Interview with Deena Varshavskaya about Social Shopping

Deena Varshavskaya is an alumni of Cornell University and has been a chronic serial entrepreneur since college. She has founder credits that include and Dynamik Interactive and has helped other companies get started through her efforts with the incubator Lotus Interworks, Inc. She is an expert in user experience design and has helped companies like Nickelodeon,, and Disney, create their Web presence. Her latest project Wanelo (short for Want, Need, Love) is a community platform for shopping that enables people to find and collect the most unique products from anywhere online. Wanelo recently made Entrepreneur magazine’s list of the most brilliant companies in 2011, which highlights the brightest ideas and most insightful innovators each year. She also maintains a personal blog at and can be followed on Twitter at

Here are my 5 questions with Deena and her answers:

1) One of your fortes is user experience design, and you have used this set of skills quite successfully to create website architecture for some of the biggest websites on the Internet. Similar to how a great mechanic hates to work on their own car, did you find your expertise in website design ever got in the way of actual development and deployment?

The challenge has been to wear two hats and to avoid driving our engineers crazy. On the one hand, I love designing interfaces and there’s nothing more fun than coming up with the bells and whistles for Wanelo. On the other hand, as a start-up you need to be pretty brutal about managing your limited resources. For someone who loves innovation and features it’s very easy to get carried away. I’d say that we’ve made plenty of mistakes early on and learned a lot along the way.

2) Although there seemed to be a growing number of opportunities for female entrepreneurs at this year’s 2011 Los Angeles Twiistup, Wanelo was the only company led by a female to present. Is there any advice and/or resources that you can share with budding female entrepreneurs that have helped you along the way?

“Boys are doctors. Girls are nurses.” Here’s a page from a 1970s children’s book that provides a nice breakdown of gender roles:

Boys are doctors; Girls are nurses.

“Boys are doctors. Girls are nurses.”

The modern day version of this is “Boys are CEOs. Girls are VPs of Marketing.” Personally, I do wish that I had more ridiculously awesome female entrepreneurs to look up to. I don’t. I mostly look up to, work with and read about male entrepreneurs. And that’s the challenge for women. Role models do matter and they shape our perception of what’s possible.

However, I’m a huge believer that you create your own life. My advice for women entrepreneurs is, don’t put up imaginary barriers for yourself. You either have excuses and reasons or you have results. Choose results! The truth is that you can be a man, but believe that you are unfit to be an entrepreneur for whatever reason. Age is a good example of this. Some people feel too young, others feel too old, and there’s just no winning. So forget the excuses, choose what you want to be and do it and make it happen. Making it happen means going way outside of your comfort zone (all the time!), allowing yourself to make mistakes and learning from the experience.

As a side note, a woman entrepreneur does have the advantage of standing out in a tech crowd which is largely-male dominated. And that can be a great position to be in.

3) You have sidelined a successful service business to develop a platform that is primarily focused on products. How have you had to adapt your skill set from a livelihood that depended on making clients happy, to one that is reliant on making an audience happy?

Having a consumer audience is just like having thousands of clients :-). Joking aside, in our user experience design consulting practice we mostly worked on consumer web properties, so that is in my blood. My main motivation behind working in consumer Web is based in solving my own problems, so that has always been there as well. Selfish, I know.

4) Within the last year what has excited you the most about social shopping? And, what has disappointed you? How will these developments influence you as you evolve Wanelo going forward?

Honestly, I don’t think shopping is really social yet, at least the way I envision. In the last year, I’ve discovered that a couple of start-ups are trying to tackle a similar set of problems. But all of us are just scratching the surface. Social shopping is a gigantic opportunity with no current leader. It’s an exciting space to be!

5) On Quora (follow Deena Varshavskaya on Quora here), you indicated the single most illuminating question you can ask a person is, “What challenges are you currently dealing with?” So… with regards to operating a start-up, what challenges are you currently dealing with?

The overall challenge is managing complexity. The amount of prioritizing and digesting of all sorts of information one needs to do in a start-up is startling. It’s very easy to get sidetracked or spend your limited resources on something that won’t truly move you forward. It’s a highly personal thing as well. There’s no other way to succeed but to bring all of yourself into it. We’re about to kick off the fund-raising conversations, so that will be interesting and a whole new challenge for me.

