Keeping the world ‘Calm’
From joys of meditation to a mission to keep the world ‘Calm’.
For a number of years, Michael Acton-Smith was the poster boy for the nascent London technology scene. However, he was in danger of burning out when he met Alex Tew, who sold him on the joys of meditation. It led to a mission to keep the world ‘Calm’.
Michael Acton-Smith began his entrepreneurial life young. At just 24, he co-founded online gadget and gift retailer Firebox.com. Just six years later, the business appeared in The Sunday Times ‘Fast Track 100’ list of the fastest-growing, privately-owned businesses in the UK.
However, it was as CEO of Mind Candy, launched in 2004, that Michael really made his name. With $10m of backing, it launched one of the first alternate reality games, Perplex City. But success wasn’t instant. Although popular and despite winning a plethora of awards, he couldn’t make the numbers work and three years later the game was put on hold.
The next venture, however -named Moshi Monsters - became an overnight hit, ultimately building an audience of 90 million users around the world. It also built a vast complementary franchise that included toys, video games and even a movie.
By 2012, he was ready for something new when he enjoyed a chance meeting on a boat with Alex Tew, who had been practicing meditation since his teens. Michael was initially sceptical: “I was a typical entrepreneur. I was always ‘on’, not sleeping well. Even though I clearly needed to relax, I thought the idea of meditation quite ‘out there’.” Indeed, it was only after a holiday in the Swiss Alps, booked to get away from the stress of his business, that Michael had his ‘lightbulb’ moment. He finally tried meditation and saw the world in greater clarity.
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.”
By 2015, Calm had achieved two million downloads worldwide and was building real traction. Michael released a book with Penguin called ‘Calm: Calm the Mind, Change the World’, which was ultimately published in 12 countries. Nevertheless, it was only in 2017 when meditation finally went mainstream.
This was due in part to a burgeoning global crisis in mental health. 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. The app promised to help people ‘sleep more, stress less, live better’ through mediation, sleep and music content. Ultimately, Alex and Michael had hit upon a solution to a major crisis.
The app has now seen 100m downloads and is being downloaded at a rate of one per second. The pair got to 8m downloads without any organised marketing as users simply told their friends. Michael says: “When people used it, they found it increased their resilience and helped them become more calm, and so they became our best advocates.” The group also benefitted from a supportive media – journalists enthusiastically recognised that it was a ‘hot topic’ and started writing about it.
Initially, the business was focused on both the US and UK. At the same time, San Francisco had more capital willing to back early-stage technology businesses so Michael swapped Silicon Roundabout for Silicon Valley. They found selling their vision to potential backers and recruits was tough in the early years. Michael explains: “We were competing with lots of extraordinary companies, many of which were also changing the world in different ways. Convincing investors back then was tough and it took many years to raise a series A. However, after that the floodgates really opened. Health and wellbeing is now a multi-million dollar industry.”
The group 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.
Calm is now available in German, Portuguese, Korean, Spanish and French and Michael says that they have big plans: bringing Calm to the workplace, for example, helping with sleep: “How can we make people more productive and happy? How can we make sure they have the sleep they need to improve resilience?”
He keeps busy. Michael is also the founder of Ping Pong Fight Club, Silicon Drinkabout and the Berwickstock Festival. He was also made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014. But if life gets too stressful, he always has meditation.
More success stories
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.