September 24, 2021

INDAC

Keep Fit & Healthy

Fitbit CEO James Park on habits, achieving success and sale to Google

8 min read

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

For the last 14 years, James Park has lived and breathed Fitbit — the company he co-founded, which was bought by Google in November 2019 for $2.1 billion.

But despite being CEO of a company that makes wearable activity trackers for people to record their workouts and get in shape, working long hours at a start-up doesn’t make it easy to maintain a healthy lifestyle. In fact, it took the pandemic for Park, 44, to develop a sustainable fitness routine of his own, which is not the staple of his day.

Working from home in San Francisco “has had a silver lining of allowing me to integrate exercise more into the course of the day and to watch more carefully what I eat,” says Park, “which has just helped me live a more balanced life.”

Growing up in Cleveland and Atlanta, Park’s parents, who emigrated from Korea to the United States, owned small businesses like wig shops, ice cream parlors and clothing stores. He would often spend time at their stores after school, and was influenced by their hardworking attitude.

“I think my parents did a good job of shielding me from many of the ups and downs, but I was aware that it was not always easy,” Park says.

In 1998 Park dropped out of Harvard to pursue entrepreneurship himself. (His first start-up was a business-to-business infrastructure software firm called Epesi Technology that is now defunct.)

“The most gratifying thing about being a founder in general is the ability to pitch ideas in your head and put it into action quickly,” Park says. “That’s what’s driven me all of these years.”

In 2006, Park became “super fascinated” by a new video game console that had just launched, the Nintendo Wii. Many of the games for the system encouraged physical activity, and the remote controllers used sensors, called accelerometers, and software that could track movements in real time.

Park and his co-founder, with Eric Friedman, thought: “How do we capture this magic and put it into more portable forms?” Park says.

The idea for Fitbit’s wearable activity trackers was born.

Park and Friedman raised $400,000 from family and friends to build a prototype of what would eventually become the Fitbit. They debuted the device at TechCrunch’s start-up convention in 2008, but it took them eight months to actually have the hardware ready to manufacture.

Investors were not chomping at the Fitbit, so to speak. At the time, the wearable technology market was nascent. (The Apple Watch, for perspective, didn’t come out until 2015.) Fitbit completed a seed round of funding in 2008, raising $2 million from True Ventures and SoftTech VC. In total, Fitbit raised a total of $66 million in funding over four rounds, according to Crunchbase.

In 2019, Google acquired Fitbit. The deal eventually closed in January 2021, after Google a probe into whether Google could use Fitbit users’ data to personalize ads. (Google pledged not to use customers’ health and wellness data for its ad tracking, among other assurances.)

Today, Fitbit has more than 29 million active users worldwide and has sold more than 120 million devices.

Here, Park tells CNBC Make It how his upbringing fostered his entrepreneurship, how Covid has influenced his personal fitness routine and what he considers his greatest failures.

On his entrepreneurial parents: ‘I was struck by watching how hard my parents worked’

My parents owned so many different types of stores over their lifetimes: like, a wig shop, fish market, ice cream store, dry cleaners, sportswear [store]. I never understood how my parents chose these things. My dad’s first job was working at a wig wholesaler, so I guess he knew how to get the supply. But other than that, I think it’s just amazing the variety of different ways you can make a living and be successful.

Generally, parents do a good job of shielding kids from any ups and downs in life. But I was struck by watching how hard my parents worked. That level of effort and intensity was normal. I think [working hard is] probably one of the biggest things I internalized from my parents growing up.

I’d always be at their stores after school. They only really employed me during high school — I use “employment” loosely. I was not really paid, but basically, I was asked to sell things. I would get a $1 bonus if I sold over $50 [of product].

On dropping out of Harvard: ‘My parents wanted me to be a doctor’

My parents always wanted me to be a doctor, so I never really thought about what I truly wanted to do until I got to college.

The moment that you go to college, for many people, it’s like your head explodes. There are so many different options, so many things to do. That’s how I felt entering [Harvard]. Over freshman year, my interest in being a doctor just pretty much went to zero. I was still trying to figure out what to do.

