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My passions are helping people and populations thrive and flourish, digital health, and all things entrepreneurial.
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Interview with Ben Rubin about New Product Development

Ben Rubin is the cofounder of Change Collective, a new innovative platform to assist users in changing their behavior. Prior to Change Collective Ben cofounded Zeo, a sleep management company that helped users track their sleep. Ben also blogs about life hacking and other topics at BecomingAwesome.com.


1) The MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) market has almost reached saturation; what is (or will be) the secret sauce that makes Change Collective different than other online educational platforms?

When you think about different types of learning, you can think of different types of learning and how they might benefit from different course networks: the type of learning like you might find in history classes or second-grade math, maybe knitting or even graphic design and Photoshop. Platforms like Coursea, Khan Academy and Udemy… each of these takes a slightly different approach in terms of the type of learning and the way the content is created.

This type of learning is split into two axes: one axis is user-generated content versus professional content. What we see is that within the didactic learning section, most of the market is well covered. In behavior change however, there’s a bit of a different game going on; it’s no longer just learning a skill and having knowledge. It’s about changing a behavior and learning things is actually just a very small part of the process.

Where we see the next technological shift — in terms of being able to serve this market — has been the pervasiveness of smartphones, the pervasiveness of availability of health data through wearables. The enablement of technology allows us to build a course platform that’s geared towards behavior change. Since traditional educational platforms are not specifically or necessarily native to mobile they cannot be with you, can’t remind you, or can’t stay there with you. Individual change fundamentally has to be accomplished in your everyday life, as you are walking around the world.

We see ourselves differentiated in three ways. The first is content type: we are specifically geared toward behavior change. Second, our delivery mechanism is mobile. The third way is in the product experience and design. We are firmly grounded in change science: from psychology, to behavioral economics, to community, and how all of these interact.

2) With regards to change you have said that, “when change matters, identity must shift.” What does that mean and how will you use technology to support this idea?

When you go back to our primal understanding of behavior change, we believe change generally occurred because someone you looked up to did that thing: If you were training to be a hunter, farmer, or woodworker there were role models, village elders, who would show you the way. Their behavior was passed down and modeled. In modern times, the idea of “role model” has shifted into the idea of world-class experts. Instead of mentors being chosen from a small group of people around us, these experts now have a global reach. We can match an individual to a mentor or an expert that has “been there – done that” for a specific aspect of what a person wants to change and/or improve.

When we were interviewing consumers about change and asking them what worked, again and again they would mention community and the community’s respective leader. It became very clear that one of the key aspects of behavior change is actually shifting your identity to become associated with the view within the group. This concept/idea is supported by academic research, too.

Vegetarianism is a great example of this. Someone who has a moral objection to eating meat is very unlikely to choose an expedient and tasty the hamburger, because their identity and their morals are tied up in that position.

Our realization was we could use technology to bring great expert content and actual change facilitation to a wide audience. The experts can now better tell their stories, create communities in a scalable way and enable user identities to shift (which will help effect change).

3) You have spent significant time on product development since announcing your new project at the 2013 QS Conference. What have you learned about your customer segment and product during the process?

We have been talking a lot with experts, and talking with consumers. The process really boiled down who our target customer is. We describe them as one of two personas: The first is the Healthy Achiever. This person tends to be 20 to 55, female, interested in holistic life change, interested in sustainable change across a broad range of avenues from physical life, to raising kids, to household products, to her spiritual life.

The second persona is the Performance Optimizer. This person tends to be male, in a similar age range as the Healthy Achiever, and interested in optimizing risk. He prioritizes career over the rest of his life, but is interested in hacks across the board, and really wants to apply the minimum amount of effort in order to get the maximum amount of the gain. He is less worried about sustainability and a holistic approach.

So we really had a chance to dive in deep, understand those personas, understand who we are going to cater to and then talked to the experts who have already served those market segments somewhat and are well-respected by those consumers. So we have learned a ton about both the consumers in this market and the experts who serve them.

4) Given you are an avid life hacker yourself, what are three “hacks” you have successfully implemented in your own life that have yielded significant desirable results?

I will give you four because I know them well.

1) Sleep: Get 8 to 9 hours in a dark cool room, with black out curtains. You need the appropriate amount of REM and deep sleep. If you sleep right, the rest of your life will follow.

