The Seven Heavenly Virtues of Consumer Technology
Investing in Patience, Kindness, Charity, Diligence, Humility, Chastity, and Temperance
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The Seven Heavenly Virtues of Consumer Technology
Last week, I wrote about the Seven Deadly Sins Framework—the idea that every consumer company is built on one or more of the seven deadly sins. For each sin, I gave an old and a new example of a relevant tech company:
PRIDE — Old: LinkedIn | New: Strava
SLOTH — Old: Netflix | New: Rollic
ENVY — Old: Instagram | New: Decentraland
GREED — Old: Coinbase | New: OpenSea
GLUTTONY — Old: DoorDash | New: Snackpass
LUST — Old: Tinder | New: OnlyFans
WRATH — Old: Twitter | New: DoNotPay
I’m at optimist at heart, yet the sins framework derives from a more pessimistic view of humanity. This isn’t to say that it’s wrong; we can’t help our worst impulses. Everyone feels jealous, vain, and lazy at times, and those emotions feed into the growth of companies. (Which themselves are not bad! They’re serving a need.)
But we also all feel positive emotions. And as an optimistic counterweight to last week’s piece, I thought I’d explore the Seven Heavenly Virtues, often seen as the mirror images to the sins.
As with sins, virtues are inherent to human behavior and thus power consumer businesses. I’ll dive into each virtue and startups that build on that virtue.
I love good marketing, and Calm is one of the best in the business. Calm is especially good at scrappy, creative, and viral growth hacks.
This savviness goes back to the very origins of the company: before starting Calm, co-founder Alex Tew created something called “The Million-Dollar Homepage.” Basically, The Million-Dollar Homepage was a website with a million pixels, each for sale for $1. The site advertised, “Own a piece of internet history!”
And it worked. The site went viral; at one point, it was in the top 200 websites in the world. Every pixel sold—mostly to advertisers eager to hoover up eyeballs flooding the site—and Alex used that $1,000,000 to launch Calm. Brilliant 🤌.
That initial viral hack got Calm off the ground, but the founders didn’t stop there. Tongue in cheek, Calm sponsored the anxiety-ridden 2020 Presidential Election coverage on CNN. After Naomi Osaka was fined $15K for withdrawing from the French Open for her mental health, Calm offered to pay her fine and the fine of any other player who had to withdraw from a Grand Slam tournament for mental health reasons. And in my favorite example of savvy marketing, Calm put out Baa Baa Land (a riff on La La Land), an 8-hour film of sheep grazing in a field. The company marketed it as “the dullest movie ever” and promised it as the ultimate insomnia cure.
Calm’s best marketing tactic, though, has been to equate itself with virtues like patience, mindfulness, and…well, calmness. (It seems it was worth shelling out $140K to purchase the Calm.com domain.) The company is synonymous with mental health.
No tactic better captures that virtue signaling (in a good way!) than “Do nothing for 2 minutes.” Back in the early days of the company, the founders created the website donothingfor2minutes.com with a countdown clock (the site is still functional today). The premise was simple: sit in quiet contemplation for two minutes. If you fail and you touch your mouse, the clock restarts. If you succeed, you’re prompted to enter your email address. The site went viral and got 2 million visits in 10 days, which is how Calm got 100,000 emails of potential users pre-launch.
If donothingfor2minutes.com doesn’t embody Patience, I don’t know what does.
It turns out that gifts have a lot of friction: for starters, how can I surprise you with a gift if I don’t even know your address? Goody lets me send you your gift over text message. Then you fill in the details to receive it. All of a sudden, with a few clicks I can gift to anyone in my contacts.
For instance, here’s a screenshot from sending my friend Cleo (a fellow tech optimist—check out her YouTube channel) Levain cookies for her birthday. The transaction all happens over text—the most intimate social channel we have.
Goody productizes kindness.
