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Melissa Ng: Depression vs. Healing, Mental Health Founder & Surviving Leukaemia

 

· Women,Positivity,Start-up,Singapore,Southeast Asia

At the end of the day, everyone's human. You have anxieties and fears for a reason. It's biological and I didn't want to add to that further sort of social media envy where you only post the highlights of your life. Because I know how much that made me feel like I was failing, even though I was already doing all these things. And I'm like, Wait a minute, what am I doing? Like, I'm not talking about me having a hard time when this is most of my days and I have these occasional highlights and those are the only things that I'm showing, I'm contributing to this problem. -Melissa Ng

Melissa Ng is the CEO of Bravely, a mental health startup that supercharges therapy by making data actionable and learning easy-peasy.

Before that, she was the founder of a fully remote product design agency Melewi that worked with clients like Visa, Samsung and McDonalds (She's helped make the McDelivery app available in over 40 countries). She's also been featured on the front page of The Straits Times, as well as on Forbes, Channel News Asia, Les Echos and more. Most recently, she's been one of The Robb Report's '30 Thought Leaders' and LinkedIn's 'Top Mental Health Experts to Follow'. As someone who has struggled with mental health for most of her life — most recently while fighting leukaemia — Bravely was born out of her determination to create something that will truly make a difference for people going through the same pain and challenges.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)

Hi Melissa. Excited to have you on the show. You are tackling a really important issue which is about mental health and wellness while also going through your own struggles as well as having fought off leukaemia and now being immunocompromised in the middle of a pandemic and still wanting to set up a start up, I think that's going to boggle a lot of people's minds.

For those who don't know you yet, could you introduce yourself?

Melissa Ng: (00:54)

Yeah, definitely. Thanks for having me on and for that introduction as well. You make me sound, I think, like a lot more put together than I feel. But yeah, thanks for having me here. So, to everyone. Hi, my name is Melissa Ng. I am the CEO of Bravely. We're a mental health start-up that supercharges therapy. So, my journey with mental health started way before I ever went into tech.

Mental health was just something that I really struggled with; feelings of anxiety, depression, and a lot of things that were worse than that. It was a really sharp contrast to the life that I had for what people could sort of see on the outside. So, when I graduated, I started my own product design agency. It was fully remote from day one, long before the pandemic, and we ended up being able to work with a lot of amazing clients, start ups from around the world.

Clients like McDonald's, Samsung and Visa. And because everything was fully remote, I was able to travel as well and I ended up travelling around about 40 countries while I was running the business. So, from the outside, it just seemed like great. I kind of achieved all the goals that I wanted to have, but on the inside, it was a completely different story.

I felt like most days I was barely holding it together. I tried everything that was available to me, going to therapy, trying to read, trying to do all these different things. But it was still a huge struggle and one day I just realised after having designed thousands of products for all these companies, there hadn't been a single one that had anything to do with mental health.

I touched every industry, just not mental health. So, it seemed like it was due time. This was back in 2019. Back when you thought about a mental health app, you had Headspace, which is a wonderful app, but it focuses on mindfulness and meditation and mental health is a huge, huge field with so much more in that.

So, the idea really was to design an experience where people could go to, I don't want to sound like a cliche, but basically a safe space. But a safe space doesn't mean sort of a wet blanket space, doesn't mean wrap you up in cotton and just kind of leave you there. For me, a safe space was really things that A) Don't make me feel worse; B) Have scientifically proven methods to actually help me de-escalate how I was feeling.

And the last bit was to teach me more about general mental health. Things that will add to my overall literacy. So, we started that and then, of course, Jeremy, like you said, life likes to throw curveballs. I was diagnosed with leukaemia two months after starting the company, which was, I think, quite obviously, very, very devastating and really quite terrifying.

During that time. It really showed just how little support there was in terms of mental health. There was so much focus on my physical health and absolutely that made sense. But when it came to the emotional struggle, the psychological battle, I was left pretty much entirely on my own. We kept bravely going through the chemo rounds, hospital stays and as I started to get better, really returned back to it full time.

And today we've been keeping it going. We've been really focussed on trying to design something that is evidence based, scientific but incredibly user friendly. And then now we're also trying to do the same thing to support therapists. So, long journey full of ups and downs. We're still in the middle of a pandemic, but I'm just really glad that I'm here.

Jeremy Au: (04:49)

Well, that's a lot. So much interesting stuff. I mean, the fact that you were doing remote work before remote work became mandatory or cool or uncool, depending on…the fact that you’re building your own design agency, the fact that you chose to be a founder and then life hitting you. But just before we do all those things.

