Interview: Mental Health Counseling on Your Phone


Kim Dong Hyun had no doubt about starting his own business in his twenties. He sought to create his own service and deliver value to society.

Kim’s business idea was to create a text-based mental health counseling service. He wanted “happiness” to be a mandatory condition for every person. Over 20,000 people have used this service since its launch in 2016, with one in five being repeat users from all around the world.

We sat down with Kim Dong Hyun, CEO of Humart Company, Inc., which provides a text-based mental health counseling service, Trost, to discuss how he has become the leading support pole for pursuing happiness among Koreans.

You built a startup in your twenties. Did you ever consider joining a company?

I wanted to create my own service and deliver my own kind of value to society. Prior to building Humart, I ran a nonprofit organization. Had I joined a company as an employee somewhere, I think I would have been making limited contribution to society.

With so many young startups today, there are some judgments on college student entrepreneurs that lack resilience. What efforts do you think set you apart?

I try to prove my efforts through results. We need to focus on our customers, so our attention is on helping people understand our genuine efforts as a company. Thankfully, many of our users recognize our honest mission.

How is a text-based counselling different from in-person?

I wouldn’t say our text-based counseling service is better than an in-person session; however, it is very unique. We lower the barriers of visiting a mental health professional through mobile, and we use data analytics to help users better understand what their choice of words signify about their health. We approach mental health coaching in a new way using technology.

How do you ensure that each 50-minute session on Trost is used efficiently?

We can measure the productivity of a conversation through the conversation content. Satisfaction increases when a coach and user share signs of deep communication. In our offline services, we also include moments of silence as part of the counseling process. As a mobile platform, we are constantly trying to overcome the challenges of a non face-to-face conversation through IT.

We are curious about the days you were planning the launch of your business.

We tried multiple business models. We learned that instead of a video call, a text-based conversation works better. Texts allow us to collect data, so we are able to create new value from that. Culturally, we also felt that Koreans generally find non face-to-face conversations “easier.” We directed our core business direction to where people open up more comfortably.

How is your benchmarking? How do you localize your service?

Comparative services abroad generally have a certain wait-time between a user’s message and coach’s response. Trost was like that too in the earlier days. However, we realized that for someone who just took the time to write a heartfelt and personal message would find waiting for a response incredibly disappointing. That’s why we pivoted to a real-time base. We focused on allocating times for the coaches.

Foreign services typically match coaches to users. However, we let our users choose their coaches. Users can access all coaches’ profiles and select one of their choice. This provided a higher satisfaction to both new and existing users.

Check out an earlier post: Trost: Revolutionizing Mental Health Care Online.

What difficulties did you face when starting your business?

It was challenging to approach both our customers (users) and coaches. Coaches typically expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of texting as a counseling session, and customers found mental health counseling as an uncomfortable topic to include as part of their lives. This is still an ongoing challenge for us, to break down these barriers.

How did you find your first coach?

Our first coach was highly interested in this new possibility of coaching through a non face-to-face, text-based service. After securing our contract with this first coach, word-of-mouth helped us gain more traction among other coaches. Many of our coaches who also do in-person counseling find themselves earning comparative amounts through our business.

How do you decide who to find first? Coach or customer?

That’s the most important question we are dealing with everyday. We look for potential users first. I believe we can grow our market size once we can target appropriately. IT plays a big role here, and we want to use technology to continue expanding the mental health coaching market.

We are also considering using AI chatbots to replace human coaches. The limitation of an AI chatbot is that it’s based on a set amount of data. Mental health counseling and conversations are extremely emotional, nonlinear and intricate. We expect to utilize AI to supplement our efforts in understanding our users.

What kind of marketing do you do to find new users?

In the long-run, returning users are very important to the business. However, we also don’t want to force users to use our service. So our current marketing focus is to more naturally spread the positivities of a counseling service. We expose ourselves at mental health related book clubs, fitness centers, online communities, etc. We want to earn recognition by people first.

What’s the biggest thing you learned while operating Trost?

In the early days, I wasn’t good at making decisions or focusing. I found myself thinking about offline services and O2O services while operating an online service. I spent a lot of time diverging my attention to no fruition. Focusing on a single text-based service sooner may have helped us grow faster.

Do you feel any resistance from the existing industry as your service grows?

Our service doesn’t replace traditional counseling. We are complementary. For users that require medication, we direct them offline and recommend existing in-person services. I believe that in the near future, we’ll be able to connect the online and offline services within the industry. The connectivity will become a reality once regulations ease and the mass’ views on mental health counseling become healthier.

What kind of societal issue do you want to tackle as a company?

A happy life requires a healthy mind. A healthy mind starts with “me,” and ultimately, it is up to “myself” to work on it. A big part of this pursuit of happiness through a healthy mind can be solved with counselling. We want to use technology to better identify problems and provide solutions in our counselling services.

Any comments to Trost users you’d like to share?

Happiness is protecting something precious. The most precious of all is “myself.” Mental health counseling helps everyone find ways to protect themselves. So many people are hesitant to try out counseling. They’re afraid they have “problems.” But I hope nobody feels like that anymore. A little bit of courage can lead to a much more fruitful life. And Trost is here to be your support along the way.

Inspired by Platum

Image source: Platum

Based in San Francisco, Lisa enjoys exploring the intersection of technology and social impact. Having lived in over 9 cities throughout her life, she is in constant pursuit of immersing herself in culturally & intellectually diverse environments.



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