On a more personal side, I’ve been doing a lot of work to remove my personal barriers. I wrote about this on my blog The basic idea is that I’ve realized that I’ve unknowingly held on to some beliefs about what I may not be good at as an entrepreneur. I’ve been working with a great life coach who’s helped me see that those beliefs were made up and unsupported by facts. Doing this kind of personal growth work is really empowering and I now feel a lot more prepared to deal with unforeseen challenges as they come up.

Interview with Ellen Burton about Exercise is Medicine

Ellen Burton graduated from Boston University with a master’s degree in public health and is a Certified Health Education Specialist. She has a lengthy history in health and wellness with prior engagements that include serving as the Director of the Money Follows the Person Program with the Indiana State Division of Aging, as well as the Director of the Maryland Association of County Health Officers with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is currently the Program Officer for Exercise is Medicine®, a multi-organizational initiative coordinated by the American College of Sports Medicine.

Here are my 5 questions with Ellen and my summary of her answers:

1) The current chair of Exercise is Medicine® Dr. Robert Sallis stated, “Regular physical activity, at the correct intensity, is so powerful in maintaining and improving health that it should be prescribed, just as a medicine or drug would be.” It is quite clear that empirical evidence backs this up. The government has recently come out with ChooseMyPlate to help influence dietary choices and Let’s Move! to help influence children to increase their physical activity. These are primarily passive programs. Why is it important that your doctor or primary medical provider take an active role in your fitness regimen?

There is a significant amount of research indicating that people who discuss exercise with their health care provider as an important part of their overall health and wellness are more likely to start routine physical activity. Exercise is Medicine rolls this into an actual prescription because getting and filling a doctor’s prescription is a familiar process for people. There are numerous studies indicating that people tend to engage and adhere to prescriptive exercise compared to self-started programs (Decision Making Versus Decision Implementation: An Action Control Approach to Exercise Adoption and Adherence), so empowering doctors to use the prescription referral process to assign exercise makes sense.

As you highlighted in the quote from Dr. Sallis, there is significant scientific data that shows one of the best ways to prevent and treat disease is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. Our aim at Exercise is Medicine is to make this powerful concept a part of every discussion about health and well-being. With that in mind, it becomes essential that your doctor or primary medical provider plays an active role.

2) One of the many important areas that Exercise is Medicine is focusing on is benefit reimbursements and legislation initiatives related to health improvements through exercise. There are inflation-adjusted per capita health savings estimates as high as $544 per year (Costs and Benefits of Bicycling Investments in Portland, Oregon) for individuals that exercise regularly. Are there any ideas being executed that use this economic incentive to help with patient adherence?

It’s widely known that disease treatment is also an economic concern. As you’ve said, there are numerous studies that point to the economic benefit of disease prevention. We like to couple the discussion of physical activity with the discussion of fiscal responsibility. We are fortunate to live in a time where one’s life expectancy continues to increase. However, per capita health expenses continue to increase as well, and medical entitlements are a consistent part of the debate over national budget reform. We are working to influence national policy based on the evidence that exercise can reduce the cost of disease. We are also working with insurance companies and other health care associations to encourage referral reimbursements. This effort involves including exercise as part of one’s documented medical history, and we are seeing it documented more in people’s electronic medical records (EMRs). There are no pass-throughs yet (that reach the patient) in terms of economic gain, with the notable exception that the data shows they are likely to spend less on medical care in their lifetime if they adhere to the established federally mandated exercise guidelines.

3) With regard to the established federally mandated exercise guidelines, within the current Exercise is Medicine fact sheet it is stated that four out of every ten U.S. primary care doctors, and more than one third of U.S. medical students are failing to meet the minimum requirements. Further, physically inactive doctors are less likely to provide exercise counseling to patients and provide less credible role models for the adoption of healthy behaviors. What strategies are being used to help doctors understand that physical activity (at the right intensity) is a valuable prescription, for themselves and their patients?

