Man behind meditation app goes from monk to millionaire
How a meditation app brought mindfulness to the masses, and success to its creator Headspace: co-founder Andy Puddicombe conducts a meditation moment for New York City commuters in Flatiron Plaza Photo: Neilson BarnardBy Nilufer Atik - 12 Oct 2014 - The Telegraph / UK
"We all need to get a little head space” – it’s a catchphrase that has become ingrained into the psyches of more than a million people worldwide. And it’s all thanks to the quiet ambition of one man who wanted to help stressed-out executives achieve more calm. A few years on and the app to which the phrase belongs – Headspace – has not only transformed the lives of those who use it, but also that of its founder, Andy Puddicombe.
Bristol-born Andy set up Headspace
to bring meditation to the masses in a way that would cut the airy-fairyness out of it. But what began as a simple concept to help people cope better with the stresses and strains of everyday life, has now become a global phenomenon worth £25 million. The app, which he narrates, has been downloaded by people in 150 different countries and even has an army of celebrity fans including Emma Watson and Gwyneth Paltrow. They all swear by the soothing 10-minute bites of daily “timeout” prescriptions.
Earlier this year, a new version of Headspace was launched to offer users a more personalised, bespoke experience. In just a few weeks’ time the app will be officially released in America, too. These are certainly exciting times for entrepreneur Andy, who enjoys the fruits of his labour in Los Angeles with his wife and new born son, Harley. But it wasn’t always that way.
As a younger man the 41-year-old had little to his name but the clothes on his back and food in his back pocket. He did “everything from teaching English in Russia to working as a videographer on a Caribbean cruise ship” to scrape by for 10 years while training to become a Buddhist monk.
It was a far cry from the idyllic life he lives now, juggling his time between plush London offices and his luxury base in LA, where he provides spiritual guidance to the stars. But Andy’s aim has never been financial gain. He became a millionaire almost by accident and maintains that money will never be his motive for success.
“Headspace is essentially a start-up,” he explains, “and neither Rich (his business partner Richard Pierson) nor I are in it to become millionaires. For us it’s a social mission, to help create a healthier, happier world.”
The seeds for this mission were sown when Andy was just 11 years old – when his long quest for inner calm began. His mother took him to a relaxation class in his home city of Bristol, which he mistakenly thought was going to be a kung fu lesson. Although disappointed he wouldn’t be karate chopping like Bruce Lee, the class did give the budding guru an insight into how quietening the mind could lead to a greater sense of wellbeing. But it wasn’t until Andy was much older and studying sports science at university that the memory of this early experience served as a turning point.
“Just before going to university I’d been involved in an accident, in which a couple of friends of mine died,” he recalls. “That left me with a lot of questions. And while I enjoyed university and all the normal student stuff, I didn’t feel like it was answering any of these questions. So I ended up having a sort of early midlife crisis.”
The crisis culminated in Andy, then aged 22, suddenly dropping out of university in his second year and jumping on a plane to the Himalayas to become a Buddhist monk. He went from writing essays about functional training to meditating for 18 hours a day.
“My friends and relatives all thought I was mad,” he laughs, “and that I was having some kind of breakdown.
“The university said I should go and see my GP and get some Prozac. My parents worried about what it would mean for my career too, although Mum had introduced me to meditation early on in life, so she was more supportive than most. But it was just something I had to do.”
Years of hardship followed as Andy moved around various monasteries and retreats all over the world to further his training. His stays varied in length from three months, to six months to a year, during which time he’d survive on handouts from local communities. Starting in northern India, he ordained as a novice monk in the Burmese tradition and much later on as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Andy also had to take a vow of celibacy – something most men in their early 20s wouldn’t even want to consider. But he has never regretted his decision.
“The day-to-day routine varied depending on whether I was living in a monastery, in a retreat, or teaching meditation in a city,” he remembers. “On a retreat you get up typically at three in the morning, then you meditate till 10 in the evening, so there’s not all that much to talk about. It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.”
After a stint teaching Buddhism in Moscow, Andy then decided to return to England in 2004 to study a degree in Circus skills. “I wanted to integrate myself back into society after spending so many years with my eyes closed,” he says. But returning to normal life proved another turning point. He realised it was the meditation side of Buddhist practice he was most interested in. So he hung up his cloak and decided to teach his mental relaxation skills to corporate clients in London instead, charging £250 a ticket for monthly workshops.
“I realised I felt more passionate about teaching meditation than I did about being a monk,” he explains, “and that being a baldheaded guy in a skirt presented considerable challenges in terms of making mediation more accessible.”
Although Andy didn’t realise it at the time, this is when the idea of Headspace first took root. It was 2008, just when the financial crisis had begun to hit Britain. And burnt out execs were in abundance.
One of them was former advertising agency creative Rich Pierson. He was so impressed by Andy’s ability to simplify mindfulness, he teamed up with him to create the app. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Rich was keen to learn meditation and find a way to relax. I was keen to find a way to make meditation accessible. So we did a skill swap,” says Andy. “That’s how it all came about.”
Then came the Headspace book in 2011, the foreign rights for which were sold to India, China and Japan – an achievement Andy says still amazes him.
Despite his modesty, it’s undeniable that Headspace is helping to cause a cultural shift in our perception of meditation. All sorts of people, from burly builders to smartly dressed office workers, are not only trying it, but openly discussing the effect it has on their wellbeing. And this was always Andy’s aim – to bring mindfulness not just to those already practicing it, but to the other 95 per cent of the population.
With Headspace now ranked as fourth on the list of best meditation apps for 2014, it seems he’s well on the way to achieving this goal. Thinking man's tips:
Meditate first thing in the morning: it ensures it gets done, gets rid of grogginess and helps you stay mindful all day.
Pick the same spot: practicing at the same time and in the same place each day will mean it becomes a habit.
Don’t judge: never tell yourself you are “good” or “bad” at meditating. There is no such thing. When you tell yourself you are bad at something you lose motivation.
Buddy up: find a friend who’s also looking to establish a regular practice. You don’t have to meditate together but sometimes knowing someone else is making an effort can strengthen our commitment. headspace.com