Mindfulness profits as meditation apps mature

PARIS, June 16, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – From the Zen capital of LA to the Champs
Elysees comes the calming voice of a British Buddhist monk-turned
entrepreneur, introducing American-style online mindfulness to the stressed-
out French.

“Relax your muscles, breathe,” Andy Puddicombe, the bronzed co-founder of
the app Headspace, intones by videoconference to a roomful of participants
gathered on Paris’s ultra-chic shopping artery.

The Englishman and his French team are hoping to replicate the US success
of Headspace with a French-language version, in a market where New Age
philosophies from the “Anglo-Saxon” world are often viewed askance.

Its path has been helped by the success of French mindfulness app
PetitBambou, which launched in 2015 — five years after Headspace — and
claims more than three million users in France for its free and paid
platforms.

Both apps use guided meditations for an array of situations — from coping
with bereavement to just getting through a difficult day at work — with
support from online counsellors, funky animations and videos.

In France as in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, companies have
been signing up to subscriptions for their employees.

PetitBambou says it has secured “hundreds of licenses” from companies such
as Deloitte and railways group SNCF and that it has nothing to fear from
Headspace, which along with rival Calm has come to dominate the US market.
In a Paris studio, working on voice recordings for the app, PetitBambou
co-founder Benjamin Blasco said his company was in any case aiming for the
long haul.

– ‘Mental health unicorn’ –
“We broke even three years ago. We will not sacrifice anything on the
altar of marketing,” Blasco told AFP.

“We do not try at all costs to keep people in the app,” he said, but to
solicit a two-way exchange and tailor therapy to the user’s needs.

“Meditation is not a miracle tool, rather a mental hygiene: what’s
essential is regular practice,” Blasco added.

Investors are certainly buying in to the concept. Calm — which like
Headspace was co-founded by a British emigre to California, Michael Acton
Smith — raised $88 million from a fundraising round in February.

That gave it a valuation of $1bn, which Smith noted made Calm the first
“mental health unicorn”.

“Unicorns” are start-up companies with a billion-plus valuation.

But like Headspace, Calm has its sights set further afield. In Britain it
has enlisted actor and TV presenter Stephen Fry to record bedtime stories for
use on a popular feature that helps users get to sleep.

“America is only 4.5 percent of the total global population, so there are
a lot of other people that can enjoy the product and help the company grow,”
Smith told CNBC after the investment round.

According to figures from Marketdata, the US mindfulness market as a whole
including the dozens of apps on offer topped $1 billion in 2017, and should
double that by 2022.

Helped by the growth in apps, a survey by the National Center for Health
Statistics found 14 percent of Americans had meditated in 2017, a threefold
increase in five years.

– Lose that phone –

Headspace alone says it has 50 million users worldwide, and has raised $75
million from investors in total, despite marketing a product that preaches
“digital detox”.

The paradox is not lost on Richard Pierson, the company’s other British
co-founder.

“Although there is the irony that the phone is probably causing us a lot
of our stress, our hope is that by using Headspace, you’ll be able to teach
yourself the techniques that you need to learn in order to be able to use
your phone in a more mindful way,” he said at the Paris launch.

Many of the techniques in mindfulness apps are rooted in Buddhism and have
long been familiar to practitioners in Asia. But what, if any, science
underpins the apps?

Boosters got new backing with a US scientific study released in late April
that looked at the effects of an experimental mindfulness app aimed at
smokers.

The app helped many participants cut their smoking or give up altogether,
by helping to rewire impulses in the brain linked to addiction.

The world of mindfulness “has become a business, but there is an ethical
dimension”, commented Dominique Steiler, a professor at the Grenoble Ecole de
Management who specialises in the “well-being” economy.

Apps “are a good way to get started”, but users should be encouraged
ultimately to sever the smartphone cord and meditate alone, he said.