#89. MNDFL’s studios make meditation accessible. We talk with co-founder Ellie Burrows about why she gave the mindfulness practice a physical footprint and how the company differs from the fitness and yoga business. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 89th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis, insights and events that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso for Teams, your energizing and high-pressure filter for consumer news—in context. We also have a newsletter that features our latest analysis of the consumer economy. Check it all out at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:00:34] Joining me today is Ellie Burrows, a co-founder of MNDFL, a company making meditation accessible through physical studios and a range of other digital methods. Ellie started the company with co-founder Lodro Rinzler after seeking a physical space for her meditation practice. She wanted something that would help build the ritual but also open up the practice to a wider group of people.

Ellie: [00:00:52] Meditating alone is like singing in the shower and meditating in a group is like singing in a choir. So you’re doing the same thing, but they have very different tactile sensations to the experience.

Richie: [00:01:05] While fitness and yoga studios proliferate in cities around the world, meditation is coming along slowly but surely and MNDFL is leading the way, one studio at a time. Here is my talk with Ellie Burrows.

Richie: [00:01:18] Why don’t we start. Just talk a bit about your background and then we can work our way up to this company existing.

Ellie: [00:01:24] I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California in a family that is in the entertainment business and they derive an enormous amount of joy from what they do. When you grow up in a house witnessing other human beings deriving a lot of happiness and joy and fulfillment from their purpose or their career, it’s a very inspiring thing to watch and I sort of just assumed that that same joy was awaiting me. So I graduated from film school at Northwestern and I went right into the William Morris mailroom. After that, I went and worked for a man named Ted Hope who’s now the head of Amazon Studios and I worked for him for two years during the recession. It was 2008, so we weren’t really making movies. I was really just assisting him with trying to make movies during the recession, which was an interesting process.

Ellie: [00:02:08] I took my first year off in 2010 because I had had a health scare and I really needed to take the time to figure out how I got so unbelievably stressed out that it started to make me sick. What was my process in approaching my work? How did I get sick? I just had a lot of questions around it so I took some time off and that first year off, I spent some time interning with a “healer.” I use the word “healer” and I want to put it in quotation marks mostly because everyone has a different definition of what a healer ultimately is and what works for you. And, at that time, this individual introduced me to something called ecstatic breathwork, which really helped to create a lot of space and relaxation in my body, which really supported my healing process.

Ellie: [00:02:51] After that year off of internship, it felt really aligned with what I was ultimately interested in doing, but I wasn’t exactly sure that it was the best decision. It was certainly a risky decision to walk away from a track and a safe career choice. I got a phone call from a friend of mine named Emmy, [whom] I went to elementary school with, and she was working at another film production company here in New York City and she said, “There’s a great job open. Do you want to come back?” So I ended up going back to a company, a film financing and sales firm company called Cinetic Media. I worked there as, I guess it was—it’s a funny title for a position. It was called “Executive Film Tracker,” or something like that. So I would have to know every film that was getting made, basically in the world, and what festival it was going to show up at and who was representing it and who had financed it and all these—sort of like the landscape of independent films and what was going to what festival and what we would ultimately be able to potentially sell or to potentially help package.

Ellie: [00:03:45] So I did that and every Wednesday, I would show up for my staff meeting and I had a colleague named Dana O’Keefe who would walk into the room with this level of passion that just stirred the highest amounts of envy in me. He was so passionate about what he did and I would say to myself everyday, “I want to feel that way about what I do.” And, meanwhile, I was spending every single minute that wasn’t at my desk or I wasn’t at a film festival or in a meeting in spirituality and consciousness pursuit. I sort of felt like I was living this double life, which is something that I think a lot of people talk about who, ultimately, become entrepreneurs. They’re focusing on their passion on the side and they have this other job and then there’s this moment that they arrive at where it’s unbearable and they can’t take it anymore. So they quit their jobs and take that first big jump out of the plane, with or without a parachute, depending on your story. That moment happened to me. So I decided to quit my job.

Ellie: [00:04:44] I think it’s really important to note, the more I’ve told the story of how MNDFL ultimately started, to acknowledge that, when I was 19, my mother passed away and it put me in a position of privilege in order to make a decision like that, to be able to take a year or two off from work. And if I don’t mention that, then the story isn’t as true as it could be and as honest as it could be. So I really had an ability, which is not something that’s available to everyone—and it’s important to acknowledge that—to take the time to really recenter myself and figure out what I ultimately wanted to do.

Ellie: [00:05:19] And so I ran around the world as a spiritual tourist. We call it “spiritual tourism” because I was interested in visiting sites that were the seat of traditions I wanted to study further. Not just read about them in books, but to touch them, to feel them, to learn from those exact individuals who were custodians of those traditions. And then I came back to New York City with no plan and I started saying yes to things that felt more aligned with what I ultimately wanted to do and those yeses led me to Lodro Rinzler, who is my co-founder. I started volunteering for his nonprofit. It was a time when I was in coaching school at NYU and I was still feeling my way through the dark of what I ultimately wanted to do.

