Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! My name is Alex Jones and I’m the CEO and co-founder of Hallow, an audio-guided Catholic meditation and prayer app. Hallow aims to help people to combine the peace and stillness of meditation with the spiritual growth of prayer.
The app is comparable to the popular mindfulness meditation apps trending today, but was built with a lens of Christian faith. It offers a variety of prayer techniques, a choice in audio guides, sessions organized by theme, and options for session length.
Today, we’re earning about $6,500 / month in our 3rd month since launch.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Hallow is very much the fruit of a personal journey. Each of us on the founding team are exactly the target market.
The question then immediately followed: "how can we get these prayer techniques out into the world in an accessible, intuitive, convenient format?" and it didn't take long for a mobile app to win out. A week later, I quit my job in consulting to begin, and Hallow was born.
We are young adults who were in stressful environments, had Catholic backgrounds, but were somewhat limited in our own personal relationships with God. More specifically, prayer felt mostly one-sided and somewhat repetitive. I would tell God about my day, thank Him for things, apologize for other things, and ask for a few requests, but hardly ever spent time in silence with Him or listening for what He was saying to me. The only real prayers that I practiced otherwise were ones I had memorized - Our Father, Hail Mary, etc. While these are very powerful in their own right, it does not allow for the two-way conversation required to form a relationship.
The last key factor was that things were crazy and stressful amongst the busyness of the working world, and so we tried to find a way to bring ourselves peace. I myself turned to meditation through a popular mindfulness app. Our co-founder, Erich, turned to nature and hiking to find peace in silence and disconnecting. In each case for our team, our methods were effective but not fully satisfactory and felt like they were lacking in spirituality and were disconnected from our Christian faith.
The natural question to follow then was, "Is there any kind of intersection between our Christian faith, and these types of contemplative, reflective, and calming practices?" After a few months of research talking to friends, family, professors, religious brothers and sisters, priests, and reading many books, it was clear that there are plenty of tried and true methods of prayer at this intersection.
After learning about them, we implemented them into our personal prayer lives and found them to be extremely impactful. The question then immediately followed: "how can we get these prayer techniques out into the world in an accessible, intuitive, convenient format?" and it didn't take long for a mobile app to win out. A week later, I quit my job in consulting to begin, and Hallow was born.
Take us through the process of building the product.
From the very first concept of the idea until the launch of the first beta, MVP took about 4 months. Then it was about another 4 months before we launched in the App Store and Play Store on the same day. I took a crash course in Swift and worked with a friend to code the first version of the app, while a third friend took a stab at the first UI design.
After a few months, the other pieces of the business (e.g., writing the content, recording it, marketing, partnerships) started taking up the majority of the day, and we thought it best to bring on a friend on a contract basis to help with development – we have an app in iOS written in Swift and in Android written in Kotlin with our backend in Firebase. Development of the app, branding, and design were our largest expenses (at <$50K each).
Perfect is the enemy of good – early on, settle for good to get to market faster.
We knew from the beginning that the mobile app space is very difficult to enter with over 4,000 new apps a day, and is even more difficult to protect. Almost anything could be copied at any moment. As a result, branding is one of the biggest competitive differentiators in the market, and design is a key part of that so these quickly became early focus areas. We knew we wanted to take a different approach to religion. We didn't want to be preachy and we didn't want to be old-school. We wanted to be a cool, modern, Silicon Valley tech company with a light-hearted approach to connecting with God.
The biggest question during development is what features do we need as an MVP, and how do we prioritize them. To this, the most valuable advice we received was to define a "North Star Metric". What is the one metric that your company is trying to achieve above all else - the one metric that is most closely aligned with the mission. We determined ours to be Weekly Prayers Completed (WPC).
WPC can intuitively be increased in two ways:
(1) increasing the number of people praying, and
(2) increasing the number of prayers said per user.
After defining this metric, we could make rough estimates for what impact any given feature would have on WPC and that would determine our prioritized order of features. E.g., implementing the ability to set reminders for prayer might impact the number of prayers said significantly while submitting payments online vs in the App Store is likely to have a lesser effect and therefore would be prioritized below.
Fortunately for us, these two largest expenses were still relatively insignificant compared to any startup with a physical product / prototype and so funding was not a large roadblock. In addition to the founding team contributing money, we ran a Kickstarter and raised $25K (of a $20K goal), and raised some money through a friends and family round.
Other than the technical side, the biggest piece of the product itself was in the audio guided sessions. We tried 10-12 different voices as options for the app and landed on two that sounded the most soothing and genuine.
Describe the process of launching the business.
As soon as the idea for Hallow first came to mind at all, we started running full-speed ahead to get a product to market. Overall, it took us about 8 months to get from product to launching in both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.
