Kevin Holesh was on the run from winter and living out of a RV in Austin when the time finally came to meet the man from Silicon Valley face to face.
On paper, Holesh was a startup founder, with more than a few mentions in the tech press over the years to prove it. In practice, he didn’t look the part. Unlike many of his peers in the twenty-something founder set, Holesh never raised funding from venture capitalists, and he spent little time in the industry’s corridors of power in the Bay Area.
Instead, Holesh operated a one-man business out of the remodeled 188-square foot Momentum Fifth Wheel camper he and his wife and and their four pets have long called home. When he wasn’t kayaking in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or gazing at the rocky coast of the Pacific from the RV’s roof, Holesh built an app called Moment to help people curb excess screen usage by tracking which apps consume the most of their time.
At its core, Moment was “anti-Silicon Valley,” Holesh says. He ran the company on his own terms and focused on tackling “screen time addiction problems created by the big tech companies.” In 2014, when the app launched, that stance was unusual. People were still sleeping peacefully with the belief that their apps and devices — and the technology companies behind them — were generally forces for good. By 2017, that had changed. Suddenly the headlines were all about fake news, election meddling, filter bubbles and technology addiction.
That’s when Holesh received a one-line email out of the blue from Tim Kendall asking him to talk. Holesh didn’t know who Kendall was, but it didn’t take long to find out. Kendall was most recently the president of Pinterest, one of the most valuable startups in the US. Before that, he helped build Facebook’s billion-dollar ad machine as its director of monetization for four years.
Holesh knew Facebook, of course. It frequently topped Moment’s list of the most used apps and also ranked high on the list of apps that made users unhappy. As Holesh recalled recently in an interview with CNN Business, his first reaction to Kendall’s email was: “Oh, is Tim seeking redemption or something for his past sins?”
Little did he know that Kendall had just undergone an awakening of his own, which would lead him to leave his job at Pinterest, delete the Facebook app and commit his time and resources to crusade against what he saw as a phone-addiction epidemic that could “crush” an entire generation.
Three months later, in February, 2018, the unlikely pair sat at a coffee shop along the Colorado River in Austin and hammered out a deal for Kendall to acquire Moment and invest $7 million of his own money in it. No lawyers or M&A team were present. Just one man buying another man’s company, with plans to work together to save us from our screens.
The Silicon Valley insider and outsider team up
The history of the tech industry was written in large part by power duos. Bill Hewlett and David Packard at HP. Bill Gates and Paul Allen at Microsoft (MSFT). Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple (AAPL). For years, the marriage of opposites at Apple (AAPL) served as a recipe for other companies to follow: pair a business savvy founder who can push the brand forward in the public eye with a brilliant technical founder who operates largely behind the scenes.
Holesh, 29, and Kendall, 42, may offer a new template. In an era of growing concern about the unintended consequences of technology, the winning formula to affect change may just be pairing a founder who has an outsider’s perspective of the industry, with a consummate insider like Kendall who speaks its language.
If an artificial intelligence program were tasked with imagining Silicon Valley as a person, it might churn out someone like Tim Kendall. He was known for wearing the same T-shirt daily, with the word “Focus” on it. He periodically tried to hack his life by fasting for a day or taking ice baths in the morning. And his resume included stints at two of the big five tech companies, Amazon and Facebook.
He is also a father of two young children. One day, as he recalled to CNN Business, he found himself “holed up in the pantry” watching videos on his phone while his children were out in the family room. “And I can’t get off my phone,” he remembers.
“I wasn’t mainlining heroin, but I was doing something I knew wasn’t good,” Kendall said. “I had this epiphany that Jesus, this thing is really a problem.”
True to form, Kendall began experimenting on himself. He “radically reduced” his social media usage — eventually deleting apps like Facebook entirely — and checked his email less frequently, which isn’t necessarily ideal for a tech executive. “There are still a lot of people, unfortunately, in Silicon Valley who conflate two-minute response times with intelligence,” he says. “It actually may be counter correlated.”
In November, 2017, Kendall announced he was leaving his job at Pinterest with plans to launch his own company that would tackle the screen time problem. That same month, he reached out to Holesh for the first time and soon began talks to buy Moment.
Moment is “a mission-driven company that is focused on counteracting, quite frankly, a lot of the things that [I] was a part of helping to create,” Kendall says.
“I absolutely see the fault in our thinking,” Kendall said of his work with Facebook in particular. “The thinking was very much like: more more more. More peoples’ attention. More people. More money.”
In his telling, Facebook and others in the industry for too long saw themselves as upstarts doing whatever was necessary to grow. “I think we were all guilty of being Goliath and not realizing it.”
Moment has its moment
Now, five years after Moment launched, even the Goliaths are acknowledging the problem. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company is less focused on boosting the total time spent on its platform than ensuring it is “time well spent.” Apple and Google unveiled tools to track screen time, similar to the original Moment app. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, said it showed he was using his phone too much.
The increased attention to the issue has been a boon to Moment, Kendall says. Thousands of people now download the app daily, despite the company spending nothing on marketing. More than seven million people have used the app so far. And Moment’s data makes it clear the problem isn’t going away. The average American spends nearly four hours a day on their phone and checks it 47 times a day, according to the company.
“I don’t believe the incumbents — Facebook, Apple, Google — have the incentive to actually solve the problem,” Kendall says. He compares some of their efforts to soda companies putting dietary labels on their cans. “It gets them off the hook with regulators, but it has no impact on sales.”
In addition to tracking phone usage down to the app level, Moment now offers guided coaching, options to set up phone-free time for the entire family and a shareable bulletin to tell the world you are about to get off your phone for the next couple hours. Holesh also credits Kendall with getting Moment to focus on the number of times people pick up their phone as a key metric.
Under Kendall, Moment has stopped being a one-man shop. It now has six staffers, with openings for several more, and an office by the San Francisco International Airport. Sometimes you’ll find Holesh there too in his role as head of product.
Beyond shaping the app, he has also shaped Kendall’s work habits. At Facebook, Kendall says, it was “all about how many hours are you going to log. Let’s throw hours at this problem and you will solve it.” Holesh, he says, rejects that thinking outright and advocates for unplugging on weekends and vacations. “I now really go along with how he operates,” he says.
Holesh has been inspired too. On one RV trip to Yellowstone National Park not long after the deal closed, Holesh decided to “be Tim for a week” and “take ice baths in the raging Yellowstone River.” It felt good, he said, but then he took out a thermometer and discovered the water was actually a balmy 68 degrees.
Hacking your habits is hard, whether it’s weening off your phone or immersing yourself in a pool of freezing water.