Ellie: [00:06:01] I was really struggling with my meditation practice. The ecstatic breathwork practice that I had learned and had been practicing was experiential. You might not want to send an email or drive a car after it. You feel a bit euphoric. So I wanted something that was more everyday, more user-friendly for everyday living. I started practicing in my home, mindfulness meditation, struggling with it. I had a beautiful altar in my home and a cushion, but meditation wasn’t happening. And I thought about what was happening on a consistent basis, while I didn’t have a nine-to-five job, and I was going to the gym, two hours a day, six days a week. And what was the accountability structure? And what was the difference between those accountability structures? And I thought about how I had a place I could go to, a spot I could pay for, so I showed up. A teacher [who] was inspiring me to progress, a community of individuals I loved seeing and dancing next to—this is at Body by Simone here in New York City. She’s become one of my mentors because she had a studio and I was like, “Oh, she has a studio. She does this. Maybe I could do this.”

Ellie: [00:07:06] Anyways, I reached out to Lodro and I said, “Lodro, I’m really struggling with my meditation practice. How come there’s no place I can go in the city that’s like Body by Simone but for meditation? I’m not necessarily looking for more religion or a 10-day Vipassana retreat. What I need is something that brings the city’s best teachers under one roof so I’m not totally stressed about finding the right meditation teacher in the first place to start a meditation practice. Can you bring them all under one roof?”

Richie: [00:07:33] Yeah. I feel like that happens with yoga in the city too.

Ellie: [00:07:35] Yeah.

Richie: [00:07:36] It often is so concentrated and you’re an inch away from someone. You leave the class more stressed than you walked in and you’re like, “Why did I do this?”

Ellie: [00:07:42] Yeah, sure. There are so many different types of meditation out there and so many different teachers. How do I even know which teacher is right for me? And sometimes that becomes a non-starter for people or maybe the use of Sanskrit words or foreign terms can be intimidating. So creating a space that felt similar to the way New Yorkers live their daily life and operate in the world and can come in for a half an hour and try different teachers, the way they might try different fitness instructors in their classes. It felt like there was a fluency to that process that was missing in the meditation world and, certainly, a studio that ultimately was making meditation truly accessible to New Yorkers, not just accessible by subway. MNDFL is located on—I think within one block, there’s a major subway access and we’ve done that on purpose. But accessibility in terms of teachers who are teaching simple techniques that are rooted in traditions that have been around for forever, that are offering context for how to make it more relevant in your life. That, I felt, was missing and I think Lodro agreed. And that’s sort of why we made our handshake deal that ultimately turned into so much more.

Richie: [00:08:52] So, in New York, which is the city of every permutation of everything existing, 1) why do you think this didn’t exist? And, 2) why do you think gyms and other fitness-like places didn’t really—I guess maybe yoga would be the closest thing to this in some sense. But why do you think the landscape was as it was?

Ellie: [00:09:12] Let’s go back to the fitness revolution. Lodro has this fantastic joke he likes to tell that is, if you had told someone in the 1950s, “Hey, I’m going for a run,” someone would have said, “Who’s chasing you?” Nobody went for runs. People were smoking while they were pregnant. It was a different time. So when the fitness revolution happened in the 80s and people started to really turn to science as a galvanizer for working out our bodies and making sure we were getting exercise in, it created an entire fitness craze. And then I would say, about ten to 15 years [later], yoga was behind that. In maybe the late 80s early 90s, we started seeing this rise in yoga and this interest in not just putting the body into states of cardio and pumping iron, but that there was this other aspect to our bodies, this restorative practice, this less aggressive, more gentle approach. Well, it depends on what kind of yoga you’re doing and how hot it is in the room. But this more—in a way, yoga means union—this more aligned, mind-body-heart approach to working the body out. And so there was a lot of science produced around that and then we saw yoga take hold.

Ellie: [00:10:19] And so I think, when it came to meditation, we’re sort of where yoga was 30 years ago. Science is now proving what some spiritual traditions have been saying for an extremely long time. So, now, you’re seeing studies come out of Harvard, M.I.T. During the Obama administration, we went to the White House and taught meditation. Bringing meditation to White House employees—that’s where we are. And we’re there because science is now reinforcing these ancient, ancient philosophies. So I think that’s where the change was. And, once your doctor is telling you do it or your spouse is telling you to do it or your friend is doing it or the CEO you most admire does it and says it’s the reason he can show up everyday and run his company, that’s very, very inspiring for people to start incorporating it into their own lives. So I think that’s the difference. And I think Lodro and I were just incredibly lucky with our timing in terms of MNDFL and being first-to-market in New York City.

Richie: [00:11:17] Did you envision this being a for-profit from the beginning? How did you think of that? Because lot of this world is also non-profit as well.

Ellie: [00:11:25] We felt that, in order to truly compensate meditation teachers the way they need to be compensated, people who have donated their lives to studying these wisdom traditions who prior to MNDFL couldn’t—and I’m not saying this is a blanket statement—might have had trouble paying their rent as a meditation teacher. We really wanted to honor these individuals that were offering these teachings so beautifully to our community. It allows us to keep the lights on, to pay our teachers well. It allows people to have an accountability structure so, if they pay for a class, they’re more likely to show up for it. It also allows us to keep doing what we’re doing and expand beyond just our tiny little studio that we started with on Greenwich Village. If we wanted to make meditation accessible, we would need ongoing funds to continue to do that. That was our decision.

