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Full transcript: Headspace meditation app co-founder and CEO Rich Pierson on Too Embarrassed to Ask

Don’t forget your breath.

Shaolin Monks Rehearse Ahead Of Their New Show Ben Pruchnie / Getty

On this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode spoke with Rich Pierson, the co-founder and CEO of Headspace, a meditation app. They discussed the irony of using the most distracting thing in the world (your phone) to help you be less distracted and more focused, then took questions from listeners.

You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Too Embarrassed to Ask on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn or Stitcher.

Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode.

Lauren Goode: I’m Lauren Goode, senior technology editor at The Verge.

KS: You’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media Podcast Network, which I have to say loudly, apparently, because it’s in all caps. This is a show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech.

LG: Caps? Are you reading from a script?

KS: Yes, I am.

LG: Oh.

KS: Move along, Lauren.

LG: You can send in any question like, “What’s the latest in the Uber saga?”

KS: They’ve just bombed South Korea or North Korea. I don’t know, one of the Koreas. Go ahead.

LG: That is so not funny. I can’t believe you’re laughing right now.

KS: Well, it’s not funny.

LG: What is wrong with you?

KS: I don’t know what they’ll do next. I just don’t know what they’ll do next.

LG: Maybe you should go be the CEO. You could ask something like, “How responsible are tech companies for the proliferation of fake news?”

KS: Completely, utterly.

LG: “Is Amazon’s outfit-judging bedroom camera creepy or cool?”

KS: Both, but you use it all the time, don’t you?

LG: I just got one from eBay.

KS: Oh, my God.

LG: No, because they’re not giving it to reporters yet and I got it from eBay and I said to my boyfriend, “I’m going to put this Amazon camera in the bedroom,” and he was like, “Nope.” It was like a hard nope.

KS: No, but a hard no. It should be. I can’t believe you’re going to put it in the bedroom.

LG: Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to get dressed in front of it and then it’s like ...

KS: What are you, Kim Kardashian? Give me a break. She’d use it for both outfits and other issues, but anyway. Go ahead. Next question.

LG: You could send in something like, “Will 2017 be the year we all take back our attention spans?”

KS: No.

LG: Nope.

KS: No. They’re gone.

LG: Hard no.

KS: They’ve been gone a long time now, and no matter what Tristan says, he had such a good presentation at Code, but no. They’re gone. Anyway. Send us your questions. We do read them all. Find us on Twitter or tweet them to @Recode, or to myself or to Lauren with the #TooEmbarrassed.

LG: We also have an email address. It’s A reminder, as you are sending us your awesome questions, “embarrassed” has two Rs and two Ss.

KS: Two Rs and two Ss if you can’t spell, or look it up on the internet. Anyway, Lauren, this has been a trying week.

LG: It has been a pretty trying week. It’s been a trying couple of weeks for you.

KS: Yeah.

LG: Last week on the show, we talked about the latest on Uber with Recode reporter Johana Bhuiyan. I think we need a little break from everything.

KS: It was Code, which everyone went after Hillary Clinton, and then there’s, like, Uber just never seems to stop being awful, and so it’s very trying. Very tense.

LG: We have a president who’s very, very active on Twitter.

KS: Whatever he does. I’ve stopped watching.

KS: Oh my god. When he was in Europe or wherever the hell he went, I was like, “Ugh. Thank god.” It was like a staycation. He didn’t say anything and it was great, and then the minute he gets back, it’s back to troller in chief, so that’s upsetting. He just did it today. Literally, this horrible, horrible, terrible shooting, reprehensible shooting, of a congressman and others, and he was great, and then the next day, he’s back to his crazy. It’s like literally you thought for a minute perhaps he would have some stopping of it, but no.

LG: Do you think he needs a meditation app?

KS: He does. He needs a meditation app, and that’s the topic we’re talking about.

LG: It’s that murmur you heard in the background, is from Rich Pierson. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Headspace.

KS: I already feel calm he’s here.

LG: I know.

KS: He’s dressed nicely. Anyway, go ahead.

LG: Well, Headspace, if you haven’t heard of it, is one of the most popular meditation mobile apps out there. This app is coming to popularity at a time when analysts are saying that the health and wellness industry is going to be the next trillion dollar industry, and mental wellness is, of course, a part of that, but we are curious to learn how using an iPhone app is supposed to make you less distracted instead of more distracted. We wanted to learn more about the actual benefits of maybe using this application, so we asked Rich to come on the show. And he’s here today.

KS: We’re going to talk about a lot of them because there’s a lot of them. There’s Moodify or whatever. There’s Calm.

LG: Calm, mm-hmm.

Rich Pierson: There’s tons.

KS: There’s tons.

There’s over 3,000 of them.

KS: Whoa. 3,000. People are just super in need of things. We’re going to talk about this. Why don’t you talk a little bit about your background first, because you were not initially a meditation guy, correct?

That would be fair to say, yeah.

KS: Fair to say. Yes. Go ahead. You had a voice like this when you were an ad guy.

Yeah, no, I used to ...

KS: Let me hear your ad guy voice.

LG: He actually just got the British accent after he started meditation.

That’s exactly right. When I met Andy, he taught me to speak in a British accent. No, my background was in advertising and it was a pretty tough industry, and I kind of burned out pretty early on. I reckon I had pretty much a breakdown at, like, 25. I didn’t really know what I was going to do.

KS: What caused the breakdown? Too many Coca-Cola ads? What?

Too much drinking, too much kind of hard living, and just in that industry that is a very acceptable form of behavior.

KS: Yeah.

It just ... it crept up on me pretty quick. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, but I knew I didn’t want to be in that industry anymore, and knew it wasn’t very good for my health. So, I kind of gave up drinking. That was like 11 years ago.

KS: Wow. You were on the Axe account, I heard ...

I was.

KS: ... which would make anybody drink, I’m guessing.

Yes, it’s true. I did make all those ads.

KS: I hate you.

LG: You’re really responsible for all of those ads, the Axe Body Spray?

Well, I was partly responsible for a lot of those ads. I think Headspace is like a calmer payback. I think I’m giving back.

KS: It has to be, because let me just tell you?