I’ve written in the past about Beam (we led the Series A at Index), which is building the rails for “impactful commerce.” Beam does so by connecting consumers and brands to charitable causes. When you go to buy something, you see the option to donate 1% of your cart to a cause—ocean conservation, Ukraine refugrees, LGBTQ+ homeless youth, etc. Importantly, the brand is paying, not you. The brand is willing to give up that 1% because supporting a social cause increases average order value, decreases cart abandonment, and improves repeat buying behavior. In this way, Beam helps channel the $800 billion spent on e-commerce in the U.S. each year toward the right causes, acting as connective tissue between the for-profit and non-profit worlds.
Non-profits, for their part, establish ongoing relationships with customers. When I donate to the Surfrider Foundation, for instance, the checkout page shows me more about the foundation’s work and I receive an email telling me where those dollars are going. Many Beam users go on to support the charity independently.
There’s clear market demand for Beam—the business grew 150% month-over-month throughout 2021—and its impact is real: in the last year, Beam has helped fund 5 million meals for families experiencing food insecurity and has prevented more than 1 million pounds of CO2 emissions. If you’re a brand curious to learn more, you can shoot Beam a note at firstname.lastname@example.org 📬
Another example of a startup building on Charity is FreeWill.
I first wrote about FreeWill in Digital Native almost two years ago in October 2020 (!), in a piece called Building for the Barbells. FreeWill offers free online wills and estate planning. Over the next 20 years, Baby Boomers will pass down $30 trillion to the next generation, the greatest wealth transfer in human history, yet only 30% of Americans have a will. FreeWill aims to fix that.
FreeWill has a clever business model. Customers set up their will at no cost; charitable organizations, meanwhile, pay FreeWill recurring revenue to access FreeWill’s customers, who are given the option to allocate a portion of their estate to charity. This creates an innovative customer acquisition engine, as charities are incentivized to tap their databases of volunteers and donors for FreeWill customers.
FreeWill has helped people create 200,000+ wills and pledge $2B+ to charity. The average FreeWill customer donates 6x more than the national average. The startup is another example of a for-profit business model powering non-profit growth.
To close with my favorite anecdote about the company from co-founder Jenny Xia Spradling:
One comment that kept coming up in user interviews was “I love the product, but I’m not sure about the name. It reminds me of whales. You know the movie Free Willy?” We heard this so many times we started doubting the name.
Luckily, we re-analyzed our user data before we made any moves. The “Free Willy” comment was mostly coming from Millennials. In fact, no Baby Boomers had made the reference. Since we were initially targeting Baby Boomers, we decided to keep the name…Key learning: “Focus on your target customer segment.”
Of the seven virtues, Diligence arguably has the most companies building on it. This may be because diligence breeds repeat usage, and repeat usage is key to building a strong business.
Last week’s example for Pride was the fitness-tracking app Strava. Strava is also built on Diligence—showing your friends that you run every day, or that you bike three times a week. Strava introduced a feature called Streaks to productize diligence. (Companies like Snap also use Streaks to keep users coming back daily.)
I can never mention Strava and not include a piece of Strava art, so here’s a San Francisco run that gives new meaning to the term Turkey Trot:
Fitness is a logical category for Diligence. The personal training app Future, for instance, pairs you with a trainer who personalizes a fitness plan for you and chats with you daily to hold you accountable. Because everything is virtual, personal training becomes more accessible ($149 / month).
Or personal finance can be Diligence. The company Acorns lets you round up every purchase—your $4.83 latte becomes $5.00—and automatically invest that extra change (in this case, 17 cents). Acorns productizes Diligence by letting you save diligently without even thinking about it.
One less obvious candidate for Diligence: Notion, another Index company, which has become an unlikely TikTok darling.
The Notion hashtag has 473M views on TikTok, with thousands of videos showing how to use Notion for calendaring, to-do lists, and goal setting. Notion is the central nervous system for organizing your life and productizing Diligence.
Humility is a difficult virtue to build on. Humility means freedom from Pride or Arrogance, and Humility comes less naturally to us than those latter traits.
