No selling allowed: how Insight Timer is building the biggest meditation community on the planet

In an era of massive budgets, invasive ads, buy now subscription models, and incessant noise, can the good guys still win?

In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, we chat about Insight Timer. You’ve never heard of Insight Timer, but it’s ranked higher than TikTok, Facebook, Netflix, and Twitter for session durations, it has 5X the retention of better-known competitors like Calm, and it has 18M users.

All of which it achieve while spending $0 on marketing.

To learn how Insight Timer is changing the world one stressed person at a time, we’re chatting with CEO and cofounder Christopher Plowman.

Here’s the story on Forbes …

Scroll down for full audio, video, and a transcript of our conversation …

Watch: No selling allowed

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Listen: Insight Timer’s path to 18M users with $0 ad spend

 

Read: from Bali with love, this mediation app has a unique approach to monetization

(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity).

I got off Twitter. I got off Instagram. I got off Facebook, because I just found these platforms so incredibly toxic.”

John Koetsier: In an era of massive budgets, invasive ads, buy now subscription models, and incessant noise, can the good guys still win? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.

You may never have heard of Insight Timer, but it’s actually ranked higher than TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter for session durations. It has 5X the retention of better-known competitors maybe like Calm. It has 18 million users and it spent precisely $0 on marketing. To learn how Insight Timer is changing the world, one stressed person at a time, we’re chatting with CEO and co-founder Christopher Plowman. Welcome, Christopher!

Christopher Plowman: Thanks, John. It’s nice to be here 

John Koetsier: Hey, it’s a real pleasure to be here, but it’s more pleasurable for you, because you’re in Bali and you’ve already had your walk on the beach. So, everybody is now jealous. We need to meditate and calm down and restore from that, but … let’s dive right in.

So TikTok, I get, right? It’s a pretty short app. You dive in there, you can dive out. Of course you can spend an hour there too. But how do you have longer session times than all the other names that I mentioned? 

Christopher Plowman: Look, it’s a good question. I think when you offer, you know, the largest free library of guided meditations on the planet, people will consume a lot of stuff. We’ve got 5,000 music tracks, 45,000 talks and meditations in 50 languages, and people kind of tend to tune in and listen away. We also have a timer. About a third of our community, about 300,000 people every day use the timer for about 24 minutes on average.

So when you add up, it turns out to be a lot. 

John Koetsier: Talk to me about the average person who uses this. Because this is 2020, right? I mean, we have stresses all around us. If it’s not jobs, if it’s not health, if it’s not politics, there’s so many other things. How does the average person use this? And has 2020 and all the stresses here actually contributed to your growth? 

Christopher Plowman

Christopher Plowman, CEO of Insight Timer

Christopher Plowman: Yeah, we had a big growth spurt actually back in March/April, I think it was, when there was lots of anxiety around COVID of course.

Insight Timer is unique in this space, we were the first app in the App Store. We launched in 2009, so we had our 10 year anniversary last year. So we have a very diverse group of meditators because we have what I like to call ‘the elders’ — people who’ve been meditating for a very long time, before technology kind of got involved in this space, and who were just looking for a timer.

And I think we’ve been very fortunate to have this group of people start with us 10 years ago, because elders typically tend to create the vibe of a community. So we’ve been very lucky to have these kind of custodians, I like to think of them as.

And then we’ve got sort of a whole gamut of people. As I said earlier, we’ve got content in 45 different languages. We’re very big in South America, in Europe, in the U.S., in Asia. So there’s lots of different people listening to lots of different things. We have about 10,000 teachers on the platform now, too. So diversity is kind of a really key thing.

It’s therefore very hard, John, to narrow it down and tell you what is the sort of typical Insight Timer user. There isn’t one. We have people who use us silently. We have people that come to us for our 12,000 discussion groups. We have people who come to us for our live meditations. We have people who come to us to create musical playlists and they vary sort of, of all different ages.

John Koetsier: What I want to understand is, as you’ve built this very diverse community, as you mentioned, with people all over the world, how are you keeping that … healthy? Because community is really hard right now. I don’t know what communities you’re on — maybe in Facebook or Twitter or other places like that — but there is a lot of anger.

There’s a lot of attack on places like Facebook and Twitter, in the U.S. for sure, but in the Western world generally, around things like politics, around things like economics, and COVID, and other things like that. Now you’ve built a community, and the app is about meditation and calm, and other things like that. And you talk about the discussion that people are having.

