“I was in the middle of an important client meeting when my boss caught me swiping on Tinder,” recalls Ondrej Zak, co-founder and CEO of Zario, reflecting on his days as an addict to his smartphone. “It was definitely an embarrassing moment,” says Zak, who felt it was a wake-up call and began working on an app that helps reduce screen time.
“I was addicted to my phone for a while until I realized I had a problem because my parents and friends told me so. But I never admitted it and always told them that I worked in digital innovation and built digital products, and therefore spent more time on my phone,” says Zak.
Zak, who co-founded the Zurich startup alongside Killian Chiao, says he may have tried every tool available on a modern smartphone to control his addiction, but nothing really worked. “I asked my best friend to set parental controls on my phone, but ended up redownloading apps I deleted or finding workarounds,” Zak said, adding that he wanted to reduce the screen time, but the bad habits were so strong that they always pulled him back and kept him glued to his smartphone.
“When I wasn’t on the phone for a while, I was almost nervous about not checking. There was always constant tension and anxiety about it. I really felt like I was going crazy,” he continues.
It wasn’t until Killian recommended Zak cover Nir Eyal’s “Indistractable” that he began to understand how these apps worked, which gradually helped him change his phone habits. But soon Zak realized that phone addiction was a global problem and that many young people were addicted to their smartphones. “If tools like screen time controls don’t actually help people significantly reduce the time they spend on their phones, then that’s a problem that should be addressed; it should be easier for people than for me to get rid of addiction.
As the pandemic reached its peak, Zak and Chiao quit their jobs and began working on the first prototypes. This was long before the duo launched the Zario app in 2022. Initially, they developed a chatbot that taught people how to use their phones better using different challenges. Zak tested the chatbot on WhatsApp and later brought it to Telegram. Based on the feedback they received, Zak and Chiao brought in a CTO at the company, and with his help, work on Zario began. Zak says the Zario app was developed in close collaboration after consulting with a professor of behavioral addiction at the University of Zurich, who validated the integrated approach in creating the app.
To develop the app, Zak and the team first referred to books, went through many tips and tricks available on the internet and turned them into small learning blocks to create challenges. In these challenges, people can choose the one that suits them best based on their preferences, helping them configure their phone better. For example, Zario users can create a shortcut that allows them to make their phone screen black and white, making using social media apps boring for users. They can also move any annoying apps to a separate folder outside of the Home screen so they’re not tempted to open them, and they can go through their notification settings to turn off any notifications they don’t need. don’t really need it.
Some features worked great, others didn’t. Zak and the team took a step back and realized that there are two types of people struggling with phone addiction. One of them, whom he likes to call “the ladies,” opens his phone at every available moment, whether he’s waiting for the train or just has a spare second. They are constantly checking to see if anyone has written to them or if something has happened in the world by checking the news. For them, he developed a system where every time they open a problematic app, the Zario app appears, lets them wait for 3 seconds, and then gives them the choice to open it or not. Additionally, there is a feature that gradually reduces the number of times you can open each app on a daily or weekly basis.
The second type of people addicted to their phones are “scrollers,” who open an app to search for something but end up spending more time on it. For them, the Zario app has a feature called “individual session limits” which, once configured, caps a session limit. For example, every time you go to Instagram or YouTube Shorts, the Zario app appears at the top and notifies you that your Instagram usage time is up.
The Zario app is available on both Android And iOS, but Zak says he focused more on Android because of a greater level of freedom and a larger user base. However, Zak said he is working to bring the same level of features to the iOS version as the Android version by the end of the year.
Smartphones are useful tools, but they also make people addicted, which is concerning. The brands that design and sell these smartphones, as well as the social media companies that offer apps, are aware of the problem of phone addiction, but very little has been done to address the problem. A University of Derby study has found that smartphone use makes people narcissistic and should therefore come with a health warning.
“Google “has even less interest in reducing the time you spend on the phone,” says Zak, when asked why companies like Google haven’t done much to reduce dependence on smartphones running Android, the operating system the most popular mobile phone in the world. “Google owns a large majority or a high percentage of all ads served on many different apps, including their own apps. So the more time you spend on your phone, the more ads you see, which is Google’s main source of revenue,” he explains. However, unlike Google, Zak adds Apple is more willing to create better tools to reduce screen time on its iPhones.
“I think because of the regulatory pressure, they have to build something and come up with a solution, but they don’t really have an incentive to build something that actually works,” he says.
Zak calls the rise of “dumb phones” a trend when asked how some users are turning to feature phones to disconnect from smartphones and social media. “In my circle, I don’t know anyone who has really done this, except for a friend, but he is a very radical person.”
“Moving from a smartphone to a dumb phone can be a drastic step, but it also means losing access to amazing tools like Google Maps or having Google always available at your fingertips,” he continues.
Early on in launching the Zario app, Zak discovered that if users completed at least ten challenges, they could reduce phone addiction by 90% and screen time by one hour per day. However, it depends on how addicted you are to your smartphone and the apps involved. “I would say in the first week you can expect about a 10 to 20 percent reduction in screen time, because that’s the week you’re thinking about the subject, and that’s a priority. Our goal is a reduction of approximately 5 percent week over week for problematic applications.
According to Zak, two-thirds of Zario app users who sign up find social apps distracting, which is why they come to this platform. Instagram and TikTok remain problematic apps for many users, but some also find messaging apps distracting. In fact, gaming apps like Candy Crush also make up the second largest group of most distracting apps. A small percentage of users also block news, trading, and portfolio apps. In India, however, YouTube, Instagram, Chrome, Reddit, Wattpad and Netflix are the top apps reported as problematic by users.
The Zario app has been downloaded over 40,000 times since its launch. India, USA, Germany, Switzerland and UK are the main markets of Zario. As for the business model, the iOS version of the app is fully paid, but users get a seven-day free trial. However, on Android, Zak uses a freemium model where users can block one problematic app for free, but if you want to block more apps, you have to pay.
Zak’s startup is early-stage, but it recently received $130,000 in non-equity backing. In April, the startup received support from two innovation programs in Switzerland focused on digital health. He also became number one at the European Startup Summit. Zak said they were in the process of closing a pre-seed round with angel investors in Switzerland for 500,000 Swiss francs. Zak’s has a team of eight members spread across the world.