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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.