Was religion the greatest product ever invented?
And how the unbundling of religion is driving company growth
I advise and invest in startups. I get pitched a lot of products and try 50+ new startups’ products every year. And with that, I’m going to make a bold and likely controversial statement:
Religion was the greatest product ever invented.
Woah! I know… I know…. Before you have time to disagree, let me explain.
The best products address real problems. And religion addresses some of life’s most complex problems.
Religion gives people a path to follow — whether to heaven, reincarnation, enlightenment, or somewhere else. It provides something to believe in that’s greater than oneself and an external source of love and truth. Those are incredibly strong value propositions (if you buy them).
What makes religion awesome*
We can learn a lot about great products by studying religion. Religion attempts to satisfy a core set of human needs. Most spiritual paths, from Christianity to Judaism to the Yoga Sutras all have a similar “feature set”.
- Purpose — What’s the meaning of life? At some point in their lives, most people start asking themselves “why?” Why am I on the planet? What’s the meaning of life? Is it to give back? Make money? Raise a family? Reach enlightenment? Most religions provide guidance on life’s pivotal question.
- Identity — Who am I? As humans we like to say, I am _________. Religions give people an answer. “I am Jewish.” Inadvertently, I’m also saying that I subscribe to Jewish beliefs, values, and way of life. Kippahs, cross necklaces, sacred geometry tattoos, and mala necklaces are all visual signs of identity (branding 101).
- Community & connection — Where’s my tribe? People like to feel connected to like-minded people. Most religions have physical gathering places and on-going social programs. For example, churches and Sunday Mass and synagogues and Shabbat. These institutions help people stay connected to religion and each other.
- Lifestyle & wellness recommendations — How do I live? What do I eat? How do I recharge? How do I take care of my body? Before the rise of modern science, people looked to religion for guidance on how to live. In Judaism, according to the Torah, you keep kosher, rest on the Sabbath, and fast annually. In Yoga, there’s a long list of “cleansing rituals,” and recommendations for movement, breathwork, and meditation. Today, in the West, many people place their faith in 21st-century scientific studies and healthcare providers, not in Priests and Rabbis.
- Rituals — What do I do? Most humans like habit and routine. Rituals overlap with many of the points above. I pray 5 times a day, I do yoga every morning, I keep the Sabbath, I meditate. Most people, consciously or unconsciously, like regularity and repeat the same behaviors.
Each religion provides a slightly different playbook for life.
There’s no denying that the questions answered by religion are much greater than those answered by most tech products. In the grand scheme of things, “How do I automate my marketing emails?” is trivial compared to “What am I doing with my life?”
*Religion also has a dark side: it has lead to countless wars, deaths, civil unrest, and other craziness. Notably, I’d argue that many of the greatest technologies also have a dark side (a topic for a future post).
How religion lost product-market fit in the US
Despite religion solving some of life’s major pain points, it has been losing product-market fit.
Now for a ridiculously brief oversimplification of organized religions’ decline:
According to the General Social Survey, the number of Protestants in the US has been decreasing since the 1980s. It dropped below 50% of the population for the first time in 2012.
Let’s imagine Christianity was a product on the shelf. Until the 90s, there wasn’t much competition and “sales” were going great. Then, the competition started heating up. The internet offered new information and fresh perspectives. Modern science became easily and widely accessible. People started asking Google questions that they had previously asked their pastors. Anecdotally, I’ve heard multiple friends actually referred to Google as God.
Furthermore, people started moving away from their hometowns, local community churches became less popular, and older church leadership failed to evolve with the changing social norms. Today, 3,500 churches close each year.
Since the 1990s the percent of people with no religious affiliation has doubled; between 2007 and 2014, that number jumped from 33.6M to 55.8M people.
All of that is to say that the market evolved and religion started losing traction.
Around the same time, anxiety, loneliness, and depression started gaining traction. Today, 79% of people report being frequently stressed, nearly half of Americans report feeling alone, and 15% of people will be diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives.