I’ll pull a slide straight from our pitch deck to show you the process and timing it took to get there.
As you can see above, we launched the first version of our product in December, 2018, and just 3 months later launched the second version with a brand-new design and functionality.
Here’s what v1.0 looked like:
And here’s what v2.0 looked like:
As you can imagine, the bulk of the work leading up to launch was building the app. Given the nature of our space, we concurrently needed to be thinking about the content that would actually be available on the app. Having hundreds of audio-guided sessions meant writing the sessions, recording the content, and audio-editing the files. We quickly ramped our team up to 9 people (split between full-time and part-time) to respond to this need.
In addition to all of the work that went into building the app and creating the content, we had to do a few other things to set ourselves up for a successful launch. First, we wanted to make sure we had a landing page so potential customers could find us on the internet. We built this through Hubspot, which we already had access to for our automated emails. Second, we wanted to have a decent preorder list before launching. We actually accomplished this through a Kickstarter, which worked just as well for building interest as it did for raising a bit of extra funding.
The last big step with planning for launch was of course determining the pricing model. Hallow is a freemium app, with a variety of daily prayers available for free, and the option to purchase a subscription to premium content.
The subscriptions cost $8.99 per month, $59.99 for an annual subscription, and $200 for lifetime. We really wanted to ensure we had a free version of the product that we believed would be worth downloading on its own, and we believe in the value of letting users become well-acquainted with the product before making a purchasing decision.
The freemium model is also the most popular in the space, especially among secular meditation apps, and we largely set our price as a discount to these apps as well.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The way that we think about customer acquisition is in 3 major groups:
(1) People who experience the problem that you solve, recognize that it is a problem, and actively seek a solution (before even hearing of your product);
(2) People who experience the issue you solve but haven’t yet searched for a solution;
(3) People who stand to benefit from your product, but haven't yet had exposure to the issue you are solving.
To make this more concrete, I’ll reframe the segments in the context of Hallow. For us, (1) are folks who are Christian and already meditate and have searched for ways to meditate within their faith. (2) is Catholics who are, to a degree, struggling with their prayer lives but haven’t yet acknowledged to themselves that they feel less engaged in prayer and (3) could be a number of groups, but includes “spiritual but not religious” people who might benefit from exploring their faith or a religious person who has been more focused on the sacraments but hasn’t yet tried to develop a personal relationship with God.
Based on the definitions, it’s easy to see that group 1 will be the easiest and cheapest group to acquire. They’re the ones who will stumble upon our website because they’re already googling things like “How to meditate as a Catholic”. It is with group 1 that we ran our beta tests and had our initial launch. Contacting this group was a matter of reaching out to our friends and family, building a landing page / SEO, and finding these customers where they are.
After identifying these customer types, we had to think of ways to reach out to them. We sat down as a team and identified 10 ways:
1 - Personal connections
The most obvious one and where everyone starts. We had 8 of us working on Hallow (counting part-time folks) and with each of us reaching out to our networks through social media (especially LinkedIn), we easily contacted over 10,000 people right away.
2 - Kickstarter
While a piece of this was of course about raising the funds, it was also an amazing way to build an interest list before release and to help us get the word out. It was natural then to post this on our personal social media accounts and asking friends and family to do the same.
3 - Content marketing
We wrote blogs about our own personal faith lives and on tips that we thought our users would find helpful. Our posts range from content related to our field to personal stories, and we’ve seen success with both.
In fact, our most successful post was the former, written about the difference between Christian meditation and mindfulness meditation), while our second most popular post was the latter about why one of our co-founders quit his job to work on Hallow.
4 - Ambassadors
Because our company is mission-driven, we have folks who are interested in helping us succeed solely because they believe in spreading the word about God.
As such, we created a way for them to be formally involved as Ambassadors to help build local prayer groups, or to bring Hallow to their campus / employer
5 - In-person events
Because we are Christian app, there are already so many events that organize our target audience together. Within the first month of release, we went to a new Christian / Catholic conferences or gathering every week to build a presence and talk to prospective customers
6 - Partnerships
It's tough to overstate the importance of partnerships. Immediately after launch, we began reaching out to parishes, dioceses, Christian organizations, Catholic high schools, etc. Any organization that shared in the mission of bringing people to God would typically be open to jumping on the phone.
Just as an example, we worked with the folks in the Campus Ministry Department at the University of Portland to provide Hallow as a resource for their students throughout the Lent and Easter season. We actively seek any opportunity where Hallow can be used as a resource to support the mission or ministry of other organizations.
7 - Media
We immediately built a press kit on our website to ensure anyone from the press would have everything they need to build an article if they so desired (references to other articles, facts about the team, high-quality product photos, commonly asked questions etc).
