The Bootstrapped Backbone of the Quantified-Self Movement
More than 40 million people use a utilitarian calorie-and-exercise-tracking site and application called MyFitnessPal. It has, according to MyFitnessPal's founders, helped people lose more than 100 million pounds.
These numbers are impressive, but perhaps what's more impressive is that this is no flash-in-the-pan, quick-moment-in-the-zeitgeist popularity story. It's been eight years in the making for this start-up founded in San Francisco by Mike Lee, a veteran of the first dot-com boom. The company itself, with a rapidly growing user base, widely used API, and a serial entrepreneur at its helm, has all the markings of a hyper-growth Silicon Valley technology company. Only it hasn't been one; instead it's been on a steady climb since 2005, financed only by its founders and, eventually, its own revenue.
That changed this month, as outside investors gave MyFitnessPal its first outside backing--$18 million in total, led by Kleiner Perkins--to try to achieve faster growth.
Lee programmed his original calorie counter himself, and covered his start-up expenses with savings from his days at Beyond.com and Palm. "But a big reason we did not take funding for so long," he says, "is that we didn't consider funding as a victory, but rather as an obligation."
Lee brought in his brother, Albert, who had experience in finance, as co-founder in 2008, and MyFitnessPal matured into a reliable and simple app and website where people could track their calories--both those eaten and those burned by exercise--and monitor their weight-loss goals. MyFitnessPal stands out from the fray of competing calorie-counting tools (competitors include Lose It and MyNetDiary) on the basis of its massive food database, from which users can in seconds log meals of chain-restaurant items, grocery-store staples, and entries created by other users. MyFitnessPal can be synced with many of the exercise-tracking devices at the core of the "quantified self" movement, including the Jawbone Up and Fitbit's Aria scale.
MyFitnessPal's sole source of revenue thus far is advertising, which has created enough profit to support a staff of 40. "There are so many benefits to not having investment early for us, in terms of operational discipline," Mike says. "It's been a forcing factor for prioritizing, and we have a culture of being cheap, which is very valuable."
What eventually led the Lees to seek outside investment was the desire to scale: to expand internationally, build a data-science team, and, Mike says, "about a thousand other things on our to-do list."
"So much we want to build that we couldn't as a bootstrapped company," Mike says. "When the balance tipped in terms of funding, we pulled the trigger. Now we're an eight-year-old overnight sucess!"
Owen Thomas, an editor at ReadWrite, has another theory about the investment: It wasn't necessarily the founders getting to a new place, but rather the venture capital community finally coming around to an idea that caught on first with folks who weren't tech elites.
Thomas used it three years ago to lose 83 pounds, and wrote about his experience in the New York Times in 2011. Investors didn't seem to notice. Thomas explored the reasons for that on ReadWrite.
John Doerr, the high-profile Kleiner partner who sits on Google's board and is joining MyFitnessPal's board of directors, offers this theory: People in Silicon Valley are disproportionately fit and thus might pass over simpler apps like MyFitnessPal.
"Sixty-eight percent of Americans are overweight," says Doerr. "We spend $148 billion a year in obesity-related healthcare costs. I don't think Silicon Valley trains on that kind of stuff. They're onto the next anonymous, hyperconnected, transient chatting service so you can get hooked up before you get to the end of Palm Drive"--the main drag of Stanford University.
Now that the funding round is complete, Doerr and Andrew Braccia of Accel Partners are joining MyFitnessPal's board of directors, and the company is looking to expand its tech team, make creative use of the data it is collecting about health and nutrition, and make its calorie tracker even simpler for users. The Lee brothers are relieved fundraising is complete for them--at least for the time being.
"The thing we were most excited about in it was being able to get back to work," Mike Lee says.
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.