Bringing peak mindfulness to corporate drones

Inc. Magazine

Startups are known for missions that are lofty, audacious and sometimes even a bit wacky-sounding. But when it comes to ambition, perhaps no others are a match for Headspace.

“We want to improve the health and happiness of the world,” declared Rich Pierson, the company's co-founder.

That's a tall order for any company, never mind one that makes a seemingly simple meditation app. But the Los Angeles-based startup claims 12 million active users and says that 80 percent of its growth comes from word of mouth. Headspace, which guides users through hundreds of meditation sessions of various lengths, has a five-star rating in the Apple app store.

While Pierson jokes that we've hit “peak mindfulness,” he think that there's still lots of opportunity to get more people to meditate. By making the practice both approachable and simple — not too clinical and not delving into “super-weird, hippie granola crystal healing madness,” Pierson said — Headspace aims to make it appealing to those who might not have considered it before.

There's also a burgeoning market in large companies that are becoming more aware of the role that mental health could and should play in their corporate wellness programs. That opens up opportunities for companies such as Headspace and meQuilibrium, which offers online stress management.

“I think companies are growing in the way they view wellness,” said Ron Goetzel, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I think these types of activities — meditation is one technique — ought to be part of the tool kit employers use to support workers.”

Most of the time, that has meant a company would hire a trainer and set up a time for employees to learn meditation or other strategies to build their resilience and deal with stress.

“Some people like to be in a room with other people,” Goetzel said. “But it's very hard to get people in a room for an hour.” Delivering meditation via an app allows employees to practice whenever they choose. That may increase adoption.

It's not like Headspace is the only meditation app out there. Dozens of entrepreneurs, it seems, see little irony in using the most distracting device we own — the smartphone —- and trying to turn it into a tool for improved awareness. Headspace, at $7.99 to $12.95 a month (depending on the length of your subscription), also is not the cheapest.

What is does have is an unusual co-founder duo: Andy Puddicombe, a Buddhist monk who does the narration for all of Headspace's sessions, and Pierson, who previously marketed Axe deodorant for BBH, a large agency. Each of them came to meditation through a personal crisis.

Puddicombe endured a year in which two of his friends were killed by a drunken driver, his stepsister was killed cycling and his ex-girlfriend died during heart surgery. His response, after some initial boozing, was to leave his native England for 10 years, study Buddhism and be ordained as a monk.

Pierson's catalyst was perhaps less dramatic, but it affected him deeply. “I had a bit of a breakdown,” Pierson said. “I couldn't go out on public transport; I couldn't speak in front of people. And my job up until then had been in a very public role.” A friend introduced him to Puddicombe, who was teaching meditation at a clinic while also running intensive one-day meditation events for a few hundred people at a time.

“We did a skills swap,” Pierson said. “He would teach me meditation, and I would help him get more people to his events.”

Even with Pierson's help, there were still plenty of people who wanted to attend Puddicombe's events but couldn't. They asked if they could buy the handouts that attendees received, so Pierson and Puddicombe started selling that content on their website. In 2011, after an event in New York, they met someone who asked if they had considered selling the content as a subscription.

“We were like, no, we definitely hadn't thought of that,” said Pierson, still sounding a bit amused by the oversight. “The events business is a terrible business model, so we went with the subscription idea.”

The following year, they developed some exclusive content for The Guardian. “That was the turning point,” Pierson said. Subscriptions jumped. Pierson and Puddicombe also built an app, but, Pierson said, “we didn't have any money. We had different developers working on it all over the world. It was kind of built on quicksand.”

By 2013, the founders realized they were building a content company, and moved to Los Angeles. They relaunched the app in July 2014. Meditations are bundled into packs designed to help with relationships, health and other topics.

In September 2015, the company raised $34 million, a round led by the Chernin group that included actors Jessica Alba and Jared Leto. Among other things, the money will help Headspace expand internationally and increase the number of animations on its app. Headspace also will be paying more attention to the corporate market this year.

Its clients include Uber, LinkedIn and Google, Pierson said. These companies get discounts for their employees, and HR managers can tell, in aggregate, how much time employees spend with the app. The 165-person company also offers its content as part of the in-flight entertainment network on seven airlines.

Headspace runs about 40 studies on the uses and effects of its app. Some address chronic pain, fatigue and sleep patterns. Another is examining compassion fatigue in nurses.

“To me, it's really interesting if Headspace can work with medical professionals,” Pierson said.

That would no doubt lend the app some credibility among doubters. While Headspace's user reviews are full of nifty quotes like, “This changed my life,” Headspace can't promise that subscribers will see any particular gains as a result of the practice.

“We are taught that if we do X, we will get Y,” Pierson said. “Meditation is the complete opposite of that. If someone is just starting out, my biggest advice is to expect nothing.”

If Pierson thinks it's odd that he and Puddicombe are attempting to build a billion-dollar business based on the practices of a religion that argues strenuously against all forms of materialism, well, he's not letting on. He points out that he and Puddicombe still own a large share of the company, having boot-strapped it for five years. (The company declined to give financial figures.)

In the end, Pierson said, “We're mission-first. We want to make sure we can build the project we envision building. If you've got a big enough vision, you need help and financing to get there.”

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