Postmortem for Siempo: A Humane Tech Startup ☀️📲
This is a postmortem about Siempo, Inc. — a Public Benefit Corporation whose mission was to create technology that protects and promotes human thriving. We built the first humane smartphone interface. Siempo was officially dissolved and removed from the Play Store on the Winter Solstice 2020, but its essence lives on as an open source project and in the lives of those who used it and engaged in the conversation around humanity’s relationship with technology.
This is Part I of the postmortem, in standard startup fashion. Part II is a Vision for The Next Siempo 💡🗺 .
Andrew here, Operations Manager from 2016–2017 and CEO 2017-2020. How to encapsulate the depth and complexity of a startup journey in a few words? In respect of your attention and in service of getting the story out there, I will keep this piece short and make myself available to share more upon request.
📱 What Happened
tldr; we made a new-to-the-world tool, before its time, in a more ethical way, swimming upstream against the most powerful companies in history. We improved quality of life for many of our users, while contributing to an emerging industry and important cultural conversation. With 3.5 pivots it was a roller coaster the likes of HBO’s Silicon Valley. We paused operations in the summer of 2019.
The origin story of Siempo predates my participation. Running through it concisely, we have:
Minium: A Mindful Feature Phone (hardware)| 2014–2016
Andreas Gala and Jorge Selva met through their partners in Chicago in 2014, connecting over life and business and curiosity about how to have a more balanced relationship with technology. Jorge had switched to a flip phone on business trips to South America and enjoyed the break from all the noise, while Andreas had been feeling corporate burnout pains in testing lots of smartphones as a product manager at Yahoo.
They began hacking with hardware engineers and industrial designers on a new version of a flip phone, with e-ink and must-have features like cloud synced notes and WiFi tethering that would make it easier for folks to ditch their smartphone (similar to The Light Phone and Mudita). Running into the hurdles of building hardware from scratch, they eventually decided to pivot to white-labeling an existing Android device, and focus primarily on designing a more mindful user experience on the software side.
Siempo: A Mindful Smart Phone (hardware) | 2016–2017
Mayank Saxena (part-time CTO) and I (operations and marketing) joined the team in the summer of 2016 with similar visions around disconnecting from technology. We progressed on the manufacturing and software design paths while gearing up for a crowdfunding campaign to launch our brand and pre-sell devices.
We launched the Kickstarter in March 2017, raised $50k in device sales and received countless press mentions, but did not feel empowered enough to move forward with our manufacturing partner. The feedback was clear that the switching costs for a new device were high, and each user had a different idea of what features are essential. However, our audience indicated strong willingness to try and pay for a software version of Siempo on their existing device, which the Android operating system affords (this type of product is called a launcher, home screen, or lightweight OS).
Siempo: A Humane Interface (software) | 2017–2018
While Andreas and Jorge decided to move on to different projects, Mayank and I felt energized to explore the software path, and with the support of backers we were able to spin up operations again and bring on product designer Mattthew Brauer to help us design a more intentional smartphone interface.
We released our Alpha in December 2017 and launched our Beta in the Play Store in March 2018, to a flurry of positive reception: TechCrunch, Broadcast TV, endorsements and awards, stellar ratings and reviews. It felt like we had timed the cultural moment perfectly. Yet we struggled to fundraise what we needed to take the next steps forward, in part due to Apple and Google’s announcement of their respective Screen Time and Wellbeing efforts, which spooked investors. The digital wellness space was still too early, too inhibited by the giants, too mission-driven. We paused operations for the summer.
Siempo: A Humane Startup (software) | 2018–2019
Given the historical moment we found ourselves in, I wondered if we were going to have to innovative on the HOW in addition to the WHAT, if we wanted to become a trusted and ethical product and organization. If we were going to take another crack at it, let’s try to find greater alignment across all dimensions of our business — from open source to Public Benefit Corporation to community financing. Let’s make an organizational and cultural overhaul.
We rebuilt a phenomenal team (ex Apple, Space X, BCG) and updated vision to reintroduce Siempo to the world as the first full-stack humane startup (in terms of product and org), through a June 2019 WeFunder equity crowdfunding campaign. See the press release we prepared here. Days before the planned launch, with nearly a dozen people involved, we experienced some unexpected roadblocks and decided to delay it to September. We took the summer to bolster our offering and explore a compelling B2B model, but ultimately never launched the campaign, due to a combination of burnout and continued lack of resonance with larger investors. Things were still not in flow.
We left no stone unturned in trying to find new leadership or a larger organization to join forces with. In 2020 we made the difficult choice to dissolve the company.
📚 What We Learned
I’ll keep this section focused on product, team and market findings; less on giving any sort of advice. See Part II for recommendations for those who wish to carry this work forward in the future, The Path of The Humane Technologist for reflections on what the next generation of founders should learn in order to live and create in a more life-honoring way, and a video version of this postmortem I gave at a Digital Wellness Collective town hall last fall.
• Research — We conducted several rounds of user research, but we always could have done more to validate real human needs, vs. what we imagined would be supportive. Which is tricky for a problem with such a complex system of root causes, that may have as much to do with a user’s awareness of their emotional state in the moment, as the design of their digital environment.
• Simplicity — Because we initially set out to build a whole new phone, we had thought through many aspects of the user experience at the OS level. When we pivoted to software, we transferred much of that feature set into the launcher. Starting with a simpler feature set may have been more effective for user adoption than the complex set we released.
• Onboarding — There is a big learning curve for switching to a whole new interface, especially for those who have never used a launcher before. We prioritized investing in a smooth onboarding experience, but it proved insufficient and led to a loss of many users upon download. There was ample low hanging fruit to tackle in order to improve retention.
