2018 / 10 January

The sick irony of health tech

The following observations are entirely subjective and personal. They are my reflections about the past few years and by no means a validated representation of the sector I work in.

I think most entrepreneurs are a little bit insane. Myself included. Particularly those in the early stages of their business, working on a side hustle, trying to create something for themselves. Entrepreneurs invest time, energy and ideas. They sacrifice after work drinks, picnics with friends and date nights to slave over code, spreadsheets or documents. They are stressed constantly and have trouble sleeping.

Health tech entrepreneurs are no different. But when I speak of irony, I mean that entrepreneurs in this industry are often trying to build something that redefines ‘best practice’. They have the information needed to create something innovative that moves the needle up. But how many of these early stage entrepreneurs apply their what they’ve learned to their own situation?

I remember my old boss at a health tech company. He had invested millions of dollars of his own money into the idea. He was far and away one of the most challenging and arrogant people I had worked with. But over the year, I watched him become more and more stressed, sleep less (which made him even more difficult to deal with) and prone to go on gambling binges and random purchases. One example was going and impulsively buying a $300,000 car (which could have bought us a few more months runway). Objectively, it’s possible to stand there and be angry and confused at the decisions, but after having put myself in the same situation — albeit it at a vastly different financial scale — I can sympathise somewhat (but not enough to work with him again…)

Building a start up is not geared towards being healthy. Two slices of pizza and a beer at a meet up does not constitute dinner. Walking quickly between meetings because you cannot afford an Uber does not constitute a work out. And when that start up relates to health, the underlying feeling that you should know better is all pervasive.

Over 2017, I felt my health decline. I cannot pinpoint the exact time it changed, but it happened incrementally. One morning I would skip a work out because I was too exhausted or mentally drained to get out of bed. One evening I would eat too much dinner (and dessert) because I had skipped a meal during the day and was starving. Night after night, I would lay awake, tossing and turning as my mind tried to work through all the things I was trying to manage.

There are three examples of this stand out for me:

  1. Early in the year I developed plantar fasciitis. It started as a bit of a dull pain and morphed into something often so painful it would render me unable to walk. I finally went to a podiatrist in October.
  2. Over the year I watched my weight increase. Not in leaps and bounds, but slowly tick upwards. At one point I weighed more than I had in 5 years.
  3. I developed a habit of going to bed at 10pm and waking up at 1am, without being able to go back to sleep. For two weeks, I survived on three or fewer hours of sleep with no night in between when I was able to sleep soundly and recharge.

It’s very easy to look at those and tell me the obvious — I should have gone to the doctor, I should start meditating, I should exercise more and eat less. These are all ‘duh’ things to say, but when you are in the thick of things and your focus is elsewhere, it’s very difficult to re-calibrate what your priorities are.

I developed body perception issues as a teenager and have never quite worked through them. But I have learned to manage them and for the most part I am relatively healthy, in relatively good shape and have a relatively good diet. But relativity is a shifting benchmark and when all of those relatives start to slip, things change. And one morning I woke up and I was simply unhappy with the person in the mirror — tired, stressed, overweight and unmotivated.

I realised that the problems with my foot meant I hadn’t been able to play golf or squash for months (admittedly the winter months never help here) and most importantly, that my energy levels, mood and ability to do what I needed to do every day was being affected. I still showed up to work every day and still managed everything pretty well, but I wasn’t operating anywhere near at the capacity I could. I was irritable, distracted and distant. Something needed to change.

I reached out to a contact and enlisted their help. We put together a more structured exercise plan and meal plan. We aimed to restrict my calories every day and change up the macronutrients — decreasing the carbs (and where they came from) and focusing more on clean, fresh produce. It wasn’t that my meals were bad, they could just be better.

Changing up my exercise routine kick started my enjoyment again. It was good to get up, do something different and start to push my body a bit more. I even got back on my bike and rode after work.

But where things really changed and where the impact came from was my diet. Instead of eating three big meals a day, I focused on six small meals. Each had a balance of serves and were timed to ensure my energy levels were maintained throughout the day. The first week was challenging, but it changed my perception of food again. I would look forward to eating (because I was a bit hungry) but I was able to eat quick, healthy, simple meals that satisfied me.

My contact liked to use MyFitnessPal. We used it to track food, goals and exercise. As a user, I have the following observations:

MyFitnessPal is not a good product. It is not intuitive and it is hugely inaccurate. Take almonds as an example. Two ‘validated’ versions of 24 almonds lists one as 168 calories and the other as 463 calories. That is nearly 3x difference. How is anyone meant to feel confident about their goals and tracking accordingly if there is such vast variation? No wonder people find it challenging.

I thought there was an opportunity to take my goals and plan and put it into our own product. How would it work in a real world example, using myself as a guinea pig?

I noticed four things:

  1. Our product is vastly more accurate, because the data sets are validated at a national level
  2. Our product is a lot more intuitive and user friendly to plan a whole week, not just report back on what you ate
  3. Our product created a lot more variety of meals, due to the algorithms that sit behind it (and having recipes created by people who are trained to understand food!)
  4. Our product lags behind because we don’t (yet) have supermarket products on the database.

Admittedly too, our product doesn’t incorporate exercise to the level it should. But as we start to branch out to more markets, it certainly will. This wasn’t the only tool I used, but the other ones fared no better — clunky designs, confusing UX and no obvious signs that any of the information being used was actually validated by a reasonable source.

Over the first few weeks I battled with the challenges of trying to stick to a regime versus having to do what I needed to do — late night networking, after work drinks, catered events are omnipresent. I learned that it was impossible to be letter perfect to the plan, but I learned that this was ok in the context of everything I needed to do.

It was less important to be 100% perfect and more important to incorporate a better way to manage my health. Decisions have ramifications (good and bad) and knowing where the sweet spot was became the goal. I had managed to change my mental guidelines of overall health because even if a certain day wasn’t exactly right, my overall feeling changed. I had more energy, more motivation, and more desire to do what I was doing.

Humans are fallible by design so understanding that imperfection is part of a daily routine is acceptable if you keep your overall goals in mind. Four or five days of being strict and leniency on the others is a better outcome than nothing at all. And what enabled that was the ability to log and track progress and most importantly, have someone on the other end of the line to give feedback and change things up when needed.

While I took a bit of a break from everything over Christmas, and the stats rightly show, now that 2018 is kicking off again, I think it’s important to get back on the bandwagon. Over the rest of the year, I managed to lose 5kg, lose a couple of inches off my waist, have more energy and motivation than I had in a long time.

I had managed to re-calibrate what I want from my health and wellbeing. As we plunge headfirst into 2018, I have the following conclusions:

  1. The time is right for our product. Not just for the initial use cases but far beyond that. We have so much work to do and want to do, but there has never been a better time to be innovative in this field and we have found a truly important spot to play in
  2. Those running a start up need to remember to look after their health. It will disappear before you even know it. Check in every day.

While I’ve mostly discussed what benefit changing my diet has had, I should also acknowledge that I have taken on board other changes. Not only am I exercising more frequently, but I am making an effort to read before I sleep, I am using an app to track my mood every day and I have set up a notification to ask me for three things I am thankful for and happy about every day.

These are all little things. But collectively they create a generally ‘better’ version of myself. In 2018 my goal is not to be perfect, but to be better.

No comments so far.