A little over a year ago I was a much bigger guy than I am now. And when I say “big” I mean big. To be exact, I weighed 280 pounds. The U.S. Center for Disease Control says a person of my height (6’1”) and age (at the time I was 35) should weigh 140 to 189 pounds. I was almost 100 pounds over the high end of that spectrum. My BMI was over 38, when it should have been 19-24.
Combine a BMI of 38 with my age and I was primed for a range of possible diseases including heart attack, diabetes, high blood pressure, certain types of cancer, stroke, and…well, the list goes on. But even more pressing than worse than the horrors of disease, my body was starting to feel it. I had been big in my teens and part of my twenties, but in my thirties I felt it—the tiredness, the aches in my joints—like I never had before.
I knew I needed to change, I needed to get healthy. And as a journalist who until then mainly covered technology, I was a big believer in the ability of health tech to empower personal change. The problem, I found, is no one diet app or fitness tracker works for everyone—none did for me. I knew the product I needed that would help me lose weight and get healthy, but no one made it. That’s when I decided that sometimes, if you’re serious about your health goals, you have to go out there and create that technology yourself. Here’s my story and what I learned along the way.
Being fat sucks. That’s probably not a newsflash to anyone. But what may surprise you, especially if you’ve never been fat, is that extra weight sucks for different reasons depending on your age.
I was a thin kid until I was about ten years old. Then for whatever reason, I started eating more and putting on weight. When I was 17, on December 31, 1994 I stepped on the bathroom scale in my family’s house and saw it read “289 lbs”. I remember crying, not because of the shockingly high number, but because when you are a teenager the reason being fat sucks is that you aren’t attractive to the opposite sex. I was going off to college in just nine months and so wanted my first girlfriend by the time I got there.
I remember I made a New Year’s resolution with myself then and there: I would lose 100 pounds before my 18th birthday in August and I would go off to college all thin so I could get a girlfriend. This goal, of course, seemed insurmountable, especially since I had tried every kind of diet before, most recently sticking to pre-packaged meals with clearly labeled calorie content. As I knew the formula for losing weight—consume fewer calories than you expend—these meals allowed me to easily track my caloric intake. But the problem with the pre-packaged meals was that the lack of variety often got boring, so I couldn’t stick with the diet. But when I tried to cook my own meals using fresh, natural ingredients I was quick to find out that the human eye naturally misjudges the true calorie content of foods, so I ended up overeating.
But suddenly, standing on that bathroom scale on New Years Eve I came up with a solution.
On January 1, 1995 I went to the store and bought a kitchen scale and one of those 800-page nutrition bibles. For the next eight months I cooked and ate every meal at home and weighed and recorded every single ingredient of every meal. I then took that ingredient’s weight and manually calculated its nutrition content according to what was listed in the nutrition bible. As you can imagine, this manual weighing and nutrition calculation added a lot of time (about 30 minutes) to every meal’s preparation, but it ensured two things: first, that I was eating a range of nutritious, fresh foods; and second, that I wasn’t going over my set calorie intake for the day.
And it worked. In eight months I lost 100 pounds and went off to college. My new six-pack-self had four years of attention from more girls than my fat-teenage-self could have every imagined.
But then real life happened. College and the free time to spend 45 minutes preparing each meal ended. I got jobs with a few high-profile companies—which demanded 10-12 hour work days. Work and family commitments; rent and student loans; life took over. A kitchen scale and nutrition bible calculations, who had the time?
The years went by and some of the weight came back. Then I got a job with Apple in Cupertino. And boy, no industry feeds you like tech and Apple was no exception. Okay, they don’t shove the food down your throat, but the moment you step into Caffe Macs, their on-campus employee cafeteria, you want to EAT. Homemade pizzas, pastas, gourmet sandwiches, sushi—you name it, they have it. All prepared by master chefs.
And it was in 2006 in Caffe Macs, eating all this good food, working for my dream company, that I had never felt worse about myself. I had come so far professionally, even personally, but health-wise my life was in a downward spiral. I had gained a majority of my weight back and my body suffered: my joints hurt, I had stomach pains, headaches.
Biting into an amazing piece of Cupertino-made spinach artichoke pizza I remember thinking, “If only I knew the calorie content of this I could manage my intake. I could lose weight again.” And I thought about how I lost weight as a teenager and wished Caffe Macs offered kitchen scales and nutrition bibles so people that wanted to could manually calculate their own calories. But, as I had found out after college, in the real world who has the extra time for that?
And that’s when I got my idea, sitting in Apple’s headquarters, eating Apple’s food: what if there were a kitchen scale that did the nutrition calculations for you—a smart food nutrition scale that you could set your food on and see its total calorie content in seconds? That’s exactly what I needed someone to make if I were to get healthy again.
The only problem with my revelation for a smart food nutrition scale was though the next five years would see the advent of the iPhone, followed by the iPad, and then the explosion of personal health tech like wireless body scales and fitness trackers (none of which worked for me), no one was making my smart food nutrition scale.
So in mid-2012 when I tipped the scales at 280 pounds again at the age of 35 I knew that if anyone was ever going to make the tech I needed to lose weight it was going to have to be me. And two years later my product—SITU, the smart food nutrition scale—has finally gone on sale.
But getting to this point wasn’t easy. I never wanted to be an entrepreneur or a tech CEO. I enjoy writing about entrepreneurship and technology leaders, but starting my own tech company? No way. I created SITU out of necessity, my necessity, which is why I tell people I’m a “reluctant entrepreneur.”
