|Notre Dame Company Run:||Ritual||Company Status:||Growing|
|Company Location:||New York City||Year Founded:||2019|
Lord knows, we’ve all been stressed out these last ten months. And while some have turned to pets, food, and family to cope with the social and economic disruptions wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of people are finding solace in a mobile app called Ritual, launched in early 2020 with a little help from the Notre Dame IDEA Center.
Ritual co-founder and CEO Connor Toohill knows a thing or two about stress. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 2014, he headed to South Africa to teach entrepreneurship at African Leadership Academy. Although he loved his work, Toohill struggled with anxiety. He came to rely upon wellbeing practices like meditation, contemplative prayer, and personal reflection to return to his emotional and spiritual center.
The experience led him to reconnect with Matt Bloom, an associate professor in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. During his undergrad years, Toohill had many conversations with Bloom and Fr. Daniel Groody about well-being and purpose within one’s life and career. These conversations evolved into plans to develop curriculum for a class called The Heart’s Desire and Social Change. Several years later, Toohill received a call from Bloom who had received $8.7 million in research grants to study well-being and wanted to share that research with the world.
“Matt had learned a tremendous amount about the nature of wellbeing, which we understand as all the elements of our mental, emotional and spiritual health. We began to explore the opportunity to build a social enterprise that would bring wellbeing insights to the world,” Toohill recalls. “I was definitely onboard.”
All companies start with an idea but translating that into a successful commercial venture is challenging to say the least. Discussions between the eventual co-founders, Toohill, Bloom and Dante Doig-Acuña continued and eventually solidified into Ritual, a central mobile platform for wellbeing practices. Ritual’s practices are guided by experts in a wide range of disciplines, from renowned spiritual leaders to social scientists to cultural influencers.
“The status quo in the wellbeing space is that everything is very niche – so if you want to engage with a new type of wellbeing practice, you have to download a new app and purchase a new subscription. It’s not the best way to help people look after their wellbeing, which is why Ritual brings together a diverse community of experts and shares a variety of practices so that people can select and customize a wellbeing routine that is right for them.”
As the idea evolved into a product, Toohill and Bloom took the next step, turning to the IDEA Center. “We had a sense of the platform that we wanted to build. We went to work with the IDEA Center to actually start standing this up as a company.”
Much of that work focused on validation and de-risking the concept. For this, Toohill leaned heavily on Ben Hoggan, who manages the IDEA Center’s Problem Validation team. “Ben had us run multiple validation campaigns, in which we interviewed over 100 potential end-users and dozens of potential experts for our platform. We were astounded by the results; if we could build this, the level of interest in it was incredibly high.
Adds Toohill, “The work we did with the IDEA Center was critically important for a young company. Ben and his team brought rigor to our thinking which allowed us to validate our thesis and develop our go-to-market strategy.”
Ultimately, the IDEA Center’s Pit Road Fund became one of the early investors in Ritual and in late March 2020, Ritual launched its beta app with its first eight content partners, experts in multiple spiritual and wellbeing practices. Users can download the app on iOS or Android and pay a monthly subscription fee to access all of Ritual’s guided audio content.
Keep in mind the Ritual team conceived of their platform before the COVID-19 pandemic. Toohill and his co-founders had launched with the intention of helping people through day-to-day wellbeing challenges. Little did they know they were about to throw people a wellbeing lifeline during a lockdown.
“We initially thought Millennials would be our core audience, but we have been really surprised that many women in their 50s and 60s have also emerged as Ritual super users. People are looking for ways to look after their wellbeing and having access to Ritual can help. We have found that many users initially come in for one practice and then branch out to others, in effect creating a custom wellbeing journey,” he says.
The pandemic also accelerated the recruitment of expert content providers. The team plans to have 25 content partners on the platform by the end of 2020. Given the positive reception from various experts, that goal will soon be realized.
A big selling point of Ritual to content partners is its guided audio format. The pandemic temporarily halted many live events, creating opportunities for wellbeing and spiritual leaders to collaborate with Ritual. “These are people who help others live better lives; that’s their passion and livelihood. Many already had books, podcasts, and roles at universities. Some had large followings on social media. Very few were doing guided audio. Ritual gives them a new way to amplify their message. And that was even more important during COVID-19 when people needed their guidance,” Toohill says.
Ritual’s value proposition is very much a two-way street. Content experts get a new and exciting platform on which to share their wisdom; high quality, complementary peers; exposure to new followers; and a royalty split on subscription revenue. Ritual gets a dynamic and diverse line-up of content partners, exposure to their existing social media audiences, and most importantly, the chance to enable a transformative impact on wellbeing.
Recently, Ritual released a collaboration with Chloe and Maud Arnold—tap dancers and choreographers with an Instagram following of more than 200,000. Their Joyful Movement in Daily Life series is already a hit. Also popular is Lectio Divina: Daily Prayer with Kathleen Cahalan, a professor of practical theology at St. John’s University.
“COVID-19 brought forward the innate generosity of people in the wellbeing field, and their willingness to share their wisdom at a time when people really need it,” Toohill says.
This year has also proved the Ritual thesis: people want help with their wellbeing and find immense value in being able to access that help in one place. Toohill and his co-founders are now “tinkering” with the platform: adding features, expanding the content library and experimenting with their acquisition channels.
Looking ahead to 2021, Toohill and the Ritual team are preparing for massive growth. In the meantime, he’s practicing his own daily ritual: listening to one of his Ritual favorites, Spirituality in Everyday Life with bestselling Christian author Barbara Brown Taylor.
“The wisdom is incredible,” he says.
If you are interested in leading a Notre Dame startup like Connor Toohill did, please visit this page for more information.