Lose It CEO talks Weight Watchers, Under Armour, and when ice cream can help

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While Under Armour, Apple, and Weight Watchers, have all, to varying degrees, become more involved in the calorie-tracking mobile app space, Lose It, one of the original innovators, has been quietly chugging along, capping its funding at $7 million because, according to CEO Charles Teague, the company has been profitable since at least last March.

MobiHealthNews talked to Teague about maintaining his business in the wake of such heavy hitters emerging as competition, as well as about the potential of calorie tracking peripheral devices and why his app ended up recommending that one customer eat more ice cream.

Teague says Under Armour’s acquisition of his top competitor, MyFitnessPal, as well as MapMyFitness and Endomondo, has definitely changed the market.

“It’s very catalyzing for the category because it has created this big, substantial presence in the space and that’s forcing a lot of other companies to come to grips with what it is they think they want to do in the space,” he said. “So it’s not the kind of thing where you can just be like ‘We’re going to tinker around in health and fitness’. If you’re Nike or you’re Google or you’re Apple or you’re Fitbit or you’re Microsoft you have to sort out ‘Ok, what is our strategy going to be?'”

And although athlete-focused companies like Under Armour and weight loss-focused companies like Lose It might seem like different categories, Teague argues that they’re fundamentally chasing the same crowd.

“Interestingly I think a huge number of people who use the fitness technology, if you pull apart and say ‘Hey what’s your goal?’ … what you’ll find is overwhelmingly most of the people are trying to lose weight,” he said. “I think that is true for Fitbit, I think that’s true for MyFitnessPal. I think that on one hand, there’s sort of an overwhelming number of people, that’s sort of the change in their life that they would like to make. That’s the overwhelming goal that they have. How they portray that is sort of a different thing. Would you portray it as ‘Hey, let’s all get healthy’? ‘Let’s all get well’? ‘Hey, let’s lose weight’?” 

Companies like Lose It, Nutrisystem, and Weight Watchers are locked into the weight loss narrative, and that can be to their detriment, especially as societal norms around weight loss fluctuate.

“One thing that’s definitely changed is ‘Hey, let’s just go lose weight’ is definitely not as popular,” Teague said. “One theory that I just personally have about that is that it got so wrapped up with the idea that you do bizarre diets that are completely unsustainable. It became this episodic thing you couldn’t actually sustain. And people are right to be skeptical because you go on the diet and when you go off the diet you gain all the weight back.”

Teague says that, to the contrary, Lose It hopes customers will lose the weight and never come back. Data shows that some do, others come back periodically to lose the same holiday weight, and a few have logged their weight and food intake every day since the app launched in 2009.

Weight Watchers proclaimed in an investor call a few years back that the company was seeing its profits attacked by free apps like Lose It, and a lot of the company’s recent actions can be seen as a response to that. Teague’s admittedly biased take is that the company is right to be worried. 

Teague said he expected Weight Watchers to weather mobile as well as they weathered the advent of the internet, which they adjusted to quickly with Weight Watchers Online. Instead “they certainly ended up looking blindsided by mobile, they certainly ended up late to act,” Teague said. And it’s not just that the apps Weight Watchers is competing against are free. Even their premium options are $40 to $50 a year compared to $250 for Weight Watchers. And Weight Watchers' innovations, like a point system and in-person meetings, don’t always look like advantages compared to plain old calorie counting and new ways to connect online.

“The Oprah thing was really smart — the one thing they have working for them is they obviously have a lot of capital, and they also have … a brand with a reputation that, if all else fails, I can go to Weight Watchers,” he said. “And Oprah is right in line with that. But it feels like it’s a band-aid. The core problem they have to solve is not going away.”

Lose It’s latest is a tool in its app called Patterns, which looks at what days users are under-budget and what days they are over budget for calories and highlights commonalities in the good and bad days — sometimes particular foods, types of meals, or mealtimes. This allows the app to help in a really personalized way. He said the feature has produced at least one counterintuitive result.

“One of our customers wrote to us and said ‘This is crazy, Lose It is suggesting that ice cream is good for me. It’s saying I should look at ways to get ice cream into my diet, it’s ridiculous’,” Teague said.

It turns out, the algorithm was confusing cause with effect — the user in question rewarded herself for an under-budget day with a bowl of ice cream. Still, Teague thinks the feature did it’s job for that user — it showed her that her own behavioral reinforcing technique was working well.

Teague wouldn't share plans for next year, but he did say he’s been backing devices like TellSpec and SCiO on crowdfunding platforms, hoping that one will prove robust enough to approach for a partnership.

“I jumped on as soon as I saw them,” he said. “I said this could be snake oil, but if it’s not, it would be really good to get to know early. A great complementary technology that would create something differentiated. Obviously for an app like Lose It, the process of tracking is one of those things that you’re always working hard to overcome. It’s just the friction and sort of nuisance of that and so if we could make it so you just wave a thing over your food, that would be great for sure.”