Open’s approach to mindfulness in a post-pandemic world
Over the course of the pandemic, mental health is finally getting the attention it needs in the public consciousness. Though there’s still much to be done in addressing the issue, a sense of well-being can be attained in numerous ways.
One lesser-known approach is the practice of breath work—essentially learning and adapting certain breathing techniques that can help you relax and focus, as well as exercise more efficiently when combined with activities like yoga and running.
Launched in 2018 and based in Los Angeles, Open offers a digital platform (via iOS or a desktop browser) with live and on-demand courses in breath work, meditation, and movement. The company is also resuming in-person sessions at its studio near Venice Beach, Calif., with small and private groups.
Fortune recently spoke with cofounder and CEO Raed Khawaja about reflection and mindfulness during lockdown and how to apply those strategies in a post-pandemic world.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Can you share a bit about your professional background prior to launching Open?
Khawaja: Prior to launching Open, I spent most of my career at the intersection of food, beverage, and tech. I wore many hats for global brands and retailers with massive scale like PepsiCo and Walmart. I was fascinated by brands capable of reaching and appealing to billions of people. A farmer in rural Pakistan enjoys the same yellow bag of Lay’s as a banker in Chicago—how does that work? A lot goes into it, but mostly it boils down to the powers of brand and distribution. I would often think about how we could leverage these powerful tools to push culture forward and create real impact.
The entrepreneurial spirit emerged while I was in corporate roles and developed a knack for launching new capabilities. I love the creativity and persistence required to take on something from scratch. Eventually I immersed myself in the early stage tech ecosystem in San Francisco. My last role with Jyve [a labor marketplace for consumer packaged goods/retail] provided the critical experience I desired to demystify the zero-to-one phase that precedes scale.
What inspired you to launch Open?
Open is the result of a lifetime of inspiration. I believe mindfulness is the gateway to well-being. The first step of any path towards transformation and growth begins with being present and aware of your current state without judgment. For example, it is hard to be a better partner if you have no understanding of how you are doing in the first place. The good news is there are many ways into presence and awareness. Breath, music, movement, sound, and sport are some of my favorite entryways. All of these tools have something different to offer, and that is what makes it fun. When you eliminate the idea of a monolithic path, you open yourself up to endless possibilities limited only by your imagination.
I was raised in a wonderful Muslim household and learned prayer from a really young age. I would not have called it a “meditation practice” at the time, but that’s exactly what it was for me. Every Friday I’d join hundreds of people at my local mosque as we prayed in unison with a billion other Muslims around the world. This was my earliest exposure to what community feels like. As many of us do, I grew older and fell out of religious practice. Years later I rediscovered meditation through technique-driven practices like breath observation and body scanning. I was able to access the benefits of the practice pretty quickly thanks to my direct experience with prayer growing up. Interestingly, despite my enthusiasm, my friends struggled to stick with it or see the value in it.
On my own journey, I continued to study and practice anything that deepened the connection between the body and mind. For theory, I became enthralled by the overlap of ancient wisdom and modern science. For practice, I began integrating breath work, sound, mindfulness, music, and movement into my daily life. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to theory and practice changed the course of my life.
Eventually, I felt the desire to practice with my friends and others. Community served as an important point of connection and accountability that I had experienced in a different context growing up. I felt like I was a part of something greater than myself. Fitness brands like Barry’s Bootcamp, Peloton, and SoulCycle understand the importance of delivering consistent experiences and cultivating a passionate community around their brands.
I grew curious. What would it look like to create a wellness experience for people who want to go beyond fitness? How would we design a platform where people from all walks of life feel like they belong? In what ways can technology enable reach and accessibility? If mindfulness is the gateway to flourishing, how do you deliver a reliable experience of presence?
Open was born to address these curiosities. It is a response to our collective present moment. Technology is advancing faster than the mind can keep pace, and we are in the midst of a global mental health crisis. Unfortunately, the solutions are fragmented and inaccessible. This is why Open exists.
