Complete Podcast Interview Transcript:
Welcome to the Purpose Nation Podcast, inspiring conversations with Christians in science, technology and industries of the future. For more information or to make a tax deductible contribution visit PurposeNation.org.
Brad Cooper: 00:16
This is Brad Cooper with the Purpose Nation Podcast and today we are blessed and honored to be joined by the CEO and Co-Founder of Carpenters Code, Neil Alston. Neil, welcome thanks for joining us today.
Neil Ahlsten: 00:28
Thank you so much. I'm excited to be here.
Brad Cooper: 00:23
Likewise likewise. SoI look. Looking forward to discussing some of the things that Neil's involved with. Very busy guy has a lot of experience here in technology and combining that with what he's doing with his application and just serving the Lord in many ways. I'm really excited to talk about that. First let me just if it's ok give a brief summary of some of Neil's background and then he can fill some other things in. He's been in the Bay Area technology for many years. He currently is the CEO and co-founder of Carpenters Code and he's also their Chief Evangelist. He launched a program called Code for the Kingdom, a hackathon series previously. He also managed business development for Google and was with Google for many years on some other ad platforms and some of the work in Africa. And before Google actually worked in Africa and was a refugee program manager for the U.S. Department of State which was very interesting and also prior to that was with food for the hungry and working in Africa there. So he has a masters in quantitative economics and policy from Princeton. So lots of great and interesting experience there. All that kind of led you to where you are today and let it lead you to our discussion. So just just kicking it off if you wouldn't mind. Tell us a little bit about your current project Carpenters Code?
Neil Ahlsten: 01:42
Definitely, it's been an interesting journey and very exciting. I came to it really about four years ago some friends and I were just wondering if it was possible to take things that we saw in the Bible different principles, different behaviors and use that along with you know world class Silicon Valley product and process to build products that would help people and enrich their lives. It was just really that simple. Can we use these things that have been practiced for thousand years in the Bible to build stuff and we started out with a hackathon scheme and just getting a bunch of people together to try things and I did that got a team of people including several people from Google who wanted to do this more full time. And it was a fascinating journey as we were trying to tackle the space of prayer and we had an aha moment about six months into it where we were testing guiding people through audio prayers. And I just found that it was an extremely powerful effective way to get people to kind of refresh and experience God's presence and experience peace. And so everything just kind of continued to snowball from there. So it's been really exciting just using and seeing that kind of a data driven approach even and a very design center approach to taking biblical truth has actually works to break apart product to market a whole bunch of people to use.
Brad Cooper: 02:58
So that's exciting. Yeah. So you are your main product right now as I understand it is is a mobile app called Abide?
Neil Ahlsten: 03:04
That's correct. Yeah. Abide has shifted a lot. We originally started as more of a social platform to share prayer requests and pray for each other and we found out that that was actually really hard for people to do. People had a hard time praying for each other because they didn't know how they didn't feel equipped to do it. And so we actually shifted to just guide people to pray through and teach the issues in their life. And so what Abide does is we have a daily meditation which we partnered with Youversion which is a big Bible up on to take their most popular scriptures that are out there and then use those to make meditations which are effectively just stopping, reading Scripture really deeply reflecting on it and figuring out how to respond in and we have that and you can pick your length to 5, 10, 15 minute meditations and then we also have a lot of topical things which are popular and that has been fascinating because I did not expect when we started this project that we would be a place for people to fall asleep and have some of those kinds of things but it turns out a lot of people struggle with insomnia. And so you know even Christians have a hard time falling asleep or they struggle with depression or they struggle with relationships. All sorts of things. And so to be able to guide it through Hey how can I how is God going be able to help us this situation has been very effective. So every night we put people to sleep when they click our Insomnia and our Rests meditations and they fall asleep. And so yeah that's that's a lot of what the book doesn't for user how to use it.
Brad Cooper: 04:32
That's pretty interesting because I actually personally I've used the Youversion app obviously as well and yeah I mean I've used I actually have used that to you know to have it because they do have audio readings and they're the only people reading some of the scripture and I have used it for that as well.
Neil Ahlsten: 04:46
So yeah. Yeah sure. People use radio Christian radio for that. They use things like Youversion for that and where you know we could have another way to do that but it's actually more tailored for exactly that kind of experience to help you release with it as opposed to just reading scripture which is great and phenomenal but it's it's kind of a different way.
Brad Cooper: 05:06
Right and it seems like the response has been has been great. 4 million downloads is that what you're at right now?
