Chris Edson is the CEO & Co-founder of OurPath (now: Second Nature), the health startup offering online behaviour change programmes to tackle the global epidemic of chronic lifestyle disease such as Type 2 diabetes. OurPath is the first ever digital programme to be commissioned by the NHS for diabetes management and Chris has been named Forbes 30 under 30.
Highlights of the episode:
[1:07] Startup Weekend hackathon
[5:45] How OurPath is successful as a weight loss behaviour change programme?
[8:40] Personal story and the strategic direction
[11:00] Biggest learning
[15:00] Being a startup founder
[19:00] Selling to the NHS
[21:00] Vision for the next 10 years
OurPath - https://www.ourpath.co.uk/
OurPath's Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/ourpath_health/
Chris Edson's Linkedin - https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrisedson1/
Listen to this episode now:
Read the transcription:
[0:31] Maiko: In today's episode, I talk to Chris Edson, CEO and founder of OurPath, a startup on a mission to eradicate type 2 diabetes. OurPath offers a three-month digital weight loss and lifestyle change program and it's working with the NHS to help people at risk of type 2 diabetes to stay healthy. OurPath raised funding from prominent investors, such as Taavet Hinrikus, the founder of TransferWise and 500 startups. So far, about 10,000 people developed healthy habits through using OurPath. It's great to have you on show, Chris. I think you taught me a while ago that OurPath actually started at a Startup Weekend. So, that's basically this occasion where you go away for a weekend, it's like an event of maybe 50, 60 people and people just form random teams and try to build a startup in a weekend. Can you tell us more about that, and how it all started with OurPath and how it's possible that there's a real company being brought on out there?
[1:32] Chris: Yeah, of course, oh, my God, the Startup Weekend, that was back in 2013, which is absolutely terrifying. So, I was a strategy consultant for 01:43 [inaudible] at the time and I had this idea that I wanted to go into startups. So, I ended up rocking up to this Startup Weekend run by the Kauffman Foundation and I pitched in front of this room of 90 people. And it was all, so Imperial College, the university, so it was me and I was like 25, at the time to a room of 19-year-olds and I convinced a bunch of them to come and work on this idea with me. And the idea was, it was around diabetes. It wasn't anything like what we're doing now, but it was it was around diabetes. And yeah, we got voted for this idea to be made over the weekend. And it was probably the most stressful two days of my life, it was awful. And we basically, we had on our team, I had nine people, which is huge for a startup weekend thing and when you turn up to a startup weekend, you can either be, you can be, a business person, a design person, or a developer. And you get a little badge to say which of the three categories that you're in. And all nine people on my team, every single one of them were business people. And what that really means is, they don't do anything.
[02:53] Chris: So, I spent a weekend herding cats and trying to-- So, genuinely this is what happened, over through the course of the weekend and I had pitched some kind of diabetes tracking idea, over the course of the weekend, that merged through way of kind of group-think and democratize thinking into a diabetes pillow, where all the things that someone living with, like living with type 2 diabetes has to think about, like checking the fee and taking regular medication, we were going to print those things on a pillow. And so, we spent the Saturday like pivoting to this pillow idea genuinely a pillow. And I woke up on Sunday morning and turned up at the stars, having had very little sleep, like prototyping this pillow and thought this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. So, I turned up to the roof, these nine people, these business people, I said, I'm really sorry, guys, we've got to pitch this idea in four hours’ time, I'm just going to go and make a presentation, a PowerPoint presentation, I'm going to talk about my own thing, I'm really sorry.
[03:58] Chris: So, I was like a total lone wolf, they were really angry with me. And then I made this presentation, which, was something similar, actually to now, what we do. But yeah, I had this like light-bulb moment on the Sunday morning, where I was like, diabetes pillow, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. But you know you within the course of a day hearing all these voices and I don't know, you're trying to give everyone and make sure everyone's voice is heard, I was convinced by it. So, yeah, that was the story of the Startup Weekend. And then I had the very awkward bit afterwards, where I went and did this pitch, we went into the presentation we got we didn't win it, actually a friend of mine win it, we came runners up. And then all of the team of nine, they all desperately wanted to work on this idea, they were like, wow, you presented so well and so, this is great, like this idea is amazing, let's go and do it. And I never wanted to work with any one of these people ever again, I never wanted to go anywhere near them. So, I then had like a very awkward moment of like removing them all from the shared Dropbox and then getting, like the emails from them being like, Hey, Chris, why have I been removed? And I had to email them and say, I think I'm going to go alone on this one. So that was the story of how it all started.