KS: I have two sons, and I hate you.

I know. Because they stink.

KS: Because they smell like Axe.

Yeah, they stink.

KS: They think it’s good. They’re like, “Hey, I smell good.” I’m like, “Oh my god.”

They think they’re going to get girls because that’s what we promise them, and they get no girls.

KS: They smell awful.

I know.

KS: I cannot convince them they smell awful.

It’s a stain on the world. I know.

KS: They literally think they smell fantastic and girls like it.

I know.

KS: I’m like, “What?”

LG: There were a ... I was in college ...

KS: You’re 12!

I’m sorry, Kara.

LG: I was in college when Axe was a thing, and there were entire floors in our dorm building that smelled like Axe body spray.

KS: It’s a bad smell. That’s what my house smells like right now, they’re here for the summer. It’s really awful. I really hate you right now, but go ahead.

Thanks, Kara.

KS: So how did you get from that to a meditation app?

Well, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I know I didn’t want to do that. I was in freelance marketing at the time. My friend named Andy, he was teaching me about meditation at a clinic in London. He said, “I met this Buddhist monk. He’s teaching me meditation.” That was the first. I was like, why are you learning meditation? That sounds particularly weird, because he was the last person I ever thought would do it.

He said he needed some help marketing his clinic. He wants to try to make it bigger, he doesn’t know how to do it. He’s just like, one guy in a room. He said, “Look, would you meet him?” So, we did a skill swap. So for about six months, he would teach me meditation for an hour, and then I would go up the road and come up with some ideas on how to market his clinic.

KS: I see. This is the monk?

This is the monk. So, Andy’s background was as a Buddhist monk.

KS: Right, okay.

He was also a professional gymnast. He also had a degree in circus arts. Very normal business partner.

LG: Yeah, what you’d expect from a monk.

Exactly right.

LG: Yeah, nope.

KS: I like a bend-y monk.


KS: I just do. See, I made you laugh. Go ahead. Go on, move along. So, you were trading skill sets ...

Yeah, we were trading skill sets and ...

KS: It sounds vaguely naughty.

Yeah, it does.

KS: You were “trading skill sets.”

We were trading skills sets, and after a while, he’s just like, “You’ve got so many ideas. Do you fancy doing this?” The very first idea I gave him, I was like, “Look, it’s a shame that you’re in a room, on your own, teaching meditation. You’re obviously an incredible teacher. Why don’t we put it back on the app?” This was back in 2008.

KS: Right, so you wanted scalability? You were talking about scalability?

Well, I just thought ... he was just this amazing ...

KS: So, he could only serve so many at a time.

He could only sit one on one. I just thought it was kind of a waste. He said, “I don’t think it will work, because traditionally, in the lineage, traditionally, it’s always taught kind of student-to-teacher in a kind of oral lineage.”

KS: Yeah. “Snatch the pebble from my hand.”

Yes, exactly.

LG: Also, apps were really new then, in 2008. The iPhone had just come out in 2007. The app store was brand new.

Yeah. That’s right.

LG: There wasn’t this kind of economy that exists for applications now.

That’s exactly right. So, he said, “I really think we should do events.” So, we started off doing events. From 2010 to 2012, we did events. It was a terrible business, and it didn’t work; but, it was awesome, because we got ...

KS: Would you get lots of people together?

Yeah, 200 to 400 people in London, kind of every month. Like hindsight’s no sight, but it was an awesome opportunity at first, because we basically had a live research group every single month. I think the work that Andy did in the clinic, kind of working out what language people liked and the time lengths, plus all the work we did at the events, that really informed what we put into the app.

KS: So, you could do a lot of people at once? You could appeal to a lot of people not individually. Do you still do events or not? No? Sometimes?

We do sometimes, yeah. But, it’s not a big part of our business anymore.

KS: So, how did you shift to apps? What was the shift?

We basically had the last $50,000 left that we had kind of raised from friends and family. It was kind of like the last roll of the dice. We thought subscription could be interesting for a business like this, so in January 2012, we launched the very first version of the app. It was pretty jury-rigged. We got a lot of friends and family that either chipped in helping us make the animations and the design.

KS: Which is important, the animations are important.

Yeah, really important. And it just took off. We did a partnership with the Guardian that January, and they promoted it. It just kind of went off from there.

KS: So, why do you think it took off? Cause there had been stuff. I had been looking at a bunch, you met, there were people you talked to online. I’m trying to remember all the different things, but there was lots of mindfulness stuff going on.

There was lots of mindfulness stuff going on, but if you think about where you could go and learn mindfulness, you either had to go to a Buddhist center, and that’s not for everyone. Not saying it’s not great. Or, you have to go to a live teacher, or you send out for a CD, and it was like, “Repeat, repeat, repeat.”

KS: Yes.

Our first version of the app was 365 days of content, and every single day was individually recorded.

KS: Different. Right.

You kind of graduated. It was just one ... Once you got on the train, you couldn’t get off the train.

LG: Yeah, I read somewhere that since you’ve started meditating, you have not missed a day? Is that true?

That is absolutely true, yeah.

LG: So, how many days consecutively?

I don’t know, it’s ... since December 2008.

KS: Oh.

LG: Wow.

I don’t know how many days that is, but quite a lot.

KS: So, conceptually, the idea of “let’s get people to disconnect by connecting to their phones,” which I think is kind of ...

Yeah. The irony is not lost on them.

LG: Right.

KS: No, it’s not. I’m assuming it’s not.

It’s not.

KS: It’s not the biggest revelation, I assume.


KS: What was the thinking that you could take something that was supposed to remove you from day-to-day life, and the cares of day-to-day life, and move you to a different head space? Ha ha.

Yeah, that was good.

KS: Thank you.

I think, for us, it was like that’s where people are. That’s where they’re spending all their time, that’s where a lot of their stress is. So meet them where they are, where you think you can help the most. I’m also ... I just think that we haven’t really worked out how to use technology for good yet, in lots of ways. I think we’re starting to; it’s all about attention engagement. I just think there’s something interesting in thinking about how to use tech in a healthy way. I would hope that Headspace is one of those products. I’m hopeful of what we can do with tech. I just think that we’re right at the start of that journey.

