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‘Is this all there is?’ A new social platform targets Gen-Xers seeking meaning

Don’t call it a midlife crisis. The Swell, from cofounders Alisa Volkman and Pilar Guzmán, offers an alternative to AARP for the MTV generation.

‘Is this all there is?’ A new social platform targets Gen-Xers seeking meaning
[Photo: Anna_Om/iStock]
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Plenty of entrepreneurs start their businesses to solve a problem they’re facing in their own lives. For instance, just last week, TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie launched a wellness kit born out of his own struggles with burnout.

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And so it is with a new platform called The Swell, cofounded by Alisa Volkman and Pilar Guzmán. “For many years now, we have been building businesses around key phases of our lives,” she says.

As twenty-somethings, that meant navigating sex and relationships, while the thirties were about parenting. Now that both Guzmán and Volkman are in their 40s, they want to create a community designed to educate and inspire new conversations around midlife and its unique (but similarly transitional) themes.

People in this age bracket are mostly Gen-Xers, sandwiched between the more populous millennials and boomers (and therefore often assuming the role of caregivers to both younger and older generations). Meanwhile, they are quietly traversing the challenging terrain of professional and personal achievements and failures. And there are a significant number of them. According to the last Census, nearly a third (27%) of the population (ages 40-69) falls into this category.

Just don’t call it a midlife crisis. Rather, they both contend, The Swell will serve as a membership-based platform designed to “undo the dysmorphia” that our larger culture has created around this time of life. So forget those images of the guy buying the red sports car and popping Viagra or the female executive fielding project deadlines and hot flashes. Volkman, who will be serving as CEO, points out that previously the only other gathering place (in print and digital) for people in this age group was AARP. It’s their plan to offer a new alternative.

Both women are media veterans: Guzmán is a three-time editor-in-chief with stints at Cookie, Conde Nast Traveler, and Martha Stewart Living, while Volkman’s experience spans executive positions at Nerve.com and the founding of Babble, a community platform for parents that was acquired by Disney. The latter was attracting upwards of four million parents a month at its height.

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The Swell, which began quietly last year with an invitation-only call to members, grew out of Volkman’s last venture Knowsy, a short-format learning platform that held a repository of videos focused on essential work/life skills from how to use Slack to meditation, design basics, and leadership. “Our investors were excited by the vision and opportunity to become Lynda 2.0,” recalls Volkman. But soon she was having second thoughts about continuing to build it out when questions such as “Is this it?” and “What is my calling?” were looming larger.

As the seed for The Swell started to germinate, she connected with Guzmán, first to get advice and soon as a partner to build the platform. They wanted to give members a curated year-long curriculum from experts that would also allow for networking at special themed events. The quarterly content bundles contain printed materials, videos, and podcasts that range across themes such as “Getting Unstuck” to “Your Brain on Forgiveness.” Events will inclue immersive workshops, salons, dinners, and destination retreats. Each event will offer some sort of souvenir—Volkman brandishes a bracelet engraved with a directional symbol as an example—for the member to take to remind them of connections made and wisdom gained.

The cost will be $1,250 for the year (destination travel not included), which Volkman says falls neatly into how much people are spending for all types of wellness from GOOP to Glossier, meditation apps to gyms and spas. Indeed the most recent survey from the Global Wellness Institute found that overall the global market for wellness is $4.5 trillion.

Guzmán and Volkman look at the human network The Swell is building as the ultimate value of the membership. These people will become “life advisors” they say, to help navigate challenges and opportunities. So far, investors agree. The Swell has pulled in nearly $4 million from Greycroft, Advancit, Great Oaks, Crosscut, Betaworks, BBG, and Female Founders Fund, among others as well as individual investors such as Soul Cycle cofounder Julie Rice. “We are setting out to create a new language, a new conversation, and framework to better connect, celebrate, grow within, and optimize this phase of our life,” says Volkman.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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