Jen Gotch on founding ban.do, treating her bipolar disorder, and making all the mistakes
Even the most successful people had to face a few obstacles to get to where they are today. In our series Failing Forward, women at the top of their game reveal the biggest mistakes they made in their careers—and why they’re actually glad they made them.
Jen Gotch has been many things over the course of the career: a temp, an extra in movies, and even a prop designer and food stylist. Today, though, most of us recognize her as the founder of ban.do, a lifestyle and fashion brand whose bright and colorful styles and quippy logos are all designed with wellness in mind. Now, there’s one more feather that Gotch, 48, can add to her cap: that of bestselling author, with her memoir, The Upside of Being Down out now. And in her typical funny and candid fashion, Gotch holds nothing back in the book.
Detailing her career journey alongside the search to find a diagnosis and treatment for her bipolar disorder, Gotch’s memoir is written from the perspective of someone who is non-judgmental of her own flaws and struggles. We talked to the entrepreneur about the mistakes she’s made throughout her career—which she admits, were numerous—and how they all served a greater purpose.
Mistake #1: Not establishing boundaries and balance at work
When Gotch first started ban.do, it wasn’t strange for her to work into the night and put important relationships on the back burner. As the brand grew and was eventually bought by Lifeguard Press in 2017, her unhealthy work ethic carried over to her new office environment, even though her new co-workers closed their computers firmly at 6 p.m. And although Gotch was actively working through her mental health issues in therapy, she decided to stop taking the medication she was using to treat her bipolar disorder. Eventually, she hit a physical and emotional rock-bottom that made her reassess how she was going about her job.
“Hearing other people talk about work-life balance, all of that really did not resonate with me,” Gotch tells HelloGiggles. “It wasn’t until I was personally feeling very compromised that I was willing to look at that.”
She confided in a doctor who asked her what she was doing to care for herself, and when her immediate response was, “work,” she realized that she was likely experiencing burnout. “From that point on, I just started to prioritize that balance and understand what my boundaries and limits were on a daily basis,” Gotch recalls.
As ban.do’s Chief Creative Officer, she soon learned that being a leader also meant learning to accept her employees’ boundaries and needs for balance. “At first when people were leaving at six, I thought, where are they going? Work is not done!” Gotch says, explaining that she initially mistook this as her employees not sharing her passion for the company. “But now, I’m at a point where I’ve grown to respect those people in the organization who don’t check or answer emails on the weekend or at night, leave when it’s time to leave, and take a full lunch break. I’m like, ‘you got it figured out.'”
“When you love what you do,” she continues, “it’s really hard to disconnect and it can be one of the most fulfilling parts of your life. But it shouldn’t be the only part. I think I’m learning that now.”
Mistake #2: Not taking any time for herself outside of work
During the same game-changing conversation with her doctor, Gotch began to realize that “fun” had become a bit of a foreign concept to her.
“‘It’s incredibly fun if you’re working a job that you love,’ I told the doctor, and she said, ‘no, what is your fun outside of work?'” Gotch recalls. “I kind of realized that the only fun I was having outside of work was going out and drinking, which is really more numbing than anything else.”
Gotch’s therapist suggested that the entrepreneur bracket off a few hours each week to enjoy herself—as in, literally creating calendar events marked “fun.” This way, everyone, including her, knew that’s what that time was for and wouldn’t schedule any conflicts. “That’s how ruled my life was by my calendar,” Gotch says. But it worked—she kept “fun” scheduled on her calendar every Wednesday for years.
These days, she doesn’t have to be as intentional about scheduling me-time, because it’s become second-nature. “I feel like I have very healthy boundaries with work and I understand fun and relaxation and what that truly means,” Gotch says.
Mistake #3: Not knowing the line between professionalism and personal struggles
In the memoir chapter “I Cry at Work,” Gotch explores toeing the line between being professional and permitting herself to experience outside emotions in the office. In the past, she was often candid with employees about her personal life and would discuss her mental health openly. But as much as she felt ban.do was a safe space to feel her feelings and work through them, she can see now that doing so was sometimes disruptive.
“As someone who struggles with mental health issues, at times they just got the better of me, and then you add stress and burnout on top of that,” she says of her times opening up to co-workers. “I didn’t actually understand corporate culture and how [sometimes that’s seen as] inappropriate.”