KS: But you’re engaging in a place where they’re distracted in order to de-distract.

Well, trying to teach them a technique in which they can learn the skills to be able to go out into life and apply that so they can be more calm and relaxed in whatever they’re doing. I think that’s a useful way to use it.

LG: Talk a little bit about the design of the app itself, and you actually did launch a pretty major redesign of the app last week?

We did, we did. Last week, we did.

LG: The way that it’s structured is that, you sort of segment meditation out into different areas of life that people want to address. It could be sports, it could be relationships.

That’s correct.

LG: Then, people sort of have to “level up” in a way, which is different than some of the other apps that are out there. Explain the thinking behind that.

A lot of this comes from ... You know, the first thing, I’m not a meditation teacher, but I can tell you what Andy told me about it. The lineage that Andy comes from, you know, there’s very specific techniques and teaching that have been around for thousands of years. So, we lean on a lot of those teachings Andy learned when he was a monk. So the kind of graduated learning, every single day is slightly different. He’s giving you something different to focus on every single session. That graduated learning, we hope that as you stick with it, you’re kind of feeling like you’re progressing as you go through. That’s often how it was taught from where he ...

KS: Right, which is what you teach in the numbers and things like that.

Exactly right. The idea is how could we, our vision is how do we create the most comprehensive guide from when you’re born to when you die to everything in between? How can we create content and experiences that can help you whether you’re a 12-year-old kid and you’re struggling with bullying, or you’re a mom and you just had a baby, and you don’t know what to do or you can’t sleep. We think there’s so many different ways that you can apply this. It’s also not up to us to define how you use it. I think people use it in very different ways, but you mentioned sports, athletes use it for their performance.

KS: You want to give them a different experience. I’m thinking of Buddhify. I’ve tried them all, which is interesting. Some of them just let you meditate on your own.

That’s right.

KS: You have that option, as well.

We do. We have unguided and guided.

KS: Unguided, yeah. Most like the guided one. Talk a little about the competitors, because there’s so many of them. How do you differentiate yourself and what do you think? I know you’re supposed to say you like all of them, because you’re a Buddhist.


KS: Talk a little about the competitive landscape, because there’s so many of them.

There’s so many. Every day there’s like a new one.

KS: Yeah, just like in the health area, like running. I tend to settle on one seven-minute, or some other one, or night-gear, whatever the one you use. Talk about the competitive landscape when you’re ... cause you guys are at the top of it, it seems like.

I think so, yeah. I think we are. I think there’s a lot of relaxation apps out there. I think there’s a lot of people that are trying to relax you with sounds or visuals, or just give you a kind of moment, like a breather.

KS: Right.

Our point of view is that we really want to teach people a skill that they can use when they’re not in the app. How can you apply this teaching? You don’t need it necessarily in the app, but when you’re in an argument with your partner, how do you take that moment to pause and reflect so maybe you don’t respond in quite the same way? So we think that graduated skill that we put into the product, I think that’s kind of different. You picked up on it earlier, Lauren.

Also, our brand, our style, our tone, the animations. We just released about 60 new animations that we’re going to put throughout the product. Some of them are released now but we’re going to gradually increase that. We see that if you go back to the idea of a comprehensive guide, we really want to think about, what is all the other content we can put around that subject matter that can help you, even if you don’t want to meditate. If you’re interested about the neuroscience of the brain and what it does when you’ve got problems with sleep, how can we show that? How can we create interesting content so that you can get excited enough to want to try it?

KS: So, you’re competing with Arianna Huffington then, who’s trying to thrive.

I wouldn’t say that we are, actually.

KS: I know. She’ll get to meditate, trust me, she will. I was at an event. She has these pop-up stores where all this sleep stuff, I’ve never been so stressed out in my life. She kept giving me, “Here’s this little bag you can put your cellphone on, Kara. You put your cellphone on, it puts your cellphone to bed.” Anyway. It’s just like everybody’s hitting it from a different thing.

I think that’s right. We’re trying to really stick with the authenticity of the teachings.

KS: Of just meditation.

LG: What’s your favorite?

KS: I like Headspace, and I like Buddhify. I think they’re both pretty good. Oddly enough, I go to sleep ... Buddhify, I just go right to sleep, I don’t even hear it. Headspace, I like the guy’s voice. So, talk about ... It’s Andy’s, right?

Yes, it’s Andy’s voice. Yeah.

KS: Is it only him, or can you find others? Or are you just going to use him?

It’s only Andy’s voice at the moment. We think that the meditation ...

KS: Is there some nice lady you could find to talk?

Yeah, we could do.

LG: How about Kara Swisher? That would put people ...

Yeah, Kara. I think you’d be a really relaxing meditation teacher.

KS: “Let me tell you about sexual harassment at Uber today. It’s worse than you thought. Please, sit back. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale?’ It’s coming true.”

LG: I’m just so relaxed.

Yeah, I feel really relaxed now.

KS: “Do you think it’s fiction? It’s not. Take off your yoga pants immediately and put on a giant red dress.”

Now, let me ask. I do it in a soft way. But go ahead. Andy, let’s get back to Andy. Stop having so much stressful fun. Andy, you have just his voice at the moment?

We have just his voice at the moment, but we are starting to translate, so there’s now a German Andy that we’re playing around with.

KS: What? There’s Andy speaking German?

Andy’s not speaking German, but we’re translating Andy’s voice as German.

LG: How do you make German not stressful?

I know.

LG: I thought you meant you hired a German who happened to be named Andy.


KS: No, but you found a non-stressful German. Oh, okay.

We found a non-stressful German, yeah.

KS: I’m not going to go into it, but years ago I did a piece about people who read in German from movie scripts. The voices, and there’s certain people who read Mike Myers, whoever it was at the time.

Like, Brad Pitt, there’s like a German Brad Pitt.

KS: There’s a German Brad Pitt. So, you have a German one. Where else are you going?

We’re looking at a bunch of different markets at the moment, but we reckon we’ll probably do the first launch in about three different markets.

KS: So where?

Germany, Brazil we’ll look at, and I think we’re quite interested in India, which obviously isn’t English-speaking, but may translate into some of the dialects there as well.

