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The following material has been edited for clarity and brevity.
On this episode, Kim Shea spoke with Michael Malkin. He is the owner of Calm Strips, a product that helps relieve anxiety, reduce stress, and improve focus through sensory stimulation. They discussed what led him to develop Calm Strips, the various ways it can be used, and how this product can open up conversations about mental health.
The Story Behind Calm Strips
Michael: It’s kind of a funny story. I was a schoolteacher for a year and then I worked for 13 years as a retail manager for Apple before starting Calm Strips, which I did last year.
If anyone out there has ever been in an Apple Store, they can get really busy—at least, pre-pandemic. If you think of a busy store, usually people think of the Apple Store. I deal with anxiety, like social anxiety and situational anxiety.
I find that for me, what helps me to kind of calm down or to ground myself in that moment is touch. On these days when we got busy, I would get really anxious and I would start drumming my hands a lot. And people would be like, “Are you a drummer?” I'm not a drummer, but I just needed something to get that energy out.
Someone told me that you could wrap some painter's tape around your finger and kind of use that as a sensory thing. I did that and actually found that really helped a lot in those moments. The downside of that is, well, number one, you have to wear painter’s tape on your finger, which kind of looks silly, and, two, your fingers get sticky and it's not great visually. I thought, “Maybe there's something here because I can't be the only person who needs something tactile like this that you can bring with you anywhere.” That's kind of where the idea for Calm Strips came from.
So, I spent about a year, most of 2019, sourcing and looking at tons of different manufacturers. We looked into the science more and we kind of came up with a product. I use the royal “we” a lot, but this is just me.
Anyway, for me, I always have my phone with me. I think most people now have their phone with them all the time or they're working on their laptop. So, with these sensory adhesives, you can stick them on the back of your phone or on your laptop so that when you do need that sensory or tactile stimulation, they're there for you.
We originally started out with one texture. We call it “soft sand,” which is kind of a grainier, but still soft, texture. That has been really great and people have really liked it. Just recently, we rolled one out called “river rocks,” which is a bit bumpier if you want something that is even more textured.
Kim: They’re beautiful. And they just look like you've got a really neat sticker on the back of your phone. I mean, you'd never know what it was for.
Michael: That was one of the things that was really important to us when we were designing the product. A lot of the sensory stuff that's out there, not that it's not great stuff and it's not helpful, but like fidget spinners, fidget cubes, and things like that, are either toys or they're clunky and cumbersome. And it's another thing you have to remember to bring with you. Plus, in a lot of situations, like if I was working in the Apple Store, I don't think I could bust out my fidget spinner. But, I can have my phone in my pocket and I can have the Calm Strip on my phone.
So, for people who want something they can always have with them, I think it's really effective. That’s why we wanted to make it really pretty too, because we do have solid colors for people who just want something super discreet, but like you said, some people view it as a discreet and pretty thing.
We just got a testimonial email from a customer a couple of days ago and they said, “People see them and they're jealous because my laptop is so colorful. They just like the style. They like the designs.” I think if you're going to have something with you all the time, then having it look cool is a nice byproduct.
Kim: I think you bring up a good point too, because if I was at some type of a meeting and I'm going to sit there with my fidget spinner, it's a little more obvious as opposed to just having something on my phone that I can just be touching or have it quietly in my pocket where it’s pretty sleek. I think it's also a great idea from a design standpoint.
Michael: All of our designs are inspired by common scenes in nature or common experiences, so it can be something that can ground you back into that moment. Some people will just close their eyes and use the sensory part of it. But, we do have people who've written us and said they really liked the design because it grounds them into a sunset or a night sky or a calm experience that they've had in the past.
We try and tie that in where it's not just a design that has a ton of different colors. It’s designed to have a color palette and help people recall an experience that they may have had in their past.
Kim: That's really neat. So, it's basically like a band-aid. Would you say it’s about that shape and size?
Michael: Yeah, it's like 3.2 inches by 0.8 inches, so it's kind of small. It's designed to be the size between the trackpad and the keyboard of a laptop. Originally, when I was working on it, I thought maybe this could be something where you could put it on your phone or you could wear it on your finger if you wanted to. We couldn't find an adhesive that would do both. So, if you wrap it around your finger, it wouldn't stick to itself. I think more people are gonna want to put it on something, instead of wrapping it around their finger.
Kim: And for you, it fits on a phone. I'm thinking, if I had a child who was having some anxiety at school, I could stick it to something they could carry in their pocket.
Michael: Actually, when you buy Calm Strips, we send out a little email that explains the different ways that people use them. One of our customers made a custom necklace that she would wear that was the right size for the Calm Strip and we included putting your Calm Strip on a necklace as a joke in our email.
We had a lot of people reach out and they were like, “Can I buy that necklace?” And then Luce, who is our communications/public relations director, actually owns and operates her own business in parallel with Calm Strips called Five and Eight Designs. She does metal hand-stamping. It's these little hand-stamped, cold-processed carry tags that you can use as a key chain. We include a lobster clip, so you can clip it to a backpack or stuff like that. I was not expecting them to be as popular as they've been, but I think that's another way that you can kind of carry it around, especially if you have a child who doesn’t have a phone.
