(Case study) The side project that became a best-selling app

Rohan from Mindfulness Everywhere talks product validation and building a best selling, award winning app.

Mindfulness Everywhere combines meditation mindfulness with design and technology. Under the Mindfulness Everywhere umbrella is a book, This is Happening, two apps and a physical product, Cards for Mindfulness. Jack sat down with founder, Rohan, to talk about validating product ideas and how his best-selling app, Buddhify, started as a side project.

Mindfulness Everywhere - best mobile application aware

Is your background in design and technology or meditation?

It’s in both. I started off working as a technology consultant on government technology projects. I did that for a few years—classic graduate job. Then I became more specialised in working in the arts.

I’d say my background is less in design and technology and more in innovation and technology. I’ve spent the last 5 years—alongside the meditation stuff—helping big arts organisations and arts funders understand how to do more interesting things with technology. I worked for Edinburgh Festivals as their innovation lead, and did a big project for Creative Scotland and Arts Council England all about applying innovation processes within the context of arts.

Through that I’ve learned a lot about service design, product design, UX design, but I’m not a designer. I’d never describe myself as a Designer with a capital ‘D’. If I’m a designer of anything I design meditations and products to put meditations in. I make sure I have lots of friends who are proper designers, be that graphic designers, service designers and learn from them.

At what point did you decide to combine the topic of meditation with innovation and technology?

5 years ago. I was bored of helping other people make stuff, I wanted to make my own stuff. I’d spent all my career supporting other people and I got to the point where I knew how a product was made end-to-end.

Also, the whole area of mindfulness meditation was taking off and I wanted to be involved in that scene from the inside rather than sitting outside and complaining about it.

At the time there were existing meditation apps in the early app store years, but they were all pretty rubbish and I couldn’t recommend them to anyone. People would often ask me, “Can you recommend me a meditation app?” and I didn’t feel I could. I decided to make the thing I could recommend to people. I made it for my friends originally.

Mindfulness Everywhere's founder, Rohan Gunatillake

Mindfulness Everywhere. The office dog

I’m nodding my head in agreement to what you’re saying because I can relate from an insurance perspective…

It’s very similar. The products that are available don’t really meet the lifestyles or requirements of the people who actually need them. There were lots of people interested in mindfulness meditation but they didn’t have time to go to a class or course, and they didn’t want to put up with a hippy aesthetic. Buddhify was designed to solve that problem.

I’m interested because I took my background in insurance and merged it with my interest in design and technology. There are a lot of areas like insurance and meditation that aren’t thought of in digital terms. Do you agree there’s a scope for designers and developers to look at industries that haven’t been digitised, and use their skills to bring it into the 21st Century?

I think so. I’m wary of the whole, “We need to disrupt industry X”. I think that’s an arrogant point of view. A lot of mainstream insurance or meditation works. It works for people.

What we’re able to do as designers or makers of products is to find the audiences that aren’t being served and use digital tools to serve them. That’s the opportunity. I’m not interested in disrupting meditation. I don’t want that. I care about the traditional meditation world and don’t want to tear it down.

A big challenge in the arts world is how to bring the audience to the arts. There’s two ways to do that. You either do what’s called audience development in the arts, which is marketing and convincing people to come to the opera, or you change the product.

Most traditional industries think the solution is convincing people, “You need my product, you just don’t know it yet so I’ll bombard you with messages until you come to the opera house”. Whereas there’s lots of people who want an artistic experience but don’t want to go traditional, so you have to change your product.

That’s where the opportunity and the challenge is. How do you balance something that’s innovative or presented in a different way, but make sure it’s authentic, has integrity and quality?

The world of insurance is good in the sense that it’s got regulation around it—insurance is either legit or not. In the world of meditation there’s none of that. Anyone can set themselves up as a maker of a meditation app.

As a user, they don’t often know what’s good. Is the company with the bigger marketing budget necessarily the best product? Not necessarily. Understanding quality is hard, so that’s definitely a line we walk around. How do we maintain integrity whilst at the same time reach more people? That’s an ongoing problem.

Mindfulness Everywhere. Brainstorming in the office

With Jack notebook in Mindfulness Everywhere's office

Buddhify is an award winning, best selling app. It’s also the first app you released. Can you talk us through the journey of coming up with the idea? Did you start with an audience in mind and research their pains surrounding meditation, or was it a ‘scratching your own itch’ idea?

The core of Buddhify is learning meditation whatever you’re doing. I knew the core problem was people feeling they didn’t have time to do it. Buddhify is built around solving that problem.

