World-class athletes track their recovery on it, medical professionals diagnose COVID with it, troops monitor their combat readiness through it.....health technology company WHOOP is changing the way people in all walks of life approach health and wellness. On the Walker Webcast, WHOOP Founder and CEO Will Ahmed joins to discuss how he built the start-up into a $1B company and the power of data.
Will Ahmed has known success from a very young age. To begin the webcast, he shares a few of the ways he keeps himself balanced, and why he prefers to stay as present as possible and keep his eye on his goals. Surrounding himself with driven, motivated people keeps him hungry inside. Listen as Will recounts how the initial idea for WHOOP came to be while he was studying at Harvard: he realized that if various medical responses could be measured, then athletes could be enhanced and a platform around health improvement could be created.
Instead of focusing on athlete performance, Will concerned himself with monitoring their recovery. Hehypothesized that the insight for solving performance problems could be realized through the time spent in recovery. Will explains bringing this hypothesis to life, and the complications his team ran into while building the devices into a portable, wearable product intended to be worn 24/7. It was a difficult time for the company, but Will recalls the ways he found motivation in the long list of people who believed the business would fail.
Then, Will discusses WHOOP’s breakthrough ability to measure heart rate variability through its wrist device, as well as sleep. The idea of WHOOP is to measure the amount of strain one should be putting on their body. If you have a high rate of recovery, you should take on a more straining workout and vice versa. A recent use case for WHOOP is the technology’s ability to monitor post-COVID-vaccination data among its customers. Will shares the various research WHOOP uncovered and released early on in the beginning of COVID.
Finally, Will shares his predictions for the future of wearable health monitors. Eventually, he believes everyone will be wearing these devices. One of WHOOP’s largest priorities is for their technology to be inconspicuous and look cool. Willy and Will wrap up with a quick discussion on the fluidity of the stock market and how Will responds to shifting values of his company, standing the test of time. Links:
1:30 Introduction of Will Ahmed
3:30 What keeps Will centered?
5:00 How the ides of WHOOP came to be
6:50 Performance vs. recovery
10:30 Hardware vs. software
12:50 Will’s initial driving force
18:38 Discussing heart rate variability
21:30 Whoop’s various capabilities
25:00 Sleep monitoring
30:50 WHOOP’s COVID-19 data
37:50 Shoutout to WHOOP’s podcast
42:50 Wearables competition
46:00 Future of WHOOP
52:00 Closing words
Willy Walker: Thanks Susan and good afternoon everyone on the East Coast and good morning to those of you, further to the West. It's great to have my friend Will Ahmed with me today. Before I dive into my discussion with Will and I’m going to dive right in; I just wanted to point out that we announced an acquisition at Walker & Dunlop this morning of Zelman & Associates, which is a fantastic research and investment banking firm that will be a wonderful addition to W&D. I’ve had Ivy Zelman the founder and CEO of Zelman on the Walker Webcast before and so it is a real pleasure to have Ivy and her team joining our company and I just wanted to give a shout out for that deal because it's great to have them with us.
So, let me do a quick intro of Will and then we'll dive into our discussion. Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP which has developed next generation wearable technology like this strap on my arm. Oh, I took it off for my I took it off a moment ago, it just came off, oh well. That's great. I’m supposed to have the product on to show. There you go, Will’s got his on mine came off. I don't know what happened to it, I wear it all the time.
Optimizing human performance and health; WHOOP’s members range from professional athletes, and Fortune 500 CEOs, to fitness enthusiasts, and executives, to military personnel, and healthcare workers. WHOOP has raised more than $200 million from top investors and has an active advisory board that consists of some of the world's most notable cardiologists’, technologists’, marketers, and designers. Will has recently been named to the 2020 Fortune 40 under 40 list, previously named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list and to the Boston Business Journal 40 under 40. In 2020 WHOOP was named Fast Company's most innovative company for wellness. Before founding WHOOP most of my guests have previous business experience to go to but in Will’s case it's straight back to college. Will was named a 2011 Harvard College Scholar for finishing the top 10% of his class and a CSA Scholar Athlete. He captained the Harvard Men's Varsity Squash team.
So, Will, first of all welcome, second of all you've known success from a very young age. You went to St. Paul’s School, you won the League championship, you won the New England Championships, you were number four in the country, you went on to Harvard, you were captain of the squash team at Harvard. And I heard someone once in an interview they were doing with you compare you to the Winklevoss twins who happened to have gone to Harvard and had that contentious lawsuit with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook and when someone compared you to the Winklevoss and I don't know them, but I sort of said that's not really a good compliment to Will because I’ve watched enough interviews with them to know that they carry a lot of their success with them and what they say. And you don't, you're wildly grounded for somebody who has been as successful at such a young age as you've been what is it Will that's kept you sort of centered and balanced?
Will Ahmed: Willy, well first of all thanks for having me on and congrats on the acquisition this morning we’ll get a WHOOP back on your wrist. And for everyone watching I do know Willy wears WHOOP 24/7 so that's kind of a funny moment that that he stuck his arm out and there's no WHOOP.
I think a lot of it for me has been, you know, focusing on what can come next and what we're capable of building or what I’m capable of doing with my life. I try to stay as present as possible; I try to stay grateful for the people I get to work with, and the technology that I’ve been fortunate enough to play a role in creating. I think I also I’ve gotten to be surrounded now by a lot of really successful, really interesting people. Whether it's in sports or technology or in the business world, people like yourself who you know run publicly traded companies and manage hundreds, if not thousands of people. So, I think, for me, getting to meet a lot of people like that has been humbling as well and you know, in a way it's kind of kept me hungry inside. It's like wow, there's a lot more that you can accomplish a lot more, you can do. So that's at least how I how I thought about it.