We are employing several different strategies to improve these statistics. Our website features the Exercise is Medicine Health Care Providers’ Action Guide and also provide supplemental materials to tell physicians and health care providers about the evidence supporting exercise prescription. We also have developed strategic partnerships with health advocacy groups, such as The Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, who create training courses for health care providers and physicians.

We are also working to ensure that exercise education becomes part of the standardized curriculum at medical schools. Reaching doctors before they begin practicing is one of the most effective approaches to improving these statistics. It is critically important that doctors understand that they are role models and their behavior is proven to have an impact on patient outcomes. Therefore, it is important that doctors understand the role exercise plays in preventative medicine.

4) Exercise is Medicine’s approach seems to be focusing their effort on establishing a connection between medical practitioners and their patients. In an era where some people are choosing to have more personal influence over their own health care, are there strategies in place to help provide influential advice through information channels that cater to this segment of the population (ex. WebMD, Healthline, Wikipedia, etc.)?

We understand you do not need to talk with your doctor to know walking is good for you. Our focus at Exercise is Medicine is incorporating the idea that exercise is a medicinal tool, which needs to be properly addressed with health care providers and their patients. It is something that should start with the doctor, potentially get passed along to the engaged health-and-fitness professional, and ultimately adhered to by the patients themselves. We are quite aware that, for instance in pharmaceutical sales, direct-to-consumer marketing can influence patient behavior. To the extent that we can pass along information to consumers about the benefits of exercise, we will do that. Our overarching goal for all audiences is to make physical activity an integral part of every discussion about the prevention and treatment of disease.

5) With innovations such as FitBit, BodyBugg, and BodyMedia there are ways of tracking physical activity and progress through technology, in turn providing positive feedback loops that can assist with patient adherence. To what extent do you see the importance of technology playing a role in achieving Exercise is Medicine’s mission?

We are always exploring ways to use technology effectively. We have partnered with Interactive Health Partners of PCE Fitness to create technology that improves the way patients connect with doctors and health care providers. The software lets doctors risk-stratify patients by determining their activity levels, and it assists them in providing personalized exercise prescriptions that are medically precise. It will also help doctors in the next step of the referral process by giving them access to a database of qualified health-and-fitness professionals. If the prescription can be self-monitored by the patient, the software will enable patients to log exercise results and track outcomes and other valuable metrics.

We are also currently redesigning our own website, which includes several micro-sites. There will be behavioral tools, ways to track physical activity online, and other applications to help users create positive feedback loops.

It is important to note however, that as great as technology is, not everyone has access to it or the inclination to use it. For many families, the gym, Internet service, and unfortunately even medical care, might be cost-prohibitive. We are cognizant that if we rely on technology too heavily, we could potentially exclude a segment of the population. In that regard, we are careful to make sure that we include initiatives that can cast the widest net and help everyone.

Live Life Love | Volume Fifteen

Hello Everyone,

First off, thanks for taking the time to check out this quarter’s newsletter. My invocation experiment last quarter was met with unintended results, none-the-less I’m filled with gratitude from all the warm responses I received. I assure you all is good and things are moving in the right direction. One of the main aims of this “project” is to stay publicly committed to succeeding at the goals that were set forth when it was launched. The project’s success, and by extension my success, is influenced by engaging these commitments and taking some risks. I’ve been dogmatically preaching the benefits of optimism and positive psychology for more than three years now because it has served me well. However, last quarter I was compelled to highlight that there are a few more pieces to the puzzle.

This short allegory quickly sums it up better than I can: Throughout his life a man asked his creator (insert the deity that works for you) to assist him in winning the lottery. Almost every week without fail he pleaded, yet lottery winnings never manifested. He kept his faith and continued this ritual until the day he died. Now face to face with his maker the man proclaims, “I asked you my whole life to help me win the lottery. I made the best attempt to live life with love… plus you must have foreseen I would’ve used the money for good… yet I was never obliged. I’m not bitter as I’m sure there are reasons, but I am curious to know why?” …the reply, “I’ve wanted to help you your entire life, but buddy… you never bought a ticket.”