Last week, I wrote about LinkedIn as the canonical example of Pride. LinkedIn is built on self-promotion: the focal point is curating your own professional achievements within your profile. Some LinkedIn challengers, though, shift the focal point to collaborative work. Read.cv, for instance, lets you specify who you worked with on what—who contributed to the successful outcome. In this way, you could argue that Read.cv is built more on Humility than on Pride; most work, by nature, is collaborative, and Read.cv’s structure lets you highlight others in addition to yourself. (An added benefit is that workers adding their collaborators can lead to excellent network growth.)
But the best example of Humility might be the social app tbh, which Facebook scooped up for $100 million shortly after its launch in 2017. tbh (which stands for “to be honest”) was built on compliments: which friend has the most integrity? who is the best friend to bring to a party? who has the best smile?
In nine weeks in 2017, tbh racked up 5 million downloads and 2.5 million daily active users. Facebook shut down the app in 2018, but for a moment, tbh was successful in building a social network on Humility.
This virtue is the most…awkward to evaluate. Chastity, in its literal definition, means abstaining from physical intimacy (and particularly from extramarital affairs). In this way, ironically, last week’s example for Lust might also apply to Chastity. For many, OnlyFans has come to seemingly replace physical intimacy by digitizing sex and romance. For sex workers—who make up much of OnlyFans’s creator base—this is a meaningfully safer and more scalable way to earn a living.
A similar story has been unfolding in Japan for years. The concept of a “digital girlfriend” was popularized in recent years as men sought online intimacy.
The game LovePlus, for instance, lets players fall in love with digital soulmates:
“Even as LovePlus players acknowledge that their lovers are virtual, many say the support and affection they receive feels real…[players find] refuge in the unwavering support of a woman who can never, ever leave them…The women can be programmed, with their moods and personalities adjusted to suit the desires of the player.”
This behavior dovetails with a shift away from sex among Japanese youth. Over 31% of Japanese aged 18 to 34 are virgins. The government is so concerned with what it calls “celibacy syndrome” that it is personally funding AI-driven matchmaking services.
OnlyFans, digital girlfriends, and the like are all a little dystopian, bringing to mind science fiction works like the movie Her. But they’re all part of a gradual digitization of human intimacy.
For what it’s worth, Lust sells better than Chastity. You’ve heard “Sex sells,” but you haven’t heard “Chastity sells.” There’s a reason advertising doesn’t include models wearing too many clothes.
But the irony of Chastity is that as intimacy shifts from the physical to the digital, Chastity and Lust can co-exist.
We don’t use the word “temperance” much anymore, but it essentially means moderation or restraint. When I think of Temperance in practice, I think of restraint from alcohol or drug abuse. (The original meaning of Temperance, for what it’s worth, was abstinence from alcohol.)
There are a variety of startups building solutions to addiction. Workit Health, for instance, offers telemedicine addiction treatment for alcohol, cocaine, meth, and opioids.
Apart from addiction treatment, another Temperance-related space is the rise of non-alcoholic beverages. A recent study found that Gen Z drinks 20% less than Millennials did at the same age—and 64% of Gen Zs say they expect to drink less frequently when they grow older than older generations do now.
Just as theologians recognize Vanity and Acedia as the unofficial 8th and 9th sins, theologians likewise recognize additional virtues that don’t quite make it into the traditional seven. Sobriety is one. Workit Health and Ghia also build on that virtue. Faith is another. An example there would be Hallow, effectively “Calm for Catholics”—an app for prayer targeting the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.
Between them, the Seven Sins and the Seven Virtues encompass a good swath of our emotional spectrums. Give me a consumer business, and I bet you I can find at least one of those 14 that the business relies on.
That said, there’s an argument to be made that sins sell better than virtues. We’re drawn to sins, which are often our most carnal instincts and needs. We find them fascinating and alluring. There’s a reason that there isn’t a movie called Seven about the seven virtues. Virtues are less enthralling.
When building a consumer business, it’s interesting to think about which behaviors are “with the current” and which are “against the current” for your product. If you feed into people’s inherent sense of Pride, you might do well. On the other hand, if you find yourself trying to convince people to be humble, you might find yourself fighting an uphill battle. Of course, the best businesses build on both sins and virtues, tapping into a broad and vibrant kaleidoscope of human behavior.
Sources & Additional Reading
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