Neil Ahlsten: 05:10
You had about four million users across the web and so that's kind of our goal reach. Our app downloads are more like 600,000 now we've had really good retention engagement. Every day we get about a year's worth of meditation prayer on the platform. And so even as I'm sitting here I'll be you know three four hundred people in there who are meditating on Scripture and reflecting and journaling and so it's that's the amazing thing about technology is that when you build something that scales. I can literally be off on vacation. We can have a three or four day weekend and people are still coming and still getting the benefit of engaging with the content and engaging with you know the bible end and it works at scale so you know get hundreds from countries,etc. That's that's been really quite an affirmation to see that really good people who now have been with us since we launched March of 2015 who are still using the product and still excited about it and still finding growth and personal development changed because of it. And that's really neat to see it a great affirmation because life doesn't always go that way. Lots of things fail also projects fail so it's neat that we've gotten this far
Brad Cooper: 06:18
Right, great and we'll be sure to place a link to our site to the apps everybody can go download it and try it out and it's on both the iPhone and on on Google. So let's take it back a little bit so we can reel it way back talking about your childhood a little bit growing up. I don't know if there was any kind of a tech kind of interest or background there. But I think math it sounded like and then also just you know what drew you into the tech industry from the start and then also if you could talk a little bit about any faith or or Christian background.
Neil Ahlsten: 06:43
I actually was a bit of a math geek. Growing up I remember my dad taught me the multiplication tables when I was five and I just loved it. It just made sense to me. I was actually very interested in computers when I was younger. I took a computer programming class at my junior high when I was in ninth grade and I actually wrote a computer game program on an Apple TV at the time and my teacher had no idea what I was doing because he could you know you learn so fast sometimes when you're that age he kind of gets the basics in that way and wrote this program. I took some computer class in college too. But it was really interesting because I actually was much more focused on service and helping the poor was really personal in that I felt. So I focused a lot more of my energy on that area as I grew up. That's why I focused on more of the economics econometrics idea of hey maybe we can use that to help the poor and help them grow. But there was definitely an interest in tech from a young age and I was very fortunate in that my family two amazing parents both were very involved in the church. I had a little bit of my own claiming of the faith to really personalize it as I was going through high school and college but it was very much grew up in that loving environment. I think that was a huge influence for me to just be in God's word and be connected and out of that find purpose and call that's led me to where I am today of teaching and math skills and a computer background in the time that into providing people with an experience of connecting with. So yeah it's not necessarily I would not have expected that I would be here today if you asked me that 20 years ago.
Brad Cooper: 08:21
Yeah, didyou or did you grow up in the Bay Area or come from somewhere else?
Neil Ahlsten: 08:25
I grew up in the north bay Santa Rosa which is about an hour and a half north of San Francisco pretty much California through and through.
Brad Cooper: 08:32
OK, definitely see them trying to apply the math interests and skills to solve some problems. In that case it was already seeing some of the areas that could be used combined with your faith and then you went off to college at Berkeley is that right. So tell us about that experience and then I guess Princeton as well if you can if you can remember were there some points you know either in sort of the math curriculum or professors or the student body. I mean are there places where you started and maybe I guess even you know growing up in high school in Santa Rose area you know where you're starting to run into some conflicts with your faith in terms of just either people or teachings or things that were kind of against your faith?
Neil Ahlsten: 09:09
That's a great question. And Berkeley to me was very much a trial by fire experience. I think that you know the big challenge in a place like that obviously there's there's very much to a lot of professors and teachers and students who don't share that element of faith or even necessarily the same level of curiosity into it and it gets ruled out. And that was hard. I think actually for me the biggest challenge was that I really wanted to believe and live in a world where everything made sense because you know being very mathematically mind I wanted to say look if you do a and b then c happens that's the way that life should work. And I was really challenged during my college period as I was reading the Bible to actually try to live a normal life of faith and I stepped out to do that. But in particular my sophomore year when I felt really called to go actually live with streets and be homeless for a period of time and God responded in some pretty phenomenal amazing way that I never could have predicted and I actually had to shift my mindset to think you know what, I think God's equation is far beyond my understanding and the way that God works. And so I need to be able to accept the fact that I can't figure everything out and I can't understand everything and that's ok it leaves space for mystery and leave space for kind of a faith. It's ok, God's going work in ways that are beyond my understanding. And I think that you know that has really worked for me where I find my own personal challenge in Berkeley in Princeton and in others in that I think there is some intellectual dishonesty that happens that really frustrates me where people will take and make assumptions and just my very nature the way that they're making assumptions, they and building their model they exclude God and they say look you know we're building a model that excludes God therefore there's no God. And you're like yeah but your model doesn't actually make any sense. And I see that kind of inconsistency quite often and that's actually a kind of a more personal you know challenging frustration for me. But ultimately you know Berkeley was really tough. Princeton I would say it was less so because I was just older then you know when you're in grad school and I was already in my mid 20s and what not, I found much less resistance. But it was equally as challenging environment. So it's I fortunately have survived and continue continued with it.
Brad Cooper: 11:27
Well and where you're at now I mean it's yeah. I mean if you give you get guess if you can make it as a college student through Berkeley and then man that was pretty amazing to take some time off to explore what would be like to be homeless. I know some other Christians have done similar things. That's not something normally that a college student would do. But that experience plus you know it just sounds like being challenged and getting through that. At that point you know you can you can make it and or in any place just about. Yeah. So tell us about how you landed in Africa?
