How Calm co-founder Michael Acton Smith built an $80 million-a-year business on the back of a stressed-out society
24 Minute Read
- Acton Smith learned the hard way about how quickly entertainment business can rise and fall. Subscriptions are more stable.
- The health and wellness industry is positioned for explosive growth as companies focus more attention on their employees’ mental health.
- The best entrepreneurs “spot these inflection points in society where public opinion shifts.”
01 A Hot Mess of a Start
What was your first business?
I started my first business when I left college in the late 1990s. It was called Hot Box. We saw this thing called the internet bubbling up, and we thought there was gonna be an opportunity to revolutionize commerce, and so we started selling quirky gadgets, toys, and games online.
And this is before Shopify, this is before Stripe, we had to kind of hack everything together ourselves. And we called it Hot Box because the products were so hot they were bursting out of the box.
We had Hotbox.co.uk and were based in England. Hotbox.com was one of the world’s largest porn sites. Which is a bit awkward so we changed the name to FireBox because my mom would tell all her friends to go check it out, which led to some awkward conversations.
Did that business work out?
It’s still going. The business is 20 years old. Which is a bit crazy. We set it up in 1998. It’s tough to build an e-commerce business selling other people’s products in the age of Amazon.
How many people work there now?
About 40 people. It’s a good business. And my buddy Tom Boardman, who I set it up with, is still there helping run it with another friend of ours, Kris Bromley. And, yeah, I just love quirky gadgets and toys and stuff, so it’s a business very close to my heart.
Was that able to pay you a dividend in order to start your next business?
No, we’ve never taken any dividends out from it, but one of my investors in that business (Tom Teichman) said to me, “Michael, if you ever do anything again, I’d love to back you.” And so he was my first backer in Mind Candy, the next company.
That was this crazy idea to create a global treasure hunt. We buried treasure somewhere in the world, announced a $200,000 prize, and it was an alternate reality game.
We created this story, we created these characters, we created this map, we had dozens of websites, we hid clues in newspapers around the world, we created messages that fax machines would receive, and mobile phones. It was a very complex, multi-platform game. Incredibly creative, but commercially it just didn’t work.”Kids love new technology. They’re often very early adopters, and there were signals that something exciting was happening.”
I remember that. It got very popular but then kind of…crashed?
Yeah, well it basically didn’t even do that. It had a passionate audience, but it was just a bit too small. So we had to pivot, and we were running out of cash. We’d raised quite a lot of money, we had less than $1m left, and the clock was ticking, so we did this big pivot.
I’d just seen the growth of kids’ websites and how well they were doing. Kids love new technology. They’re often very early adopters, and there were signals that something exciting was happening.
I used to have a Tamagotchi, and I thought, “What if we could take the essence, the play pattern around nurturing a little pet and build that for the web age?”
So that’s what Moshi Monsters was. Kids would adopt their own cute little monster, they would play puzzles, and the better they did on the puzzles, the more in-game currency they’d earn to customize their monster and their room. And it grew to about 80 million users. And we did books, and toys, and magazines. We made a movie and a music album. And it was massive. We thought we were gonna build the next Disney.
And then almost overnight, it just imploded.
How much revenue was it making before it imploded?
I think at peak we were about $70m.
So yeah, it was a pretty healthy business. And very profitable. But what I learned, the very important and humbling lesson I learned, was just how fast moving the kids’ entertainment world is. You can literally be super hot one minute and not the next. Kids’ fashions, kids’ toys, kids’ IP, goes in and out of vogue very, very quickly. You know the whole entertainment world is a bit like that.
It’s a hits business.
It’s a hits-driven business — movies and games — and so that was challenging. We had to let a lot of people go; we had to restructure the business, revenues dropped dramatically. That was a period where I was super stressed and wasn’t sleeping well. And I had constant headaches. It was during that period that the light bulb went on around Calm and meditation.
02 A Calm Transition
What year was this?
Alex and I co-founded Calm around 2012, but I was still running Mind Candy. I was a silent partner, and he moved to San Francisco to kick off Calm. And then I slowly transitioned from Mind Candy. We brought a new CEO on board. And when that business was in a state where I felt I could step away, then I came to San Francisco and then we started running Calm together.