Willy Walker: You came up with the idea for WHOOP when you were still at Harvard and read, I think you've said 500 different papers and journal articles on the general area of physiology and health. Describe for a moment what it was that sort of piqued your interest in this space and what got the concept of WHOOP going.
Will Ahmed: Well, I’d always been interested in sports and exercise. I played a bunch of sports growing up. I played squash while I was at Harvard. And my experience as a college athlete I was someone who used to over train, so you know kind of get fitter and fitter and you fall off a cliff and I felt like I didn't know why that was happening and it's kind of the ultimate betrayal. I mean other athletes get injured or misinterpreted fitness peaks, you know, don’t necessarily understand the importance of recovery or sleep, this is like 2010 timeframe. I think at that time we kind of peaked in terms of more is more, just philosophically in the world of sports. I just got very interested in were there things I could measure about my own body to better understand performance and the status of my body and so that that led me down this rabbit hole. I read 500 medical papers in school. I went from you know, being a government concentrator to spending all that time in the science department, and so I ended up writing a paper on how to continuously understand the human body. And I would say that that largely became the business plan for WHOOP in that if we could measure a lot of the things that I had identified in medical literature. If we could measure those things continuously, we could not only really enhance the world's best athletes or any athlete we could also create a whole platform around health improvement and that's largely what I’ve spent the last you know nine or 10 years of my life thinking about every day and doing.
Willy Walker: But for I’ve heard you talk that you went to coaches and you know you were thinking about building this tracking device, if you will, to give data and all the coaches kept saying you will yeah tell me sort of how much faster my athletes can run. Or how much stronger my athletes can be when they're actually performing. And you actually went the other way, to look at recovery; because the coaches would sit there and say to you, but you know my biggest challenge is making sure that my athletes don't get injured. Making sure that my athletes are ready to perform. Talk for a moment about what literally made you sort of say there's a lot of data out there about how someone moves from point A to point B or adds strength or adds weight, or whatever the case might be, but there's not a lot of data as it relates to recovery.
Will Ahmed: It's a good lesson in, you know, an entrepreneur's role, right. An entrepreneur’s role is really to identify problems that their customers may have and often what can happen when talking to prospective, customers someone in your market, is you're hearing them describe a solution, and so you think that solution is what you should go build. In the case of measuring athletes, I went to coaches and I asked them, What would you like me to develop if I’m going to commit you know the next 10 years to this space, so to speak? And a lot of the feedback was around exercise, more performance data, more video analysis and then when I asked them well what are the problems that you're facing? It always came back to player availability, injuries, and really some notion of training optimally. And so, I felt like there was a mismatch between what the solutions that they were describing and the problems that they had. And I felt that the best way actually to solve those problems or to spend more time worrying about the other 20 hours of the day. And I also just knew this from my own personal life and that I was someone who dedicate a lot during those three or four hours I was at practice, but I really wasn't thinking very thoughtfully about the other 20 or 21 hours of the day where I acted like a college kid. You know, I stayed up late, and you know went out and whatever. So, for me personally, I sort of had this insight that if you could better understand recovering, better sleep that may actually be an insight to solving these problems. It touches on a theme as well from the early days of WHOOP was the sort of contrarian perspective that we had that made building the technology very painful, I would say along the way. Because I felt like there was a lot of people telling us that we've been building the wrong thing. But, but here we are so.
Willy Walker: So, you met John Capodilupo who at the time was a sophomore at Harvard and you and you were graduating. First of all, did John finish up at Harvard? Or is he part of the ranks of Gates and Zuckerberg who decided to bang out of Harvard and pursue their dreams?
Will Ahmed: Well, he's technically on a leave of absence, but he's been on that leave of absence for nine years so Harvard might have to update that. Yeah, so John was studying the hardest math class in the country, this class called Math 55 which is this notoriously difficult class at Harvard, and he was a high school winning astrophysicist student and his Father, as it turns was a Professor of exercise physiology. So, if you can think about sort of a complimentary partner for someone who's got a vision for building a product around health and fitness John was as good as it gets. And Aurelian Nicolae who really became the third Founder of the company, he was a very talented mechanical engineer. And it turned out that summer, so summer of 2012, I had just graduated we started working at the Harvard Innovation Lab. John was had just finished his sophomore year; Aurelian was living on John's couch. And John said to me, you know I’ve got this guy, this Romanian guy, he's, really smart, he's living on my couch right now, I think something didn't work out for his job but he's good at prototyping. At the time we needed to start prototyping what the hardware could look like and do in order to measure some of the things that we were interested in, and so I said hey bring him on down. Nine years later, the three of us are still building the business together.
Willy Walker: Let's dive into that for a second, about the prototype and hardware versus software. I’ve heard you say that you always thought that if you built the good software, the hardware would come, in the sense that you really focused on building great software at the beginning. Talk for a moment about, now in hindsight, whether that thought was the right way to focus or whether that was a naive way of focusing, given how difficult it was to develop the hardware.
Will Ahmed: Well, I’ll reframe that slightly in that I didn't think that building the software was going to be the hard part, but there was a long period of time where the hardware just wasn't going to be ready. And that period of time ended up being years, where it really took years to get all the technology into a form that was small enough for someone to where 24/7. And there's a lot of challenges related to wearable technology; we might touch on them. But the fact that you have to wear the product 24/7 is one of the most profound challenges that faces anyone trying to play in this space. And I think that's why so many companies, really good companies, have failed in this space. And so, we had to develop these two things in parallel and then one day just know they were both going to arrive. And so, you know, because there were these early feedback loops that would be like: Oh, you should just build the software and have it integrated with other people's hardware. Or: You should just build the hardware and then once you know your hardware works, you should build the software. Well, you know, the problem with that is then your software isn't as robust and you haven't had as much, you know, shots on goal with it. So, we're building both these things in parallel. I mean, the analogy is like building the left wing and the right wing of a plane. And then sticking them on right before you take off. I mean, that that was really what we were doing. And so, the risks associated with that, primarily the biggest risk being much more capital-intensive. And so, you know, I had to get good at raising capital early on, which was one of the challenges to building this business, as we were very capital-intensive before. We didn’t have revenue to support it. And you know, fortunately, we had a lot of great investors that got on board with the vision, and it's paid off. But those early years of kind of deep technology development were very hard years.