So why out of graduating from university, the first thing you said was, I want to be a founder and a founder in a remote work company back in 2018. So that was a long time ago.

Melissa Ng: (05:19)

That was a long time ago, yeah. So, I actually didn't even graduate from university. I graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic. And of course, everyone wants you to go to university. And I was just really stubborn about it. I just really didn't want to go to university, I didn't want to get a 9 to 5. And the main reason I didn't want to do that is a really simple, possibly really silly reason.

I just didn't want to wake up in the mornings to have to go somewhere. That was the crux of it. But I think it boiled down to something that was a lot deeper, which was I didn't want to be living the rest of my life where I was made to show up at a certain time, allowed to leave at a certain time, and only had 14 days out of the year to enjoy it like I wanted every day to be the sort of day that I wanted to live.

And this doesn’t mean you just party every day. But I think for me, autonomy and purpose are two values that are like really strong with me. So it wasn't that I wanted to be a founder. It was that I didn't want somebody to tell me what to do. So, my parents were not very happy about that because it's a bit of a Singaporean dream.

You know, your kids go off to uni to graduate and get a nice, stable job, good career, and I said no to all of that, which was a fight at the time. But I think that that risk has sort of paid off. But for me it was very much that I wanted to live life on my own terms, and that included work because work is at least half of your waking hours.

It's such a huge part of your life. You have to find some sort of meaning and purpose in it. You have to want to wake up and actually be like, Yeah, I want to show up to work today.

Jeremy Au: (07:08)

And it's interesting because you worked with such great clients like Malawi, McDonald's, Visa and Samsung. It sounds like you had something to do with the beloved delivery service…could you share more about that?

Melissa Ng: (07:24)

Yeah, for me, I started out as a freelancer and I started out just doing really simple things and just kept trying to improve, kept trying to do better. There was this very strong perfectionist side of me that was just never happy with what I ended up delivering. So, the next one always had to be better.

And really what that meant was I just had this internal culture within myself. And then eventually the team that I brought on where you were just always learning and trying to get better. And that resulted in us getting bigger and bigger clients. And we ended up attracting McDonald's as one of our first big clients that we had.

And part of what we had to do was to help them with the localisation of the McDelivery app. So, over the years it spanned into, into a pretty huge effort working with them, which was incredibly cool when we started. I think they had McDelivery in only I want to say only Singapore, if I remember correctly. But by the time we had finished working with them across about four years, possibly more, we had launched McDonald's in, I believe, over 40 countries across Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa.

We like to think that we helped send burgers and fries to people in all those different countries. So, it was a very, very rewarding experience, just getting to work on that sort of scale, launching things. And honestly, countries we didn't even really know much about.

Jeremy Au: (08:59)

Out of curiosity, when you say localise, what were some interesting things that you learnt from localising McDelivery delivery to Southeast Asia and different countries? What was it that was key from your learning?

Melissa Ng: (09:13)

Yeah, there are quite a few things. I think the first rule is that no two markets are ever really the same. So even though they may seem culturally quite similar or they might speak a similar language, there would be small things that would make a difference. So, with McDonald's, different places had different menu. That was the first thing.

But in terms of localising, the design itself, you had really tiny details that you had to take into consideration, even things like the length of text. So, some languages when you write out the same word, the text is actually a lot longer. And when that text comes longer, your design actually needs to change a bit more. And if your text ends up taking so much space that it knocks, let's just say, the final check out button below the fold where people have to scroll.

Then they're going to very easily miss that. And when they miss that, it means that they might bounce. So, what is it that you have to change to be able to fit those kinds of things? Other bits that were interesting that we encountered for the first time were languages that went instead of reading left and right. It read right to left.

And it was just kind of mind boggling because you kind of had to flip everything around and then figure out like, okay, not just flipping the text. How is it that people think? What does progress look like for us? Progress goes left to right. For them, progress go right to left instead. So, it was very much about understanding these nuances, where they came from and then being able to read, distil that into trying to emphasise and understand what it's like to be in their shoes.

Like really think about it from their point of view and then apply those little changes so that it feels like a very native experience to them.

Jeremy Au: (11:03)

That sounds like a such a fun ride. I mean, it must be crazy intense as well. And I think you started sharing a little bit more that during these times is when you started developing struggles and overcoming kind of like the mental wellness on a personal basis. Could you share more? Because it feels like shouldn't be on top of the world for building your own business?

You’ve proved yourself right because you didn't go to university, so you'll be like, Yes, I crushed this. So, what was that aspect of you? What was it that you were dealing with at that time if you are comfortable sharing?

