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A lot has been written about the mental health crisis in America, with statistics about how one in four people has a mental health problem that needs to be addressed. What those statistics do not factor in, though, are all of the other people who also need help with their mental well-being but who do not have a diagnosable problem.
The idea of giving all people access to a mental health solution is the reason that Stephen Sokoler founded Journey Meditation, a company that is dedicated to giving people access to a meditation community so that they can tend to their mental well-being.
On Tuesday, the company made two big announcements; first, that it raised a $2.4 million seed round led by Canaan, with participation from Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, Betaworks, BDMI, The Fund, Nelstone Ventures, New York Venture Partners, and multiple prominent angel investors. Second, that it launched its first direct-to-consumer app called Journey LIVE, allowing its users to access the service both online and offline.
This round, which brings it's total funding to $3.2 million, is the first institutional funding that the company has raised; prior to this Sokoler had self funded Journey, and then had raised a $600,000 friends and family round.
The reason that he finally decided to raise money, Sokoler told me in an interview, is that it was time to scale.
"In order to reach the amount of people that I aspire to reach, we needed to be able to build out the tech component and building tech is expensive. Hiring great tech talent, people both have the technical chops, and have the human ability to build something that helps people and is thoughtful in its design, is hard. We needed to go out and raise money to be able to take everything we’ve done so far and reach a lot more people," he said.
Expanding to direct to consumer
Founded in 2015, Journey started out with a B2B app called JM Corporate, which allows its clients, including Warby Parker, Time Warner, Nike, Facebook, Disney, Google, Harlem Children’s Zone, the Anti-Defamation League and the Hospital for Special Surgery, to give their employees access to a live meditation instructor.
"We started with organizations because that was the world I had come from. Prior to starting Journey I ran a business for 12 years that helped companies celebrate and inspire their employees; we designed awards and recognition programs. So, I knew that within corporate America there was certainly a need for better stress management and mental well -being programs to really support employees, both inside and outside of work," Sokoler explained.
When Journey began to expand, eventually coming to nearly 20 cities around the world, including New York, LA, San Francisco, Miami, Boston and London, the question became how exactly to scale the service so more people could access it.
"When I looked at all of the available options, all the ways that meditation has been taught and share digitally, I thought they fell a little bit short and we could do something better. Because, for thousands of years, meditation has been practiced in groups, in communities, with teachers, with fellow meditators," Sokoler said.
"For the last five years it’s something that we do by ourselves on our phone. I can go on about the impact loneliness is having on America or in the world, in society more broadly, but meditation is one of those things that really has the opportunity to bring people together in an authentic way and really does help with mental well-being. Not mental health as a particular ailment but really our overall mental fitness, our mental well-being. Feeling healthy, happy and balanced."
That is why the company decided to launch Journey LIVE, where users can join one of many group meditation video live streams that are scheduled throughout the day. Rather than needing to be an employee of one of Journey's clients, or even in the same city as one of its instructors, now anyone can access a class wherever they are.
Users can pay $19.95 for a monthly membership, $14.95 a month for a yearly membership, or a flat $399.95 for a lifetime membership, to access 15-minute long classes that are streamed live from Sunday night to Friday evening, though the company does plan to expand to Saturday and Sunday mornings in the near future. While students can see the instructors, the instructors cannot see the students, only a list of their names, and students are encouraged to ask instructors questions and make comments during class.
The company also has a feature called Daily Journey, which is a recorded session that’s available all day long and lasts for 24 hours, so that users can still meditate when they want, and also get access to a class that is timely and relevant.
The idea is to create a supportive community for people to come together on their mental well-being journeys.
"It was all about the support, the accountability, the structure that went along with it. All the science shows that when it comes to weight loss, when it comes to exercise, there’s real power when human beings come together and connect and support each other. When it comes to meditation, same thing," Sokoler said.
"So, we’re really excited about being able to take what we’ve learned over the last five years and put it in a digital form and really meet people where they are and give people access to all these incredible teachers that they might not have access to otherwise."
The Journey effect
Journey LIVE is coming out of a two month long private beta period, where it was used by over 3,000 people, including Sokoler;s friends, family, and communities that resonate with the company, such as a veterans organization and an organization that works with homeless youth, along with a select number of its B2B clients.
In that time, the company has seen engagement and retention that Sokoler describes as "incredible," noting that a lot of people are using it every single day.
"One of the pieces of feedback we hear from people all the time when we do user interviews is, ‘It feels really human.’ That stood out to me since that’s not how technology usually feels. One of the things people like about this is that you’re using your phone for good," he said.
"We think of this as a meditation studio in the palm of your hand. You may be a mom in the middle of the country, or a dad somewhere working a tremendous amount of hours, and may not have time to drive to a meditation studio and may not want to just listen to a recording by yourself on your phone. This is a more humane way of connecting to yourself and to others."
While there are other companies that are doing something similar to Journey, most notably Calm, which has raised $116 million in venture funding, and Headspace, which has raised $75.2 million, the big difference is that Journey creates a community aspect, while others offer a service that requires people to be alone.