Neil Ahlsten: 11:54
That was passionate had since I was about 16. It was after Berkeley and I connected with this organization which I looked at a lot of Christian prophets and I wanted to go over with and got a role there which was great in Ethiopia really trying to just help people build better farms and get access to water and things like that and then got kind of pushed into a leadership position which was really quite interesting over Congo. Congo is one of the absolutely most difficult places in the world to live and work in the midst of warfare that goes on there and the humanitarian disaster and so that was an absolutely fascinating and amazing time for me to kind of see people who were really at the end of their their ability to provide for themselves. You know when your homes are getting burned down and there's war going on and you just trying to get through the basics and yet had a deep joy and I saw that in Chad as well. I worked on Darfur kind of when that was going on and when the outbreak was happening and you know to Jeff's genocide things were going on a lot and so it was being around people who are really at a tough position in life at that position in life and still seeing their ability to have a family to have joy to have hope and find purpose I think it has shaped a lot because when I look at the things that we're trying to surmount here which are very real hard problems and building product and getting product market fit it's like hey I know people who walk through much more difficult times and have survived with great hope and done beautiful things in a life that has been a really big kind of life shape or for me to see just the amazing people who have mentored me who have gone through years of war and famine and other things so that was that was really neat. What was interesting about that to kind of bring to fruition where I am now I went through a season of life where I really felt called that and I think I was able to hopefully contribute to some really great things in that season shifted and brought me back into the technology space and what I'm doing now and I think just as a lesson learned to not always clinging to things so tightly but giving space for kind of God to move and work and change. We need to be able to do those things in Africa but now I have people in Africa who are using our product. But I know I understand the environment I've lived there. To languages there are adopted children from there. And so that's very important part of my life even though I'm a technologist. And it's neat to see those come together.
Brad Cooper: 14:25
Right. Were there some thought that you could somehow bring either the economic experience that you had or technology to bear on those problems you were seeing? I mean did it seem insurmountable? Did it seem like well if we only had a few of these things would it be better? Or what's your view of it how it was then and now and how that relates to the technology aspect?
Neil Ahlsten: 14:46
I would say so. One thing that I learned very definitively is that if you want to be in technology and making a difference you need to be in the places where the absolute top class people are and they're making difference and that is something that I think Silicon Valley really offers and one of the reasons why I'm very committed to being here and that's not to say that there aren't people in other parts of World who aren't able but having lived in Africa I actually work on for technology solutions when I was over there. And I found that it was so hard to move the needle on things because what we were working on was not the core technology that was going to be transformative what we were working on were the little things on the odds and ends around the edges that were going to make it slightly better. And what I needed to do to make that difference was to actually go in and say no I need to work on a core technology platform because that's where you make the difference. I thought to say that there aren't important solutions will come out of those spaces but by and large the absolute tidal wave of change thats happening is happening because of the minds in the core of the technology business. A lot of whom are located here in Silicon Valley and so being here if I want to be an influencer, if I want to be a change agent is absolutely essential to understand what's going on to be able to make the difference to make a difference at scale. And so that was really an eye opener for me. So I tried to shift from being somebody who was out in the field kind of one on one helping people or you know working on various parties got to somebody was like not want to actually help change the core technology in the way that it works and the way it is understood to have a much bigger systemic influence on what's going on and that's what everybody needs to do that but that's what I needed to do and I feel very satisfied being where I'm at now being able to do that. And in trying to be one of those change agents who's helping design the system in a better way. Right. And challenge assumptions that are wrong or that I think are incorrect and that that part's really fun and rewarding. So I enjoy being part of that.
Brad Cooper: 16:38
Right. And then led you to Google but then just before that you were at the Department of State so you were in the government as well. Maybe you talked about that in terms of you were talking earlier about just the speed of things and the specification of the technology. I'm guessing things slow down didn't speed up any.
Neil Ahlsten: 16:56
I worked for some people who I dearly love and who care so deeply about the issues. But the pace of change and the ability to make change was not something that meshed with what I was looking for. I got to be a part of all sorts of secretive meetings where you know about what's going on you know the intelligence but not necessarily reshape policy or reshape programs in a way that's going to make a huge difference because there's just so much inertia there's so much organization inertias that says this is the way we do it. This is why we do it this way. I mean the one example that I have where I really feel like they will make a big difference was that we were doing some programs or people who had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the genocide they had family members died. I just got to extremely tragic things and we had hired a nonprofit group to go to counseling. And I thought well this is great but I have no idea if it's doing any good that we can go spend a billion dollars a year on this. We've never we have no evidence that this is actually helping people. And so I was able to get an evaluation grant to get to bring in one of the best researchers in it to evaluate what was going on several people actually having better outcomes because it turned out the word and the reason they were is that the methods being used were actually causing people to kind of relive the experiences without treating the emotional space for them to heal. For me to go see me after two years I look back and see kind of one victory and they designed the programs better and made them better, etc. But it was really hard to fight for change. And actually my former boss at Google, Megan Smith, went to be the CTO of the U.S. government and she you know since left I think she and we have talked about that much had a bit of a similar experience. They're just very different things. The risks that we can take. I put it to the risks that we're able to take as startups and businesses in Silicon Valley are different fundamentally than the risks went to U.S. government technically. So it's OK if we fail as a matter of fact 90 percent of start ups fail. People know that investors know that. But you don't want 90 percent of your projects to fail right. So that's just a different space that you need to live in. So I enjoy the space of where we we live in a space of fruitful year but less access to Google and a lot of people have a great saying with a new idea and we know that a lot of things are going to fail just realize that quickly and then start doing something else you'd say you can learn fast. And that's a really really fun place to be. It's also a place to be in because it can be a bit exhausting. When you design something try it with your users it looks good. You have engineers build it you build out features you ship it and it doesn't work in the same say. We just spend two months working on this feature and it absolutely flopped. Now we need to tear it out. We need to remove everything we need to tell you you're just not there anymore. And then go look for the next thing that can be an exhausting process to maintain that kind of excitement to keep trying and keep learning when you know that. But there's a humility I think part of it is there's a humility that there's a lot of great ideas. Hopefully we have good ideas but a lot of them are going to fail and that's OK.
