Postmortem for Siempo: A Humane Tech Startup ☀️📲

Siempo core feature set

📱 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.

Timeline of pivots. The original idea of a new device evolved based on technical challenges, market feedback, user needs and cultural trends.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Final look at Siempo’s quantitative achievements
Theory of change for what would become a hybrid organization (a la Mozilla)
Slide from our WeFunder deck on how we were embodying a full-stack humane tech 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.

Product

• 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.

Team

• 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.

Market

• 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.

✨ 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.

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Andrew Murray Dunn

Andrew Murray Dunn

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Regenerative Tech | Business | Culture | Life. Co-founder @getsiempo, Digital Wellness Collective, @Wharton Wisdom. www.andrewmurraydunn.com