2) Nutrition: For me, the hack is Paleo, but there’s good reason to believe that lots of different approaches work for different people, so you need to discover what works for you.

3) Physical activity: Specifically, for me, it’s a combination of CrossFit and Olympic lifting that works. That will not work for everyone. However, I do tend to suggest some form of resistance training or other type of weighted work.

4) Meditation

5) What is the most valuable takeaway from your experience building and winding down Zeo?

I will give you two:

1) Listen to your customers. We always knew they didn’t love wearing headbands. We also knew Zeo was a great product — the device gave amazing data quality — and we projected that consumers would get over their objections (to headbands) because the product was so amazing. That never happened. Had we listened to our customers more, gathering stronger intelligence earlier in the product lifecycle, we would have more quickly shifted to non-contact sensor products.

2) The importance of building a corporate culture based around shared values. We started Zeo when we were 20 years old, just a couple of college kids who got together and started building something, perhaps without a truly defined shared purpose. When I look at the thing that has really worked for us at Change Collective, it is unity and shared values and really being mindful of building those shared values into the organization and company culture.

Interview with Craig DeLarge about Digital Mental Health

With a career in health and wellness spanning two decades, Craig DeLarge has held significant leadership roles for Johnson & Johnson, Communications Media, Inc., GlaxoSmithKline and Novo Nordisk. Craig recently left his management role with Merck, serving as the Global Leader of Multichannel Marketing Strategy & Innovation, to pursue opportunities in the digital mental health space. In addition to Craig’s pursuits in health and wellness, he is also a successful business coach and blogger. Craig’s coaching blog can be found at WiseWorking.com.


1) After a long and successful career in pharma, what are the major factors pulling you to now focus your energy on digital mental health?

There are 2 major factors that have contributed to my pivot. The first is that I have fortunately reached a period in my life where I have the luxury of taking a sabbatical. During this sabbatical I am bringing together my 15 years of digital health care experience with my personal interest in mental health as a professional coach/trainer and mental health advocate. I am not a psychologist, but I have experience helping people with change and personal growth. I also have a personal interest because I am a caregiver and due in part to that personal journey I have done extensive work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

The second is there a major paradigm shift in health care from a pay for service model to a pay for outcome model. I am interested in playing a part in the evolution of this change. I realized I need to contribute to commercial models focused on health outcomes.

2) What has impressed you so far about the budding digital mental health space? What has been a disappointment?

As I have surveyed the space of digital technologies focused on the prevention or treatment of mental health/illness, I have been impressed with the breadth and variety of available technologies.

I won’t call this a disappointment, but what I would like to see more integration of individual technology solutions. Although there is clearly a lot more out there in digital mental health, I have yet to see many players integrate their offerings and create a holistic solution to the benefit of the patient and caregiver.

3) Given your unique vantage point, what role do you believe pharma plays in supporting digital mental health initiatives succeed?

Pharma can help integrate these products with their core product – drugs – to get a synergistic 1+1-3 safety & efficacy effect. For instance, drugs are only effective if you take them. In mental health there is a lot of non-compliance. There is a chance for digital health tech to have a complementary effect strengthening compliance & support. There is also the opportunity for better use of patient’s data to create win-win therapy & outcome situations.

Another point is Pharma has the money to invest to support digital health in a venture capitalist & scale up role. Most of the big Pharma players already have innovative investment funds, and have mechanisms for investing in budding digital health technologies.

Lastly, Pharma is skilled at influencing public policy. In that respect, Pharma can help assure there is room for relevant digital health technologies to grow in their beneficial application and use.

4) One of the early assumptions about wearables specific to digital physical health was that data in and of itself would be a change agent. There is growing evidence that to improve physical wellness, the human element is still required and that digital monitoring is simply another tool to augment mentorship and coaching. Do you think the same will be true for digital mental health?

The simple answer is yes, but not in the short-term. There will come a day where artificial intelligence will be smart enough to help mental health patients. I am confident of that, but we are not close yet for two reasons. One, the technology is simply not sophisticated enough yet. Two, my generation does not possess the comfort level with technology that they would see their phone as their therapist. However, our children and grandchildren are growing up in a new world where their generation might be able to have that type of relationship with technology. There is a degree of acceptance that needs to occur for technology to supplement the human element at that level and that will not come quickly, but it is coming. In the short-term although I do not believe digital health tech can replace human mediation, I do think there is a good chance that the right technology will be great at augmenting traditional therapies. These technologies today have an opportunity to act as supplements and/or amplifiers to the experience a person has with their healthcare providers and caregivers.