Brad Cooper: 19:50
Yeah let's take it to Google now so you were there for seven years. Tell us a little bit about what you did there. And then I also would really like to hear about what the experience was like as a Christian working inside of Google.
Neil Ahlsten: 20:00
Firstof all I drink a lot of the Kool-Aid there's a lot that I love about Google. I had a rule that let me be in meetings with the founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt because of the deals that I was working on. There's there's kind of a method of perspective of what technology can do that is really, really, really powerful because of the problem solving ability and ability to understand data and what's happening and I really enjoy that and love that and have some great examples of what surprised me about being in that kind of environment. And it was like being in breakthroughs like being in technology school I was there was seven years and I was always learning. Google's not always right either. They make mistakes and they make a lot of mistakes and they have to figure out how to fix those so that was healthy to realize that even the big juggernauts are not always right. In terms of being a Christian at Google., you know it was very interesting to me because I did not ever feel any direct discrimination or resentment. It was much more of that well if that's what you're into that's cool. But I'm not really interested kind of mentality. There still is a very active Christian group there and I know a number of people who are part of it. And I've spoken there about this project and continue to connect with them. But it's very, relative to the size of Google, it's quite small. You know I think the culture, there's much more interest in culture around hey let's do mindfulness meditation, let's do yoga, let's do all those things as opposed to let's talk about the faith. But in small group settings, I did find people were generally open to at least know that that's part of your life and say OK that's fine. And I mean I know senior executives at Google who are believers and who feel like they're able to still maintain that bouts of professional excellence and their faith. But it is hard, Christianity is not the defacto kind of thing in Silicon Valley at all. You know even when I was going to launch this project is a great example. I was talking to a Google colleague and I was talking about how we were doing. You know it's got a meditation and what not and his comment was, "Well I guess we have to digitize everything." That was the kind of his comment and I thought man, that is the really kind of attitude what I'm doing. We've been part of technology startup forums and events and lots of think outside of the Christian faith and the general reaction is "man, what you're doing is just not very interesting and if some people want it there's a market for it great. Good luck." I mean that's really that's what investors tell you. That's why Piers tell you that really the prevailing attitude is so you know even at Google I think we're towards what I'm working on here. Most people would just say what you're doing just does not matter. It's just not big enough. It doesn't have enough scale it just does not matter. And so you're wasting your time and if you want to waste your time go ahead and waste your time all you want. Just don't do it around me. And that's really the the prevailing attitude that I've kind of heard and seen I mean it was great when I was at Google and I was working as part of product I told my boss hey I want to do this and actually have a moonlighting policy where they'll let you work on side projects as long as it's not competitive to what Google is doing. You can use your own time on computers and stuff. What Oh yeah. This is not competitive to what Google is doing at all. So I was given free reign to work on that. As a matter of fact we still have a number of people working at Google who volunteer on a project and they've gone through similar process and get approved to do but it's the same sort of things like, "Good luck with that."
Brad Cooper: 23:27
During your seven years there. How did you how did you balance that are in terms of balancing your faith and family and we haven't talked about family. Mean I'd love to hear more about family and your wife and your children but where that came under you're in the story.