The first version of Buddhify was much smaller than it is now. We launched a prototype version at the end of 2011. It had meditations for 4 different places; travelling, walking, the gym and at home. 4 locations and 12 pieces of content for each of those.

Looking back now it looks really janky, but at the time it got picked up and popular. The PR line of “Hey, you can meditate using your phone” was a story back then. Now that’s not a story.

That first Buddhify made a little bit of money and I decided to reinvest that money into the newer, bigger and more expensive version. That’s the version that’s in-store today.

We expanded that. We took those 4 activities and expanded it to 15 locations. We didn’t do loads of research because we wanted to put something out there quickly, and Buddhify has a strong point of view. Also, there’s only a certain number of places you can do meditation in. We wanted to do something realistic.

The Buddhify wheel has space for 96 pieces of content as it’s designed, but we launched it only with 45 pieces of content. We asked our users, “What else do you want?”. We used the data from our analytics to show what parts of the app were the most popular. For example, all the stuff around sleep is popular.

Which is why you went onto create a sleep app?

Yeah, that’s one of the reasons we made the Sleepfulness app as a separate thing. Also, there’s a section in the app for suggesting a meditation. We had thousands of requests. We crunched that data and it was out of that user suggestions list we created a new section called pain and illness.

We wouldn’t have done that, but it’s now one of the most popular sections of the app. It’s been a real surprise and humbling thing that the app has become popular with people who have chronic pain. The fact Buddhify has been used by people who have chronic pain lead to the Kara project.

We talked about where new product ideas come from. It’s from trends we see in Buddhify. Buddhify is the mothership product. We made Sleepfulness because we saw that sleep content was the most popular, so we made something specific around that user case.

With Kara, people were using Buddhify in the context of illness and long-term conditions. UPMC, the hospital we worked with, emailed us and said, “We’re long time fans of Buddhify, what would it look like to do something with you?”. We get a lot of work requests, but this is the first one we’ve done something with and for a number of reasons.

One, the context of cancer is an important one. Meditation mindfulness has a big touch point with healthcare, but we’ve never actively made a healthcare product because we’re not experts in that field—we’re experts in meditation.

The opportunity to work with an expert in healthcare was exciting. Also, Dr Francis—who was our lead contact there—heads up a team called Integrative Oncology, which is applying alternative therapies in the context of cancer.

Dr Francis was already referring people to meditation, yoga and nutrition. She understood the field and Buddhify, so it was really straightforward to work with her. She trusted us with design decisions and the process. We were pleased with the result of that.

There is a danger as a tiny team we do too many separate products. Then we have to serve them all, update them and do customer support on them all. Our focus for next year is maybe going all in on Buddhify, doing a redesign of it and working with partners more.

When we made Buddhify it was a side project. It wasn’t until last summer I stopped doing consulting work. Buddhify was never designed to be a scalable, big product. Now the mindfulness market has grown to the extent that there are 2 or 3 large scale products in the space, so it shows there is appetite for something bigger, and we still have something distinctive to offer.

We’re designing Buddhify for the next 5 years, so taking everything we’ve learned from every product and integrating it into a super version of Buddhify.

Rohan Gunatillake

How did you validate there was demand for the app? With Buddhify you mentioned you launched a tiny product. With the other products you validated the idea by using the data from that first product?

Exactly. And all the different products test a slightly different thing. Sleepfulness tests that the value proposition isn’t around meditation—it’s about helping sleep. Kara is much more specific. It’s also testing the use of a mobile site instead of an app, and working with a healthcare partner.

We’re working on a couple of projects with different partners that’s all testing new stuff. We only do a new project if it tests a new thing for us. That’s important. Rather than just making another meditation app that looks very similar, can we learn a new thing which makes our intelligence a lot better?

Some things we learn aren’t always positive. Sleepfulness hasn’t done as well as we’d hoped for a number of different reasons, but we’ll roll that into the next thing we make.

Rohan Gunatillake

Research for Mindfulness Everywhere

You’re not a programmer or designer. You have to outsource those elements to make your ideas come to fruition. Do you have any advice for people looking to work on an idea when they might lack the necessary skills? For example, a designer who can’t code yet they don’t have thousands of pounds to bring on a developer? How did you make that first version of Buddhify happen?

I raided my savings.

You took that risk?

Yeah. I do get a lot of people asking me, “I’ve got an idea, how do I make a new thing?”. I think that’s the definition of being an entrepreneur—taking a risk.

I spent £8000-£10,000 that first time. I worked with people who gave me a great deal because I had a good network of designers and developers I knew already. We made it relatively cheaply for what it was. We made an Android and iOS app for £8000 with a decent amount of content.

