An illustration of two men with big hands, one of which is holding a stress ball.

How I Launched: Headspace

Member Andy Puddicombe cofounded the groundbreaking meditation app with Rich Pierson in 2010. Since then, millions have credited it with improving their minds and lives 

By Mikael Jack   Illustrations by Alva Skog .  Monday 13 April, 2020  Long read  

Headspace has grown from the brainchild of Andy Puddicombe and cofounder Rich Pierson into a meditation app loved by millions around the globe, who credit it with improving their minds and lives. As much of the world adapts to a life indoors and the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic, the mental health-boosting app has never felt more relevant. Here, Puddicombe tells us how the company came to be, from becoming an ordained Tibetan Buddhist monk to how he met former advertising executive Pierson and spotted an opportunity that would change the traditional face of meditation.

The big idea
‘I lost two of my friends on Christmas Day in 1992 in a freak accident, followed by my stepsister just months later. It left me with a lot of questions. I was midway through a sports science degree when I left England and travelled to Asia to find some form of meaning, and I was eventually ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk after years of training. Ritually meditating four times a day, I became aware that many people outside this tradition didn’t know what meditation was, or had negative preconceptions about it. I thought there was an opportunity to demystify it and make it more accessible. I wasn’t doing much to change those preconceptions at the time, dressed in maroon robes and chanting in a monastery, but I wanted people to know that you don’t need all that. If you can sit down, physically uninterrupted for 10 minutes a day, you can meditate.’

Forming a plan
‘I returned to England – in a suit and tie, rather than robes – and found a doctor who was interested in mindfulness. I worked in his London clinic where I was introduced to an advertising executive, Rich Pierson. We clicked from the start and began doing a skill swap – me teaching meditation and him giving lessons in marketing. Rich had amazing vision and saw the potential of what I was doing. He tried to persuade me to do an app – a very new thing at the time – which I thought was such a bad plan, so we launched Headspace as an events series in 2010. After receiving feedback that people had been inspired at our events but didn’t know what to do when they got home, Rich asked me to record some of the sessions. Almost three years later, those recordings became the main material of the app.’

Money matters
‘Convincing people to put their money into a meditation company was not easy. Before big investments, the first five years came out of our own pockets, and those of our friends and families. I’ll never forget going to Rich’s dad and asking if he could help us. He looked at our business plan and said, “I think this is a terrible idea, but if anyone can make it work, it’s you.” He invested in us rather than in the idea, but he’s now a very happy man.’

'In the early days, most people didn’t buy into the app as an idea. But if you really have that gut feeling about something, you have to go for it.'

illustration of yellow dot with smiling face

Creating an identity
‘The Headspace vision is to improve the health and happiness of the world, but that isn’t something we came up with entirely on our own. The origins of it are rooted in a rich, 2,500-year tradition of meditation and we try to present that in a modern way. My first five years as a monk were in the Burmese tradition, which can be strict. The next five were in the Tibetan tradition, where all the teachings are based on storytelling, with a lot of characters and more playfulness, so it actually wasn’t a huge leap from that mindset. We pinned up different ideas for the visual approach and felt illustration was the right way for us. You can project your own point of view with it – something that would be more difficult if it was just an image of me talking.’

Building the brand
‘When people first started coming to the clinic in London, which was in the City, it was at the height of the financial crisis. I’d have investment bankers breaking down in front of me – often they weren’t sleeping enough, they were abusing alcohol or drugs and their diets were awful. Building meditation into a brand was primarily about looking at how I could amplify its benefits. That led to the other parts of the app, like sleep meditations, performance and exercise-focused content we created with Nike and the NBA, and we’ve also looked at nutrition. We’ll continue to expand as long as there are areas that complement the core idea.’

Taking advice
‘In the early days, most people didn’t buy into the app as an idea. But if you really have that gut feeling about something, you have to go for it. Neither Rich nor I came from a tech or business background, so the learning curve was steep. We’re lucky to have had access to some of the world’s most successful business people. When they give us feedback, of course, we listen. It doesn’t usually have much to do with the strategic direction of our content – that always comes from us – but more with scaling a growing organisation.’

Eye on the future
‘We’re always excited to be able to reach more people; we launched five international language versions last year. Headspace Health, a subsidiary company with its own app, is a huge next step for us, too. We’ve carried out some of the largest ever studies in mindfulness and meditation in the US, also working with the FDA and the NHS in the UK, which will hopefully lead to governments making meditation even more accessible.’

Staying motivated
‘I’m still moved to tears by some of the feedback we get. Recently, I got a message about a child who suffers from autism and had been bullied. His birthday was coming up and his mum told us he’s crazy for Headspace and uses it every day. We sent a few things over to him and his mum filmed his incredible reaction. Just seeing what a place the app had found in his life… it’s really hard to put into words what that means to the team. They know they’re making a meaningful difference in the world; it’s not only the heart of the culture, but it’s also why we have the company.’

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