Neil Ahlsten: 23:39
Well you know it's interesting you mentioned that because that was the first thing that came to mind when I was thinking about balancing my faith is when I joined Google we had our first child six months later. So and then had another one to 20 months after that and then adopted twins after that. And so really my first four years ago were much more about learning to trade growing in the trade and investing in my family. You know lots of young kids running around. And then it was kind of after that season when I when I was able to apply or start thinking about applying my faith more directly as part of the technology that I was working on. Google was a phenomenal place. Kids are I was so awkward could work. How all your kids go. They give you great leave. They give you great support. They give you a free meal that you have the kids. I mean it's insane how much of or I got as a new father at Google and for the adoption process they were incredibly supportive. So yeah it's a good place to have kids. You know turning back towards the Christian side of what it's like to apply your faith there. I actually have generally found this extremely hard. There are some Bible studies that people do occasionally go to. There's one at Facebook that I've been to. There's one at Google and there's one at Apple and those are nice you know and I do know some examples of people who have really directly taken their faith or church principles and use that in the product development process. One of the guys who created Facebook groups is actually as far as I understand the lead on I sat down to talk with them about it. He built it as a test because he wanted to play for his church to be able to come out on Facebook this was gosh probably 10, 12 years ago now I don't even know how long ago it was but really interesting to see where he said I want to use technology to create a space for my church and me and build a building a very widely used feature on Facebook or the principle community and fellowship and be able to do that in space together online. And so there are some interesting examples of people who really have felt inspired. I think you've talked with Pat Gelsinger and his kind of vision of using you know his leadership role as being where as a platform for outreach and Christian principles is really cool and really neat. Sothere are those examples of that and they're not that common. What's much more common to me is one where there's a bit of a separation of the two. And I understand why that happens. I know a lot of Christians who I talked about hey when you come in apart from the tsunami talented designers, engineers, entrepreneurs who have decided that it would be much more interesting to go work on some sort of new messaging app or go work on even some sort of new like fantasy draft you know or something because they were just really excited that hey this is a hot market I want to be part of it and it's OK well that's fine but if it links to faith in God is very tenuous if at all, if not on the opposite side and there's an allure here there's just an absolute allure that you can use technology to create a business that's worth billions of dollars and that people are using all around the world. And if you're not doing that you're wasting your time. Is it really that that's kind of the thing that I keep hearing. If you're not creating a multibillion dollar business if you're not getting 100 million active users, you're wasting your time. And if that's if that's your only metric that you care about. Yeah maybe that's true but if you care about spiritual impact it looks totally different. And you know the e-mails that we get from people and the messages about people who have been dealing with self-harm issues who have stopped cutting themselves because they've been able to pray through it and people pray through grief and depression and really heavy hard things where they say thank you so much for doing that. This has made a significant difference in my life. You know to be able to look at and say I think that's a little more in line and it's not to say that I don't think that people can be in Google and you know practice their faith in your work. Absolutely they can if people who are but I think being open to a different perspective on what kind of impact God is calling us to make. You know, it is important to say that maybe God has called me to something different. Is that true or not true. And so but that's really uncommon.
Brad Cooper: 27:36
And in sort of the younger generation or do you see it changing at all do you see it the same as it was when you know 10 years ago or do you see any movement there? Because I mean a lot of the studies show that at least now if you look at millennials for example they seem to want to do something beyond themselves. They have a little bit more purpose orientation. But maybe that doesn't play out at the end of the day when they have to pay for college loans. They they still come back to I want to be part of something that's you know the highest and what are you seeing?
Neil Ahlsten: 28:06
I see some of that. I mean I would say most of the people working on the project are millennials. I'm kind of the old guy and my content director is well he's he's he's you know somebody from a different generation or not Millennial but I definitely have seen a lot of millennials who are interested. I think what's challenging for them is where does the rubber hit the road like. How does this actually work and what does it what does it look like for me to actually participate in this in a way that works with my schedule and everything. And then the realities kick in like a lot of our millennium. Once they get married and have kids drop off because they didn't like. You know you just hit a stage where it's really hard to do this unless you have an opportunity to do a full time. So there is some of that. We have seen the biggest challenge of Christians who have tried to do it by and large. There's this really weird thing that I found happens a lot of Christianity which is and again I'm almost contradicting myself because I would rather have this quantity side, geeky side I had to realize hey God can work in ways that I don't understand that's absolutely true. But a lot of people will say you know why God told me to build this thing or this app should exist because the Bible says this. I'm going to go build it and I'll say OK it's great that the Bible says that. Go look at the market and see how other people tried to build something similar. And what happened to it. Like does it actually work just because the Bible says something doesn't mean that a digital art is going to work. Your products may fail for other reasons outside of Scripture being true. And that's really where I felt this really and seeing this really weird thing even in the evidence of data where I've sat down with people who said OK great you want to build it up that looks like this here's 15 other apps that were got the Christian social networks. It's a great example. So many people have tried to build almost exactly the same Christian social network. And again again I'm like go look at this one go look at the City what happened why didn't that work. Go look at this one. Go look at this one. You will see no this has to work. And it says no it doesn't your product doesn't have to work. Like you know there can be fundamental flaws in the product it or how people use the product I mean the Bible's still true but your product is just not something that gives people value. And that's another interesting thing that I've run into and seen frequently that's where I feel like I try to differentiate at least or stay true is if the evidence shows that people are not using that digital product or not using that feature. I'm just stop it because and find something else to build. I'm not going to keep doing it just because the Bible says something that to take you to contravene biblical principles. It's just that behavior that having that feature just might not work. And so I think that's an interesting kind of challenge that I've seen in a lot of Christian technology enterprises.
Brad Cooper: 30:41
Right, but also to me it also seems that that there's sort of this by modal thinking where you can either go to Google and or you can do some technology thing or you can do something that's Christian. There doesn't seem to be like well you can also do what we were talking earlier. I mean maybe there's a technology that will help millions of people in Africa. You have to be sure. I mean you obviously are going to infuse your Christian beliefs and values into it but it doesn't have to be a Christian app or you know some other church based thing or that's sort of what I've seen too is that they sort of just gravitate towards OK. Selling into the Christian sort of cortico you know church or market versus taking something that's yet still technology but it helps people and through that somehow infusing your Christian faith in you know as a calling.