Then we found journalists who have written about something similar (in our case, anything related to Christianity or mindfulness) and track down their email addresses or LinkedIns to contact them with a personal message.
8 - Social media
The obvious part of this is creating our own pages for Hallow on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube etc. In addition, we found the most pertinent groups that already existed on Facebook and Reddit and garnered interest there.
9 - Influencers
Related to #7, this is contacting people who already have some creditability in your space. It's unlikely you can gain the interest of a big wig, but beginning by targeting folks with 1K - 10K followers can be a great place to start.
10 - Paid marketing
I put this one last because, other than a short test to understand benchmarks, we have every intention of avoiding paid marketing until we have iterated on the product significantly and have built a strong user base. But no doubt that it belongs on the list and is a good way to differentiate between the customer types I listed above. You can be sure we'll have drastically different ads for targeting customers in group (1) than group (3).
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Things are going well today! We are just 3 months out from launch and have shown solid growth each month in our active users with virtually no paid ad spend at all.
Our goal for the future is to build Hallow into a leading tool for the world’s 2 billion Christians to build a relationship with God through prayer. With that goal in mind, we have a long and exciting pipeline of product features, prayer content, and other tools that will enable us to execute our vision.
First and foremost, we are focused on continuing to expand our content library to give our users a guided resource to pray through every experience in their lives. From creating additional Praylists centered on a daily commute, going on a run, or becoming more patient, to expanding our Challenges library to other theological topics including the sacraments, the Gospels, and the lives of the saints, we have our work cut out for us.
Of course, expanding to the full 2 billion Christians will also require us to launch internationally soon, and most likely to translate into other languages some time further down the road as well.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Before talking about a learning from a past mistake, I’ll mention one incredibly helpful thing - the biggest factor completely out of our control that is helping us enormously is the trend in mindfulness.
There has been an absolute explosion of interest in this space with Headspace and Calm each at tens of millions of users, mental health advocacy on the rise, and even implementation of meditation as a prescribed form of treatment in medicine. I’ve now read of countless examples of companies that seemed to have everything figured out but just did not have timing on their side – including examples both of coming to market too early before people were ready, and some coming too late. It’s harder to control but is worth thinking about early on whether any business idea has market timing on its side.
Now to discuss one learning from a misstep. As we approached the end of 2018, we wanted to launch at the beginning of December to capitalize on the holiday season, but were also resource-constrained from a development perspective so we weren’t about to build out all of the web features we wanted before going live. But we prioritized getting live and figuring out any glitches later over potentially missing the Christmas spending period to get everything right.
Luckily, we did not have many users write in for support and of those that did, most were understanding of our story, but we had nonetheless let our users down. That was the last thing we ever wanted to happen, especially right at launch.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Hubspot: We use Hubspot for a lot – email marketing and automation, workflow automation, landing page hosting, social media management, CRM, B2B deal-stage tracking
Upwork: We’ve used Upwork a number of times for help with freelance work with varying degrees of success
Mixpanel: App analytics
Firebase: Database management and app analytics
Gusto: Payroll management
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Regarding books and resources, I did find some of the classic top entrepreneurship books to be helpful. At the top of these would be two classics, The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, and High Output Management by Andy Grove.
Additionally, it was super helpful to read books in our specific industry and content matter, i.e., devouring books on prayer techniques and Christianity. Pretty much every major book by C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, the Great Divorce, Screwtape Letters, and Problem of Pain are probably my favorites), plus books like The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila and Ascent of Mt. Carmel by St. John of the Cross.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
- Focus on nothing but product until you have something with a distinct competitive advantage that you know customers are willing to pay for.
- Perfect is the enemy of good – early on, settle for good to get to market faster.
- Don’t compromise on hiring – take the extra few weeks or even months to find the person with the right skillset and the right mission alignment.
- Avoid paid advertising for as long as you can.
- It’s okay (and, in fact, is often advantageous) to not have extremely high growth in the early months or even years. Not only does insane growth cause many challenges that are difficult to address, but it often leads to inefficient solutions (you just go for whatever is fastest) and can set unrealistic expectations for investors in the future. Lastly, trying to grow as fast as possible can lead you to rush into bad deals, or grow by capturing customers with a lower LTV / higher rate of retention.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes! We are currently looking for a Lead Engineer to own the mobile app from end-to-end both in iOS and Android.
This is a full-time position which will be compensated with a salary and stock options. Proficiency in at least one of Swift or Kotlin is necessary.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Email: [email protected]
- Download on iOS
- Download on Android
- Website: www.hallow.app
- Blog: hallow.app/blog
- Facebook: facebook.com/HallowPrayer
- Instagram: @hallowapp
- Twitter: @HallowApp
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Shoot me an email!