Tony Stubblebine On The App Guy Podcast

Today I speak with Tony Stubblebine, the CEO and co-founder of Lift, a company working on boosting human potential.

This is a momentous episode for me.


Well, Lift is my favourite app. It's been the driver to changing my life in a positive way. It's done this by simply motivating me to adopt really good habits. I've now achieved over 100 checkins waking up at 5am, going for an early morning walk and living on a low-carb diet.

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Resources: Website / Lift App Android : iOS / Linkedin 

Mentioned: Sunrise App

Transcription of our episode:


Paul:    Welcome to another episode of the app guy Podcast. I am your host, Paul Kemp and this podcast is taking me on a wonderful journey and I’ve had an opportunity to meet some really inspiring individuals. Some founders of great apps.

    I have to say that this next founder is an inspiration to me because he’s done something rather unusual, which is change my life and he’s done that through his awesome app. It’s one of the most mentioned apps on the show. I’m absolutely thrilled to have him. His name is Tony Stubblebine and he is the founder and CEO of Lift.

Lift is the app that I use the most frequently and I’m looking at my check-ins now, Tony and I’ve got almost 100 check-ins for the waking-up at 5AM in the morning and I’ve got over a 100 check-ins for the Paleo Diet. I’ve got about the same for the morning exercise that I do.

Thank you for building such an awesome app and welcome to the app guy Podcast.

Tony:    I’m glad to be here. Props for you on the exercise and the Paleo Diet. I also hope that getting up at 5AM is good for you, but that’s not our pitch. To all of your listeners like, pictures and app that would force you to get up early and lose out on sleep. That’s an optional goal on that.

Paul:    Yes, I’m going to say. It’s not the best pitch that I’ve done for the app. I mean, I can only imagine it attracts about 5% of people listening.

Tony:            I was looking at our most popular goals on Lift. Lift has almost 200,000 different active goals. But it sort of follows the power ones so you get to learn about what people really want to do in life and there’s a lot about sleep.

            About half of the people are trying to get up early and the other half are trying to not to stay up late. Which, I think they're related.

Paul:            This is interesting. We’re going to have to go through your top 5 ‘The most active habits you have.’ Anyone listening, I just feel, like, pause the Podcast.

            If you haven’t used Lift, go and pause the Podcast now. Download it and comeback to it because it’s basically a habit forming app.

            What are the top habits then, Tony?

Tony:            You actually learn a lot about people. So, the top 5, the no.1 – drink more water, which I think of it as an incredibly trivial goal. I think a lot of people choose it because it’s easy. And I think it actually tells you something about, what we were told Science Behavior design.

            That if you have a goal, in order to do it, you’re going to have to actually practice in order to achieve that all, right?  You have to make a behavior change. We think of our job as helping you be superhuman, by helping you make those changes in your life.

            One of the things that correlate to success is any momentum. Drink more water by being a very simple goal. It gives a lot of Lift users a momentum. It’s followed by the 2nd most popular. Probably what most people would have guessed, to exercise looks like abs. More than a hundred seventy seven thousand people tracking that. Fourth is read. Fifth is meditate.

            Or 3rd is read, then fourth is meditate, and fifth is sleeping at midnight. I know when I first saw this list I was surprised by how high meditate looks up on that list. I just think like what we’re seeing there is a goal that is becoming more main stream and just no one realizes it yet.

Paul:            I’ve had some guests on the show many episodes ago, we were talking about meditation. In fact, I did a meditation app as a joined venture partnership with one of the guests. I think it is becoming a lot more attractive. Have you got any sense of why people are bringing meditation in to their lives?

Tony:            Yeah I do actually. In fact, we got so interested in meditation that we started writing a book on it. The hook that got to us, was we were meeting people who think of meditation as a performance practice.

            Sort of like, how do you… a lot of people go to the gym to train their body but what do you do to train for mental strength? Turns out that meditation is one of the ultimate ways of that you can train mental strength. It trains awareness, it trains control of focus and it trains for calmness, which puts you in a better state for using your brain ultimately.

            I always thought of meditation as spiritual practice and still completely valid to treat it as a spiritual practice. Then I started running into professional athletes to hedge fund managers, to entrepreneurs who are telling me that meditation is a competitive advantage.  

            That’s when it kind of donde to me that it’s creeping into kind of a more pragmatic segment of the population.

Paul:            Right, okay because you are talking to a bunch of Indie app developers and entrepreneurs. Do you have any sense when you get this list together? You can see which are popular, for example meditation. Can you actually segment by type of career or the occupation that the people have because development work is obviously very mental?

