In conversation with founder of Calm app, Michael Acton Smith
Heights co-founder Dan Murray-Serter discusses entrepreneurship with the founder of Calm app, Michael Acton Smith.
I’ve long been a fan of Calm app. The team there have been leaders in the mental health space for a while, so I was really excited to get the chance to talk to co-founder, Michael Acton Smith. Here’s what we spoke about.
Why did you decide to found Calm?
Before Calm, I was a traditional entrepreneur—not sleeping, not eating, and working too many hours. I definitely was not looking after my mental health.
I didn’t really understand meditation, and mostly associated it with religious practice. But after doing my own research about mindfulness and meditation, I realised that it was neuroscience—literally a way of rewiring the human brain. So I decided that we needed to find a way to make this practice—which has been around for thousands of years—as simple, relatable, and accessible as possible.
How much purposeful thinking did you put around mental health?
Back in 2013 [when Michael founded Calm], ‘mental health’ wasn’t a phrase that people were comfortable using. The stigma was so much greater than it is today. In fact, a few years ago, one of our investors actually advised us not to use the term at all—for fear of negative connotations.
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.
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 10am, every day, the team gathers and meditate together. We try to create beautiful, healthy spaces with lighting, plants, and breakout areas for people to work and find quiet.
And since the pandemic began, we’ve made our team completely remote, so everyone can choose to work where, when, and how they wanted. We also have designated stipends to help people support their physical and mental health.
What is the social element in mental health?
There is a loneliness epidemic, which is playing a major part in the mental health crisis in the Western world. I recently read Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, in which he discusses theories of why depression is so prevalent in our societies.
It’s really important—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, meaningful human connections.
What have been the most successful features on Calm?
The most successful was the launch of the Daily Calm—a ten-minute period of meditation. We realised that 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. As I’m sure you at Heights know, sleep is so important to our mental health, and we realised 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.
How have you tried to popularise meditation in the US?
Until recently, meditation was seen as being niche. So we’ve taken a leaf out of the Nike playbook—they worked with a lot of celebrities to make physical health more mainstream, and we’re doing the same for mental health. We’ve brought celebrities like Kate Winslet, Lebron James, Harry Styles, and Matthew McConaughey into Calm, which has normalised this practice and made it easier for everyone to get involved.
We’re right at the start of this extraordinary new wave around mental fitness, and it seems like that it will end up just as big as physical fitness. The US healthcare industry is worth $3 trillion a year, and only a fraction of that is mental health. I see a future where it’ll be 50/50.
Are you concerned about information overload and children’s exposure to screens?
One of the reasons that we’re so stressed in Western society is our constant use of screens. It’s easy to blame technology for a lot of the ills of our society, but realistically, 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, and endlessly.
Meditation practice 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, and out of reach for the vast majority of people.
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.
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, with physical products to support people in other ways. We’re trying to help people establish a healthy habit every single day. At the moment, some of our ideas include book publishings, magazines, resorts, clothing, and Calm Island (potentially one of my favourite ideas).
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And finally, I’ve been trying to read more this year. Any book recommendations?
I thought you’d never ask. Here’s a list of some of the things that I’ve really enjoyed recently:
Viktor E. Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’
Michael A. Singer’s ‘The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself’
Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment’
Phil Knight’s ‘Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike’
James Nestor’s ‘Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art’
If you want to find out more about Calm, mental health, and Michael Acton Smith, take a look at their website. And for more tips on getting started with meditation, here’s our guide from meditation coach Natalia Bojanic.