Ellie: [00:12:12] We do have a non-profit arm called MNDFL Ed. and that was always a part of the vision—that accessibility isn’t just about accessibility to people who can afford to live in a major metropolitan area. So when it comes to MNDFL Ed., we go into underrepresented and underserved communities and schools and we offer our method there. We built our first mini-MNDFL at Brooklyn College Academy, which is a transitional school in Brooklyn and, when they came back to school [in] September 2017—so this school year that just ended—they had a MNDFL on their campus, which was staffed by our teachers and a collaboration between us and Homepolish and SAMAYA, our cushion provider. All of it was in kind. Brooklyn College Academy had received a $10,000 grant to build [a] space, to repurpose a space on campus and they chose to make it a meditation studio with us. Accessibility is a throughline, not just from our for- profit side, but also from our non-profit side.

Richie: [00:13:08] So it sounds like you knew pretty early that this was going to be a place—this was going to be a physical place to go. What do you start to spend your time on? Or what are the initial priorities before this starts to see the light?

Ellie: [00:13:20] So Lodro and I had that handshake deal and I said, “I’ll raise the money and tell you what it should look and feel like. I know the place I’d be seduced practicing into everyday, if you could bring me the teachers and the content.” And he was like, “Okay.” And the next sentence that came out of our mouths was, “Do you know how to write a business proposal?” And the next two words out of our mouths were “No,” collectively. And I said, “Okay, so we should probably find someone who does.” And I had just met my husband, who is my husband as of two weeks ago, and we had just been set up in June of 2014. Lodro and I had this conversation in July of 2014 and, by September, my husband and I were starting to go on our first double dates with other couples. We went on a double date with one of his best friends, Alex Kassan, whose wife’s name is Lauren Kassan. People might recognize her name because she’s the co-founder of The Wing which is, as you know, an incredible, unbelievable organization that is a space where women can come together and work and meet and exist and learn and it’s taking the country by storm. So anyway—

Richie: [00:14:23] The world.

Ellie: [00:14:24] The world by storm. Yes, I guess they’re opening in Paris. That’s true. Lauren and Alex were our first double date as a couple. Lauren, at the time, was a—I don’t know what her exact job title was but she was working at SLT, Strengthen Lengthen Tone, which is another wonderful business, fitness business, here in the city, which is owned by our friend Amanda Freeman. Lauren was thinking about making a change and maybe striking out and starting to consult for boutique fitness businesses. She was telling me about this and I had been chatting with Lodro now for two or three months about our idea. I said, “Hey, confidentially, my friend and I are thinking about opening up a meditation studio but we have no idea where to begin in terms of a business model. So I’ll be your first client if you hook me up with a friends-and-family rate,” and Lauren was like, “Sure.” So Lauren actually helped us write our first business model for how much a studio would cost, the kind of funds we would need, the kind of insurance, what would go into design costs, how to pay our teachers. She really helped us build that and, once we had a business model, we turned it into a deck with Lauren’s help and we started reaching out to friends and family to raise the capital.

Ellie: [00:15:31] And she said, “You might want to also look at spaces so you can really see what you can get at this rate.” And so, while we started putting together that deck, she took us to see a space and the very first space we saw on the first day is the first MNDFL. So, in a way, the space found us. If there are any meditation nerds listening to this podcast, the address of the studio is 10 East 8th Street. 108 is one of the most mystical numbers in all of the Eastern traditions. It’s the number of beads on a mala. We didn’t realize that at the time. It was three months in when I was trying to create a password for something, like an email, and I was like, “Oh my god, 108! That’s our address!” But it was the first space we saw on the first day we looked and, when we realized that the space was perfect, we were like, “Okay, it’s time to raise the money.”

Ellie: [00:16:19] It happened very quickly. Not all capital raises happen like this. We went to a small group of friends and family who were really interested in helping to make the world a better place, [who] weren’t necessarily interested in the next best business idea, which allowed Lordo and I, once the capital was raised, to have an enormous amount of creativity and make good decisions, bad decisions, all kinds of decisions [that you can make] when you don’t have investors who are advisers [or] who are former operators or people have done this before. Once the capital came into place, everything else happened sort of quickly.

Richie: [00:16:54] How would you articulate the business plan then, in its first iteration? And I’m also curious to talk about what the experience was like and how you envisioned it actually existing.

Ellie: [00:17:04] I don’t think Lodro and I thought that anyone was ever gonna come. So, in a way, it felt much more like a project than a business that we were planning.

Richie: [00:17:15] Business requires revenue and people to show up.

Ellie: [00:17:18] Totally. And one thing I’ll say quite candidly, for any other entrepreneurs or people who are thinking about starting their own business, I did not raise enough money upfront and I wish I had and that became very apparent very quickly, three months into operating, that we had not accounted for runway because we had never done it before. Also there were some design costs that went over, construction and physical spaces that end up being more expensive than you thought. You open a wall and there’s an issue. We didn’t really account for construction in a townhouse that was built in 1837. I remember we were behind schedule and we were set to open and I think Lodro and I were furiously working the 24 hours before the studio opened and the day it opened, I think we just sat there looking at the door, hoping that someone was gonna walk in.