[05:12] Maiko: So, none of these people are on the team?
05:14 Chris: Thankfully, no. One of them ended up Crowdcube. You know who you are, yeah.
[5:22] Maiko: Good friends. Cool. Let's focus on the problem a bit that you're solving, you're helping people prevent type 2 diabetes, or manage it once they have it and when I look at your website, it basically advertises the weight loss program, and what I thought, or what's pretty obvious, I guess, it's like there's countless diets out there, there's like millions of books, I think. I was close to just claiming 50% of all books are probably books on diets, it seems like it. So, why is OurPath different? And what is it rooted in that makes people successful and what does success look like for you?
[6:03] Chris: Yeah, of course. So, we started off life in this diabetes space, where the thesis was that if you can help people change their habits, they will never develop type 2 diabetes, you can eradicate it from the face of the planet. That is obviously a very difficult thing to do. And, as we were building it, we realized that, well, that's all well and good, but you can't get people excited about diabetes prevention, people are not going to suddenly sign up to a Diabetes Prevention Program. What you have to do is build a product that people want to use and want to pay for, and they want to go and take a three-month program. So, all have our marketing on our website, it doesn't mention diabetes, because diabetes scares people and isn't something that they want front of mind. We talk about, lifestyle change and losing weight and other positive benefits that you get from changing your lifestyle, which gets us into this murky territory of well, how is it different from, I don't know countless diet books, or Weight Watchers or anything like that?
[07:00] Chris: And that's where the kind of science event comes in. So obviously, this is changing people's diets and things is a ridiculously crowded market. But the reality is like nothing really works, people don't change their habits. If something did work, then this problem would have been solved. So, the approach that we took to building the program was, well, let's look at what the research shows, how do you actually change people's habits? And it's the science called behavioral science. It's a relatively new field but there are a huge number of different aspects to it and we just took it upon ourselves, me and Mike, the other co-founder, to become obsessed with behavioral science, and then tried to build a program off the back of it. So, building a lifestyle change program off this new thing, behavioral science. So, that's where the differentiator comes, is that we're a program that actually works, right, we've got clinically reviewed outcomes, we get amazing results, people sustain the changes that they've made, they lose a lot of weight and they prevent their diabetes, and in some cases, even when they're living with type 2 diabetes, actually reverse their diabetes. But that's difficult to convey to the consumer sometimes. How do you convince someone that, yeah, we're the thing that actually works? So that's a challenge for us sometimes.
[8:17] Maiko: I guess, in such a noisy space, especially right? I got a question between what we just talked about the Startup Weekend story and the pillow and then slowly the idea developing from there, into where you're now, running these programs, and yeah, having helped over 10,000 people. How did you go about it? Like, okay, you have a consulting background, did you like drop a bunch of matrices and be like, okay, this is the right thing to do and there's opportunity there in the top right corner or was it something that is a personal story, like, how did you actually--?
[8:57] Chris: Yeah, it's partly personal and partly strategic, we really, so we were working, as consultants, we're working in healthcare, almost exclusively with me and Mike, we're working in healthcare. And diabetes kept coming up as this huge issue and we'd be doing work for pharma companies, and they would be explaining to us about a new insulin drug that they wanted to market for people with diabetes. And that kind of sickened us, the problem doesn't need to be solved with new drugs. So, that kind of inspired us that like, look, this is being solved in a really stupid way, we think we can do it better. And at the same time, I also had a family member who was at risk of diabetes and those two things kind of came together that, look, we think we can make some dent in the type 2 diabetes epidemic and also, maybe I can help out this person close to me. And then the way that we went about it is, we just went in with that idea, how can we help type 2 diabetes? What could we possibly do? And so, we just prototype loads of ideas, loads and loads of ideas, and then tested them in really hacky ways, like we went on forums, we made WhatsApp groups, we sent people diet books, we did all kinds of things, you know, that don't scale and just to kind of test what might work. And I learned how to code, so anyone that thinks that that's like a barrier, I just went and taught myself how to code.
[10:24] Maiko: Did you build the first version or anything?