Melissa Ng: (11:35)

Yeah. So, I started struggling with my mental health from when I was ten, which I think confuses a lot of people because you think like, hey, you know, you're just a kid, like you're ten years old. What do you have to really struggle with? And I mean, I think if we look at today's society, if we look at how things were back when I was ten years old, you had extremely limited amount of support.

There was still a lot of stigma. There was very low awareness about general mental health, just...what are a healthy boundaries? What are healthy relationships? And of course, students say around the world, but in Singapore in particular face a lot of pressure to perform. And it was a combination of these things. My family was also going through quite a lot of hardship, both personal and financial, and it all just really took a toll on me.

I remember when I was ten years old, I discovered the term depression and I actually went to look it up. You know, you would think like you're ten years old back then. You should be concerned about, I don't know, Neopets or whatever. But here I was having the dial up Internet looking up symptoms of depression. And I actually printed out this two-page sheet of paper that was talking about it and the symptoms of it.

And I was looking through it, I realised like, hey, I check every single box that is here. But again, as a kid, what can you do if the people around you don't know about mental health struggles? If you don't believe that as a kid you have issues that need to be addressed and worked on, you are left on your own.

And that was very much the case for me. I struggled with depression. I had a bit of anxiety, but it wasn't as bad back then. It actually got worse as I got older and I found that I was crying myself to sleep every single night, again, as a ten year old, just simply not knowing what to do and having no resources available to me.

And it just continued from there because it kept snowballing. It wasn't like, Oh, you know, I'm having a hard time now and then, I grow out of it. Life kind of does give you more hardships as you go along, more challenges, stresses. And I found that I basically gritted my teeth and just tried to make it through.

Even as a young adult, I was still having a really hard time, in fact, it actually got worse. And then with the pressures of being a solo founder, it got even worse. And from the outside, like I said, you know, a lot of people were looking at my life and be like, oh, you have all these great things, you travelling all the time like that's amazing. But the reality of that was that I was a workaholic because I didn't want to address the other things. I wanted that distraction. So that's already unhealthy. I was travelling all the time as an added distraction because I found that if I sat alone and I was quiet, it all just came crashing back down on me.

So, I looked great from the outside. But the truth was, it was another form of escaping and distracting. These two things ended up giving me even more of that profile of being a nomad and a remote worker. And, you know, you work so much at some point there’s so much stuff that you can show for it. But they were driven by unhealthy coping mechanisms and at some point, it just really came to a head.

I remember very clearly having to call up my team, basically admit to them like, hey, I've been having a really, really hard time. It's now getting to a point where it's so bad I'm going to have to step aside and leave the running of the company up to you guys, which if you're a workaholic, if you're a perfectionist, that is not an easy thing to do.

But I had to do that because I just simply couldn't function anymore. And it was at a point where I felt like, All right, my life is in danger, something needs to give. So, I took a step back and when I took a step back for a few months, I was just feeling really quite lost.

But in that space, ended up coming up with the idea for bravely and building off on that and then really found purpose in that. I think that that's one of the big differences is realising, through working on this, realising that this experience that I have that I thought it was just me and maybe me being weak, that's not just me.

That's a lot of people that are out there. If we can be doing something that will stop another ten-year-old out there from feeling the same way, then yeah, I'm going to do it.

Jeremy Au: (16:25)

What's interesting is that you chose to do all that while being a founder. To some extent, you chose to be open about it and to build a product solving that problem. Did it come together at the same time or was that one come before the other?

Melissa Ng: (16:45)

Yeah, I think it kind of came together at the same time. The reaction that I got from my team when I told them was incredibly supportive and I was really scared and I didn't feel like I had been sort of I've been pushing myself to a point where I almost didn't care what anyone else had to say. It's kind of like when you're in that much pain, at some point, that stuff just doesn't really matter.

It still does like deep down. But their responses were so supportive, it was so understanding. It was like this wave of relief because suddenly it was just like, Oh, wait a minute, I'm not actually alone in this thing. And that told me even more about the power of being vulnerable. I think in this society, people tell you or society tries to push you and mould you into someone that you don't fail or you are perfect, you're switched on all the time, you're strong, you're confident, you are fearless. And for me, I don't really think that is that healthy to have.

At the end of the day, everyone's human. You have anxieties and fears for a reason. It's biological and I didn't want to add to that further sort of social media envy where you only post the highlights of your life. Because I know how much that made me feel like I was failing, even though I was already doing all these things. And I'm like, Wait a minute, what am I doing? Like, I'm not talking about me having a hard time when this is most of my days and I have these occasional highlights and those are the only things that I'm showing, I'm contributing to this problem.

