HallowAlex Jones | 2020-06-28
Could you give us a quick introduction to Hallow?
We launched about a year and a half ago. We’ve been super lucky – we’ve been doubling the number of users every 3 or 4 months since then. In 2018 we started off with 400 monthly active users. In 2019 we had 8000 or so and now we’re closer to 30,000. I think we have around 200,000 downloads. Our big metric is prayers completed, and we passed a million prayers completed a few months ago. We’re currently a team of 8 folks working full time.
The easiest way to describe what we do is an app like Calm or Headspace but for prayer. The idea is focussed specifically on Catholic contemplative prayer and meditation. Audio guided sessions that lead you through how to meditate and pray within the context of the Christian faith.
What was your career journey prior to starting Hallow?
I chose to study Engineering at college because I liked Physics and Maths. It felt like I was learning something practical, and learning how to build things, which I really liked. I ended up going into consulting after that. I had tried an engineering internship and it kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t feel like I was growing at the pace I wanted to and it felt like it narrowed my focus too much at the start of my career.
Somebody introduced me to this idea of strategy consulting and what I liked about it was that same problem-solving aspect that came with Engineering. It felt like you were solving really hard problems. But it was a much broader world. You would work on a cost problem, a strategy problem or a growth problem, and it seemed to introduce me to the world of business a little bit.
How did you come across the idea?
I don’t really think I came up with the idea – God did and he kept repeatedly hitting me on the head with it until I listened.
I was raised Catholic but then fell away from my faith pretty heavily in high school and college. I would’ve called myself either agnostic or atheist at that time. After I graduated, I was really fascinated by the idea of meditation. Whenever people in the younger generation think of meditation, they think of eastern spirituality or secular mindfulness meditation. That’s where I went. I started using Headspace for a while. The thing is – they are pitching themselves as a stress solution. For me, I didn’t really have a stress problem that I was dealing with. I was more just fascinated with this whole idea of contemplation, meditation and a spiritual life. The weirdest thing started happening: every time I would sit down and start a headspace session or try to meditate, my mind would be pulled towards something spiritual. So I started asking people questions about this: Priests, Monks, Brothers, Sisters etc. I asked if there was an intersection between this whole meditation thing and this whole faith thing. Their answer was “yeah, we’ve been doing this for 2000 years, it’s called prayer”.
I thought – I know about this whole prayer thing, but praying never felt spiritual. It always felt like I was talking to myself or just going through the motions. A priest told me that it's much less about talking, and much more about listening. He started introducing me to all of these contemplative, meditative techniques within the church. I had honestly never really heard of them. I sat down and did a Lectio Divina session, which just means meditating on scripture, and I broke down in tears. It was this beautiful combination of the sense of peace you get from meditation and this sense of purpose. That changed my life. I’ve been praying and meditating ever since, and it’s now a core part of who I am.
The idea for Hallow was: I was using headspace and calm to learn this secular mindfulness meditation technique. I think the model for it is a really great one – sitting at home and using an audio-guided teacher to read you through. We had discovered this beautiful version of meditation, rooted in the Christian tradition. It was like: if Headspace and Calm can be successful in helping people grow teaching secular meditation, why can’t the same thing be done with Catholic contemplative prayer?
I had always kind of wanted to build something – code and build an app. And I was planning to use headspace for the rest of my life. So I thought, hey, if I just build this for me, and it helps me grow a little bit closer to God, then it’s probably a positive ROI even if I waste all my money on it.
How did you meet your co-founders? Were there any other ideas that you were considering when you were starting out?
The first person that I talked to about it seriously, was Erich, my first co-founder. He was a Computer Science guy from McKinsey. We had talked about this whole idea of what we believed and religion. We had also talked about this whole idea of entrepreneurship – we had both been really interested in it. We would once in a while have conversations where we’d try to come up with ideas for a business for fun. It would always be trying to come up with some new Insurtech or Fintech idea. Something that we were seeing working with clients, or recruiting or interviewing. We had one call way before any of this happened, when batting around ideas, and I thought – maybe I’d do one of these things for a quick flip – to make some money – but I’d never dedicate my life to this.
Erich had always taken his faith very seriously. So, after I had this experience praying and meditating, I called him and asked him how he had learned how to pray. He said, I honestly have no idea, I just say the same things every night. What if we taught the world how to pray? Relative to the ideas we had been talking about before, the difference in this for us is extreme. We get a note almost every day now from users. If we just got one of these notes that we get, it would’ve been worth all of the money and time – and that’s just one! It was a different level of idea. This was something we could really dedicate our lives to.
How did your previous experience prepare you for your current venture? In what ways were you unprepared?
The religious thing – I’m unprepared for everything. The coolest part of building Hallow is that I’m growing in my faith life along with our users. What we’re afraid of in the faith world is being too preachy. People who have been deep in their faith for 10/20/30 years find it hard to relate to someone who’s just starting their journey. For me, it’s really easy to relate. I was agnostic three years ago, so I know what rubs people the wrong way. It makes it much easier to reach out to a new audience, that isn’t just the people that go to church every week, but the people who have fallen away from their faith.