Neil Ahlsten: 31:24
Yeah I would agree.
Brad Cooper: 31:26
So we're now talking a little bit more about, you talked about a little bit, about the app and just the people that are using it and benefiting from it. I mean you're you're the math geek and I've dived into that data. So what are you seeing and what have you sort of learned from it quantitatively or you mentioned a couple of the stories of people who've been changed by it?
Neil Ahlsten: 31:44
The data has been really fascinating and we're trying to publish more of this. Weactually just are research grant we're finalizing to research more of the evidence as well as benefits of what we're doing. But there are some just very simple things that make huge differences in people's lives. Building a habit of spending time with God every day. It's incredible the difference that that makes in people's lives. And that may seem self evident to people but it just turns out that people who have a regular devotional time or actually spend 5, 10, 15 minutes particularly in the morning with God have they're more consistent in prayer life and more consistent reading Scripture. They're generally even, I mean the data would suggest, they're happier that they're less stressed when we ran surveys around this of people representing how often they're meditating on the platform and what impact that has on things like stress. Basically nine or 10 people who experience stress regularly said if I stop to do this experience and meditate on God's word I feel less stress and they face lower depression and that data to me is phenomenally interesting. It just turns out I think on the flip side what we're doing is a lot like people say hey sell painkillers not vitamins because people want that they want the pain to go away not necessarily the other benefits. And I think that spiritual practices are a little bit have a problem being more of the vitamin and the work out is that you've got to put in the time. And a lot of people just don't. And that's something that really seems to be endemic in our society is just people feel too busy. I mean I've surveyed talked to so many users who have stopped using drugs. I want to know why and the number one thing is always I'm just too busy. They'll give you a 9 out of 10 rating on your content. This is awesome. This is life changing and I'm just too busy and I think from a data perspective we as a church I think this is actually really kind of an endemic problem as we've looked around and surveyed people. Is that a lot of people feel like they just have too much going on whether it's you know Facebook encroaching Netflix encroaching or gaining time or work requirements and being always on culture. You know it's hard for me to say what are the drivers of that. But the data suggest pretty strongly that it's an overwhelming sentiment of just having too much going on being too busy. And what that's doing is eroding people's time with God and time to kind of really connect with God. I don't know where that leads and how we change that trend. But I know it works fine to make our impact or we can. But that's been one pretty significant thing. The other thing that's really interesting is what people do when they have negative emotional experiences. A lot of our product usage comes because people have a downer that people don't have a devotional time. The reason they use our products is that they feel down. They feel all lonely they feel panic attacks as one that comes up all the time like just overwhelmed. So there's this Grammy Award winning artist Mandisa said who sent her through Youversion and she was like tweeting out how she was using it and it was fascinating. What are your issues like. Abide saved me in traffic today. I was just trying to avoid Jesus was there and if I say. That's an interesting thing is that people come in feeling down. And what that pick up and feeling the sense of. So those are some really interesting things I think other data that's really interesting or has been hard for me to swallow and I don't know what to do with it. Number one if you ask people who they prefer we surveyed 20,000 people in the question of course you know the number one person that people pray for. If you give them a list of who in your life you pray for the most? It's himself. Yes. And so it's pretty obvious that certain family and other things come down the list. But in reality when we tried experiments we found that at least digitally it has been harder than we had hope to really motivate people to pray for others. What they typically do is when they say I'm praying for you what you're saying is I'm thinking of you and I what I wish you well not necessarily I'm going to go intercede to the God of the universe on your behalf that you know these things will be true and a lot of people don't know how and they feel overwhelmed with their own prayer life. And that's a really fascinating kind of result. So what do you do with that. You know and I'm not sure that digital is the right way to solve it. I actually think it's probably not the right way is probably just more people getting together in person praying for each other. But even there you know when we've done the studies most small groups of people when they get together they spend almost all their time not praying but sharing because people want to share. And then there's a quick closing parent. It's like oh my gosh we forgot for the right time looking for somebody close us. You know I don't know what to make of that data. But that's really strongly what the data suggests and the status of the church is pro-life so I'm not saying it's right or wrong I'm just saying that's what we're seeing now. Again that's probably what we pivoted towards hey we're going to help you pray for yourself because that's where the market and that's the question, "Neil, is that even right?" "Are you doing the right thing by enabling this self-focused behavior?" Well the Bible does say that talking to God is a good thing. So we're going to at least do what we can do. And that's where people use our product for.
Brad Cooper: 34:06
Right, hard to change habits and behavior with an app. But maybe there are some ways you can I guess I mean maybe a checklist of things they have to do to be you know certified on the app by your brain before they can pray for somebody else first and then maybe a shared thing where you could share it with your friend and say I just prayed for you in a little share thing. I don't know. It sounds like an interesting one. Now as far as the the model itself so it's a free app but there'sf a paid version is there advertising?Tell us about the business model.