So, I just figured, all right, if I can't be honest and I can't be transparent, who am I trying to trick? Like, who am I trying to convince? Is it somebody else? Is it myself? Or is it going to be better if I can own up and say like, Look, I'm having a hard time with this? If you're having a hard time too, you're not alone.

And I wish that I had that when I was growing up and I had that in my twenties. But if I didn't have that back then, then the next best thing I could do is to try and make that happen.

Jeremy Au: (19:02)

What's interesting is that there's a journey of opening and vulnerability as you shared. There's also a journey of recovery, and then there's also a journey of making this a crusade. So…because it's three very different journeys, right? One is opening up and saying, I have a problem, right? And because you open up, that doesn't mean that you're getting better.

It just means that a lot of people are now alert that they can help you. So, I'm curious about that journey of healing or recovery from your perspective at that point of time. And also, I'm interested in how, at the end of that healing process, you said, well, now I want to crusade against this and solve this problem.

Could you share a little bit more about that, those two transitions?

Melissa Ng: (19:39)

Yeah, sure. The healing was incredibly gradual. It took a really, really long time and I am doing a lot better these days. I mean, there are so many things that I'm actually really proud of and it's such a weird feeling to be able to go to your therapist during a therapy session and just be like, instead of talking about all the different things that have been really upsetting and really been struggling with to be like, I did this thing the other day and I'm actually really proud of how I handled that, that it's not something that I thought I would have ever been able to say.

And I credit that in large part to continuously learning about mental health in general. When I started the struggle was really all the misinformation, all the biases that I had around mental health that society had just imparted to me. And it took a really long time to unlearn those things. Think everyone knows it's easy to learn something. It's super hard to unlearn something.

And it was unlearning those things and keep continuously just sort of picking at them and trying to sort of chisel them down, practising the things that have been told to you. Those are the things that were really difficult and took such a long amount of time. The things that really moved the needle for me was surrounding myself with people who were not only supportive, but they actually understood.

So instead of having people say well-meaning but misguided things like, Oh, your life’s so great. Like, why are you upset about things? You know, just think positively. Like, that doesn't help anyone. But instead, now I'm surrounded by people who say, like, Hey, you're having a hard time. That's totally normal with what you're going through. Like, maybe take it easy on yourself today or if you want to talk, I'm absolutely here or even more practical things like, Hey, there's this thing that my therapist told me about or that I read about in a science paper, like, do you want to try it?

So instead of it just being sort of what I call Christian cover quotes, there is actual practical science and then also people support community that I have surrounding myself. And that was really the biggest thing that helped me on this journey of healing. So, it wasn't one sort of specific thing. It was a combination of all the different things that made up the environment that I was in.

Weirdly enough, when you were describing the phases about how sort of that crusading came at the end, I would say it was almost the other way around that the crusading came before the big progress and the healing, I would say. And that was because it was so much easier to funnel all these struggles that I had, all the strong feelings that I had into trying to make a difference.

And in the process of crusading, in the process of not just speaking up for myself, but trying to speak up for other people who might feel similarly to me. That was also when I started to meet the right people or be surrounded by the right resources. And that's when I found the healing that was gradually happening, just suddenly started sort of skyrocketing.

And it was because of the change in environment. It was that purpose that I had, and it's been incredibly fulfilling kind of a journey which I feel like is a bit of a cliché. Just because it’s a cliche doesn't make it any less true. And I have a lot of credit to give to the people that I'm surrounded by.

Jeremy Au: (23:16)

I wouldn't say it's a cliche to heal from something, and I would say it's more of an archetype because it is one of the end states that we all want. So, what's interesting is that you chose to also build, as you said, and channel that energy, which is amazing and you chose to channel the energy into an app which is, you know, a lot of people also channel things they overcome, right, by volunteering.

But this is interesting because you're making this into a company. So, tell us more about how you went about founding Bravely?

Melissa Ng: (23:47)

Yeah, it started out with a really simple concept of wanting to create a space that you can access anytime, anywhere that was geared entirely towards helping you when you're having a tough time. So, much of product design, UX, UI is all really centred around understanding user behaviours and then designing an experience around understanding that for an end goal.

And of course, for the clients, the end goal is always something that benefits them in some way, which is great. It's that's kind of how the world works. But what was missing that was out there was something that was benefiting the end user first and foremost, when it comes to mental health. So, for us, it was very much about trying to design that almost safe space without it sounding a bit limp.