Richie: [00:18:08] Yeah, and then UPS walks in or something.

Ellie: [00:18:08] And they’re like, “The mail is for the last tenant.” I think Lodro and I were like, “We’re gonna set out to be a global meditation mindfulness brand” and [now] I think we’re like, “Okay, we need a place to go. Ellie really needed a place to go for practicing and maybe some other people need it.” What really changed the game for us was when Well+Good broke the story that we were opening. People who read that blog tend to be first movers in terms of new studios that open or new wellness trends or whatever it is. We started to see people start trickling in and, about six months in, The New York Times put us on the cover of the Metropolitan section and that really changed the game for us.

Ellie: [00:18:49] In terms of the business plan, the business plan was a little bit more—I wanna use the word rudimentary because—

Richie: [00:18:56] Have you read it recently?

Ellie: [00:18:57] I have. I have. The ethos is the same from the beginning. We have not strayed from making meditation accessible. But what I will say is that, yes, it was rudimentary. It was one studio. We now have three. It didn’t involve a video channel or a corporate program. We’re now in over 150 companies teaching meditation. It didn’t involve mindful teacher training. We’ve graduated I think four or five cohorts already. It was missing a lot of the things that naturally, organically grow when something is on a roll. Lodro and I said, from the very beginning, that we work for MNDFL, MNDFL doesn’t work for us. So it’s up to us to listen to what the community needs, what the company is doing, what the numbers are saying and make decisions from there. A lot of these things that are, now, additional businesses or, if we were getting super technical, revenue streams—whatever people want to call [them]—came out of different needs that presented themselves.

Ellie: [00:20:01] So, for example, we started getting emails from companies saying, “Hey, can you bring what you do in your studio to our office?” Lodro and I were like, “Okay, we’ll send a teacher there, not realizing that the best way to serve a company that wants to help with their employees stress resilience is to have weekly meditation sessions because consistency is actually what helps you see those cumulative benefits.” We talk about the three Cs. Sometimes they talk about it at MNDFL: Committing to your practice, having consistency with your practice and then those benefits are cumulative over time. Because we had never done anything related to corporate sales or understanding what these corporations needed from an HR perspective, we would send a teacher out and then twiddle our thumbs and be like, “Okay.” And then we got more and more inquiries and we didn’t have a way of managing them.

Ellie: [00:20:51] One of the fifth people to ever walk into MNDFL is now our COO, Johanna Bloom. We joke that Jo played the best long game anyone’s ever seen because she read about it on Well+Good, she was the fifth person in, she’d just quit her job and she was starting her own company bringing wellness into the workplace—different fitness classes from around the city, different nutritionists. She’d bring them into these corporate environments. And she was the woman who was getting up at 5:00am to go to Barry’s Bootcamp before she was showing up for, as she would say, calls in Switzerland. This was also her interest and she also was someone who quit and made a different decision and decided to pursue something else. So, about six months into operating, Lodro was like, “How about that woman Jo? Maybe she could help be our broker because we don’t know what we’re doing and we really want to be able to, again, make meditation as accessible as possible, bringing it into the workplace. If that’s what the community’s needing and that’s what’s coming into our inbox, then we want to be able to serve.” So Jo came on as our broker. MNDFL became about 65% of her business and so she came in-house full time. We realized very quickly that Jo had a skillset neither Lodro nor I had, which was she had worked in financial services for ten years. She is an Excel wizard. She has an ability to analyze data and understand numbers in a way that neither Lodro nor I really excelled at, no pun intended or pun intended. So about three months into Jo coming in-house full-time, she became our COO.

Richie: [00:22:25] Nice.

Ellie: [00:22:25] We were just like, “We want to keep you for forever. You’re wonderful and you’re such a great addition to the team.” From the very beginning, another thing I’ll say is that, this business was really about being in service. How can we help New Yorkers unwind, un-stress, learn to sit with themselves, have a healthier relationship to their mind and, ultimately, walk the streets with more open heartedness? Because that’s what’s going to make this city a kinder place and the world a kinder place. So, if we could be of service in that way, that’s ultimately what we want to do. We want to help as many people open our hearts as possible. Sounds noble. Hopefully it works out.

Richie: [00:23:01] So how did you envision the experience from the moment you walk in the door to the moment you leave, from the early iteration and then maybe how that’s evolved as well?

Ellie: [00:23:09] So it has not evolved.

Richie: [00:23:11] Interesting.

Ellie: [00:23:11] It’s the same. When you walk into MNDFL, a lot of times some of the feedback we hear is, “Wow, I can’t believe this place exists in New York,” or, “Oh my God, this feels like the home I want to live in,” or, “Whoa, this place is so incredibly peaceful.” So the moment you cross the threshold, it feels like you’ve entered an entirely different space than what you’re used to in New York City. Once you cross over, generally, whoever is behind the desk gets up and greets you and will give you a tour of the space so that any sort of trepidation you’re having about sitting in silence with your own mind for the next 30 minutes—although in a 30-minute class you really only sit for 15 when you count the intro and the question-answer. But you walk in and you’re immediately welcomed and you’re given a tour so we create some certainty around your experience so that you feel comfortable and you know the space and you understand what you’re going to sit on and what’s going to happen while you’re in the space. And then we also have some tea that’s always on the house. We’ve had a wonderful tea partner, Rishi Tea, since we opened our doors. And you’re welcome to always have complimentary tea and hang out and sit and then we’ll call you back for class. And then you’re either going into a 30-, 45-, or 60-minute session, which our teachers basically hold your hand through, the entire experience and when you come out, you’re welcome to continue to stay and hang out.