Neil Ahlsten: 37:28
Yes sure. It is freemium that's I think I was just reading a status symbol with 95 percent of the revenue iTunes come from freemium products. So we have a bunch of free resources on there that you can play through. And then our guides which are structured plans that will take you through are topics those are paid as well as our longer daily meditations we give a free two minute. And then if you want to a longer one and we see a pretty reasonable conversion rate in that and then we do have a little bit of advertising that comes through partners who have spiritual formation content. We have our policy strictly say it needs to apply to like spiritual formation and actually helping people would obviously be biblical and then we include some of those ads and offers that gets sent out to our audience. It's generally working. I mean our goal was really sustainability and we're extremely fortunate that we're very close to being sustainable in this. I wouldn't say we're thriving at just a lot of things we can't because we don't have the resources coming in but it in general is working and it is hard though for me personally I really don't like prey on people from religious experience say come in and spend time with Jesus. Then say you've got to pay. But when we ran experiments and tests we were not able to successfully get enough giving kind of support to make it saleability and lead. We had good content and a good flow and a paywall and people were like hey I'm totally going to pay for this. And so that's the reality of where the business is at and something that we continue to kind of pray about and think about. If you look at our our one star reviews, a vast majority of our one star views come from people who, andwe have a high rating and they AppStore so that many but they come from people who are like I can't believe you're making me pay for the one word of God so they're turned off by that. It's hard and I get that perspective but on the flip side you know so what do you what do you want me. Is your expectation is then that you know I'm going to get together some of the best techies who have come out of Google and these other places and we have to live in the Bay Area. And pay of an office in the Bay Area and pay for serving cost and that you know does the workers deserve their wages or not? I get both sides of it.
Brad Cooper: 37:28
Now, you had funding as well. Is that just friends and family?
Neil Ahlsten: 39:52
We did get funding. We were very fortunate we got funding from a lot of higher net worth Christians and Christian foundations we had Hobby Lobby and family support us and MacLellan foundation out of Tennessee which is a really big Christian foundation supported us. David weekly foundation out of Texas. I think a lot of them were really excited to see what could happen if they support people with this kind of background to go into the market. And we had to get really creative though. And when you're running a startup you have to get creative and actually a lot of our investment actually came through a vehicle out of Kansas City that the National Christian foundation helped set up. So that does sound a lot of foundations actually wrote nonprofit check like tax deductible a 501(c)(3) money to a charity that they invested in us. And when their is liquidity event meaning we need to pay a dividend or somebody buys whatever happens that money goes back to the charity that gets regifted back out to other causes. It's an unusual model but something that really made sense to a lot of politicians who said hey this is really interesting. I see the spiritual impact you can make and I might actually get my money back one day or back you know two three five acts in order to get it away again. And that was that was a really interesting thing.
Brad Cooper: 41:13
That sounds like a pretty interesting, creative route to go. And maybe some of the research aspects as well have some value.
Neil Ahlsten: 41:24
Exactly, those research aspect came to those same thing with these Christian foundations that hey we want to know how can this be helpful. Here's some research grant money in order to advance this. So you know we just kind of had to cobble it together and there was no way that really looked like we were going to get so big A-round from some. You know we're out to be honest that would have been probably bad for us because their expectations are lightning fast growth at all costs and a lot of times if you're not you know CEOs get fired, missions you change everything. So our investors are extremely aligned with the outcome that we want which is sustainable business biblically impacting people's lives. It is hard though.
Brad Cooper: 42:05
I was just going to ask, so I mean you went from Google which you know like you said all of the support you could get, when you have kids, the lunch area. I mean you got all the support and then from that to sort of on your own. I mean how is that transition to employee to founder?
Neil Ahlsten: 42:19
I was fortunate that I was able to save up some money and get some family support quite frankly too. I mean I basically went for like two years taking no salary. You know four kids in the Bay Area that's life and my main co-founder you know that we're starting way below market salaries to do this. That's just the nature of it and I think you're not ready for that, you're not you know carrying the cost before you're going to do something. So that's investment. Now the flip side of it is to have a subscription business like we do because once you build out of a good subscribers and you give them a really good product that's making a difference in their life they tend to stick around that I really see in the next couple of years the opportunity for us to take the resources that are coming in from Abide and build additional products and features that are going to help with people's spiritual life. That will be hugely impactful and I'm not going to have to go out talking to 250 people in order to get 10 investors to get it. You know it's an exhausting process. It's hard though. I mean I think that some of this if you're going to try to come in and do this kind of spiritual benefit technology, you got to try to be really smart about making sure you have enough resources that you can actually give it a try and not fail because you didn't have the resources and to know it's going to take you twice as long and twice as much money as you thought it was to get.
Brad Cooper: 43:39
Right. And I think that's good advice for probably any startup right down the runway as it is not always as long as you would like to. Talk a little bit about just you know, you've mentioned this throughout your life, but you know some of those decision points like this one you know to start to go and abide and what method steps resources you used if any? Or was it really more of God kind of just putting you on a path and you didn't really have much of a choice there like you're going to do this or what went through your life? I mean if you could talk maybe a couple examples or put forks in the road in terms of relying on either resources or your faith in making decisions?
