How one man learned to build things that matter, the hard way.
Alex Tew’s name may not ring a bell to Gen-Zers today, but for Millennials and the generations before them, Tew’s story is the stuff movies are made of. Venture capital-funded growth and stock exchange listings didn’t mean anything to Tew. He just wanted to make money, quick, and that’s exactly what he did. At 21, Tew was a millionaire. And it took him only 4 months to get there!
Then he became depressed.
Then he made it big, again.
And what lessons can we learn from Tew’s story?
Striking Gold and Post-success Depression
One late night in August 2005, Tew was in his room, wondering how he was going to pay off his student loans. At the time, he had just enrolled in business school at the University of Nottingham. Tew decided to brainstorm cheap things he could sell a million of. He managed to come up with a few ideas, including one for a questionable product called the ‘Gum Slinger’, which was basically a small pouch for used chewing gum.
Then he struck gold: Tew decided to start a web page with a million pixels that could be purchased for $1 apiece.
Today, this idea would have been laughable. But remember, this was 2005, and the internet as we know it today was still in its infancy. MSN Messenger ruled supreme, and internet advertising was a virtual mirror of the Wild West.
Two days and $50 in domain fees later, the Million Dollar Homepage was born.
Tew’s concept was extremely simple. For a minimum of $100, an advertiser could buy a 100-pixel block (10 x 10 grid) and display an image or logo of their choosing, with a hyperlink. The only guideline was that it couldn’t be porn.
Tew managed to successfully sell 4.7k pixels to friends and family, and he used the money to hire a PR agency to draft a press release. The release was picked up by the BBC and The Guardian, and advertisers started buying up pixels on his site.
One month in, Tew had raked in $250k and was receiving 65k hits per day. By the end of October, he’d made $500k from more than 1.4k advertisers. Come New Year’s Eve, 999k pixels had been purchased. Tew auctioned off the last 1k on eBay; MillionDollarWeightLoss.com bid $38k, bringing his grand total to $1.04m
After paying the tax man his fair share, Tew was left with nearly $700k to his name. He promptly dropped out of college and moved to London. Over the next four years, Tew tried to replicate his initial success by launching various different ventures. But it was all in vain.
Lesson 1: Provide Value, Don’t Demand Attention
Success can be like a treadmill. Once you achieve a certain amount of it, there comes an insatiable hunger for more. This can trick people into focusing their energies on creating things whose success entirely depends on virality or fame. Instead, Tew argues that you must focus on building things that actually enhance someone’s quality of life i.e. provide value. “Success can actually be bad and can teach you the wrong things. I was thinking about ideas that would get attention instead of providing value” says Tew.
Unable to replicate the success he had with the Million Dollar Homepage, Tew moved to San Francisco and joined a friend’s startup incubator.
Lesson 2: Look To Your Own Problems To Find Your Next Idea
The four years he spent looking for his next big idea (2006-2010) took a toll on Tew. He didn’t eat or sleep well, and his mental health took a toll. Till then a lifelong meditator, Tew found himself slowly drifting away from his daily practice. Tew realised that he had to initiate some corrective action..so he built another website. The result was donothingfor2minutes.com, a simple website with a 2-minute timer that would restart if you moved your cursor. It was Tew’s way of forcing himself to meditate.
The timing was perfect. The rise of the internet and the proliferation of smartphones had brought with it loads of ‘mental clutter’ and people were starting to talk about digital detoxes. Questions were being asked about the long-term impact of social media on one’s mental health, and the practice of mindfulness was having its moment.
Lesson 3: Take Your Time To Build
Alex was in no hurry. He built donothingfor2minutes.com in 2010. He took the next two years to figure out what he was going to do with it. In 2012, he finalised his plan to build a more robust meditation app.
Finding the seed money wasn’t easy and Tew was laughed out of many meetings. “When you talk about meditation with people who don’t meditate, and who work in tech, it’s so far outside of their world of focus,” he says.
Tew eventually managed to put together $1.5 million and launched Calm, the meditation app.
Lesson 4: Be Clear About How You Are Going To Monetize
From the outset, Tew was very clear about what his value proposition was going to be, and how he was going to monetize his app. To this day, the app’s flagship feature– a 10-minute guided meditation– remains free. Calm makes money by selling premium access to things like ‘Sleep Stories’ (which are basically bedtime stories for adults), and masterclasses on wellness topics.
Today, Calm is valued at more than $1 billion and counts the likes of TPG and Ashton Kutcher among its investors. The app is locked in a two-way battle for domination with competitor Headspace and was named Apple’s App of the Year in 2017. According to App Annie, an app market data firm, Calm is the top-grossing health and fitness app and 20th overall on iOS, while Headspace, its main competitor, is the seventh-highest-grossing health and fitness app and 103rd overall on iOS. With more than 40 million downloads and more than 1 million paying customers, Calm’s success has been nothing short of extraordinary.
And behind much of this success is one man: Alex Tew (and his life lessons).