5) Playing the role of an optimist but tempered by the current results of activity tracking and cognitive brain training (thus far), how much do you think can be accomplished regarding digital mental health over the next five years?

This might be out of bounds regarding the specific questions, but I would hope simply we are more accepting, less judgmental, and have erased much of the stigma around mental health and mental illness that currently exists in society.

Going back to a previous answer, I hope in five years developed comfort with these technologies allows us close the gap between our view of physical health and mental health as separate things. The two are interrelated and it is damaging to separate them. There is a rising tide of awareness, and through social media it is amplified, which is bringing awareness to mental health issues. As a leader, I want to make sure this momentum is supported and progresses.

Additionally, I think wearables will become ubiquitous and invisible, and improved in their ability to reliably measure for outcomes. Its digital health adoption will grow exponentially. As a caveat, I don’t think you will see people who suffer from hallucinatory illnesses (such as schizophrenia) really benefiting from these technologies, but other mental illnesses, like depression, bipolar, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, etc., where increased mindfulness, awareness, and social support can be an important intervention should benefit greatly. 

Lastly, I would love to see technology help the caregivers of the mentally ill. There are opportunities to support this groups and especially in the face of comorbidities they face as part of the caregiver role. My hope is that innovators can find ways to help caregivers and create technologies that works for them too.

Live Life Love | Volume Twenty-Eight

Hello Everyone,

It’s been a great summer for me, and I hope the same is true for you. I was able to connect with a lot of old friends over the past few months, something I had not done for some time because frankly I had not made it a priority. What a mistake.

This month I met up with an old friend from high school, Mike D., whom I had not seen for decades and had a brilliant lunch. We shared our aspirations of leaving the world a better place, and he described that notion in mathematical terms: finding ways to increase the Global X. This idea has stuck with me since. I have always liked the Elizabeth Lesser quote, “Look for a way to lift someone up. If that’s all you do, it’s enough.” However, thinking about global flourishing in terms of increasing the Global X resonates higher with me, since I tend to think of things in quantitative terms.

Solving for some sort of Global X highlights the beauty that no matter what part you are playing in helping others, whether it’s a big or small role, in the end you are a purveyor of good, moving the same Universal needle as everyone who stands with you — those that understand that our purpose here is to learn and help one another. So I dedicate this quarter’s newsletter to friendship and increasing the Global X. This quarter’s interviews covering business and wellness are below.

Entrepreneurship: This quarter’s entrepreneurial interview is with Ben Rubin who is the cofounder of Change Collective, a mobile product that help users with behavior change. Prior to Change Collective, Ben helped launch the company Zeo, maker of one of the first commercial sleep-tracking devices. My  five questions with Ben Rubin about launching a new product can be found here.

Health and Wellness: This quarter’s health and wellness interview is with Craig DeLarge who just concluded his tenure as Global Leader of Multichannel Marketing Strategy & Innovation for Merck to pursue opportunities in the digital mental health space. My five questions with Craig DeLarge about the future of digital mental health can be found here.

Life Experience: Continuing with the theme of friendship, I have two life experiences to share this quarter. First, my friend Jill was visiting Vermont and picked me up a Heady Topper so that I could complete the personal challenge of drinking the “best beer in America,” which I discussed a couple of quarter’s ago. That was so thoughtful, and Heady Topper lives up to its reputation.

Heady Topper vs. Pliny the Elder

The other life experience came while visiting my friend Nate in New Jersey, I stopped by New York to see the Statue of Liberty. It was great seeing Nate; even though we only spent a couple hours together reminiscing about our quick visit still makes me smile.

Statue of Liberty

Contribution: There is no harm in being a lemming when it is for a good cause, so of course I got sucked into the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge craze thanks to another long time friend Joe.

I also contributed to Pat’s effort to raise money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America and made a donation to the Midway Shelter for Abused Women and Children.

In the spirit of friendship, I wish you a great fall season with your friends and family. I look forward to checking in with you again around the holidays. As always, thanks for reading.

