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Mental health with Calm

Founders Dan Murray-Serter and Michael Acton Smith discuss the thorny topic and journey of entrepreneurship.

March 01, 2021
6 min read


Michael Acton Smith: Co-founder of Calm and Mind Candy, creator of Moshi Monsters. 

Dan Murray-Serter: Co-Founder of braincare company Heights, and host of our Braincare Podcast.

Why did you decide to found Calm?

  • I was a traditional entrepreneur, not sleeping, not eating, and working many hours. I was not looking after my mental health. 

  • I didn’t really understand meditation and thought it had religious connotations. 

  • After researching about mindfulness and meditation, I realized this was neuroscience- it was a way of rewiring the human brain. 

  • Decided that we needed to find a way to make this practise that’s been around for 1000’s of years simple, relatable, accessible. 

How much purposeful thinking did you put around mental health?

  • When starting in 2013, ‘mental health’ wasn’t a phrase that people were comfortable using. The stigma was so much greater. A few years ago, one of our investors actually advised us not to use the term for fear of associating the brand with someone that he felt was not particularly positive. 

  • Fortunately, stigma surrounding mental health is shifting incredibly quickly in society. 

  • We’ve always thought of it this way: if you have a mind, you have mental health in the same way that if you have a body, you have physical health. 

  • Mental health is at the core of what we do. 

How does mental health get treated in your company? Tell us about the mental health policies at Calm. 

  • We take our responsibility very seriously and give our teams the tools and resources they need to thrive. 

  • One of the key parts of our culture is the daily calm. At 10 o’clock every morning some of the team would gather and meditate together. 

  • We try to create beautiful, healthy spaces with lighting, plants, and breakout areas for people to work and find quiet. 

  • We recently decided to allow our team to be remote so they could choose to work where, when, and how they wanted.

  • We have stipends to help people support their physical and mental health.


What is the social element in mental health?

  • There is a loneliness epidemic playing a major part in the mental health crisis in the Western world. 

  • Johann Hari’s ‘Lost Connections’ discusses theories of why depression is so prevalent in our societies. We’re losing connections with so many things we were connected to during most of the evolution of our brains over the last 100,000 years.

  • We’re losing connection to nature, communities, ourselves, meaningful work and people. 

  • With social media, devices, and technology, we’ve never been more connected and lonely at the same time. 

  • We’ve stopped making real, deep human meaningful connections.

What have been the most successful features on Calm? 

  • The launch of the daily calm- which is just 10 minutes of meditation a day. We realized meditating, sitting, and listening to a voice on your own is difficult, so we launched the feature to help. It’s like having someone hold your hand and guide you. It helped people establish a habit.

  • The second major step was when we launched sleep stories. We realized people were listening to our meditations to help them drift off at night. As a result, we created soothing stories that get gradually more soporific until you fall asleep- it’s been an enormous success. 

Nike for the Mind 

  • Until recently, meditation was seen as being niche and connected to religion. 

  • We’ve taken a leaf out of the Nike playbook where they worked with celebrities to make physical health more mainstream. We’ve brought celebrities like Kate Winslet, Lebron James, Harry Styles, and Matthew McConaughey into Calm which has normalised this practice and made it okay for everyone to get involved. 

  • We’re right at the start of this extraordinary new wave around mental fitness which will be just as big as physical fitness.

  • The US healthcare industry is worth $3 trillion a year. A small part of that is mental health. I see a future where it’ll be 50/50. 

Are you concerned about information overload and screen exposure to kids? 

  • The reasons why we’re so stressed in Western society is because we have our screens with us everywhere. 

  • Technology is blamed for a lot of the ills of our society. 

  • Technology is not at fault. It is merely a tool, and it’s how we use it that matters. 

  • So many of us use our devices mindlessly. 

  • Meditation practice almost changes our relationship with our mind- we become the puppet master rather than the marionette bouncing around on strings.

  • Devices and technology are incredibly important and valuable, we just need to be more thoughtful about how we use them.

How do you feel about Calm being dependent on technology? You do great work, but needing technology to do it seems backwards to me. 

  • Using an app to learn to meditate is probably not the best way to learn. The best way is with a teacher in the real world, sitting together, and asking questions, but that is expensive.

  • We passionately believe an app that is accessible by billions of people is the next best solution. 

  • We want to bring calm into the real world, it’s not just about an app. We want to build a brand that helps people find calm wherever they are, however they’re feeling. 

  • Mobile phones have been vilified, but they’re incredibly valuable. We need to take control and not let our devices control us. 

With the rise of interest in mental health in recent years, do you see yourselves doubling down or going in new directions? 

  • We want to explore different ways of supporting our audience. 

  • Eventually, we want to take our brand offline into physical products to support people in other ways. 

  • We’re trying to help people establish a healthy habit every single day. 

  • Ideas for the future include book publishings, magazines, resorts, clothing, and Calm Island (potentially one of my favourite ideas). 

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