IGNITE UCC start-up Da Silly Heads is a forward-thinking social enterprise, aiming to create communities of mental health advocates.

Da Silly Heads is doing this through a blend of advocacy apparel and visual mental health advocacy workshops in which their animated cartoon characters, Da Silly Heads, help deliver the core message that STIGMA IS SILLY!

The characters represent different mental health conditions and are a vehicle to externalize struggles with life’s ambitions.

“Becoming a household name for visual mental health advocacy in Ireland is our long-term goal”

Da Silly Heads was founded by Cork Institute of Technology/Munster Technological University Business Graduates Daniel O’Mahony & Michal Sikora in 2018.

“It is reported that at least 18.5pc of Irish population have presented with a mental health issue (Pre-Covid-19),” O’Mahony explained. “That’s a lot of people. Yet, so many of them are isolated, misunderstood, judged. They are our friends, your friends. They are students, employees, community group members, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters …

“We want them to feel supported and not be defined by their diagnosis, which to us are just Silly Heads – characters we created to externalise these conditions based on our own lived experience. “

Currently, Da Silly Heads is working with second and third level educational institutions as well as corporate and community-based partners to establish a sustainable business whilst making widespread social impact.

Interactive workshops

“Through our interactive workshops delivered either online or on-site, integrating everything from animation to apparel, we aim to build a circle of mental health advocates within every community in Ireland and beyond. In our workshop, the characters (Silly Heads) help us tell a very personal story and show participants how we see them and the way they manifest themselves in the day-to-day life,” O’Mahony said.

“Our workshop revolves around the power of visual mental health advocacy, therefore, an integral part of our offering is a range of clothing with purpose, as we call it, that can be provided to our workshop participants as part of the package.

“Our advocacy apparel is also available to the general public through our e-commerce platform at www.dasillyheads.com. Currently we are working towards expanding our product portfolio and soon we may have some exciting announcements for September/October 2021.

A serious purpose

Two men on a rooftop in Cork with animated characters.

Daniel O’Mahony and Michael Sikora, founders of Da Silly Heads

The ‘why’ behind the creation of Da Silly Heads has been and always will be the company’s main driving force.

“After years of experiencing helpful but rigid supports within the Irish mental health system, I knew the topic deserved to have its strengths and weaknesses highlighted in a more engaging and colourful fashion,” O’Mahony said.

“Having suffered with a severe anxiety disorder since my early teens, which developed into a debilitating OCD disorder and bouts of severe depression, I felt I had wasted much of my potential during youth because of a combination of factors involving mental illness.”

His co-founder Michal Sikora added: “I went through a fair bit of difficulties in my personal life, saw the cruelty mental illness was having on my loved ones, and similarly to Daniel I also have experienced a family member losing their life to suicide.

“I witnessed the impact of traumatic circumstances on one’s mental wellbeing through my wife Lesil, who had been bravely battling cancer for several years and sadly passed away in May 2020. She taught me the value of following our passions in life, and being an entrepreneur in the field of such importance is just that for me.

“Our college journey has been an integral part of the development of Da Silly Heads. The time we spent in Cork Institute of Technology allowed us to not only further our academic qualifications, but also provided a platform to start, test and promote our business among the company’s target demographic,” Sikora explained.

Social entrepreneurs

Looking at the start-up system, O’Mahony said the founders have been very fortunated.

“As former and current participants on both local and national programmes such as Student Inc. (The Rubicon Centre), Social Entrepreneurs Ireland and IGNITE UCC, we fully understand and value and role of networking, mentorship and funding when starting a business.

“The Local Enterprise Office Cork has also supported us from day one, and their expertise and advice has been invaluable to us. Outside of the state-funded institutions and organisations, we found co-working spaces (such as Republic of Work and Culture Co-Working) as well as initiatives such as Cork Entrepreneur Network very beneficial as they provide workshops, gatherings and networking sessions (often free of charge) that are all so crucial even before the business gets off the ground.

“Although we did experience some Covid-19 related delays, we found the process of setting up a company in Ireland very straightforward. It is still early days though, we wonder where’s the catch?”

The business is being sustained through revenues and the founders are not fundraising at present. “Of course, we could grow a lot faster if we secured external investment and in turn positively impact more people but we always counted on a steady, organic development and we are confident we will get there in time. After all, becoming a household name for visual mental health advocacy in Ireland is our long-term goal.”

Agents of change

Working off the principle “If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes” O’Mahony and Sikora started Da Silly Heads with that change in mind.

“We wanted to challenge the approach to mental health promotion and dispel any negative misconceptions held in society,” said Sikora. “We quickly realised that in the business world one thing always leads to another. In our case, exploring and taking every opportunity that came our way propelled us forward.

“We would talk to anyone, attend meaningful programmes / workshops, collaborate on quirky marketing campaigns and take calculated risks. It led to more contacts, more exposure, more growth and most importantly – more positive impact.”

The company’s core values are: Empathy, inclusivity, empowerment.

“We put them above anything else in our quest of growing our Advocacy Circle,” said O’Mahony. “We truly believe continuing efforts to create more value guided by the company’s ethos, coupled with a customer-centric approach will not only ensure longevity of the business but benefit society as a whole.

“We do acknowledge we work in a field where this approach is particularly important but we are also certain that adopting this mentality is what gets us through the most difficult times as last year clearly indicated.”

Every business is a digital business

As with every other company over the past year Da Silly Heads had to adopt to an online way of conducting business.

“Thankfully, being an early stage start up, we were able to tailor our offering to an online delivery format without any major hiccups, apart from an occasional speaking on mute,” says O’Mahony.

“This involved working closely with Kevin O’Shea, our amazing 3D animator to bring our Silly Heads to life, which now play an important role in our workshop presentation. We also invested in all sorts of videography equipment in order to maximise the quality of our offering so that our workshop participants can not only see and hear us properly but also experience something out of ordinary.

“In order to stay current, we keep close tab on our social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. In addition, we update our website regularly with the help of our awesome Advocates who post their mental health related stories and also fantastic ‘Expert Heads’ – contributors who share their own expertise across several wellbeing related fields such as nutritional therapy, computer-based training, fitness, and much more.”

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 20 July 2021

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