Would you say that previous business was a hit? Were you able to kind of relax because you were personally financially stable? Because a lot of founders, it takes a long time for them to be like, “Alright, now I’m not just earning my salary. I’m safe.”
We had the opportunity to sell it and we had a lot of interested parties. But like a lot of entrepreneurs, I was super ambitious. I wanted to build this multi-billion-dollar business. So we kept going with it, and yeah, as I say, that was a really valuable lesson that just because the graphs are going up and to the right, it doesn’t mean they’ll continue doing that forever.”This isn’t entertainment. This is a fundamental human need to reduce stress, and be more calm, and understand our own minds.
This is why I love Calm so much, because this isn’t a hit-driven business. This isn’t entertainment. This is a fundamental human need to reduce stress, and be more calm, and understand our own minds. And the world is not getting any less stressful. I think people will always need to sleep. I think this is a huge, huge area to lean into. And I think those are always the most exciting businesses.
Jeff Bezos talks about this at Amazon, the principles they built that business on. Will consumers always want low prices? Yes. Will they want fast delivery? Yes. Will they want wide choice? Yes.
Let’s go. Then you can build a huge brand over many, many decades.
What was the first year like at Calm?
Tough. And raising money was very, very difficult, because I think people didn’t really understand what this was.
You couldn’t self-finance it?
I put the money in when Alex and I were setting it up.
How much was that?
We never really talked about the exact amount, but the biggest part of it was buying the domain name, Calm.com.
Are we talking seven figures?
No. Well, the guy that we bought it from wanted a seven-figure sum. And we were like, “No, that’s too steep.” We’re ambitious, we think this is gonna be amazing, but that’s too much. But it was a low six-figure sum — which we think was a stretch, but it was worth doing it. People started to take us a bit more seriously when we had Calm.com, and it’s such a beautiful, simple, universal word. We always wanted to be way more than just meditation. We had this vision to build the Nike for the mind. Could we create all sorts of products and services that are kind of around the core digital?
And so the first year of the business was you financing hundreds of thousands of dollars and then Alex working alone?
Alex was over here [in San Francisco]. I was back in London. So we would be chatting, and communicating, and riffing, and strategizing, but he was kind of the first person on the ground building the business, and we were chatting to investors to try to get things going properly. But it was really, really tough. Health and wellness wasn’t as big as it is now. People didn’t really understand what meditation and mindfulness was. It comes with so much baggage. From people thinking it’s religious, or woo woo, or a bit weird. We heard again and again from investors, “Will people really pay for this? Isn’t it just a niche or a fad? And if it’s not, how on earth do you build a moat around it, because you can get free meditations on YouTube, or elsewhere?”
So yeah, a lot of very, very tough questions. We’re very grateful to Jason Calacanis, who came in and wrote one of the first checks, and Michael Birch, who has been a long time friend and partner. He wrote an early check. Andy McLoughlin, one of our friends from the UK, and several others.
So yeah, little by little, we managed to get a bit of cash together, and get the business going. But it took years and years before we hit a tipping point. I’d say the big inflection was a couple of years ago.
Who was part of the early team? Was it all developers?
Two years ago there were only nine of us. And we were in a one-bedroom apartment in Mint Plaza.
Where was your revenue at a couple of years ago?
Our revenue was about $7m in 2016. 2017 was $22m. And last year we almost quadrupled to $80m. And we’re very proud of the fact that we’ve done it profitably. Which I think is pretty rare.
Your fourth year of business, you did almost $1m a head.
More than that.
And we maintain that — and in fact, we’ve become even more efficient. So we did $80m last year, and ended the year with about 40 people, so, pretty rare. And I think it just shows that the reason we love this business so much, and think it’s so exciting, is for two reasons. One, the economics are extraordinary. Digital subscription businesses are amazing. The cost of content is low, so the margins are super high. The total addressable market is enormous. It’s seven billion people — anyone with a mind. So all those factors are crucial. And secondly, it’s genuinely good for the world. It’s such a positive business. The feedback that we get from people, the reviews on the app store. We’ve had about 700,000 five-star reviews.
