Over the next month, we’re celebrating technology and innovation in a new series called Bright Sparks. As part of the series, we’re bringing back some of our favourite articles about the people and ideas that are changing the world with technology.
Alex Tew isn’t really known for following the crowd. His mantra has always been to see what everyone else is focusing on and to do the opposite.
In 2005, Tew was obsessed with one thing: making money, enough to pay his way through a three-year business management course at Nottingham University. For most young people, that would mean taking on a part-time job or going to the bank. But not for Tew, a 21-year-old budding entrepreneur from Wiltshire, England, who created the Million Dollar Homepage and peddled internet advertising space on it at $1 a pixel in 10 by 10 blocks.
Tew says there were good reasons for choosing dollars over pounds: since dollars are “the closest thing to a universal currency,” he thought it would resonate better, reaching one million pounds would have been a lot harder (the British pound averaged $1.82 in 2005), and “it just sounded better” to him. “Everyone knows the phrase, ‘You look like a million dollars.’”
In four months, Tew had achieved success, fame — and his first million
“I had literally no money, and I was worried about university,” he says. “I just brainstormed this kind of crazy, get-rich-quick scheme that then took on a life of its own.”
In four months’ time, word of the page had gone viral and it sold out. Tew had achieved success, fame — and his first million. And he dropped out of university that December.
Advertisers ranged from The Times to Beer.com and online casinos. Tew says he wasn’t targeting any advertisers in particular, really just “anyone who wanted to buy pixels”.
He also attracted a lot of envy. The main idea of the Million Dollar Homepage (selling pixels) was something anyone could have done. But Tew was the first to do it, which left a lot of people wondering why they didn’t think of it first.
Fast-forward 11 years and Tew is still doing things differently than most — and very differently than he was back in 2005. Today, he lives in San Francisco, far from his roots in southwest England, and is founder and CEO of start-up Calm, which offers a mobile app by the same name with numerous narrated relaxation and meditation programs designed to help relax and calm the user’s mind. The app also features visuals and audio of streams, rainstorms and waves.
“It’s kind of like having a sanctuary in your pocket,” Tew says.
The app is free, but users can choose to upgrade to a monthly, yearly or lifetime subscription, which gives them access to more guided meditations and options.
The business of calm
Tew isn’t alone in his quest to bring more calm into people’s lives. There is a growing list of competitors offering mindfulness and meditation apps, including Headspace, Buddhify and Smiling Mind. In 2015, the meditation and mindfulness industry brought in nearly $1bn, according to IBISWorld research. Last month, Huffington Post co-founder Ariana Huffington left her namesake media empire to take the helm of her new self-help start-up Thrive Global, aimed at reducing stress. It doesn’t hurt either that many notable figures, including Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney, are known meditation practitioners.
“Stress, anxiety and depression are [an] epidemic in our society, and people are looking for ways to manage these and improve their overall health and well-being,” says Mary Jo Kreitzer, the director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. “Self-care practices that people can do on their own and can be easily taught have great appeal.”
Technology traditionally is about improving efficiency, getting more done. Busy, busy, busy
The internet already is full of sites and apps helping people do more, so Tew is happy to keep pushing the opposite. “Technology traditionally is about improving efficiency, getting more done. Busy, busy, busy. And Calm is the total opposite,” he says. “It’s about actually finding some peace and quiet in this increasingly busy world.”
For Tew, Calm is something he had been thinking about in some form of another since he was 14, when he started meditating. “I was always interested in psychology and human development,” says Tew, who, even as a teenager, read everything he could on the topics, from improving memory to improving concentration and creativity. “Even then, I was thinking this should be available online. You should be able to go to a website that could teach you, guide you, through some relaxation techniques or mindfulness techniques.”
What Tew didn’t envision back then was the extent of the mobile-device revolution. “But timing is everything,” he says. When he founded Calm back in 2012, he envisioned it as a website. A year later, the company went mobile with an app. “I actually think it’s one of the reasons Calm is working for a lot of people,” he says. “It’s available on the go, and we always have our phones with us.”
Tew has clearly hit a nerve — Calm has six million users, and the company has been through three rounds of funding totalling $1.5m. Tew wouldn’t reveal specific figures but said they “are doing millions of dollars per year in annual revenue”.
A long road
But it wasn’t a straight path to Calm for Tew.
I was just full of confidence, ideas and kind of forgot about the thing that I found really interesting
With his sudden fame and success from the Million Dollar Homepage, any ideas of a meditation website were put on the back-burner and replaced with new ideas for how to make a lot of money quickly. “The fact that it worked in four months and made a million dollars took me on a different path,” says Tew. “I was just full of confidence, ideas and kind of forgot about the thing that I found really interesting.”
He says he started thinking “in a different way”, which led him to a number of ventures which “didn’t really pan out.” First, he tried Pixelotto, a spinoff of the Million Dollar Homepage selling advertising space, then PopJam, a social network for sharing funny content, and One Million People, similar to his first success, just with photos instead of advertisements.
None succeeded the way he hoped. Eventually, Tew made his way to San Francisco when Michael Birch, a fellow Brit, friend and founder of social networking site Bebo, asked him to come work for him at his tech incubator Monkey Inferno. “I thought I would do something dramatically different,” Tew says.
He’s not scared to think big and wide, but [he] brings those ideas into focus and follows through with great determination - Michael Birch
Birch, who had met Tew through his brother in London, says he loved Tew’s energy and creative thinking. “Alex is an ideas man,” he says. “He's not scared to think big and wide, but [he] brings those ideas into focus and follows through with great determination.” Birch knew all along that Tew’s employment wouldn’t be that long-lived. “He moved to the US to work with me on some of my projects, but he never took his eye off the ball to build his own business.”
Less than a year later and Tew was off to start Calm. He had come full circle, he says. “I had been thinking about this really meaningful idea that could positively change people but then went on to do different things that were more orientated around entertainment — and perhaps a little less important in terms of impact they could have,” says Tew, 32. “Then, I really came back to the idea when I was much older.”
When people say that your idea is kind of weird, that can be a good thing
But when Tew and co-founder Michael Acton Smith first pitched the idea of Calm to investors, it wasn’t met with universal acceptance or interest. “It was tough for the first round of fundraising because it was a different kind of thing and very different than traditional businesses. It’s not a hard-core technical business even though it has a lot of technical aspects to it,” says Tew. “So, at that time, it was a little challenging to convince people this was a good idea.”
But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, he says. “When people say that your idea is kind of weird or ‘I don’t get it,’ that can be a good thing. And I knew in my heart this was the right thing to do.”
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