The Future Of Mindfulness Apps (And How To Stop It) — Part 1

Where are we going? The apps we make in the next five years will determine the mindfulness culture of the next twenty

It has been almost five years since I launched my first mindfulness app. I still remember the evening when I uploaded the file to the App Store, full of nerves and naiveté. Looking back, I had no idea that the app — the first version of buddhify — which was essentially a side project , would go on to be the basis of all the work I now do. I am incredibly lucky to be able to make a living as a meditation entrepreneur, as ridiculous as those two words might sound.

I often get asked why I made buddhify in the first place. And the most common reason I give is that I made it for my friends so that I could give them an authentic and effective introduction to mindfulness and meditation but in a way that fitted into time-poor urban lifestyle. That is true, but there was a deeper reason still. The deeper reason I made buddhify is because I love the mindfulness tradition. Mindfulness-based meditation, and the tradition of Buddhist insight meditation from which it is largely and directly derived is something very close to my heart. I have personally gained so much from its teachings and practices, consider many of its teachers (non-monastic and monastic, Western and Asian) as my heroes and have a relationship to it of such intimacy and love that nothing other than my family can come close.

So back in 2011, seeing that mindfulness was going to take off I realised something very clearly. I didn’t want to be That Guy who ten/fifteen years down the road looked at how mindfulness and meditation had changed and did nothing but grumble and complain about how it had all gone to shit. I realised that for mindfulness to meet the world of mobile devices and always-on communication and have a chance of retaining as much authenticity, quality and integrity we needed as many people who really understood and cared about the practice as possible involved in the innovation. So I raided my savings, sacrificed my spare time and through launching buddhify got in the game. Since then I have continued to make, innovate, learn and even lead.

It was a great decision. Criticising from the sidelines has never been my thing. So being an active and influential part of the emerging mindfulness industry was the best place for me to express my love and appreciation for what has always been a tradition of innovation.

A lot can happen in five years. My own company’s success to date together with the ongoing momentum behind mindfulness and mindfulness-based products has led us to ask a fascinating question: if we were making a mindfulness product for the next five years what would it look like? What would be the future-facing product or platform that we would make based on all that we’ve learnt to date while retaining the core buddhify concept of meditation for wherever you are and its design principles of user-centricity, personalisation and accessibility?

The mindfulness app marketplace today looks very different to when I first submitted that file to Apple. And for all the progress we have made, I am concerned. As someone who has bet his work life on the business of mindfulness, I am deep in the trenches in this stuff and our experience to date together with our current ongoing research into the limitations and opportunities in the market mean that I have some major concerns. Given the apps can reach a scale of audience that more traditional mindfulness ‘touch-points’ cannot, nothing will influence how mindfulness is perceived and practiced in our culture more in the next twenty years than than how they are designed in the next five.

We are deep in the design process for re-imagining what a future buddhify will look like. As part of the process, I have been actively looking at the current trends in the marketplace and this analysis has led me to identify four key trends which could potentially in the long-run have negative consequences for the mindfulness world as a whole. I call these Future Dangers and I share them below. With each Future Danger I also share Actions & Take-Aways which I feel can help avoid the dangers. That’s the (and-how-to-stop-it) from the title.

An important caveat

Before I get going I should state something very clearly. This article is absolutely not intended as criticism of any particular startup, app, teacher or provider. As one of the early mindfulness app publishers, I have both enjoyed and indeed benefitted from the emergence of talented, well-resourced mindfulness startups. In particular, I have significant admiration for Headspace, Calm and more recently Whil. Each has been brilliant in their own way and have helped moved the category forward. This article is certainly a criticism but it is a criticism of the space as a whole not any individual company. I believe that having critical discourse within a particular field is a sign of maturity and so my thoughts here are offered in that spirit.

Future Danger 1: Mindfulness apps are only for the 1%

The current mindfulness market effectively settles around five different segment types:

  • General (direct to consumer, value proposition of helping with general wellbeing issues such as concentration, sleep, non-clinical anxiety)
  • General — clinical (this is more the domain of healthcare and formal mindfulness-based interventions such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy courses)
  • Corporate (the increasingly popular provision of mindfulness training for employees, typically commissioned through HR/Learning & Development)
  • Young People (products and services customised for schools and educational contexts)
  • Specialist (products and services for niche value propositions such as elite athletic performance)

Of these five segments, the app market is largely targeted at general, corporate and young people. Some products focus on one, others two and some companies target all three.