Ellie: [00:24:31] So the MNDFLs are split in two. Fifty percent of the studio is for hanging out and 50% is for practicing. And we did that on purpose because we wanted to create a smooth transition off the crowded, chaotic, sticky streets and into this safe space, this cocoon-like, homey, cozy, familiar space and allow that adjustment period to happen. Obviously, meditation is gentle. New York City isn’t. This is one of the lines I used to say on every single one of my tours because it really helped capture why we built the studio the way we did and why we encourage people to arrive early, leave late, get to know their fellow meditators. We don’t allow technology past a certain point in the studio. In between classes, if you give us a heads up, a lot of people like to Instagram their experience. We’re cool with that, but just not while class is happening. Definitely not. And we’ll also charge your phone for you upfront. We walk you through the systems of the studio to make you feel really comfortable.

Ellie: [00:25:29] And then, once you’re in that class, the whole point is to just be with yourself and objectively observe what’s happening to you when you’re learning how to practice or in a different part of your journey with practice. We have beginner meditators, seasoned practitioners and sometimes they all sit together or sometimes there are different classes. But we just try to make the experience as gentle as possible for you so you can show up for yourself easily.

Richie: [00:25:56] I saw the CEO of Peloton speak at a conference and he said, in the old days, you would have the arcade and, now, what we see is everyone has the arcade in their home via Xbox, PlayStation, all those—the unbundling of that apparatus. He made the same analogy, then, to Peloton saying, “The gym is this unbundled thing you go out to. We’re unbundling the gym and bringing it into your home.” It would seem you’re doing the opposite of that which is, generally speaking, meditation is somewhat of an experience for people at the home to do, but you’re actually creating a place for that. I’m curious how you’ve thought about that dichotomy and how you envision that changing, 1) given it is such a personal practice but, 2) it seems it’s often something to do alone—but I assume the classes have multiple people in them too. And so I’m just interested in those paradoxes.

Ellie: [00:26:41] Yeah. So, to also bring some analogies to the table on our end, meditating alone is like singing in the shower and meditating in a group is like singing in a choir. You’re doing the same thing, but they have very different tactile sensations to the experience. It can be a different experience practicing on your own versus practicing in a group. Now, group helps with community. It helps with accountability. For example, during the 2016 election, our studio was very, very busy because it was a place to go where people could sit with the strong emotions they were feeling, create some space to breathe, sit together in this waiting anxiety about what was happening to our country. I think this aspect of community is incredibly important and it also helps with that accountability practice. To see the same people in the room with you who are continuing to practice can be very inspiring for you to continue to show up for yourself.

Ellie: [00:27:39] Also, especially when you’re starting out and you’re a new meditator, maybe you don’t feel comfortable asking a question about your leg falling asleep, which is a very common question, but I can almost guarantee you that someone else in the class is going to ask that question. So you’ll get your questions answered. And it’s a little bit different because you can’t really ask your app, “Hey, how do you I adjust my posture so that my elbow stops hurting or throbbing because I injured it three years ago and I need a better way to sit with it because it’s really disrupting my practice?” or whatever is coming up. Or, “I’m seeing colors,” or, “Why, when I got out of my meditation practice, did I yell at my roommate or my spouse or the person I’m living with?” These are not questions an app can answer, but a teacher can. At MNDFL, we truly feel that, if you have access to an in-person teacher, there is no substitute for one human being holding space for another human being and that cannot be replicated with an automated app on your phone.

Ellie: [00:28:32] Now, what I will say is that 15% of our community actually lives outside of New York City. So one of the reasons we started our static video platform, MNDFL Video, where you can access, I think, probably now up to 150 different videos, was because, on Instagram and in response to our newsletters, people were saying, “Hey, I really want to sit with that teacher. When are you going to have an app? When are you gonna make MNDFL available?” And it really became about the teachers and our specific content and our specific offering. So we created a static video channel so that 15%, including the companies that wanted to be able to offer our content to their employees if they had offices outside of New York City—MNDFL video became our way of reaching people who wanted to be a part of the community but couldn’t physically be in New York City. So it’s a sort of a bandaid for now. Where we’re going, we’ll see. But I understand the benefits of practicing at home. If you feel like you can be consistent, that’s wonderful. We support that, but we also really understand the benefits of community practice and having a place you can go and a teacher you can ask.

Richie: [00:29:36] How did you think about, 1) who the customers would be for this as you were building this out? And then, 2) how did that play into the pricing?