KS: Right. You’ve got to find an Andy, a calm person in each place.

That’s right.

KS: How do you find him?

You test. We’re going through this incredible process at the moment where we’re just testing hundreds and hundreds of voices.

KS: What rates in voices? Cause Andy’s is like, I don’t know what. He’s got something going on.

He’s got ... The amazing thing about Andy, people might not realize this, but he doesn’t prepare anything. He would just go into the recording studio and just kind of does it straight off of that.

LG: Really? He’s not like, “Red leather, yellow leather”? Gets all into the zone?

KS: Eating an apple.

No, he’s definitely not like that.

LG: Avoiding milk?

Yeah, no, he’s definitely not like that. He’s incredible. We’re working out what the right tone is. It’s quite a process.

KS: So, right now the only English-speaking one will be Andy?

Well, I think we might try a female version of the voice at some point, yeah.

KS: Wow.

LG: I keep wondering when these apps — and it’s not just yours, but all of them — may get a little bit smarter. Because I think it is a crowded market. People say now that they’ve stopped downloading as many apps on their phones and maybe they don’t open them as frequently.

That’s right.

LG: When this whole thing sort of peaks, I keep thinking the next intelligent form of this is going to be the app knows when you’re stressed, it knows where you are, maybe it’s working with your Apple watch or something else, and it sees your heart rate spike.

That’s right.

LG: Everything’s just kind of served to you. Is that something you’re working on?

Yeah, definitely. It’s like, how do you serve up the perfect piece of content when someone needs it most?

KS: I see.

I think there’s so many different inputs you could put into that.

KS: So like, Thanksgiving dinner, everyone was meditating.

Exactly, everyone’s just like, “SOS, SOS, SOS.”

KS: Any Trump discussion, ugh.

LG: What are some specifics around ...

KS: It could zap you to make you meditate, don’t you think?

LG: Yeah, I guess.

KS: What would it do? So you could do an Apple watch. Where else?

If you think about, the world’s going to get plumbed with audio and speakers, that’s an interesting UX (user experience) for us. How do you start to think about different platforms and different delivery? Our thing is like, how do we ... you know, we’re on 12 different airlines at the moment. That, for us, is a really interesting thing where you’re kind of putting content where people need it most. Where they’ve got ... they’re in a seat, and they’re stressed, and they’re on travel.

KS: That’s because the airlines are abusing them.

LG: That’s when I use it though. I’m not kidding.

KS: Really?

LG: Yeah, I started using a meditation app last month and it wasn’t Headspace, admittedly.


LG: It’s called Headstrong.

Ah, the Equinox one.

LG: Which, I figured I pay so much for this damn gym anyway, I might as well use their free meditation service. It’s good, because now it has opened up my eyes and my mind to other applications.

And now you’ll use Headspace.

LG: Exploring Headspace ... right, but I use it during takeoff, because I get very nervous during takeoff.

KS: Really?

LG: I find it to be helpful. Yeah.

KS: I had no idea. So do you use it throughout the flight?

LG: No, generally just like the first 10 to 15 minutes, which is all you need for takeoff. Right?

KS: I see, that’s when I’m watching “Office Christmas Party.”

LG: No, then after that I’m like, “Now I’m going to go watch ‘John Wick,’” or whatever terrible movie I’m watching in flight.

KS: So, airlines. Where else, cars?

Yeah, I think cars are interesting. I think airport ... just like, airports, we create these pods. We want to try to get in schools.

KS: Oh, schools. That would be good.

We’ve got this “get some, give some” project, where we match one for one.

KS: I see.

So, we’re working on about, I don’t know, 200 different nonprofits right now.

KS: So lots of areas for this to go. Do you see yourself ... You know, eventually we’re going to have these little things in our ears, presumably.

I think so.

KS: And, they would just activate, right?

I think so.

KS: Just, like, right now. You would need to meditate ... if you give it permission first.

If you give it permission, yeah.

KS: What about on all the Amazon Alexa. The Google .... what’s it called ...

LG: Google Home.

Google Home. We’re on there.

LG: Apple HomePod.

KS: Whatever. The toilet paper, that’s the Apple one, right?

LG: The Apple HomePod, yeah.

KS: How do you look at those?

We’re already on ... we did the launch with Google Home on that. I think that’s a really interesting ... Cause it’s away from the screen, which I think is really important for people, actually.

KS: Right, and people can pay attention.


KS: Where do people meditate the most using these things? You are supposed to take your phone and put it somewhere else, which I don’t do. I don’t care what Arianna Huffington tells me. I stick it right under my pillow.


KS: Eventually I’ll either die from radiation poisoning or one of these things. Where do people use it most? Where is it? Like in the morning, they do it every morning? Or is it when they go to sleep, or what?

It’s early in the morning and right before they go to sleep are the peak times.

KS: Right.

I think people use it in different ways. We get emails from people that say they use it in their car before they go into work, if they drive to work. People on the subway.

KS: You have to close your eyes. That’s not a good idea if you’re driving.

Not when they’re driving, when they’ve arrived.

KS: Oh, in the parking lot.

In the parking lot, yeah. People use it ... We’ve have people say they use it in the disabled toilet stall at work.

KS: Oh that would work.

LG: Lactation rooms.

Lactation rooms, yeah.

KS: All jokes aside, Arianna’s trying to get Travis to meditate. Talk a little bit about where meditation’s going, because it’s not a really American thing.

It’s not.

KS: It’s certainly in other countries. It’s a practice that many people practice.

That’s right.

KS: In Asia, especially. Talk about how you get people to accept that, because America does not seem like the most meditative culture at all.

I think that’s fair. We started off in the U.K., which I would say is the most cynical market for stuff like this.

KS: Really? Why?

It’s cause we’re Brits. Like, we don’t really trust anything.

KS: What do they say, “Bollocks, that’s a posh app”?

Exactly. We just see everything’s kind of a bit woowoo.

KS: Posh is the right word.

LG: Stick to Arianna.

KS: All right. “Hello, darling.”

