Linda Krestanova8 min

Straight Up: A Founder’s Journey With Still Life

ProductProcessMar 15, 2022



Mar 15, 2022

Linda KrestanovaCommunications Manager

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It’s an honor to bring you the first interview in our new Straight Up: A Founder’s Journey series, where we’ll be sharing unfiltered insight from founders about finding that one brilliant idea, shaping it into a meaningful product and getting through it all without going crazy.

Today, we’d like to introduce you to Henry Mitchell and Spencer Atkins, the co-founders of Still Life — the #1 app for Stillness meditation designed to be approachable to anyone.

We had the pleasure of first meeting the duo when we partnered up in 2020. But that’s a story for another time. We’re here to talk about the guys’ personal experiences.

No PR questions. Just an honest conversation about lessons learned and mistakes made.

Our hope is that any entrepreneurs out there rolling up their sleeves, or those already riding the roller coaster, can take from this what they need — whether that’s concrete advice or the feeling that they’re not alone in navigating this ridiculously exciting, unpredictable labor of love.  

Thank You to Henry and Spencer for their openness in sharing even the tough times with us.

How did you know you had an idea worth pursuing, and how certain were you that a Still Life app would be worth your time and effort?

HM: We were very certain in our mission as a company from the start because of personal experience with the practice of stillness. Once we were sure that an app was an adequate medium for delivering this state of stillness, it was self-apparent that it'd be worth it.

SA: Henry and I have worked with stillness for a while and it’s truly changed our lives, changed the people around us. Having the app delivers that and gives us access to people that we would have never had the opportunity to get in front of if we were just doing this face-to-face. The app gives us the ability to execute our mission, to truly help people and to do it at scale. It’s an answer to: “How do we touch as many lives as possible?”

What helped you in defining your unique differentiator within the saturated Mental Health market?

HM: It's very difficult to read the label when you're sat inside the jar, to see how you’re perceived from the outside. So the first thing that we needed to understand was, “What are our core principles? What does this stillness truly stand for?”

Having this continuous reflection of what it all meant to us was really important because you can create this list and understand what the elements are and what people might be perceiving us as. And then we can emphasize certain elements of our product that are true to us — that appear unique when compared to others in the space.

SA: Our unique differentiator is the meticulousness of our work, the time that we spend just to make 10-minute audio. If you go on YouTube, there are so many guided meditations, which is great because it's probably still helping a lot of people. But the little things that we focus on — from the content to the audio — we really try to do it justice, to really make even a small magnitude of difference from what's out there.

As Still Life matures, what do you view as the most crucial — and possibly difficult — aspects to continually figure out and communicate to your users?

HM: For stillness as a practice, one thing is the depth of beauty. That is a huge responsibility to reflect in the content. Individual music, complete orchestral scores, recorded sound effects… and this is even before we get to the scripting and the careful construction of word choice. The hardest part is to dim all of these components so that stillness stands out. It’s all weaved together to really do justice to the practice itself, and to make the absence of ideas as easily digestible, light and fun for new users as we can make it.

Staying open to all of the different information available to help enhance and supplement the practice is also extraordinarily important to us, especially from a research perspective. It’s important to have a depth of understanding of other concepts and the benefits that they're communicating. How are we similar, and how are we different?

SA: Henry and I each have our own inspiration. There's no dogma or doctrine. It's really important to us to be educating people that this is out there, it's your birthright and you can do it. We’re communicating that we're all humans, we’re suffering, and wellbeing is different for absolutely everyone. There's not a one-size-fits-all.

If you think back to an especially tough time on the journey of building your product, what has most helped you get through it?

SA: Going back to your why. It's kind of cliché, but you have to continue asking yourself every single morning, “Who am I really? What do I love? And why am I doing this?” For me, those answers continue to change. But the context in which it stands is to truly help people.

It's really impactful now that we have a public product that's live and out there. Just seeing the Instagram comments, getting cold emails, having friends reach out to say, “Hey, I just tried your app and it really helped me out.” All those things combined help you battle through the stress, the anxiety, the tension — and it's ironic enough that that's basically what our product is here to help reduce.