[10:26] Chris: Yeah, I built everything up until about a year ago, to be honest. Yeah, now we have an engineering team but for a long time, I was kind of CEO\ CTO, which is a difficult position to be in. Yeah, I built all of our early stuff, just probably explains why we're, you know, got such a shambolic code base nowadays. No, not really. But, yeah, I guess, if anyone wants to get started with this stuff, like, just go to Code Academy, learn some stuff, try and build a website and that's where I started.
[11:05] Maiko: So, throughout all the years, despite learning that maybe the diabetes pillow is not the best idea, what was your biggest learning throughout that journey, until today?
[11:16] Chris: I think my biggest learning has been, you can test like anything and that your own biases are like always wrong, and there is no harm in, you just have to let go of all of your ego and test, test, test, test, test until something works. And it's really easy to get locked into an idea or a way of thinking and that can be completely wrong. Even now, we find ourselves, me and Mike have our own biases about how we should be running the program or whatever. And then we look at the data and it might tell us something entirely different. And then we have to change our whole belief system and that's kind of what it's like being an early stage startup founder, is you to constantly be reevaluating things. So, the expression that I think really resonates with me is, "strong opinions, loosely held", right. As a founder, you have to fight tooth and nail to execute something really well but be prepared to drop it at a moment's notice and move, as soon as something, the data shows you that you should be moving in a different way.
[12:16] Maiko: Is that the hardest thing about doing what you do or is there something else you would say that's like the hardest thing to crack with what you're trying to do?
[12:26] Chris: I think that the real hardest thing is that managing the stress of all, you know running a startup, it can kill you. It's horrendously stressful and struggling to find fundraising, waking up one day and thinking, can we make payroll this month, thinking that you spent the last four years trying to build something and then suddenly, it's going to be up in flames and you're going to have 30 people unable to pay their rent. And that was the most difficult thing about doing it, is just an inherently stressful thing to do. You have to be prepared for that, like everything that comes with it, from raising funding to managing a team, that's some of the stuff that sometimes gets missed when you're in a, you know, making this new thing in your basement, you forget that, well, if this goes well, I might be managing a team of 1000 people. And what does that really look like? Is that something that you really want to do? Do you want to commit to this thing for 10 years? Because if you want it to be really successful, that's probably what it will take, and you'll probably have to make a million sacrifices along the way, be it your relationships or your family or your hobbies. I mean, yeah, it's amazing and I wouldn't do anything else in the entire world, like I'm entirely convinced that this is my calling, not necessarily, I just mean, like building companies. That's the thing that I want to do. But you do have to be prepared that a lot of other things will fall by the wayside. I used to have so many hobbies, I used to play in bands, I used to run like, you know, marathons and things and city photography, like all of this stuff, all of that just goes as soon as you run a company, because any given moment, you know, you could be doing something extra for the business. So, it's almost impossible to switch off and dedicate that mental energy to something else.
[14:26] Maiko: When in your journey did you take that decision, yes or when did you realize like, yes, this is it, like I'd do that for the rest of my life?
[14:35] Chris: I think very early on, and very early on, probably three or four years ago and I was convinced that this is great, I love doing this, this is really rewarding. Because the things that I tend to value in my life, which is the other thing I encourage other new founders to do, the things that I value is autonomy, getting things done, sense of mastery about stuff and making an impact on the world. And if you have that same value structure, then maybe being a startup founder is good for you. And I realized very early on that running a company allowed autonomy, it allowed a lot of purpose and it allowed me to build things, which, you know, I'm an engineer by degree, so it, kind of fills that part of me. But then I think more recently, Mike and I have been, we've just been in meetings, just the two of us and we've been like, just very grateful for doing what we're doing. Just in the last six months, we say to each other a lot, like we need to remember that this is amazing, like to build this team and to be having this impact, like we're so grateful to be doing this thing, that even though it's stressful, it's genuinely incredible.
[15:55] Maiko: What do you look to when it gets really hard? Is it, maybe some financial outcome at the end or is it your mission or is it your customers? Like what is it that gives you energy to really go through the episodes where you think, oh, God, is this worth it, right?