I think America is a really interesting time and a really interesting space, because I do think people are starting to look for ways they can deal with the onslaught of living in a modern world. We just think that that is starting to ... Back in 2008, when we used to try to tell people what we were trying to do, people used to physically back away from us.

KS: Really?

Yeah, like, “Who are these two weirdos coming to speak to me about meditation?” Now, it’s a different conversation. I’ve seen that shift in desire. I think it’s just going to happen more and more. As we understand more about the mind, and the same way with physical fitness, I think back in the ... if you look at Phil Knight’s book, in “Shoe Dog,” when he talked about running, when they used to run in Portland, and when he used to jog in the road and jocks used to chuck stuff at him, kind of saying, “Where’s your horse?” I think jogging was seen as a weird thing, and you would never see that as a weird thing now.

KS: No.

I think meditation’s kind of on a similar journey.

KS: I would hope so.

LG: But how much of that is ... So you’ve had a lot of celebrity endorsement, as well. Some pretty well known people have come out and said they love Headspace. How much of it is because of that? Which would sort of make me think more like, it’s possibly a fad? And how much of it is that there is science, there are reports coming out from Harvard and other places supporting the growth of areas in the brain based on this practice? It seems to me a lot of people don’t really, I don’t want to assume, don’t bother digging into the data of these things. They just think like, “This green juice is going to do magical things.” Right?

I think it’s a bit of that. I think there’s definitely kind of, you know as people ... if there’s people that they look up to and they say they’re going to do it whether you’re a sports star or a celebrity, I think that does have an impact. But we’ve got a chief science officer at Headspace, so we’re working on about 50 different studies at the moment.

KS: So to convince people.

LG: Is that person a doctor?

Yeah. Doctor Megan.

LG: I’m sorry, I’m just curious.

It’s a good question.

LG: Is it a PhD or an MD?

It’s a PhD, so Dr. Megan Jones Bell, who was at Stanford University and also was one of the co-founders at Lantern. She’s heading up all of our medical research. We’ve been working on it for about four years. We’ve got four clinical trials with Kaiser Permanente.

KS: To see, because they want people less sick, presumably. Let’s talk about the numbers. How many downloads today?

About 16,000,000.

KS: 16,000,000. And how many people are paying for it?

We don’t release those numbers.

KS: You don’t release those, all right. So revenue claims are around $50 million at this point? You don’t really say.


KS: Maybe. Could be. How much funding? You’ve gotten from Peter Turner and ...

About $34 million.

KS: About $34 million. And that’s, whose else?

That’s a series A, yeah.

KS: Peter Turner.

Jim Burr. Deerfield, which is like a health care fund.

KS: But has it been hard to raise money for it?

It hasn’t been hard, actually, is the truth.

KS: You’re using that for your app and things like that.

We’re using that for international expansion. We’re starting with enterprise, we’re working with about ...

KS: All digital, not analog.

All digital.

KS: And the content side of the business, you’re doing much more of.

We’re doing a lot more of.

LG: I’ve noticed, actually, you publish blog posts pretty frequently.

We’re going to be doing a lot more content beyond meditation as well. We do want to start going into different verticals. We might look at nutrition, we might look at fitness.

KS: Sure, absolutely. Do you think wearing devices and things is critical to all of this?

I personally don’t like the wearing. I think it’s just a fad that’s going to die out, personally. I think that once it’s so invisible that you can’t see it, I think that’s when it will become really useful.

KS: I love my AirPods. I would like an embedded thing, like it’s just embedded.

LG: It’s interesting. Fitbit and Apple watch in the past year have released new wrist-wearables that have some type of “breathe” app, and I think they’re both called “breathe.”

That’s right.

LG: What’s interesting is that Fitbits, you sort of have to stare at the display in order to go through the process of the breathing app.

KS: That’s stressful.

LG: Because you start it, and then there’s no sort of haptic feedback to let you know that it’s happening. So you’re kind of looking at it. Apple did a little bit of a better job because you can close your eyes and you can still follow along with the breathing app because of the haptic feedback on your wrist. But it’s still, I don’t know, it’s kind of like you’re still focusing your thoughts on your wrist in this weird way.

KS: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I would see it in the ear or something like that, and again embedded. Just embed it.

LG: Yeah.

KS: Just get it over with.

LG: Kara just wants ... you’ll be buried in your AirPods.

KS: I will, I love my AirPods even though they’re ugly. I showed up at an Apple event, and all the top Apple execs were there and they were like so excited I was wearing AirPods. And I said, “These are the ugliest things I’ve ever worn.”

I bet they loved that.

KS: That’s how much I like them. I said, “I hate your Apple watch, I hate it, and I love these. So one for one.”

Anyway, so in a minute we’re going to take some questions about Headspace and meditation apps from our readers and listens, but first we’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. Lauren, say the word “meditation.”

LG: Ka-ching.

KS: That’s our word.

LG: That’s how I meditate, it’s like ommmm.

Oh, that’s your word.

KS: That’s our word, ka-ching.

Like cash.

LG: It’s like our om.

KS: Ka-ching, it’s like our om. Ka-ching.

I’m definitely borrowing your meditation.

KS: Can you call us and go ka-ching? We could have that on the show.

We should do a guest take.

KS: Yes, we should.

Just like a rogue one.

KS: No, no, really you would, your business would plummet. Peter Turner would not allow that to happen and that’s why he’s such a good executive.


LG: I feel so relaxed. Hey Eric, I don’t want to give you any more work than you already do, but at some point Kara and I did tape a podcast about AirPods and I remember Kara having some choice words about the AirPod.

KS: Yes.

LG: So if you’re going to perhaps go back and insert that.

KS: Yeah right.

LG: Go ahead and do it right now.

KS: You know what? I took it back. I love them so.

LG: All right Kara, let’s wait and hear what you had to say.

[previously recorded]

KS: They look like fake earrings from the 70s, fake plastic earrings. Like white plastic earrings, or the 60s even. They look like Austin Powers.

I think one of the things, when I tried them on super briefly when they introduced them and it felt, I was so aware of them. And I didn’t imagine I would stop being aware of them. You know I always forget when I have earbuds in and I have people saying, “Take your earbuds out,” and I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t realize I had them in,” even when the wires are dangling down. But I was super aware of these things.