Leaving aside the offers for companies and young people for now, let’s look at the general consumer. What we see is that pretty much all the popular mindfulness apps target the same demographic. The demographic is English-speaking, middle-class and financially stable.

It is the financial aspect that I most want to focus on here and it is caused by the dominance of the subscription revenue model.

The most common revenue model for mindfulness apps today is to offer a relatively small amount of content for free and then sell subscriptions (typically monthly) to users for access to a full and extensive library of content and features. If this continues as the dominant model what this will lead to is financial exclusion.

On one side of the market we have well-funded startups with all the skills to productise, operationalise and scale and on the other we have the ‘legacy providers’ — traditional teachers, spiritual and meditation communities who hold most of the intelligence and understanding of mindfulness but don’t have the ability to enter the digital product world — nor often the interest or inclination. As such we are seeing a lopsided app marketplace where the best-looking, highest-visibility products are very led by maximising returns for their investors and are accessed through expensive subscriptions and the free products are largely low-quality user experiences and even if they are good they don’t have the resources to get visibility.

I know that people working at well-funded mindfulness startups have very good intentions and improving the wellbeing of a large number of people is absolutely part of their vision. However the convergence of the economic challenges of the app store and the VC-funded startup mindset mean that we are building an exclusive mindfulness culture. While there is much to be lauded in models such as of sell-one, give-one and in charitable partnerships, this does feel the wrong way around since the message being told/sold is that coming in the the front door comes at a price.

While it’s easy for us who live in an affluent middle-class bubble to not recognise it, $10 a month is a lot of money to a lot of people. The mindfulness community as a whole already has a problem about diversity. We as app makers risk making that even worse.

Actions & Take-Aways

From a product design perspective, this analysis has led us to focus on making a product that optimises for commercial success and social value/access in equal measure. Key to that will be having a product where the free offer is as generous as it can possibly be. From a financing perspective, our sense is that models of social investment or impact investment might better serve an accessible mindfulness market than the classic West Coast Californian approach.

Future Danger 2: Mindfulness is just a content business

We’ve already seen how mindfulness apps are set up as content platforms, locking content away under subscription using the software-as-a-service model or mindfulness-as-a-service if you like.

However if you ask a mindfulness teacher what it is they offer people, the last thing they would say is ‘content’. Instead they might talk about self-knowledge, wisdom and the skills to deal with the stuff of life. I summarise that is learning & insight.

So this is a bit of a paradox. We have business models setup for digital content when the real value proposition is learning and insight.

Furthermore there is the content itself. The most common interaction when using a mindfulness app is listening to a guided mp3. Even if an app has other features such as tools which encourage you to meditate by yourself, what you find (at least what we have found) is that the vast majority of people do just want to consume content.

I’m fortunate to know lots of mindfulness teachers, some of them are very good and some of them are genuinely brilliant. While they can certainly do it, their true gift isn’t guiding you in a meditation, it is helping you understand your own barriers and helping you see insights for yourself so that you become less and less dependent on external voices (literal and metaphorical) as the basis for your growing awareness, wisdom and kindness. Despite that, what apps do are simply reduce teachers to content creators and users to content consumers.

Actions & Take-Aways

There are two main take-aways to help avoid this possible future. The first is that we have to move on from listening to mp3s as being the only way people meditate. That requires investment into R&D into new mechanics and new products. The second is to stop using teachers like livestock and use them as co-designers of your product. I want a world where open-hearted skilful experienced teachers have as much influence over our mindfulness culture as angel investors looking for a 50x exit but at the moment that’s not where we are and I think we need to fix that. If we do then mindfulness can be the insight business is deserves to be.

Future Danger 3: Academics & traditional knowledge-holders get left behind

There are a lot of people who know a lot about mindfulness. They are established mindfulness teachers, they are researchers, they are academics, they are clinicians. Hardly any of them work in a digital context.

