Dan Murray-Serter is the Co-Founder of Heights, the braincare company that emerged from his own journey with insomnia, chronic anxiety, and mental illness. The positive impact dietary supplements had on his well-being. Dan and his team raised £2m in a seed round from some of Europe’s top investors, including the founders of Shazam, Planet Organic, WeTransfer, Mumsnet, New Look, Photobox and Moonpig.
In this interview, I speak to Dan Murray-Serter about the role of mental health in the entrepreneurship journey, his own experience launching Heights, and the practical learnings he has for entrepreneurs following in his footsteps.
Q: How does mental health link to performance for entrepreneurs?
[Dan Murray-Serter]: Mental performance comes from a full cup. It comes from a place of having energy. It comes from a place of having made sure that the very famous analogy, ‘put the life jacket on first before helping others.’ A lot of the narrative about how to mentally perform for yourself comes from how you protect your time, how you make choices, and an understanding that everything is a choice.
One of the things that I used to be very guilty of (and I don’t feel like I am any longer) is this idea of going around telling everyone you’re too busy. I’m too busy for this, I’m too busy for you. I’m too busy for that. These kinds of narratives impact your mental performance for sure because of A) Firstly you’re falling victim, you’re immediately saying, I am a victim to your agenda, I’m a victim to that.
When it comes to mental performance, it does all come down to priorities. Maybe you prioritise other things to get better at first. There is nothing to say that you’d be exceptional at a prioritisation framework in your life after 10 years of doing something, maybe it’ll take you 20 years.
I make my mental health my priority. Like, first and foremost. I can’t serve my family without my mental health. I’m a much better, much more present father, a better husband, a better son, all the things. So, I think understanding the importance of these priorities is so crucial.
I talk about this, years ago, how I got into what I do now, which is HEIGHTS (brain health and mental wellness company). I had a complete mental breakdown and I had severe depression. I had crippling anxiety. I had six-month-long insomnia, and I was a complete mess. Why was that? Well, because I burned myself out from saying yes too often, from doing too much, from working too hard, from sleeping too little, from enjoying hustle culture too much, to enjoying the fame that my ego is loving about how well my Start-Up was doing until it crashed and burned. All the different things, flying far too close to the sun without any recognition of the warning signs.
I ended up in a nutritionist’s office. I’d already tried everything. I’d already tried therapy and sleep therapy and calm and you name it, weed, alcohol, anything that would help me get to sleep. Obviously, none of that stuff helps you stay asleep very well. I’d gone to the doctor, been given sleeping pills, all the different things. And in the end, it was a nutritionist and she recommended supplements. At first very sceptical, but that is basically what started me on my journey.
I went from a point of the complete and utter victim – ‘I am depressed. I have anxiety, I can’t sleep. These are all my problems’ to ‘this can’t be my reality for life. I need to take control of my mental health’. In the end, it led to nutrition being something that had a massive impact on me.
I was in a game of survival. How do I get by on less than an hour of sleep every day for six months? That’s not mental performance. That’s desperation.
I’m sure you’re familiar with OKRs? [Objectives and key results are a goal-setting framework used by individuals, teams, and organizations to define measurable goals and track their outcomes.] I have relationship OKRs with my wife and I do personal OKRs as well. I listed my personal OKRs in January. I did this whole experiment and I realised that basically, the answer to everything that I wanted to achieve this year was more sleep. Like literally no matter which way I cut the complex thing I wanted, to be more present with my daughter and all the things like the work, the family, the relationship, it all ended up with just trying to go to bed earlier. And I was like that is so fundamentally obvious, isn’t it? And that’s as a former insomniac to still come to that conclusion years later.
Q: How did you begin the journey of Heights?
[Dan Murray-Serter]: My journey began with this part of having this very healthy scepticism and supplement space as there should be. It is very easy to create bad products and you can get them through the market and that’s what most people do.
If you think about that and the brain, that doesn’t really combine a lot of trust, instead of more fear than anything. The dietician that I went to was able to explain this to me…I was a sceptic and someone who just thought all supplements are crap and I’m not going to take them and that’s not for me.
It’s very interesting that I’m doing this business because if it’s one of those what do you see yourself doing in five years? This would be very low down the list but once you start as an entrepreneur and you start to see how other people do stuff and realise that to innovate in tech is hard. It’s relentless. It’s hard, it costs a lot of money because you are running so many tests every single day and most of them fail you just kind of need a good process and good culture and good staying power and you kind of make it through or you run out of money. That is my experience of building a tech company anyway.
I never thought that just because I had a personal experience, I would end up building a business in this space until I saw all the ways that people actually do business and realised it’s actually easy as a technologist with no sector experience coming in and trying to do things differently here because the way that you build your moat is you don’t let people off. You do everything by the book, like what the book should be.