LG: Are you going to buy them?

KS: No. No, I have no interest in them. I don’t like the hanging down thing.

LG: You can borrow my pair any time you’d like.

KS: Oh, that’s disgusting. I’m not putting your earbuds in my ears, no way.

LG: Okay, I rest my case. We’re here with Richard Pierson, and he is of the opinion that people can change and become more evolved. He’s the CEO of Headspace, talking about meditation. Correct, you believe people can change, don’t you?

I do believe people can change.

KS: I don’t. And now we’re going to take some questions from our readers and listeners. This is a fascinating area. Lauren, do you want to read the first question?

LG: I would love to. This question is from Rafael Tihanyi who is @RafaTihanyi on Twitter. “What’s the best way to deal with the distractions that come with meditating using an app on your phone? Can it be as effective?”

So I think there’s a few there. The main thing is, if you do it on your phone make sure you put it on airplane mode so you don’t get buzzed and binged and ringed.

KS: Good idea.

That’s the first thing. I think the other thing around distractions is this kind of noise. I think a lot of people think I can’t meditate unless I’m in a quiet room somewhere. Actually you can use noise as kind of your object to meditation so that when you’re, when you get distracted by the noise you actually kind of focus on it rather than trying to push it out. Because it’s in the resistance of the noise that makes it difficult, and that’s when you get tense. So actually you can use distractions in a really useful way if you know the skill.

LG: I get what you’re saying.


LG: It’s kind of like that idea, some of the meditation apps will say like, “You shouldn’t try to fight thoughts, it’s okay if thoughts come into your brain,” but you’re just supposed to sort of accept them and let them flow out.

KS: Right.

LG: But can you speak in that voice?

KS: Yes, they so speak in that voice. But so you want them, you also have them look at videos before.

We do.

KS: Why do you do that? Because that’s — others don’t do that.

They don’t do that. I think some of the analogies, like meditation as skill, as a technique is pretty simple, like follow your breath. But actually it’s how you approach that technique is how you get the most benefit from it. So some of those animations are about setting your mind up so that you can apply that technique in the best way. So that idea of effort, like one of our animations is effort, and I think in the West we’re brought up, the more effort that we put into something, the more that we’re going to get out of it.

LG: Mm-hmm.

I think meditation is the opposite of that. The more effort that you put into it the more tense you get and it’s different. It’s setting up some of those ideas so that when you actually do the practice.

KS: You have to learn it before.


KS: So you’re trying to sort of replicate that idea of a teacher.


KS: Through the animations themselves because people are used to using them.

That’s correct.

KS: And they’re quite good, they’re lovely little animations.

Thank you, Kara.

KS: And they’re short. Is that the style you’re going to do or are you going to do different ones?

Yeah, we just, that’s exactly the style. In the new app the guys are doing an incredible job of making a bunch of new ... As I said, there’s about 60 slated.

KS: Right.

But we’ve released about, I don’t know, eight new ones and counting.

KS: I’ll have to look.

LG: And will the app, I should know this, but will it run without a data connection?


LG: So if you want to put your phone in airplane mode and block everything else out.

Yes, exactly.

LG: So that’s probably a good thing.

KS: Airplane mode is probably the best suggestion. Airplane mode.

I think so.

KS: Yeah. And keep the cat out.

LG: The cat? What has it to do with keep the cat out?

KS: If you’re sitting there. Just in general, I’m just giving that other tip. The cat always interrupts my meditation.

LG: Oh, I thought that you kept your cat out by putting your phone into airplane mode.

KS: No.

LG: And I was like, “Kara, we need to talk about virtual pets versus real ones.”

KS: No, I keep the cat out of the room. The cat bothers me.

LG: All right, all right, in any case.

KS: I know I’m supposed to incorporated it, but it’s irritating.


KS: So this is the next one. Aaron Cohen @CohenComms: “Can a meditation app backfire on you and make you more stressed out?”


LG: If Kara’s reading it sure, but can it do that?

I think a lot of people say, “Oh, I’ve started meditating, now I’m just really angry.” I think meditation ...

LG: What?

Yeah, I think it brings up emotions, right?

KS: Right.

Meditation is just the lens of whatever’s going on in your mind.

KS: Oh.

Maybe you’re just not aware of it.

KS: Right.

And so by doing it it makes you aware of it. So they think, “Oh, it’s made me angry, it’s made me stressed.” But actually it’s just shining a light on the fact that that was what was there. But in seeing it and looking at it, that’s where the release comes from.

KS: But you don’t have psychology along with it, right?

We don’t.

KS: Don’t you think about doing that?

No, not at the moment.

KS: You don’t say, “You’re stressed out because you’re angry”?


KS: “You’re angry because you’re stressed out.”

We don’t do that, but you’re going to do that for us.

KS: No, it’s interesting because years ago someone ... I never have gone to therapy, and someone was like, “You should go to therapy,” and I go, “I’m pretty happy.” And they’re like, “You’re blocking.” I said, “It’s working.”


LG: It’s true.

KS: But it was interesting. I don’t get angry. But what other things do people do? Like what makes people the most stressed out about using a meditation app? Just because they’ll look done, or they don’t want to seem wimpy?

I think it’s that sense of ... Well, 50 percent of our audience is men, which is kind of ...

KS: How many is that who use Axe because that’s stressful. Because that’s hugely stressful.

About 14 1/2 million use it.

LG: They should be stressed, they smell bad.

Exactly. We’ve just got the whole Axe population on it. No, I think people think they’re not going to be able to do it.

LG: I see.

And they want to perfect it.

LG: Mm-hmm. Oh yeah.

And I think the idea of perfectionism that we have is a real problem in meditation.

LG: I see, but half are men?

Yeah. Look, it’s not surprising, right? Because men don’t ... I just don’t think they talk about their mental health. Like you just don’t talk about it with your friends. And so the idea that I can do it on an app, and I don’t have to tell anyone about it ...

LG: Right.

I think that’s pretty, like if you’re really struggling ... When I had really bad anxiety it’s not something I talked to my friends about.

KS: Right, so you can do it by yourself. That’s a good point.