Putting it lightly, 2020 was a stressful year. We all cope with stress differently. How did your members make use of Open during the pandemic? What kind of feedback did you get? What were some of the more popular classes and activities?
2020 was undoubtedly a stressful year, but it also created a lot of opportunity for personal development and transformation. The increasing demands of our modern lives cripple our ability to sustain our attention, and the downstream effects on our mental health are not limited to loneliness, depression, anxiety, and chronic stress. The past year only accentuates an existing downward trend of global health factors. Luckily, we are at an inflection point of increased awareness and distribution of the tools and practices people can leverage to better manage their well-being.
Open was able to provide our community the ability to practice movement, breath work, and meditation together. Our guests loved our mixed-modality approach, which made for reliable potent experiences led by talented teachers we recruited from all over the world.
We invested a lot of resources to ensure we delivered the most immersive audiovisual experience for livestreams. With the production value in place, we developed ways you could engage with your instructor and community. People love that you can turn your camera on to get live feedback from teachers, chat with others in the class, and even connect around moments from birthdays to world events. It is really special to see otherwise strangers come together and create community around the practice. We set out to create the feeling you get when you practice with your friends and community at your local studio—a feeling many of us really missed last year.
We encouraged the community to help us create wide access to the platform by offering free guest passes; anyone who is an Open subscriber can [virtually] bring their friends to live classes by sending a link. Empowering our own community to share the practice of presence with their friends is vital, and we will continue to look at ways we can make this easier. Present, together.
In-person classes had to be shut down during the pandemic, and everything shifted to the virtual. How did your company as well as membership handle this transition? How did it affect growing your audience? And now that in-person and group classes can resume, how is Open handling this?
We hosted over 100 pop-up experiences in San Francisco in 2019, and the plan was to launch our first permanent studio in tandem with our digital platform in 2020. The pandemic suspended our in-person studio operations and accelerated development of our digital experience. We quickly ramped up our team and directed all of our resources and focus towards translating the magic of the in-person experience into something you could access from anywhere. The design constraints changed, however, we kept our bias for iteration, craft, and efficacy. We went from rolling out mats and pouring tea after class to hiring additional engineers, figuring out camera plans, set designs, binaural audio capture, and much more. You learn a lot about people in times of transition. I am very proud of our team’s low-ego dedication to our mission. We kept our community top of mind and did everything we could to create value for them.
As we started livestreaming group classes we started to see familiar faces from our pop-ups. They were quick to adapt and thrilled they could follow their teachers. It was not long before we started to realize the benefit of our newfound reach. We went from being solely based in San Francisco to having people from over 130 cities and 40 countries.
In November 2020, we moved the company from San Francisco to Los Angeles to centralize our production and recruiting efforts. Now that in-person classes are opening up again we have started to host our core experiences from our home base in Venice. We are excited to get to know our neighbors in L.A. and will launch our first permanent studio in 2022.
As the pandemic continues but many vaccinated people are resuming normal lives, how can Open serve and help members with busier schedules? What lessons can we take away from understanding and managing stress during the pandemic and make permanent changes for our physical and mental health?
The silver lining of the past year is we all were forced to slow down and recalibrate. Slowing down created the conditions to invest more time in ourselves and only the most meaningful relationships with others. It also created a lot of challenges in people’s daily lives. Many people lost their partners, social lives, and primary resources for wellness. It was amazing to see all the ways people leveraged technology to adapt and find ways to fill in the gaps. As we enter a new phase, I hope we can maintain a more dynamic approach to managing a healthy lifestyle that includes both in-person and at-home practice. The barrier entry to practice from home is inherently lower and should be taken advantage of, especially for shorter durations amidst busier schedules.
Looking ahead, how do you want to see Open evolve in the next five years?
Open will continue its path towards increasing access to the experience of well-being. Over the next five years, we will continue to innovate on our core experiences, expand into new channels—physical spaces, retreats, etc.—and do whatever it takes to meet people where they are at in their journey. We are committed to evolving our understanding of what it takes to live a sustainable, happy, and purposeful life.
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.