it's over / we're so back: Potential 2024
Burnout, Apple, Daylight, Acquisitions, and LLMs
this is Welf, the founder of Potential.
We just published the first update in 14 months on the App Store. This post tells the story of what happened since we launched in 2022, and what’s next.
Here’s the TL;DR
I burned out
I worked on influencing Apple to prioritize Attention
Potential was acquired by Daylight, a calm computing company making a better kindle, at the end of 2022
After contributing to product, design and brand, I left Daylight 9 months later
I took a sabbatical, and faced some of my demons
After a long process, we finally negotiated the release of Potential IP
Which led to my decision to renew my commitment to Potential
—and exciting plans for 2024!
it *was* over
By summer 2022, I was burnt out.
We had launched the beta, even had our first couple hundred customers, but things were rough internally…
My co-founder Oliver had left a few months earlier, the team I had hired wasn't working out very well under my leadership, and we were running out of money.
Too much of my ego was wrapped up in the company. I was too identified with it, too idealistic and ideological, too insecure.
Looking back, the #1 mistake I made was to keep obsessing over product instead of shifting my focus to marketing. As they say, burn out happens from a lack of progress and momentum.
At the same time, I had just arrived in San Francisco where I got to meet many new people and their ideas for the future of computing.
Some collaborators suggested I should talk directly to Apple — to bring my design philosophy and skills there, possibly through an acquisition.
Attention and Apple
Intrigued by the idea and the promise of a bunch of introductions, I got to work. Building on our 2021 concept iOS 15 Humane, I put together Attention Settings and Attention & Apple, comprehensive concepts for how Apple could prioritize attention throughout its products.
Around the same time I was also introduced to a startup working on a next-gen paper tablet. Picture a synthesis of a Kindle and an iPad Pro, that's what Daylight aims to create — capable yet focused, delightful yet distraction-free.
If you’ve used a Kindle before, you know that E-Ink screens are too slow to support truly enjoyable software experiences. Daylight is the first company to bring a paper-like screen to market that’s as fast as regular displays.
This means, for the first time, you can have actual software and great user experiences, on a paper-like device.
You get to run apps, work with PDFs, and do all the things that computers are great at, while keeping the benefits of E-Ink: less stimulating, no blue light, less eye strain, usable in the sun, doesn’t mess with your circadian rhythm, etc.
For me, it was an opportunity to reimagine human-computer interaction, starting with a blank sheet of paper.
It also seemed like a natural place to bring the vision behind Potential to life: imagine starting your day with a magical piece of paper; with meditations, fitness apps, and your journal all in one place; without a highly stimulating screen, free from notifications and endless distractions — just you and your magical journal.
People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.
— Alan Kay
Once I allowed myself to dream beyond the confines of an app, at the level of the operating system, it was hard to go back.
At the same time, actually getting meetings with people at Apple took forever, and the more I learned about the realities of the culture within the company, the less appealing it seemed.
“It's more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”
— Steve Jobs
We negotiated an acquisition for Potential, so that I could join Daylight to help design the operating system.
This is the moment we should have sent out an email to all Potential users, informing you that this happened. Unfortunately, there were a bunch of open legal questions, and the company was still in stealth mode, so we were unable to share any details. It also wasn’t clear to what extent we’d continue developing Potential. So we didn’t. My sincere apologies.
After nine months of working with the team, contributing to product, design, and brand — I made the difficult decision to leave; something I previously had not considered once.
I came in with the sense of ownership, drive, and care of a founder; I had a vision for what the product and company could become. I was too invested, the stakes were too high, I cared too much.
Internal company dynamics were complex. Interpersonal challenges made it hard for me to do the work I signed up for. I needed to move on.
Daylight will be launching later this year and I’ll share more info when the time is right…
The Sabbatical, feeling lost, reclaiming Potential
The first three months of the summer were wonderful. Between Berkeley and Portugal, I got to spend lots of time in community, in nature, in spiritual practice. I also fell deeply in love, which turned out to be a rather painful opportunity for personal growth…
By August 2023, I was back in Berlin, eager to be back in the world, to do my thing, to figure out work. For a few weeks, I wrote and published daily at monastic.substack.com, in an attempt to articulate my philosophy of what it takes to cultivate high-quality attention in the context of this noisy world of ours.
September was when things started to get challenging, as I was still, well… unemployed and starting to run out of money. I simply could not get myself to just get a job, or otherwise do work that wasn’t an expression of something I deeply believed in.
With Potential still caught up in Daylight, I felt unable to resolve the past year into a story that made sense to me or anyone else, which made it hard to put myself out there.
By October, I finally found my way back to working on Human-Computer Interaction, and wrote up my thesis on Relational Alignment. In short, computers and agents should support your capacity for self-determination — that’s what it would mean for them to truly be on your team.
November felt like I hit rock bottom. I joined an ayahuasca retreat that proved both absurdly challenging and profoundly healing, followed by intense weeks of integration.
Beginning of December I finally found an agreement with Daylight, and the Potential IP was released. I then got very sick shortly thereafter. My depression peaked in the days before christmas, along with my tendencies for digital addiction.
Then, on December 23rd, I was done with being lost.
I set up my Potential again, and with every completed intention I found both relief, and appreciation: We had made something that was helping me in meaningful ways.
I went from days of depression and 12+ hours of screen time to working out again, stretching, meditating, getting work done, feeling good about myself, feeling good about life.
With these small experiences of agency, came hope. Maybe I can figure this out. Maybe I did all this work for a reason, and maybe I can build on it. On Christmas Eve, I realized:
I must bring Potential back to life.
Clarity, purpose, and optimism have been coming back to me ever since.
In these 18 months, the world of technology changed forever.
It’s now possible to build products and experiences that are much more powerful, in completely new ways; and the limit is a) our imagination, and b) our model of the world, the human experience, and our ideas for what’s worth building.
There many talented teams working on personal assistants and lots of related things … but most of the ideas driving their work are shallow, most of the visions of how Human-Computer Interaction should evolve are relatively meaningless.
I believe Intentionality and Behavior Change continue to be some of the hardest human problems. There’s a remarkable gap between the information and actionable wisdom available on the internet — and the lives that most people live.
The average American is likely to be obese, divorced, and have less than $1,000 in their bank account.
Privilege and inequality are real, and yet it’s possible for individuals to take actions that profoundly improve the quality of their own lives.
Good health and prosperity don’t happen by accident —
and I believe that the average person, if they had better executive function, better attention, and the ability to align their behavior with their intentions… they’d be no longer be average people by today’s standards; and they’d be radically more empowered to create meaningful lives for themselves.
we *are* back
I believe augmenting human attention and intentionality is one of the most interesting frontiers in HCI, and a super promising use case for LLMs.
Potential is exceptionally well positioned to innovate in this space. Even after all this time, it’s still the most powerful app for behavior change on the App Store — with 300+ app integrations, shortcuts, auto-complete, great widgets, fallbacks, etc.
You can expect us to add OpenAI to the list of our data processors soon, and to obsessively work towards a companion and user experience that genuinely improves your attention and intentionality by 10-100x. I guess we’ll also do some marketing…
And with that, I invite you to join us for this new chapter — and to give Potential another try :)
I can’t wait to serve you to the best of my abilities.
We’re so back.
Get Potential for iOS or Android today, and finally master your habits :) It’s helping people like you build consistent morning routines, manage their ADD, get better sleep, exercise regularly, and much more.
If you have any questions or ideas, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at welf [at] potential.app or schedule a time here.