Things are getting exciting and I want to again extend my gratitude. This summer is filled with weddings, races, and concerts, which means there is a good chance I will get to see many of you in person over the coming months. Until then, I wish you a fantastic and rewarding summer! Without further ado, here are this quarter’s deliverables:

Entrepreneurship: This quarter’s business interview is with Deena Varshavskaya who is the founder of Wanelo (short for Want, Need, Love) which is a community platform for online shopping that recently made Entrepreneur magazine’s list of the most brilliant companies in 2011. She has a lot of great information to share about social shopping and female entrepreneurship (there is a must see illustration of antiquated gender roles within the post). The interview with Deena Varshavskaya about Wanelo can be found here.

Health and Wellness: This quarter’s wellness interview is with Ellen Burton. Ellen is currently the program officer for Exercise is Medicine®, which is a multi-organizational initiative coordinated by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) to help promote exercise as a form of preventative care. It is an extremely important and ambitious endeavor. My interview with Ellen Burton about the Exercise is Medicine program can be found here.

Life Experience: This quarter I traveled to Miami for the first time to enjoy the Winter Music Conference. I went with a great bunch of guys and got to listen to a lot of great music. Miami is as crazy as it is made out to be.

World Music Conference | Miami | 2011

World Music Conference | Miami | 2011

Contribution: There were some great opportunities to give back this quarter. I helped sponsor Jamie’s sister in her London Marathon effort raising money for Mencap. I sponsored another friend’s effort to raise money to help fight Angelman syndrome at the Angelman Walk-a-thon in Sacramento, CA. Finally, continuing with my effort to help music based charities, I made a modest donation to Musicians On Call, which is an organization that connects musicians with ailing patients in health-care facilities.

Warm regards,

Pyrroloquinoline Quinone and CoQ10

Pyrroloquinoline quinone and CoQ10 have distinctly different functions.  PQQ is currently believed to be important biologically because of its ability to signal mitochondrial-enriched cells to optimize the amount of mitochondria.  Coenzyme Q10 is a cofactor that works within the mitochondria in metabolic steps, and is important to respiration and oxygen utilization which lead to ATP production.

Common questions about this combination are:

– Why is pyrroloquinoline quinone and Coenzyme Q10 bundled?
– And, are PQQ and CoQ10 synergistic? 

Pyrroloquinoline quinone and CoQ10 work through distinctly different mechanisms.  CoQ10 is absolutely essential for mitochondrial function and abnormal CoQ10 production can lead to a host of health problem.  The good news is most of us do not have abnormal Coenzyme Q10 production.  Abnormal production has been well-studied in those who must take statin drugs for high cholesterol (metabolic pathways important to CoQ10 productions are related to the body’s cholesterol production).  The available data make a good case for CoQ10 supplementation is this situation. There is also evidence to support use with people who have suffered congestive heart failure, irregular heartbeat, and/or angina.

Regarding PQQ, although further research may alter our current perspective, right now it is nelieved that pyrroloquinoline quinone is not necessary for mitochondrial function per se. However, PQQ does promote increases in the number or amount of mitochondria.  Research to date suggests that in non-trained animals, PQQ may stimulate increases in mitochondria by 10 to 20 percent.

So do you need pyrroloquinoline quinone and Coenzyme Q10?  The answer is yes and specifically for CoQ10 – absolutely.  Will supplements of both or either help?  Like all supplements the answer is maybe. Although completely speculative, those concerned about aging well and/or take statin drugs may benefit more than someone from the general population, as well as someone with a metabolic or genetic defect where stimulating mitochondriogenesis makes a difference.

Regarding this combination of PQQ and CoQ10 to improve athletic performance there is promise. However, the value is likely in improved adaptation through recovery (similar to some of purported benefits of phosphatidyl-serine). CoQ10 alone has pretty much been debunked as an effective ergogenic aid. Study after study has proven that CoQ10 alone does little to increase athletic output:

Effects of coenzyme Q10 supplementation on exercise performance, VO2max, and lipid peroxidation in trained cyclists.
Does exogenous coenzyme Q10 affect aerobic capacity in endurance athletes?
Effects of coenzyme athletic performance system as an ergogenic aid on endurance performance to exhaustion.