Tony:            For sure! I feel like, especially probably a lot of your listeners, when they were just developers for someone else. I don’t actually know how they would feel. I know when I became an independent developer, I just suddenly had a lot more of interruptions in my life and so one of the things that I needed help with was multitasking.  I’m really getting back in to the flow of coding after an interruption and of something that I’ve done to that using meditation for personally.

            You can trace it back as a solution to procrastination as a way to get around multitasking. We see people use it for creativity. Forgetting in a flow is a big one which everyone who’s a coder should appreciate the value of it. It’s just kind of funny duality that does most of it. It’s like one being able to recognize the subconscious thoughts that are cluttering in your mind; somebody will call that monkey mind and then being able to do something about it to exercise control.

            When we train meditation, Lift actually has a whole section of guided meditations. When we explain meditation to people we explain it like weight lifting. When you’re weight lifting you are just lifting a weight over and over and over again but when you’re meditating specially the most common breath-centered mindfulness meditation. Well, you’re actually training is recognizing what when your mind just wandered and exercising control to bring your focus back to your breath.

            A lot of people who are failing on meditation get really upset that their mind wanders. They think that means they’re failing. In fact, that’s the whole point of meditation when you’re treating it as a performance practice. Is that you’ve want to catch your mind wandering. The more times you can catch your mind wandering, the more repetitions that you do, the stronger you get at becoming aware and then exercising control. That’s the secret to mental performance. Do I make sense?

Paul:            I was actually losing my trainer thought as you’re going through this so I do need to actually put that down as one of the habits on Lift. I’m really into meditation. I’m trying to do it but clearly some other girls are getting a little bit in the way.

            How many goals do people tend to, on average, set on the Lift App?

Tony:            I would say, we would recommend 5 to 8. That’s the number you can keep track of. It usually means that you have 1 or 2 that you’re making progress on every day. That keeps you in contact with all your other goals.

            We definitely have some group of Lift users who are tracking somewhere between 50 and a hundred. I think those people are just sort of obsessively organized and that’s what I would use as well. Put together every aspect of your life and really stay disciplined to it. I think for the average user and this is how I use Lift, I try to stay focus on 5 to 8 important things at a time.

Paul:            You mentioned something in our chat earlier which was procrastination. I just wanted to appeal to the apps to try. Thinking about or working on App ideas taking them months and months and months to actually get any kind of prototyping.

            Is it true that you built the first iteration of Lift within 4-hours?  

Tony:            Not 4-hours. That’s interesting, almost. I saw a talk about gamifying every aspect of life and it suddenly dawned on me. If I could build an app that gamified my own life, that I would be able to get rid of procrastination in my own life.

            The original app started out as sort of a burst of inspiration, but the inspiration was to get rid of procrastination everywhere else because you can’t rely on inspiration every day. When hicks take advantage to it but you really want to organize the rest of your life to not rely on that.

            Luckily my spouse was out of town, so I think I coded 3 straight 20 hour days of just none stop coding. I was taken with this idea.

            I always build the first version of something for myself, which I’m a big believer in kind of MVP like having a ‘Minimum Valuable Product’. To me that first MVP is for yourself because there’s so much of the product that you get to leave out. You just know conceptually that you don’t have to explain it to a new user. A lot of the concepts could kind of remain abstract in your head.

            I never know that something is a good idea or bad idea and so I use it. That’s why for me that MVP is so important. I never really have a sense of whether or not other people are going to like until I see them use it. So I’m just always in a rush to get some version out to other people.

            It’s pretty common people are afraid to actually put their app out to other people. That’s something that you hear?

Paul:            Yeah. We’ve had so many of the guests say -- a few episodes before you we had a guest who had 7 years in the making of his idea. I just want to take this moment to reiterate to the audience that here you are, your wife goes out of town, I mean that is a very productive 3 days because you created an app which has taken the world by storm. You’re talking about hundreds and thousands of different habits. It just shows what we can achieve if we really try and build something for our own. Because I guess you build it for yourself, really first.

Tony:            You know my favorite review of anything I’ve ever built is -- there’s a company before this that built a ‘Create your own Social Network’ company, it was web based. I’ve signed a lot of it to conference but when I first put out a release someone reviewed it and they said, “This looks like it was built by a 13 year old with a learning Rails book”.

            At first I thought it was a super harsh assessment but then I realized that I just like I done it completely right. I put a test out there with really just the bare minimum. From that task I could see what worked and what didn’t work and ended up building business that lasted for 4 years based off a 1 positive signal we got in that task.

            I can’t stress enough the value of putting something out to a small group of people because, if you’re obsessed with perfection, that’s how you get there, right? Perfection comes from refinement and you can’t refine something without feedback on it.

Paul:            That’s one of the big long standing themes throughout this whole series of hundred and seventy plus episodes is to do a minimum valuable product, get it out, but get feedback on it as much as you can. I’m guessing, did you pivot at any point in time? That’s another big thing to do something’s working in pivot.