We wanted to make it so that you had knowledge and information and science available to you whenever you wanted. That was one of the things that we were recognising was great about the Internet, about remote working, was that you had access to so many things just because the Internet exists, you could Google anything under the sun. You could kind of reach out and talk to almost anybody that you wanted to.

And we wanted to create something that gave that same sort of access. But within an app itself, and I know a lot of people go out and get involved in different sort of initiatives. But for me, you know, I spend more than a decade designing products and that was the skillset that I knew the best. And for me as well, that was the thing that was going to scale, creating a solution that you could offer to somebody who lives in rural New Zealand or somebody who is living in New York or somebody who's living in India.

And it was that scale of that accessible information that I was really after, it was applying good design principles and good user experience to something that was going to benefit people while finding ways to help educate them about general mental health. And I felt like I brought this very personal perspective of having known what it's like to struggle so much that I could apply into designing.

So, when we started designing and building this, one thing kept nagging at me whenever I looked at other mental health apps that were out there, branding, etc. What I found was that it was always very light coloured, very pesto, a lot of smiling faces, peaceful poses, meditation. And when you look at it from a rational point of view, you're like, Yeah, well, of course, you know, it's a mental health thing.

You want it to sort of feel good, but the issue is that when people struggle with their mental health, a lot of times it's at night. The last thing you want is this bright phone just sort of glaring down at you. If you want to be discreet and anonymous, you also don't want it to attract attention. But the biggest thing really was that when you're struggling and feeling really, really crappy, seeing smiling, peaceful faces, that is the furthest thing away from what you feel.

And that contrast actually makes you feel even more isolated and even more alone. So, for us, when we were trying to figure out the experience and the branding, it was very focussed on making you feel cosy and safe with these dark, warm colours, these comforting illustrations, rather than trying to force this sort of happy peacefulness on you when it's the furthest thing away from what you could feel.

So, it was applying all this sort of product knowledge, this UX knowledge, into an experience that people will find value out of. It's just kind of what I know how to do best.

Jeremy Au: (27:45)

There you are building this out and you get leukaemia, right? So that's like a truck hit you, right?

Melissa Ng: (27:57)

Yeah, it was a crazy journey. I started feeling really, really fatigued and then I quickly got sick. And this happened when I was in New Zealand. So, my husband's Kiwi and that's why we were there. This is before we got married. I just had this, this throat infection that I couldn't shake, even with antibiotics, which is quite unusual.

And it got to a point where it was bad enough that I had to go to A&E in the middle of the night because it was it was so bad that I actually felt like I couldn't breathe and I couldn't swallow. When I was there, they gave me some medication. They kind of just did a check on me to see if I was doing okay.

And they ended up taking some blood. And when they were taking some blood, they decided to just like run it through the labs. The lab tech was the one who ended up saying like, Hey, there's something wrong here. It had advanced to the point where you could see just from my blood that things were really bad and it was really advanced.

So, the leukaemia that I got was actually quite an aggressive leukaemia and it meant that within that day I was already in ICU, they were doing something called leukapheresis, which is kind of like dialysis, but for your white blood cells, which is again the sort of leukaemia that I had. Went into chemo straight away, I actually ended up having a blood transfusion, a plasma transfusion that gave me an anaphylactic shock.

And off that anaphylactic shock, I actually came really close to dying. It was a full Hollywood crash cut colour code type scenario. And it was intense because what was happening was that my blood was actually coagulating inside me a little bit like a snake venom bite. Incredibly painful. Would not recommend going through that experience. It was really scary and even though I had almost died in that day, the leukaemia was so aggressive that they had to start the chemo that very evening.

So, it was a really, really, really rough couple of days there. And then from there it was just going through the chemo which was very hard hitting during which it was not fun…the very standard sort of chemo's side effects. We ended up moving to Singapore just because I wasn't a New Zealand resident, meaning the bills that were there, we paid all of it.

It was about 70 grand, seven zero, $70,000. The only bright side out of all of that was two days after being discharged from the first round of chemo, which took a month. My husband and I got married in his childhood home, the backyard of his childhood home, and then literally the next morning we had to fly to Singapore to continue the treatment, a couple more rounds of chemo.

And then I had to do a stem cell transplant, which was incredibly brutal. But what made it for worse was that it was around the time that the pandemic broke out and I had found a stem cell donor that was a full match for me. But then the pandemic broke out and it turned out that he was located in Wuhan, China.