Warm regards,
Michael

Live Life Love | Volume Twenty-Seven

Hello Everyone,

I hope your summer is off to an excellent start. With summer here there are better things to do than read email, so I am going to make this quarter’s note short. Someone recently shared with me that most endeavors in life are like making sausage, the quality of something you create is only as good as the ingredients you put in and the methods you use. Moreover, if you want beef sausage, you don’t put in chicken, you use quality beef.

As silly and simplistic as this sounds it has stuck with me. I’m not getting any younger and I’ve still got a dent I’d like to make in the Universe. Not staying focused (filler) and engaging in activities that do not move me forward are getting in the way of worthy pursuits. Letting ill will fester, self-loathing, or reading some negative news story on my phone when I could be paying attention to my daughter creating the most glorious Mega Bloks castle is building terrible sausage. That’s not to say one cannot have fun. They don’t call spontaneity and adventure the “spice of life” for nothing. Anyway, today forward I recommit to making better sausage.

Health and Wellness: This quarter’s health and wellness interview is with Bob Summers who is one of the founders of Fitnet which is a company that helps individuals achieve their health goals by providing easy-to-access fitness sessions through a mobile device. Apple recently just announced a new framework called HealthKit to help developers build better wellness apps. My interview with Bob Summers about Apple’s new HealthKit (and health apps in general) can be found here.

Entrepreneurship: This quarter’s entrepreneurial interview is with Brad Bowery about co-working environments and personal networking. Brad is the former Chief Executive Officer of SRECTrade and has recently become a partner of Founders Den, which is an innovative shared coworking office space helping other entrepreneurs take their companies to the next level. My interview with Brad Bowery about coworking space can be found here.

Life Experience: As I alluded last quarter, this quarter’s life experience was quite exciting as I got to knock off another World Wonder, and I also got to attend a traditional Indian wedding. Although the former is fun with regards to bragging rights, attending the wedding outshined the Taj Mahal.
Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal | Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India | 2014
If you ever have an opportunity to attend a traditional Indian wedding in India don’t pass it up! It was a true privilege and an exceptional experience.

Contribution: This quarter I contributed to Ruby’s effort with Global Glimpse which is a nonprofit organization who each year sponsors over 500 students to learn more about developing countries and culminates in an educational trip to Latin America. Through this program, Global Glimpse strives to create generations of global citizens who are not only aware of the world’s problems, but also deeply invested in solving them.

As promised, keeping it short this time; I hope you get the chance to make great sausage this summer too!

Warm regards,
Michael

Interview with Bob Summers about HealthKit and Fitness Apps

A long-time digital entrepreneur, Bob Summers has founded several startups over the last twenty years. His current endeavor, Fitnet, helps individuals achieve their health goals by providing easy-to-access fitness sessions through their mobile device (currently available in the App Store). Some of Bob’s previous startups include TechPad, EnergyWare and the nanoCom Corporation. Aside from being an online entrepreneur, Bob partakes in community and economic development as a member of the Board of Directors for the Roanoke – Blacksburg Technology Council and Virginia Tech Entrepreneur Club. Bob also led the installation of gigabit fiber access into Blacksburg, making it the world’s first free open access gigabit Wi-Fi network.


1) As a developer of health and wellness apps, what excites you by the recent announcement of HealthKit at the 2014 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC)?

The conference has been a lot of fun and the energy has been really high. 5000 developers, all picked by lottery and the result is that 75% of the developers are new. The rumor mill was that Apple was going to announce a wearable but that wasn’t the case. Instead, they announced HealthKit, which I believe is the first step in that direction, because Apple needs a piece of foundational software like this in the ecosystem before they can really execute well on a wearable so that any device they come out with can be built on top of it. Any good application needs to have a good software ecosystem, and HealthKit makes sense for them given the proliferation of health and wellness apps in the App Store. There are now over 40,000 health and fitness apps and it is a terrible user experience that each time you try a new wellness app you have to fill out the same health information. The same frustration that we have when we have to fill out new paperwork with a new doctor… telling them the same stuff we have time and time again… that same experience is true for health and wellness apps. A good app may not get used just because the user doesn’t want to have to go through the process of answering the same questions they just did for an inferior app. HealthKit means this type of information is now portable, stored locally in the HealthKit repository, and users don’t have to rely on apps to talk to each other through APIs and the Internet. This will now all happen locally within the user’s phone. All of these individual apps, with unique APIs, have stifled innovation for too long. It’s exciting stuff. There are some limits since it is new. It is not yet available for the iPad, but I’m sure that will resolve itself in short order. There is clearly a lot of excitement about it so I’m sure it will evolve quickly. It excites me too because it means I’m in the right space.

