Early success is a lousy teacher
Success fell into Alex Tew’s lap at the tender age of 21
Success fell into Alex Tew’s lap at the tender age of 21. Part-way through a business management degree at Nottingham University and unenthused by the usual bar jobs that sustained his fellow students, he created the Million Dollar Homepage. It sold internet advertising space at $1 a pixel, went viral and he made $1m in just four months.
It was enough for him to decide he didn’t need university. However, he quickly realised the wisdom in the old entrepreneur’s adage that ‘early success is a lousy teacher’. His next few ventures – ad space spinoff Pixeletto, content sharing PopJam and One Million People – failed to hit home. It wasn’t until he rediscovered an early interest in meditation that he hit on his big idea.
Alex was an early adopter of meditation, having practiced since he was 14. His interest in psychology and human development had taken a back seat while building his various businesses but he eventually decided to look at ways to combine the two. He had long thought that relaxation and mindfulness techniques should be available online but the process was galvanised by the mobile revolution.
Calm started in 2012, first as a website and then as an app. Alex had met his co-founder Michael Acton Smith - then a busy entrepreneur, founder of the gaming company behind Moshi Monsters - on a boat. It was before the explosion in mental health problems but Alex and Michael still had a sense that the world needed to ‘sleep more, stress less, live better’.
Since then, mental health problems have emerged as a global epidemic. The American Psychiatric Association reports that 17m American adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2017, with 40m – nearly 20% of the population – suffering from an anxiety disorder. In the UK, one in six 18-to-64-year-olds was prescribed antidepressants at some point in 2018. And that is just those that were recorded.
Perhaps the most arresting statistics are for young people. Suicide rates are rising and mental health problems now affect around one in 10 young people. At the same time, there remain limited resources to address the problem. What started as a ‘Nike for the mind’, designed to help users deal with their mental load through mediation, sleep and music content, has become an answer to a modern scourge.
In building the first iterations of the app, the pair worked with mindfulness instructor, Tamara Levitt, who remains ‘head of mindfulness’ at Calm. Alex said she was a key part of the story: “A brilliant writer with an incredible voice.”
It took a while to get momentum and the pair suffered the nail-biting moments familiar to most entrepreneurs, notably around funding. It was 2017 before meditation became mainstream. Alex said: “It moved from weird and out-there to being considered a really valuable tool to manage stressed-out lives. We are at peak screen, peak social media. Meditation is suddenly cool. We were in the right place at the right time.”
The app has now seen 100m downloads and is being downloaded at a rate of one per second. It has gone truly global. Alex has moved to California, where there was greater availability of financial backing, and they have recently spread their reach beyond English-speaking markets. Initially, the app was just in English but they have now built a small international team. It is now available in German, Portuguese, Korean, Spanish and French.At the same time, they have introduced new meditation options, catering for various levels of skill and various levels of commitment. Among the most successful has been the introduction of the ‘Daily Calm’ - a 10-minute daily meditation, which generated significant engagement and helped make it a habit for many users.
They have also added sleep options: “We started to recognise that people who were struggling to sleep would often use the meditation programmes to help them fall asleep. With this in mind, we created new bedtime stories, read by Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley. 180m people listened to it and it proved a crucial shift for the business.”
The group has raised £218m across three funding rounds. It recently raised a further £75m in a series C funding round, putting its valuation at $2bn. Existing backers Lightspeed Venture Partners, TPG and Insight Partners all committed more capital. This has helped it launch new initiatives such as an offering for businesses. Companies have increasingly focused on mental health as the pandemic has hit.
Today, no-one doubts that mental fitness is every bit as important as physical fitness. “The mind is the centre of everything” says Alex.
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