So that didn't happen. I don't really know what happened to him, but everything shut down and it looked like I wasn't going to have a donor. And at some point, we found another donor in Canada. And then when we found him, Canada started shutting down as well because COVID started hitting Canada and we thought like, that's it.

But this this guy like, whoever he is, he pulled through, he came in, he did all the tests. He spent a week doing the tests, a couple of days in a hospital and got the bone marrow donation shipped across to me. And then I got that. And it was a very long one month in the hospital. And then it actually took me about a year to recover enough to be able to walk on my own.

So, it was a very steep recovery, just trying to get better from that, but it was a very clearly, very insane journey, just getting to this point.

Jeremy Au: (32:14)

Wow, that's rough, super rough. Pandemic plus this and that. You’re doing all of this and the crazy thing is you still keep going with the start up. Why? I mean, everybody must have been telling you're like, go take a break. You know, enjoy life. Why keep going with building this mental health start up?

Melissa Ng: (32:38)

Yeah, it was just something I couldn't shake. I felt like, look, if this is the last thing that I do, if I'm not going to make it out of this, then this is the way that I want to go. This is the impact that I want to make. And I was fully aware that I wasn't able to, in a short period of time, make something that was going to be that huge level of impact that I would hope to try and achieve.

But what I could do is to start put the seeds in there and then have other people continue doing that. But I think another big part of it as well is that when you are sick to that level, your life is just not really in your hands anymore. You lose anything that's familiar about your life, you lose all forms of autonomy.

I mean, it's down to the meals that you could have. It was down to the waking hours that you were allowed to have. Everyone else was running your life to try and keep you alive, and you didn't really have much of a say in that. It was a combination of these things that made me feel kind of really helpless, and it was a struggle to go from feeling like I could do anything.

If I wanted to build a remote business, I could. If I wanted to start a mental health company, I could. And then now suddenly here I'm not even allowed to have the meal that I want to have. And this was, in a weird way, taking that power back into my own hands to be like, look, if this is going to be the last phase of my life, then this is the last thing that I want to do.

I want to be able to leave this world saying that this mission that I set out to do, I might not have finished it, but at least I started it.

Jeremy Au: (34:23)

How did you do both? Because, I mean, everyone else is like, oh, I'm working a job and a start up is impossible or I have kids and it’s tough, which is I mean, no joke. It is tough. But you're like on another level, right? You're in hospital battling leukaemia and building a start up at the same time.

So, what did you do? How were you approaching it?

Melissa Ng: (34:50)

Yeah, obviously during the times where I was very sick, I wasn't working at all, there was not a whole lot that I could do, but in between, where there were periods of time where I felt kind of well enough or when I was waiting to actually go into the hospital, then I would be working on it and it was very much just applying all the things I learnt from building up a design agency into trying to set up things that could go the distance so it would be things instead of doing things like answering emails or trying to, I don't know, reach out to people and find ways to like partner and things like that.

I'd be doing things like setting the mission, setting new values, looking at the sort of organisation that we want to build, looking at what are the core value proposition of what we're trying to do, like what are we focussed on or what are we not focussed on and how does that set us apart? So, it was just laying almost like the roadmap for how this company was going to be built, rather than doing sort of like all the building.

And it started out very much with just trying to build an MVP. And honestly, I look back and I'm like, it's definitely not my best work, but at the same time I think pretty valid excuse. But it was planting of that seed of what that product could be. And I wanted it to be enough so that in case it was in the hands of somebody else, they're understanding where it started from and then what is the potential of where it could go.

So, I really channelled into focussing on those important bits, but there were obviously like huge swathes of time where I couldn't work at all, where it just had to be left on hiatus. It was just I was too focussed on, well, being sick and then trying to recover from there. But my, my husband and co-founder, he did keep it going.

And I think in a way that was also his way of coping. It's just like funnelling it into something that feels like it will make a positive impact. Amidst all the stuff that was going on, I obviously couldn't really do too many meetings like that. It was nowhere near the typical level of intensity that you have with doing a Start-Up, but it was a lot of sort of internal laying the groundwork kind of work.

But of course, any time I was too sick, I just wouldn't touch it at all. It was sort of at my own pace. And then as I started to get better, then I could pick it up again. But yeah, I was in like full throttle trying to build something super functional, going to go scale at that point in time.

But it did give me time to reflect upon what we were trying to do and to understand, I think, the end user and the product and how it fit and all tied together a lot more.

Jeremy Au: (37:45)

What's interesting is that in depression, the end state of depression is your mind wants to kill yourself, right? And in leukaemia your body was trying to kill yourself.