LG: You don’t have to get in the car and go to therapy. It’s certainly less time per day if you manage your time.


KS: You can do it online now.

LG: You can, you can, but it’s not the same.

KS: So it’s half men, what ages?

It’s kind of 24 to 45.

KS: Okay.

That’s the main ...

KS: People have just had it, like, “I don’t care.”


KS: I’ll be dying soon. I’ll be brought up into the dharma. The dharma, right?

Yes, the dharma.

KS: The dharma. I’m not going to be brought up into the dharma because you have to like perfect yourself.

LG: Correct.

Well yeah, maybe. I don’t know.

KS: Also the images around meditation are also sort of irritating, people who tell you about how calm they are too.

That’s right.

KS: That has to change, that has to change.

LG: Mm-hmm. Next question?

KS: Next question, go ahead.

LG: The next question is from Manisha Shah, @mani_shah on Twitter. “Are free features on these apps ‘enough’” — and she put quotes around enough — “or do the paid extras really help to improve or deepen your practice? If yes, then which ones?” This is a really good question because how much do you charge for your subscription? Is it $8 a month?

Yeah, it’s about $8 a month if you buy the annual, yeah.

LG: If you buy the annual, okay. And so I’m wondering about this because, like the Headstrong app I mentioned earlier, which is not free — it’s free through a very expensive gym membership, but it’s not tiered in the same way that yours is. It’s been okay, you know?


LG: But yours is clearly for value proposition. How much more valuable is it?

I think it’s a lot more valuable. I’m pretty biased, but I think that.

LG: That is true.

No, I genuinely think that because there’s over 1,000 hours of content in the current Headspace and we’ve got about another 2,000 slated. So I think that’s a really deep level of content that someone can go through. And it also ... I suppose you can use it depending on what’s going on in your life. You know, I think people need different things at different times. And our hope is that we can create all the content that anyone needs no matter what they’re going through. So I just think that kind of sense of graduated learning approach, that you’re constantly learning a skill. We want them to think of this as a skill. I think that’s a slight shift in thinking.

KS: But nothing more, like is there more that you get. Like the non-paying ones, you get only a certain amount, number of meditations, or whatever.

Like the first 10 days, yeah.

KS: And you go through them pretty quickly.


KS: But there’s not other things like analog, like books, or?

We do have, Andy’s got three books out, actually.

KS: Right, but what about other things you might need to meditate? Incense or something?

Yeah. We’re not really the ... we’re not going to go into the incense business now.

KS: Or something like that. It could be a whole ... meditation clothing.

We’ve got a board meeting coming up soon with Peter, I will suggest it.

KS: Okay. Clothing, cashmere.

Maybe cashmere sweaters.

KS: That always makes you feel better. Cashmere, you should meditate in cashmere. I think that’s what Peter Turner does is he meditates in cashmere and then everything is all good.

LG: So you pay a little bit more, you get more content.

KS: More content.

Yeah, and different types of techniques as well. There’s like eight different techniques in the Headspace app.

LG: Extra.

KS: You’ve got really good stuff on the free stuff, I tell you.

Yeah. It’s pretty generous.

KS: It’s pretty generous. All of them, many of them are.

That’s true.

KS: Which is interesting. All right, next one is from Rohan Bhade, Byde, I don’t know. Anyway. “Is it worth using a dedicated subscription-based app or is the Breathe app on the iPhone sufficient for most people’s needs?” No, it’s not.

LG: Oh, it’s the watch, actually.

KS: Watch, on the watch. On the Apple watch.

LG: It’s supposed to be on Apple watch.

I don’t think so, no.

LG: It’s a nice feature of the Apple watch.

KS: Sure.

LG: Lets all breathe.

KS: It’s really relaxation rather than learning.

LG: Right, you’re not really building on it.

That’s right.

LG: I don’t think in my experience — and I’m not someone that used the Breathe app a ton on the Apple watch when I was wearing the Apple watch. But I think you can do two- or five-minute sessions, and that’s kind of it. And it’s great if you can work that into your daily routine, but you’re not, it’s not deepening.

KS: Well it’s a good beginning, breathing. I do it on the subway, I breathe really heavy.

LG: That’s so funny to think like, so we’re like from the pre ... like we grew up pre internet. I didn’t have the internet until I was like a teenager, right?

KS: Okay.

LG: So now kids that are growing up now cannot say that. They were born and raised with the internet.

KS: Right.

LG: And it’s crazy to think that we now have to stop to remember to breathe. I don’t know if it was always like, if society was always like this in a civilized society.

KS: Did you breathe that much before? You did go (breathing)?

LG: I don’t know, I just remember having a lot more time to sit around and do nothing and think.

KS: Well yeah, because you didn’t have all this stuff. I told my kids that. They’re like, “What did you do?” “Other things, like not this.”

LG: Yeah.

But we are always breathing, right?

KS: Yeah.

LG: That’s true.

It’s just that you’re not aware of it.

LG: Right.

KS: Yes, you’re not thinking. You’re definitely all breathing or you’re dead, right?

I think so.

KS: But interestingly enough, my kids use the Headspace app.

Do they?

KS: Yeah.

That’s great.

KS: One kid, my youngest really loves it.

How old’s your youngest?

KS: 12.

Oh wow.

KS: He’s a little bit stressful compared to the other kid who could care less about anything. He doesn’t need anything. He’s like a Buddha, just like that. But my youngest likes it.

That’s great.

KS: He likes it, it helps him go to sleep, it settles his thoughts. He’s super smart, and so he’s always thinking.


KS: And last night I said, because it was driving me crazy, “Can you use your meditation app?” I know it sounds like a ridiculous California parent.


LG: Like can you please take out the recycling, and the compost, and everything else, and then just use the meditation app. Mommy’s got to go do something in her self-driving car.

KS: Exactly. But he did and he was like ... And I go, “You gotta, like, settle your thoughts.” And he goes, “I’m always thinking,” and I’m like, “I know, that’s the point.” But it was really interesting. It works really well for him.

That’s great.

KS: Yeah, I think he’ll get into it over time, that’s what I’m hoping. Because I think it’s good for him.

