They say every good company solves a problem, or scratches an itch, yours or someone else's. The declining health in the country is an enormous challenge -- almost too big for a startup? I think not.
I was catching up with a good friend of mine a couple weeks ago, and among other things, I asked how his folks were doing (I love this family, I'd be a member of their clan if not for a Coleman). He told me a typical story that made me shake my head. His dad is overweight and probably needs to lose 40 pounds. He's been having some issues, amongst them is sleep apnea. Of course, it's pretty serious because your body is literally deprived of oxygen and your heart is put under large stress every night. This, and other ailments led the doctor to do what doctors sometimes feel is their only course correction tool: they scare the shit out of you hoping you'll go home and make a big life change. That's partly because of the system they work within. They can't be with you after you walk out the door. So, perhaps it's what we might label as the "wake up call" technique. It goes something like: "Your weight is going to kill you. You will probably not make it to birthday X, your odds of cancer are much higher, your odds of a hearth attack are high, your quality of life is lower, you won't live to meet your grandchildren, your spouse will be a widow..." Something like that, although I imagine that most doctors don't lay out all of those doomsday scenarios all in sequence.
The hope is that the patient goes home, re-evaluates their life and takes that downer message as a call to action to get on a plan like Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, or even better, self-starts a rigorous routine of healthy food and marathon training. Yeah, that'd be nice.
The truth is that mostly what happens is that even great people, people like my friend's dad that I have enormous respect for, don't know where to start. Further, they aren't given the tools to bridge the gap from that startling knowledge (not saying it isn't true, mind you), and the path forward. How do we help people start that journey? How to we put them on a life-long change of small daily habit changes that will divert them from the tragic closing scene just described to them by their doctor?
What has to happen
A lot has to happen to fix this problem. There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to this either because different people's personalities gravitate to certain solutions over others. In the case of my friend's dad, he's got a lot going for him:
- Great family and friend support
- A physically-active son, motivated
- Good sense of common technology (email, mobile, SMS, maybe even Facebook)
- A good job, upper middle class lifestyle (weekends / vacation)
- Motivation -- just maybe not a clear path to action.
That should be good enough. So, where's the answer?
Over the next few months I'll be putting my thoughts and my best programming skills towards this. "Health" is an interesting, exciting, cutting-edge space. However, I sometimes feel like I've bitten off more than I can chew. For a computer programmer, the problems that have a concrete solution are the low-hanging fruit. If you want 'Banking System A' to process payment to 'Vendor B', that's more concretely solvable.
So what about the big players? Should we wait for Google or Microsoft to give consumers the answers to their health? Something tells me that neither is too eager to get back in to health:
It seems like there need to be lots of solutions to this for consumers to choose from. It's the very notion of the startup craze going on right now, that the little guy can disrupt the established brands and markets out there now. The entrepreneur says that things as they are now are not the way they should be and that he/she has an idea to offer to the mix.
My idea is coming along and I can't wait to share it with the world. What I want to do is make health behavior more about the journey than the destination. Diets don't work as big radical changes usually don't sustain. I think people need a metaphor that helps them see the small changes they make start to add up to big ones, and they need to start on that path with a system that is flexible to their needs and their current habits. It's a delicate balance. Push too hard and you'll lose them forever, push too soft and you won't see any changes.
Compounded in the difficulty is how to problem of how to engage social support. In the era of online self-aggrandizing, how do we get people to collaborate (yes, a two-way street) on their health journey with other people using digital tools? I see lots of people posting their athletic feats to Facebook, but hardly never their struggles.
What I'm Not Building
There are quite a few products out there that have already scratched some of the itches people have had. Here's a list of what I'm not building:
- a health dashboard
- a medical aggregator
- a food journal
- a fitness logger (although it's a part of it I guess)
- a share-to-facebook health app (although nothing will be stopping you I suppose)
- a diet and fitness community site
What I Will Be Building
- something fun
- something that conveys health is the journey, not the destination
- something that rewards collaboration
- something that rewards growth and mastery
- a sense of accomplishment and awesomeness
- an experience that adapts to the tools you have & use
- something that works well with cool devices like the FitBit
- something people my age would like, and that people my parents age would too
So, with that out there I'm going back to the drawing board. I can't wait to share what I come up with and along the way. I hope many of you get involved, either as beta testers or just to listen to me babble about ideas over a cup of coffee. Speaking of journeys, this whole startup thing is going to be a crazy one. Thanks for following along!