I'm just wondering, was there any like crossover or transferability of skills or resilience that happened or did they come…did feelings come back? Was a colour different? How did that seem?

Melissa Ng: (38:14)

I love that you asked this question like, first of all, I love that you could even sort of recognise that because that's not…that's something that I recognise, but it's not how do I put it is not a very easy way to sort of arrive at that sort of juxtaposition between the two. And I'm so glad you asked it because death is such a scary topic.

Mortality, people are just like, oh no, I don't want to touch that, especially somebody who's come so close to it. So, I don't actually get that much of an opportunity to talk about it. And it's hard to not talk about it because it was such a huge just this sort of shadow over my life for those couple of years.

It is definitely something that, in a very weird way, gave me a bit of an advantage. So, in all my mental health struggles, death was something that I grappled with a lot, and it is a process of accepting that death is inevitable. It's in a weird way, you kind of go through the steps of grieving and acceptance that death is inevitable.

And when you're doing that, I was a few years ahead, I think, in spending so much time sort of contemplating what that meant, the impact of that, and then finally understanding that it's universal. And even though I'm an individual experiencing my own life, everybody's lives ends at some point that that's not the worst thing in the world because your life ends at some point.

And that gives, in a way, meaning to the fact that it's finite, not in finite. And you can keep doing kind of whatever you want. It gave me also, I think, an appreciation for living life on my own terms a lot, because at the end of the day, it's going to come to a stop. You know, at the end of day, all the things I'm worried about, anxious about that, still I struggle with they're not going to matter at some point.

And it was having that more developed relationship with the possibility of dying in my own mortality that allowed me to approach facing this which is still incredibly scary. I can’t emphasise that enough, it is still incredibly scary, but I felt like there was a level of acceptance that like, hey, if it doesn't happen now, great, but at some point, it's still going to happen.

And if it's still going to happen, what is that sort of relationship that I want to have with Facing Death? And a weird thing sort of happened when I had that anaphylactic shock, that near-death experience that sometimes people talk about. For some people, it’s a white light. For others, I don't know what else they see? And I had this kind of weird out-of-body experience with that, where the hospital room that I was in…this is like literally right after this just happened, there was sort of this figure of death that was in this room with me.

And I'm not honestly, not really a spiritual or religious sort of person. So, this was very unexpected. But the thing was that it wasn't a scary experience. It wasn't like, oh, no, like I might potentially die. Like, I don't want to go. This is terrifying. If anything, it was very patient, it was very merciful, and it was up to me.

And those were the main feelings that I got. It was that death was here to take you away to stop that suffering. Or almost like when you're kind of ready to go. At least that was that was my experience at that point in time. But I would say in a very weird way, it was definitely an advantage.

And a weird thing I think as well is when it's right there, it's present and you don't feel like you have the say in that, you feel like almost it's being held over your head and you might not have a choice, then it makes you kind of want to fight back against it more. It makes you want to be like not that's not going to happen.

I'm going to keep trying to push back against that. So, it was a very convoluted, lot of thinking, a lot of kind of figuring out. But in a weird way, that was a very weird advantage I think I kind of had.

Jeremy Au: (42:29)

How does that weird advantage translate to today because now you are better and obviously you still have to go through the dynamics of being immunocompromised in the middle of a pandemic still as well. So, you are still not out of the woods yet. That being said, now that you have the energy, the focus, the time, and you're building this Start-Up, and you've gone through these two experiences, one that makes you empathise with depression and mental health, the other one is that close brush with, you know, mortality and death. How does that translate to how you work today versus how you used to work before?

Melissa Ng: (43:10)

It's a great question. I would say the biggest thing is caring a lot less what people think. I mean, like back when my recovery was much more active and I was still sick, a lot of the times, if ever, somebody maybe saying that they were doubtful or they were like, oh, I'm not really sure that this is going to work or anything that was negative, which, to be fair, was not very often.

It would always trigger this, this sort of thought in me and this feeling of like, well, so what you don't think so? Like, I think I get to decide after going through all of this, what I think now has more weight to it. And I wish that obviously I had a healthy perspective where I valued my own opinion more than the opinions of other people.

But I think, in a way, having this experience makes it so that I care a lot less. It hurts a lot less because I've experienced something that hurts a lot more. And also, I've always said, my parents don't like this, but I've always been quite stubborn. But I think going through this makes me even more stubborn because it was like, well, so what if somebody says no?