03 The Nike of your noodle
I remember going to Calm.com years ago, when it was just, the homepage was just a woman reading. It was very bad.
Way, way back at the start. You weren’t the only person that thought that.
And then I became a paying member two years ago. I like the stories. I do the Bob Ross paintings.
Oh, very cool. Yeah, those sleep stories have been enormous. Up to 140 million have been listened to.
It’s massive. And meditation is great, and that’s always gonna be our foundation, but it is hard to build a huge business just around meditation. So, that’s why we’re now broadening. I think this is one of the reasons we moved past Headspace. Because we see Calm as the place to help with all aspects of your mental fitness.
Yeah, exactly. Like Nike. And 50 years ago, physical fitness wasn’t really a thing. Going running was weird.
This is so exciting for an entrepreneur, and this ties into trends. What I think the best entrepreneurs do is they spot these inflection points in society where public opinion shifts. And when it shifts, it often doesn’t happen gradually. It happens really quickly. And if you’re surfing that wave when that shift is happening —
That market pulls it out of you.
Oh my goodness, it’s extraordinary. Most of entrepreneurship is like pushing a rock up a hill. It’s really bloody tough. But when you pick those right waves, there’s nothing like it in the world. You just get blown along so quickly. And we felt that’s what we’ve had.
What year did your wave start?
Again it was a real slow, hard slog for years and years — people not understanding what we were doing; people, as I say, rolling their eyes.
Did you understand what you were doing?
We knew there was something big around building a brand around this concept of calm. And Alex had been meditating a lot earlier than I had. He’d been doing this since he was a kid, so for me the real light bulb moment was not right at the start of Calm, but a year or two in, where I was like, “Wow. This is an ancient practice that has been around for thousands of years, it’s not weird and woo woo, it’s neuroscience.” It’s about rewiring the human brain. And this is relevant for every single person on earth — to make us more balanced, give us more perspective, help our relationships, on and on and on. So yeah, that was the huge turning point for me.
Were you making money early on?
In 2014, we made about $340k. By 2015, three years in, we made $2.3m.
That’s good growth, but still small numbers.
But we were excited because we felt there was something enormous here. And that’s that exciting period — which Jeff had at Amazon, and Travis Kalanick had at Uber — where you know something that the general population doesn’t.
Peter Thiel talks about what do you know that most people don’t? And we knew, we felt that so strongly, that this was going to be an enormous market. We just had to persevere. But the challenge was we couldn’t raise more rounds of financing. We thought it would be easy, and we had a ton of meetings up and down the Valley and didn’t get anywhere, and got very close to running out of money.
How? Weren’t you profitable?
We forced ourselves to make a profit. So we couldn’t do any marketing, even though we wanted to. So we just kinda had to pay salaries and office.
At $340k in revenue, you couldn’t do any marketing?
No. Definitely not at that point. I think once we got $2.3m, it was starting to get a little bit easier. Then we were like, “All right, we can’t raise money. Let’s just put our heads down. Let’s make sure the business is at least break-even. And then wait until the market catches up with what we’re doing.” Which happened about two years ago. That was an unbelievable turning point. And we just saw it everywhere: In the investor inbound, in people that wanted to work here, in the press, in the wellness-at-work trend. And that was very exciting.
An investor friend once told me, “The guys at Calm don’t need to raise money because they’re minting cash.” But the reality of it is, that sounds like that didn’t actually happen until ’17 and ’18.
The cash really didn’t start turning on until about ’17. But the business is still profitable. We’ve barely touched the money that we’ve raised. Which seems a bit crazy. Bringing in great new investors is valuable but one of the primary reasons we did our series A round last year was to raise awareness of the business. And that was because it was still quite challenging to hire people, and we just wanted to make a big noise in the market. And suddenly people were like, “Wow. This business is worth $250m, there’s something going on here.” And we were so far in the public’s mind behind Headspace — so many people thought they had just won and wrapped up the market.
