Welcome to this edition of our interview series, where we connect with founders on a mission to help us make the most of our mind. Oleg Stavitsky is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Endel, an award-winning app blending art, science and technology that offers personalized soundscapes to help you focus, relax, and sleep.
The team is building Endel based on neuroscientific research — plus, they are big fans of Alan Watts and have collaborated with Grimes — so you can imagine how excited we were to host Oleg for an interview. In this interview, we talked about the science behind Endel, how we can take control back of our biological rhythms, how they are using sound masking to shield us from the distracting noises of city life, how sleep is essential to our productivity and well-being, the importance of creative collaboration, the legacy of Alan Watts, and much more.
And if you’d like to try Endel, use the code “nesslabs” to try the app for 1 month for free. Enjoy the read!
Hi Oleg, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start from the start: what is a soundscape?
The soundscape, as we see it, is an immersive sound experience. Kind of a podcast for your body. Our soundscapes are functional: they primarily help focus, relax, and sleep, but there’s more to add to these basic cognitive states (for example, we have sound scenarios designed to enhance meditation or your household chores).
Endel sounds are adaptive and personalized, tailored in real-time to your environment, physical state, and needs. That’s what makes them so helpful and distinguishes our AI-generated, ever-changing sounds from the numerous ‘static’ playlists on streaming platforms. The sound you hear in the app evolves based on time of day, location, weather, type of movement, and more. Think of it like this: Endel is a soundtrack shaped by the reality of each listener.
And what’s the science behind it?
Endel blends tech, art, and science. Before we approached creating Endel’s AI-powered technology, we had conversations with scientists and researchers. One of the earliest insights we discovered was the power of personalized sound, as mentioned earlier: our consultants agreed that there is no sound that can universally help everyone.
The rest of the scientific underpinnings of Endel are informed by the study of biological rhythms and neuroacoustics.
Circadian and ultradian rhythms are the energy wires of nature. They guide the sleep-wake and rest-activity cycles of all living creatures on earth. Unfortunately, in modern life, our natural cycles are constantly disrupted by external stimuli (noise, climate, stress, etc.). That has a variety of effects, and, for example, can make us feel low energy while it’s still a bright day outside and we ought to be at our most productive.
What Endel does is juxtapose a user’s current state and environment (via the data they share from their phones) with an ideal model of biological rhythms at a given time and place. If there’s a likely lapse, the algorithm harmonizes the user’s mind and body with their predefined biological rhythm using particular sounds (and patterns and effects).
Sound is an environmental feature that can be controlled more easily than light or temperature (though we also plan to eventually extend the Endel concept to embrace these elements). We all know this feeling when we play our favorite song and instantly feel more inspired and energetic. The same goes for ambient soundscapes, but they reach out directly to our brain and the unconscious perceptions that control our bodily functions.
Endel’s non-intrusive sounds are designed to be sparse, undemanding for the brain—because we want to give our minds rest, not more data to process. All soundscapes are based on the pentatonic scale, the oldest, most organic musical pitch, which is found in many indigenous cultures. With their low frequencies, similar to those we feel when we’re in the womb, they comfort and soothe our minds and bodies.
Another neuroscience hack we use is sound masking. It’s nearly impossible to hide from disturbing noises when living and working in the city (or staying at your home/office). Even if you try to impose the music you like over them, the brain still registers it and spends resources. That’s when colored noise can make a difference: by utilizing certain frequencies, it completely hides disturbing buzzes, humming, etc., making them inaudible for our brain and creating a comfortable sound environment instead.
As you just explained, sound affects our mood, our concentration levels, and our sleep. Can you tell us a bit more about sleep in particular?
We value our lives and work so much that we often neglect sleep, seeing it as something that eats up time. Of course, it’s not true; sleep is an integral part of our general and mental health, directly impacting how we feel and perceive things. Sleep deprivation has become tied with our popular culture and its attributes, such as fomo, the cult of achievement, overworking, you name it. Sleep problems grow in their scope, adding to an already endless list of modern-day troubles.
Even if we can’t help with all of them, we focus our effort on creating a tool that improves sleep quality without any extra effort from people who use the app. This is true for the whole Endel ecosystem — people are overwhelmed already, that’s why any additional tool, especially helpful ones, should be as simple and seamless as possible, almost invisible. The lack of rest, partially triggered by poor concentration, is as damaging as the lack of sleep. Hence the selection of the classic soundscapes: Relax, Focus, Sleep.
Our team at Endel was lucky to be consulted by SleepScore Labs. Their Chief Scientific Officer, who personally curated the 2020 update of our Sleep soundscape, was the mastermind behind Night Shift, Bedtime, and more of the sleep-related iOS features embedded into our daily wellbeing routines.
Endel seems to be a massively collaborative project. How did that happen? Was that a choice from the beginning?
