Michael Acton Smith: Why We Started Calm, Apple's App of the Year
A business I created, Moshi Monsters, grew to 10s of millions of users, toys, books, a movie, but … I learnt a valuable, humbling lesson; that kids’ entertainment brands don’t grow forever. What followed was an extraordinary rollercoaster of ups and downs: it was a very challenging, stressful time, I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating well, I was constantly exhausted and frazzled.
Around this time I went away on holiday on my own, to get some perspective. While I was away I started practising meditation for the first time, and reading some of the research papers around mindfulness. A lightbulb went on in my head - wow! this isn’t mumbo jumbo, or woo-woo. This is science. It actually rewires the brain, allows us to live differently. I realised I wanted to spend – who knows? – maybe the rest of my life spreading this incredibly simple, but valuable skill. I got together with fellow Brit Alex Tew and we started to build Calm, first in London and now in San Francisco.
The Calm app is not just mindfulness. We want to help people develop their minds, and self-care in a number of ways – for example with Sleep Stories, Calm music, nature videos, books. We’ve just launched Calm masterclasses in which experts from around the world help with different aspects of life – such as breaking bad habits, social media addiction, fear of flying. We’ve had 20 million downloads of Calm so far.
The Dalai Lama said that if every eight-year old in the world learnt meditation we could eradicate violence in a generation. Now more than ever we need to greet the world with kindness, empathy and understanding, instead of shouting at each other over social media. So we decided to offer every teacher in the world a free Calm app. Tens of thousands of them have signed up. Of course, we hope that parents of children who use the app in class will want to get subscriptions for themselves. When doing good is also good for business, everyone wins.
At Calm’s HQ in San Francisco we do a 10-minute mediation as a team every morning. I told a journalist recently and he laughed his head off; he said it was the most California thing he’d ever heard of. But it’s a simple way to properly connect in the morning before the chaos of the work day begins.
A few small changes have made a huge difference in my own life. I don’t use my phone in bed any more. And I have a rule not to look at it for emails or social media until I’ve left the house and am sitting in a coffee shop in the morning. I’ve also turned off all my notifications except Whatsapp. It was so distracting to be digitally tapped on the shoulder every couple of minutes.
At Calm we believe mental health is just as important as physical health. The last 50 years has seen a huge emphasis on physical fitness, but now we are seeing an incredible shift in society around mental fitness. About bloody time! Our minds are the most complex thing in the whole universe, we have to look after them.
Tech is neither good nor bad; these devices are just tools. Instead of being slaves to them, we need to be their masters. But we need to stay aware of them, not simply become dopamine-frazzled zombies.
A longer version of this interview was published in Planet Mindful magazine, a quarterly magazine published by Time Inc