Willy Walker: So, on that, before we dive into actually what you were developing, those early years that were hard in your building it, you were told, No, by a lot of people. And a lot of people didn't sort of buy into the vision. You had 1,000 things you could have done with your career rather than going and starting WHOOOP, and so I can only imagine after you've been told, This is a stupid idea, a hundred times, there were plenty of moments where you just sort of said, What am I actually doing? What or who kept you going? In the sense that, you know, a lot of people were sort of giving you negative feedback on all this. You were chewing up a lot of capital and investing in it; you had this great vision; and typically, most people would sort of give up the ghost and just get back to doing something “more normal.” What was either the vision or the person who kind of kept faith in you, that kept you moving?
Will Ahmed: Well, you know, the more time you spend on something, the more you understand it, and I think it helps frame your conviction, right? And my conviction only got stronger over time. In fact, today it's the strongest it's ever been. So, the more time I spent on WHOOP, the more sure I was that what we were building was right. And the challenge with that is, as my conviction was also growing, so is the list of people who told us we were going to fail. And I mean, all I can say is there was a really painful time, you know, and I look back on ways that it could have been less painful. One way, which I advise other sort of younger founders on, or really any entrepreneurs on, is this idea of trying to separate your self-identity from the identity of the business. When I was, you know, in my mid-20s and trying to manage, you know, 20 or 40 people and had raised millions of dollars, if WHOOP had a good day, I had a good day. If WHOOP was successful, I was successful. If WHOOP had a bad day, I had a bad day. If WHOOP was, if something was not working, Will was not working, right? My identity and WHOOP’s identity were very tied together. And I think that's a fairly unproductive mindset to have. I think that you can build a great business and continue to focus on ways that you're getting better day-over-day, independent from all the zigs and zags that a business takes on its way to the top. And it took, really years, to get better at that perspective. It took years to get better at incorporating negative feedback. Whereas now, you know, I think I do feel like I’ve got a good handle on those sorts of concepts.
Willy Walker: As you're getting a lot of negative feedback, if you will, you're probably not listening that much. And then sort of, as you’ve said, when you turned 26 or 27, after a number of years of sort of getting hit hard and not listening to a lot of people say no, you all of a sudden started to open up and started to listen to people. What was it? Was it the success of WHOOP that allowed you to sort of step back and say, I can now kind of start to listen to people and don't have to keep moving forward? Because I think about it, sort of in the sense of a lot of people in the political world, get all sorts of input and they've got to kind of push it all to the side, even though it may resonate with them, because they think they've got to stay, true to where they're going, and stay true to that North of what their political beliefs are. And it sounds a little bit like when you were building up WHOOP and people were sort of saying, this is a silly idea and why are you spending your time on this? you had to kind of turn all that noise off. But then, at some point you also realize that that was potentially counterproductive and opened up and listened to that input. What was it? Where were you in your development lifecycle that allowed you to open up and listen again?
Will Ahmed: Yeah, I think it was more of a survival instinct to be a little bit blocked off in those early years. Because I think if I had brought too much of that feedback in, it would have been very hard to have stayed focused or to maintain the level of conviction that I think it required to get the business to at least that middle stage of having great technology, and now needing to figure out the business model. You know, someone said to me, “Will, you don't have to listen to the feedback, but you should hear it.” And that was a helpful, I mean, that was sort of a helpful framework where, you know, you can absorb negative feedback, you can process it; it doesn't mean you have to necessarily do exactly what you're being told to do, or what other people think you should do. And that was that was a good framework along the way for sure. I also think there's an interesting shift that happens when you're an entrepreneur, from being an individual contributor to being more of a manager. And when you’re kind of a pure individual contributor, there's this feeling that you need to just go, right? And it's kind of like the racehorse needs to have its blinders on. And that's, you know, somewhere up to having 10 people or 20 people: it's really early days? Even like a CTO, or one of the first engineers, like they may have blinders on for years, right? But as the company matures and you have more and more thoughtful leaders on the team, and you realize that the company's output has far less to do with your output, and far more to do with everyone on your direct team’s output, that's when you also have to start, or at least I had to start, reassessing what does it mean to be…what does it mean to have conviction about something? What does it mean to be a leader? How do you navigate conflicting points of view?
Willy Walker: So, let's…by the way, I love that saying about, “You don't need to actually listen to what they're saying, you just need to hear it.” It's a fantastic comment. As it relates to the technology and what you were trying to measure, WHOOP measures physiological indicators very accurately. Can you dive in for a moment and talk about what those physiological indicators are that you track, and how WHOOP goes about tracking them?
Will Ahmed: Yeah. I think one of the core differentiators for WHOOP over the years was that we really wanted to focus our technology on accurate health monitoring. WHOOP is great at all the things that it does for all the things that it doesn't do. You know, if you see it on my wrist right now, it doesn't have a high-resolution screen; it doesn't have a microphone; I can't make phone calls; I’m not going to flag an uber down with it. But when it comes to health monitoring, it's really the best engine in town. And we allocated all of our resources to that. And there's a lot of tradeoffs, right? As you start adding more features…you have, you know, you start pulling at the degree to which you're a phenomenal health monitor. And I think that's part of what's plagued other products in the space.