2) Outside of HealthKit, what other big takeaways excited you from Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference and the unveiling of iOS8?

The introduction of a new programming language, Swift, is the most exciting thing at the conference in my opinion. It is a programming language that is more approachable, less noisy, and extremely powerful at the same time. Why this is so exciting is it is going to bring in more developers and create more inclusivity within the developer community. Objective C, which is what a lot of folks currently develop in, is a difficult language for people to get their hands around. In my opinion, Swift is a game changer in regards to efficiency, which will allow developers to iterate more quickly, test more things, which in the end will lead to better products. It is going to bring in more developers and lower the cost of development. This is really a big deal because more competition in this space is ultimately going to benefit the end user. In my view, this is going to have a massive effect on the marketplace.

3) You have an impressive success rate at technology competitions, are there any sharable keys to your success that have helped stack the odds in your favor?

One, there is some serendipity regarding my story because I’m in the health and wellness space and that’s just a hot market right now, so one key to share is either through luck, or by choice, pick a hot market. I can take credit for really paying attention to my presentations. In competitions (pretty much all competition not just technical ones) the best presentation is going to win, right? You can have better elements than anyone there but if they’re not passed along to the judges properly then how are they going to know? So there is some salesmanship that for better or worse is important to hone before you get in front of judges. Also, experience is going to help. I’ve been at this awhile, but that said, that doesn’t mean I don’t practice each time either. Just because I have a good track record doesn’t mean I can now go in and win these things easily. I do the work (through practice, prototyping, etc.) and I’m sure that is a major component to my success. Also, I go into these situations with an open-mind, but I will then quickly focus. This is important in two ways. One, I don’t get stuck on anything preconceived. For instance, I have a great idea, but it does not fit the parameters of the competition. I spend the whole time trying to figure out how to jam a square peg into a square hole. That’s just not going to work. Two, I kill ideas quickly. Understand the challenge, brainstorm a lot of ideas, then pick the right one – not a few – but the right one and spend time making that idea great. If you pick a few ideas to consider you start to dilute your energy (and time) thinking about multiple pathways. These strategies have worked for me.

4) In your opinion, specific to health and wellness apps, where do you believe people are currently getting it right, and where is there room for improvement?

I’ve been really inspired about what Nike was able to do in the sense that they made my data usable. They took what I provided and did not just spit it back to me but gave me suggestions and added value to it. Innovators that are going beyond just collecting metrics and data are getting it right. Mobile competitors like Android will come out with their own version of HealthKit and soon applications that don’t enhance your collected data will quickly fade away anyway.

Where I think there is room for improvement is there are all these great platforms out there and none of them are really talking to each other. What a terrible experience for the general consumer, right? I am tracking my food intake over here, and my activity over here, and doing mindfulness exercises over here. Not very much out there is integrated even though, and I truly believe this from my interaction with competitors, we all want to help our clients and users. We don’t want to get in their way. We want what is best for them. Yet, we do little to make it easy for them to correlate their data and look at their health in a holistic way. In that regard, we could be doing a lot better to unify in a way that doesn’t hurt our respective businesses, while making our products work better (in collective) for the end user.

5) Your app has seen impress growth. What are your top three growth hacking strategies?

There is no secret sauce here. One is persistence. You got to want it and work at it every day. Without this strategy, I’m not sure how you make it. I don’t have any shortcuts that replace hard work. The second would be find great partners. What can you offer other people (you must give first to receive), and once you have that established how can you use what you have (and offer it through partnerships) to expand your reach and/or benefit from a competence that you might not inherently have yourself. For instance, I have partnered with fitness celebrities. For them, I have an innovative vehicle for which they can deliver content in a unique way. For me, I gain a content expert pertaining to health and fitness. It’s a win-win. Lastly, make meaningful contacts and connections and keep them updated. I do keep a list of valuable influencers and advisories and make sure I stay engaged with them. If you want a successful endeavor you need a promoter. If you are not that person, then you might need to acquire that expertise through someone that knows public relations. It’s not a secret that good PR will assist you with growth, but some forget it is a strategy that you can do well or poorly… where perhaps hoping something goes viral is more of a wish than a strategy.