You can summon almost anything from your cell phone these days — a cab, a weekend getaway, dinner. But what if, along with your favorite takeout dish, you could also order a glimpse into your future? Sanctuary is an app that helps you do just that, with daily horoscopes and one-on-one readings with an astrologer available to users on demand.
Ross Clark ’10, co-founder and CEO of Sanctuary, believes the wellness space should expand to include the mystical services industry. If chat-based talk therapy and guided meditations are now available from our phones as opportunities for introspection, he argues, why not offer astrological guidance as another self-care outlet?
Giving consumers more opportunities to turn inward and stay grounded is becoming increasingly valued in a chaotic world, and Clark believes astrology can offer, well, a sanctuary. Read on to find out how this MBA was guided by the cosmos to found this company and why he thinks mysticism is here to stay.
Tell me about your background. Why astrology?
I went to the University of Pennsylvania for my undergraduate degree and after graduation I took a job as an entertainment publicist. My first boss was a Pisces and she was obsessed with astrology—particularly Sally Brompton, who wrote the horoscopes that appeared in the New York Post. Part of my job was to clip articles from the Post. I began to read my own horoscope when I would leave the astrology page on my boss’s desk. That was my first entry point to being interested in astrology.
I went to Columbia to pursue my MBA, and after graduation I worked as a management consultant for two years followed by a series of different business development and strategy roles in both traditional and digital media. When I worked at Conde Nast Entertainment, I had a full-circle moment when we did a series with Susan Miller, a famous New York-based astrologer. I had another run-in with astrology when I was working at Snapchat on their media brand, Sweet. We started experimenting with different kinds of mystical content—astrology, numerology, colorology—and they performed well. After that I got connected to some folks at Broadway Video Ventures, where they incubate early stage ideas and make investments in startups. Our first idea was to start with something simple, which was a chat bot that delivered your daily sun sign horoscope in a text-based exchange for free. Then we also had a small network of astrologers in New York who would provide paid readings via Facebook Messenger. We were seeing an interesting free-to-paid conversation behavior happening, and repurchase behavior—users who started with our free daily horoscopes were then purchasing paid readings, and they were coming back for more than one. We felt like we were on to something and decided the iOs app was the next step.
Mysticism and astrology seem to be having a moment—what do you think inspired this trend?
There is a misconception that this is a new thing—it’s a centuries-old practice and in a sense, it has always been popular, much more than people realize. That aside, there is a very intense interest in this category from millennial and gen-Z women, in particular. I think it is a combination of an inward and outward search for meaning, explanation, and structure. I think astrology provides a toolkit for people to think about themselves and to think about the world around them. Like the Myers-Briggs test, astrology helps people think about their communication styles and how they operate in the working world and in their personal lives. I think especially when there is so much chaos happening in the world right now, there is a real hunger for that.
What does Sanctuary offer?
The free Sanctuary package includes a daily horoscopy experience, both for your sun sign and your rising sign. The app also includes a daily “power emoji,” a starry-eyed news item—which can be a celebrity birthday or an astrology fact—and occasional a merchandising element. If users choose to pay for a monthly membership ($20 per month), they gain access to a robust content library, their full birth chart, and one 15-minute, live-chat reading with an astrologer per month. When you initiate a reading, your request gets picked up not too dissimilarly as when you request an Uber. You’ll then get paired with an astrologer and have a 15-minute text exchange where you can ask anything you want.
How do you find and vet astrologers?
We have a multi-step interview and vetting process. We currently have astrologers in five different countries: the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada, and Portugal. We are planning to bring someone on in Peru and are looking into finding astrologers in Australia and New Zealand. Our goal is to have people available across time zones and in different languages. We started with a small group of astrologers in New York, and it has expanded organically through their networks and word of mouth. We now have about 50 astrologers in our network and that number will continue to grow quickly.
Where do the astrologers get the data to give readings?
There are professional software services for astrologers—we use one called TimePassages. The service generates the charts that capture the date, time, and location of a user’s birth. The astrologers can then use that information to provide a reading. The information used to create a chart is a snapshot of the sky the moment you were born
You’ve said that you believe the wellness industry should expand to include mystical services—why?
People are using tools like Sanctuary to better understand themselves and as a form of mental wellness. Online meditation opened up how we think about the category a bit more broadly, and how we think about translating more alternative or esoteric practices. I think that meditation and chat-based therapy apps on people’s phones are the next forefront in the wellness space and that astrology should be part of that.