How do you maintain a healthy discussion? 

Christopher Plowman: It’s really, really hard actually. And I think  we’re going to see — I hope we’re going to see a big shift in the next couple of years as we kind of move away from what I like to call ‘Version 2’ of the internet, which is this current, toxic freedom of speech and freedom of reach kind of approach that Sacha Baron Cohen talked about recently.

I got off Twitter. I got off Instagram. I got off Facebook, because I just found these platforms so incredibly toxic. And I wasted so much time on them. I wasn’t learning anything. I wasn’t discovering anything. I would just sit there and scroll and scroll and scroll. So about a year ago, I got off all of them. 

Community is such a hard thing to talk about. First of all, a lot of people throw this word around and kind of tell everyone that they have community. I don’t actually know what community means. And we have a team internally at the moment that are looking at social networks, and trying to identify what’s toxic about them, why they’ve become so dangerous, and what we can do about it.

I studied anthropology at university, and one of the things I learned there is the very nature of analyzing or sort of observing something, such as an animal, changes the nature of that animal. Just the act of observation.

And the problem with social networks is they’re all observation platforms. We all go on there to be observed by others, and so we don’t actually participate in the true nature of others. We get their scaffolding, we get their sort of who they’re pretending to be. And this is really bad, actually. It’s really, it’s a really big problem. I’m really concerned about it.

The other problem with social networks, I guess, is all of these expression engines, right? A picture can be very damaging, it can do a lot of damage very, very quickly. You’ve got memes, all these sorts of things. So the medium that allows people to communicate to enormous numbers of people at any time isn’t healthy for society. And so, we’re trying to find a way to kind of address this. We don’t have any of the answers … yet. But I have a team of people at the moment, we set up a think tank and it’s not just sort of product developers, but we’re inviting other people in the community to get involved in this, to think about how you can build a social network that’s not an observation platform.

It’s a very curious challenge and we’re — I’m very excited to see where we’re going to go with this over the next 12 months. I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question, by the way, but that’s part of what I think about it. 

John Koetsier: Honestly, I think that was a great answer, and like many great answers, it raises more questions than it answers. But it is a real challenge, because as you say, the social platforms that we have right now are about presentation of a certain persona that we might want others to see us as, right? They’re also about observing the masks that others have placed on themselves. And so we see the vacation pictures and we don’t see the challenges and difficulties and other things like that in many cases.

And sometimes the worst of us comes out as well, as we meet diverse perspectives and we don’t react to that well. I guess what I’d ask for you is, what’s your goal with Insight Timer? What do you want people to get out of it? 

Christopher Plowman: Oh, I get asked this question so often. I can give you a kind of cheesy response, which is actually that we want people to be happier as a result of their interaction with Insight Timer.

John Koetsier: Dripping with cheese, absolutely. 

Christopher Plowman: Dripping with cheese, but the problem is we don’t — none of us know how to be happy anymore. I really do believe this.

And we’re not taught happiness, actually. We’re kind of taught performance, and we’re taught rules and societal agreements, and all these sorts of things. But a lot of this stuff is kind of trained out of us as we get older. And it’s only more recently, actually in the last 12 months that I’ve been stuck at home — I can’t travel, I can’t do anything — that I’ve been interested in this topic. And it occurred to me, through people I’ve been talking to and work I’ve been doing, that health is such an integral part of happiness. Joe Pilates talked about this, the kind of the balance between the body and mind.

But I think one of the problems is a lot of us are not physically healthy either. So you’ve got this mental health pandemic, you’ve got this physical health, obesity, and sugar and all these sorts of things, and you put it all together into this megaphone called social media and you get this really sort of combustible thing. And the big problem with social networks as well, is they kind of tend to favor people that were there first or people who are divisive. And so you get these people who aren’t necessarily healthy, physically or mentally, who have far too much influence over the sort of the opinions and views of others. And I think this kind of random selection is a problem.

So let’s take Mark Zuckerberg, for example, right? And his COO, Sheryl Sandberg, I think her name is. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Christopher Plowman: A lot of people believe that platforms or companies become essentially a magnified version of their founders, right? I’m not the founder of Insight Timer, I didn’t start it. My brother Nicho and I bought the app from someone else and we’ve changed it a lot. So I’m not sure if this applies to Insight Timer or not, but let’s just, let’s look at Facebook for a second.