Even though the name is Calm Strips, we do have circular ones for circular tags. Then, we do have one that is also for the full-sized Calm Strip. So, if you're looking for one for the full-sized strip itself, we have a tag for that as well.
Kim: That’s great. Are your products made here?
Michael: They're not. They are made in Sweden. Our offices are based here. We're in beautiful Newport News, Virginia.
Kim: Nice. That's one of my goals is to get back there to Virginia Beach at some point. So, you don't use latex. Is that what I read too?
Michael: Calm Strips are latex-free, so you don’t have to worry about that. The adhesive is reusable and it’s super-cling. I looked at probably 30 different manufacturers before we settled on the one we're using. I had a small group of about 25-30 people I trusted who felt it, and we tested everything over and over again. We are the only company that has all these things: texture, latex-free, and super-cling adhesive. We’re pulling from a lot of different places and combining them in a unique way.
Kim: And you do custom, right?
Michael: Yeah. So, it has to be a minimum of 500, because we do have to make it special. We can usually get custom pieces out to people in just a few weeks. We’ve done a few of these now. We've done five or six for schools and a couple of businesses, as well.
We package them. They come in small envelopes that have an inspirational or motivational quote on them. They’re nice, fairly inexpensive gifts that you can give to someone to let them know you’re thinking of them, whether it's an employee who is working remotely or a student.
Kim: I like that. We have audiences in the UK and I don't think you ship there yet. Is that on the horizon?
Michael: We’re working hard. We want to be all over the world. Canada and the UK are the next two places we want to go, so hopefully, we’ll be able to ship there by the end of the year.
If you’re in the UK, you can email us. Our email is email@example.com. And if we can make it work, we'll find a way to make it work. I know myself as a customer, I think to ship to the UK, the cheapest we could make it work and we could track it is like $21. And it's a $12.50 product. I just don't feel good about paying that much to ship it. Hopefully, we can ship a bunch of them over there and someone can ship them locally within the UK to bring that cost down a little bit.
Focus, Meditation, & Productivity: Ways to Use Calm Strips
Kim: Calm Strips are not just for anxiety, but they could be used for meditative purposes, as well? You just become very present of what's happening right now?
Michael: Yeah. I am someone—and I know there's a lot of people who've shared this, as well—who has a very difficult time sitting still. In general, it's something I have a hard time with. Sitting still for 10 minutes and meditating is something that is difficult for me. But, if I can sit down and I have my Calm Strip and I can be listening to the Calm App (which we’re not associated with), this can help me stay still and present in the moment.
We have people who use them for focus. If they're sitting there at work all day, it can help them focus on the task at hand through tactile sensory processing.
The adhesive is reusable, so you can pick at the edges and then press them back down. So, we've had a lot of people reach out to us who say, “I've had issues with picking my skin or pulling at my hair and I kind of replaced that repetitive behavior by picking at the Calm Strip.” We recently partnered with the Picking Me Foundation. Laura McKinney, the founder, is an awesome lady. She reached out to us and let us know that people in her community were using Calm Strips. I'll be honest, when I created the product that was not my intention. We were surprised that there's a lot of people who are using it that way. But, I think that as more and more people are exposed to it, we're learning different ways that people are using it.
Kim: That's really interesting. So, you were not specifically looking for a product that would help somebody with autism or something like that. You were just coming up with something. It wasn't necessarily scientifically research-based, it's just that you're getting feedback saying you're meeting all these needs, even though that wasn't necessarily your goal. Is that correct?
Michael: That's right on. We have a lot of teachers and parents who've reached out. We're still a small company, but I think it was going back to my Apple days. Steve Jobs had this great analogy. When he talked about Apple, he said it was like an upside-down pyramid. I kinda think of it the same way.
I spent the time and did the research in sensory processing and all those kinds of things, so I feel like I'm reasonably well-versed to be able to talk to you, but it certainly wasn't my initial intention. One of the things that I really like about the Calm Strips company is we're small—like we're six people—but we really listen to our customers and let them help us steer the ship where we want to go. We have some ideas and things that we come up with, but I think a lot of our direction comes from just listening to our customers.
Kim: I really like that. I'm eager to look into it for myself and my kids. I think it's wonderful and you're going to help a lot of people with this. Is there anything else that you would like us to know?
Michael: Thank you again for the opportunity to come on the show with you. One of the things that you mentioned earlier is that we’re in a place now where a lot of the stigma around mental health is being worn down. It's something that you can talk about. We've had customers reach out and tell us, “People see it on my phone and ask me about it and they say, ‘That's something that could help me too.’” I hope Calm Strips are helping spark a larger conversation about mental health.
Check out Calm Strips’ website.
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Send Michael a message.
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About Us: Co-hosts Lisa Thorp, John Biethan, Lisa Victoria, and Kim Shea discover and share new alternative health tools and resources from alternative healthcare practitioners and experts. Want to know more about Alternative Health Tools? Visit our website.
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