LG: So Rohan, my answer to you would be — and Rich probably has a different answer because he’s biased — I do think it’s worth investing in some other type of app or looking into other apps even if they’re free apps in the store beyond Breathe on the Apple watch.

KS: Because there’s some that are self-guided, which I think is hard for a lot of people.

I think so too.

KS: I like the guided ones. All right, Cesare Forelli. “Do you need I need to meditate before listening to the Uber episode?” Absolutely. And then when you finish we’ll upset you some more, I think. Yes, I would say so.

LG: Yeah, I would say wait until after to meditate.

KS: To meditate. Let’s all breathe.

LG: At the end of this episode Kara is going to take you through a guided meditation. When you’re in an Uber — did you make a deal with Uber yet?

Well, we were looking at it.

KS: This is the time. You know what? This is the time. You got Arianna over there, she loves the meditation. She might try to push her meditation stuff, but I’m just telling you, good time to get over there.

Peak time.

KS: It would be a good time, or any of the stuff like that.

I think it would be great.

KS: Yeah, because they talk a lot. I’d rather meditate.


KS: Those little drivers talk a lot. I never can ride the Lines or ...

It could be like airplane mode for the taxis, couldn’t it?

KS: They never stop talking. I have to say, in my experience, I’ve been using Lyft lately a lot. Lyft drivers talk a lot. A lot.

LG: Yeah.

KS: Talkie.

LG: Yeah.

KS: Chatty.

LG: They talk a lot about how they’re driving for both and you can’t tip an Uber and they don’t like it.

KS: I was doing the Headspace meditation app in the car, in the Lyft, and I’m literally like ... They were talking to me and I was like, “You’re ... I’m meditating you asshole.” It was super funny. Anyway.

LG: Last question is from Ina Fried.

KS: Oh my god.

LG: “How does Kara find the time to meditate with all of her sportsball watching?”

KS: Sports, I hate sports. I don’t ...

LG: Did you know that the Warriors won the other night?

KS: I heard it. There was noise in the neighborhood.

LG: Did you know what sport that was?

KS: Whoo. Basketball.

LG: Yay.

KS: My son told me. He watched it and explained to me.

LG: Eric also, Eric and I both went, yay.

KS: Everyone thought they were going to win, right?

LG: Well yeah, they were up in the series, but you never know.

KS: I was at a party where one of the players, and he’s the really tall one.

LG: Oh my god.

Oh my god, you can’t say that.

KS: Name the second famous player.

LG: Andre Iguodala.

KS: Him.

LG: He’s very fashionable.

KS: He is, he was at a party, and I’m not going to say whose house it was, but it was Sheryl Sandberg’s, and he was like, I literally went up to him and was chatting with his wife who’s a lovely, amazing woman. And I turned to him and I go, “What do you do?” And like six people were like mortified by my ... I was like, “What do you do?” And he goes, “I’m in sports.” And I’m like, “What sport?” and it was ... I thought that was very zen of me.

LG: That’s pretty good.

KS: Anyway, I should meditate on how bad I am at that. So finishing up, I just have one more question for you. How big do you expect it to grow? Like what’s the end game here for you guys?

The end game is the mission, how do we improve the health and happiness of the world, which I don’t think ... the only reason we like it is because it never runs out.

KS: Right.

I don’t think you ever kind of wake up one day and say, “We’ve done that job.”

KS: Yeah.

I think it’s as big as our imaginations will allow it to go, but it’s all about how do we get to that mission as quickly as we can.

KS: And is it good that we have this very stressful political situation now for your business?

It’s interesting, the day of the election announcement our SOS content, which is this two-minute panic button, went up like 50 percent, the usage on that day.

KS: Wow.

Everything was just crazy.

KS: So it is a good time to meditate.

I think so.

KS: It’s a good time to meditate. Well, thank you so much.

LG: And now Kara Swisher is going to lead you in a guided meditation. Go ahead, Kara. Let’s all be quiet.

KS: By the way, climate change is real. An iceberg is going to fall off of Antarctica and kill us all. Thank you. Come on.

On that cheery note.

LG: I listened to a meditation snippet once where the woman said something like, “Don’t think about what you want, you may be surprised to learn that what you thought you wanted wasn’t what you wanted.”

KS: That’s a Rolling Stones song.

LG: “And what do want will come to you.” And I’m like, “Oh no, it isn’t that I didn’t know what I wanted. What’s going to happen?”

KS: You know, I think I will end with the meditation from “Moonlighting.” Not “Moonlighting,” Cher was in it. And Olympia Dukakis had a line ...

LG: With Nicholas Cage?

KS: Nicholas Cage, and her husband was cheating on her. I think it was Olympia Dukakis. No, she didn’t hit him, she didn’t say, “Snap out of it.”

LG: Yeah.

KS: But she goes, I forget his name, the husband’s name, whatever the husband’s name is. She goes “No matter what you do, you’re gonna die.”

LG: Was it “Mermaids”? What was that?

KS: No it was “Moonlight,” there was a moon in it.

LG: Okay.

KS: Anyway, I love that thing. “No matter what you do, you’re gonna die.”

Eric Johnson: “Moonstruck”?

KS: “Moonstruck.”

LG: “Moonstruck.” Yeah. She won an Academy Award for that.

KS: Can I do a meditation?

You can.

KS: No matter what you’re going to do, you’re going to die.


KS: You can’t get out of this life alive. I’ll do a whole death one.

You can do a death pack.

KS: I could.

Yeah, really cheery death pack.

KS: I think that would be enormously successful because it’s like, let’s remember. Like Steve Jobs, his famous speech was about you’re going to die no matter what you do.

It’s true.

LG: Mm-hmm, that’s right.

KS: Anyhow, on that happy, cheery note.

LG: Rich, thank you so much for coming in.

Thanks for having me.

KS: This was super fun. Thank you for coming out from Los Angeles.

I did come from Los Angeles.

KS: That’s a stressful place.

Sometimes if you’re in the city.

LG: Especially if you’re in the car.

KS: Yeah, yeah. Is it?

LG: Well, if you’re in the car it’s stressful.

KS: I like stressful Los Angeles. Anyway this has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Rich, again, thanks for joining us from Headspace.

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