We’ve covered the New York startup Noom several times in the past. Noom is a popular diet/fitness app with over 18 million downloads globally. Back in August, the team launched its Japanese version with its Android app ‘Noom Diet Coach’. The app was updated today with a new group feature that had been available to US users since May. Based on a user’s target weight, age, sex, and location, the app automatically adds users to their groups. Because of their similar characteristics and goals, these groups can be a big motivator to Noom users.
On the release of this new feature app we asked Noom CEO, Saeju Jeong, a little about team building, the challenge of launching and marketing in the Japanese market, and the future of the healthcare sector.
The Bridge: Tell us a little about your background and how you ended up starting your own business.
Jeong: I was raised in the country side in South Korea, and went to Seoul to study electronic engineering at HongIk University. I started my first media business, a record label at age 19, and it quickly took over the Korean music market. I moved to New York in 2005 after dropping out of the college so I could achieve a little more. I built my connections and a network from scratch, and ended up working as an executive producer for the broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie, hiring some of the top talent in the industry. I met my cofounder, Artem Petakov, in 2006. We cofounded WorkSmart Labs (our former company name) in 2007.
The Bridge: Was founding a company in Korea an option for you?
Jeong: No. From the start of the company, my idea was that in Korea we would fail to get the sort of top talent needed to build a truly strong global company. If I want to build a global company, its going be hard to hire the such talent in Shanghai, Korea, etc. NY was simply the best location to hire the best talent, and that would accelerate the company’s growth. I came to NY with no network, but I knew I would find something once I came here. You don’t really know until you take the risk and do it. But I see that sort of risk as an opportunity.
The Bridge: What qualities or skillsets would be ideal for entrepreneurs?
Jeong: It’s those who are always curious about new things, those who like solving problems. If you believe you can fix the problem, that represents tremendous energy to overcome future struggles and obstacles. There is no manual to fix a problem. So you just have to figure it out. Use the best knowledge you have and then move on.
The right stuff
The Bridge: What do you look for when you’re hiring for Noom?
Jeong: (cites three things)
- The skillset that meets the job description (engineering, marketing, business… any position) – this is basic.
- Communication skills – teamwork cannot be done without communication.
The Bridge: What word would be the most appropriate to explain the current Noom team?
Jeong: I would say that they’re smart, open-minded, and like a family.
The Bridge: How do you go about finding talent?
Jeong: All kind of channels – we do everything to get the top talent. It’s just like dating – if you want to date someone, you try every single way to attract that person. We are open to every opportunity that will let us hire the best talent. Our bar is very high. The interview process is very long and tough, and it’s not easy to get into.
The Bridge: Who are Noom users?
Jeong: Most users are female in their 20s and 30s, and even their 40s. More than 40% of our users stay with Noom even after 2 years. Some users want to lose weight for a special occasion, others just to look better and gain confidence. Many women after having a baby, perhaps they gained weight and want to lose it.
The Bridge: What do you care most about your product?
Jeong: Results. We want to deliver a product that enables users to get good results through better habits and better lifestyles. This drives how we improve the service, through the UI, etc.
The Bridge: Why should users choose Noom over the many competitors out there?
Jeong: We are different from all those healthcare products. Noom provides intelligent nutrition/exercise coaching plus motivational support, 24/7, all available in your pocket! So it’s sustainable in the long term. We also know that logging is important, but we also know that it is hard to keep logging. So we analyze the data of users, and provide active coaching. What we are promising is very difficult. We want to build an AI and its not easy at all. We learn everyday how users are behaving and make changes to our product.
The Bridge: Do you localize features and the app itself to suit local markets?
Jeong: Features and designs are universally the same because our strength is our background in technology and design. We are truly proud of our talented engineers’ and designers’ work on the product so far. But we do have localized task content, the food database, etc, to serve Japanese users.
The Bridge: What do you think you need to be the most careful of when marketing to the Japanese market?
Jeong: We are a startup so we move fast, and make judgements quickly too. So we will need to stay patient, not judging the market too fast. Setting an appropriate timeline will be very important. Also, taking care of the voices of locals will be important too. The message and language towards users in the market has to be 100% local. I respect the lifestyle of Japanese people. What we are good at is providing the right technology, but we don’t want to be just a “Made in the USA technology company,” no. There is a saying that “the customer is the king” in Korea, and this applies to Japanese users too. We are from New York, but if one user is not happy about our service, we listen. That’s how we have developed our product and how we can improve the product as well.
The Bridge: How do you promote Noom?
Jeong: We always emphasize that we don’t over-market like many other weight loss service providers. In US, we have incurred no user acquisition cost, ever. We focus on service quality and interact a lot with users. We listen carefully to what they need. But we have global partners such as Curves, the world’s biggest fitness gym chain, Amore Pacific, a famous Korean cosmetic brand, as well as well institutions like the NIH (National Institution of Health) and the United Nations. Collaborating with those global partners will definitely help make our brand trusted by users, so we’d like to continue working with partners that have the same goal of helping people live healthier through diet and exercise.
The Bridge: Do you have a different approach to different markets?
Jeong: We are savvy about how people’s needs differ by country. Why people want to lose weight is different in the US, Korea, Japan, etc. So we will differentiate the messaging accordingly.
The Bridge: How do you see the mobile wellness/fitness sector in the future?
Jeong: I think wearable devices are disrupting the hardware industry. Laptop features have improved dramatically, with faster CPUs. Smart phones improve every six months. […] We started seeing wearable devices recently, not many yet, but these new devices are going to be disruptive – cheaper, durable, lighter, faster. As a software maker, we see it as an opportunity. Software makers create more fun, interesting services, and create ecosystems. There are more than 100 companies who make wearable devices like Fitbit already! We can provide a better software experience, lighter, cheaper, and faster. People will be used to seeing more of this kind of things, and the entire market will grow faster than ever.
The Bridge: Is there any interesting new service or product you think is particularly interesting?
Jeong: A food scanner, which will be on the market in two years. It scans food or drink and tells you the calories. Galaxy gear and wearable device will also be disruptive.
The Bridge: Do you expect partnerships with local companies?
Jeong: I think there are many ways to work with Japanese organizations. Medical organizations can be one. More broadly, we see potential partners in those who are focused on helping people live healthier with diet and exercise. Naturally this opens us up to a wide range of partners, so we’re exploring where’s best to begin.
The Bridge: Where will Noom be in three years?
Jeong: I think Noom will do more in the healthcare eco-system, eventually. The opportunity to improve health just by improving diet and exercise is extraordinary. Those two things alone can powerfully improve many aspects of health. Diabetes prevention, your heart, overall energy levels, not to mention the emotional benefits that come from improving physical health. The impact can be tremendous.