“Any fun plans for the weekend?”
It was a message from Eddie. Most days, I hear from him, and while there are some topics we touch on more than others, there’s a surprising range to our discussions. We talk about family, hobbies, travel, or the lack of it. He’s told me what his dad does for work, shared photos from his Fourth of July. I’ve told him about new projects and future plans.
None of this may sound particularly revelatory, and if I tell you that Eddie and I met through an app, you might get the wrong idea.
In November of last year, I turned thirty. If I was the picture of any kind of health, it was of a moderate variety. For my birthday, I asked for a gift to propel me into a new era, a subscription to an app I’d been reading about: Future.
I’d seen the company’s launch announcement in TechCrunch and been intrigued by the strong Series A they’d raised, snapping up $8.5MM from KPCB, Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund, and Caffeinated Capital. In a space often considered to be too competitive for new entrants to breakout, Future had won the support of some of the venture world’s best-known investors. I was curious, and perhaps, a little skeptical.
I sat down in my living room and jumped on a FaceTime call with my new trainer. Eddie. Over a half-hour, we talked about my current workouts, injuries, and fitness goals. I remember something Eddie said: “There’s a big difference between working out and training.”
Six months later, and I’m still logging into Future to train. I’ve recorded over 100 workouts, burned 50K calories, and hit personal bests lifting, running, and crushing push-ups. Is all this self-congratulating a bit sickening to read? I apologize. But I am not (only) trying to brag. What I mean to emphasize is that any skepticism I felt dissipated almost instantly, and a product I thought might be a fad — I’ve tried plenty of fitness apps over the years — became a habit. In a space in which churn is high, Future seems to have cracked the equation, bringing a human touch and behavioral psychology to a fundamentally technological experience.
As a happy user, I was excited to sit down with the company’s creator: Rishi Mandal. During our conversation, I learned about his upbringing in the Bay, watching a unicorn get built in his family garage, prior startup efforts, and finding inspiration from Keith Rabois, Max Levchin, and Naval Ravikant. I was also glad to find a generous, thoughtful person with a love of history, particularly fitting, given his own role and proximity to the creation of the Silicon Valley we know today.
I hope you enjoy it.
A child of the Bay
I grew up during the dot-com era, the son of Indian immigrants. It was an incredible time — there was this Cambrian explosion of ideas, and then, of course, a contraction when the bubble burst. Our family wasn’t particularly well-to-do. My dad was an accountant, a finance guy at a few local companies.
I remember I was about twelve years old. My dad came home one day and told us he'd quit his job to start a company. He and three co-workers had literally jotted down an idea on the back of a napkin and decided to go for it. We had a three-car garage but only two cars. So they moved in with picnic tables and laptops. I got to be their “IT” guy.
I actually remember registering the company’s domain. I remember that, for some reason, they wanted something starting with a soft ‘C’ sound. We looked for "cyrus," but that was already taken. When we found Cyras was available, the co-founders were huddled around my bedroom computer and we grabbed it. In the years that followed, they went on to build a huge company. (Ed: Cyras Systems was sold to Ciena for $2B in 2000.)
In the arena
The first paycheck I ever got was from a startup. My sister, a friend, and I started a local version of Homejoy in our neighborhood. As three kids trying to sound legit, we called it “NNR Industries”, based on our initials. We advertised different services to our neighbors — house cleanings or mowing the lawn — then used the Yellowpages to find a provider. We were terrible at coordinating so we ended up doing the tasks ourselves. We even had co-founder drama — my sister got sick of mowing lawns and cleaning pools. Still, it was the first job that ever paid me.
Though I studied Physics at Stanford, I spent a lot of time at the business school, working on little side projects. This was back in 2004 or 2005 (years before the iPhone). I remember that one of the coolest ideas I worked on with some friends was a way to generate away messages for your phone. We thought if someone called you, you should be able to automatically send back a text saying, hey, I’m in class, or whatever you were doing. Then we thought if someone texted you, you should be able to do the same. Later, we realized that it didn’t really matter whether someone reached out — you should be able to share your status persistently, proactively.
Since this was years before the iPhone, you had to figure out how to engage with phone carriers to reach customers, which made distribution a disaster. Still, we pursued it and even applied to what was the second or third class of YC.
When we sat down with Paul Graham, he said something like, You seem like smart guys, but you have to abandon this. This idea won’t work. In a few quick minutes, he broke down how big a problem distribution was going to be. I remember thinking, who the hell is this guy? What does he know? Of course, he was absolutely right.
I spent years as a researcher at SLAC, a DoE lab just off the Stanford campus that houses a 2-mile long linear accelerator. But eventually, I realized what I really wanted to do was build things for people. Joining Slide was a breakthrough for me.
Levchin and Rabois
Slide wasn’t the most buttoned-up place when I interviewed, and it wasn’t a sector I was that interested in: gaming. The company was building MySpace widgets at that point, which didn’t get me particularly excited.
