How ban.do founder Jen Gotch used her anxiety to shape her business

"You learn more from adversity than anything else. It helped me in the end."
Kara Birnbaum / TODAY

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We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."

As the founder and chief creative officer of lifestyle brand ban.do, Jen Gotch is devoted to spreading joy. She’s also passionate about talking honestly about mental health and gets real in her new memoir, “The Upside of Being Down.” She shared her road to success and the best ways she’s found to beat anxiety.

TMRW: How would you describe what you do at ban.do?

Jen Gotch: We want to enrich people’s lives. Honestly. We exist to help people be their best and make really f---ing cute products that are doing so.

How did you get where you are today?

I had a very long and winding career path. I basically went from being pre-law in college to not going to law school, feeling quite lost in the world for at least a decade, struggling with my mental health issues and getting that under control and really starting to find professional success in my early 30s.

I used to do photo styling and set design and then I got into commercial photography. On a whim, my assistant and friend at the time decided to make these headbands for ourselves, sort of like a flower crown. I posted a picture and people were like, wait, I want one of those! Ban.do started as a small business out of my living room making these one-of-a-kind headpieces out of vintage materials. That started the trajectory that led me to being the CCO of a much larger company.

In 2012, we sold it to a licensing company. They had a business infrastructure that we didn’t have. We were creatives in a room gluing s--- to other s--- and making money off of it, but we didn’t know what we were doing. We had what they needed and they had what we needed, so we were really able to become a brand at that point. It just grew and evolved from there.

Gotch started ban.do from her home in 2008.TODAY/Kara Birnbaum

What advice would you give to people who look at your career and want to achieve that kind of success?

Sometimes there is a huge benefit to working for other people and being exposed to all different types of careers. I had so many different jobs and careers, that they all set me up for this. The idea that “I just graduated college and now I want to be an entrepreneur and I want venture capital and to be on the cover of Forbes,” it’s like, well maybe don't rush it. I’m 48 and I’m still evolving professionally. There doesn’t have to be an end game. There is something to patience and exploration.

All of that said, the people that still want to do it, they have the best shot. Everyone told me no, don’t do that. Business is hard, they never succeed, and I was like, not mine, mine’s going to be great. I have to give that advice and the way it’s received determines a big part of it.

Did you have a moment when you felt like you’d made it?

I feel like you have a moment like that and the next day the bottom drops out — or it feels like the bottom drops out. I’ve definitely felt moments of that throughout many careers; that’s part of what keeps you going, I think. But it never feels like, this is it.

The necklaces are a big one for me. [Editor's note: In 2018, ban.do launched their now-signature nameplate necklaces that read “Anxiety” and “Depression” which sold out immediately. One hundred percent of the net proceeds go to Bring Change to Mind, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the stigma around mental illness.]

It did a lot to help change our brand. It did a lot to open up conversations. That was primarily what they were meant to do. We’ve also been able to donate over $100,000. That is one of the things I’m most proud of.

Those necklaces really struck a chord. What inspired you to make them?

I kind of have my own personal platform on Instagram and the topic of mental health came up a lot. It never felt stigmatized to me so I never treated it as such. I’m a big believer in intuition. As a creative, you have your brainstormed ideas that are more churned and then you have the ones that appear in your mind and you don't know how they got there. I was sitting having a morning coffee by myself, and I was like, I should make necklaces. I called a friend who had a jewelry company. There were no questions asked, really. It was just full steam ahead. It took on its own energy very quickly.

What was the response like?

Overwhelming. They sold out in an hour, which was disheartening but also exciting to know that you’re resonating. Mental health is an incredibly triggering subject. A lot of people were very angry. Someone even wanted to kill me and was very explicit about that. I was shocked. I had never, in all of my time speaking about it, encountered anything but support and I hadn’t thought through the fact that people would have a knee-jerk reaction without reading the hows and whys of the whole thing.

I would always gut-check and say, we’re doing this for all the right reasons, we’re not doing it for profit, we’re not doing it to glamorize. It continues to be a triggering subject. Initially, I was mad at people that were shaming me and, at the same time, I was overwhelmed with how many people were expressing their appreciation. I think I came to terms with it and just held myself and the team accountable to always do our best and always be understanding — to understand why it is so triggering to people and try not to absorb it.

I’ve learned a lot. You learn more from adversity than anything else. It helped me in the end.

On Instagram, you’re very honest about your personal experience with mental health. What led you to open up there?

It’s never been a thing I’ve kept to myself. There was never a calculated transition. I think the thing I was craving from social media was a true place of expression. The pictures of my brunch — I was just like, I don’t know that I want to contribute to this. I was struggling with my own mental health and the ability to publicly journal that and the response I got immediately was very therapeutic, so I felt like I was killing two birds with one stone.

The things that people share with me are so incredible. I wouldn’t stop. I feel very connected to my purpose when I’m able to share and help other people through that sharing. It’s more than a social media platform to me. I don’t have an Instagram persona, where you meet me and I’m a whole different person, but it allows me this perspective on myself that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I find that to be very helpful.