So, what if somebody hurts my feelings? Yeah, I've been through worse. I think I'm going to be totally, totally fine now. And that was one of really big ones. I think the other really huge one was that I was very independent when I kind of started my first company, becoming a young adult. And I think there was a component of kind of wanting to prove myself and prove my worth, and it felt like I had to do everything on my own so that it's valid, right.

And going through being sick, realising that, no, you can’t actually do this on your own. There's a lot of things in life that you can't do on your own, but also you shouldn't do on your own, and that you can lean on people. They will come and support you. And it's a relief. It's healthy to have that. It’s also allowed me as well to basically bring that into my everyday life now personally but then also professionally, I think it's giving me even more of an ability to be more vulnerable, to take maybe risks that I might have been a bit more uncomfortable with, but also to really lean on the people that I have around me both personally, but also professionally in terms of work. It is that extending of that trust and saying like, look, I don't want to build this by myself. I want to build this with people who are also great. And in order for them to truly be great, there has to be that level of trust and extending of that trust to them.

And I feel like experiencing what it's like to be needing so much support and being sick. Doctors, nurses, caretakers, friends, family. I was all the more better for it and now I can bring that into my work life as well.

Jeremy Au: (46:22)

Wow. Amazing. To wrap things up, could you share about a time when you personally were BRAVE?

Melissa Ng: (46:31)

That is a great question. I found it quite fitting that, you know, the podcast is called Brave and then and then we're called Bravely. It was just like, Oh, wow, that really fits quite well. I would say that probably the biggest time that I was brave, most people would probably think like, well, when I was facing cancer, I was brave.

But I found it to actually not be true. I was scared a lot. I wasn't actually brave a lot of the times. Just as a bit of a side note, there is a bit of expectation that people who face cancer or other serious illnesses need to be brave and it's such a burden on top of them. So, I won't sort of go with the answer where it's talking about being diagnosed.

I would say for me, the bravest moments that I had was all the moments where I had an opportunity to essentially quit life. If you kind of know what I meant. But I decided like, no, I'm not going to. I'm going to stay. I'm going to face what I have to face and trust me, I did not want to it doesn't feel like the Hollywood definition of brave where I'm not scared.

It was very much that I was so scared I didn't want to do it anymore, but I just had to because I had other things to live for. So, it wasn't one specific moment, but it was a series of moments that frankly all felt like that same one moment where you sort of just sit there and contemplate like what it is that you want to do at the end of the day.

And for a lot of people, I would say as well, you know, when facing that sort of situation, it is brave, too, to keep going, even though you don't want to. It is, because what you're facing, it's is beyond tough. So, for me, it's this series of moments that all kind of felt like that same one moment that I'm living through over and over again.

I hope that sort of works is not quite a one moment as it is a few of them.

Jeremy Au: (48:34)

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think that choosing to outlast and survive is to choose life, right? And to be honest, that's not an easy decision to make consciously. Yeah, well, on note, I’ll love to summarise the three big themes that I heard from this discussion.

So, the first is thank you so much for sharing about your journey with depression from the inside versus the external journey of being a success and being a founder and having your own agency and being able to work remotely.

So, I think that's really interesting where you brought us in to both, the power of vulnerability in helping you open up and getting help. And also, you talked about the healing process that you had to walk through and how that intersected with your own identity as a career professional and as a perfectionist and as a workaholic. And how, to some extent, digital nomadism and all that stuff was the fruit of those things, rather than something that was just a luxury or enjoyment.

The second is, thank you so much for talking about how you chose to channel the energy. And it was interesting to hear that the crusade or the fight came before the healing to some extent. And I think those are really interesting to hear how you chose to build a mental health app. Also, some of the design choices that you chosen to be contrarian versus the market. And I think it was interesting to hear why you continued being a founder.

And I think the last thing is obviously, you know, your choice to outlast and survive leukaemia and mortality, but also to continue drawing and interweaving the lessons that you had in the past from your previous health struggles and your previous entrepreneurial efforts and choosing to fight for life and to continue to fight to build the app and continue being a founder during the sickness, even though you didn't know you want to survive or not, and during your recovery, when you knew you're going to survive but could've done something else…and now that you’re well, choosing to keep going on, which is really tremendous and I think quite inspiring.

So, thank you so much for sharing your journey, Melissa.

Melissa Ng: (50:42)

Oh, thank you so much for having me and for all the incredibly insightful questions. I really enjoyed having this chat, honestly. And I'm glad that you are giving me the opportunity to share my story and to be sharing that vulnerability as well.

Jeremy Au: (50:57)

Thank you so much, Melissa.

Melissa Ng: (50:58)

Thank you.

 

 

 

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