Calm had 40 people in 2018. Headspace in 2018 probably had 200 to 300 people?
Yeah, about 250. Something like that. So way, way more.”Calm feels like one of those brands that could be up there with the McDonalds’s and the Coca-Colas, and so that is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity.
And you had raised significantly less money.
And you owned most of the company?
Alex and I owned it. We have some angel investors, obviously, but yeah. And even this A and this B round we’ve done, because the business has been profitable, we haven’t had to dilute too much. They have been pretty good rounds for us. We still have a huge stake in the business.
Do you and Alex own the majority?
We haven’t talked about the exact ownership, but we do own a big piece of the business.
04 The new badge of honor
You guys were kicking ass in ’16 and ’17. As a business owner, you could be like, “Well, how about I not just raise money. I’ll just pay myself $5m-a-year.”
Yep. And pay out dividends. Yeah. Two points to address this. So one is we could have just built this as a lifestyle business, and paid ourselves huge dividends every year. But I think Alex and I are both incredibly ambitious, and we think there is a multi-billion-dollar business to be built here. And it sounds a bit crazy.
This could be Nike — $100b+. And we think there are new businesses being created in the 21st century that are gonna be very different to the last century, and Calm feels like one of those brands that could be up there with the McDonalds’s and the Coca-Colas, and so that is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. So that’s why we wanted to kind of put our foot down, and not take money out, and keep building.
Secondly, I think the reason why Calm has a different kind of profile to Headspace, is Alex and I have run many businesses before. And I think we have startup DNA. And the whole idea of being incredibly efficient with capital. Very, very nimble, very test-driven culture. And I made some mistakes in the previous businesses where I hired too many people, got too bloated. And it’s almost like a badge of honor a lot of entrepreneurs talk about, how many people in your business. And to me, now, it’s a badge of honor how few people we’ve got. Because when you hire a small number of people, who are all like 10x level — oh my God, it’s insane what you can do. And yeah, I love that.
Well the metric I track is revenue-per-employee.
Yeah, it’s a great metric. And when you hire those kind of people, when you don’t kind of bloat, everyone wears multiple hats, everyone is pushing really hard. It just creates an amazing culture.
Do you know who Felix Dennis is?
Yes. Dennis Publishing.
He’s got this book that’s horribly titled, but he’s a good guy. It’s called, “How to Get Rich.”
Yes. I have read that.
He talks about not giving away equity. He also said only hire someone when the company is about to go through a mutiny and they’re gonna all leave. Hiring fast is the best way to get bloated.
It’s so easy. And yeah, we’re very conscious of that here. And I think that’s really, really important.
05 The big business of subscriptions
What other industries have you seen that have such amazing unit economics as this?
Good question. I think the things that I look for are subscription businesses.
A lot of software subscriptions don’t have such amazing economics. You just need customer service and big engineering teams.
Yeah, that’s true. Some of them do, but not all of them. I think … Netflix is a subscription business, but they have to pay $12b a year on content. Spotify is a great subscription business, but something like 70%+ of their margin goes to the labels. So it’s kind of rare to have this mix of very fast-growing subscription with very low cost base.
Have you seen anything as interesting?
I’m trying to think.
There’s a few Ahrefs — Linode and a few others that have similar revenue-per-head metrics.
These types of businesses are fascinating. What I think normally happens is the entrepreneur running them, and the investors who’ve invested, usually like to keep things pretty quiet. You don’t want to tip off the rest of the market to what’s going on. Until they get to a big enough scale where the network effects have kicked in, and they’ve kind of won the market, and then they come out. We were like that with Calm. We didn’t really shout about what we were up to. No one really was interested in covering us for years, so I think that’s a combination of both things. Now we’re ready to talk.
Do you know Aaptiv?
Yes. Aaptiv is good, although they do have to pay for music.
I would think they wouldn’t need that music to make it awesome. But, they could. And then this woman Kayla Itsines?
She’s doing super well. Yep. That is a great, great business. So we track very closely all the other apps in the health and fitness category. There are some good ones out there.
06 The power of word-of-mouth
Were you guys doing a lot of paid marketing in ’16, ’17, and ’18?