So, who is Mark Zuckerberg, right? And why does someone have all this power, phenomenal power to determine what 3 billion people see and think every day?

So, I don’t know Mark and I wouldn’t comment. My observation of Mark — and again, we’ve just agreed that the act of observation changes the nature of an individual, so I could be wrong — but my observation of Mark is he’s someone with a very high IQ and not a very high EQ. In fact, probably a very low EQ, right?

So extremely, extremely strong intellectual clout, but perhaps not a great capacity to understand empathetically how others function. And then you’ve got his COO, right? Who, again, from an observational point of view, seems to me to be extremely ambitious. Right? So, if you combine huge intellect, low empathy and high ambition … that doesn’t sound great, does it? You get something that’s quite robotic. You get something that’s kind of, I think quite dangerous.

And I think Facebook has kind of become a reflection of the combination of these characteristics. And I don’t think it’s healthy and I think therefore, that’s why you get this platform that’s growing very quickly, that’s financially extremely successful, and it’s not great for people. 

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Christopher Plowman: Again, so I’m not sure if I’m off topic … but I think that what I’m optimistic about now, is there are very smart people, very passionate people — the chairman of Insight Timer, a guy called Bo Shao, for example, who set up the whole foundation and who got involved in that recent documentary on Netflix, Tristan Harris and people like this, ethicists who are looking at technology — very influential good people are looking at this problem now and saying, ‘Enough is enough. We have to do something about it.’

Freedom of speech does not imply freedom of reach. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Christopher Plowman: And we need healthy, happy individuals kind of contributing to these networks.

John Koetsier: So you’ve designed Insight Timer and you’ve aligned it with the values that you’re bringing, that you’re talking about right now. How have you aligned the app with those values? What have you done in the app experience and how people use it that aligns with those values? 

Christopher Plowman: I don’t think we’ve done a very good job. Right? But we’re only just start—

John Koetsier: You’re the first founder to tell me that. 

Christopher Plowman: Well, I always tell my team that we’ve kind of moved from childhood to adolescence, and adolescents can be kind of ugly Frankensteiny type creatures can’t they? I have one that’s just started, he’s just turned 13 and I love him dearly, but they go through lots of changes.

I think we did a couple of things early on that set a good base Insight Timer. The first one we had nothing to do with, which is the guy who founded it, Brad Fullmer got in early. And so, as I said, we had the elders there early, right? So we had people who have been meditating for a very long time who set the tone for Insight Timer, and I think this was a huge unknown benefit for us at the time.

The second thing is we made it free. And so what happens is you don’t constantly get harassed on our app to spend money with us.

And I’d like to talk to you— 

John Koetsier: It’s not very peaceful to get harassed. 

Christopher Plowman: No, I’d like to talk to you a little bit about meditation apps and some of the subscription practices that kind of are currently going on in our category, because I think these two need to be addressed and stopped.

But I think for us, we took the view early on that actually stillness is the greatest magnet of all.

You know, if you go back to school and think about kind of the loud brash kids, I was probably one of those, and the quiet kids — it’s the quiet ones that actually end up being much more interesting later on in life, isn’t it, you know? And so what we decided to do was we weren’t going to advertise. We couldn’t, we didn’t have any money anyway, so it’s not some — it wasn’t some clever strategy. I didn’t have any money to advertise.

And for some reason, which I can’t quite explain, we ended up getting to a point where about 15,000 people sign up to our community every day now. 

John Koetsier: Wow. 

Christopher Plowman: Right? And we don’t spend a cent on advertising. We’ve tried one or two billboards and a few things here and there, but we’ve never spent money on Google Ads and search engine ads and all that sort of stuff. And 70% of the people who sign up to our community every day are word of mouth referrals.

It’s quite hard to get to Insight Timer. I like to say we’re the biggest app you’ve never heard of, right?

And what I think is, this is why we have high retention, because to get to Insight Timer you’ve got to first of all, decide you want to get there. You’ve got to go down this long path, under the bushes, around the corner, and knock on a door three times and eventually arrive at our app. When you put so much effort into getting there, then you tend to stick around.

So I think the fact that it was free and we don’t sell to you, and the fact that we put 10,000 teachers on the platform, right. So if you’re interested in centering prayer, if you’re interested in secular meditation, if you’re interested in scientific-based meditation, or Islamic music, or chanting and Buddhism, or whatever it is, we have something for you and we don’t care if you interact with it or not. Right? It’s there, it doesn’t cost anything. I think this has kind of created a tempo that lends itself very well to a calm community, right?