Neil Ahlsten: 44:19
That's a great question. It almost seems like it boils down to a couple of different things. I think that there is a set of decisions like when Nadia and I were talking about adopting together. My wife and I you know we knew James 1:27 that helping orphans and widows their distress is a good thing. I can't say that there was a particular moment where I said man I absolutely feel God's Spirit saying you need to adopt. It was a good thing and we had seen kids who were in need and we wanted to be part of our family. And the decision process was much more of a this is something that God says is true and we want and have the space to pour into other children in our family. And we've had a number of those kinds the ones where I can't say I heard anything directly from God other than here's some scriptures that are true. And you know confirming with other ventures and some may have had some little like this project which it had a biblical basis to it. But really there were very specific times and we even had this one guy who prophesied over me and I know people come from different or traditional evangelical and whatever mainline charismatic people always liked that but it was fascinating. He without having no clue what we're working on literally prophesied down to the name that we were using for that. He started talking about John 15:7 if you know if you abide in me and my word abides and you ask for the good wish. And he was like you know I see a platform of prayer and all these people connected on it and very specific things including the ethnicity of people would be working like you're like really I mean I guess that makes it very very very interesting things that was there. Well what I do. What do we do with that. You know now we've got this is well in just personally words of knowledge maybe that I heard. Including my favorite which was I really had a little white feel like God told me you're not big enough to understand what I do in prayer which is really humbling to say. OK. So we're going to go build a product or a behavior that I fundamentally I'm not big enough to understand like I don't actually get how the product works. That is kind of mind blowing. Well what do you do without to make a decision to leave a great career at a company where I make a ton of money and I get really good vacation and I work on meaningful things to do this project work. I fundamentally don't really know how God works and I really I mean I know principles you know spiritual behaviors and practices. But one of them that I can give you that is really fascinating. Again this is hypothesis I'm not going to say and tell the truth but there's something about praying a prayer and saying OK God do with this what you will when we do these guided prayer. I don't know the people who are listening to them or in terms of what they are going through what God is going to do with that. But we pray that they will say OK we're going to guide you through this and in faith we are praying that God will do something with us because it's based in God's Word from Scripture and we're just taking you through reflective questions and praying that this will be true in your life. God's word which you like indicated about is somehow i think god multiplies that in the heavenly realms to actually work. I just think when David wrote Psalms you know he was like I'm writing this psalm you know psalm of scent or lament or whatever because this is an expression that calls me a in prayer and you know in some way when I'm reading that something is happening. And so it's been really interesting from the decision point perspective when you say trying to have a framework that really makes a lot of sense. And that being open to the mystery piece ideally both must come together and there's strong confirmation was you that's not always the case and sometimes you've got to just keep plowed forward anyway but at least have a record of what's happened. I think that's one of the toughest things in starting a business is you just get slammed. I mean you know things happen. We had times when iTunes subscription just quit working. They were like we have a bug and all those subscribers you have are now getting turned off. What? How am Ito run a business we're going to go out of business if this happen,s it continues happening. And you know but looking back and saying I could call this God just put me in his face I'm not leaving. It as has proven to be something that materialize them together.
Brad Cooper: 48:32
While we were talking I went on your app. I noticed there's a making a decision path that you could go down. So yes they could do that, too. Certainly people were listening. So as far as you know young people or people are in a career like like you were thinking about well you know I really want to start this startup. I would really want to start this technology company wherever they may be that may be in the Bay Area or maybe somewhere else. What advice would you give them?
Neil Ahlsten: 48:50
Find good people to do it with. Don't go it alone. That would be my number one thing. Find mentors, find investors, find coworkers and colleagues and if you can't then you're probably not going to get anywhere. That's been my support along the way are just great people to work with.
Brad Cooper: 49:07
What's up next for you? What can we pray for for for you? For Carpenters Code and Abide. What are some of things coming up or that you're working on for the rest if the year?
Neil Ahlsten: 49:19
That's a great question. I think you know one of the things that as we develop this business we were expecting it to be more of a platform where we would either aggregate content or to be user generated content. We're actually a media company more than a technology company meaning we created publish media. And along with that we create books that we create devotionals that we create you know the essential how to meditation. Well we weren't expecting to but now we have this incredible data and insight into what works. That's a new path for us that I would love prauer for to say what is the right answer to do there? And you know just to continue to be faithful and work on the right things and not distracted by the wrong ones because there's always a lot to do with. So doing the right things and not wasting your time on the wrong things is extremely important so I would appreciate those.
Brad Cooper: 50:02
Oh absolutely. It will definitely for that and continue to pray for success for Abide and your organization and keep going ahead and loved to hear stories who do take the big step in faith. And after being at a big company like Google or others where it is definitely a big step ain faith. Congratulate you on that and wish you the best of success and hopefully you can continue to keep in touch and on looking at your progress and everybody go check out the Abide app and share it with friends.
Brad Cooper: 50:02
Thank you a much. It's been a pleasure being on your show.
Neil Ahlsten: 50:33
Likewise. Good talking to you Neal and we'll definitely be talking soon.
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