Chill Out

Over the past several years, my mom has gotten into a habit of sending my sister and I emails containing what she has coined “Words of Wisdom,” and are a roundup of two or three articles she comes across in a given week mostly focused on wellness topics. One frequently used source is the Smarter Living column in the New York Times and, in my case, a lot of the articles touch upon ways to reduce stress. It was through one of these emails that I first learned about the Calm app. My mom had downloaded it and tried a few of the free meditations and thought it was worth checking out, so I eventually downloaded it too. To be completely honest, I haven’t done much beyond actually downloading the app and choosing my preferences for what I would want to get out of it. I have yet to dive into the different options available – my favorite excuse to use is that I “don’t have time,” which is exactly why I probably should give it a shot! However, I recently noticed that Calm hit the $1 billion valuation mark earlier this year, thereby earning a spot in the unicorn club. Given that, and the fact that “mindfulness” has become such a buzzword, I thought it was worth doing a little more research into (and maybe by the end of this blog post I’ll be convinced to give it a fair shot).

For those who may not be familiar, Calm is a meditation, sleep and relaxation app that was launched in 2012.  It promises to help users sleep better, boost confidence and reduce stress and anxiety, with the help of guided meditations, soothing music, and sleep stories.  The app itself is free to download and some free content is available, but a paid subscription unlocks access to Calm’s entire library of content. The company said it has 40 million downloads worldwide and over one million paid subscribers.  It was named by Apple as the 2017 iPhone App of the Year and was a Google Play “Editors’ Choice” in 2018. In addition to the app, Calm has also been making investments and partnering with brands to “meet stress where it lives.” One example is stress that is associated with travel.  In 2018, Calm invested $3 million in XpresSpa, which is a chain of quick spa stores found in airports.  The investment will allow Calm subscribers to in-store benefits and treatments at multiple XpresSpa airport locations, including Atlanta, Chicago, and New York.  The company also partnered with American Airlines in 2018 to offer Calm content within the airline’s in-flight entertainment system.

Meditation seems to be having a “moment,” but it certainly isn’t anything new.  In fact, it is a practice that has been in existence for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that Western professors and researchers began to test the effects of meditation and learn about its benefits.  The popularity of meditation in the U.S. has grown significantly in recent years – according to the CDC, the use of meditation tripled from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017.  The meditation industry is now worth more than $1 billion in the U.S. according to the Global Wellness Institute, while the overall “wellness” sector is estimated at several trillion dollars.  

Calm has capitalized on this growing craze by leveraging technology to offer a digital suite of mindfulness and wellness tools that people can incorporate into their everyday life. The company’s co-founder and co-CEO, Michael Acton Smith, was quoted as saying “Mental health was something people didn’t really talk about until recently. Something is changing really dramatically. There’s a societal shift of people taking care of their minds and being more interested in sleep and self care.”

Although Calm was the first mental health-focused unicorn, it is not operating alone in this sector. There are other players in this space who are making innovative strides, including one of Calm’s main competitors, Headspace. Just like Calm, Headspace is an app that offers guided meditation sessions and also uses a subscription-based model in order for users to unlock all of its available content. As of June 2017, Headspace confirmed it was valued at $320 million. In a recent move to build an edge over its competitors, Headspace announced towards the end of 2018 that it had acquired Alpine.AI to bring more voice interaction into its main app. The addition of AI and voice technology would allow users to have an interactive voice-based way to discover different meditation sessions available on the app, and use those interactions to make better suggestions to each individual. Time will tell if this move will help Headspace attract even more funding, and we’ll see if it, too, lands among the unicorns.

The use of technology has helped meditation become more mainstream, and the advent of apps like Calm and Headspace have given users a friendly way to incorporate meditation into their daily life. So now as I think about giving meditation via app an actual chance, I’m curious if anyone has tried Calm or Headspace (or others) before. If you have, which one is your favorite?


  1. jimhanrahan7 · ·

    Headspace is one of those rare expenses that I refuse to stop paying for even though I don’t use the service anymore. When I got into a groove it was great, but there was one issue that bugged me. The app promotes consecutive days of practice. If you’re “friends” with people on the app, they can see how long your meditation streak has been too. This streak was a big part of Headspace. This created a sense of anxiety on its own. I began treating the practice as something I needed to do and not something that I wished to do.

    Maybe its because the app exists on the same device that I use to increase my productivity that I have a hard time treating it any differently than, say, Gmail or Reminders.

    Headspace’s brand also evolves heavily around its founder, Andy. He has the perfect voice and delivery for the practices, but I wonder if the cult of personality is the best approach here. Calm seems to be a service without a face, and that may be the best long-term brand strategy.

