A new startup currently participating in the Summer 2013 cohort of Y Combinator called Weilos wants to make weight loss attempts more sticky and more accountable by pairing those with weight loss goals with coaches who have already achieved theirs for personalized, one-on-one training. It’s yet another example of the crowdsourced services economy at work, and one that also hits the current hot spot of health, diet and fitness.
Weilos is the product of a union between co-founders Ray Wu, an MD from Cornell, and Alex Perelman, a former Activision employee with an MBA and a degree in Computer Science from Berkeley. Both wanted to effect change in the world to address the growing concern of obesity in the U.S., in a way that would actually work; it’s an oft-repeated refrain, but the fact that obesity levels continue to rise proves that no one yet has come up with a good solution.
Where Wu and Perelman’s concept differs from most is that it recognizes 1) there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to well-being and weight loss, and 2) the best way to promote continued use of a program is to build in some kind of direct personal interaction, and personal accountability, rather than just trust users to follow a program on their own.
“The reason we’re really excited about it is because obesity, weight loss, is one of the biggest health issues we’re facing today, and we just wanted to create an effective solution that really works by empowering passionate people who have succeeded themselves and allowing them to help others,” Wu explained in an interview. “The one unique thing that we’re doing is that our coaches are people who themselves have lost weight, and the most exciting thing for me is actually meeting people and seeing how knowledgeable they are and how excited they are to help others.”
Wu and his team carefully screen all coaches signing up to provide their services on the platform, and have received over 100 applications so far but approved only around less than half that to actively participate. Making sure that coaches on the platform have demonstrated their own success, and are trustworthy individuals is key to Weilos’ ability to attract users, and pre-screening, as well as coach ratings are in place to help ensure that happens.
I asked Wu about the legal implications of providing a platform where amateurs provide health advice to the general populace. He says that Weilos itself is just connecting people, not providing advice itself, and that the company is very careful to advise coaches not to provide any actual medical advice to their clients. There are also tools in place to help both coaches and users report activity that might be detrimental to user health, like if someone were to use the platform to seek out or promote pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia behaviour, for instance.
It’s very early days yet for Weilos, which is still tinkering with its revenue model according to Wu (“we’re 100 percent focused on making sure this truly works”) but currently allows coaches to choose to either take a monthly subscription fee from their clients or do it for free, depending on their personal preference.
Asked why Weilos has an advantage over things like the quantified self device movement, that focuses on activity trackers like the Fitbit Flex or apps like RunKeeper to motivate healthy behaviour, Wu said it’s all about the social interaction.
“With quantified self app, the responsibility is on you, and that can work for a small percentage of people,” he said. “But I think that more of a structured social component, where someone else is taking responsibility for your success in losing weight adds a lot, and being on your own is where a lot of people fall off with other solutions.”
Weilos has had nearly 1,000 users signed up so far, and those active on the network are losing at a rate of around 1 to 2 pounds per week, which is above the averages reported for programs like Weight Watchers. The use of crowdsourced services is infiltrating everything from transport to project management, so weight loss, a massive potential market, is a good target for someone like Weilos, provided they get the mix right and can scale while keeping the quality of coaches high.