Photograph: Yarygin/Getty Images
This article is taken from Wired and was originally written by Megan Carnegie
At the end of July, entrepreneurs Nils Paar and Gino Taselaar flew to Portugal for Boom, a seven-day festival that bills itself as a “psychedelic global gathering of music, arts, culture and hands-on sustainability.” Both began experimenting with psychedelics in their early twenties, and had attended the biennial event several times before—except this year, Paar and Taselaar brought along their employees to trip together as a team.
“There’s 13 of us and we work remotely from all over the world, so it was amazing to have that facetime together, especially with such intensity,” says Taselaar. “We really got to learn about each other on a different level—it was beautiful.” To most people, a weeklong company retreat fueled by hallucinogens sounds like a one-way ticket to hell, but for the team at the direct-to-consumer psilocybin truffle company Microdose Pro, it’s pretty much par for the course. Based in Amsterdam—widely known as the European epicenter of microdosing due to its relaxed laws on the sale of psilocybin truffles (the edible spores of mushrooms)—Microdose Pro is one of several startups in the Netherlands sending small doses of psychedelics out to EU residents in slick, new-gen packaging.
Microdose Pro is part of a wave of companies riding a boom in workplace microdosing. A growing body of research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs, and a desire to step off (or at least slow down) the hamster wheel after the pandemic, has created the perfect conditions for the sector. And it’s not happening behind closed doors either—many founders now openly discuss microdosing with employees and speak publicly about the role it plays in their professional lives. Paul F. Austin, CEO of the American psychedelics brand Third Wave, believes it has made him a better leader, and many entrepreneurs claim to have birthed ideas for new companies while microdosing. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has discussed his experiences of microdosing ketamine, while Google cofounder Sergey Brin dabbles in small amounts of magic mushrooms.
But while many evangelize the performance benefits of microdosing, the reality is that the practice needs a lot of legwork and careful consideration to get right. Shrooms are not necessarily a quick fix for skyrocketing output.
The practice of ingesting small amounts of psychedelic substances (usually one-tenth to one-twentieth of a standard recreational dose) such as LSD and mushrooms had been rippling steadily through the startup community, even before Covid-19. With reported beneficial effects on mood, energy, focus, and divergent and convergent thinking, it emerged as a productivity hack to help stressed leaders face day-to-day challenges while still accessing the blue-sky thinking required to keep on creating.
In the autumn of 2022, Jo Barnard found that her industrial design and innovation consultancy firm Morrama was experiencing a dip following a big post-pandemic high. A recession loomed heavy on the horizon. “There was an exhaustion within me that impacted how I felt about my work, so I felt a personal pull to try something different,” says Barnard, who lives in London and first heard about Amanita muscaria from an outdoorsy friend who was into foraging.
With its bright red cap and white spots, this fabled mushroom can be toxic. However, if taken in the right dosage, it’s purported to ease stress and anxiety, treat muscular pain, and promote restorative sleep. “I’d tried microdosing with mushrooms in the past, but wanted something legal, so every morning for three months, I made up a tea by soaking Amanita muscaria in hot water,” says Barnard. “It became a ritual and a routine for me.”
During this time, Barnard noticed she had a larger appetite, more ideas, a greater desire to be outdoors, and vivid dreams that she could glean meaning from, rather than those that left an unsettling dew on her day. “When I didn’t do it, my wife would ask if I’d taken my mushrooms that day—so there was obviously a difference,” she says. After three months, Barnard’s routine changed and she took a break before starting another three-month period in February—but this time microdosing psilocybin truffles. “The biggest impact was that I felt a lot more open-minded at work, and a lot more open in general,” she says. “I was also calmer.”
Barnard’s experiences are in line with much of the research published to date. The first preregistered scientific study of its kind, conducted by researchers at York University and the University of Toronto in 2018, found that compared to people who don’t microdose psychedelics, those who do are more open-minded and creative (in this case, measured by the most inventive uses of household objects like a brick and a knife). Several studies point toward a link between psilocybin mushrooms and improvements in symptoms of anxiety and stress, while 2021 research published in Scientific Reports found that microdosers report higher levels of well-being compared to non-microdosers.
But while there’s significant evidence to show the benefits of recreational microdosing, there is very little research about its effects within a workplace context. There have been some small-scale trials, which haven’t yet been peer-reviewed and published.
This year, a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, Bodhy Buit, conducted a small study to find how an organizational microdosing ritual was experienced in a startup by both individual employees and the startup as a whole. Participants consumed a microdose of dried psilocybin truffles (between 0.26 and 1 gram) on two workdays per week for a four-week period at least. At an individual level, participants reported they had more focus and peace, shorter time perception (as time passed faster), and less anxiety. On a collective level, there was an increased sense of open-mindedness in the corporate culture.
