I’ve been traveling a lot on business recently, which always impacts my sleep routine. A combination of unfamiliar night noises in strange hotel rooms, multiple time zones, and—yes, I admit—checking my phone when I should be sleeping, has disrupted my sleep cycle.
So when I got back to Los Angeles, I downloaded SleepTown, an app designed to form healthy sleep patterns via a unique, virtual city-building technique. I liked it so much I tracked down the team behind it, Taiwan-based SeekrTech, which also created time-management app Forest.
Here are excerpts of my email conversation with Ting-Yu (Amy) Cheng, cofounder of SeekrTech, followed by my experience testing out the SleepTown app.
You met fellow co-founder Shao-Kan Pi while you were both getting your Masters in Computer Science at National Tsing Hua University, a research university located in Hsinchu City, Taiwan. What inspired you to start building productivity apps?
Forest was born in 2014, when we were still graduate students in Taiwan. Phone addiction has been a well-known phenomenon in the era of smartphones. People kept browsing on their phones and wasting time instead of focusing on important things in their lives. As computer science major students, we believed that we could build a simple app to help people prevent themselves from being glued to their phones.
At first, we came up with a strict approach. We tried making an app that “locks” users’ phones for a period of time. But it seemed too restricted and put extensive pressure on our users. So we came up with another approach: a soft phone locker. Instead of locking users’ phones, Forest lets users plant a tree when they want to put down their phones for a while.
Why do you think the planting digital trees option worked so well?
Because users had to kill their growing trees if they wanted to use their phones before the timer was up.
No one wants to kill a tree.
Agreed. So, with a tree growing, the sense of achievement and responsibility drives the users to stay away from their smartphones on their own. And that’s what makes Forest stand out among other time-management apps.
Then you started planting forests IRL, right?
Yes. Since the virtual objects that represent the focused time in Forest are trees, it gave us the idea of planting real trees on the Earth, which is a unique feature in Forest. When our users redeem real trees with the virtual coins they earned by staying focused, we donate to a real-tree-planting organization, Trees for the Future, to plant real trees.
Can you share any stats?
Since launch in 2014, Forest has helped users save over 65 million hours and planted 200,000+ real trees. Forest has hit the top 1 slot in productivity app categories in 121 countries, been in the top 10 paid app section in 102 countries, featured in 100+ countries’ App Stores, including the main page and productivity category; was chosen as “Best Apps of Google Play” for two years straight, and Apple also included us in their App Store’s TV ad, Amazing Apps[in 2015].
It seems as if you’ve hit on a winning combination for apps that appeal to younger users—improve personal productivity and save the world while doing it. We also interviewed the two African founders of Kaydabi app, who have similar ambitions.
This is the best motivation for us to build great apps, help people live a better life and conserve our environment at the same time. We have also received a lot of positive feedback and reviews from our users regarding how Forest helped them beat their procrastination, get better grades, and even helped them with their depression or ADHD.
When did you “go pro” and set up the company Seekrtech?
After graduation, we continued to develop Forest and make it better, and started our own company, Seekrtech, with six members in our team.
After Forest, for daytime productivity, you moved to slumber tech. Can you explain how SleepTown works?
SleepTown is an app designed to build healthy sleep habits. You set sleep goals, then commit to going to bed on time, and waking up at the right time (we provide alerts and alarms to help you do this). While you sleep, virtual buildings are constructed inside the app on your phone, creating your very own SleepTown—a visual representation of your success. If you achieve your goal consistently, you’ll see rare buildings appear in your SleepTown. As a deterrent, you promise not to use your phone in the intervening hours. Because, if you do, the buildings will be destroyed. In fact, you have to destroy them—just like, within Forest, where you have to kill the trees—in order to use your phone.
What’s next for you in terms of app development?
SleepTown 2.0 just went live with some new key features, including the functionality where users can arrange their buildings and blocks, as well as add decorations to their towns. Next up? We will keep creating more apps which help people seek for a better lifestyle.