Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next-generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance and health. I found him through an excellent interview he hosted with Rory McIlroy, a winner of four major championships who was once the #1 golfer in the world. Then, once we started talking, he told me about the group chats he shares with other top golfers like Justin Thomas.
The man is obsessed with health technology like nobody I’ve ever come across, so conversation topics range from the business of wearables, to the challenges of tracking accurate data. Then, he shared his philosophy for why sleep and recovery are a more important data point for an athlete than exercise and stress. My favorite part of the interview was hearing about Will’s philosophy of management, and why he tries to hire people who have high intensity and high humility. Please enjoy my conversation with WHOOP CEO Will Ahmed.
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Find Will Online:
2:15 – What data Will wishes he could magically track for his users and why it could drastically improve their health.
6:30 – How breathing exercises, mindfulness, and meditations help your heart rate.
11:05 – Why WHOOP has found so much success in helping golfers and baseball players over other sports.
13:20 – What Will remembers as his favorite conversations with athletes.
16:24 – Why it’s so hard to capture accurate sleep cycle data.
20:43 – Why teams on average get less sleep at an away game than at a home game.
23:38 – The limits of what can or can’t and what should or shouldn’t be tracked.
26:38 – How WHOOP separates itself from the larger players in the health market.
31:08 – Why Will believes strongly that the branding of WHOOP products aids in developing a person’s own brand.
34:30 – Why not developing your own hardware to go with your software can be detrimental to your overall design.
41:41 – The future of informed coaching using WHOOP and their membership services team.
43:19 – Why WHOOP started out as a brand-focused company, and why it was so important to go about it this way.
45:38 – What it was like playing Augusta National.
49:00 – How to know when to operate analytically versus intuitively.
56:43 – The key to being different, and why you should always be asking your customers what their problems are, not what their solutions are.
1:01:16 – What piece of advice that Will would give his younger self in the past.
David: So, Will, welcome.
Will: Thank you David.
David: I have been following WHOOP for a while, and now seeing your ads on television, and my first question for you is what is a piece of data that you wish that you had that you’re annoyed, you’re frustrated that you don’t have it that would make tracking performance in the human body much easier and more effective?
Will: Well, that’s a good question. I guess if I could wave a magic wand, it would be to know everything that someone has consumed in great detail. I think that nutrition is a very interesting piece of the puzzle, but I think it’s really hard to collect nutritional information, one, in a convenient way, and two, accurately. And so I think that that as a data set also would be probably quite a differentiated data set from what we’re already collecting.
David: Yeah. One of the things you do is you ask deliberate questions. Were are you on your phone before you went to sleep? What time did you go to sleep? What time was your last meal? What do you see in terms of the efficacy of asking people for stated responses and how much that varies from what they actually do?
Will: Well, it does seem like the people who answer the journal that you just referred to, so we have this journal in the WHOOP app that can let you track 60 to 70 different lifestyle decisions, behaviors, diets, things of that nature, the people who answer that, answer it every single day. So it’s very binary. And what’s good about that is that it gives you a fairly robust data set. The key in general, I think with data is that you don’t want there to be holes in it. One of the reasons that WHOOP has a modular charger, right? You can charge WHOOP without ever taking it off your body, was that we were obsessed with this idea that you need the data 24/7. And in fact, if you had to take the WHOOP strap off your body, that would be a period of time when you weren’t wearing the product.
And in turn, we were afraid that you might not put it back on. And so that’s just one of many reasons or one of many solutions for why continuous data is so important. And when someone’s actually willing to tell you every single day, how much alcohol they had, and at what time and the number of glasses, you can actually really triangulate around different people’s habits and how to optimize them. One thing that’s been very interesting about alcohol, alcohol in general is not good for you. Most people know that. But it’s actually quite interesting certain population of people on WHOOP, if they have one drink, it actually can be beneficial to them where they may see positive results in their recovery and their sleep the next day. The challenge is that one, it’s not everyone. And two, a lot of people don’t just have one drink, it might drift into two or three.
And at that point, it almost definitely is having a negative impact on your body. I bring that up because it just gets to the power of being able to change someone’s behavior, which at the end of the day is what WHOOP is really trying to do. We want to change behavior and improve health. The power to being able to do that is to say, if you are going to drink alcohol, do it three hours before bed and try to have less than two drinks, to be very direct. And that’s feedback for David and maybe for Rory McIlroy, it’s like, you can’t have any alcohol. He jokes on our podcast that having one glass of wine his data is completely screwed up. So these things are super personalized. And I think that’s why it’s powerful to get as much data as you can to make a robust story.