On the one hand, social media can be a great place to be honest about anxiety. But on the other hand, it can also cause a lot of anxiety. How do you juggle those things?

I think (social media) can be one of the most toxic things in your life; what it does to your brain chemistry alone. But here’s the thing — I’m a really big advocate for taking responsibility for your own reactions, both positive and negative. When you find something building anxiety in yourself or triggering yourself, that’s a cue to look deep within and figure out what that is and eliminate the triggers. The idea of “this is causing me so much stress” is actually not accurate, because you’re participating.

I think it’s very empowering to take matters into your own hands and create an environment both in your real life and on social media that is one that feels good for you. There’s a mentality that “the world has to protect me from my own stress” and that is never going to happen. You can’t control what the world is going to do to you, you can only control your reaction. Sometimes I like to use my age as a weapon; I’ve lived it, trust me. Cut 20 years of work out of your life and start now!

How did you overcome your anxieties?

The single most impactful thing that I did was gain an understanding of the ego and the mind and that voice in your head. To distance myself even five minutes from a thought to a reaction changed everything for me.

I do a lot of the things that everybody does. Meditate, get sun in my eyes and put my feet on the ground. Generally avoid things that I know will trigger me. I look out for myself. I think that that can come in many ways. I read a lot. I’m very interested in betterment. It’s always been an interest of mine. I read a lot.

Gotch writes candidly about mental health in her new book, "The Upside of Being Down."TODAY/Kara Birnbaum

The amount of information, just information alone, that we are bombarded with all day long — I don’t know that physiologically our bodies have caught up. The workday could never end if you didn’t want it to. You can access your job at all times, you can get news all the time, you can see what your friends are doing at any time. It’s just a lot to handle and it’s a lot to excite the mind.

What would you say to people dealing with fears or anxieties that might be holding them back? What advice would you give?

You have to get those feelings out. Sometimes I just open my Notes app on my phone and just gobbledygook out a couple sentences about what I’m feeling and why. Step No. 1 is identifying what those fears and feelings are, and you’ve got to get outside of yourself to really do it. And then identifying the triggers. What are the things that really caused those fears to get activated? Then decide what of those triggers you can eliminate. The ones you can’t eliminate, decide how you’re going to empower yourself to have a different reaction. Especially with work, you just have to set boundaries.

How has your relationship with work changed since you started on this path?

I’ve run the whole arc of doing a start-up when you never stop working — and you wouldn’t want to, it’s so fun. And then you begin to fall apart physically and emotionally. But you still do it, you don’t stop. And then you expand, and I sort of operated with the expectation that everyone we brought on was going to work with that fervor. A lot of people did; some people didn’t. Those people sort of agitated me. At first, I was like, What is this? I think some of those people weren’t connected to their work, but there are some people who have healthy boundaries with their work, and it has now become something that I encourage.

Where I used to be like, could you please stay one more hour? Now I’m like, please go, don’t worry about it. I don’t send emails on the weekends anymore. Start setting the boundaries and challenge your own leadership to come at it from their end, too. That’s the only way it’s going to change. How much harder can we work? We have to start shifting that. I know I had to do it for myself.

Now you’re not just an entrepreneur but an author. What was it like to write a book?

Awful! It’s totally awful. Writing a book about yourself when you’ve never written a book before is like a double whammy. It just was a really challenging endeavor.

I was an English major; I love writing and sharing my stories and insights! I even asked my agent, “How quickly has someone ever written a book? Because I think I could do it faster,” and then I became one of the slowest writers of all time. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but it’s another thing that I feel like people don’t talk about. It’s like, “Oh, now I have a book and it was so easy!” And oh, my gosh it was the worst. The things you have to dig up and hash out and then have people look at and say, “This isn’t that interesting” or “I don’t understand you.”

It was a labor of love. The thing that kept me in it was that I wanted to write it because I wanted to help other people feel less alone, and help them build their self-awareness through my own sharing. I would always just come back to that. And so much good came out of it, and I'm a different person, and I like who I am. There's a lot of wonderful stuff, but my first reaction will always be “awful” — and “When will I write the next one?”

Your book debuted in the middle of ... a pandemic. But your message seems more relevant than ever. What has this experience been like and what do you hope people can take away from your writing, particularly now?

I am a huge believer in timing, even when that timing doesn’t seem great at first. It always tends to work out in the end if you’re open to believing something meaningful can come from something that appears pretty awful. The single most common comment I have received in regards to my book release last week is, “This is the perfect time for this book!” In that, I had my answer. It was a book that I wrote for others that I felt needed it, and it seems it arrived when they needed it most — and that is enough for me.

The experience has been more digital than what I had hoped. My screen time has tripled, if that’s any indication! That said, rather than being surrounded by people on launch day, I was able to be by myself reading comments, messages, receiving texts and calls and just soaking it all in. It actually felt pretty fantastic, after I allowed myself to put aside my expectations and accept the situation that was.

My intention for the book remains the same now as it did pre-pandemic — to encourage optimism, help build self-awareness and promote introspection, show there are gifts in struggle, success in failure and for the reader to feel less alone in their struggles — mental illness related or not.