Now for WHOOP, we’ll collect data anywhere from 50 to 100 times per second across six different metrics. And that level of granularity equates to about 1,000 to 10,000 times as much health data in a given day as an Apple watch or a Fitbit. So, it's orders of magnitude of different levels of data. And one of the things that I identified in doing this research 10 years ago was this statistic heart rate variability. Heart rate variability is a little more well-known today, but it was really sort of a cult-bizarre statistic in decades past. It first of all, it required an electrocardiogram to measure, and it was being used by like, Olympians in the 80’s to determine, like power lifters, to determine how much weight they should lift on a given day. They would measure this statistic heart rate variability and then tell them how much they should lift. I was like, well that is kind of interesting. And it was used by some of the best cyclists in the world to determine how hard their training load should be. It was used by the CIA to predict whether or not someone was lying. It was used by cardiologists in early 2000 to determine if someone was about to have a heart attack. This is all in medical literature that's publicly available. So, when I was reading about that I was like, Wow. Why have I never heard of this statistic, and why isn't it more readily available? Well, here's the thing about heart rate variability: It's a very hard statistic to measure. It used to only be measured by an electrocardiogram. If you go back to the early days of WHOOP, one of the first things that we, you know, we really set out to do, is to prove that we could measure heart rate variability as accurately as an electrocardiogram from the wrist, which is a fairly big breakthrough that we're proud of. Now heart rate variability, you may be asking, you know, what is this thing? So, it's essentially a measurement of the time between successive beats of your heart. Your heart's beating at 60 beats per minute; it's not beating every second. That's a very counterintuitive concept. It may be beating at say 1.2 seconds, and then .8 seconds, and then .7 seconds, and then 1.3 seconds, right? So that time in between beats is variable. And also, counterintuitive: The more variable time in between successive beats of the heart, the better. And the reason for that is it's a lens into your body's autonomic nervous system, right? Your autonomic nervous system consists of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity. Now sympathetic activation. So that's like heart rate up; blood pressure up; respiration up. When you inhale, that sympathetic, right? When you're exercising, you're stressed about something, you're sympathetic-dominant. When you exhale that's parasympathetic. So that's heart rate down; blood pressure down; respiration down; that helps you fall asleep. Now for every sympathetic, you want to have a parasympathetic response. That, in turn, is what creates a high heart rate variability. So, having these branches of your autonomic nervous system imbalanced makes a higher heart rate variability. So, WHOOP measures heart rate variability really accurately. Now on top of measuring it continuously, we also give you a reading on it during slow wave sleep. Now slow wave sleep is really important because it's when your body produces about 95% of its human growth hormone. And maybe we'll get more into sleep later, but you really, really want to get a lot of slow wave sleep because that's helping your body repair, is preventing aging. You don't get stronger in the gym; you get stronger during slow wave sleep. Now every night you go through some period of slow wave sleep. And WHOOP measures slow wave sleep, but then we also collect this statistic that we just talked about, heart rate variability, Boom! During the last five minutes of slow wave sleep. And what's important about that is, we're then measuring the status of your autonomic nervous system while your body is repairing itself. So that's how we have this really fascinating lens into the status of your body every day, which then contributes to a very simple recovery score from zero to 100%: Red, Yellow, Green. So, when you hear from WHOOP members that they're “in the green,” or they’re rundown and they're “in the red,” that's because probably their heart rate variability is doing really well, or it's gone down. Obviously, there's a lot of we measure around sleep. There's a lot we measure on resting heart rate. And the whole product, I would say, is designed to be as actionable as possible.
Willy Walker: So, you essentially took an EKG and put it on someone's wrist. You also, on the sleep-side, created a sleep monitor that is as accurate as a PSG machine. I didn't know before I did my research for this one what the heck a PSG machine was, but it's what people go in and use to check whether someone has sleep apnea and any of the kind of sleep studies that they do in the hospital. Talk for a moment about the other side of the equation, from strain on HRV to sleep, and having on your wrist something that can monitor your sleep performance as well as a PSG machine.
Will Ahmed: It's funny that you bring up those instruments because I remember from a business plan I wrote in like 2011, a picture of a heart rate chest strap, which is like sort of your polar chest strap that you wear on your chest, a picture of an electrocardiogram, and a picture of a PSG. An electrocardiogram is the sophisticated technology we talked about, it’s in hospitals and the PSG is the gold standard for measuring sleep. So, it was like that plus that equals question mark and really that's...
Willy Walker: Equals WHOOP! Equals WHOOP!
Will Ahmed: Yeah, and so, if you think about how WHOOP is organized, a lot of its around taking that physiological data really accurately, but then, giving it to people in simple scores. So, let's take just heart rate monitoring. You're pretty awesome endurance athlete. You've probably in the past worn a polar chest strap. I wore that for years, and I thought it was really uncomfortable and somewhat ridiculous outdated technology, even though it was accurate, and so the first step was “Can we make heartrate monitoring as accurate as a polar chest strap for exercise or daily activity?” and so, you know, we did that, but that's where the strain score comes from. So, WHOOP measures the strain of a workout or the strain of your overall day.
We talked about heart rate variability, the ECG piece, that contributes largely to your recovery score. There's this fine balance between strain and recovery, right? If you think about, what does it mean to train optimally? Well, if you have a higher recovery, you want to take on more strain, if you have a lower recovery, you want to take on less strain. If you have a low recovery, but you take on a lot of strain and you do that day over day or a day, that's a sign that you're overtraining your body, or it could be a sign that you're going to burn out as an executive, right? So, by telling WHOOP members their recovery every morning, we can then also say how much strain they should put on their body. So again, it becomes more actionable. Now at the end of the day we look at the strain that's accumulated on your body, and we look at your sleep and will actually tell you how much sleep you need to recover for the next day, and that's where the PSG element comes in. It’s a gold standard in sleep monitoring. We measure sleep really accurately, the time you spend in bed, as well as the stages. So, the stages of sleep are really important. It often gets lost in the discussion of sleep. REM and slow-wave sleep are really the most valuable periods of sleep. Light and awake are far less valuable. If you're listening to this and you have no idea how much time you spend in bed equals REM and slow-wave sleep, I would encourage you to monitor your sleep. Because you can still allocate the same six hours in bed or seven hours in bed every night, but if you can make a couple small adjustments to your lifestyle, you can dramatically increase the amount of slow-wave sleep and REM sleep that you're getting. So, often people complain, “Well, I don't have enough time for sleep!” Okay, well let's just start by taking the time you already have, making it a lot more efficient. So that's something that you can do on WHOOP where you can sort of A/B test things about your lifestyle, and WHOOP will tell you what's the most effective for better sleep quality.
