Before winning the Innovate UK and The Prince’s Trust Young Innovators Award, Scottish innovator Iona Mackenzie felt like she was hitting a brick wall in her ambition to develop a match-making platform between counsellors and those looking for support. 

She says “I didn’t feel confident in the direction I was taking and how to get where I wanted to.”

Over the past 12 months her self-belief has grown immeasurably and, with the support of funding from Innovate UK and wider business advice from KTN and partners, she now describes herself as a “strong and confident” business leader.

Counsellors and clients

As the Founder of Talk and Grow, the 27-year old is aiming to destigmatise mental health and make well-being support more accessible.

Her innovative approach provides a dual-service of offering a tailored search for clients while also providing education for all on the complexities of counselling.

Since securing the award, Iona has achieved the crucial milestone of launching the pilot platform.

The financial support enabled Iona to work on Talk and Grow full-time and the business is now a trading company, which is attracting both counsellors and clients.

Iona says, “No other programme offers a living wage and I think it is amazing that the Young Innovators programme does. It shows Innovate UK is aware of our issues, understands real-life and why someone may not be able to pursue a great business idea if they are struggling financially.”

She adds, “I have hired two staff members, secured additional funding, and my product is fully developed,” says Iona. “I am now leading a business that is up and running, and we are currently focusing on brand awareness as we pilot with our first cohort of counsellors.”

Next steps

Iona’s next major goal is to spread awareness of an Edinburgh-wide marketing campaign.

“Taking on a marketing manager was a huge step for me and I would never have been able to employ her if I hadn’t had the award and grant. This has been life-changing as doing it on my own, without the skills or know-how, had been hard.”

Before joining the programme Iona had applied three times for the business funding competition Scottish EDGE and was on the point of giving up.

“With the help of my Innovate UK EDGE Innovation Champion I finally succeeded. This has been integral to the business as I have been able to take on more staff and market the platform,” she says.

Scottish expansion

Iona is now working to secure additional funding, through grants and potential investment, to enable her to expand to new cities in Scotland including Glasgow. She is also looking to bring on a third member of staff to develop content.

“The next 12 months are all about growth and establishing ourselves as key players in the market. I will be looking at how we can create corporate options and how we can support clients with their mental health between sessions,” Iona says.

“Our main goal is to make counselling more accessible, so in the next 12 months, I aim to have created a programme to help subsidise counselling sessions for those unable to afford it.”

Transformative growth

Iona says participating in the programme has shaped who she is as a business leader. She has gained confidence in pitching and feels more secure in her position as an employer and head of a company.

“I believe these aspects of myself have always been there but having an Innovation Champion as a mentor has really supported me to grow,” she says.

As a young female founder, Iona has experienced other challenges that she has worked to overcome.

“I have learnt to be assertive when need be and to express myself when I am not being heard. I have been focusing recently on self-accountability and how to keep myself from burning out as well.”

Well-being focus

Iona is now spending energy both on her ambitious business plans and on taking care of herself, and she advises other young innovators to do the same.

“Starting a business is hard work and juggling it and the rest of life can be taxing. Make sure you have a good well-being practice in place,” she says.

She cites her Innovate UK EDGE Innovation Champion as hugely impactful on her growth, and on the speed of development her business has been able to take.

“Having a mentor to talk things through and make decisions with has been incredibly beneficial. Talking to someone with experience, being able to answer all your unknowns or help you find the answers – there’s nothing better at such an early stage in a new business,” she says.

“The programme has completely changed the speed of business growth. I honestly have no idea where I would be without this programme and feel incredibly grateful to have won a place!”

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