Ellie: [00:29:44] Our first class starts at $10. When we said we wanted to make meditation accessible, we absolutely meant that. We also offer many classes for free. We offer classes in Spanish. We offer free classes on Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Martin Luther King [Jr. Day]. We give free space three times a month to social justice groups who are doing work in the city and surrounding areas to make the world a kinder, better, more equal place. Accessibility, not only for meditation, but also space accessibility—accessibility to spaces like ours. In terms of pricing, we offer single-class purchases. So if you feel like you want to date us but not marry us, you have that option. We also offer monthly memberships so you can sit with us regularly. We have had, I think, two individuals, since we opened our doors—they’ve sat with us over 500 times. Just to put that in perspective, I went to my first Body by Simone class in 2012. I just hit my 500th class mark. It’s 2018. MNDFL opened in 2015 and we’ve had two individuals hit 500 classes. So they’ve spent—

Richie: [00:30:46] Almost—

Ellie: [00:30:47] Almost every day, pretty much, meditating with us and that’s—probably the days they’ve missed have been vacation days or when they’ve been out of the city. We have that monthly member option and we also have class packages. So, if you need more flexibility, if you have an intense travel schedule or you don’t live as close to the studios, that takes 90 days to expire. We really wanted to make something for everyone. And we have our 60-minute events, which often is about meditation intersecting with something in our daily life whether it’s technology, relationships, motherhood. Even we have something called MNDFL drink which helps you drink with a tad more mindfulness and helps you understand your relationship to alcohol; how you’re sipping it, how it affects your body. So, yeah.

Richie: [00:31:29] How far in did you know this was going to work? Or was there a moment you felt it working?

Ellie: [00:31:35] If I am being totally transparent entrepreneur, I would say there’s a moment probably every day where I feel like it’s not going to work. I think any entrepreneur—and I’m going to say this and I challenge anyone who’s listening—anyone who says, “Oh yeah, this is going to work,” all day, everyday. I think, when you are responsible for a payroll and rent and health insurance and all the things that go into a company and also getting people to meditate, there’s not a day that goes by where I’m not—and maybe it’s because I’m a meditator and I’m a realist—where I’m not like, “Oh, this could all blow up in my face tomorrow.” And I think, on some level, that attitude is important to have because it helps you stay focused, stay inspired. Failure is kind of like this dirty word that we all [say]: “Ugh, failure.” No one wants that to happen. But I don’t think it’s a bad word at all and I think that failure is a word we’ve used to describe a very, very, very uncomfortable set of experiences.

Ellie: [00:32:38] Discomfort is part of the process and I’m just so grateful that I have a practice that helps me self-regulate my emotions around those feelings. One week I might feel like we’re on top of the world and it’s going so well and, “Look at this amazing group of individuals who came in this week to practice and that’s wonderful,” we’re offering meditation to one more company. And then, the next week, I could be like, “This is never going to work. No one’s ever going to come here. It’s August 2018 in New York City. So many people are out of the city. We’re going into the week before Labor Day. Are the classes as full as they are in back-to-school September or January?” Probably not. But I think part of it is understanding the cyclicality of our own emotional body and rolling with that.

Richie: [00:33:27] You launched 2015. What month, again?

Ellie: [00:33:28] November of 2015.

Richie: [00:33:31] November 2015. How long until you start to say, “Okay, we need another?”

Ellie: [00:33:35] Again, it goes back to that accessibility thing. So, when people couldn’t access our teachers or our classes because our classes were sold out, that’s when we decided we need more space. If we’re really going to make meditation accessible, that means people need to be able to have access to meditation. So we started looking for a space in June of 2016 and that’s—

Richie: [00:33:55] Six or so months after.

Ellie: [00:33:56] Yeah. Six or so months after. It really coincided with that article I talked about in The New York Times and a couple other press pieces. We’ve been lucky enough to be the first line of defense for all the articles that are written on meditation, basically, across the country. That’s created a lot of awareness around what we do and has helped us carry ourselves into a second and third studio.

Richie: [00:34:19] And what sort of stuff did you want to do differently? Were there ways you went about designing and building and launching those that you did differently than the first time?

Ellie: [00:34:27] Yes. The biggest pain point in our first studio is that the lounge area, where people like to hang out and drink their tea, shares a wall with the practice space. So you enter from one side of the space. You have the front desk and a lounge area, then the studio. So it’s sort of this linear format. So we spent a lot of the first year of that studio being like, “Hey, can you—would you mind whispering? Class just started.” And we’re like, “Why did we put the door—” And also, had we had more money, we would have soundproofed better. It’s very quiet, but if someone’s talking at a normal volume while class is happening, you can hear what they’re saying. So that was our biggest design flaw.

Ellie: [00:35:03] So when it came time for our second studio, which is on the Upper East Side, you enter the studio in the middle of the studio and the front desk is right in front of you and if you go to the right, that’s where the studios are and if you go to the left, that’s where the hang space is. So they don’t share that same wall and it allows for a lot smoother of an experience if you want to chat and meditate and hang and do all those things together. So I would say that’s probably a pretty big one. Also, with the soundproofing, just improving the soundproofing as we went along.

Ellie: [00:35:33] And then with the third studio, that fell into our lap in a roundabout way. There was a business that was going under in Williamsburg that had just built out a brand new space and it was an opportunity for us to come in and rescue this space that was built for meditation. At the time it was built for yoga, but the sound is spectacular. In that studio, you literally can’t hear anything that’s happening in the lounge. Also the sound baths are, as the kids would say, “very lit,” because the sound quality is so wonderful in that studio.