  2. Really great post! I know meditation is really big for some people, but I figured it was typically done without any distractions, like a phone. It seems counterintuitive to rely on your phone to relax and destress, considering what we see on our phones can stress us out. However, I think it is really impressive that these apps have gained such a huge user base and have even converted freemium customers into paying ones. I think customization will be really key to convince people to pay for these apps because it is so easy to just go on Youtube and find mediation videos for free, or simply use the free version of the apps. Having a guided mediation that pertains to the particular individual would probably convince more people to pay and I think it is great that Headspace is moving in that direction. Great insight and examples of different mediation apps!

  3. dancreedon4 · ·

    The quote made by the Co-founder and Co-CEO you included is spot on, which is why we have seen such astronomical growth in meditation and yoga over the past decade. I find it interesting how the company began with its app and then moved towards partnerships in the “brick and mortar” space. The partnerships seem very strategic and will pay off- I feel a lot of people are most stressed when traveling in airports! I am curious to see what next steps Calm and other competitors will take in order to gain more market share of this “new” space. Great post!

  4. cgriffith418 · ·

    This is so interesting, I’ve never thought as meditation as an industry, or as a profitable product that can create competitive companies. I remember Calm coming up briefly in class and someone questioning the concept of using an app on your phone to help you “disconnect”…I’m curious if you found any skepticism like that in your research and if so, if it’s affecting the profitability of the companies at all (I would assume no based on the data you’ve provided here). I can’t wait to see what the next move will be for these companies, I could definitely see VR being used here.

  5. shannonbenoit5 · ·

    Loved this. I’m not a big meditator myself and I haven’t used either of these apps, but I might just download one of them after reading this blog! It is so true that mental health is something that is just recently really becoming part of the conversation. I still think we have a long way to go to overcome certain stigmas, but I think apps like these are so important to provide ways for people to destress. Really is interesting to look at meditation as an industry, and I am very interested to see how they implement AI and if it will work to their advantage.

  6. jlrose03 · ·

    I have tried all of these apps! Ironically, I signed up for an HBS Meditation Event tomorrow and I am curious to see if it will mention industry trends and include firms like Calm and Headspace. I think meditation has become more of a way for people in the soul community to adopt to the digital space and use apps to create the same feeling if they cannot conveniently go to a temple, church or silent place to obtain the same affects. What will the industry moving forward trend to? Will serious meditators convert and adopt this Calm or headspace app as a substitute?

  7. I’ve certainly heard alot about these apps, but I had no idea they were multi-hundreds of millions of dollars businesses. Crazy! Good find!

  8. debhan10 · ·

    I’ve definitely noticed the increasing emphasis on wellness, particularly in corporations. Startup companies, in particular, are beginning to integrate a wellness program into its work culture as part of their standard employee benefits. As you mentioned, it’s all due to a shift in societal dynamics, where conversations on mental health are becoming more encouraged and even normalized. It’s a change for the better, and I’m glad that people are starting to acknowledge its importance in our daily lives. Calm and Headspace were able to jump onto a growing market and utilize technology to bring upon positive changes, and I love that. I first heard about Headspace from one of my favorite YouTubers, who spoke about how much its helped her to stop, unwind, reflect, and meditate. I have yet to try it out myself, but I’m definitely eager to. Sure, it may seem paradoxical that we’re going on our phones to meditate, but I think it’s awesome that we have this resource at our fingertips, free of charge. Even if it’s while taking the bus or commuting to work, we can utilize those few minutes to recharge ourselves internally. I’m excited to see how this industry continues to grow and evolve in the near future!

  9. Olivia Crowley · ·

    I had actually never heard of Calm, but I have heard of Headspace despite never actually using it. When you wrote, “my favorite excuse to use is that I ‘don’t have time,'” that totally resonated with me. That really is exactly why we should give these types of apps a try. Nonetheless I do find the most interesting aspect of companies like Calm and Headspace that the monthly subscription model has actually been successful. I really can’t see myself ever choosing to pay for an online guided meditation. Further, I feel like my preferred method of relaxation would be the “unguided” sessions that are offered via the apps by using music and nature sounds. Isn’t that what I pay Spotify for? Further, I can’t help but somewhat side with the common argument that if you are using a mobile app for your practice, you are probably missing out on the entire point of meditation.

  10. kateu19 · ·

    Loved this post! I actually used Headspace for a month earlier this year – I go to Barre3, and as part of their New Year’s challenge, they were encouraging members to focus on themselves. As part of that, members got a free month of Headspace. I loved using the mediations to help me fall asleep at night – it can be so hard to wind down from working all day and then being in class until 9:30 at night. I found it a great way to really focus on myself. Since my free Headspace subscription has ended, I’m excited to try out Calm, especially given Jim’s comment about the differences between the two apps.

    That being said, I found it incredibly ironic that the very devices that cause so much of the stress in our lives are now the center of multi-million dollar companies that encourage us to destress.

  11. This sounds great, it’s awesome to see people in the tech space recognizing there is an issue and creating mobile apps to help people relax. This reminds me of Meetup’s slogan when they started…use your computer to get off the computer. Now its use your phone to get out “off” your phone and relax. Nevertheless, I will certainly consider downloading this and giving it a shot!

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