In her memoir, Gotch describes how, for instance, she decided to go to work right after finding out she was getting divorced. The frustration and grief over her relationship spilled out into a heated debate with a colleague that left her in tears. After she ran out of the meeting to break down in the stairwell, a co-worker told her maybe it was time to go home instead of pushing on with the work day. It was then that Gotch started to realize it was time to find a balance between healthy emotional release and unloading those feelings onto other people, especially fellow workers.
“The trial and error was more for me and understanding what a good example is and what a bad example is and trying to be a good example,” Gotch says. “What I have found and what I talk about in the book is responsible management of emotions. The idea of keeping emotions in does not feel responsible to me, and the idea of unregulated emotions does not feel responsible to me.”
Today, she encourages her employees to be open with her when times are rough—just in appropriate ways. “We’re at work having our lives. You don’t put problems in a locker at the beginning of the day and then get it at the end of the day,” Gotch says. Through her practice of office hours, she gives colleagues space to speak with her about personal issues without judgment, and she’s found this to be a good way of compromising between suppressing emotions and letting them out in an unhealthy way.
Mistake #4: Being hesitant to change her brand’s strategy
When Gotch first started developing products for ban.do, she mostly filled the brand’s virtual shelves with bright and colorful headbands that even got noticed by Taylor Swift. But as the company grew, and its reputation as a “fun” brand became firmly established, Gotch pushed to move ban.do toward something more meaningful that resonated with her own struggles.
Ban.do “just felt very pigeonholed,” she recalls. “I thought everything we stand for is much more than that. Ultimately, we want to help people feel better.”
In December 2017, Gotch had the idea of creating necklaces with the words “anxiety” and “depression” on them, so that people could wear their diagnoses proudly and reduce stigma around the terms. At the time, she was becoming more candid about her own mental health struggles on social media, detailing rough days to her followers and telling them how she’d rate her feelings on a scale of one to 10, and she wanted to bring that advocacy over to work. But it took some convincing to get ban.do’s CEO, David Coffey, on board with the potentially controversial new products. Eventually, though, he trusted Gotch enough to let the project move forward, and the necklaces flew off the shelves.
Today, they’re still selling out, and the line has expanded to include phrases like “optimism” and “confidence.” All proceeds go to the non-profit organization Bring Change to Mind, which works to end to mental health stigma. Ban.do has also expanded its wellness line to include products like exercise mats saying, “I did my best” and planners asking, “How do I feel today?”
“We’ve created so many products in the wellness/personal betterment space and they’re our number one products [but] people were very reluctant to for us to do that,” Gotch says. “Then out of the gate, they were incredibly well-received. So I think we’ve been able to broaden what we’re about in a way that didn’t feel like a hard left.”
Mistake #5: Buying into hustle culture
It’s no secret that hustle culture, especially for women, pervades our notions of success. Often we see women who have “made it” as entrepreneurs with brands they’ve built from the ground up, thousands of Instagram followers, and, somehow, the time to do it all. But this isn’t reality for most people, nor is it healthy. Gotch recalls how she was once tempted to achieve that definition of success, getting caught up in the idea of being perpetually busy as a way to mark her achievements. She worked 14 hours a day, experiencing burnout and a decrease in wellbeing, but still felt the need to flaunt her busyness as a status symbol. Ban.do even released "I am very busy" notebooks and coffee cups— but although the products sold out, Gotch began to realize how toxic it was to glamorize that lifestyle.
“Buying into the whole ‘female founder busy-ness equals growth and success,’ was a huge mistake,” she says. “Whether that meant rapid growth [in my company] or putting all of my relationships in the backseat so that I could just work, work, work—it was all contributing to that narrative that you need to be busy all the time and sort of wear that as a badge of honor.”
Ban.do still sells the “I am very busy” items, but Gotch says she no longer subscribes to that mentality. “Success in business does not look just one way. [It isn’t] working day and night and having nice cars and thousands of employees,” she says. “Success can look a hundred different ways, and hopefully people start to see that.”
Though figuring out what, exactly, success means to her is still an ongoing process, Gotch says her main priority is to focus on her wellbeing and self-acceptance. “I’m still working to really find that deep inside,” she says. “I have a lot of compassion for myself and I feel good about myself in a lot of ways, but at the core of it, I’m not fully there yet, which I think is how so many of us feel.”
That’s something she says she hopes to figure out in book two.