There is a massive gap between ‘public sector’ mindfulness and ‘private sector’ mindfulness. What’s worse is that the former is often in denial or at best ignorant of the nature of the latter, especially when it comes to digital products. One of the main issues is that the face-to-face models of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBSR/MBCT) have become holy objects. The vast majority of research into mindfulness is concerned with the efficacy of these models in different contexts. Therefore the parties which are so invested in those models have neither the incentive nor the skill to imagine a mindfulness-based intervention that isn’t the thing they already know. And if they ever start to talk about digital products the only scope tends to be creating an online replica of MBSR & MCCT.

Meanwhile the world has moved on. The face to face model of mindfulness has been disrupted by a mobile-first world and the traditional sources of expertise and depth have yet to do anything material about it. The longer academics and traditional gate-keepers duck away from getting involved in digital products, the less relevant they will become to the regular person who would benefit from mindfulness. Markets move quickly and you can’t win if you don’t play. Sitting in an ivory tower throwing your hands in the air about how mindfulness product X isn’t real mindfulness and doesn’t have sufficient peer-reviewed data about it is all very well. But the data that will really influence where mindfulness goes in the long run is that of users of popular apps. Everything else risks becoming a sideshow.

Actions & Take-Aways

In my career outside of mindfulness I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in rooms trying to convince ‘legacy providers’ to innovate when they are just too inherently conservative or afraid to do so. To move forward we need people and organisations who care about mindfulness and are ready to innovate to get together and just do some R&D. People who are wedded to MBSR have to be ready to go to new places. It is possible to innovate and retain authenticity but you have to be willing to try. I myself am willing to help people go there but we’ve reached a stage where they have to come to me because I’ve danced the dance of backwards-facing organisations not really wanting to change when it push comes to shove and I now only have energy for those who lean forward. If that is you, come talk to us. In the meantime my company and the others around me will just get on with it and continue to leave you behind.

Which leads nicely to…

Future Danger 4: Mindfulness apps are warring fiefdoms not a community

Community has historically always been part of the mindfulness tradition. Whether it is people practising together or teachers supporting each other with shared codes of ethics, engaging with peers is a central part of mindfulness culture. As app makers we risk losing that.

General startup culture loves zero sum games. ‘We want to be the Facebook of X’. ‘Our ambition is to be the Uber of Y’. ‘We’re like Airbnb, but for Z’. The idea of being the single dominant platform in a market is an attractive idea, especially to investors. If the mindfulness app game plays out such that there is one big winner then the real winner are the investors, not the users. Diversity and different points of view are so valuable in anyone’s journey through mindfulness and to lose that would be to lose something important.

Again the subscription payment model doesn’t help matters. If a mindfulness app costs $10 a month then you’re only going to choose one and therefore the various platforms have to fight for that individual customer. All of which leads to mindfulness apps being very self-interested, prioritising individual success over success or growth or maturity of the space as a whole.

And this leads to fairly conventional competitive relationships between companies. This is generally healthy and means we all have to continue to keep on our toes and get better but it can on occasion also lead to business practices which aren’t so aligned with the values that underpin mindfulness teaching. If mindfulness just becomes another startup category like mobile games or video-streaming then I think we’ll have missed a massive opportunity to do good while doing well.

Actions & Take-Aways

The mindfulness app market is still in its very early days. I believe that part of our maturing as an industry is our being able to have critical discourse amongst ourselves, to recognise our weaknesses and our strengths and to take care of the wider system that has allowed us to operate in the first place. The best way I can see this happening is to borrow a trick from the insight meditation tradition from which the pop mindfulness movement derives. In that tradition, instead of the more hierarchical systems found in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, the insight tradition is more of a peer-t0-peer culture. In it, teachers meet in council in the spirit not of junior-to-senior but of spiritual friend to spiritual friend, sharing what they are learning, listening to others and developing shared codes of practice. My proposal is that we do something similar within the world of mindfulness apps and indeed the wider mindfulness community as a whole: come together, celebrate successes, share concerns and consider the wider system. Because taking the wider view can but help our individual practice. Practically I plan to host an event for leading mindfulness people in the UK later this year and look forward to sharing what happens here. There’s been more than enough Kool-Aid drunk in mindfulness circles, now it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on these points. As we continue to do our design work on our new products we look forward to sharing more. Hence the Part 1 in the title.