Because in some of these places it’s like, ‘Seven days, sign up. Quick, it’s going to run out! Then we’re going to send you 58 emails before Christmas with 50% off happiness and blah, blah, blah.’ Just ugly. So, I think a combination—

John Koetsier: 50% off happiness sounds pretty good. It sounds impossible, but it sounds pretty good. 

Christopher Plowman: No, yeah, I think that we don’t make any promises at Insight Timer. A lot of companies kind of tell you to meditate for performance related reasons. They’re now calling it mental fitness, I think is the latest buzz word. Before, it was mental health. And before that, it was mindfulness and all these sorts of things.

We don’t kind of make any claims about that.

And in fact, a lot of people on our app — not a lot of people, but some people — actually don’t come to meditate, they come to listen to talks, they might see a live meditation, they might participate in a group. But we don’t offer anything in exchange. There’s no return with us.

We don’t say, ‘If you buy this, we’ll give you this. We’ll give you happiness, we’ll give you a — we’ll solve your fear of flying, we’ll improve your performance in meetings.’ It’s all so transactional, right?

I think we provide a lot of benefits, but we kind of don’t package it that way. 

John Koetsier: Talk to me about that. That seems to be a unique luxury, because most companies, most tech companies, most mobile companies need to make money. They have salaries to pay, other things like that. And you’re not immune to that. Presumably you don’t eat for free and you pay rent or a mortgage, or you bought a house, or something along those lines, right? So you do have that imperative, and yet you’re a successful, well-monetized app, almost seemingly effortlessly. How does that work? 

Christopher Plowman: Well, I love the fact that we look effortless because if you saw—

John Koetsier: Everything looks effortless from the outside. Remember, the duck looks very peaceful, the legs are paddling hard under the water. 

Christopher Plowman: We have a great team. It’s very family oriented. There’s lots of humor and humility, but it’s certainly chaotic.

Look, I mean, we cost a million bucks a month. There you go, like it’s not cheap doing what we do. We’ve got 120 staff. We’ve got I think 70 people in Australia, we’ve got 40 people in Manila, we’ve got 40 people in Surat, in Northern India. And I’m sitting in Bali in the middle of all of these three teams. And our job is even harder, John, because we take half of the revenue that we earn and we share that with our teachers, right? So you spend a dollar on Insight Timer — because we do have a subscription product, and less than 1% of our users subscribe to that — but that’s kind of what keeps the furnace running.

We’re by no means anywhere close to profitable, but if you spend a dollar with us on a subscription, Apple gets a third, and the teachers get a third, and we get a third. So we get 33 cents. So, we are very fortunate to have a group of investors, I think we have about 25 of them now, who pay the bills.

Because there is a belief that if we continue to not sell things, that eventually we will build a big enough community that’s sufficiently large so that the 1% of people who do want to pay for long form courses and for one-on-one time with teachers, that our commission on that revenue will be enough to pay the cost of our company. It’s a constant battle.

We’re also very fortunate that our investors know that we have to kind of do this the right way. That there’s a conscious and commercial need to co-exist. I talked to you earlier about some of the concerns I have in the subscription business. So, you’re probably familiar with the 7-day free trial that exists on the App Store. What we do, very deliberately, is if you sign up to a 7-day free trial for our courses package, we will send you four emails I think during that period of time saying, ‘Listen, you’ve got a 7-day free trial here and it’s going to automatically bill you on this date.

So if you don’t want to be billed, unsubscribe, click here. Here’s the link.’ We send them a link, we send them the button. The other thing we do is before, if you are a subscriber, before your subscription renews after 12 months, is we also communicate with you, saying, ‘Hey, your subscription is going to renew.’ Because we don’t want people on our platform as subscribers who don’t want to be subscribers.

But this is not true for most other subscriptions. 

John Koetsier: No, not remotely true. 

Christopher Plowman: No. And in fact, if you look at companies like Calm, for example, who built a very successful business, they’re currently raising money at like $2 billion valuation.

But, you know, their head of growth was at a growth conference last year talking about the fact that they learned that people who were subscribing to their app that were not using their app, would be more likely to unsubscribe if they communicated with them 90 days before their renewals. So guess what they did? Automatic shutdown of all communication with all non-active users, right? 

John Koetsier: Yes. Yes.