You do it according to science…in the right amount… make a lot of conscious choices that would seem obvious in any other industry, but for some reason supplements, they’re not. It is a slight tangent because what I wanted to say was when I went to the dietitian and she was explaining to me what she thought was happening to me, she was able to diagnose me in a minute because I had already associated, through my distrust of nutritional supplements and everything else, it hadn’t even been on my radar.
I had been given sleeping pills, but I hadn’t taken them because I knew that that wasn’t going to be a long-term solution. I was looking for something to long term solutions.
I’d gone in there and explained, ‘Look, I’ve got this mental health problem or many mental health problems now, and here are all the things I’ve tried. And, you know, they’re not fads. I’ve tried that. It’s been six months, and I’ve really tried. And I’m still here. I’m still in this situation. Someone has sent me to you. It was easy for her to say, okay, look, you basically have already tried all the psychological things you might do for your mental health.
What about the biological stuff? I don’t really know what you mean. I put two and two together. She’s like, well, where is your mind? And I was like, in my head. In my brain. Exactly. Yeah. Your brain is under siege. Your brain is underfed. Your brain is not getting the nutrients that it needs to thrive. How do I know? Because your body is giving you all these alarm signals. Your house is on fire, and you are literally experiencing symptoms of an emergency every single day and you are trying to hose them out, but nothing is working. And so, you’ve come to me, a fire-lady, and I’m saying, ‘here’s a hose, let’s put it out. If I’m not right, we’ll try the next thing. But this seems to me to be very practical. The way she explained this to me, I was like, ‘Wow, I feel like an idiot for not really thinking about it like that.
Q: How did you get early traction for your product?
[Dan Murray-Serter]: Building a challenger ‘brand’, has been and still is a problem for us. As our name is Heights, we have chosen a style of only speaking in an uplifting, non-fear-based communication method. Your custom is all about benefits, not about fear. The way that we found work is really by building an audience.
In the process of making this product in the first place, so small supplement took a year and a half to develop and with a lot of back and forth. We sustainably source every single ingredient from a different place such as our blueberry extracts come from Italy, and our algae oil is from a sustainable farm in Nova Scotia.
Every single ingredient is from the best place because that is exactly the point of what the aim is and then we manufacture it and ship it to our customers within three months from being made as opposed to an Amazon or in a store cupboard because our supplements degrade in quality.
A full raison d’etre is to make the best product in the world through our cycle and through our process and then to scientifically test it to prove by doing blood tests on people whether they are vegan omnivores. We have done these to prove they have higher potency and higher efficacy than other brands.
We started a newsletter. The whole premise of the newsletter as it was originally called Dawn, but now called Heights, but the premise was, we will teach you one thing according to science that you can do to take care of your brain every single week. We will reference science papers, so our job is will read scientific papers and teach you one thing every single week from that science paper or link to it but we’ll use millennial spiel, maybe some gifs, and try to dumb it down in a fun, good tone of voice.
It’s clear that people are on this journey with us from the start, first getting one under three-minute email every single week in their inbox on a Sunday that they could read, which has something to do with neuroscience or psychology or mental health. With a little sign off from me, we built our audience into about 150,000 weekly newsletter readers to this point. By the time we launched, we had maybe 45,000, which was over a year and a half. We were happy with that.
We have a lot of very intelligent people that read it because it’s trusted because it’s from science. It’s time-saving for other people, as we are communicating something in science and a guaranteed under 3 minutes, that’s always the promise.
We were really bringing people on this journey and often it was about nutrition, but not always.
We talk about our competitors, and we recommend people can take other brands and we will tell people, this brand is better for you. We have live chat, and all our customer service teams are trained nutritionists.
Our whole M.O. as a brand is to build trust. One of our four company values is to build trust and be trusted because that’s what’s missing in this space – someone who would categorically if you land on our site, and tell us what you’ve got, what you think you need, etc., it’s the trust that we would tell you to go somewhere else. That to me is the best kind of brand around.
We believe the way that you win in the end is word of mouth. Our solution is more for the 99% that don’t know if you are the 1% that knows so much, as you were my friend. Then on the community side, it’s about involving people.
We get the audience and community involved in product names, in social media polls and the whole company involvement, full stop. We have raised just over £5 million through crowdfunding by bringing people on the journey. We really want our audience to feel like they are owners too, all these little things compound because you have people who are spreading the word with you because they want you to succeed and they are voices for the company too because they don’t really want Vitabiotics to put out another poor quality product that no one needs or cares about with David Gandy?, they are kind involved in your story.
Q: How do you build trust in a digital world?
