Warning: This piece discusses mental health and suicide.
Last month the World Health Organisation recognised World Mental Health Day. This happens every year as a way to raise awareness of mental health issues and reduce the stigma around them. Days like this serve as an important reminder of the resources and tools available to help anyone who is struggling, including mediation apps and mindfulness practices. However, for many, the language and culture surrounding meditation and mindfulness is alienating.
This means that even after making that first crucial step to look after your mental health, you may be left feeling deflated or lost. Ariana Alexandre-Safer is on a mission to help young people look after their mental health in a way that is more culturally relevant to them.
In 2019 she founded Spoke, a new-gen mediation app, inspired by hip hop, backed by science and delivered by music artists. The meditation and mindfulness market is a huge opportunity. When looking at meditation apps alone, the market size is expected to reach $4,206.1 million by 2027.
This jumps to $296.3 billion when considering all alternative healthcare services. Ariana notes that while market leaders such as Calm and Headspace have, “democratised mindfulness and meditation for so many people...80% of their audience is female, 95% are over 25, and 40% of Calm’s audience earn $100,000 a year or more.” In this interview Ariana speaks about her personal motivations behind starting Spoke, and shares some really honest and insightful advice for future founders.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Where did the idea for Spoke come from, where did it all begin?
I started a wellness company before Spoke. We ran life and wellness events, and I noticed that it was a very saturated market. You really only saw the same kind of people in the wellness industry, and it was an older female audience. Then in 2017, my younger brother's best friend committed suicide. What happened was a horrific tragedy, and I saw how my brother and his friends didn’t want school therapy or counselling. I was aware of all these mental health tools that have the capacity to help people really manage their emotions and their feelings, and I could see that none of these tools were culturally relevant. They were all either clinical or wrapped in ‘Yogi’ language. I found the whole situation completely unacceptable.
From there, I started doing lots of research. I found that 80% of all suicides in the UK and US are male. It's not because young women have less mental health problems, like anxiety and depression, but because early interventions including talking therapies, mindfulness, meditation, going to see a doctor or speaking to a friend, are more culturally accessible to young women than to young men. This means young women are more likely to take that one degree step towards action at an early stage, which after 10 years results in a 20 degree difference, and that crisis point is less likely to occur. Taking all of this into account, I was looking for the best way to really resonate with young people, especially young men. We’re trying to change mental health culture so I chatted to hundreds of young people to find out who they actually listen to. While schools, governments, yoga teachers and parents might promote mental health culture, none of these people really influence them.The people who influence young people are musicians, cultural leaders and influencers.
I’ve always been very passionate about music, and in my last business we worked with a lot of musicians. And so there came the main premise: to work with musicians in a way that’s really authentic, to try and change and normalise mental health management. The interesting thing is, the more we started talking to musicians, the more we found that there is a huge mental health problem in music. Most musicians suffer from mental health problems themselves, so it’s the blind leading the blind. We realised that this is a really really big problem.Headspace and Calm are the world's leaders in mental health management, and they have normalised and democratised mindfulness and meditation for so many people. It's incredible what they've done. However, over 80% of their audience is female, 95% are over 25, and 40% of Calm’s audience earn $100,000 a year or more. So that's their market, and it's not going to change anytime soon. We think this is a really important opportunity to help more young people look after their mental health in a way that feels normal, cool, and culturally relevant to them.
What do you hope Spoke will change?
In the next five to ten years, we hope that more young people start putting words on emotions. Emotional literacy is a key component to whether someone actually goes and gets help. Most of the time young people don’t know how they’re feeling, they don’t know that they’re feeling depressed or anxious because they don’t have the vocabulary to understand it. The first thing we’re trying to do through music, is to create an enjoyable experience and help listeners understand what it means to feel a certain way, and be able to articulate if they feel lonely or stressed because of home, relationships or work etc..
Within the app we’re helping people create a vocabulary around how they’re feeling.If you imagine the homogenous and saturated market of early intervention: all the mindfulness, mediation and therapy products, which all sit on one side of the river. Then you have this huge demographic of young people who sit on the other side of the river. There are just not enough bridges between the two. While each side is really important, there’s not enough work being done to meet young people where they’re at. It’s hard work bringing these sides together, because you really need to get to know people well, and take what works scientifically from an impact level, and redistribute it through another medium. We're at the beginning of this journey, but that's what our mission is. I hope that in the next five to ten years, more young people say, “You know what I am going to do therapy, I do feel comfortable to speak to my friends about how I feel.” That's the change that will create the difference in the future.
Who are you hoping Spoke will help?
One of the archetypes that we're trying to help is a young man. We’re currently working with those between the ages of 18 to 30. In the future we’d like to work with younger people as well. The reason for this is just because there is a worse suicide problem for men, and because most of the current solutions are more accessible to young women.
What makes Spoke different from anything else out there?