My advice… it’s sort of that old cliche that the idea is the easy thing. Also, only make something if it adds to the marketplace. I see a lot of people who make products that are the same or very similar to other products and it just doesn’t help the marketplace. I also think the app world is an increasingly difficult space to be. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone.

I think we have an advantage that we’re in play. We’ve been around for a while, we have a reputation, a lot of people like our product, we’ve got good profile and a lot of people cover us. You can’t replicate that. People ask, “How do I get the same coverage as Buddhify?”. Well, have a great product and launch in 2011.

The reality of the app store is that you’re likely to lose. It’s dominated by a tiny number of companies. It’s difficult to recommend an app-based business unless you have a bunch of money you can spend on marketing and have investors who understand the nature of the app store. As a tiny indie, we’re the exception rather than the rule. We’re also a $5 product, which is unheard of.

If I was starting today and making a meditation app for the first time… I don’t know whether I would do it. It’s hard to say because the competition is really high.

£8000-£10,000 for a side project sounds like a lot. Was that not scary?

It was, but at the time I’d saved well, I wasn’t married, didn’t have a baby. I was fortunate I had the savings to do that. I’d worked for so long as a consultant being paid reasonably well, I had the luxury to do that.

It was also an investment in what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a technology consultant. Retrospectively it was the best investment. We’ve never taken on any money bar a couple of Kickstarter campaigns, which weren’t really investment in that sense. Everything we have now is built on that original £8000, so return on investment wise it’s quite significant.

I was in the job I was in because I could pay off my student debt relatively quickly and I just stayed in that world. Then I randomly got into the arts and—whilst it wasn’t that my heart wasn’t in it—it was that my relationship with meditation mindfulness is a special thing. I was very lucky in that I had the opportunity to use the skills I learned elsewhere in a domain I knew and had a lot of affection for.

It was a gamble to make that first product, but worst-case scenario I’d still have made a thing I was proud of. I didn’t make it as a commercial thing, I didn’t want to be a startup guy. My motivation was to make a meditation app that was better than anything else on the market.

The challenge we face now is that our business needs are different. How do we keep that homemade human side in a product that might get to be quite big?

I met a well-known guy working for a big venture capitalist and had lunch with him when I was visiting the States. I explained that I was thinking about taking on money and doing the full startup thing. I was in the office of one of the biggest venture capitalists in the States and he said, “I’d be really disappointed if you did that”. I was really surprised.

He liked the fact it was one or two people making a thing they cared about as opposed to a thing which had a different set of priorities.

I’ve been speaking to different advisors and mentors on this whole area as we continue to plan our next stage. Another investor said as soon as you take on traditional investment money in the area such as meditation mindfulness, it’s over. You suddenly become about serving investor needs rather than creating a product for the users.

There’s a space in the middle we could operate in, but I think that’s interesting for smaller scale freelancers and designers. How big is big? How big is enough? More and more people are turned off by the myth of the Unicorn.

A sustainable business where you have a good lifestyle, you spend time with your kids, your dog and have enough time to do the things you want to do, that is a metric of success.

Research for Mindfulness Everywhere

Rohan Gunatillake

You’ve released two apps, a book, a Kickstarter project, partnerships… if feels like you’ve tried it all. What’s next for Mindfulness Everywhere?

A re-imagining of Buddhify. What we’re planning is quite ambitious, so that will be a priority for 2017.

Also, being more active in the broader conversation around well-being and technology. It’s a theme of the book, and it’s a theme of a number of things. How do we create technology that doesn’t screw us up?

I’ve been working on a side project that explores how any software or technology that involves our attention can be designed in such a way to be positive instead of negative. Instead of distracting us, fragmenting our attention, ruining our concentration spans, making us feel bad about ourselves, giving us social anxiety, giving us FOMO… all these things that a lot of products do. How do we turn that around?

The company is called Mindfulness Everywhere. One way of reading that is what Buddhify does. It teaches us to practice mindfulness in every situation.

There’s another way of understanding mindfulness everywhere, which is integrating mindfulness into everything in the world. So, integrating it into software, the way people understand organisations. This bigger idea of mindfulness everywhere… what would it be like if every app was a mindfulness app? Not explicitly a mindfulness app, but took the principles and what we’ve learned about mindfulness and well-being in general, and included that in the design.

We’re playing two games. The day-to-day game is making great mindfulness products that evolve the marketplace and understanding of what meditation is. That’s job one.

Job two is a much bigger game we can’t do ourselves. How do we influence the world of technology to be more supportive of mental health and mental well-being?

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