Willy Walker: So, you've been doing studies with WHOOP data on the U.S. armed services and with the Army specifically up in Alaska, and, as I listened to your podcast on all the data that's come out of that it was fascinating and how circadian rhythms get messed up because of the lack of light up in Fairbanks, Alaska where the cohort you're studying is. But talk for a moment Will about the applicability of the technology for a commander of troops and how the U.S. Army is using the data to determine who's actually going to go out on the front lines.
Will Ahmed: Yeah look, this is a market that I’m personally very excited about and know we as a company are making big investments towards. I think if you just sort of zoom out for a second, you've got 3-million-armed service people in this country trying to protect this country every day, dedicating their lives to that. And, from a health status, I mean there's no one, you know, there's few groups that are more important to help understand, “Okay, is this person doing right from a health standpoint and from a performance standpoint?” and there's sort of a few different chapters in terms of how to think about that. One chapter is let's say you're a member of the Army and you're on-site for training, how is that training affecting your body? Are you in a period of overtraining? Do you need more time to recover? How can we think more optimally about a training plan knowing that you may end up going to combat? Okay, now let's say you go to combat. Are there certain individuals that are redlining? Are there certain individuals that may need more attention? Whether that be healthcare or medical care, or just general self-awareness. One thing that was fascinating is we did a study on Navy Seals. Obviously, Navy Seals are some of the mentally toughest people in the world. Turns out though, some of that mental toughness can be a setback, right? Because if your mind's able to push your body way past what your body is comfortable with, you're going to likely push your body to a place that's not necessarily good.
So, we did a study where we had 40 members of the, and this is public so I can talk about it. We had 40 members of the Navy Seals have access to their data. So, they got WHOOP and they had access to their data, and then we had 40 Members who did not have access to their data, but they wore a WHOOP. And the interesting thing is, if you looked at the group that had access to their data versus the group that didn't, they dramatically improved their physiology relative to a group that didn't. So again, this idea of self-awareness or managing what you measure, leading to positive behavior changes a lot of that is due to WHOOP. So, they were able to see, “Wow, if I get a little more sleep, I have a higher recovery,” and when you start getting competitive people thinking about competing around sleep versus just competing on strain really positive things can start to happen quickly. So that's an example of self-awareness and obviously, we're incredibly proud to support the Seals.
Then lastly, you know I think the way that we, as a country, think about returning from combat could potentially be enhanced. So, for example in a lot of cases, it's a fairly standardized way of thinking about a Troop’s return home, they're going to be at home for a certain period of time, and then they're going to go back to the site. Well, the power of WHOOP, and you asked about sort of a central dashboard, is you can remote monitor a lot of people, right? And the technology is scalable such that you could have a team dashboard with tens of thousands of people on it or millions of people on it, and if you see certain people have returned home, but they're still redlining, they may need an additional phone call or additional attention, right? By the way, this jumps off the page. It's not subtle if someone has post-traumatic stress disorder or is struggling from returning from combat like psychologically. It's showing up in their data that, that statistic we talked about, their heart rate variability, it plummets. So, there's an opportunity, I think, to be pretty thoughtful about that and, you know, WHOOP is just something we feel like obligated to play a role in if we can.
Willy Walker: So, you talk about WHOOP being able to give great data as it relates to Troops returning from warfare and potentially suffering from PTSD. You also have a cohort of 51,000 WHOOP wearers who have gotten vaccinated against Covid by all the different vaccines. Talk for a moment, Will, about what that data has told you. One quick thing before I turn it over to you, which is I was on a chat board with a bunch of people I train with last week, and somebody came out with this strident statement about, “Oh, it's going to hit you this way or that way, and this is my experience,” and a number of people chimed in, as did I and sort of said it's all anecdotal right now. There's no real data about how these vaccines are impacting people and last week before I heard all the data that's come out of WHOOP that was exactly right. But now you actually have 51,000 data points to look at how these various vaccines have impacted people first shot, second shot, or the J&J one shot, and then also older cohorts and younger cohorts. Explain what the data is told you.
Will Ahmed: Yeah, and just as some background, WHOOP as a community and as a company really loves research. It's an audience and a group of employees, myself included, that feel like it's our responsibility to continue doing research and seeing what it learns. Just to go back in time for half a second, you know January of 2020, we kind of first got cued to the fact that Covid-19 was likely going to be a global pandemic, so we started doing research on Covid-19 in January, and by March we were the first consumer APP to have Covid-19 tracking, so, March of 2020. By the end of March of 2020, we had over 2000 people report having tested positive for Covid-19. So, very quickly, we had a large data set on what does Covid-19 data look like on WHOOP before, during, and after. We then partnered with various research institutions and we rapidly work to analyze the data and see what we found. We did actually find a smoking gun, which was this idea that an elevated respiratory rate could be a predictor of Covid-19. We published that research, and it ended up helping lots of different sports organizations, lots of different people. I mean tens of thousands of people now on WHOOP have reported that WHOOP acted as an early indicator for Covid-19 by viewing this metric respiratory rate. So, we're very proud to have played a role in that and that research is now published in Peer Review journal so anyone can check it out. If you go to WHOOP.COM/locker, we have a lot of stuff posted there, including the research we've done more recently around the Covid-19 vaccine.