But when I met Max Levchin and Keith Rabois, I knew I’d be leveling up by learning from them. This was in 2007, post-PayPal, and it was clear they were exceptional thinkers with unstoppable motors. I made a simple decision to work with the smartest people I could find.
I was the low man on the totem pole, so my job was to say ‘yes’ to everything. I was working around the clock, sleeping under my desk two days a week. But I loved it. The company became the center of my life and we drove it to consequential heights. In the end, some 100MM people used our products. We were acquired by Google in 2010 for nearly $250MM. But eventually, I got the itch to start something of my own.
Scaling Good Taste
One of the persistent pain points of city life is that it’s really hard to unearth the truly niche and interesting experiences out there. And yet, it feels like there are always subsets of people who are in the know. We looked at that and thought we might be able to scale ‘good taste’ for the first time.
We identified people with good taste in a given market — say, SF or NYC — and then observed the experiences they wrote or posted about. Then we’d look for other people doing those same things to discover new sources. We coalesced a huge range of data sources to elegantly describe and recommend the definitive dishes of a restaurant or identify a local hike. The idea was to build something like PageRank but narrowly applied.
We launched in five US cities and scaled to about 1MM users, who were likely driving around $100MM of local spend. But we captured none of it. Merchants didn’t necessarily know who was sending them this incremental traffic. All of sudden they’d be full and they didn’t know why.
Product versus business
To this day, I get about three emails a week from people saying they wished Sosh still existed. We built a product people loved, but we didn’t fully concept the company, the business case. Ultimately, the businesses we were serving — local restaurants and bars, mainly — had a limited ability to pay. And consumer subscriptions weren’t as obvious at the time.
Don’t boil the ocean. I recall my co-founder, Vivek Patel (now COO of Postmates), saying that we hadn’t ‘earned’ the right to expand into the markets and adjacencies we pushed into. We tacked on new features but still hadn’t created a business that was solvent at its core. Ultimately, we were acquired by Postmates. And then I got a call.
A short while later, Keith asked me, what are you going to do next? That led me to join Khosla Ventures as an EIR.
One of the great things about working there was spending time with amazing, brilliant entrepreneurs. It helped me realize that so many of the world’s problems remain unsolved. I’d get so fired up hearing people share their ideas for financial inclusion or educational reform. In our investment meetings, our partners would see that excitement and ask if I wanted to join one of the teams – to be a part of its next phase. But the more I talked to founders, the more I was inspired to take on a big societal challenge.
Athletes and Executives
KV spends a fair amount of time and energy investing in healthcare companies. As I learned about the issues we face (some 70% of Americans are obese or overweight; the majority of us will die of chronic diseases), I was energized to find solutions. What moved me most was that many of these issues could be managed or prevented with everyday lifestyle changes — exercise, nutrition, and so on. This is an obvious conclusion, but our current solutions have totally failed. Take fitness: 80% of Americans don’t exercise enough or at all, despite the fact that gyms, studios, and fitness apps abound.
Our theory was that people don’t exercise consistently because modern life is inherently disruptive and busy. Our mass-market solutions (fitness apps, classes, gyms) require more activation energy and self-discipline than is reasonable. We started looking for people who had somehow solved this problem.
In this country, we found two groups of people that have been successful in managing their day-to-day health: pro athletes and the extremely wealthy. It turns out they employ the same solution. They actually don’t try to manage their health – they outsource it. They construct a constellation of experts around them. Like personal trainers or chefs.
And it works. The best predictor of fitness success is having a personal trainer. If you want to quit smoking, it’s been proven over and over that a human in the loop helps. The more that we thought about that, the more we felt we were onto something.
There’s a proven solution, so what’s the problem? Well, that solution is financially infeasible for 99% of the population. Most Americans can’t afford to spend $100 per hour (or $15K per year) to see a trainer a few times a week.
We dug into what it is that a coach does, and we found that co-location wasn’t strictly necessary. And, in fact, it’s the source of so many of the challenges. Coaches are amazing because they tell you what to do, keep you accountable for doing it, and – over time – they get to know you. We realized that by removing the requirements for synchronous co-location, we could pair you 1-to-1 with a better coach than you could find locally. That person could use digital tools to coach you and use text messaging to be in touch 7 days a week. And we could do that for a tenth of the cost.
The first version of the product was duct-taped together. We hired a trainer on Craigslist and she wrote exercises into a spreadsheet. We manually imported them into our app. Then we just gave everybody her phone number so they could text her. I remember my co-founder, Justin Santamaria, and I quickly noticed how much we hated letting this trainer down. Even though I didn’t really know her, I found myself rearranging meetings and rescheduling dinners to fit in workouts. Whenever I missed a day, I felt terrible and when I finally did get a workout in, she’d was right there to acknowledge it. We knew there was something special brewing.