We sit in the intersection between the utility of a mental health product, like Headspace or Calm, incredible products that help form habits, and the entertainment of a music product, like Spotify or Apple Music. The key difference is the experience itself, it’s a new genre of sound. It’s not quite music, not quite meditation or mindfulness, not quite a podcast, or coaching. It’s all these things combined into an experience that’s really profound, it’s a beautiful audio experience. What we get complimented on the most is how exceptional our episodes are in the app. In addition, the process we’ve created is totally unique. We work intimately with the music industry. For example, we’ve partnered with Sony and other indie labels, and we work with incredible artists, from signed to unsigned or unpublished. Rather than working with them in a superficial way, we work with them in a very deep way. In practice, this means they get trained by our neuroscientists, clinical psychologists and we have an in-house therapist.
We spent over a year and a half building this process for how we work with artists, and have created a unique way of training them in how to talk about their desired issue. They'll get trained and advised by our scientific team on how to construct their lyrics in a way that will have an impact on the listener. So whether it be addiction or relationships or anxiety, they can discuss that issue through lyricism in a way that will create the most impact. That is the key USP of what we're doing. It's a really powerful process first, for the output, which is what you listen to, and also for the artists themselves, because going through this process is transformative and therapeutic in itself. That's one of the reasons why so many artists want to work with us as well.
Are there any success stories you can share about the impact you have had on your users?
We've had so many testimonials so far. We've had artists say that it's a truly unique experience, that they've never done anything like it before, and that it’s something that they wish existed in the music industry. From the listeners perspective, we've got endless reviews of people who say they’ve never heard anything like this. A lot of our audience are people who have tried out mediation and mindfulness apps before, and have dropped off immediately because they realise that the content is not made for them. The sad thing is that these are people who knew they wanted to look after their mental health, and then they’ve tried something, and just been disappointed by it. That’s where we realised that what we’re doing is so crucial to filling a gap.Reviews on the app store have called us “a mindfulness product for the next generation.” I see Spoke being for any young person that feels like music is already their therapy. Spoke is their roots to a better and more confident, less stressed self. Right now we mainly have qualitative success stories, but over the next couple of years we're going to be using deep impact measures such as the World Health Organisation’s scales. But for now, people are reporting feeling good, and they keep coming back, and that's all we need to know right now, because that proves that people are benefiting.
What has been the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn in running a startup?
Everything. If you can avoid it and still be happy, then do that. I'm being deadly serious. If you can avoid setting up a startup, and you find satisfaction and happiness in normal life then do that, because you will be saving yourself so much stress.The main reason I'm running a startup and doing this, is because I feel so deeply in my soul that there is an urgent problem that needs fixing. And for some unknown reason, I feel a sense of responsibility to help fix it. If you can live your life happily, not feeling like that, then great! If you do really want to run something, you need to know and feel very deeply about why you're doing it. If you don’t know why you’re doing it, you’ll get to a point where you are bored of telling the same story, you’re exhausted and you’re not going to get out of bed because it’s too much. You need to have that feeling in your bones that you have to figure this out, or no one else will. I think that’s really important.
What do you think is the most important quality in a co-founder or teammate?
There's no specific quality in finding a team. It's just about finding complementary people. You need to know who you are, and what you bring. And then you need to make sure your team brings complementary things. Don't bring a mate in who shares a load of similar traits and skills as you, because within a year you'll overlap. The first thing is really understanding what you're good at and where your zone of genius is. What tasks do you get into your flow state? And do you forget time exists? And can you just keep on going and creating? Own that part, and then find people who have skills and zones of genius in different areas, because then you'll start creating a really strong spiderweb. This is especially true for co-founders.
There's an assessment we did as a team that I found in Rocket Fuel called the crystallizer assessment. It tells you whether you're an Integrator or a Visionary. A Visionary is someone who thinks big picture, they break down the doors and they campaign. However, they might not necessarily be as good at the building blocks and making sure things run effectively. An Integrator is someone who is more likely to take a vision and map the structure to understand how to get it done. You need both of these people to run a company. Most people are on the spectrum between the two so I could do an Integrator role but it's not my zone of genius. My co-founder is the opposite. So that's how I knew we were a good team.
What’s next for you and your venture and how can people help?
The main thing people can do is download the app! We're on the Apple App Store, and will be on Android in the next few months - for now we're just on iPhone unfortunately. Have a listen to at least two or three different sessions because each episode is so different, it really depends on your mood and what you're trying to achieve. Then send us a feedback form which you’ll see in the app. We want to see as many people's genuine and honest feedback as possible - it's all anonymous. It really helps and we sit and read every single one of them to take people's feedback into consideration. That's informed all of our iterations so far. The more we can get, the more informed we are, and the better we can make this.
Keep up to date with everything Spoke is doing on their website. They’re also on social media: Instagram,LinkedIn and Twitter.If you're an aspiring tech for good founder and interested in applying to BGV for funding and support, you can find out everything you need to know about what we look for and what we offer here.
If you would like to speak to a member of the BGV team about your tech for good venture, let us know here.
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