Willy Walker: So, before you move on to the vaccine response, will you just tell the anecdote or the story about Nick Watney wearing the WHOOP strap and how that came up as an early indicator on respiratory level?
Will Ahmed: Yeah, so respiratory rate is a measure of breaths per minute; this is another statistic that WHOOP measures super accurately, and typically, your breaths per minute while you're sleeping are somewhere between 10 and 20 breaths per minute and what's interesting about this statistic is it's a very boring statistic. It doesn't change at all! So, every day you virtually wake up with the same exact respiratory rate. Mine’s 13 breaths per minute while sleeping, and every day it's 13. Some days 13.1, some days to 12.9, but every single day for years! Nick Watney, the professional golfer, he had been on WHOOP for 10 months and so, you know, he'd seen some of the research that we had put out by the summer. This would have been June of 2020. Golf was the first sport to come back, the PGA tour. Jay Monahan the Commissioner there did a great job putting the right infrastructure in place to come back, and they had testing on Tuesdays. So, Nick Watney tested negative on a Tuesday for Covid-19, come Thursday, he's playing in the golf tournament. Come Friday, he wakes up and on WHOOP he's got a 1% recovery and he's got a super elevated respiratory rate. So, his average was 14. So, for 10 months straight, he had a 14. Like every day, it's 14! And then he wakes up this one day and it's an 18! It just jumped off the page! And, you know, Covid-19 is a lower respiratory tract infection, so it makes all the sense in the world that a lower respiratory tract infection affects your breathing that dramatically. He went to the doctors at the PGA tour and said, “I need to get tested again for Covid-19,” you know, there was a little bit of a back and forth, and they said, “You're cleared to play,” and he’s like, “No you got to test me!” So anyway, they tested, I mean ensure enough be tested positive and so, he was able to drop out of the tournament, and the PGA tour then learned of this of story, and they procured over 1000 WHOOP straps within the next 24 hours for literally every, not just every player, but every Caddy, every media member, and every staff member because they wanted the whole bubble to be wearing WHOOP and using respiratory rate. Yeah look, I mean it's been humbling to be able to play a role, but it's also invigorating.
Willy Walker: So, staying on golf for a second, and I’m going completely off of where I wanted to go on this, but since we're talking about golf... What was it like when Hideki Matsuyama won the Masters and puts his hands up in the air and there's a WHOOP strap on his on his wrist?
Will Ahmed: Yeah, no it's amazing. It never gets old. A lot of our early vision for WHOOP was that if we built the best technology for understanding your body, the world's best athletes would wear it and we weren't gonna have to pay them to wear. The technology is going to be so good; they were just going to go out and buy it. And that was one of the strong, sort of conviction moments that we talked about earlier that I had a lot of people were encouraging me to do big equity deals with professional athletes early on in the company's evolution. I just knew that if we could build the very best technology, these people would wear it. You know, that's largely what's happened today, now where I’ll often discover who's wearing WHOOP by watching professional sports online or on television and, and so Hideki Matsuyama, I had no idea he was wearing WHOOP and sure enough, I saw him wearing WHOOP the week of the Masters and then on Sunday he's holding up the trophy with a WHOOP strap on his wrist and it does not get old, that's for sure. It's humbling and invigorating.
Willy Walker: Talk about LeBron and Phelps being some of the earliest users of WHOOP and seeing LeBron in an ad with WHOOP strap on.
Will Ahmed: So, it would have been 2014 or 2015 and we had about 100 people on WHOOP and two of them were LeBron James and Michael Phelps, which was encouraging for a lot of reasons. But a lot of it comes back to this idea that if you can build the best technology, the best people are going to use it. And it also speaks, I think, to both the trainers of Phelps and LeBron and even LeBron and Phelps themselves. The fact that they were willing to try new things at a time when they were arguably the two best athletes in the world or close to it.
So, I was at home with my parents watching the NBA playoffs and, on the television comes a Kia commercial with LeBron James. And in the Kia commercial, LeBron is wearing his WHOOP strap and I kind of jumped off my couch and I was like “look mom, look dad, it's a WHOOP strap.” There's kind of a phase where you're still trying to really make it as a company, and everything feels very fragile. But, for that moment, it was pretty cool to see one of the best athletes in the world so hooked on the product that he didn't even take it off even during a commercial and for someone else who is paying him. That was humbling.
Willy Walker: So, talking about making commercials, Patrick Mahomes wear’s the WHOOP strap and I saw a clip-on YouTube of you playing catch with Patrick Mahomes as he was making a commercial. I don't know if it was for WHOOP or some other product, but you got to be the recipient of that spiral coming at you. Talk for a moment about sitting around playing catch with Patrick Mahomes.
Will Ahmed: Yeah, look I’ve gotten to meet a lot of the world's best athletes at this stage and it's really interesting just to listen to them and talk to them. In the case of Patrick, he came on the WHOOP podcast, we went down there for that, we did a shoot with him. And the WHOOP podcast has been a good experience too because it's been an opportunity for me to really focus on listening. As you know from doing these, you have to pay attention in order to do a good job. And to meet the world's best performers, whether they're athletes or executives or doctors or otherwise, and I think you know, the more you can soak that in, the more it can rub off on you. So, you know for me, I’m always excited to meet these high performers and the fact they wear WHOOP is invigorating.
Willy Walker: So, talk about your podcast for a second, because it is really interesting; you've done 121 of them. So, you were doing your podcast well before the pandemic hit and your first guest was David Stern, the now late former Commissioner of the NBA, you know that's quite the first guest to have on your podcast. What was it that made you think about launching a podcast? And then, a tough question because I’ve been asked the same way and it's super difficult, what's been the best podcast you've done? And you got to give me one, for whatever reason there's got to be one in there, that when you got off, you said that was amazing?
Will Ahmed: Willy, you're a great guest too.