• Platform —The inability to build Siempo on iOS was one of the biggest thorns in our side, as most investors have iPhones, as does half the US and a quarter of the world. Even though we enjoyed more creative freedom on Android, there were still limitations and risk, e.g. we had to water down our notification batching feature due to an OS update. Most of our features were first for Android, while impossible on iOS. e.g. Screen Covers took advantage of Android’s affordances to paint pixels over apps and design a more gentle approach to overuse intervention.
• Coherence — Between remote culture and mix of full and part-time contributors, it was challenging to build trust and shared reality. For new-to-the-world innovation, it may have been more effective to have strategy, product and engineering in the same room, on a learning journey together. We also never had an experienced CEO leading the team.
• Culture — How to balance building a tech startup, with having work-life balance? How to work on ourselves so we could make a more humane product and org, without sacrificing progress on the product and business side? The wellness tech space is filled with paradox.
• Networking — Participating in an emerging industry presented a ripe context to network with diverse communities. Some of these explorations led to tangible outcomes (creation of Digital Wellness Collective industry trade association, volunteer support from users/fans, in-person meeting with Google and Samsung execs), while others led to distraction and overwhelm (creating an angel group to solve for fundraising).
• Growth — PR was our #1 driver of growth, though expensive when we paid for it and time intensive when we did it ourselves. I think we missed a big opportunity to invest resources into community building — a weekly Zoom with users could have gone a long way. While we wanted to keep the app free while in Beta, I wish we had experimented with charging for the product.
• Fundraising — There’s no other activity we put so much time in that yielded so little result. We overestimated how investment appetite would match the growing cultural dialogue, and how many funders would come out of the woodwork after having made fortunes from extractive tech and gotten into wellness culture. Perhaps a nonprofit container might have been more appropriate, with its energy of stewardship over ownership. Here is the final deck, for reference.
• Timing — We got into the space very early. Even with The Social Dilemma having been viewed by hundreds of millions of people, the digital wellness industry still feels nascent, as evidenced by how many efforts have fizzled out, and the ~dozen minimalist launchers that came after Siempo yet to crack the 1M download milestone.
✨ Special Moments
When I reflect on the the life of Siempo, there are several specific moments that stand out as moments of highest joy and aliveness. I want to share a handful of them as they add more texture to the journey described above, and highlight the many different ways we celebrate Siempo as a successful project.
- Synchronicity — Randomly attending a hardware meetup at the last minute to pitch the wearable I was working on, experiencing professional “love at first sight” with Andreas who pitched the concept for Siempo!
- Impact — Waking up one day to an email from an alpha tester thanking us for giving her life back. Waking up another day to a Play Store review that said “Thank you for saving my life.”
- Community Organizing — Running around NYC, switchboarding calls between “competitors” and journalists to rally the digital wellness space in a direct action against Apple ahead of its announcement of ScreenTime, which ultimately led to the birth of Digital Wellness Collective, and later a space for backchannel conversations to reverse Apple’s predatory behavior towards app developers in our community.
- Recognition—Receiving acknowledgment by the founder of our biggest competitor that Siempo was the true visionary in this space, in a room full of founders of household name tech companies.
🤔 Outstanding Questions
Siempo was an idea, a business, a technology, a community, an inspiration. It was an inquiry into a significant meta-question of our time: how can technology support life? A question that concerns the realms of ethics and economics, philosophy and psychology. I spoke into these challenges at a live event right before pausing operations. Some of the sub questions that we danced with and continue to get curious about include:
- What does it mean to be live ethically in 2021? To build an ethical product, organization, business? How can the patterns of nature and Indigenous values inform more harmonious economic models? What can different cultures teach us about relationship with ourselves, our tools, and our communities?
- What and how should the next generation of technologists learn and unlearn, and why? What capacities, awarenesses and skills need to be cultivated in order to shift the culture of Silicon Valley?
- How can technologists and educators who care about this issue better collaborate to meet their shared goals? How can the digital wellness / humane tech space attract more talent and resources?
- What will it take for Apple and Google (+ other hardware manufacturers who have the power to re-imagine the smartphone experience at scale) to meaningfully invest resources into solving the tech addiction problem?
👀 Looking Ahead
We believe the concept of Siempo is an inevitability. We are proud of the ground work we laid for future efforts to flourish.
There is a team working on an open source version of Siempo. Please contact them if you are interested in furthering this concept in the world.
If you would like to learn more about the story and our learnings, feel free to write me at andrewmurraydunn at gmail dot com. There’s much more to share.
Finally, we want to give a special shout-out to those who played a meaningful role, formally or informally, in the life of Siempo:
Arlan Hamilton and the team at Backstage Capital, all of our angel investors, as well as those investors who made commitments to participate in our WeFunder. Ryan Wynia, James Rosenfield, Marisol MacGregor, Cailleach de Weingart Ryan, Jean Paul Martin, Xavier Commerford, Will Kabbat Zinn, Marc Weinstien, Barbara and Chuck Dunn, Nupoor Saxena, Charlie Castañeda-Selva, Breann Gala, Nathan Maton, David Ngo, David Jay, Nina Claire Hersher, Phil Levine, Nathan,Wisdom 2.0, Center for Humane Technology, Consciousness Hacking, Transformative Technology Conference, A Mindful Society, Product Realization Group, Kunal Gupta, Gabi Jubran, Zebras Unite, Jim Danielson, Ryan Braun, Volansys Technologies, Gaurang Mahatre, Teddy Daiell, Simon Mont and many more friends and family who made introductions, consulted, advised, promoted and rooted for Siempo.