Christopher Plowman: Now this to me, is a real problem, because we’re in the kind of the mindfulness space, we’re in the mental health space, you know, it’s not right that companies are kind of billing people that they know don’t want to be billed, right? 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Christopher Plowman: This is just not right. And I talk about it — I haven’t talked about it before and I thought this morning, is this something that I would talk about. But I do think it’s important. And I spoke to someone at the company about whether I should talk about this and they said, ‘Oh, don’t, you’ll look like it’s sour grapes and things like that. It looks competitive.’

And you’re damn right that it is those things, because what happens is, you get these companies that don’t follow the same business practices that we do, and then they use that money to kind of build a bigger business and a bigger business, and it makes it harder for us to kind of do the right thing. We don’t change, we will do the right thing, but ethics is very important to us.

Doing things the right way is very important to us. And I think some companies get so big and they get so many investors on there who are looking for returns, that they start to do things that are unhealthy, that are toxic, and it needs to be talked about.

John Koetsier: Well, I will tell you that you are the first tech exec that I have ever spoken to who is trying to become profitable by not selling, trying hard not to sell. And it’s refreshing, and it’s interesting. And, you know, honestly, for those who are watching and might watch us later, I almost wish that I could bring — your PR rep is in the waiting room off screen, but I can see her, and her facial expressions are fascinating as you’re going through many of these different conversations. And she’s like, ‘No, not that!’ or other things like that, but it is refreshing to hear and— 

Christopher Plowman: Well, John, honestly, I can’t see Tara’s face. But you get to a point in life at a certain age where you don’t want to kind of live the rules of someone else, right? I’m not doing this to dismantle another company. I’m doing this to point out that there’s a right and wrong way of doing things.

Insight Timer is not perfect, we’ve made many mistakes and we do things that we perhaps in hindsight think we shouldn’t. And I don’t want to give you the impression that I don’t want to build a very big, profitable company. Of course I do. Profit’s important, you can’t live without it. Eventually your investors give up and they don’t want to continue to invest. I absolutely want to build the biggest and most successful company I can. Right? 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Christopher Plowman: But I think we have to do things like that. But I won’t do it by kind of billing people that I know in my heart don’t want to be billed. For me, that’s something that I won’t do. Does it mean that we’re much smaller? Does it mean that we grow a lot slower? Does it mean it’s a lot harder for us to kind of achieve all the things we want to achieve?

Yes. But we’re still here. 

John Koetsier: It also might make you more sustainable. And it also might make you more true to the values that your community values also, and, therefore, be good in the long term. Well, this has been super interesting.

And I’ve kind of shifted TechFirst from just anything in tech that I was interested in, to … tech that’s changing the world, and innovators that are shaping the future. And guess what? You were the guinea pig for the refresh of what I’m doing with TechFirst, and this has been extremely interesting. But I’m going to ask two questions now and look for your brief answer here in relation to that refresh and the new focus I have. And the first one is, how are you changing the world?

Christopher Plowman: Oh, John it’s 7:00 AM, you can’t ask me questions like that. 

John Koetsier: Haha, it’s only 7:00 AM where you are. 

Christopher Plowman: I don’t know how I’m changing the world. I always have the same advice for people who are interested in doing something like that, which is not going to answer your question, but it will be my answer.

And this is: you don’t have to do a lot to kind of participate in the improvement of the planet. You don’t have to do 10 things, you just have to pick one thing, right? If we all pick one thing and kind of spend a bit of time on that, then we’ll all be okay. And I think what happens is we either do too much or nothing at all. And I think this is why it becomes overwhelming.

So if you’re someone that’s passionate about [the] environment, go for that. If you’re passionate about mental health, go for that. If you’re passionate about building a conscious company, go for that. But once you know that you’re contributing in some way to the fabric of society, that’s enough. Let someone else take it on. I think Insight Timer’s contribution is kind of proving that you can build a commercially conscious company, that these transnational corporations that are kind of toxic don’t have to be the gold standard, there’s another way. So that would be my contribution. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. And in answering that, I believe you answered my other one as well, which is how are you shaping the future? And I think you answered that very well. Well, I would like to thank you for your time, Christopher, this has been enjoyable. 

Christopher Plowman: Thank you, John. I’ve loved it. I’ll see you next time. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. For everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier, I appreciate you being along for the show. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this in about a week at JohnKoetsier.com. The story at Forbes will show up shortly thereafter. And the full video is always available on my YouTube channel.

Thank you for joining. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.

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