There currently is no evidence to support an ergogenic benefits from PQQ supplementation either. A successful athlete or a well-trained individual should be able to internally make enough CoQ10 that supplementation lacks a dynamic effect.  This is probably one of the reasons why literature on CoQ10 and performance is controversial and inconsistent.  Studies on PQQ and performance in athletes have also not been carried out, so it remains difficult to make accurate claims along those lines as well.  Improving long-term endurance is a function of adaptation and that is where we see promise.

If have any additional questions about the combination of CoQ10 and PQQ, please submit them below.

PQQ Salt vs PQQ

Does the chemical form of pyrroloquinoline quinone and PQQ salt make a difference for absorption or its biological effects?

Many people have noticed that supplement companies are selling products called PQQ but have PQQ salt listed in the ingredients, which is technically a different compound. So it is a thoughtful question to ask “Does the chemical form of PQQ make a difference?”  It is a great question and applies to many other compounds commonly found in supplements as well.  As usual, there is an important caveat, but the short answer is for the forms of PQQ currently used in supplements, there is probably little difference between the variability of nutritional availability (or relative potency if you will).

For example, the organic acid form of PQQ is quickly converted into a salt during the process of digestion (or merely dissolving PQQ into a complex mixture for that matter).  The H+ (from the organic acid moieties of pyrroloquinoline quinone) can exchange freely with ionized cations, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium.  Both the acid form and salt forms of PQQ, at the intestinal concentrations usually obtained following supplement use, are soluble and probably equally available (absorbable) by the intestine. Animal studies suggest that PQQ is reasonably well absorbed (>50 percent), particularly at low doses (Smidt et al. 1991 Intestinal absorption and tissue distribution of [14C] pyrroloquinoline quinone in mice. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med.197:27-31).

It is also worthy of note that ester forms of PQQ have also been studied.  Esters are formed when the organic acid moieties in targeted compounds are modified by linking them chemically to an alcohol (methyl, ethyl, or longer carbon-chained alcohol).  For pyrroloquinoline quinone, such modifications render or cause PQQ to become less-polar, i.e. less water soluble.  In general, these types of modifications are carried out to increase the solubility of the targeted compound in a lipid environment or improve its chemical stability.  With regard to digestion and absorption, a portion of the total amount of compound ingested might be absorbed into the body using one of the transport pathways designed for lipid compounds or, alternatively, be converted back to the original staring material by intestinal enzymes and then absorbed. Although there are no data regarding the absorption of PQQ esters, based on what is known about ascorbyl palmitate (an ester form of vitamin C) and tocopheryl acetate (an ester form of vitamin E), it may be assumed that at least a portion of a typical oral dose is absorbed.

PQQ in nature exists as free acid, as salts (e.g. the sodium salt of PQQ,) or as a complex derivative of an amino acid, imidazolopyrroloquinoline. The PQQ Ester is a product of chemical synthesis. All of the various forms are absorbed to some degree based on the fact physiological responses result from oral ingestion and supplementation.

So what is the caveat?  The most important caveat is that most of the PQQ consumed in the diet (even as a supplement) is immediately converted to even more complex derivatized forms than an ester or a salt.  PQQ reacts very rapidly with some amino acids, which are found in abundance in food or in the intestine (released because of protein digestion). When pyrroloquinoline quinone is added to aqueous suspensions of experimental diets, the recoveries of “free” PQQ becomes increasing lower in amount with a disappearance of “free” PQQ starting within minutes (Steinberg et al. 2003 PQQ improves growth and reproductive performance in mice fed chemically defined diets. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 228:160-6).

PQQ also forms a compound called imidazolopyrroloquinoline or IPQ (Mitchell et al. 1999 Characterization of pyrroloquinoline quinone amino acid derivatives by electrospray ionization mass spectrometry and detection in human milk. Anal Biochem. 269:317-25). Although one can infer from the Smidt paper linked above that IPQ is absorbed, there are no data for humans or animals that addresses the question of nutritional availability with precision.  Right now all we know is that biological effects elicited by PQQ (either in “free” form or as the salt) are observed in animals and humans.

Learn Quickly and Move On…

Entrepreneurial Hangover

I sustain a small functional supplement company with my father. I really enjoy it as a past time. It has brought my father and I closer together and the effort I put into it is synergistic with the Live Life Love project and keeps my entrepreneurial spirit alive.

