The Story of Focusmate and Body Doubling
Innovation strategy is all about identifying opportunities to fill gaps in the marketplace. Focusmate, a five-year-old startup founded by CEO Taylor Jacobson, is attempting to do just that. Jacobson was working as an executive coach, helping his clients to set goals and manage their time, when he realized that something was missing. On the Focusmate website, Jacobson writes that saw an unmet need for:
“a community to connect with like-minded individuals committed to holding each other accountable, hour by hour, for actually doing the actions contained in those todo lists, productivity tools, and goal trackers.”
In response, Jacobson founded Focusmate, a service that connects two individuals to share a 25 or 50 minute video session, in which they set specific goals at the beginning, work for the allotted time, and come back together at the end to share how they did. The company leverages a few key ideas, including strong community expectations (Focusmate encourages its users to think of themselves as part of a community, which the set format of the sessions helps to achieve) as well as a concept called “body doubling.”
Using a New Psychological Technique for Business Innovation Strategy
“Body doubling” is a technique where two people work side by side and thereby accomplish more. For example, if you choose to work at a coffee shop or library, or even with a friend at home, you might be unknowingly seeking a body double, which can help put you in a productive mindset. Body doubling, as online therapy provider Choosing Therapy notes, does not require that two people are doing the same task, but merely that the two people are together, either in-person or virtually.
Body doubling seems to have originated as a strategy to manage ADHD, but in these distracted times, it can help anyone. As Kelsey Ables writes for the Washington Post,
“for those with ADHD… a structureless, solo setting can be particularly challenging. Even people who don’t have ADHD might find their attention fractured in an environment where work and life have merged into one big, digital blur.”
Body doubling apps like Focusmate can help everyone to be more productive by creating a work-friendly environment anywhere.
Especially in and after the pandemic, this concept of body doubling has seen more interest.
This graph shows the number of Google searches for the term “body doubling” over time, relativized to the peak interest the term has ever received. As you can see, body doubling has received a great deal of attention recently. This is likely due to the pandemic, which shifted workers and students into their own homes and therefore reduced the access to body doubling they might have received passively or automatically (e.g. by going to class, sitting in a cubicle next to another employee, etc.), meaning that they now have to actively seek it out.
It also may be related to another trend: ADHD has become a hot topic on social media sites such as TikTok. Body doubling emerged as a strategy to manage ADHD, so this discussion of ADHD might also help to account for the interest in body doubling.
Focusmate Leverages Body Doubling and Community as an Innovation Strategy
However, everyone can benefit from body doubling, which Focusmate is capitalizing on. On the Focusmate website, they lay out how mirror neurons can trigger productive behavior when we see others engaging in that behavior. With the increased interest in body doubling and remote working after the pandemic, Focusmate is garnering more and more subscriptions. Wired magazine even called it a “leading service” in remote coworking.
Indeed, I discovered Focusmate during the pandemic myself, while struggling to focus on my graduate work without the external aids of libraries and coffee shops. I learned about the service from a friend who writes novels in her free time, and uses Focusmate to help her with her creative pursuits. Many of the other users I have been paired with are more similar to me, people who use Focusmate to help them accomplish their professional goals.
In my first year using Focusmate, I logged about 200 hours in front of my camera, doing schoolwork. For $5 a month, the service is accessible to a graduate student (and indeed, many of the Focusmate users I have worked with have been academics, at all stages of career development). At present, the only monetization of the app seems to be through subscriptions. There are no ads.
What Focusmate offers differs from some other online body-doubling services, which often involve joining a large Zoom meeting with many people. Instead, Focusmate connects users on a one-to-one basis. Their true innovation is this one-to-one body doubling, combined with strong community standards for both productivity and behavior.
Initially, as a woman, I was concerned about being connected with men on Focusmate, but after sharing a session with a man when there were no other women available, I realized that there was nothing to worry about. Focusmate really is a community, and I have not witnessed or heard of any inappropriate behavior on the platform.
The way I came to Focusmate is also typical, as many users go on to recommend the app to their friends and family. This is yet another way that Focusmate leverages the development of a community to grow its business.
Finally, some Focusmate users even run Facebook groups that correspond to specific ways to use the app: for example, I am in a group that brings together people who prefer to leave their microphones on and have their partners do the same, as opposed to a silent work session. Focusmate’s focus on community has meant that its users will work for free to improve its product.
Jacobson saw a need for a body-doubling community, and created one. This is the heart of innovation strategy, and it paid off: Jacobson never could have known in 2017 that the pandemic would occur, or that ADHD would become as much-discussed as it currently is online. He merely saw a gap in the market and sought to fill it. He has since been rewarded with a vibrant user base and venture capital funding.
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