"I don’t think there’s anyone doing what we’re doing. We are a community, both online and off. The online part allows people to come together and meditate together and that doesn’t exist with any of the other products that are out there. Headspace and Calm, they’re great, there’s nothing wrong with them, but you’re doing it by yourself. It’s another thing on the to-do list, whereas what we’re talking about is people coming together and sharing a moment, sharing a breath, sharing an activity," Sokoler told me.
"A lot of the products that are out there are great, the only problem is they don’t work over the long-term because it’s very hard to stick with things with just willpower, and that’s what a lot of of these apps require. When you have a community, when you have support, when you have connection, when you’re doing things with friends or colleagues or other community members, when you have a teacher that recognizes you and sees your name and then you ask a question and maybe they follow up with you about it, it’s a much, much different experience."
On top of that, Journey has already shown measurable results, indicating that its solution actually does work for people.
One clinical study done at NYU found that 12 minutes of Journey practiced for eight weeks led to reductions in anxiety, in increase in attention and an improvement in mood. Journey also has its own Business Impact metrics, in which it surveys participants before the first class and after the eighth class; clients reported a 10 percent increase in productivity, a 14 percent increase in focus, a 17 percent increase in quality of life and a 20 percent reduction in stress.
All about the instructors
One of the other things that sets Journey apart are its instructors, who Sokoler makes sure to mention are integral to the experience.
"This is consumer-facing so it’s really about reaching you and it’s doing that in the most authentic way. Every teacher that we have on the platform is an experienced meditation teacher that can bring something authentic. We were really committed to having a teacher-base that was representative of the society that we live in; diversity was really important to us. We have more than 50 percent teachers of color, and every one of the teachers brings themselves fully," Sokoler explained.
While instructors are licensed contractors, not employees of Journey, the company is committed to paying them a living wage, and a large part of this round already went to hiring more instructors, which now number nearly 20.
"One of the things that’s very very important to me, and to us, is paying teachers an amount that is sustainable for them as a livelihood. Teaching meditation has been one of those things that, similar to teaching yoga, where they get paid $30 or $40 to teach a class. You just can’t make a living that way, you just can’t live, so people have to do five jobs or they have to work a corporate job they don’t really want to do, so they can teach once a night. We said, ‘If Journey’s going to exist in the world, it’s really important that we’re able to pay teachers a fair amount of money.’ So, that’s also one of the ways we’ve been able to attract and hire some of the best teachers, by compensating them accordingly," he said.
Only having 20 instructors was also a concious choice on the company's part, as it didn't want to overwhelm students and it wanted to make sure that all the instructors were high quality.
"The idea is for it to be curated so that you can always find a really, really incredible teacher. When you go on some of these meditation apps, there’s an overwhelming amount of content and that’s not what we’re aiming to. We’re aiming to make this more like a local, curated bookstore where you can come in and find exactly what you’re looking for. So, it’s not about adding a million teachers, it’s about having a handful of really incredible teachers that can speak you in a simple, approachable, non-esoteric way, and still teach you something deeply and allow you to connect."
In addition to building out its instructor-base, the money will also go toward adding new features to the app, specifically allowing for more connection between instructors and students, as well as between the students themselves.
"We believe that the connection part is really important. Some teachers might include connecting one-on-one, that’s something that people have asked for, or the ability to ask a teacher a question outside of class, where you can message the teacher directly. Also messaging student to student is something that we’re starting to test and play with," said Sokoler.
Other features might include teacher profiles and student profiles, so they can track how often they are meditating.
"Then it's about continuing to find ways to support you and making this a part of your life. Right now, we use push notifications so if you sign up for a class at 2 pm, you get a push notification five minutes before that says class is starting and another reminder once class starts. Also currently have calendar integration. There’s others ways to help you make this part of your life. Those are some of the features that we’re building out over the next couple of months."
Looking further down the road, Journey might even open its own centers around the country, basically bringing the Journey LIVE experience and making it more like JM Corporate, where people can meditate together in person.
From mental health to mental well-being
Ultimately, Sokoler's real goal is to change the entire conversation around mental health in America, replacing that term with one that encompasses more people and has less stigma attached to it.
"I would love to see 'mental well-being' be a term that people use, that people talk about, or mental fitness. Most people can understand what that means but it’s not in the vernacular, it’s just not something that people talk about. And mental health means there’s a problem. One out of four people have a mental health disorder; well, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about four in four people. How do we take good care of our minds the same way we understand that it’s important to take good care of our bodies?" he told me.
"Having access to mental well-being tools and practices and communities, that would be really wonderful for people to know that this stuff is out there, and for people to know it’s for them, that it looks like them, that it sounds like them, that it comes from their background. No one particular person or community has a lock on this, it’s something that has existed for thousands of years because it really works and can be shared with people in a way that really resonates with them."
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Journey Meditation is building the world’s largest meditation community, both online and off, with a mission to help all people live happier, healthier, less stressed lives. Journey LIVE is a first-of-its-kind meditation app where users can begin or deepen their practice by joining daily live-streamed group meditations guided by experienced and diverse teachers. Founded in 2015, Journey also operates corporate programs in 15 cities around the world, serving organizations such as Facebook, Disney, Nike and Morgan Stanley, as well as charter schools, hospitals and nonprofits.
You can download Journey LIVE in the iOS App Store