What inspired your initial interest in meditation?
I was at university studying Sports Science at the time and yeah, it’s a difficult thing to put into words, but one day I just found myself thinking “I really want to become a Buddhist monk.” I had been introduced to meditation earlier in life as my mum was interested in it and I done a fair bit on and off throughout my teens. In retrospect it sounds crazy, but at the time it felt like the most natural thing in the world and a very easy decision to make.
How would you describe the experience of being a monk? And why did you decide to give it up to start Headspace? Was there ‘a moment’?
It was an incredible experience and one that has dramatically shaped my life. If anything, once inside the monastery, the madness of the mind is magnified, as there are none of the usual distractions we have in everyday life.
There wasn’t a particular ‘moment’ that made me decide to come back. I was keen to find a way to demystify meditation and make it available to a wider audience. It’s been incredible to see how the perception of meditation has shifted in the ten years since then, and to see how many more people are benefiting from this simple skill.
For anyone who doesn’t know, how does Headspace work?
Headspace is a digital health platform providing guided meditation sessions and mindfulness training. Our aim is to create tools that excite, engage and motivate users to learn a skill for life. The beginning of the journey starts with Take10, a set of 10-minute guided meditations to introduce you to the idea of mindfulness, this then continues to longer meditations focusing on different aspects of life. You can use it on your desktop or through the mobile app.
Where did the idea of mixing meditation with business come from?
In 2004, I returned to the UK and started working as a meditation consultant. It was during this time that I met my business partner, Rich Pierson. He came to see me to find some calm in the bustle of the advertising world. We both thought, how could we present meditation in a way that our friends would genuinely give it a try? Rich had all these creative skills, and I had the experience as a monk. I think that was the light bulb moment with Headspace, the coming together of those two backgrounds.
Did Headspace start out as an app?
We started out holding monthly paid-for events at Bafta in central London but we were soon inundated with requests from attendees to be able to share the techniques learnt at events with friends and family. We realised that, by making these techniques available online, many more people would experience the scientifically proven benefits of meditation.
Did you know Headspace would become a money making business at this point or was it just more of an aim?
At first, no. I know I needed it to generate enough money to pay the bills, but beyond that, there was not too much emphasis on that side of things. We have always viewed Headspace as a social enterprise project, rather than a business, and the emphasis remains the same today. But of course, any project needs to be self-sustainable and we make decisions with this in mind.
Did you carry out any market research before you began Headspace?
We certainly wanted to test the idea to make sure it was of interest to the public. The general increase in people looking for some kind of stress or anxiety relief, a way to be more productive or a way to support more compassionate relationships was enough to demonstrate the demand for the benefits of meditation. The key was then working out how we could fit it into people’s busy daily lives. We spoke to friends, family and just about anyone that would chat to us about how they wanted to practice meditation and how they felt they could fit in into their busy days.
What can someone who has never meditated expect from a Headspace subscription?
Meditation impacts all areas of life. It is scientifically proven to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, improve your sleep, enhance productivity at work, improve your physical performance and even help to soften the edges in relationships as we become more patient, better listeners, and perhaps a little kinder, too. The range of benefits is vast, varies from person to person, and of course it’s important to be realistic about timeframes. But I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t like even a little more calm and clarity in their life.
When looking at busy workers and entrepreneurs, what subscription model do you think best suits them and why?
We offer a broad range of subscription options for our platform, including monthly, yearly, two-year, and lifetime options. It’s really about what commitment you’d like to make.
We integrated the subscription platform Zuora into our software to also allow us provide multiple subscriptions to businesses and organsiations, so a busy worker may well look to get an employer to provide Headspace as part of their health and wellbeing offering. Most of our users choose the yearly option and the feedback we get suggests this about making a sincere commitment to oneself.
There seems to be growing interest for mixing business with more spiritual and wellbeing products and services. Why do you think this is?
The current pace of life and increasing demands on our lifestyle, including more digital chatter has left people experiencing a new and potentially harmful degree of pressure.
We’re seeing a lot of interest in our Headspace for Teams proposition, with large businesses and corporations becoming aware of the damage that work related conditions, like stress, can cause. Scientific research in mindfulness has also exploded recently, with the number of academic publications published on the topic increasing by nearly 300 per cent over the past five years. This scientific research is a vital ingredient in the Headspace project. To feel the benefits is one thing, but to be able to prove them has enabled us to get even the most skeptical individuals excited and enthused about giving it a go.
Has your goal or business model for Headspace changed since you started?
Our ethos has stayed the same; we still want to improve the health and happiness of the world by demystifying meditation, promoting mindfulness and by providing simple, effective, creative tools for people to look after the health of their mind. We started with live events but quickly realised that you can reach a much larger audience with a digital solution. This was good for both our ethos as well as the wants and needs of our users. They were looking for a way to fit meditation into their daily lives, and our online subscription and app allowed for just that.
Why was a subscription business model best suited for Headspace and what benefits do you see from using it?
Our users benefit most from the subscription business model. For us, it provides flexibility to provide even more content as we grow. We can see what people really want and need, and then develop the content to suit.
Obviously having more subscribers makes our business more sustainable and allows us to invest more in developing the platform. There has been huge investment in Version 2 of Headspace that launches on June 26th.
How can the workplace use an app like headspace to the benefit of its employees?
Our digital content delivery makes Headspace a useful tool for studying the effects of meditation and it is now widely used in such trials. In one such study, researchers from UCL, funded by the British Heart Foundation, examined the impact of mindfulness on workplace stress in two major multi-national corporations, using the Headspace app as the intervention. The study found a significant increase in wellbeing, reductions in anxiety and depressive symptoms, significant reductions in diastolic blood pressures, significant increases in perceived job control, as well as a significant reduction in sleeping problems.
Some people see any businesses that profit around spiritual or social purposes as ‘wrong’. Headspace is clearly doing very well and has (one would assume) made you very successful financially. Do you have to defend yourself?
Yeah, this assumption always makes me smile. Alas, the valuation of a company is nothing but a figure on a piece of paper and in no way reflects the cash balance of a company and certainly not my own personal wealth at such an early stage in the growth of the project.
To imagine that a project of this size could function without charging money is rather naïve. We have offices on both sides of the Atlantic, with landlords who like their rent on time. We have a team of between 30 and 40 people, some of the most talented and experienced people in their fields, who need to be paid. Likewise, it costs a considerable sum of money to build a tech platform of this size and so our suppliers need to be paid too.
The important thing is that it remains inclusive rather then exclusive and that our motivation remains focused on social impact. The Get Some Give Some element of the project, where for every subscription bought we give one away to people in need, ensures we can always deliver on that promise.
So there you have it! Meditation is clearly reducing workplace stress and the handy new app format brings an acient tradition right up to the modern day. Have you ever tried meditation? Do you think it could be something you would offer to your staff? Leave your comments!