crowder’s growth as a founder, has been the community element at the heart of Future Founders’ programs.
“If you thought being in a metal band and doing it all yourself was lonely, at least then you have your bandmates. You have three or four guys who know what you’re talking about, but building a business? Dude, you are alone.”
As validating as it felt for Cope Notes’ early clients to hear Crowder talk about his own experience navigating mental illness, treatment, and recovery, it feels equally important for him to be surrounded by other founders navigating the entrepreneurship journey at the same time as he is.
“Connecting with other young people who are that driven and motivated and creative and passionate [about what they’re building] normalizes what I’m going through myself and gives me this incredible sense of belonging.”
Even as he—and Cope Notes—stand on the brink of unprecedented growth and several game-changing partnerships, Crowder maintains the perspective that inspired him to create his company in the first place. To spend even a handful of minutes with him is to understand that the DIY, can-do-it-ivism of his punk rock background has taken on an even more profound, life-saving dimension since he founded Cope Notes.
“I want to tell people, sure, you can let the story end there: this awful thing happened to me, and so I can’t do anything,” he declares. “And I definitely don’t mean that, ‘oh, [my trauma] is a blessing in disguise. Like, no, it sucked. But you can choose! You can choose to at least try to leverage what you’ve been through to make something, whether that’s a painting or a sculpture or a letter or a song or a conversation. You can choose to ask yourself, ‘how can I use that to create something that nobody else could create?
“When I look at the worst things that have happened to me in my life, I’m shocked that I’m not dead or in jail,” he says with a smile—joking, but not joking. “Every single day, I’m shocked. Shocked. And I know there are people out there who have that same experience, who have this idea that the worst things that ever happened to them have to be the end of their story. There are people who have experienced the same things as me who tell themselves, ‘well, that’s why I can’t do X.’ Like, because of how I grew up, or because of what happened to me, I can’t start a business. I don’t know any smart business people, I don’t have big connections or money.”
“And it’s like, dude, me neither—but here I am. I want people to feel like they can too. The only thing that I have is lived experience with mental illness. That’s what I have. And I can turn it into something that now serves people in a way that I never dreamed.”
The vulnerability, candor, compassion, and sheer humanism with which Johnny navigates each day as a founder exemplifies the very best of the Future Founders mission, and we are proud for the opportunity to learn with—and from—him each day.
Learn more about Cope Notes here.
Learn more about the Future Founders Fellowship here.
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