Halfway through his one-year sabbatical, Bjorn Lee panicked.
After working in Zopim – a Singapore company which made its founders millionaires after getting acquired by US customer service software Zendesk – Lee sensed it was time to leave and find a new adventure.
Except that he was stuck.
“I had an existential crisis,” he tells me. “I tried a lot of stupid ideas. When you start a new company, you always think about what’s trendy.”
Prior to joining Zopim, Lee did his own startup in Silicon Valley and secured funding from the likes of Google Ventures and 500 Startups.
In his second go-round, he wasn’t keen to chase just another hot idea. So he sifted through his passions one by one to find something that could make money.
“I can’t make money from Lego. I can’t make money from robots or farming,” he says.
Eventually, he settled on mindfulness, a scientifically-proven process of bringing one’s attention to experiences happening in the present moment, which can be nurtured through meditation.
Lee has been a mindfulness buff since 2011. After sitting in a 10-day silent retreat in India, he tried meditating for an hour a day after that.
It was too difficult. Yet, inspired by the book Search Inside Yourself, written by mindfulness guru and ex-Googler Tan Chade-Meng, he came across the concept of taking one mindful breath a night, and building a habit from there.
That became the genesis of his new startup.
Today, Lee meditates 12 minutes each morning, monitoring his brain waves with a Muse headband.
He’s also on a mission to make everyone more mindful, and improve our ability to focus and be more productive.
The manifestation of that aim, as it often goes with startups, begins with an app.
Called MindFi, it provides three-minute guided meditation exercises that fit into people’s daily routines. It even comes with a focus timer after each routine to help them stay on task.
I tried one of the sessions on the app. “Now pick up the bottle and hold it in your hand,” narrates the calm voice of Toby Ouvry, an ex-monk who has joined MindFi.
He continues: “When you’re ready, I’d like you take a sip of the water, but do it slowly without being in a hurry. Often, we’re gulping our water unconsciously when we’re drinking. Take a nice, slow, leisurely sip. And before you swallow it, just allow your tongue and your month to swirl around the water a little bit.”
The exercises can be done with open eyes, and are often designed around habits like eating and commuting.
Another session I tried was amusing. “I know what you’re thinking, why are we doing mindfulness in the toilet?” says the voice in another session titled Restroom Solace as birds chirp in the background.
Mindful of the competition
At the time of this writing, the app is still in “pre-launch”, though you can download it on iOS and Android. It has seen interest from investors.
Lee raised a six-digit seed round from Zopim founders Royston Tay and Kwok Yang Bin, as well as prominent Singapore-based angels Wong Poh Kam and Chow Yen Lu. All of them meditate.
However, MindFi is entering a space with two dominant players: Headspace and Calm.
Lee explains that the app differentiates by focusing on short sessions specifically designed to fit into people’s routines.
And while MindFi’s exercises have a practical flavor – a session asks you to reflect on how a work conversation could’ve gone better – the other apps promote meditation for its own sake.
Tack on the focus timer, and MindFi becomes a day-long companion for the novice mindfulness student.
But is it useful enough to get to hundreds of thousands of users? Is the app effective at making mindfulness a habit? And how does he prevent copying?
Lee aims to make MindFi even more distinct. He is not trying to get everyone to meditate. “We see ourselves as an attention coach,” says Lee, declining to go on-the-record about specific plans.
“Distraction is the new fat. If you’re fat, you run. If you’re distracted, you meditate. Because meditation is the best way to train attention,” he adds.
He does plan to charge a subscription fee for mindfulness content, just like Headspace and Calm, and is looking at a business-to-business play as well.
He has also engaged researchers at SMU, Yale-NUS, and IMH to use MindFi as part of a slate of studies to test the effects of mindfulness on users.
Then there is the issue of mindfulness having a limited audience of Burning Man-going technophiles, especially in Asia (I’m exaggerating, of course).
I was waking up at 3 or 4am, and my chest pains came back.
“I’ll agree that there’s less stigma about meditation in the West than in Asia, ironically. Meditation really started from here,” says Lee.
Consider also the fact that Headspace, the leading meditation app, is only valued in the hundreds of millions. Spotify, in contrast, is valued at US$13 billion and Didi Chuxing over US$50 billion.
While this means there’s potentially an untapped market in mindfulness, it also means there’s a lot of convincing to do.
Although Lee is based in Singapore, he’ll market the app globally.
He plans to launch on product discovery platform Product Hunt soon, whose largest traffic source is techies and early adopters in the US.
Lee understands stress intimately. Things reached peak craziness for him after the Zopim acquisition, when he was tasked with running integration between the startup and its new parent Zendesk.
“It was a stressful moment, to be honest. I was waking up at 3 or 4am, and my chest pains came back. I was running a big team of 10 people and we had to interface with five cities across the world,” he says.
Because Zendesk is used by customer support staff everywhere, he saw first-hand the daily pressures they face.
As a result, he was able to better empathize and understand the different kinds of stress in various industries, and that was one of the seeds that eventually led to MindFi.
“Can I build something more direct to help these guys?” he asked.
“Because I also have the same problems.”
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