No. We got to about 8m downloads without spending anything on marketing.
How were people hearing about you?
Just word of mouth — the earlier doctors getting into meditation and mindfulness, before it kind of tipped in society. So people, when they discover mediation, they become very evangelical about it. And that was fueling our growth. And then we started testing into Facebook, and paid marketing, and it took a little while, but we got that working very efficiently.
Of your 9 people, you only had 1 person on paid marketing?
I think our 8th or 9th hire was a product manager, Dun. She was a PM and she started testing on a bit of paid marketing, and that started working, and then we grew the team. But it’s still very small. And she’s been amazing. She’s an example of just someone who’s been game-changing, and the types of folks you only really meet in Silicon Valley. So she was our product manager, then she just took on growth, just because no one else was doing it. Then she became chief product and growth officer, and we love her.
The first 5k users. Where did they come from?
Alex did something really smart, which was a signal that led us to believe there was a big opportunity here. He created a website that was basically just some waves lapping on the beach, and it was called donothingfortwominutes.com. And you literally had to just stare at these waves for two minutes and not move your mouse or tap on the keyboard, and not many people could do it. It was surprisingly challenging, but if you got to the end of it, it would ask for your email address. And we collected about 100k email addresses —
Over what period of time?
It was pretty quickly. It went super viral. People started sharing it and writing about it, so it was … 100,000 email addresses in 2 weeks.
He’s good at that stuff.
He’s very, very good. He’s an absolute genius when it comes to understanding how to make something go viral online. Which is so valuable in the early days of a business.
Is he technical?
He is more technical than I am. He can code, but he doesn’t now.
0 Skills every startup needs
And what do you do?
Good question. So, we kind of … We run things together, but he’s a little more on the technical, ops, and product side, and I’m a little more on the marketing, and the brand, and content side. But we kinda have huge crossover.
Are you technical at all?
A little bit, but not a huge amount. Are you technical?
No. I can’t even log in to stuff. I can use Zapier a little bit, but that’s about it. But copywriting is my background.
Were you at an ad agency before? Was there one key book or one key article that helped you learn?
Three. There’s one called The Boron Letters, another called Advertising Secrets of the Written Word, it’s by this guy Joe Sugarman. Copywriting is just putting yourself in the shoes of the customer, and solving problems and communicating that problem via the written word.
So, so valuable. I couldn’t agree more. And such a foundational building block for any successful startup. And yet very few of them treat it with the seriousness it needs.
That’s the key, isn’t it?
A lot of people in Silicon Valley, they think that everything’s design.
Yep — or beautiful engineering’s gonna solve everything. I think the other thing people in Silicon Valley struggle with is the idea that the rest of the world is not rational. People don’t make the sensible, rational decisions. You’ve got to appeal to emotion. And words are so powerful at doing that, when done in the right way.
8) Differentiating yourself in the market
Which is where I would say you guys and Headspace are different. Headspace, I do like them. But they definitely went big and did all these branding campaigns.
It’s very interesting how both companies have built their brands in different ways. I think their brand was very, very disruptive when it first came out. Meditation had been associated with lotus leaves and kind of hippies and —
And Andy’s a great character.
Fantastic character. Great speaker, great advocate, very authentic. And we took a slightly different approach. I love this idea that Calm is based more around nature and the natural world. And I think that gives us a bit more accessibility. And even the name Calm can work on a chain of hotels, or clothing, or a whole host of other products and services. Whereas Headspace, I think is gonna be a bit harder to make that transition.
Speaking of books, have you read Cialdini’s book, Influence? Do you know that one?”And if you understand how the brain likes to make shortcuts, you can use that in very powerful ways. And so I like to use these secret powers for good.
I probably think about that book every single day of my working life. The really important thing is we are trying to make shortcuts all the time, because we need to conserve energy. And if you understand how the brain likes to make shortcuts, you can use that in very powerful ways. And so I like to use these secret powers for good. Because you can do them very nefariously as well, and build cults and —
Once you learn how to do that, you can make money very easily.