Tony:            Oh yeah, a bunch of times. One of our investors has a saying; it took him 10 years to become an overnight success. I feel it’s very Lifty with Self-improvement Company for us to be as honest as possible about the hard work that goes into success.

            The history of Lift is for an entire year it was just a personal project that was working for me and not working for anyone else that I showed it to. Eventually, I showed it to my old boss, Evan Williams, who’s now pretty well known as the founder of Medium, of Twitter and a blogger. But he had been my boss before he had just left Twitter and I wanted his advice.

            I kind of told him conceptually what I wanted to do and said build this thing and it works for me but it doesn’t work for any other people. I told him how it worked for me and he just became obsessed with it and said, “Listen, we should team up. I’ll help you with the product side of it. We’ll figure out a way to do it”.

            So, then we spent a year working together to try to find some way to take my kind of interesting project and make it something that anyone would like. That was a series of pivots. First of all, we’ve pivoted a way from game application, try to make it more social and if for our scenario sort of a fantasy of a game didn’t work because in self-improvement people already have fantasy based on their own life. If you can kind of make that more real for them, it’s more motivating than anything that we’ve ever done that is gamified.

            Then we pivoted from the web to mobile. We started on the web because it’s where I was most comfortable and I felt like its fastest place to prototype. But just like that really didn’t make sense until we moved it to mobile, which made it more contextually appropriate. Then, I also made it like 4 sets to really simplify what we were doing.

            Then I would say again like we’re almost in, it might feel a little bit like a pivot what’s going on right now where we have an app that is working and it’s popular.

            It needed one more thing in order to really work as a business and so, we’re about to launch a market place of coaches where we’ve been recruiting coaches. Lift users who’ve been successful and offering them a chance to be coaches. It looks like we’re almost getting ready to unleash an army of almost 25,000 coaches on the world coaching maybe 10, 15,000 different goals. You’re doing it at a price that turns Lift into a real business, but also makes coaching really accessible. So, we’re planning to do the first wave of coaching at $14.99 a week, which if you ever considered a coach before and saw the actual price of hundreds of dollars just to sit with someone for an hour. I think you’ll realize how accessible we can make coaching.

Paul:            Yeah, I mean that’s the one point I wanted to talk about because it’s how we came to get you on the show. You kindly emailed me and I sat through the webinar on coaching. Fascinating webinar, it really is interesting.

            So everyone listening right now, if you want a potential revenue stream. If you want to do some extra coaching, then check out the Lift and the coaching aspect of it and I’ll put some links in the show notes on the app on your episode – Episode 172 Tony.

Tony:            I’m curious, how in your world do you consider what we’re doing a pivot or just an expansion?

Paul:            Probably an expansion. It seem a very sensible one because it just seemed to be a really good fit. I think one of the big challenges is convincing a lot of people that they have it in them to be a coach because there’s this almost imposturous syndrome that we all suffer from. My feedback on this Podcast in the early days was pretty poor. I felt maybe I haven’t got a Podcast in me but here we are in a hundred and seventy two episodes.

            It’s trying to encourage people to overcome the imposturous syndrome that is the clear challenge you have in getting people into the coaching side of it, is that fair?

Tony:            You know, I’ve been really surprised by how many people have made it to be coaches. I think a lot right now in terms of funnels. So if you think of the start of the coaching funnel as someone signs up for Lift. And then we’re only approaching people that have achieved success in Lift so then the funnel there is great. We had to retain them. A person has to actually demonstrate success.

            Then we send them an email which anyone has ever sent an email before they notice that that’s a big drop off in the funnel. What percentage of the people do you believe has seen that email? The email says, "Hey! You’ve been successful in this goal. We’ve found that that expertise can be really helpful to other people. Would you consider paying it forward, sharing with other people? If you would, would you come to this training that we’re only offering basically at a time that’s convenient for me personally. That fits into my schedule." We’ve been offering this training to 10 AM Pacific Time once a week.

            Every time we’ve sent this e-mail out, basically the funnel there is down to 1% of Lift users who sign-up for the app will end up being a coach. Which is just actually a crazy high number if you think about it, right?

Paul:            What was sort of number, I mean I don’t know how many users are using Lift but I can imagine it’s pretty high.

Tony:            That’s what we think, we’re going to have 10’s of thousands of coaches. Today we have 200, slowly been rolling it out to various sub groups. But it really to us it looks like we’re going to put just thousands and thousands out in the world.

            I think what attracts people is that there’s not a lot of opportunities in the world to actually make a difference in people’s lives. It is an extra stream of revenue. We have a couple of dozen coaches that are making a couple of thousand dollars a month right now. But the feedback we always get back is just that, they’ve never had more fulfilling work. That’s kind of my take away with Lift and my big goal and starting the second company.