Willy Walker: Thank you Will, I wasn’t looking for that, but I greatly appreciated coming on your podcast, it was super fun.
Will Ahmed: Look, it's been fascinating. I said let's do 10 of these and see how it goes, and you know, now we're on 121 and we release one every week. I think it's an opportunity to get to talk to people in a fairly unstructured way, about what makes them tick. You know, a lot of what WHOOP stands for is this idea of a performance lifestyle and learning about different people's lifestyles and their mindsets and their habits as it relates to performance. I mean, it's been really interesting for me, but I think more importantly, it's been really interesting for the WHOOP community. Whether you're a WHOOP member or not. We've now had the podcast download millions of times. The podcast that stands out recently was with Alex Honnold, who people may recognize from the movie, Free Solo. He climbed El Capitan, which is a 3,000-foot rock climbing slab with no rope, and it had never been done before, it still hasn't been done again. A lot of what we explored was this idea of fear and how he thinks about fear. And, the big takeaway I had from it was, most people look at Alex Honnold and sort of the narrative that's written about him, is here's a guy that doesn't feel fear, he's got like an amygdala that's just less stimulated genetically. And what I realized in talking to him, was that's completely the wrong narrative. In fact, he's not a fear seeker at all. He admitted that he was so nervous during a Ted Talk, talking about having climbed this thing but with no rope, he was so nervous during the Ted Talk that he forgot his lines. So, this is a guy who is more nervous doing the public speaking than actually the rock climbing even though the rock climbing can kill him. And what I realized, is he had just worked at something for hours and hours and hours every single day of his adult life to pursue what he considers mastery and that's how he was able to overcome that specific thing. But it did not mean that he was fearless in all these other contexts of his life and I think there's some interesting learnings in that. One, is how amazing the human mind and body is. The fact that you can actually take something like that on if you dedicated every waking minute to thinking about it, or maybe you can, but the fact that humans can is amazing. And two, that there's a different fear structure in all these different walks of life that you are experiencing. Some areas are going to be comfortable; some areas are going to be very uncomfortable, and just how do you think about that or how do I think about that. So, I enjoyed Alex a lot. He was also on WHOOP which was cool for me to talk to him about.
Willy Walker: So, I’ve been smiling since you started telling that story. Only because I was on a call yesterday afternoon with two people from the Milken Institute. And we were talking about a lot of different things and I said almost verbatim what you just said. I said Alex Honnold and I went through exactly what you're talking about as it relates to someone who people perceived as being someone who is a risk taker and listening to you talk to him, it was very evident that he is not a risk taker and he's actually, quite averse to risk. And it was just a phenomenal podcast, so I love hearing you talk about.
Will, you mentioned on a podcast that you did a little while ago, that the competitive landscape today of Wearables, actually has fewer competitors than it did, and you use the date 2015, so I went back and I said “I wonder when the Apple Watch was launched” and sure enough, the Apple Watch was launched in 2015. And then I thought, well what happened to Fitbit? And I had forgotten that Fitbit had been acquired by Google and so I quickly realized that your competitive landscape, your two biggest competitors are Apple and Google. Talk for a moment about being an incredibly successful startup company but going up against the world's two largest technology behemoths.
Will Ahmed: Amazon is added to that list too. Amazon probably copied us the most closely of any technology company in our history.
Willy Walker: I was waiting for Amazon to come acquire you, so that was where my mind went to, so anyway.
Will Ahmed: Well, we're not currently for sale. But I would say this, I think there's an advantage to being in a space for a while. We've been in this space now for nine years, and when we first entered the space, there were a lot of big sports apparel brands playing in it. And in a lot of ways, I wanted WHOOP to grow up to look more like Nike than IBM. So, I was actually most afraid of that phase. The Nike Fuel Band, The Adidas MiCoach, Under Armour spent a billion dollars acquiring technology companies. I was nervous about what those brands could do in terms of creating a positioning around aspirational performance, with a mass market consumer product. And, again because a lot of the vision for WHOOP was this idea that you can ground health monitoring in sports and make it aspirational, make it cool, and then in turn will help the product become much more mass market. And so, it doesn't feel like you're wearing a medical device in sort of a negative sense, it feels like you're wearing a cool piece of technology that says something about who you are. So, I was most afraid of these big sports apparel brands, and for one reason or another, they all exited the space and have said on record that they're probably not going to reenter it. There's been a lot of technology companies that have come and gone. Google had a smartwatch at one point, Microsoft Intel, there's been some really well funded good, good run startups. Jawbone I think raised close to a billion dollars. Misfit Wearables, Quantus, if I thought hard enough, I could probably name 20 startups that at various stages were better funded then WHOOP, and we're destined to kill us. And I think a lot of it has been staying true to our vision and continuing to build. And for what it's worth, I think more big technology companies will enter the space. I think the market for health monitoring is literally every human in the world. I believe that in our lifetime, every human will be wearing a health monitor continuously and it will revolutionize the healthcare industry. I think that's inevitable. So, if you're a big tech company and you're looking for large markets that's a pretty good one to go after.
Willy Walker: Do you think that the technology, one of the things that I found interesting, you talked about the prototypes and how big the prototypes were and I actually forgot to bring in an old Garmin training watch I had. But it's about the size of a brick that I used to wear on my arm and I was going to hold it up and ask you whether, at one point, the WHOOP strap looked like that? And I’m assuming the first prototypes were pretty big and pretty clumsy and you've gotten smaller and smaller. Because there's so much brand identity to the WHOOP, Will, my thought was at some point, does the WHOOP strap get embedded into our bodies and at the same time, if it's become such a noteworthy thing to wear and people recognize it, there's also a lot of branding by having it be so prominent. Where are you right now as it relates to getting it smaller and smaller, so it is not as seen as it is today? And if the flip side to all that stuff, you get incredible branding because millions of people wear these things around, and everyone sees them.
