Dieting isn’t easy. In fact, it’s pretty damn hard. Most diet plans have strict guidelines that are difficult to stand by. Hiring a nutritionist can be effective, but the cost is generally out of reach for most people.
At some point last July, Homebrew Ventures founding partner Hunter Walk asked his Twitter followers if there was anyone who wanted to try out a new app for losing weight.
I weighed more than 190 pounds at the time. That wasn’t an all-time high for me, but it was close enough. So when I saw Hunter’s post, I was ready to give something — anything — a try. I asked for an intro to the founders of the app.
I was referred to Suneel Gupta, who just happens to be my colleague Leena Rao’s husband.* The first VP of product at Groupon, he moved back to the Bay Area with Leena about a year-and-a-half ago after leaving the daily deals giant to start something new.
He began working with Stuart Parmenter, who he had known from his time at Mozilla, and they began dreaming up a way that they could help people live healthier lives through the power of peer-to-peer networking and mobile connectivity.
The Origin of Rise
It’s hard to imagine now, based on Gupta’s slight frame, but once upon a time he was an overweight kid with overweight parents.
“When I was 14, I was 45 pounds overweight,” he tells me. That same year, both of his parents began having health problems that would require changes to the way they ate. After trying several different diets, however, nothing seemed to stick.
Eventually they found a nutritionist with a South Asian background who was able to help them make a number of small, gradual changes in the way that they cooked and the way that they ate which were a lot more sustainable for the family than trying to stick to some one-size-fits-all diet.
The concept behind Rise came in part from that experience. Having a diet coach to not only educate but to provide feedback on meal choices in a personalized way can drastically increase your chances of success when it comes to eating healthier and losing weight. It also helps dramatically in teaching you the necessary good habits needed to keep the weight off once it’s been lost.
Nutritionists are not cheap, however — they can run upwards of $300 a month. Also, finding one who fits your personal diet needs isn’t always easy.
With Rise, Gupta and Parmenter hoped to be able to more efficiently connect nutritionists with clients in a way that would make better use of their time and hopefully make personalized diet coaching affordable to users. The two set to work and launched a basic pilot of the app last summer.
That said, when I first asked Gupta for access to try out the product six months ago at the August Capital party, he wasn’t sure. The app was in testing and wasn’t quite ready for public consumption, he told me, and it definitely wasn’t ready for press. After some convincing,** I managed to get on the platform a few days later.
How Rise Works
Once I did get signed up for Rise, the first thing that struck me was how easy it was to use. There are no large catalogues of various fast foods or meal options to search through, as you might find with some diet apps. There’s no guessing how big a portion size is, or manually entering foods and trying to guess how many calories there were.
Rise, by contrast, is simple: You take a photo of each meal and write a pretty basic description of what you ate. That’s it.
Later, a personalized diet coach takes a peek and tells you what she thinks of your meal — i.e. what you did well and what you could do better next time. Over time, you start to take these little diet lessons to heart, which leads you to eat better eventually, oftentimes without even thinking about it.
My diet changed dramatically over the course of the first several weeks. First came the obvious tweaks: Have a light breakfast every morning, usually no-fat Greek yogurt and fruit or berries. Substitute salad for fries when possible. Hell, try to have a salad with every meal. Don’t eat heavy starches, bread, or non-whole grains.
Then there were other habits that were less obvious but got picked up over time. Instead of eating chips or other snacks we had around the office or at home, I started to stock up on fruits or nuts to munch on. I was never a big soda drinker, but I began to drink water and black coffee almost exclusively during the day.
Changes started to be reflected in the restaurants I chose to go to, the meals I cooked for myself, and even how I chose to eat or what I ordered when I was at an event or dinner with a limited menu. Forever a plate finisher, I also began to leave portions of my meals behind or saved them for later.
Part of the change was just pure education and causing me to re-think how I ate, but part of it also came from the accountability of knowing that I’d have to share each meal with my diet coach Kim. She was one of the earliest coaches to sign up, and has been kind and encouraging, while also nudging me occasionally when she knew I could eat better.
Working With Your Coach
When you first sign up for Rise, you’re asked what your objectives are, which helps the coach you’re matched up with to set objectives and create a diet plan that will work for you. You’re then given a choice of coaches to work with, and provided info about each, including their background and coaching style — which can range from “tough love” to encouraging to super encouraging.
You’re then outfitted with a plan, outlining what you should eat throughout the day. My objective was to lose weight, and so I have suggestions for five different meals each day, including breakfast, a morning snack, lunch, an afternoon snack, and dinner.
Each meal has a series of guidelines for what you can do to improve them day-to-day, and those guidelines change over time as you begin to meet your objectives and set new goals. All of that provides a level of personalization that you don’t get from typical diet apps.
Rise has hired former nutrition editor of Fitness Magazine Sara Wells to find nutrition coaches and get them signed up on the platform. Each of the nutritionists is credentialed, and all have to demonstrate a level of one-on-one success working with their own clients before joining.
Those coaches are given a dashboard through which they can view the meals of multiple clients and make comments. That dashboard is the key to the efficiency that Rise provides, enabling coaches to work with many more clients than they would connect with through weekly meetings. And because feedback happens more quickly — generally within a day — users are able to begin changing their habits more quickly.
The platform also enables Rise to offer diet coaching at a much lower cost than if you went out and hired your own nutritionist. Typical one-on-one nutritionists cost more than $300 a month. Rise, by contrast, is $48 each month or $15 a week. (The first 100 TechCrunch readers who want to give it a try can get 20 percent off their first week or month with the code TCBETA.)
But does it work? Well, it did for me. Between August and November I lost about 20 pounds. And despite travel and not-so-healthy eating during the holidays, I managed to maintain that weight. Now that things have calmed down, I’m hoping to lose another 10.
Investors And Advisors
The Rise team has assembled a pretty impressive group of investors and advisers. The company had raised $2.3 million in seed funding, which was led by Floodgate, along with Cowboy Ventures, Google Ventures, and Greylock.
Floodgate’s Ann Miura-Ko, who’s also on the boards of companies like Lyft, TaskRabbit and others, is a director, and Cowboy Ventures’ Aileen Lee is a board observer. Meanwhile, Greylock’s John Lilly — who hired Gupta at Mozilla — is an adviser.
Other advisers include Harvard’s Dr. Russ Phillips, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent (and Suneel’s brother) Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Mayo Clinic and White House Innovation Fellow Adam Dole, P90X founder Tony Horton, Uber COO Emil Michael, Flipboard CTO Eric Feng, OkCupid founder Sam Yagan, TaskRabbit founder Leah Busque, and Facebook growth lead Alex Schultz.
* There are a few disclosures I should probably get out of the way: Suneel is married to Leena, sure, but my interest in Rise came more from trying to lose weight than the coworker connection. It’s also worth noting that I have been testing out the pilot app for free over the last several months, though I’ve been giving the founders (what I hope is useful) product feedback along the way.
** I basically promised not to write about the app until it was ready for the Apple App Store.