HM: Turning towards each other as individuals. The pressures of entrepreneurship can be crippling and one of the things that the human mind likes to do is point fingers and blame rather than take a step back and see the forest from the trees. You want to save your own face and make it somebody else's fault.

You have to remind yourself that you're extremely lucky to be doing what you're doing with the people that you're doing it with. Everybody's doing the best they can with the cards that they’re dealt. Take a step back and see the commitment that they're demonstrating and the extraordinary amount of luck and fortune. If you don't, you can get into ugly and isolated places — and that can make tough times even tougher.

Does going back to the “why” and to the awareness that you’re fortunate to be where you are get more difficult further down the line? How do you keep yourself on track?

SA: Absolutely. I'm someone who is always running towards meeting those milestones or getting to the next thing, and it's easy to forget about the journey. Sometimes, I think about the end destination or the next milestone, and I lose my foundation. So, every morning, it’s really cool to sit down, block out a set of time, use our product :) and ask, “Why am I doing this? What am I excited about? What are the wins that I can really focus on in very small contexts?”

HM: When you have a sacred slot every morning to get still, that's the best thing that you can do. There are mornings when I'm brought to tears, and that's after years of practicing. You clear the distracting thoughts, you're just observing the universe folded inside-out, and it's beautiful.

It’s a very hard thing to communicate right away. It takes practice. It takes time. It takes discipline. But when you have that experience in the mornings, you realize, “Yeah, that's why we're doing this.” It's hard to forget the mission when you have these profound experiences. It adds more fuel to the fire. And for us, the question is, “How do we help more people get that?”

Is there a belief, opinion or expectation that has significantly changed from the time before you started building your product to now, post-release?

SA: When you put something out in the world, it's your baby. You care so much about it, and you think, “My baby is going to change the world. It’s beautiful. It's taken years to get to this point.” But a baby can't even talk yet. It’s underdeveloped. It needs to get nurtured and fed and looked after and have its own experience.

Then you see other software scale and you build a bias. So, when we launched, the belief was: “It's gonna be all organic word of mouth, it's gonna spread like wildfire.” The reality is, you get a little bit of traction, and you have to continue working on it.

You’ve got to let go of expectations. On the business side, you need the milestones, the KPIs, the OKRs. You have to measure yourself and create what success means internally. But on the other side is the art that goes into it. And that's truly enjoying the process and knowing that greatness — things that really have an impact — take time. It takes years, decades, to get the product where you ultimately believe it can go.

HM: Something that's definitely shifted is the naive assumption that everybody's going to see your truth immediately. You become so familiar with your product that you forget that people just don't care. Why should they? They haven’t had your experiences. It makes it near to impossible to see things from a user perspective.

What’s changed as we’ve started to mature post-release is that we now put a lot more importance on brand presentation and education. Because with the very small number of connection points that you have to a user, you have to be very delicate with what you want to say, to try and build to the idea that you have of yourself.

Can you share a mistake you made under the impression that it was the right move?

HM: A mistake that we’ve made a few times is basing our decisions on intuition without external information. Without this degree of validation of your core assumptions, you can really get into difficult places quickly — because then, it's word against word.

Even just asking one customer about one feeling or using whatever resources you have, there's always a nugget of information that gives you an advantage to your prior position. And if you have the humility to seek this out consistently, it can lead you to not being isolated in inaccurate perceptions of yourself and of your product. You don't want to get into the position where you're drinking your own bathwater, because it really stings when you get feedback from reality.

SA: Something that I’ve abused is, “What's the market doing? Who are the biggest players? SWOT analysis!” I do think it’s important to know what’s going on out there. But, while it's easy to look up to the biggest players in the industry — we know how many users they have, how they’re making revenue, so let's replicate that — I think that's a really dangerous path. It's an easy way to fake yourself out of internal insecurity. “Well, if we just do that, it's obviously going to work because it worked for them.”

A big mistake is thinking that you can replicate something else, on a very surface level, instead of drilling really, really deep down into your customers and looking internally. What are you excited about, how can you have the most fun and what are your biggest strengths?

And the ultimate thing that Henry touched on is having intimate relationships with your customer base or potential customers, within a certain demographic, one or two. Start asking them what they want. Put new information, new content, new mock-ups in front of them, and iterate around that — instead of just copying what exists with a small twist.

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