ND Founders Profile #138: This FouNDer’s Startup Is Turning Digital Distractions into Clear Space

Author: Melanie Lux

Royce May 24 Fbweb


Company Founded: clearspace Year Graduated: 2018
Title: Co-Founder and CEO Degree: BS, Computer Science & Engineering
Location: San Francisco, CA Residence Hall: Keenan

With his wedding fast approaching, Royce Branning shared some big news with his then fiancé Libby:

“I’m quitting my job in Silicon Valley with Quicken to start a company.”

Given the tenuous emotions of brides-to-be, it would have been totally acceptable if Libby had melted down at this life-altering announcement. Instead, she was cool with it, even after noting his dwindling bank account.

The reason the wedding went off without a hitch to marital bliss is simple, says Branning. “She believes in me.”

And so do plenty of other people who are backing the kid from Menlo Park, California, who earned his entrepreneurial chops when he launched a company at age 15 while in high school called Closet Clicks. “It was my first official entrance into high tech startups,” he says. “My older brother Rich and I took the principles of lean startups and combined a social media experience with ecommerce. If you’ve seen the movie Clueless, it was a lot like Cher’s virtual closet where she browsed possible outfits. we built the interface that solved the problem of buying gifts for people in much the same way.”

When the time came to choose a college, one criterion was high on Branning’s list: the school had to have a strong Computer Science program as he wanted to become more proficient at coding so he could quickly iterate ideas for software and future companies.

There are a number of schools in California with stellar computing programs, but the University of Notre Dame, far, far away in the Midwest, won Branning’s heart. “I was attracted by the rigorous Computer Science and Engineering curriculum but being able to study Philosophy and Theology at the same time was unique. I also loved the subculture of the dorms and served as a resident assistant at Keenan my senior year.”

What really earned his respect was Notre Dame’s faith-based mission and how the university instills students with the goal of being a force for good.

“I admit, I drank the Kool-Aid,” Branning smiles. “People today are confused by why they are doing things and tend to be out for themselves. That’s not the case at Notre Dame. People at Notre Dame orient their lives to do good things. They’re rooted in living out their convictions. I learned what it looks like to pursue excellence for good.”

He also learned to be a pretty good coder. He credits a Notre Dame startup called Vennli with teaching him to build exceptional, real-world software. “Three days a week, I took a bus to downtown South Bends to Vennli’s office where I worked with the senior engineers. I was so engrossed with what I was doing, I didn’t meet other employees outside of engineering.“

”My head was in the code.”

The summer before his senior year, Branning landed an internship with Quicken in Menlo Park, where he added to his coding toolkit. A recent spinout from Intuit, Quicken operated much like a startup, developing personal finance software. The experience appealed to Branning so much, he accepted a full-time role as a software engineer with Quicken immediately after graduating from Notre Dame.

“Thanks to my internship, I had a running start. Two mentors took me under their wings and showed him what projects to double down on. Within weeks of joining, I was given the opportunity to make meaningful contributions,” he says. He was promoted to senior software engineer a little more than a year later.

One of the projects he worked on was Quicken’s first new software release in 20 years, Simplifi, a simple budgeting app. Simplifi was named the best budgeting app in 2020, 2021, and 2022 by The New York Times, a major coup for the company and Branning.

One day, he pulled his head up out of his coding and wondered what it would be like to be an entrepreneur again and start his own company. The thought persisted and he talked with other Notre Dame alumni about it. Three years after landing his dream job in Silicon Valley, he left Quicken to start clearspace

All startups start with a problem to solve. Branning recognized a big one: a huge population enslaved by their smart phone, himself included. “I found myself spending excessive screen time with my phone and wanted to stop. I deleted social apps, put my phone in the other room, went phone free for a couple of weeks. I tried blocking the Internet at different times during the day. Then during COVID, I really grew disgusted by how easily my phone could interrupt me during my workday.”

He adds, “So was everyone else with a  phone.”

Realizing he needed to solve his addiction and help other digital natives do the same, Branning delved into why people can’t simply set their phones aside. He found it is a relationship built on dopamine, a chemical released in the brain that makes people feel good. Every time a phone lights up or pings an alert, the dopamine kicks in and people are powerless to not respond.

