ShapeUp: Turning a Passion Project from a Charitable Initiative to a Successful Business — and Leaving Med School to do so.
“Entrepreneurs are born, not made.”
Truly believing he fits into that mold, Kumar found himself discovering ways to earn his own money throughout his childhood — everything from lemonade stands to developing websites. This young man, born and raised in Connecticut from a family of doctors (35 of them in his family) had a keen interest for business and entrepreneurship.
However, while one might be born an entrepreneur and even explore entrepreneurial activities like Kumar did, it sometimes takes something more to fully realize that specific path is the right way to go.
Recognizing his business interests, but also wishing to follow the family profession (specifically pediatrics), Kumar entered into Brown University’s eight-year medical program. Unlike typical programs, which consist of four years undergrad followed by an application process and, hopefully, acceptance into another four years of med school, Brown’s program allows its students the flexibility of exploring other interests while pursuing a medical degree. For Kumar, he was able to nurture the creative and business side of his mind by majoring in business economics.
First Run at Business Ownership
During his sophomore year, Kumar partnered with a Rhode Island politician to launch a non-profit named “Adopt A Doctor.”
Identifying and selecting four of the world’s poorest nations from which doctors leave due to poor compensation and a lack of resources, Adopt A Doctor offered financial aid and other critical support for physicians in these countries so they could stay and save lives.
“This was my first official business,” Kumar said to me. Adding, “I got my feet wet in public speaking, raising money and running a business.”
Adopt A Doctor operated from its inception in 2003 until 2008.
The Journey Continues: Med School
Early on in medical school, Kumar took an interest in obesity. In his first year of seeing patients, he quickly became frustrated that he didn’t have any real tools or resources to help the patients looking to improve their overall health and wellness.
“Telling a patient, ‘just go on a diet,’ doesn’t work. I got very interested in finding legitimate a way to help,” Kumar said.
Kumar cited research out of Harvard around behavior spreading among social networks. Smoking, weight gain, etc. are a “collective outcome,” Kumar said, adding, “It’s truly a social phenomenon.”
Looking to leverage social support (something that is common practice for alcohol abuse (AA)), Kumar set out on another undertaking. In 2005, he created ShapeUp Rhode Island, a statewide exercise and weight loss campaign. The weight loss competition, as Kumar put it to me “is a mash up of Weight Watchers and The Biggest Loser.”
After raising a small amount of money from Brown and a few local companies, Kumar hired a small team in India to build out a registration portal. Thereafter, team leaders were identified, recruited and dealt the task of building teams for a weight loss challenge.
Kumar’s goal for the first run was 250 people.
Three months and 200 ‘Team Captains’ later, ShapeUp RI had 2,000 people signed up to compete. It was clear “there was a real opportunity here. There was an appetite for this,” Kumar said.
ShapeUp is Born… In a Brown University Library
The early success of ShapeUp RI continued as companies called Kumar, still in medical school at the time, to run customized wellness programs for their employees. Many of these companies were self-insured and therefore incentivized to run such programs in hopes of keeping healthcare costs down.
Lacking the ability to scale the program, Kumar, in the fall of 2006, enlisted the help of friend and fellow medical student, Brad Weinberg, who also happened to be a software developer.
Discussing the opportunity in a library on campus, Weinberg told Kumar, “I can build you the software platform of your dreams.” The two drew up a partnership agreement on a piece of notebook paper and ShapeUp, Inc. was alive.
To keep up with early demand, Kumar and Weinberg stopped going to class, choosing to stay on track of class notes through online portals.
Then things began to heat up.
They rolled out a platform, wrote up a business plan (“when they were still a thing,” as Kumar put it) and entered a couple competitions, which resulted in $75,000 in prize money.
Running ShapeUp and managing med school quickly become an impossible task, and the duo took a leave from Brown, opened an office, raised $300,000 in angel funding and started building a team.
Hearing about the fast-paced journey directly from Kumar was fascinating. Here were two aspiring doctors suddenly thrust into a scaling business, making life-changing decisions.
After two years on leave, another major decision came to light — Brown was going to take away their spot at the school if they didn’t return. Wanting to complete the journey they set out on some 6 years prior, they hired a management team to take over ShapeUp and returned to Brown to complete their medical degrees.
“Being back at school, as a student — it was the complete opposite of entrepreneurship,” Kumar said.
Now Doctors, the entrepreneurship bug bites again
Having tasted entrepreneurial success, both Kumar and Weinberg jumped back into it after graduating. Weinberg set out to NYC to build healthcare startup accelerator, Blueprint Health, while Kumar returned to ShapeUp, eventually taking over as CEO in 2012.
Kumar, excited about establishing a Boston presence, told me that while Rhode Island will always be home base, they’re making an aggressive push here in Boston. The company is actively hiring our local talent, specifically on the tech side, and Kumar already has visions of outgrowing their current space inside WeWork on Atlantic Ave.
Current State of the ShapeUp Product
ShapeUp’s platform, which uses a subscription model with pricing based on number of employees, allows companies to roll out varying levels of customized health and wellness campaigns.
The white-labeled platform is configured to replicate the client’s brand and can be managed internally, but also has key support elements from the ShapeUp team, who for instance, will help roll out an initial marketing campaign to get employees on board.
ShapeUp has over 600 customers, including the likes of Boeing, Southwest Airlines and JP Morgan Chase (who has 130,000+ employees using the product), and Microsoft is set to launch shortly.
There are several different features and products available. Highlighting a few:
Engagement Hub: centralizes programs in a single, intuitive interface, providing personalized program recommendations to employees.
Fitness & Nutrition Challenges: team competitions, which unite and motivate employees around healthy goals.
Empower℠ Weight Loss Program: helps employees lose weight in a healthy, sustainable way.
Coaching: licensed coaches provide invaluable accountability and guidance
Rewards: Chosen by the company (around a set budget) ShapeUp has more than 20 retail partners and a dozen charitable partners (employees can elect to make donations to specific organizations with their rewards).
Mobile Apps & Devices: fully integrated with more than 100 of the most effective and popular mobile health tools. ShapeUp’s native app helps employees track their activity and compete in challenges on the go.
Kumar tells me one of his main focuses at this point is on growing ShapeUp’s Boston presence (you’re invited to their Launch Party on 4/16 at WeWork).
“We’re hiring aggressively. Anyone passionate about health and well-being can be excited about ShapeUp. Keeping up with demand is a challenge, so we’re attacking that.”
Kumar built ShapeUp from a simple idea around organizing community members to improve health and wellness in a collaborative effort. He did this because he was frustrated with the lack of tools available to solve a real problem in today’s society, not because he saw a long-term business opportunity.
His vision and passion are around helping people. His natural, innate, entrepreneurial drive led him to recognize an opportunity to attain that vision through business rather than medical practice.
Thus far, Kumar has been quite successful. In Rhode Island alone, on this 10thanniversary of ShapeUp RI, they’ve now reached 70% of the people in the state. This is not only a sign of what’s ahead, but more so a testament to what Kumar, his product and his (growing) team are capable of.
There’s no doubt that ShapeUp’s presence will be known in Boston.
Originally published at venturefizz.com.