Wearables, Digital Privacy, the Quantified Self, and Tom Brady’s Pajamas
A conversation with Under Armour’s Mike Lee
By Dan Costa
Mike Lee is currently the Chief Digital Officer of Under Armour, an athletic wear company that is also churning out some of the most innovative wearables on the market. Lee joined the company in 2015 after he sold his startup company, MyFitnessPal, to Under Armour for $475 million. At the time of the sale, MyFitnessPal had more than 80 million registered users. It is safe to say the user base has grown since then.
Dan Costa: We are at CES, at the Sands Convention Center, just a couple blocks from the convention center. You made some big announcements today in the wearables market.
Mike Lee: Yes, we’re announcing our Sleep and Recovery System. There’s a bunch of different components to it. The first is the TB12 sleepwear that we just introduced. It’s actually a pretty amazing piece of technology. UnderArmour’s always been a company that’s been founded on innovation and how we can bring benefits to athletes, how we can make athletes better.
You’ve got a pretty great spokesperson for this product.
That’s right. This product was developed in conjunction with Tom Brady as a partnership. Tom, for years, has been using this technology to help him recover faster. The way it works is this is sleepwear. They’re incredibly comfortable, but on the inside, they’re printed with a bio-ceramic that actually takes your internal body heat and reflects it, a portion of it back into your body as far infrared. There are a lot of scientific studies that have shown the benefits of far infrared therapy. It actually regulates your cell metabolism better. It helps you sleep better. It increases your energy levels. If you wear this sleepwear, it’s like having a six- to eight-hour far infrared therapy session, all while you’re sleeping, which is fantastic.
He obviously swears by it, so the technology’s been around. You are commercializing it and getting it in a lot more people’s hands.
That’s right. It’s another thing that we really love to do is think about the tools that elite athletes have, how do we democratize those and bring those to everyone in the world? That’s what we’ve done in partnership with Tom.
It’s interesting, because UnderArmour’s been talking about technology for a while through a variety of technology initiatives, but there are a lot of companies that have technology spin-offs, but it seems like it’s almost part of your DNA, it’s part of the mission of UnderArmour.
The company started through innovation. It was Kevin Plank recognizing that when he stepped off the field in a cotton T-shirt it was soaked with sweat, literally 10 pounds of sweat that was hindering his performance, weighing him down. How could he improve his performance on the field through the compression shirt that we developed? That’s always been a part of the company. Today, that’s the lens that we drive our innovation through. How do we make athletes better? Sleepwear is one way we do that. We introduced a number of other things today, happy to talk to you about, but they’re all centered around how we help athletes better, become better.
Let’s talk about the connected sneakers. You’ve had connected sneakers in the past, but you’ve got more options now.
That’s right. We’ve introduced some new models. They all have the same technology underneath, which is there’s an accelerometer inside of the shoe, but what has been really fun for us as we have continued to work on the shoes is we’re recognizing more and more the power that you can get from that data. The innovation that we’re announcing here at CES is we’ve developed a test to help you assess your readiness, to quantify your readiness to train. What we found was that when we’re working with elite athletes, they were doing a similar test, but they were using $30,000 pieces of equipment, there were laser arrays that would measure in a very precise way, so you use the equipment and do six quick jumps, and that would actually tell the trainer how ready you were to train, based on your central nervous system reaction time, your ground contact time, et cetera, et cetera, and what we realized was that with this chip in the shoe, we could actually get the same level of accuracy, or a near equivalent level of accuracy around that test, but with a shoe that costs $160 that everybody can access.
Is it you’re ready to work out because you’re warmed up, your blood is pumping, your muscles are loose?
No. It’s more about making sure that you don’t overtrain. That’s one of the biggest dangers when you run, is that if you overtrain, you risk injury. You’re not actually getting the maximum benefit out of your workout. It was very difficult in the past to figure out how ready, actually, am I, to train? That’s what the jump around test does, is it quantifies that for you, so that you can really get an accurate assessment of how ready am I to go today, how hard should I go today, and then you can start, as you collect that data over time, you could start to see what things impact it. How does sleep impact my readiness? How does rest impact my readiness? How does really hard training sessions impact my readiness? We think it’s a really valuable metric that will really help athletes take more control over their training in the same way that our elite athletes do.
Talk a little bit about the two groups. There’s the elite athletes that are using all this data, and frankly, there’s a financial incentive for them to figure out and use it, and maximize their potential. How does that apply to the average consumer who is just starting off running, or is trying to maintain just a healthy lifestyle?
What we’re finding is that we learn so much from how athletes train, because obviously, they’re the pinnacle, they have very extreme use cases. How they think about nutrition, how they think about sleep, how they think about recovery. As we have studied those athletes, what we’ve been finding is that normal people, you need the same tools. They just use them in different ways. For example, nutrition. If you’re an elite athlete, you’re thinking about your macro-nutrient ratios, you’re thinking about potassium and magnesium, et cetera, but you need a meal plan, you need to be told what to eat. You need to eat in the right quantities, et cetera, et cetera. If you’re an average person, you may not care that much about potassium or magnesium, or whatever, but you still need guidance. You need that same meal plan. What should I eat? What are the things that are good for me based on my dietary needs? The same tool set is useful for both customer segments, which has us really excited about we can take these innovations and bring them down to the masses.
Also, you were the founder of MyFitnessPal, now owned by UnderArmour. The great thing about MyFitnessPal, and there are many great things about the product, but it created that social network and a community of people that used it. It seems like UnderArmour’s going to go in that same direction, try and build on that.