In all honesty all I had to begin with was an idea, some sketches of the app, and a burning desire to lose weight. I knew in order to bring SITU from an idea in my mind to a physical product on my countertop I was going to need a lot of help. That help first came in the form of Jose Farinha, a longtime friend and former tunneling engineer who was one of the few to “just get” the idea even though he wasn’t a person who needed a tool like SITU. We decided to form a company to bring the product to life. Besides being a creative person who greatly helped me refine my ideas, Jose is great at ops, so having a person like him really strengthened areas I was lacking in.
Once we formed the company we didn’t look at the end goal–the final product. That would have seemed too overwhelming. Instead we set micro goals: get the app design finalized, interview and hire a good developer, interview and hire a good electronics engineer, find a good product designer who meshed with us creatively, learn and understand how different plastics can give you different design options, find a manufacturer, learn how distribution and fulfillment works…the list goes on and on and on…
The process of making SITU was a long one. Sometimes it was exciting, sometimes it was a hell of a lot of fun, but it was also very stressful and at some points, when we got too far ahead of ourselves, it was overwhelming. But the entire process has changed my life and enabled me to get healthy again and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Using the prototype SITU hardware and beta software I was able to lose 80 pounds—and it feels as wonderful as you would think.
And now that Jose and I have created SITU a number of people have confided in me that they have their own thoughts of bringing an invention to market. They ask me for my best bits of advice. Here’s what I tell them:
I only created SITU because it’s what I needed to achieve my own personal health goals. In that way, it was a selfish venture on my part.
But creating a product solely for myself ended up being an advantage. I didn’t get into the trap of trying to answer the unanswerable question “What will sell to others?” This freed me from second-guessing every design and user interface choice of both the hardware and software and allowed me to simplify the product. And SITU is extremely simple: launch the iPad app, put food on the scale, see its nutrition content. Getting to the first working SITU prototype cost over $50,000 and at the end of the day, if it had caught on with no one and all I had to show for my work in creating SITU was one $50,000 kitchen scale I would have been content because it allowed me to lose weight again.
I believe it’s because I was free from the constrains of designing SITU for others—and didn’t even care if I made money from it—that the first prototype turned out as well as it did, which, ironically, made it appeal to a large amount of people.
After the prototype helped me accomplish my weight loss, Jose and I decided to go to Kickstarter, raising over $60,000 in a month. Once we started getting a lot of press, it was astonishing how many emails, messages, and phone calls we received from not only other people who wanted to lose weight like me, but from diabetics and athletes, from health organization leaders and obesity researchers. Everyone who contacted us made us see our product in a new light and had suggestions on how to tailor it to fit their specific needs.
Any time your promote change, no matter if its losing 100 pounds or starting your own company and brining your invention to market, know that there will be unintended revelations along the way, most of them unpleasant.
After I lost 80 pounds using SITU I looked like a completely different person. While it was obvious to me that my physical attraction would increase to others, what I didn’t expect was the change in how professional contacts treated me. Without calling anyone out, I’ll just say I was shocked to learn of how much people judge your abilities based on your body size. Suddenly the exact same ideas Thin Michael had were better and more valid than when Fat Michael had them.
It was a revelation I wish I could unlearn.
This last bit of advice I can’t take credit for, though I’d like to because it’s the most valuable. In May of 2001 I was working for a film studio at the Cannes Film Festival. I was at a press junket with a director and his actors. Someone from the press asked the director if he thought his film, which departed radically from most Hollywood narratives and techniques, could be a viable commercial success given some people just didn’t understand it. Before the director could answer the film’s lead stood up from his table at the opposite end of the room. “If they don’t get it, fuck ‘em,” the star shouted. “We understand it, we know it’ll work, and that’s all that matters.”
That film went on to be nominated for multiple Oscars.
When I (that is, Fat Michael—see #3 above) first described SITU to people hardly anyone besides Jose got it. Most couldn’t grasp the concept of why SITU was a better solution than manually entering the things you ate in random food logging apps. Worse than the people who didn’t get it though, were the people who didn’t get it yet still proceeded to tell me why it wouldn’t work.
I frequently heard “I’d never use it.”, “That won’t work.’, “If it were a good idea someone would have done it by now.” Or worst of all: “You shouldn’t do that. Here’s what you should do.”
And to those people I said “Fuck ‘em” (in my head anyway. To their face I smiled, thanked them for their advice and then carried on with my plans).
My point is, everyone becomes an expert on why something can’t be done when you tell them your idea. This is mainly because most everyone likes to have something to say—most everyone is just waiting for their turn to speak—even if they don’t have a real understanding of the subject.
It was the same feedback I got from many when I told people I wanted to lose 80 pounds. “You? Eighty pounds thinner? No way.” “No one can lose eighty pounds without surgery.” “You’ll lose twenty and then gain it back. Trust me, I’ve tried.” “Want a piece of pie?”
And if I wouldn’t have said “Fuck ‘em” to those people in my head and smiled and continued on about my plans I wouldn’t be where I am today. Two years later and I’ve kept the weight off. I’m thinner and healthier than I’ve been in almost two decades and I have a kick ass health tech product to boot.
So the next time someone tells you you can’t achieve your personal or professional goals?
Michael Grothaus is a journalist and the co-founder and CEO of SITU Scale.