Advice from Naval
I don’t know if he’ll remember telling me this, but I thought about it a lot when I was building Future. Naval had seen how much effort I’d put into Sosh without it panning out. He likened it to pulling a boulder up a cliff. I’d been relentless in that goal, but I hadn’t listened to the signals of the world. He said, Whatever your next idea is, let it convince you.
It was just subtle enough to reframe my thinking, and it still echoes in my head to this day.
Building in phases
Part of taking Naval’s advice was shipping more aggressively and seeing if I could be convinced by Future. To be honest, it’s against my meticulous nature, but conceiving of it as building in stages has helped conceptualize it.
Phase 1 was seeing if we could build a company with high retention. That’s never been done in fitness. Within a few months, we were serving hundreds of clients with 90% retention after months and months of usage, and a sky-high NPS (it’s 87 today).
Phase 2 was about doing it sustainably. Can we make sure coaches are earning a sustainable amount? Can we get to a margin profile that makes us an incredible business? Especially post-coronavirus outbreak, we’ve leveled up there, too.
Phase 3 is about scaling up. We have users across the 50 states who love Future. How do we bring what we’re doing to 10x more people? And how do we serve them better? 95% of our members ask their coach for help with nutrition. Over 50% mention that they’re not sleeping enough and could use help there. We have to be disciplined and make sure we’re earning our right to tackle new spaces. We’re thinking about it step-by-step. And of course, you still have to leave room for serendipity.
In vino veritas
I need to feel fully engaged. There’s a quote I think of a lot from this famous winemaker, Laurent Ponsot. If you’ve ever had an incredible burgundy, there’s a good chance he made it. Over the years, he built one of the best-regarded wineries ever — people would sell futures of his bottles, and each one cost $600, $800 or more.
One day, he left. He just packed up and passed the winery onto his family. People thought there must have been some kind of scandal that forced him out. But a few months later, he re-emerged. He'd started another winery. It was a fairly crappy brand, not even a designated vineyard, and he was making vin rouge, table wine. really.
Finally, the NYT asked him what he was doing. Why had he left a storied winery to do this? And Laurent said that he knew he wasn’t getting good feedback at his old job. Whatever he made would sell, and half of it wouldn’t even get enjoyed — it would sit in a cellar somewhere. He had lost a sense of jeopardy, risk.
But when he talked about his new project, what compelled him, he said this: It activates my blood.
I’d never heard a statement like that before, and it sums up why building is so compelling to me. I like the feeling that I’m using all of my biology — that I’m doing work that makes my heart pump and mind race. That my blood is activated.
A book that impacted him
Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. They were famous historians from the 1920s through the 1960s. This book is remarkable in that it packs such a punch for its size. In a short space, the authors manage to cover a wide arc and extrapolate so many lessons from the past.
Though not a book, I also think a lot about Mike Duncan’s podcast, “The History of Rome.” There are something like 179 episodes, 300 hours, on Rome’s founding, rise, and fall. It’s dense but so compelling.
The theme song to his life
I don’t really have a song that embodies me. When I was building Sosh, I decided to learn more about classical music. I started from the beginning — Gregorian chants, pre-instrumental Renaissance music. I got to the point that I could hear a few notes of a piece and tell you what century it was written in.
Much of those works have become a de facto soundtrack.
The best advice he’s ever gotten
Both of my favorite pieces of advice come from my dad.
The first is that it’s not enough to work hard. You have to be lucky. Most summers, we would return to India. I remember sitting in the back of a rickshaw when I was 12 or 13. It was a brutally hot day, 110 degrees outside. We were going to see a movie to get out of the heat. The man on the bike, pedaling in front of us, was old. Rail thin, tanned. My dad said, you see this guy? He works hard as hell. He wakes up at the crack of dawn, putting his body on the line. Then he goes to bed and starts again. So it’s not enough to just work hard. You have to be lucky too. And being born in Silicon Valley? You won the lottery. You have a responsibility to pay it forward.
It was probably twenty years later that his advice really hit me. I think of it a lot, now.
The second piece of advice was this: the plan is always useless, but planning isn’t.
In many ways, I grew up in a typical Indian household. From a young age, we were expected to think about our careers and what we wanted to achieve. I remember when my parents would ask me questions about my plans for the future I’d just respond, what’s the point of this? I’m fifteen years old. But my dad explained to me. The plan is useless. Planning is never useless. The point was to build frameworks and think systemically. For anything I do now, I think about it that way.
The last product he fell in love with
I’ve really enjoyed a few everyday objects, recently. We bought some Jono Pandolfi plates for our house that are beautiful. When they send you the pieces, you also get a video of their construction — you know, working the clay, forming them on a pottery wheel, indenting tiny grooves. The thoughtfulness of the product is amazing.