On the career side, the biggest thing I learned from both Engineering and Consulting was how to break down a really ambiguous and tackle it. The reason Mechanical Engineering was nice was that we learned two or three different coding languages. By no means am I a great coder. I’m not even a good coder – I’m a terrible coder. But I was confident enough to not be afraid of it. I watched a few online courses on IOS development and I knew enough about coding to know how to copy and paste from StackOverflow. I was confident enough to go into it and figure it out as I went. The same type of thing applied to consulting. A lot of people are super afraid of growth strategies, business plans, accounting, etc. I had had a broad enough experience of those different pieces that I knew enough about them, so even though I wasn’t an expert, I wasn’t afraid of any of them.
After you had the idea what were the next steps?
The first thing I did was call the folks who ended up being the founding team, and bounced the idea off of them. I called Erich, Alessandro, Brian, Abbey and Joe and started talking to them about it. We were all pretty jazzed about it. Then, we did a weekend where we sat in an office and sketched out our thoughts. We did a handful of brainstorming exercises,
The third thing we did was send out a survey to all of our friends and family and tried to get them to send it on. It ended up being like 500 people or so. Just asking them about the idea, their faith life, their needs, things like that. The results were promising enough to start building it.
The last thing we did was start building it. I took a Stanford IOS dev course online and started coding the first version of the app. We also wrote the first nine sessions and recorded them in a little studio. I did a little audio editing course and edited the first bit of audio. We had a super, super terribly built MVP that just played and paused, but was enough for us to do a 50-100-person beta test.
Did the idea evolve as things progressed?
Yeah! In more ways that would possibly fit in an interview. We were wrong about so much, but the two biggest ones were:
We were planning to test three different techniques of meditation/contemplative prayer. A Christian meditation, Examen (reflecting on your day) and Lectio Divina (meditating on scripture). We did nine sessions in this Beta test, three of each. We were planning to test these three different things, figure out what people liked the best and then build that. It was the funniest experience, because no matter who you spoke to, they said, “I loved three sessions, the other six were a waste of time”. The strangest thing was that the breakdown was exactly a third, across those three. There was no one clear winner. We realised, the big benefit is not forcing everyone to do the same thing, but building a place where you can come and do what works for you. The beauty about the Christian spirituality is that it’s so diverse. There’s a place for everybody.
The other big thing we were wrong about, is essentially the whole idea for the app. The idea was that we would be like Calm but for Catholics. Let’s take this group of people who are meditating and want to incorporate their faith. That’s great, and we definitely have a group of users that do this. The other half that we didn’t see at all, was people who had a strong faith life but wanted to incorporate a more contemplative, meditative prayer. Its two sides of the same coin. If you’re just going after Catholics who like to meditate, you’re going after a relatively small pie. Only 14% of the US meditates, and that’s if you ask them: Did you meditate at all in the last year? Which is a pretty broad definition. But people who are praying is a way bigger opportunity. 75% of the US pray, and that’s if you ask: Did you pray last week? And 75% of those people are Christian. Which is hilarious, because there are 2500 meditation apps on the app store right now, and only three have anything to do with Christianity. It’s mind-blowing. There is this huge imbalance between what is being created and what people need. We didn’t learn this till around 6 months ago.
Were there any low points that you can think of, along your journey so far? And were there any funny or most memorable stories?
The lowest point for us was the night before we launched the app. I was in Palo Alto, in California at the time. We had done two Beta tests and we were about to launch the app publicly. We had built a list of around 500 or so folks, and told them that we were going to launch and email them on Thursday. We had everything ready and it was all coming to a head at the same time: we’d submitted to the app store, the audio was being finalised, the data was being uploaded. It was all perfect. And then Wednesday night I am working to make sure we get all this stuff uploaded to the app. We upload the audio to the database and I upload all the data to the app, which means that it should work.
The app is now public on the app store, so I download it. First, I start using the app and the subscription functionality is broken. Which is the only critical part of the tech. Because if someone pays for something, you have to then give the product to the person that paid for it. They have to unlock the premium content if they pay. That was broken, and our lead engineer was asleep. Then I upload all the audio – the only other really important functionality in this app – and the whole thing crashes. The whole app froze, and it froze the entire screen of the phone. I’m working with the audio guy to work out what’s wrong, I’m on the West Coast and they’re in Central time. He stays up till 2 or 3 am his time and we work out that the audio seems fine. I was trying to figure out issues with the data, and it’s around 3 am my time. I thought, I guess we just have to go to bed and we won’t launch tomorrow. So, I send the developer a slack saying “all this stuff is broken, I guess we’ll have to delay the launch”. I go to close my laptop, and the developer responds saying “I’m up. Let’s fix it”. It was 5 am his time he just happened to randomly wake up.
We stayed up two or three hours to fix everything and launch. We ended up launching that day, we sent the mass email two hours later than scheduled. That was definitely the low point followed by the somewhat high point.
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
There’s an interesting divide when it comes to decisions, when you go about starting a business. There are those where it is best to make the decision really quickly, and then learn. And then there are those that have really big impacts, that you have to think really carefully about. I tend to treat most decisions like the former. I think “hey, just make this decision really quick, we can adjust on the fly”. But with things that are high-level strategy, or team-oriented, or some things on the tech side (e.g. database questions), those types of things are big decisions that are hard to reverse. Knowing the difference between those two types of decisions, and being a bit more thoughtful on the latter, while still pushing yourself on the former – is important advice that I would give myself.
What are your favourite books?
Those are not going to be your standard entrepreneur books, but she is phenomenal. She has a deep, rich, spirituality, and she’s an entrepreneur in her own right. She was fighting against the bureaucracy of the church at the time.