From The Trenches: Interview with Suze Yalof Schwartz, CEO at Unplug

From The Trenches: Interview with Suze Yalof Schwartz, CEO at Unplug

Just breathe. In these challenging times, sometimes you just have to hit ‘pause’, take a moment to reflect, and inhale deeply. Something as simple as this could be the difference between success and failure. 

In 2012, Suze Yalof Schwartz learned a three-minute breathing exercise that sent her on the journey of a lifetime. It was the ‘A-Ha’ moment that inspired her to start Unplug, a meditation studio for the rest of us. Since then, Unplug has expanded into a popular app used by Fortune 500 CEOs and stressed our founders everywhere. Over 250,000 people have jumped on board and joined the Unplugged Nation to delete stress, increase productivity, and go big.

Meet Suze Yalof Schwartz, CEO at Unplug, The World’s First Drop-In, Secular Meditation Studio in Santa Monica, CA

LA Startups caught up with her the day a new version of the Unplug app launched, which was an adventure in itself. 

LA StartUps (LAS): Alright, the first thing we want to know is about these breathing exercises your mother-in-law taught you. This was the beginning of a beautiful thing, correct?

Suze Yalof Schwartz
Suze Yalof Schwartz

Suze Yalof Schwartz (SYS): I used to be a fashion editor for major beauty magazines, and was totally stressed out. In one of those moments, my mother-in-law said ‘you need to breathe.’ And I’m like, what, I am breathing.

But that’s not what she meant. She wanted me to breathe with intention. She taught me a three-minute breathing exercise that helped me visualize my happy place, which was Jamaica at the time, and my entire life changed. What she taught me stopped my stress. I was amazed. 

So then she said ‘you should learn how to meditate.’ And I was Googling places to meditate. But all I found were six-week programs and $1,400 programs. I asked myself: where is the Dry Bar of meditation, where you go in, and you walk out 30 minutes later feeling great?

And that’s when I had my ‘A-Ha’ moment. A place like this doesn’t exist. So I said to my husband, I’m going to quit fashion and open up a meditation studio. There’s not a single one in the entire world. 

LAS: And his response?

SYS: He said ‘maybe there’s a good reason there isn’t one, don’t you think?’ But I wasn’t discouraged. I still wanted to do it. 

He said, ‘okay, but maybe you should really learn about meditation first.’ (laughter)

So that’s what I did. I learned about meditation as I came up with a way to open my first studio. I don’t know if anyone understood that I was really going to throw 25 years away in the fashion industry to do this. But once I got this in my head, it was one of those ideas I just couldn’t stop thinking about. And the more I learned about meditation, the more I knew the whole thing just needed a makeover. Just like I was doing in fashion. So I opened up the world’s first drop-in meditation studio on April 14th, 2014.

LAS: What was the initial response?

SYS: I opened the doors. I had a huge party. All my friends showed up. It was massive. 

The next day, crickets. It was me alone in the room with this teacher named Ari. And I’m like, wait, where are the people? Where are my friends who said they were going to show up for me? No one showed up. 

Finally, a couple of days later, there was another person and then another person. But not enough.

What was I doing wrong? I realized I was giving away free classes to get people to come, but I wasn’t creating a habit. So we launched the one month unlimited for $40, and people started buying that and then they started wanting to use it. 

I realized also that the mindfulness classes were okay, but people were looking for more. Like sound baths and breathwork. And I’m like, okay, how do I simplify that too? Because the concept behind Unplug is to make it so simple that busy skeptics would actually want to meditate. We’re onboarding people who need it but never would do it, by making it a total experience with the lights, the smell, the energy. With teachers that speak in a simple language that is highly effective and can change your life. That’s how it really took off. 

By September of 2014, it started to get really crowded. 

LAS: How did you fund the first studio?

SYS: I put the ‘fun’ into funding. First, I met with my husband and we talked about how much money we could actually lose without it really killing us. And we came up with a number and we basically said, this is how much we can lose and no more. It was our money and that was that. 

Then it started getting traction and start getting bigger and bigger. Everybody was writing about it, Vogue, Elle, The New York Times, everybody. And everybody was like ‘what is this place and why has nobody ever done this before? Who is this crazy person?’ I was like this stressed out, tightly strung, New Yorker, not the kind of person that you would think was opening up a meditation studio. I mean, I literally just learned how to meditate a minute ago. 

I’m learning as I go. I just jumped in feet first. And I was so passionate and excited and juiced by the whole idea. And that’s really how it started. Even Deepak Chopra taught a class, and Steve Ross. 

From The Trenches: Interview with Suze Yalof Schwartz, CEO at Unplug

LAS: Then you started to transition from the studio to digital. How did that happen?

SYS: One of our clients was a producer at ESPN and he constantly was traveling for sports, but he didn’t want to leave. He became addicted to one of our teachers, Lauren. He asked if we can just film a couple of her classes so he could take her on the road. He also told me to do an app. And he told me to do live streaming. 

At first, I didn’t do filmed classes or live streaming. I thought it was a distraction. But then we filmed some of Lauren’s classes. He literally sat with me and helped me film her. We produced it. I had done a lot of television before in my previous job, I used to be on all the morning shows, so it wasn’t completely new to me. 

