An Interview with Mike Lee, CEO & Co-founder of MyFitnessPal

Next week the co-founders (and brothers!) of MyFitnessPal, Mike and Albert Lee, will sit down with Jane Sarasohn-Kahn during our session 3 CEOs at Health 2.0’s Eighth Annual Conference. Our own CEO, Indu Subaiya, recently asked Mike a few questions about their popular app, the business, and big trends in personal tracking.

IS: Can you tell us the story (again!) behind how MyFitnessPal started?

MFP: The idea for the app actually stemmed from a personal need. My wife and I were preparing for our beach wedding and we both wanted to lose a little weight. We went to see a fitness trainer and he gave us a book listing the nutritional values of around 3,000 foods and a small pad of paper to use for tracking our calories. I’ve been programming since I was 10 years old, so I just knew there had to be a better way to keep track of my meals and snacks, but I couldn’t find anything online that was good enough. Every digital product on the market at that time was just as painful and time-consuming to use as food-logging in that notebook. So, I built my own solution, and it eventually became MyFitnessPal.

It really started as a side project—I’d spend a few hours here and there, on weekends and evenings building the earliest version of MyFitnessPal. I started by sharing the website with family and friends, and finally launched MyFitnessPal in September 2005. Eventually, I realized it was too big to be a side project, and decided to focus solely on MyFitnessPal as a business. My brother Al joined me in early 2009 to head up development and redesign, and we launched our first iOS app later that year.

Since, we’ve helped more than 65 million people achieve and maintain a healthier and happier lifestyle. We have a database of nearly 4 million foods and hundreds of exercises, top fitness technology partners, and community insights. We’ve become the leading resource for achieving and maintaining health goals.

IS: With the explosion of device and platform announcements from the tech giants, how do you see MyFitnessPal playing within this ecosystem, as clearly you already have a massive platform with valuable data.

MFP: I get excited about all the different devices that are being introduced to help people lead healthier lives — we currently integrate with 80% of the wearables on the market, meaning we have such a wealth of ways to help our users get more data about their health. A rule of thumb is that health is generally achieved via 75 percent diet and 25 percent exercise. No one offers the breadth and depth we have in the nutrition space.

IS: Your platform collects incredible amounts of data from its users, what do you plan to do analytically with this data? Do you have plans for population health level analyses? What insights has it given you already?

MFP: With a user base constantly inputting their health goals, foods eaten, fitness and calorie-burning activities performed and weight data, among other things, MyFitnessPal has become the largest-ever longitudinal study of health behaviors in human history.

Right now, the way we use our data is aligned with what we call the true North of MyFitnessPal: user success.

We have created a virtuous cycle with our data: users add to and improve our health data and expand our food database, we use that data to improve the product to drive more user success, and more success leads to more users, which leads to even more data.

We are always looking at the possibility of partnering with academics or health professionals to do more in-depth studies — for right now, our top priority is user success and trust.

IS: Can you tell us about a personal insight that MyFitnessPal has given you?

MFP: One of the first things I did was log a sandwich, and I had no idea that mayo had so many calories — 90 calories per tablespoon vs. only 5 per tablespoon for mustard. Basically, since that day, I haven’t eaten mayo. There have been tons of insights, but that one is the first and it’s really stuck with me. I just don’t eat mayo anymore, and it’s saved me literally thousands of calories over the years.

IS: MyFitnessPal has such a large and dedicated following, what makes users so loyal to MFP? How will you keep them interested long-term?

MFP: We solve what we call the “Healthy Living Dilemma.” Living a healthy life is hard. It’s often easier to live an unhealthy life than it is to make healthier choices. We have to eat to live, so it’s almost inevitable that we end up on food autopilot, eating unconsciously. Sugar, fried foods, salty snacks, processed foods – all the unhealthy things – just taste good. Good-for-you choices are less available than unhealthy foods – and healthy foods tend to cost more. Finally, there’s a vast ocean of health information that the average consumer finds overwhelming and unintelligible.

Basically, the system is broken. MyFitnessPal aims to fix it by making it crystal clear what every individual user needs to do to live a healthier life and making it easier for them to actually do it. We help people create and maintain healthy habits. That’s powerful.

We will continue to grow our offering with user success in mind. As long as we’re helping them be successful, I believe we will maintain this loyalty and interest.

IS: What is one big trend or change that you predict in personal tracking?​

MFP: Well, obviously we’re all watching Apple’s watch — but, even before that, there is a device that’s with you 24/7: your smartphone. It has a tremendous capacity for capturing relevant data. MyFitnessPal is poised to harness the power of the smartphone to create a round-the-clock tool for healthy living.

What’s exciting to me about devices like the watch, is that they are so feature-rich, which means that more people will have them and have access to health data almost inadvertently. People will get more engaged in their health, because it’s there. It will inspire people to start thinking about it.

Your phone or watch becomes your gateway drug to health. It’s not the primary reason people will have this device, but they’ll get fitness tracking with their communications capabilities and perhaps develop new habits because of it.

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