Sramana: What time-frame are we talking about when you were conceptualizing ShapeUp?
Rajiv Kumar: This was in 2005.
Sramana: That is when social media was starting to get introduced to the world at scale.
Rajiv Kumar: It was. Facebook was created in 2004. The concept behind ShapeUp was less about technology and more about approach. In healthcare, we tend to think that everything is very private. People act in a very similar, guarded way as well; God forbid somebody find out how much I weigh.
We tend to treat health as something very personal when in reality health is something that is very social. If we don’t take a social approach to solving a social problem then we are going to struggle to succeed. The technology became a medium for us to leverage our concept.
I thought about this new approach for about 6 months and then I went out and started a non-profit organization locally called ShapeUp Rhode Island. It was never designed to be a venture backed company. It was designed to be a small, local non-profit. We wanted to get people to exercise together and lose weight as a community.
Sramana: What was the evolution that took you from a non-profit to a company?
Rajiv Kumar: When I created the non-profit, I did it during my free time as a first year medical student. The idea behind the model was to take the concept of the Biggest Loser and combining it with Weight Watchers. I wanted to take a proven approach to behavior change, which is a group approach and mash it up with something that is fun, exciting, and engaging. For me, the fun element was having a weight loss competition. Our idea was to have teams of people compete to achieve healthy goals. We wanted to create something that people would do proactively.
When I started the non-profit, I raised a little bit of money from the medical school. As we launched the program, which was designed for individuals in the community, we ended up getting some colleagues to sign up. Within their workplaces, there was quite a buzz. Teams were formed and competitions were held.
Word got to the HR departments and we started to get phone calls from benefit managers asking if they could sponsor their employees to participate in the program. I was very surprised that companies wanted to pay their employees to do health and wellness programs. I learned that a lot of large employers are self-insured and are at risk for medical claims. They have a lot of financial reasons to care about the health of their employees. That gave me the idea of taking the concept beyond Rhode Island. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity. HR departments would do all the marketing for us and the participants would get access to ShapeUp for free.
Sramana: Which meant that you had to sell to the enterprises and get them on board.
Rajiv Kumar: Very true. I found that to be a lot easier than selling to the individuals.