[Dan Murray-Serter]: Me and my business partner Joel, we are outsiders. We don’t know anything about this space, but our Chief Science Officer Dr. Tara Schwartz is awesome and is a neuroscientist with a PhD in Neuropharmacology, so it helped with filling in gaps in information.
You must really fight for the differentiation. The differentiation comes from a total lack of understanding of how to make a supplement in this space anyway. Look at Vita Biotics, he inherited that business. There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. The point is there will be a structural way that business is set up around manufacturing and production and marketing.
There is only so much that you can shift things and when you are number one, why would you mess it up too much, right? It is usually common for the challenger brands to look at viewing things from it going a different way, so I’m going to start out a completely different way too.
Q: What does success mean to you?
[Dan Murray-Serter]: Yes. We are trying to quantify specifically now. Interestingly, the reason we came up with the term ‘brain care’. Mental health is very stigmatised. When people say mental health, firstly they kind of trigger mean mental illness quite often. And then they misappropriate and misunderstand what mental health is, which obviously is something everyone starts with and hopefully has. However, the idea that we had with brain care is looking at industries that are great around care. The skin care, hair care, nail care, oral care, these are industries where the fundamental premise of what they do …. from the moment you’re born, you’re decaying.
What we do is encourage you to understand that it isn’t about one giant quick fix or one panic thing. It’s a little bit every single day to slow down.
Why do you brush your teeth every day rather than get your whole teeth replaced once without ever brushing them? It is much less painful to do 2 minutes every day of brushing your teeth. The same with skin care in terms of wrinkle cream/ hand cream, a little bit of self-care equals a longer, happier, healthier life for you.
We invented one day after about a year and a half of chin posing and scratching and wondering what on earth to actually create in this sort of terminology for what we do and realised that success to us is brain care becomes a popularised term that is synonymous with obviously with Heights at the centre of it of course, but actually that there are thousands of challengers to Heights who are all building this brain care ecosystem and everyone’s mission is the same, which is to help people help humans live longer.
One of the things that really is misaligned is the idea that a long life is a good life which is not true as it’s about the life span and health span. The brain controls everything.
Our main aim is essentially, to help you live a longer, healthier life, starting with your brain. That is fundamentally something that nutrition can do.
We hope that they enter the market and help human beings take care of their brains because what currently happens in the market and you could probably think of most of your friendship groups, this kind of conversation I have with people, you might be super self-aware how important this stuff is.
If you were to go to the pub with your mates, how many of them have done even one act of taking care of their brain that day? Quite often the answer is just none of them, they got up, they were tired. They drained themselves of energy at work all day, went home, bit tired, watched TV, went to bed, and just repeated the day. It’s the lack of awareness of the things are essential.
If they had time to brush their teeth, if they had time to comb their hair, if they had washed their hair, they showered, they did some of these things that are just like the norm.
We are saying is if you add 2 to 5 minutes’ worth of brain care every single day, there’s a very good chance scientifically you will have a better health span over your lifespan. So, success to us looks like we start a brain care movement. The market is growing at the same time as the competitors are entering.
Q: What does legacy mean to you?
[Dan Murray-Serter]: Yes I do think about it and I think I’m still deciding because on the one hand, I’m very much about, I hope my legacy or if I’m successful with Heights I believe my legacy categorically will be that I helped create a category and that has 100% improved people’s lives to a large volume. This to me is the most rewarding feeling as a founder to hear that your product is helping people. I got two tweets yesterday from total strangers about how they started Heights and the positive impact it had on them. I got to see both of them, and I retweeted both of them.
All you really want in life as a founder is to know that you’re doing something good and you’re helping people and that someone is just getting value out of the thing you’re doing. This is in people’s mental health and sleep and energy, some of the important aspects of life. I find that so rewarding.
We don’t talk about revenue. We talk about brains impacted.
Many years ago, I started a community called Founders, which is where Secret Leaders was born out of as well. There is something I really enjoy about bringing entrepreneurs together. I do think that there is a good opportunity for my legacy. The other side of my world is the Secret Leaders and Founders World, where I help people share stories that are going to help others and help bring people together. Founders is helping passionate founders compassionately connect so they can break new ground without breaking themselves. I think that is the crux of it. A lot of us just push ourselves to absolute extremes.
Your suicide story is just one of them. It happens to all of us. And the thing is, when you fail, I think this is the challenging thing. When you fail, you do find out who your friends are. Are they still around or do they not give a damn about you anymore because you’re no longer successful?
I went through the trough of disillusionment for five years, sometimes ten years, and then I did this incredible thing and now I want to be someone in my life who was there in those moments. I want to be people’s first client. I want to be there for them when they’re at their lowest when no one else is backing them and believes in them.
I want to help guide them through to whatever the next thing is without any idea of how successful they’re going to be, full stop. I think that is a trait that isn’t welcomed enough in society and not enough people do.