Will Ahmed: Yeah, I’ve long said that I think wearable technology should be cool or invisible and cool is being able to make it an aesthetic that fits your life, your outfit today. And invisible is, it disappears throughout your body. I think a lot of wearable technology is stuck in no man's land somewhere in the middle. It's not particularly good looking and it's not invisible. So, we try to play hard left, hard right, cool, invisible and yes, I mean admittedly having people wear it on their wrist is more recognizable than having them wear it in their sock or in a bra but I think that you ultimately want to empower the consumer to make that decision. And the more seamless and ubiquitous I think the technology can be from a sensing standpoint, the easiest it can be for you to get that data; however, you want it, I think the better for the consumer.
Willy Walker: I know I can wear my WHOOP on my wrist or on my bicep, does it matter, given the technology and the advances you've made. I mean we've talked about the fact that you basically took an EKG and put it on your wrist. Does the technology allow you to almost put the WHOOP strap anywhere, or does it need to be on a part of your body that's an extremity to be able to pick up the blood circulation and have the monitor go down and pick up your vitals.
Will Ahmed: The short answer is yes.
Willy Walker: Okay, that's great. So, if we think about WHOOP’s success to date, you're clearly a unicorn, you've got evaluation of over a billion dollars. We started this talking about your own personal journey, tremendous success throughout your life and staying humble and learning from other people. But for all practical purposes, WHOOP is only gone up and you and I have spoken about the fact that at some point you'd love to take WHOOOP public and have an IPO of WHOOP and continue to run the company. And as you and I both know in the public markets, for better for worse, stock prices go up and down. How's Will going to deal with a moment in WHOOP’s history where, for all of the great work you're doing there's a stock price out there that’s saying it's not going as good as investors think it should be going.
Will Ahmed: Well, look, I think that comes with the stage in the territory. I’ve tried to frame most challenges as opportunities. And you know, that strikes me as an opportunity to rewire how I think about the company's valuation and how I think about value in general.
Willy Walker: So, every time you've raised capital you take your team to Mother Anna's in the north end of Boston and celebrate various rounds of financing. First thing is, I want to be invited to the Mother Anna’s dinner when you go public and go to the New York Stock Exchange and come back to Boston for that dinner. But Mother Anna’s, on their website, they have up there, it says over the last 85 years many of these establishments have come and gone, none have stood the test of time quite like Mother Anna's. When you decided to go to Mother Anna's for that first dinner, did you know that their credo, if you will, was that they've withstood the test of time? Because as we just talked about the competitive landscape, it's pretty neat how WHOOP has been able to withstand the test of time with lots of competitors trying to come in and take you down.
Will Ahmed: Well, you've done phenomenal research for this interview, I got to give you that. I’m not sure where you pulled that but that's an amazing data point. So, the backstory on Mother Anna’s is that when it was just three of us, we raised our first $300K, so let’s go out for dinner. And it was a fairly haphazard Google search for a restaurant, an Italian restaurant, John being Italian loves Italian food. And I had driven him crazy for the last six months by trying out the Paleo diet, we were living together at the time, so we decided to go to Mother Anna’s. And then the next time we raised capital, which was maybe 12 months later we raised $3 million, we were like we should do a celebratory dinner. And we said well where should we go, and we said well last time we went to Mother Anna’s. And so, we were like okay, we'll take the eight people on the team or six people on the team, however many it was, to Mother Anna’s and it's now been a kind of funny check in point at every stage. We weren't able to go last time, when we raised the $100 million round because of COVID-19 and that was like around October of last year, so it wasn't a good time to go to restaurants. But the round before that and all prior we've always done this dinner at Mother Anna’s. And so, I think the last dinner we had there, we probably had 100, 120 people and we were kind of busting at the seams, and a lot of people were like, why are we even at this restaurant because it certainly didn't seem like a restaurant optimized for a technology dinner. But I think it's fun to create these authentic traditions to your company.
One other one that I've gotten a lot of people pinging me about is when we were about four or five people, I said let's give people a jersey with their number on the back for their employment, so whenever someone starts, they'll get a Jersey and also on the day that person starts we’ll all wear our jersey’s. And this had sort of interesting dual benefit of one, it creates a team camaraderie and this tie between sports, and you know executive roles. But two, when someone starts, they actually can see everyone else's names, and so it makes, you know, kind of identifying what's going on a little less intimidating and it's cool that the company is kind of celebrating your first day. And, so you know, now we've been sending out jerseys and I think we're on jersey number 540 or something and its sort of been a fun tradition that's lived on.
Willy Walker: It's fantastic, I was just going to say, given your growth rate you're going to be buying a lot of jerseys. I’ll be very interested when you're up to four digits, how you're going to fit all the numbers on the back of the Jersey.
Will, it's a real pleasure. I loved diving in and doing research on you, your track record, your history, everything you've done is just super exciting. And the data that you're generating is not only helping individuals but it's helping society and it's helping society react to everything from a pandemic, to vaccines, to making our military more prepared and that's really, really exciting. That's where the breadth of WHOOP is just for me as an investor in your company it's just as exciting as anything I can imagine, and so I greatly appreciate you taking the time. Congrats on all your success and I hope the two of us can go to Mother Anna's sometime soon and have a glass of wine and have a good Italian dinner.
Will Ahmed: I’d love that Willy, this has been a real pleasure, and thank you for having me.
Willy Walker: Great, I have Deb Cafaro from Ventas, one of the most successful CEOs in America. Building Ventas from a couple hundred million dollars in market CAP to well over $20 billion in market CAP. One of the most successful REITs in the United States over the past two decades coming on next week to talk about how she has grown Ventas into the behemoth and incredibly successful publicly traded company that Deb is done.
I hope everyone has a great week, and thanks again to Will and have a great Wednesday.