It’s so easy to scam people once you learn how to do these things. But you have to make sure you do it ethically.
If you use these powers in a more authentic way, and wrap them around a beautiful brand that genuinely brings value to people, that’s how you build billion-dollar businesses and change industries.
09 Trends he’s seeing
And speaking of huge businesses, are you investing now?
I do a little bit here and there. I’m very passionate about health and wellness, so I like investing in things that are in tangent to Calm.
And what are some interesting trends you’re seeing among the companies that you look at?
Broadly speaking, health and wellness has become an enormous trend. It’s a $4.2T global industry — everything from nutritional supplements, to sleep, tooga holidays, you name it. Yoga holidays. The trends I’m seeing, I’m seeing a lot of mental wellness and mental health businesses, in the way that just a few years ago we didn’t.
And why I think that’s exciting and why I think there’s a lot of opportunity there, is if you think of the health-care system in the US, most of it is reactive rather than preventative. It’s a $3T industry, and 99% of it is spent on the physical body, and a tiny fraction on the mind.
But the mind is just as important as the physical body — in fact, the two are so intertwined — so we’re gonna see a huge amount of extra spent on mental health over the next few years. Everything from training new mental health experts and counselors, to corporations and their wellness budgets, to insurers giving people apps like Calm and helping support their mental health.
Like training mental-health professionals?
You think that’s an interesting category.
I think that’s a big area. That’s one area. So here’s just one realm of example. Colleges in America are in this crisis. We’ve heard this many, many times, supporting the mental health of students. They are working super hard. They’re not getting enough sleep. They’re away from home for the first time. It’s a complete tinderbox of mental-health challenges. And the counseling services and psychologists they have on campus are just completely overrun. So finding a way to solve that — whether it’s training more people, whether it’s creating some kind of digital solution. There are apps like Talkspace and Ginger that are basically online therapists.
Are those big businesses?
Some of them are doing all right. I think Talkspace has raised money at a couple of hundred million valuation. And there’s others bubbling up fast, so there’s interesting stuff in that area.
Where else are there opportunities? What about insurance companies?
Insurance companies pay out huge, huge sums of money every year. If there’s a way upstream where they can help people in a preventative way, rather than in a reactive way, to look after their health, then they’re gonna save a lot of money.
Are they doing this?
They are waking up to this in big numbers. So we’re talking to pretty much all the major health insurers. And the intent is there. The interest is there. But they are a huge bureaucracy.
How does that work? Are they basically like, “If we have a million insured folks, we’ll buy a $10-a-year subscription for all of them”?
Yes, that kind of thing. The theory is that that will dramatically reduce their mental-health costs, and their psychiatry and counseling costs downstream. But not just that — having good mental health and taking care of your mind and getting enough sleep reduces the chance that you will be become obese and get diabetes. Or will reduce the chance that you will become stressed and cause other issues with the physical body. So I think that’s a huge, huge trend.
But that’s likely to flip.
Yes, it’s flipping at the moment in a really exciting way. It’s a big opportunity for entrepreneurs.
What other categories would they be open to for that?
Connected to that is digital therapeutics. So using digital solutions to help empower people and help with their health-care. So the FDA is becoming more open to this at the moment. So Headspace has announced that it is trying to get FDA approval for its digital app. I think we’re gonna see a lot of other digital solutions creating apps.
For instance, we create these sleep stories. Very simple. Narrators help people fall asleep at night. That is a much more natural way of helping people fall asleep than taking sleeping medication. I think 60 million prescriptions are written every year for sleeping medication.
Do you think a doctor will prescribe Calm over Ambien?
Who knows? That’s where we would love to get to one day. But I believe it will.
There’s a lot of science and a lot of work that needs to go before we get to that point, but that’s just one example. But think of all the other digital solutions, the digital therapeutics, that could be created and are being created that can reduce the dependence on drugs —
What are some?
Business Insider just wrote a report about this. I think there’s some that are doing very well around diabetes and helping people manage that. There are many that are using CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, to help people manage various illnesses. We have a study running that’s looking at whether Calm can be used to help cancer patients. Is being mindful and developing meditation practice while you are going through chemotherapy — does that increase the chance that you will be able to have a successful outcome? Does it shorten the time spent undergoing chemotherapy? We don’t have all the answers to this, but the science around it is fascinating.