Interestingly, as crops up in other studies, Buit’s participants also experienced some negative effects: slight physical discomfort, such as heightened focus on physical sensations, increased and amplified feelings of anxiety and indifference, and emotional blunting. However, they also indicated that these fade into insignificance compared to the positives. It’s important to note that this is far from being comprehensive evidence, and it has not been peer-reviewed—though Buit hopes to publish soon.
Although plenty of startup founders and employees are lured to microdosing by its sub-perceptual effects and promise of increased output, seeing it as purely a productivity hack somewhat misses the point, according to Paar.
“At the beginning, I saw it as that pill from the film Limitless, but after a while, when I microdosed, I’d go quite introverted and inward into myself,” says Paar. “Microdosing has so many different use cases—and the fun thing is, it’s not always the use case you initially go in for.” He recounts user testimonials of hardcore productivity guys, not dissimilar to himself, who find that when they microdose, “they just want to sit down and write about their thoughts, which is also needed.”
The shapeshifting nature of microdosing experiences means that even if brands set out to target entrepreneurs, biohackers, and self-improvement experts, the audience tuning in extends far beyond that. Approximately 20 percent of Microdose Pro’s client base use it for productivity, and 10 percent for creativity—but largely it’s for mood-related purposes, especially women who might be microdosing to soften the edges of their monthly cycles. The majority (70 percent) of the company’s client base comprises people with mental-health-related challenges, whom Taselaar describes as being “in between being okay and feeling depressed.” Case in point, he introduced his mother, who suffers from seasonal affective disorder, to microdosing, which was a challenge—but eventually she trusted him, and she’s now able to get out of bed in the bleaker portion of the year.
Since launching the company in April 2020, Microdose Pro has grown at a compound monthly growth rate of 15 percent, and with each month, Paar and Taselaar are learning more about themselves and microdosing. “Psilocybin will give you what you need, not what you want,” says Taselaar, who first tried it as an alternative to Ritalin, which he took to manage ADD, but that left him numb and emotionless. “A lot of times, truffles don’t make me more productive within the next hour, but more productive within the next few weeks—often through helping me to be more in sync with my emotions and body—asking that I don’t work 10 hours a day, actually go outside for a 30-minute walk, enjoy the surroundings a little bit more, and reset.”
The shroom boom has also been boosted by the shift away from the office—it’s much safer to experiment with drugs if you’re working from home. “When I was doing tech jobs, I microdosed a bunch of times, didn’t tell anyone, and no one noticed,” says Joe Vela, a founder and musician who lives in Philadelphia. “But in periods where I’ve been self-employed and working from home, I’ve been much more comfortable doing it.” It was during one of his periods of microdosing that he came up with the idea for his sexual wellness brand Emojibator, which was acquired by Dame, a bigger competitor in the sexual wellness space, in early August.
“When I’m microdosing for work, and not to party, I think of it as a cup of coffee,” says Vela. “Instead, one mushroom gives you a bit of energy, brightens your day, and [at 3 or 4 pm], you’ve completely forgotten you’ve taken it and you’re like, ‘Oh! That’s why I’m having a good day.’”
Even staunch proponents of microdosing say it’s not for everyone, and it’s not a glossy, quick fix for professional stresses and strains. It has to be practiced methodically, with purpose and plenty of reflection, which many people simply have no space in their lives for. All founders interviewed for this piece spoke of the need to be sensitive to the effects of their microdosing, and for users to adapt and change their regime to suit their needs.
The microdosing industry may appear to be on the cusp of mainstream status, but it remains illegal in many European countries, meaning it could be a while before shrooms appear next to the tea and coffee in the staff kitchen. But softer versions, such as nootropics, containing brain-boosting legal mushroom varieties such as lion’s mane and cordyceps, could well be. Already, they’re being used to complement microdosing routines or serving as an entry point for the shroom-curious.
Shroom advocates point out that coffee and nicotine are already widely socially acceptable drugs to take at work—despite their adverse side effects—so it’s likely that microdosing will play a bigger role in the personal routines of knowledge workers, and even organizational rituals, in years to come. “Everyone in my team knows where to get mushrooms if they wanted to and I’ve made it clear that I have no issues with people microdosing—I know several already do and actively encourage that,” explains Barnard, of her Morrama employees. “But still, there are limits, and I won’t be letting people store anything in the fridge, put it that way.”