[16:14] Chris: I think the thing that brings me the energy and the conviction, when the going gets tough, I think you just have to be an innately very stubborn person, like stubbornness, I really think is an attribute in a founder. And both Mike and I are incredibly stubborn, and we will not let this thing fail, we will fight tooth and nail to make it a success. And that kind of attitude tends to mean that in adversity, we will pull through that. Because, you back us into a corner and we'll fight harder than anyone to make the thing work. So, I don't know if it's not really like, a singular vision of financial outcome, that's really not what drives us. We just know that we have to make this thing a success at all costs. Well, actually, that, at all costs, thing is an interesting dichotomy. We had this debate the other day, actually, the two of us, we were saying, do we want to make this thing successful at all costs? We actually reason that, no, not at all costs. If we have to leave a trail of destruction behind us, then no, not at all costs.
[17:21] Chris: And then part of it was us talking about the team and how we build the culture and how we help people grow. And something that has been a big learning for me, is that there is a lot of inherent value in building a good company. Regardless of a financial outcome, there is value in giving people a place to work, with a purpose, giving them meaning in their lives, that is an inherently, very valuable thing to do. So, that's the other bit that I wasn't probably anticipating that, yeah, we've built a company that people, it gives people purpose, and that part of the journey I think I hadn't anticipated. So, even if it all goes horribly wrong, like I think I can sleep easy at night to be like, well, at least during that time, we gave people that purpose and we made a great place to work for people, that's extremely rewarding.
[18:17] Maiko: You didn't grind people into the ground while they work for you, right? You build a culture that or you're building a culture still, I guess that, you know, that makes people feel good about themselves and working for you.
[18:30] Chris: Yeah, exactly.
[18:34] Maiko: Now, back to some of your approach, I come across a lot of startups, I used to hear many more pitches in the past than now. But a lot of health tech startups are trying to focus especially well, mainly in the UK, they try to focus on the NHS, very early on. And I heard so many pitches that said, okay, if we just crack that, we'll be like number one. And they kind of don't focus on the consumers as much sometimes, not everybody. You do both, actually, you work with the NHS, and you also sell directly on your website, I can sign up right now. What would you recommend to founders starting out in the health space?
[19:26] Chris: Yeah, I mean, it's gotten to the point where I don't even know what I would recommend because there is no single bit of advice with regards to the NHS, it is just too large of an organization to simplify into a single thing. But I think you touched on it really, really well, which is often health tech startups focus too much on the NHS, or they'll focus on the disease, or the problem, they'll focus on the problem that they're trying to solve for the health care system. And that means that it's very difficult to be really product and user focused in what you're trying to build. And it will probably mean that you will get no adoption at the end of your product. And that's where, I think what we're doing is a bit different. We are very user focused, and we're trying to solve a real user problem, which is the same reason why we don't talk about diabetes and diabetes prevention to people, we try and talk about the problems that they need solving in their lives.
[20:25] Chris: So, that is, the thing I would maybe encourage from your health tech founders is to think about what, is the problem for the person, that you're trying to solve. Because if you can, regardless of the NHS, if you can build a product that people will pay for, or not even pay for, that people will use to solve their problem, then the other stuff will fall out the back of it, you know, if that helps someone and that ends up bringing some financial benefit to the NHS, maybe through reduced admissions to hospital or whatever it is, then you might well find a way to sell it into the NHS. Yeah, so I think the Quit Genius guys who do smoking cessation, that's a really good example of that. You know, they built an amazing product that helps people quit smoking, they don't sell directly into the NHS, but that might be a route for them one day, because they proved it through having an amazing consumer facing product that helps people with a real consumer problem.
[21:23] Maiko: All right. My famous last question, well, I don't know how famous it is. But my last question is, what kind of world are you trying to create off OurPath? If you look towards the next 10 years, how does the world look like that you're trying to contribute to with what you're doing?
[21:40] Chris: Yeah, the world that we'd be looking to build is where everyone feels that they have the support that they need to change their lifestyle habits. And I don't want to say it's a world where there's no type 2 diabetes, or there's no obesity but I'd like to think we've created a world where everyone has the tools that they need to make those changes. And we want to be the company that provides those tools, maybe it'll look completely different to what we do now. But we want to make those tools completely accessible to everyone. So that if you think about it, democratizing the kind of support that we now give to people, providing that to billions of people.
[22:16] Maiko: Thank you very much, I wish you the best on that journey and thanks for joining me today.
[22:21] Chris: Thanks so much, Maiko.