Richie: [00:36:04] It’s interesting, talking about the apps, which are the infinitely scalable thing, which obviously have some of the shortcomings to the physical space with other people. How do you think about scale and growing the business? All the studios, for now, are in New York.

Ellie: [00:36:18] Mhm.

Richie: [00:36:18] But how do you balance the somewhat linear nature of growing a physical footprint with the accessibility mission?

Ellie: [00:36:23] I think we’re figuring that out right now and I’ll get back to you on an answer when we come to one. We’re at that point where we have these three studios. We’re on year—pretty much year three. I think one to five probably are the most challenging years, but I don’t know. Let’s talk to a CEO who is on year, like you said, 50 or something—30, 20. But, for us, I think we’re figuring that out right now because really scalability just means accessibility to us—how we’re making our teachers more accessible, whether that means expanding our teacher training beyond New York… We’ve had people come from Japan and Ireland to take our class[es]. We’ve received inquiries from all over the world so the awareness is there. Thinking about how we’re creating the next generation of contemporary meditation teachers. That’s something that’s interesting to us. Exploring our mindful video platform, thinking about that, what that could be, if that’s right for us. And really thinking about just how to continue to support our existing community. We’re at, like I said, year three. It’s like a toddler year or an in-between stage.

Richie: [00:37:25] To bring it up to the present in terms of 2017 into the first half of this year, where were the priorities in terms of where you were spending time and resources?

Ellie: [00:37:33] I think getting our two new studios up and running because they both opened—we had twins—they opened in January of 2017, which I wouldn’t recommend with as small of a team as we have. But we did it and we’re fine and we’ve come out the other side. And I would say, also, our corporate business here in New York has been a massive focus for us. So really continuing to grow those businesses. That was the majority of 2018 and I think we’re just starting to sit down and look at what’s gonna happen in ’19 and ’20. But, as a meditator, I always like to tell people this: it becomes a little bit difficult to plan for the future because you’re so focused on the present moment. Your relationship to whatever is occurring in this moment becomes paramount and the most important. And whatever you’re worrying about, about a hypothetical situation in the future that hasn’t happened yet, it might sound irresponsible to other people who lead companies but, for me, it feels very aligned with what we teach and embody at MNDFL. Really focusing on what does our community need right now? What does the business need in this moment? Because, once we figure out what it needs, it will definitely need something else in another moment and it will present itself when it’s time.

Richie: [00:38:35] Yep.

Ellie: [00:38:36] So we try to think about it like that. There are enough needs on the table right now to keep us busy for a while.

Richie: [00:38:41] What’s been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned building the business?

Ellie: [00:38:45] The cheapest lesson is asking for help. I think a lot of people don’t like to admit that they don’t know how to do something. This isn’t just an issue in business. This is an issue in the country. Saying, “I don’t know,” is scary to people when it’s often the best option on the table. “I need more information. I need to educate myself more.” Not being afraid to ask for help. Really understanding what my limitations are as a leader and as a human being, to really understand what our strengths and weaknesses are so we can reach out and ask another human being to help supplement that.

Ellie: [00:39:19] Most expensive lesson is not raising enough money to begin with.

Richie: [00:39:24] Was that the initial—have you raised once or multiple times?

Ellie: [00:39:27] We raised once. We raised a seed round over the course of a couple years to get us to where we are now and I would say that it’s a very expensive lesson to learn if you don’t raise enough money. I’ve heard people say, “Raise what you think and then raise 50% more.” I’ve heard people say, “Raise 25% more.” I don’t know what the right math is, but I would say that if we ever do decide to raise again, I know a lot more now than I did before and I would probably make a different decision.

Richie: [00:39:54] What do you think the most misunderstood thing about the business is that you would correct or want to correct?

Ellie: [00:40:00] I would say two things. One, that people think meditation should be free. Because, historically, it has actually never been free. You would give a donation to the [teacher]. And that donation isn’t free. That means you’re giving your week’s salary, a bundle of flowers, rice. That’s not free. Those were valuable items before there was paper currency going around.

Richie: [00:40:21] Do you take items?

Ellie: [00:40:23] No, we don’t take items unfortunately. But I would say that there are people who spend their lives studying this, investing in themselves, investing in their own education about it. They are experts in their field and they should be compensated just like anyone else who is an expert in their field. Other teachers, professors at universities. It takes a specific skillset to be able to hold space and work with someone’s mind and their experience when they’re going through this. People who think that meditation should be free, I totally understand that and it should be free sometimes but, other times, the people who are the custodians of this skill set and this practice should be compensated fairly.

Richie: [00:41:00] Given there’s so many different types of this practice, it hooks into religion and spirituality in some form, how do you figure out or navigate where you anchor this through the mission of accessibility? Because it would seem that there are paths to go down that would actually start to box people out or scare people away. How does that get managed?

