After Suffering From Depression All Her Life, She Turned Her Struggle into Her Next Big Startup Idea
By Benny Luo
January 26, 2016
When Krystal Choo is at conferences, she often gets frustrated because people assume she works in media or is someone’s assistant. On the contrary, Choo, 28, is an entrepreneur who’s one of the few females in a male-dominated industry.
“I come from a very humble family. As a kid, I always loved to find out how things work. We didn’t have anything, so I was always making my own games, writing my own stories.
“I’ve always been interested in tech as well — very, very fascinated by machines in general. So I don’t know where it started. I think it was a curiosity thing. I think there’s a romance — especially the founders who create instead of clone – we are all very romantic. We believe in an ideal that doesn’t yet exist, and we want to create.”
Choo launched her first company right after college, and by the time she was 27, she had four companies under her belt and was a two-time TEDx speaker.
After her first business failed, she found success on her second startup, Insurgence, an events company that now operates in three countries. She sold her shares after four years because she wanted to get into the tech industry. This is when ZipTrip was born, a startup that helps people find the best travel deals though a predictive algorithm. She was able to raise a micro-round of $55,000 in June 2013 to build the startup. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as she expected.
“I burned through that money and wasn’t able to get traction. Honestly. I was pitching features, I was not pitching benefits. I was focused on UX/UI a lot without focusing on the core product. Travel is very opaque.”
Choo decided to pivot. From there, she launched Wander, a budding startup that aims to bring single world travelers together.
“I’m not going to say I have 100K daily views. I want to say today I created 178,000 moments where people didn’t feel lonely. I find it really meaningful. It’s very humbling when someone calls me and says, ‘I would never have met this girl if not for Wander.’”
The concept of loneliness is a huge theme in Choo’s inspiration for Wander. Apart from her current successes as an entrepreneur, there’s a dark side to Choo that she’s struggled with all her life.
“Since I was 8, I’ve always had this deep, deep sense of loneliness — in my mind and emotionally. Thirteen going on 14 I said, ‘Something is broken. I don’t feel right.’
“I went to the doctor, and in 15 minutes a psychiatrist managed to diagnose me with severe clinical depression. I was given Prozac, Xanax and therapy as well. I did that for eight years. I wanted desperately to get off the drugs, and they wouldn’t get me off them. I felt very lobotomized. My memory was completely shot.”
While everyone experiences occasional grief and sadness, depression isn’t the same thing. Choo explained what it was like to struggle with chronic clinical depression:
“People say that they’re depressed too lightly. What’s depression? It’s not looking at a glass and thinking it’s half empty; it’s looking at a glass and thinking, ‘Can I kill myself with this glass?’
“Depression is not walking down the street thinking ‘What a shitty day’ or ‘What crappy weather’. Depression is ‘If I just walk in front of a moving car, it will all be over quickly.’ It’s a mental illness.
“It doesn’t need to be triggered by anything. It can just occur and I think that’s one of the things that makes depression very deadly. Communicating this to someone who hasn’t experienced it or hasn’t been close to someone who has is hard to fathom. How do you walk out of the house, being fully dressed, fully made up, high-functioning at work and be always thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe I should step off the ledge later.’”
Choo revealed the steps she took to help cure herself of her illness.
“I can’t pinpoint a solution to any one thing I would say. It’s a combination of factors. I was, first of all, desperate to be better. I knew that I was sick. I acknowledged it as an illness. I tried to divorce my identity from my depression, which was a very important step for me.
“If I had voices in my head saying, ‘You’re useless, you’ll never be anything, just end it now, there’s no meaning in life,” — nihilism — I would divorce that and it would be a separate voice. Once it’s not your voice you’re able to see a small light, a hint of a light.
“Therapy was extremely helpful because my therapy was extremely goal-oriented — coping mechanisms, tools you can use, immediately identifying unhealthy thinking, correcting that into healthy thinking. A lot of that was very unnatural for a very long time. It’s still unnatural sometimes.”
However, she admits that it’s helped to put things into perspective, which has helped her properly deal with the challenges of building a startup.
“When you’re on a ledge facing your death and having mental illness, losing your CTO or your top guy or your company failing gives you perspective: it becomes a little bit smaller.”
While Wander targets only single people, where you scroll through to see who’s interested in the same places, interests and activities, Choo stresses that it’s not a dating app.
“A lot of people think singles is just dating, and to me dating is about finding either people to hook up with or to potentially seek a partnership with someone. Wander is neither of those things. It’s an app for singles to connect and share meaningful moments. I don’t like assigning labels to these connections because they could be transient. I’ve met people who I’ve had amazing conversations with and that was it. I’ve met people in cities once for an hour and we’re friends 12 years later.
If you’re just looking for a hookup or dates in general without wanting to form a meaningful connection, I can direct you to 20 other apps that do that. I’m very focused on creating a quality community of people who are very conscious, authentic, and want to connect.”
However, Choo also says that this doesn’t mean her app is against dating either.
“I think people who are in healthy relationships often are not as open to meeting new people. I prefer that only singles join the app because the moments we can share could possibly be more intimate. And I’m not talking about sex. It’s about sharing more deeply about yourself and letting things organically develop. Being single myself, I would want to meet other interesting people who were also single.”
When asked what kind of lessons she’s learned from her experiences as an entrepreneur, she said:
“I feel like I’ve picked up on what’s advice and what’s noise, what’s an opinion — an educated one as well. If a single person who travels who doesn’t know me tells me my app sucks because it doesn’t have feature X, I’m going to listen to that person. If someone who is married for 20 years says that my app needs this thing, I’ll be like, ‘Do you even remember how it feels to be single?’
“You also need to stay true to your vision. It’s so easy to build tons of features that are cool or hip now — stream video, augmented reality — I can do all that stuff, hook up all the travel people, but staying true to your vision and keeping that straight line is something that you need to be consciously doing.”
Wander launched in mid-November 2015 and created over 8,000 matches within the first week of launch — all with zero marketing dollars. The app currently operates in 56 cities and the United States is its biggest market.
Following her vision, Wander will launch an exciting new feature for singles soon, that helps groups of singles meet in the same city, event or over a common interest.
“What I want to build is a community for people — the one place where they can go to meet people they have something in common with. At the end of the day, they go on Wander and they can chat with someone who gets them, from anywhere around the world.”
Check out Wander App.
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