“The negative effects are real,” Branning explains. “The addiction to our phones damages relationships, causes mental health issues and results in lost productivity at work. We need to put distance between ourselves and our phones and be less motivated to see what’s there.”

While at Quicken, he began building an early version of the clearspace app as a personal project. But the more he learned and the deeper he got, the more committed he became. He resigned from Quicken in May 2021 to run with clearspace.

Asked why he thought his idea had chops, Branning explains that the clearspace app is not just a cool project, it has a strong business model. “There is a scale at which people are desperately looking for a solution. The pandemic was a social recession that caused screen addiction and a spike in metal health disorders. People want to less time on their phones. I believed clearspace could provide that.”

For 12 months, Branning bootstrapped the clearspace project while working part-time as a freelance developer. The turning point came during a Y Combinator matching platform meetup in July 2022  where he met his co-founder, Oliver Hill. “He had similar ideas about the space, linked up and together poured gasoline on it.”

A co-founder wasn’t the only thing to come from Y Combinator. Branning and Hill were part of the Y Combinator January -March 2023 cohort. After pitching clearspace at the end of the session, the duo secured mission-aligned investors. Pretty quickly, Branning and Hill closed a pre-seed round that gave them plenty of runway to build the more comprehensive attention protection toolset that users have been asking for.

“Up to that point, clearspace was totally bootstrapped, which was fine because we wanted the company to stand on its own. The first few customers found us on the App Store. Soon a small crowd found us. Y Combinator gave us our first real growth spike. To this point, word of mouth and random Internet searches drove our growth. Ironically, social media influencers now find us and when it works for them, they talk about us,” explains Branning.

While anyone with a phone is a potential user, Millennials are the main target. They’ve grown up up on social media platforms and developed decades-long addictions to their devices. They’re also deeply dissatisfied with their screen time and highly motivated to change their behavior.

The clearspace app is a simple, powerfully effective way to stop hours of mindless scrolling and reset one’s digital life. First, users decide which social platforms and feeds they want to avoid. Next, they set limits on the amount of time spent on these platforms. Finally, when they log onto their phone to access a platform, the app enforces an intentional 15-second stimulus response buffer during which time the user decides whether or not to proceed.

This buffer has proven effective in immediately changing behavior. Users often set the phone aside. If they do proceed to the site, their time is limited. The app also has a reporting function that allows users to track progress in reducing screen time.

January 2023 was the last major update to the app and introduced the ability for users to manage their online sessions. Functionality additions and improvements are an ongoing process. As Branning and Hill tweak the software, users are finding the app and putting it to good use. “People want to reach a more balanced state in their lives and not be so dependent on their phones find us. From the feedback we get, we’re improving people’s relationships with their spouses, changing the way they live their lives and how they interact with their kids. Users are super engaged—some write to use every day. The impact we’re having helping people live more balanced lives is what motivates us,” Branning says.

The biggest challenge to date has been scaling the company and building a presence as a brand. “At this point, we’ve been fortunate to grow organically, and it’s a unique challenge to mechanize ghat type of serendipitous engagement so we’re actively engaging with our community and continuing to build trust. Trust is super important. Y Combinator is our Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.,” Branning says.

The biggest win has been realizing they have a real business and they’re providing more value than they are consuming. Recently, they crossed the milestone of saving users 50,000 hours of time they’ve have spent scrolling online. They have also just released a premium paid option and users are converting to it at a high rate.

Says Branning, “Being able to build a business that provides a health service people pay for is really exciting. What an opportunity it is to wake up every day and build software that helps people reduce regrettable time. The opportunity to change lives is huge.”

He also gives credits his wife Libby. “She’s the backbone of my ability to start a company. I couldn’t do it without her feedback, insights and support.”

Branning offers this advice to others who want to start a company that impacts the world in positive ways. “Find something you’d love to spend ten years of your life on, something you can obsess over. You have to care deeply about what you are doing. So far, I’ve spent two years with clearspace, and digital habits are still truly my favorite thing to talk to people about. The vastness of the problem is what is most interesting to me. IT is very hard personally and financially to work on a startup. The wins are the byproducts of patience and time.”