When Michael Acton Smith was creating his company with cofounder Alex Tew, there was a blue sky request to get Matthew McConaughey to narrate one of their Sleep Stories (i.e., bedtime tales for adults). A mutual friend connected Smith and McConaughey, McConaughey supplied his smooth Southern vocals to the story “Wonder,” and it became Calm’s most popular Sleep Story–but there was just one problem.
“We had a few complaints, mainly from husbands,” said Smith at the Fast Company Grill. “Who were like, ‘Oh my God, my wife will just not stop listening every night in bed to that story!’”
“The first idea was ‘Go to Bed with Matthew McConaughey,’” McConaughey chimed about the marketing around the story. “That’s a great idea–but no, let’s not do that one!”
Since its launch in 2012, Calm has skyrocketed with more than 40 million app downloads, won Apple’s 2017 App of the Year, and reached unicorn status earlier this year with a valuation of $1 billion. Smith also mentioned The Calm Schools initiative, which gives free mindfulness training tools to teachers around the world–and has become part of McConaughey’s Just Keep Livin Foundation, which targets disadvantaged teenagers in inner cities.
“The Calm app has helped us with a lot of kids who were not able to handle that stress, to give them a little time to guide them through some self-reflection,” McConaughey said.
“Classrooms now around the world start their day with a few moments of reflection and silence and meditation,” Smith continued. “And it’s crazy that this is not taught to our next generation. It’s never been harder to be a kid or a teenager in the world. You can’t switch off when you leave the school. Your phone is on, constantly tapping you digitally on the shoulder with social media. So anxiety has been increasing, depression has been increasing–so many mental health issues. And I’m glad that these are finally starting to get addressed and talked about.”
As the company grows, Smith has been incorporating physical products like the Sleep Mist (an essential oil blend meant to aid in relaxation) and the Calm book, which mirrors lessons in the app.
But he has even more ambitious plans for Calm.
“We’d love to do Calm hotels,” he said. “Our real ambition is to eventually buy an island and create Calm Island, the world’s most relaxing resort.”
Part of the mission in scaling Calm is getting people to rethink the idea of meditation.
“Meditation and mindfulness has had a bad rap for a long time,” Smith said. “It’s associated with woo-woo and weirdness and people in the early days would roll their eyes when we talk about it.”
And Smith admits he was one of those doubters until he had a “lightbulb moment” in realizing that “it’s about neuroscience–it’s about rewiring our brains in really powerful, important ways. And then when that lightbulb went on, I was like, we want to see if we can make it relatable, accessible, simple so we can share it with as many people as we can.”
McConaughey, who also said he was wary of mindfulness, offered a more practical approach.
“Something that helps me understand it, in almost a more utilitarian sense, is to take inventory, which is check in with yourself before you check in with the world,” McConaughey said.
Given the popularity of Calm, there indeed seems to be a sea change in how people are taking more ownership of their mental health and well-being, which has been Calm’s mission from day one.
“We think we’re right at the start of an enormous new revolution, a huge wave around mental fitness,” Smith said. “And we want to be one of the leading companies helping spread that message around the world.”