While religion and happiness aren’t necessarily correlated, according to PEW Research, actively religious people are more likely to report being “very happy” than non-religious people. They’re also more likely to join other organized groups and less likely to smoke and drink (hello community and wellness rituals).
Needless to say, it’s not a pretty picture.
Now brands (and experiences) are filling the void
The decline of faith is creating new market opportunities for other “products” to satisfy the core human needs.
To use a tech term, it’s like the unbundling of religion.
Millennials and Gen-Zers are increasingly turning to astrology, tarot cards, psilocybin, and yoga — things once considered too woo-woo to answer life’s most meaningful questions. Some direct-to-consumer brands, like SoulCycle, Crossfit, and Keto have almost cult-like, pseudo-religious followings. It’s no surprise why. Let’s breakdown how well-known brands fit into the human needs matrix:
Great brands don’t just sell “a thing,” they sell purpose, meaning, connection, lifestyle, and rituals. They sell a story greater than the product. That’s how they become indispensable, transcend geographies, dissolve language barriers, and unite communities.
Let’s dive into SoulCycle. Spin classes existed long before SoulCycle. Heck, I remember watching senior citizens spinning at my community center 20 years ago. But Soulcycle offers more than that.
SoulCycle literally mimics the format of a church. The instructor’s bike is elevated like a dais; they perform self-help scripture like mass; they’re communal like a congregation; and they consecrate as if in prayer.
The brand name itself is SoulCycle. On the website, they preach finding your soul, freedom, and inspiration. It’s next level. The second rule for “preserving the soul sanctuary” is “No cross-talk: talking during class is a major distraction for the spiritual folks around you.”
Suffice to say that many riders don’t just ride for the sake of exercise, it has meaning. It’s not just an indoor workout, it’s a ritual.
A strong brand identity is key to building great consumer products
Over the years, in Western culture, people’s identities have shifted from being tied to religion to being tied to other things like job titles, dietary preferences, and favorite brands.
One day I was talking to a friend about product engagement who worked on behavior change at Google and he said,
“Julia, after all our research, we’ve found that the #1 way to get someone to stay engaged with your product is for it to become part of their identity. If you can get someone to say:
- I am a ______________ (SoulCycler, Googler, vegan, entrepreneur)
- I _______________ (watch Netflix, drink Blue Bottle, ride SoulCycle)
- I do _______________ (Crossfit, yoga, equinox, keto)
Then you’ve won.”
Investing in the next religion
Great brands and products attempt to address at least one core human need.
Like my friend at Google, I’d argue that the best startups tap into people’s sense of purpose and identity. There’s a reason why package-free products, the alt-meat industry, and meditation products are all booming. They sell into Millennials’ and Gen-Zers’ identities and aspirational identities: “I care about sustainability” “I care about the planet,” and “I care about my wellbeing.”
Many hot brands externally validate our most deeply-rooted, existential needs: “Am I a good person? Of course I am, I care about the planet and shop sustainably. Does my existence matter? Of course it does, I got tons of likes on my last post. What’s my purpose? To make the world a better place…”
Certain products fill the void left behind by institutionalized religion better than others. Here are a few fast-growing product categories that are top of mind:
- Purpose & identity: Life coaching, therapy, personal newsletters, self-publishing content platforms, psychedelics, vipassana
- Community & connection: Co-working, co-living, membership communities, group exercise classes, remote communication tools, online micro-communities
- Lifestyle & rituals: Yoga, meditation, breathwork, “diets,” food & beverage
As culture evolves, so will the flow of capital. Entrepreneurs and investors have an opportunity to build businesses that meaningfully make people’s lives better. These are big market opportunities, with even bigger opportunities for impact.
If you enjoyed this, please clap away (you can clap multiple times!) and share it with your friends!
Big thank you to Gunnar Black, Amber Donebauer, Andrew Barr, Thain Simon, and Suneel Gupta for helping me draft and edit this post. I’ll always treasure the countless discussions I’ve had with each of you on this topic.
On a related note, if you’re building a company addressing any of the core human needs, I’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.