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Why Did a Timer Go Viral?

How Calm got 2M visits from a 2-minute timer.

Hey — It’s Nico.

This is Behind Tactics 🧠, the Failory newsletter where I share the strategies behind the best startups.

In this issue:

  • How Calm went viral by building the simplest website ever.

  • Why building a separate product just to go viral makes sense.

  • What the Million Dollar Homepage teaches about viral products.

  • How to apply this strategy to your startup by finding a fun, unique, and shareable idea that is related to your business.

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The Strategy

Do Nothing

In 2011, the meditation app startup Calm launched a website called donothingfor2minutes.com as part of their pre-launch marketing campaign.

The concept was brilliantly simple: it featured a two-minute timer that asked users to sit still and do nothing. If users moved the mouse or used the keyboard, the timer would reset, starting the two minutes over again. If they managed to do nothing for two minutes, they would win the challenge and receive a congratulatory message.

The idea was unique, funny, and surprisingly challenging, which highlighted the point Calm was trying to make: in our fast-paced, constantly connected world, we are not used to "doing nothing" for even the smallest period of time. This challenge resonated with many people, sparking curiosity and engagement.

Overnight, the site went viral. It spread rapidly through social media and word of mouth, attracting thousands of early customers to Calm. The campaign was an astounding success: with just a few hours of work and a simple yet effective idea, Calm achieved viral status.

This influx of attention not only brought significant traffic to their site but also positioned Calm as an innovative and thoughtful brand in the meditation space, setting a strong foundation for their future growth.


  • It was featured by mainstream media like TechCrunch and HuffPost.

  • It went viral on Hacker News.

  • It got 2M unique visits in 10 days.

  • It got Calm 100k+ emails.

Going Viral

Calm's founder, Alex Tew, knows how to make a website go viral. He has a track record of creating attention-grabbing online experiences that resonate with people and spread like wildfire across the internet.

In 2005, when he was in college, Alex built the Million Dollar Homepage with the ambitious goal of "becoming a millionaire in two weeks." The site was just a blank canvas with 1 million pixels, and Alex aimed to sell each pixel for $1, allowing advertisers to buy space and display their own images and links.

The Million Dollar Homepage went viral, spreading through forums, blogs, and news outlets worldwide. People were intrigued by the novelty and simplicity of the concept. In just four months, Alex had sold every pixel, achieving his goal of becoming a millionaire and securing a place in internet history.

When developing Calm, Alex wanted to replicate the virality he had achieved with the Million Dollar Homepage. But how do you make a meditation app go viral? A site like the Million Dollar Homepage just begs to be talked about and shared, but meditation isn't as naturally eye-catching.

The answer is simple: you don't try to make your meditation app go viral directly. Instead, you create something different: a new site or product. It has to be simple but unique enough to catch attention. It should be funny, sharable, and somehow connected to your core business.

In this regard, the donothingfor2minutes.com site ticks all the boxes:

  • Simplicity: It is extremely simple to make. Any developer can put it together in a couple of hours.

  • Uniqueness: How many websites just ask you to do nothing?

  • Shareability: It's a bit absurd and funny, making people want to share it on social media and see if they can pass the "challenge."

  • Relevance: It is connected to meditation and might even convince people to meditate more. If you find it hard to do nothing for two minutes, meditation could help you.

Should I?

Why This Works

  • It can drive a lot of traffic and help you collect emails. This can be extremely valuable early on. It starts building brand awareness and provides an opportunity to engage with potential customers. 

  • It can help you validate an idea. When Alex started Calm, he targeted the 93% of Americans who didn't meditate. Building a product like donothingfor2minutes.com helped him validate a broad interest in disconnecting and meditating, not just from people already interested in meditation but from general internet users. This feedback was crucial in shaping the direction of Calm.

  • It takes no time to build. It’s a super simple website he probably built in less than five hours. The minimal time investment for potentially massive returns makes such projects incredibly efficient and worthwhile.

How to Apply It

  • Come up with a viral idea: Think of something a little bit absurd or controversial. A great name and something unexpected that's simple to explain can go a long way in capturing people's interest.

  • Be time-relevant: Creating something related to a current event can be a great way to achieve virality. For example, three hours after the Bush Shoeing incident, Alex built a simple game related to it, which got over 9 million visitors.

  • Promote a lot: Alex shared it on Twitter, promoted it on Hacker News as a challenge, and worked with a TechCrunch reporter to get featured on the site. Once you get one piece of PR coverage, you have a good chance of being featured in others as well.

  • Add some social sharing virality loop: Every time someone finished the challenge, they were suggested to share on social media that they had completed it. This encouraged others to participate and share their success, further spreading the word.

Yes, But

  • High risk: There is a big chance that the new site or product will not go viral. Therefore, you should minimize the time and resources spent on it. This is why finding a simple idea is key. It is better to try different small ideas than to spend a lot of resources on one big project that might not go viral.

  • Hard to convert: It was not easy for Calm to convert the emails they gathered into paying customers. Most of the people who subscribed to the email list were just interested in the challenge but knew nothing about meditation.

  • Audience mismatch: There is a risk that the viral content may attract a broad audience that isn't aligned with your target market. While the campaign might generate significant traffic, the visitors may not be genuinely interested in your core product or service. This mismatch can lead to low engagement once the product is launched.

Keep Learning

Others Playing It

Before launching their product, Codecademy released a New Year challenge called Code Year.

It was a simple site where people could subscribe to add "learn to code" to their New Year’s resolutions. Codecademy would send lessons each week to everyone who subscribed. They got over 400,000 subscriptions.

This is a great example of being time-relevant. The site went viral because it was New Year’s, and everyone was making their resolutions.

Another example is Toucan, a language-learning Chrome extension that changes some words on every site you browse.

To go viral, they created the Own the Word product. The idea was to let users "own" a specific word, which would be shown to everyone using the Toucan extension.

This unique and engaging concept helped generate buzz and attract attention to their product.

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