The rules my father and I have set further for the endeavor are that the project must remain fun and not interfere with our daily activities. We have given ourselves permission to change the rules come the day it takes off, but for now it’s just a hobby. As such, we wanted our first product to be fun… but also something people would use. I have discussed in previous posts that a good entrepreneur always looks for a problem to solve. I’m an athlete but I also enjoy the occasional beer. Athletic training the day after alcohol consumption is not enjoyable so we found our problem to solve.

Problem: Athletes that need to train the day after a celebratory event

Solution: Hangover Vitamin

A formula based on the latest scientific studies was put together and Function — the hangover cure was born. So we have our first product but now we need to get an audience. Standard entrepreneurial operating procedure when you have a product to promote is to go to the “water holes” that potential customers might be dwelling. You make nice with whoever is overseeing the watering hole’s activity and get permission to market to their audience. So that is exactly what I did. I researched and reached out to a few dozen influential beer and wine bloggers to offer free samples of Function in order to get some potential favorable buzz. I believe in the product and have gotten great feedback so why not?

The result: “Beat it!!!” I should have known better… The last thing operators of premium alcoholic beverage sites want to be associated with is one of the negative aspects of alcohol. I might as well have been offering discounted bail bonds for alcohol related offenses. In hindsight, why would any of these folks want to showcase one of the potential downsides of the products they are promoting… even if I am offering a solution?

Anyway, I am now searching for other watering holes to mingle in, but I thought since I am usually positioning myself as the knowledgeable entrepreneur, I expose this error in the hope that it helps someone else. Also, to highlight that along the entrepreneurial path there are always missteps. The key is to learn quickly from them and move on.

MyPlate Controversy | Pie (chart) to Cure Obesity?

As you probably know by now the United States Department of Agriculture has retired the food pyramid and introduced MyPlate which has caused quite a stir in health and wellness circles. The outgoing food pyramid has been around for ages, but was deemed too complicated to understand (in the opinion of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack). So we now have a pie plate to guide our nutritional choices:


In my opinion, a departure from the food pyramid is a good thing because the previous imagery used by the USDA gave the misconception that a diet with a foundation in carbohydrates (any carbohydrates: cereal, muffins, bagels, etc.) was a healthy approach…

Food Pyramid

MyPlate still suggests eating carbohydrates but now has more of an emphasis on whole grains. In addition, the total area representing grain-based food (on the plate) is significantly less than the pyramid. It should be noted however that carbohydrates are hardly eliminated in the new USDA model. In fact, there is still an arguably large amount of carbohydrates on the plate via fruits and vegetables. It is assumed the rest of MyPlate accounts for protein requirements (apparently there is no room for fats, oils, or sweets anymore | just kidding).

The USDA has built the sub-site ChooseMyPlate to help encourage and educate parents and individuals on quality food sources and MyPlate in general. One admirable aspect of ChooseMyPlate that I like is it gives families ideas of healthy, yet economical dietary choices for those struggling to make the right decisions on a budget.

So the basic paradigm shift is that the food pyramid was founded on the premise that one should consume more of what was at the bottom (of the triangle) and eating less of those things found at the top. In contrast to MyPlate, the pyramid appeared to have more choice. However, the idea behind the design of MyPlate is to provide a simplistic and direct connection to the food we eat. At a rudimentary level, this makes sense.

I commend Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative to a healthier lifestyle and to the degree that people had difficulty understanding the former food symbol, I think we are moving in the right direction.

As with all good science it is important to continue the debate, there are those that believe mixing and matching food groups with nutrients will confuse consumers… and of course, different industry players and experts which might be affected by the promotion of MyPlate have their own opinions about the government’s efforts. There are also people that have conflicting ideologies about food intake, like Paleolithic diet proponents, or the PCRM with their vegetarian Power Plate.

Power Plate

So does all of this guarantee a healthier America? No. I am not a dietitian but portion control is a no-brainer when addressing weight management so it isn’t surprising that dietitians are perplexed by the lack of emphasis on portion control. However, in my opinion as a behavior change model MyPlate is moving us in the right direction… it is more usable, and will be much more helpful to children than its triangular predecessor.