            I wanted to feel like I wasn’t wasting my time here. That’s been effective running Lift for me; it’s a constant stream of people saying that we help change their life.  

            I’ve got good feedback on other projects but no feedback that said that before. That’s the feedback that we got from coaches, that no matter how successful they’ve been in some other part of their lives they’ve never had a chance to like really do something that is as meaningful as training someone’s life.

Paul:            You’ve changed my life in a start. I’m sure hundreds and thousands of people feel the same.

            There are 2 more things we try to squeeze in before we say goodbye. Tony, one is that you’re someone who has worked alongside as you say Evan Williams the founder of Twitter. He must have a few ideas we love to try and flush out an idea for an App from you. If you have an idea that you can share with us, then great. What’s your idea?

Tony:            This is my funny one. It just doesn’t jive with what I do with Lift. It’s a little bit cynical but I actually personally would like it. Internally when I talk about with friends we call it, ‘Fake friend’ and the idea is that it automatically sends out the birthday messages on Facebook and stars, likes and favorites, your friends post across various social networks. Just makes you be a really supportive friend. Do I make sense?

Paul:            Okay. I’ve actually got quite a few apps that have the web faken them. Like Fake-A-Bite is one of my popular ones. So I’m really into this. You saying then you become a fake friend by sending out all these fake congratulations and birthday messages?

Tony:            The basic idea is to have an agent working on your behalf. Technically that’s what you’re thinking of; it’s building an agent who works on your behalf. And it’s like things that I noticed, like I don’t check my Instagram and like the most popular social network that just doesn’t work for me. I don’t have time for it. And all of my friends that are active in Instagram I just really have no contact with them. I just like a light bit of contact across the world of my social network to keep everyone in touch.

            Really, I think to me that first of all. Two things; I think this app would be successful. Everything I know about social media marketing is that this would really improve your presence across your social networks. But then at a personal level what it does is it just addresses the things I do that I have, that by working as much as I do, I might lose all my friendships.

            I don’t have time. I don’t get all my birthday messages out. I don’t see everyone’s posts. I don’t comment on posts. I don’t star posts. I don’t like posts. I’m just not as active as I would be if I wasn’t running my own company. There’s an idea.

Paul:            I love that idea because what I worked very hard on doing is I send out personal audio messages to people randomly or people that follow me. And the feedback I’ve had is just phenomenal. Getting a personal audio message from me, for example, when they followed me or they’ve commented on there something just blows them away. So I would love a way of scaling that up, somehow. But not to the extent where you can just tell it’s a bot or an automated response because they turn people off.

            I feel that there’s an app idea here. You’re talking to a bunch of Indie app developers so hopefully someone is going to take that on board.

Tony:            I think it’s a good Indie app because there’s an edge market where you can charge for it. And if it will, it was never done at any major sort of venture scale; there just have to be effect of getting block.

            But you kind of want to fly under the radar enough that people aren’t suspicious and the major services aren’t trying to shut you down.

Paul:            Yes. I love it. Well that’s a great app idea. So the final thing is…

Tony:            The opposite of Lift.

Paul:            I wasn’t expecting that one but we value your ideas. So the final question then is someone who has a busy life and you obviously love apps. Could you give us an idea of any apps that you’re using right now on your smart phone that maybe we’ve not have heard of? One or two apps you can perhaps tell us about.

Tony:            Absolutely! I’ve got my screen in front of me. I did switch over to sunrise for my calendar. I’m a big fan of a… and this is funny. You don’t hear people say that their fans of calculator apps. But I’m a big fan of numerical which is like, kind of keeps the history of everything that I’ve typed in which is this very simple additional feature that makes eyeballing whether or not I made a mistake a lot easier.

            But for the most part I actually really simplified my app usage. I was using a lot of different apps that I just crammed all of those used cases into Evernote. So I’m probably a huge Evernote user compared to most people. I moved my To-Do list in there. Most of my book marking I moved into there and all of my drafts moved in there.

            The kind of apps that I would like to see, actually, is more clients of Evernote. People actually get real high quality user interface design. I like the draft mode of Medium and I’d love to have that for Evernote.

            There’s one more which I think a lot of people have probably know about it but it seems like they have forgotten. I’m a big Prismatic user which is essentially my feed reader. I got tired of subscribing to specific feeds and I’d rather subscribe to specific topics. So Prismatic, that’s basically how it works, it goes and find articles on the topics that I like.

Paul:        I have to say it's a very ironic end to the show. I did start off by saying you         were among one of the app that was the most mentioned app and that's             Evernote. Here's the founder of Lift saying he uses Evernote all the time.             That's just reinforcing that app.