As with many great things, it was pure synergy. While everyone was doing their best to accept the new reality of 2020, on a brand level, we also thought about how to maximize the positive impact of our technology, to help more people cope with challenges during the turbulent times. Simultaneously, many artists were seeking ways to support their fans and communities.
Grimes reached out to us via our business network, and we felt that creating a new soundscape with her vocals and music, and our AI, would be a great joint experience. She was a new mother then, with certain sleep issues, and the idea to work on the soundscape to improve parents’ and childs’ sleep was an obvious next step.
Every part of this project was a first, covering what was completely uncharted territory at the time. Thankfully, the feedback from our users and Grimes’ fans was great. Many people found the AI Lullaby beautiful and important for their sleep routines.
So, we decided to amplify the power of Endel technology at the intersection of art and science by adding the voices of other like-minded creatives and visionaries. That’s how the Endel × Artists series began.
Collaboration is essential for creative minds. Luckily, we manage to keep this spirit of co-creation within the team and when working with partners (even as we begin to expand thanks to series B funding).
Those collaborations are amazing. Now, let’s talk about the product a bit more. What’s a feature you’re particularly proud about?
Since the beginning of Endel, we have been creating things that weren’t there before. We even had to run our own research project to validate the benefits of personalized sounds for concentration, because there was no other reliable source. The other important trait of Endel as a group is meticulous craftsmanship. Every single detail of the app or a partnership or a new marketing campaign is discussed, thought through, and tested thoroughly. So, often it is not needed or even recognized, but at the end of the day it contributes to the overall feeling of the product and encourages us as creatives.
Speaking about particular features, if not the brand concept or our patented core algorithm, what jumps to mind are our circadian rhythm widget, scientifically-engineered sleep routine, and the latest addition to the soundscapes library — Study mode!
The Endel widget also lets you see your current and upcoming energy level on your phone’s screen without even opening the app. This is a simple aid for daily planning: you see the energy peaks and go for the next task, and when the energy cycle turns to a fade-recharge zone, just set work aside and enjoy a well-deserved rest.
The Sleep routine scenario starts when you set the alarm within the app:
- The sleep onset introduction plays first to enhance your pre-bedtime rituals and help you drift off.
- Then the Sleep soundscape soothes your mind and body into deep sleep.
- After a proper rest, the alarm wakes you up with gentle, non-intrusive sounds (which can be followed by a proper morning sound scenario).
The Study soundscape is our big September premiere. We designed it for everyone getting back to school this fall. Designed for intense study, it blends Focus and Relax, creating a comfortable sound environment for extended use, which improves the productivity of your study sessions. You can try all of these features for free with the 1-month promo code “nesslabs” (no card needed).
Thank you for the promo code! The Study soundscape will certainly be appreciated by students going back to school this month. Okay, another question: what are some of the most surprising effects you’ve heard about from your users?
Our user community is a huge resource for Endel! We get so much love, empathy, and insights from people who use our app often or occasionally, as well as users that report bugs or minor issues. This feedback is a huge boost for us as a team. So many of the best Endel features were created after consultation with our core users!
And in this case, the result is always beyond the expectations. No matter how big we grow as a business, we plan to always remain as open to any requests and criticisms from Endel users as we were in the first days of the app —when our six co-founders manually mailed out the first beta and addressed the early reviews in the App Store.
I’m a big fan of Alan Watts. Can you tell us about your collaboration with the Alan Watts Organization and why you were inspired to work with them?
Initially, this was my passion project. I rediscovered Alan Watts when playing the beautiful Everything game, created by David OReilly, and brought this idea to the team. We’ve always wanted to experiment with how Endel would tie in with spoken word, since we often hear from our users how they listen to podcasts or have their zoom conversations while Endel is on.
Then we reached out to Mark Watts, son and chronicler of the philosopher, and he loved the idea from the very first suggestion. The rest was easy, and it was a pleasure for the whole team. All of us were listening to Alan Watts lectures when working on the project and it put us in a special mood. Carried away by the man’s wiggly wisdom, we barely noticed when our work was finished.
It got a very warm welcome from our core community; many of our users are executives, and the figure of Alan Watts tends to be very important in Silicon Valley and the rest of the IT world. For example, internet entrepreneur and Endel-investor Kevin Rose suggested hosting a Clubhouse talk about the relevance of Watts’ message in our hectic times. The result was many more beautiful things happened and all details clicked into place like in a poem or a zen koan. When it happens like this, you inevitably get a rewarding result.
Of course, we’re going to premiere more of these spoken word soundscapes; so if Ness Labs readers see someone as a great successor to Alan Watts in the Endel apps, you are welcome to share your candidates at email@example.com!
Thank you so much for your time, Oleg! Where can people learn more about Endel?