Absolutely…a big rationale for the acquisition was that we now have a community of over 190 million people who we know are really engaged with their health and fitness, want to make changes in their lives, want to lead better lives. That’s the UnderArmour customer, right? The more we can help them achieve their goals, the more that we can help them lead better lives. We hope the more brand affinity they’ll have for us, the more they realize how our products, our other products can help them succeed. That is definitely a big part of why we’re in this space.
A year ago, we were at CES. Everybody was toting wearables. We said it was going to be the year of the wearable. There’s still a ton of wearables on the market, and here at the show. A lot of people are a little disappointed, hoped that the wearable market was going to go a different direction. Do you think it was just too early? Expectations were too high? How do you see the wearable market shaping up?
I just think it’s early. Look, there’s a lot more innovation coming. As we look around the market and see the types of sensors that people are thinking about, and also I think people are getting much better at understanding how to interpret the data, and turn it into actionable insights. That’s part of actually what we’ve created with the new sleep functionality that we’re leasing on record, so we’ve had a partnership with Johns Hopkins. The Hopkins sleep experts have helped us figure out how to interpret the sleep data to really coach you around how to get better sleep, how to get better recovery. Some things that we can see in the patterns of the day are things like, are you sleeping at consistent … Are you going to bed at a consistent time? Are you waking up at a consistent time? That’s actually really critical to how you get better sleep, get more restful sleep. That is something that we can now coach you on through the new functionality that we’ve developed.
Sleep’s also a universal consumer problem, where you don’t have to be an elite athlete in order to maximize your sleep. Sleep deprivation is a huge problem. I think you said the exact right thing, that it’s early days. Also, wearables are not a platform. We needed applications. A wearable’s just a means to an end. Now, we’re starting to come up with those applications, like monitoring sleep that wearables enable, but it’s not the core … It’s not about the device.
Again, it’s about how do we take the data that we can collect, and make meaning of it for you as a customer. How do we make your lives better through that data? That’s been our focus certainly for the past year, if not longer, around how do we coach you around the things that we’re collecting, and make it easier for you to lead a healthier life.
What do you personally track? I imagine you use all UnderArmour products.
I’m a runner, so I track my runs. I, of course, use MyFitnessPal. I’ve really been engaged in sleep lately. I think I’m not the best sleeper, so in some ways the sleep functionality that we have was designed for me. A lot of times, when we were doing product development, designing for yourself is actually a pretty good muse so you can really empathize with the customer, and I’m learning a lot about my sleep based on the tools that we’ve built. I definitely was an inconsistent sleeper. I’ve become much more consistent and it’s really made a big difference.
The primary thing being able to bed the same time, wake up the same time?
Create that pattern, lock it in.
Keep it going on weekends?
That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Weekends is a tough one for a lot of people, but if you can be consistent, you end up sleeping through the night more often. You have less wake periods. It’s easier for you to go to bed and wake up when you need to. That pattern and consistency is really powerful.
I just read some research about NBA players, and how sleep was really directly improving their performance if they got eight hours of sleep before a game.
If you talk to elite athletes, what they will tell you is that it’s not the two hours in the gym that leads to their advantages, it’s the 22 hours outside of the gym that gives them their edge. All the athletes that we work with, they have been very focused on these things for years. What they’re consuming, how they’re sleeping, making sure that they don’t overtrain.
I track everything, upload it to databases, spreadsheets, just to have the data, just to access it. I’ve got my weight over the last 18 months, weight every day so I can see nice charts. Doesn’t move very much. A lot of people are concerned about putting all that information out there, giving it to a company, even sharing it with their doctor over long periods of time. How do you address those privacy concerns?
Look, I think that’s totally understandable and merited. I think our perspective on data and privacy is that if we are not good stewards … Our North Star as a company is how do we help our customers succeed? Our core belief is if we help our customers succeed at reaching their goals, then we will succeed as a company. It’s easy to make money, to grow, to do all the things that you want to do as a business if people love your product, and get a ton of value out of it. When it comes to privacy and data, we have to be good stewards of our customers’ data. We have to treat their data as if it was our own, because if they don’t trust us with their data, they won’t give it to us, and then we can’t help them. Right? I think that is a mantra that we preach at the company all the time, that trust is built in drops, but lost in buckets. We are very sensitive to making sure that we are, again, being good stewards of our customers’ data. We have to do that in order to succeed.
UnderArmour’s got smart fabrics. You’ve got smart shoes. You’ve got the … You’re working in the sleep space. What comes next? Where do you expand to?
The North Star is how do we make athletes better, how do we help our customers succeed, so we’re continuing to look at … There’s a lot more that we think we can do around sleep and recovery, so we have a lot more innovations planned on that. We’re continuing to work on how we can make it easier for you to eat a proper diet, a balanced diet, the right foods at the right times in the right quantities. Again, it’s all just about how do we help our customers succeed. We’ve got a lot of things in the pipeline that we’re pretty excited about, that we think will make it easier for people to do that.
Long term, in terms of wearable technology and quantified self, what are you personally most excited about?
I think, to me, what we’re really focused on is not so much new sensors or new types of data. It’s how do we take the data that we already have and make it more useful for customers. The more and more that we’ve looked at that, the more and more that we’ve focused on that, we are finding that there is actually a ton of value that you can get out of the data that you already have. We just have to reveal it to users in the right way, at the right time, in the right place. We think that there’s a lot of improvements that we can make there. You’re starting to see some of those in the functionality that we’ve been releasing lately, but there’s a lot more to come. I think that’s what we’re excited about.
The sensors are in place. The data’s coming in. We need really good dashboards, and we need ways to make sense of it. And make it actionable.
Read more: “Art, Online Privacy, and Mark Zuckerberg’s House,” a conversation with Mozilla’s Chris Lawrence.
Originally published at //www.pcmag.com/article/350926/fast-forward-with-mike-lee-under-armours-chief-digital-off.