When Sarah and I sat down for coffee for the first time back at Stanford, we quickly realized that we shared a vision for changing the way people thought about mental wellness. We both had the good fortune of finding and practicing meditation in our own lives, and experiencing first-hand how powerful this tool can be.
But we also recognized that the way people saw meditation was out of touch with the lives of most people, particularly those with busy, demanding lives. Not only that, actually learning meditation and making a habit was extremely difficult.
Luckily, Sarah had been researching stress with teenagers as part of her Masters program, and had even implemented mindfulness meditation programs across multiple schools. These experiences helped crystalize the two key challenges facing people who were trying to learn and practice meditation.
First, it's difficult for most people to remain focused and engaged during meditation, leading to a sense of frustration and failure. Second, it is really difficult for people to tell whether what they're doing is having any positive impact on their mental or physical well-being. Unlike doing a physical workout where your sweat and endorphins give you a clear signal that your work is having a real effect, the effects of meditation may not be perceived for weeks, leading to an even greater sense of failure.
When we took a look at what was out there in the market to help people meditate - in-person classes, countless mobile apps, and a handful of devices - we saw an opportunity to create a solution that could address both of these problems head on.
Our explorations were guided by two key principles: first, the product needed to explicitly solve the two key pain points of meditation we had identified. Second, the product must meet an incredibly high bar for simplicity and cleanliness, since it's to be used in a serene experience that dates back thousands of years. Together, these principles quickly ruled out building just another mobile app.
Right from the beginning we studied the long history of physical object based meditation and learned how objects have been used for thousands of years in various traditions as a tangible focal point for your attention. This was exactly what we were looking for, so we started prototyping different physical forms.
We got busy building countless different shapes, clay models and 3D prints to begin to identify what people found intuitive and comfortable while meditating. At the same time, I also took the lead on building our functional prototypes, designing the electronics and software, and identifying the right type of sensing to provide the motivating feedback people were looking for.
While our early prototypes were invaluable for testing our ideas and getting the overall direction right, we then found ourselves starting to face the brutal challenges of starting a hardware business: turning our prototypes into a finished product that could be manufactured at scale, and raising money. Not only that, we weren't just creating a new product, but an entirely new product category. This meant that we needed the time and resources to iterate, listen to our users, and really get it right. In other words, we needed patience... which is pretty damn hard to come by with investors.
With a huge stroke of luck, we were able to win over the support of a hardware-focused venture capital firm whose founders had first-hand experience in hardware and what it takes to get to your first production run. Beyond just financial capital, they provided access to a full hardware engineering team, and even office space where we worked alongside other early hardware companies including Tonal and Desktop Metal. Their support enabled us to run two customer-centric beta programs over a period of two years, a period in which we shipped our first few hundred units and learned an immense amount across the design of our hardware and software.
As the product co-founder I wore many hats throughout this time period. Beyond just specs and UX design, I spent much of my time in Figma doing pixel-perfect UI design for the app. For the first beta run, I also wrote the iOS code for the app and much of the firmware running on the device. I even designed and wrote the code for all of our proprietary biometric algorithms powering the unique stats that people see right after their meditation, and maintained them through launch and beyond.
Using our promising engagement and retention metrics from these beta programs, we then raised another vital fundraising round led by Shripriya Mahesh at Spero. This funded a full build out of a meditation studio in downtown San Francisco that would serve as a physical realization of our brand and allow people to come experience the magic of our product first hand. These much needed resources also meant that I could finally hire a designer, a PM for developing our meditation content, and a few more engineers to help us accelerate to our full public launch.
With this new team I immediately organized a week long Google Ventures style design sprint to tackle one of the last remaining design questions before launch: “what would be our subscription offering at launch?” Towards the end of the sprint we uncovered two key insights that led us to an exciting vision we could all get behind, centered around freshly released content recorded in our physical meditation studio. Not only did this sprint successfully define what we needed to build to enable a critical part of our business model, it was also served as a powerful tool for bringing a fresh new team together, which would become critical for the final grueling months leading up to our launch.
The final six months leading up to our launch was the most exciting and fulfilling work I've ever done, and a time that I look back on with great pride. My co-founder and I spent what sometimes felt like an excessive amount on internal culture, values, hiring and process. But when time got really tight and pressure started to test us and our team, these intangible investments paid dividends.
I vividly remember a day where I walked back into the office after a coffee chat, and saw multiple pods of people on whiteboards, pair programming, or grinding at the hardware station and pulling my co-founder aside just to embrace the moment. For a young entrepreneur whose early success was defined by the speed and quality of the work that I individually could produce, it was a big moment for me to really see and appreciate the results of building something bigger than just myself.
In January of 2020, a target we had set more than a year prior, we were open for sale. For $219, you could purchase a handheld meditation trainer that provided gentle vibrations to keep you focused, and tracked your heart rate and HRV using medical grade ECG sensors. The bundle also included an annual subscription to Core Studio - a stream of freshly released content by our in-house crew of meditation instructors, recorded from our meditation studio in SF, and updated in the app on a daily basis.
Beyond the basics of connecting to your device and collecting data, the mobile app was packed with a few key features that kept users coming back. We had a great starter library of guided meditations, soundscapes and breath training exercises that you could use even without a subscription. It also provided a gorgeous post-meditation experience where your biometrics were presented in an intuitive, glanceable visual of how Calm and Focused you were throughout your session.
This process of taking a product from idea to launch taught me a huge amount about the challenges and joys of product leadership. While I absolutely love keeping my hands dirty in the engineering and pixels, and got a hell of a lot better at it in those few years, the soft stuff was of course the most impactful. I learned how to assemble and motivate a team, how to prioritize and make tough decisions without pissing people off, how to ship on time, and the incredible fulfillment that comes from launching a new product to the world.