So basically there’s an opportunity to look at what genuinely helps people stay healthy.
But you have to look at it from a lens of, “What will decrease the costs for insurance companies?” And then an entrepreneur could use insurance as their distribution method.
But you’re saying that up until recently, that’s been a huge pain in the butt.
Yes. And it is still very, very challenging. But the intent is now there from the insurance companies to explore this in much deeper detail. Connected to that, there are corporations, and I think one of the most exciting and fastest-growing areas of industry at the moment is — for want of a better word — wellness at work. Companies recognizing that looking after the health and wellness of their employees is not only the right thing to do, but reduces sick days, reduces stress, makes people more efficient and happier at work. So that’s a big, big area. There are big budgets being devoted to that.
What companies and products have infiltrated that distribution channel effectively that you’ve seen?
Virgin Pulse, Castlight, Big Health — there are lots of companies in this space. There’s a company that’s doing digital coaching that seems to be doing very well, called BetterUp.
So those companies hire sales teams and go after the insurance companies?
Exactly. And they all do it in different ways. They offer slightly different solutions for companies, but they basically say to the HR department, “We will help your employees be healthier.”
Is that an easy sell?
It was hard a few years ago, but now the penny is dropping and we’re in this world of health and wellness, and corporations are getting it. Learning and development budgets have always been there, and now they are just expanding wellness budgets.
So why don’t you just go and hire a 50-person sales team, and say, “Here’s 10,000 companies that each have 100 employees.”
It’s a big growth area for Calm. We’re figuring out the best way to do it. We’ve seen such tremendous growth on the [business-to-consumer] side, we didn’t want to stretch ourselves too thin, but we’re now hiring a team to go after BTB. And the beauty of a BTC business that goes into a BTB, is that you have an audience. You have a passionate user base. So we have so many advocates that are telling their HR departments, “Please, can we give Calm to all employees?” So that’s exciting.
Companies that have done that shift really well are companies like YouToMe, Udacity, Lynda, Slack, Dropbox. They have BTC advocates and then build big BTB businesses.
10 The business of psychedelics
What other inflection points do you think are gonna happen in the next couple years?
Gosh, so many. But if we’re sticking to the health and wellness theme, one that I’m personally very interested in and invested in, is around psychedelics and mental health. I think it’s absolutely fascinating. So there’s all the research going on around ketamine, which is very interesting, fast-acting for depression. There is psilocybin, which I think is probably the most interesting area.
Mushrooms, exactly. But taken in the right dose, in the right setting, with the right clinicians, the early results are incredibly promising.
But this is the challenge, because MDMA for instance, was developed I think by Merck a long time ago, and so patenting it is difficult, which is why the big pharma companies are not so interested. Psilocybin is different. There’s a company in London called Compass Pathways, which is pioneering research in this area. They’re in the midst of running the largest trial with psilocybin in the world. And so that’s a company that Alex and I have both invested in, through a holding company called Atai. Which is investing and building controlling stakes in a lot of different biotech companies working on mental health disorders.
There are probably a lot of supporting businesses around these industries as well.
Yes, there’s a lot going to be happening here. Again, this is another example of an inflection point in society, where we’ve gone from demonizing these compounds, to people going, “Hang on a minute.”
In fact, what these psychedelic compounds do is very similar to what meditation does, just on a different time scale. And I think it was Sam Harris who said, “Both are trying to achieve the same thing, but meditation’s like a sailboat on a lake on a beautiful day, you’re getting blown along gently. Psychedelics are like strapping yourself to a rocket.” You’ll get there, but you may go off course and that can be quite scary.
And not everyone wants the same thing.
This is the shift that’s happened. Society for years just labeled all these drugs as bad. The war on drugs was binary — they’re dreadful, anyone that goes near them. But I think the softening that’s happened is that people are recognizing that those drugs can be helpful in the right settings. A lot of important research is happening in this area.