We created a series of 10 videos. He took them on the road, he loved them. And then we started adding more. And then people were like: Can you do one for divorce? Can you do one for panic attacks? Can you do one for anxiety? Can you do one with my pet? I’m like, yeah, I can do that. We just started adding these on. And pretty soon we had 750 meditations led by 70 of the top experts in the entire world, all on the Unplug Meditation App

From that, Oprah Winfrey hired us to send an instructor on a boat for an adventure cruise. And we put all the videos into the rooms. So we had 2,000 people going to bed and waking up with us and then the Ritz Carlton put us into their hotels. We were being shared far and wide. 

LAS: Let’s circle back to the idea of learning on the fly. You didn’t know a lot about meditation, but you saw a better way of doing it. Explain that more.

SYS: I was very lucky because I was friends with the founders of SoulCycle. And when I first opened up, I met with them and I asked them what I needed to know? What do I need it to look like? And they said very clearly, the way you start is not what you’re going to end up with six months from now. So know that it’s going to just be totally different and be open to that. Had I not listened to that advice, I would still be having mindfulness classes that nobody would be going to.

But because I listened, I was able to do mindfulness, guided imagery, aromatherapy, crystal healing, sound baths. Plus now the app and the digital library. We even have like the top NFL player teaching crystal healing inside of the studio. So I’m constantly learning and evolving. That is how I’ve grown this business.

LAS: And what big challenge did you wake up this morning thinking about?

SYS: We just launched the Unplug Meditation App, the third incarnation after our stint at Apple Entrepreneur Camp. They invited us to go to Apple to actually help us redesign the app. It was this unbelievable experience. So we launched that this morning and it’s all I’ve been thinking about.

LAS: How did that opportunity happen?

SYS: I’m a female founder with a female developer. So that’s why we were invited. They were trying to help the underdog and they really changed our lives. 

What happened is that we were growing so quickly that we needed help, and then we were on Reese Witherspoon’s show. Then Apple picked us as the ‘App of the Day’ and the whole app crashed. And I said to my developer ‘what’s going on?” Nobody could subscribe. And the people who did subscribe couldn’t get in. Like the fundamental thing is, if you pay for it, you should be able to get in, right? Laughter. 

So Apple said here’s how you need to look at it: the first iteration you built the pipes for like a hundred people, and now you have thousands of people and it’s a server issue. So that was my challenge this morning, fixing the pipes. 

LAS: How has COVID affected the business?

SYS: What happened is we went from a physical studio to a live streaming studio in three hours. So I’m just like telling everybody not to cancel their membership. We’re going to go live streaming, I said. And everyone was like, great, this is awesome. And then the teachers are like, sure but how do we live stream? I said I don’t know. I was literally Googling Zoom.  Laughter.

So we started with one Zoom class and obviously there are problems with Zoom. You’ve got the WiFi issue, you’ve got the sound issues, you have to teach the teachers to look in the right spot so it looks like they’re looking at you. All that stuff, it’s really different. 

With COVID, you actually decide how you want to respond. You have to decide how you want to hold space for all the people that are counting on you. So I have to say, I feel very proud of the way that I’ve held space for everyone, my staff, and all the teachers. We have 64 teachers and we’re very supportive. We’ve had weekly meetings with the entire staff, helping everybody evolve, sharing everything that we are learning, creating this collective. If everybody gets better than everything gets better. 

I also closed the West Hollywood physical studio, which I decided a few days ago to do. This was the smartest decision I’ve made so I can focus on digital and not let everything just bleed. Otherwise, there’s no business.

It comes back to intentionality, which I think is so critical.

I’m a dreamer, but I also believe if it happens, it happens. One example is that I thought Unplug was going to be the Starbucks of meditation and I was going to open up meditation studios on every corner. And then someone reached out to me to do a book, and that’s actually what got us everywhere. And now I’m actually far and wide because our teams are live streaming everywhere in the world, which is the exact opposite of the brick and mortar I initially envisioned. Sometimes you have to just open your eyes and adapt, and that’s the same with COVID.  

LAS: Was there a book or something else that inspired you along your journey?

From The Trenches: Interview with Suze Yalof Schwartz, CEO at UnplugSYS: I strongly recommend Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller. That guy is a genius. He has the five-minute website makeover and I watched his five-minute video and I changed my website for the business part of Unplug and all of a sudden like huge companies started reaching out to me. He’s great. I love that guy so much. So yeah, he’s been a big influence.

LAS: And the next chapter in the story is…

SYS: There are two areas where we want to expand. One is at the corporate level. Right now we’re in Google, Salesforce, a lot of companies.  Conde Nast bought our app for all of its employees. We’ve wiped out that myth that you don’t have time, and we know we increase productivity, so it makes a lot of sense and we want to expand into that market more. 

LAS:  So you’re the enterprise version of meditation?

SYS: Exactly. And the second area is teacher training. We train teachers so that they can bring it into their schools and companies and everywhere else. We have HR people for example bringing our techniques into the boardroom. The goal is to always share this magical technique that lowers your stress, lowers your anxiety, stops panic attacks, and makes you more focused. Simple, easy, and powerful.

LAS: We feel better already. What advice would you give the young entrepreneur who wants to build a company?

SYS:  You know, don’t think too much. Thinking is the killer of great ideas. Jump in feet first and then have your ‘Oh shit!’ moment. Believe you can do it one step at a time and don’t get too married to your original philosophy and ideas and just go with the flow. Most importantly, enjoy the journey. Because that’s actually the most incredible part of the whole experience. 

Chris Donaldson is partner at Moment, a content creation company for start-ups, Fortune 500 companies, and beyond. He is an expert at one thing: telling stories. Your stories.

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