Ellie: [00:41:20] Yeah. So we’re happy to be a gateway drug, which means that if someone loves meditation and wants more of it in their lives and [she] starts] sitting with Valerie, our Kundalini teacher, and [she decides] that Kundalini is for [her]—we will never get in the way of [her] going deep and hard on Kundalini meditation. If that means you’re leaving us and you’re going to practice at a different studio and you want to get your Kundalini certification—wonderful. Great. Great that you found something that resonated with you. If you’re happy to just come to MNDFL and sit with the different Kundalini teachers we have or if you just want to practice mindfulness and sit with different teachers at MNDFL, also wonderful. We’re just here to offer up many different styles of meditation for your consideration and, ultimately, you get to decide what suits you best and what feels best for you. We’re going to continue to offer what we offer, which is techniques that are from real traditions that we have made incredibly accessible, that we have entrusted our teachers who have spent time studying these views, these philosophies who are presenting it in a way that is not religious, that is not involving any sort of jargon. It’s really up for you to decide what’s right for you.

Ellie: [00:42:32] There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all. It’s just not real. People are going to come to MNDFL and they’re going to completely resonate with what we offer. Some people, it’s not going to be enough for them. They want more, longer, deeper—wonderful. Some people come to MNDFL and they didn’t find anything they liked about their experience or what we’re offering—also wonderful and okay. So we really count on our community members to know what’s best for themselves and we don’t ever try to claim that we know what’s best for them.

Richie: [00:43:02] Is there anyone at the company who does not meditate?

Ellie: [00:43:05] No and, until one month ago, every single hire we had made at the company started as a community member. So it was someone [who] sat with us for a considerable amount of time, basically approached the front desk and was like, “I want to do this. Whatever you’re doing here, this is something I want to be a part of.” And they now are on staff.

Richie: [00:43:24] It’s kind of a hiring dream.

Ellie: [00:43:26] Yeah. Think about what it would be like if you worked at a place where every single person meditates all the time. The level of transparency, the open lines of communication, the fear that is taken out of the room, the work people have already done on themselves before they’re even getting to a staff meeting, the playfulness, the levity, the understanding when something goes wrong. People are less likely to get hurt in a work environment like ours because people are doing their own work. So, yes, everyone at the company meditates except for our lawyers and our accountants who don’t technically work full-time for us.

Richie: [00:44:01] But you’re working on that.

Ellie: [00:44:04] But we’re working on it.

Richie: [00:44:05] They need that probably.

Ellie: [00:44:05] They need that. But our lawyers and our accountants aren’t meditators. That’s not to say that all lawyers and accountants aren’t meditators. That’s just to say that they’re not technically employees of MNDFL. They’re contractors in a way. So I would say they’re the only people who don’t.

Richie: [00:44:18] So I guess my last question is: I think you talked a lot about, at the beginning, how this came from seeing the pervasiveness of fitness studios and gyms and yoga studios and all that and how this came out of wanting to have something on par with that for more of the mindfulness piece. Do you foresee a point where this will actually get bundled back into a fitness-like experience? Not necessarily this, but does Equinox come buy this or do this in five years and say, “This is part of our realm?” Or do you believe the wellness piece is really a different division, it’s a different place that needs its own kind of world? How do those all fit together?

Ellie: [00:45:00] I would say that it’s all starting to bleed together. You look at something like WeWork and they have WeRise. I think they offer meditation some of their studios that they now have in their buildings. Equinox, I know, tried to incorporate meditation. I’m not sure, because I’m not on the inside there, how that program is going or what’s happening. You see yoga studios now offering separate meditation classes and you also go to Body by Simone and they’re asking you to set an intention before you even start your class. This practice is beginning to bleed into other realms and I think we’re just at the beginning of seeing the way it’s incorporated. We’ve been asked to come out to the Ritz-Carlton hotels to offer meditation for their wellness retreats. We have done all sorts of things that are different from just an isolated meditation studio offering. So, yes, I do think that we’re moving in a direction where even some online platforms that are emerging now offer yoga and cycling and pilates and meditation all on one platform. So you can pay a monthly subscription and have all of those things at your fingertips. So, yes, I think it is all beginning to bleed into one another. It’s too hard for me to say right now what it’s going to look like because it’s so early and there’s so much more innovation to come and so much more ideas still yet to be uncovered or had.

Ellie: [00:46:26] We’re good at one thing and we do it super, super well and that, to us, is our differentiator. It’s interesting for us to observe, when people are bringing in meditation and combining it with other things, for us, we always stick to whether or not the practice stays in integrity. If the practice is in total integrity around what you’re doing and there’s a way to preserve that and to keep that unto itself and also mix it with something, usually MNDFL is involved with doing something like that. Certainly in New York City. If it’s something where we’re bending the rules of the practice or we’re bending—and this isn’t because we’re rigid, we just want to make sure that people are having the best possible experience, the purest possible experience they can have—if it’s bending it or compromising in some way, chances are we won’t participate in it. We’re always open to partners and different companies who want to bring meditation in full integrity to their communities. Whatever that looks like, we’re down to help and we’ve collaborated on some things. So, yes, lots of bleeding. Lots of collaboration. Lots of endeavors.

Richie: [00:47:25] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.

Ellie: [00:47:26] Yeah, thank you for having me.

Richie: [00:47:31] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to also leave a review on iTunes. We always appreciate it. And thanks to George Drake, Jr. for editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including Eunice Beyun of Material, Sam Alston of Big Lives and Tom Patterson of Tommy John. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.