My junior summer I interned at a bank in New York. I thought that would be great and I’d like the people there. But I realized that the job wasn’t for me. That was during the start of the dot-com boom in 1998, so I figured, I love computers. I always wanted to start my own thing. I thought that was the time.

The decision to not go back to school, I really didn’t even think about it. I probably thought about it for 10 seconds. For me, it wasn’t really a huge deal. I don’t know why. But for my parents, they’re they were pretty upset.

On getting fit during Covid: ‘I’ve never felt that correlation of, I worked out, I feel so much better’

I played sports in high school; I did cross country and track. But years of doing start-ups, it was really hard to stay fit and eat well.

But over the past year, the nonnegotiable portion of my routine definitely has been getting enough exercise. When I went into the office [before Covid], I commuted and also went to work dinners and did a lot of traveling in the U.S. and internationally. There was always an excuse to skip the workout, which is much harder now.

I try to keep my workouts pretty basic and short. I do a lot of calisthenics and I have a bunch of dumbbells that are used for curls and lifts. I do still try to get a short, intense run in at least four times a week.

I do feel much better about myself if I’m in shape. I’ve never felt that direct correlation of, I worked out, now I feel so much better. But it’s just more of the holistic overall feeling with my body.

On being an introvert: ‘I need time to recharge’

I would say that I am introverted, but capable [of being] an extrovert. If it’s meeting with other people, or dealing with partners, or dealing with investors, going to conferences, I can definitely burst extroverted for that, but honestly, I need time to recharge.

Recently, I’ve really gotten into loving art, and it’s been great now as museums have started to come back open. I’ve been to the SF MoMA a few times, I was actually in New York recently, so I got a chance to go to the Met and the MoMA as well and a few other galleries. That recharges me seeing people’s creativity and beauty.

During the last year, I’ve probably done a lot more camping than I’ve ever done in my life because there wasn’t anything else to do. One great camping trip was a weekend backcountry trip near a lake in the Plumas National Forest in California.

On his greatest triumphs and stumbles: ‘Standing on the podium at the New York Stock Exchange’

Standing on the podium at the New York Stock Exchange, when Fitbit went public was a fantastic event. I felt a mixture of relief and pride — especially at seeing many of the people who started on this journey with Eric Friedman and I with us at the ringing of the bell.

I find that Fitbit was, for me, something amazing that I’m super proud of, and I think all of the people who were part of the company, that journey they are equally proud of. But intermixed with that, we probably made some decisions along our history as a company that were not great in hindsight.

For instance, we waited too long to pivot to a better business model around services. [Fitbit Premium, the company’s fitness subscription service, launched in Sept. 2019]. The hardware business on itself is a pretty challenging one — you’ll sell a device to one person one year and maybe they’ll come back in two years. Apple has done a phenomenal job of creating an amazing hardware business, but they’re Apple.

What we’ve seen with a lot of other hardware companies, particularly Peloton — which, aside from their recent stumble, has been phenomenal — is that by combining hardware and services, that’s how you become incredibly successful in this business.

But my greatest failure was my first start-up [Epesi Technologies]. It did not work out that great at all, so I learned a lot of lessons from that, like the power of focus. We pivoted way too often, which was highly detrimental to the progress of the business. That [experience] was particularly painful.

On advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: ‘It’s easy to get sucked into things’

When you’re starting companies, perseverance is probably — I don’t know if it’s the no. 1 attribute [you need], but it’s definitely way up there.

It’s easy to get sucked into things, like, hey, let’s make money incredibly quickly. I think there’s probably a lot of that going on today, more so than I’ve seen in the past. To create things that truly have lasting value, perseverance is a key aspect.

I think you need to have conviction about what you’re doing. There’s a lot of things that society expects you to do — and in some ways, those things are great. But sometimes, [the best thing] for you individually, might not be the most optimal decision. Really have inner conviction, and if it means going against what others think, you should take that leap.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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