David: Your podcast with Rory is one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to in my life.
Will: Thank you.
David: And what I remember so vividly was the way that his composure changed after he blew it at Augusta. And then when he won the US Open by six, eight, whatever he did, and I played Division 1 golf my freshman year. And one of the things that I talked a lot about with my coach was an idea called four by four breathing. We would inhale for four seconds. We would exhale. And then whenever I got nervous on the course, I would just return to that state of four by four breathing. And I never had data on how my breathing affected my heart rate. What have you found in that world?
Will: Well, people who meditate in general have a much better heart rate variability. So we do see that people who practice some form of mindfulness, some form of meditation have on average higher heart rate variability is than other people. We also see that if you’re someone who doesn’t meditate and then you introduce meditation, that too will lead to a higher heart rate variability. And there’s a lot of reasons for that in many ways, heart rate variability is a measurement of your breathing in the moment. So it’s not that surprising, but I think it’s quite powerful that the way you might just do a breathing exercise for 10 minutes in the morning today is going to then later affect how you sleep, some 12 hours or 18 hours later. I think that’s quite fascinating.
David: I’ve heard you talk a lot about how 20, 30 years ago, people weren’t working out and now you go to a hotel gym or go to a hotel, of course there’s a gym. And I think similarly there has been an increase in meditation, but I don’t know how much the stated consistency is versus the actual revealed consistency is among just average people. So I wonder what it’s like among athletes.
Will: Well, let’s see. I mean, I think athletes are constantly tinkering. I think they’re tinkering more today than they were 10 years ago. I don’t know if athletes are meditating more. I think that they’re probably thinking about it more. Athletes have always gravitated towards visualization. Some athletes will do this intuitively some will do it in a very rehearsed way. Well, what’s the difference between intuitively in rehearsed way? Intuitively would be Tiger Woods walking down the fairway of the 18th hole and just knowing to himself that he’s going to birdie the hole. And having a very clear image in his mind of doing that. A sports psychologist would train a Division 1 golfer how to do that in a coherent way. There would be, you would close your eyes. There would be a breathing technique, you would really focus on the emotion behind that.
You’d really focus on the imagery behind that. You would decide whether you want it to be focused on that in the first person or the third person. First person being, I can see out of my own eyes, the putt going in. Third person being, I can see the crowd around me and I can see myself making the putt. So these are the sorts of things that in general athletes get exposed to, especially in route to becoming a professional athlete. I think probably more so in golf even than other sports, because it is such an incredibly mental game. And there’s a lot of time in between shots. A basketball player, a lot of what a basketball player do is intuitive in the moment, right? LeBron James doesn’t necessarily need to visualize dunking on someone. He just, in the moment recognizes when he should.
Golf, you’ve got minutes, sometimes up to 10 minutes before a shot. So you have to figure out what you’re going to do with that time. And so my hunch, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time with professional golfers now, my hunch is that mindfulness and visualization are more popular within say professional golf than they would be say within professional basketball. I think there’s another general question as to, okay, well, how pervasive is mindfulness today? I think a lot of people are flirting with it. I don’t know if people have… I would be more curious to know how many people have actually created a practice around it. I, for example, have been doing transcendental meditation once or twice a day for six years straight. So I think of that as a practice. Whereas, if you download Headspace and over the course of a week, you meditate three times for 10 minutes each and then you don’t do it for a month and then you remember you’ve got it and you do it once, I don’t know if that’s someone who meditates. I think of that as someone who’s trying to experiment.
David: Why do you think WHOOP has been so popular on the PGA Tour? I know that you have a big deal with Major League Baseball. You have one with golf. What is it about those two sports that they have in common? I’m particularly surprised because golf is so slow to change as a culture and WHOOP feels like a bright exception to that rule.
Will: It’s been a pleasant surprise for me because I also love golf. And I’ll say this, I mean, the thing that makes WHOOP relevant for a professional golfer, a professional football player, or you or me, is that it’s very good at helping you figure out how all these different things in your life affect you. And professional golfers, I think for a long time have taken for granted just how grueling it is as a sport. I mean, it really is quite a lot of work. When we play golf, we show up to the range 20 minutes before the round, and then we go play 18 holes with our friends. When these guys play golf, I mean, it’s like eight hours at the range. It’s then going to the gym, it’s then getting on a plane and jumping over three times zones, it’s then having a beer in the lobby, it’s then getting into a hotel, it’s then waking up the next day and doing it all over again, and then trying to compete under stressful conditions to win a tournament. And maybe not playing that well. Right?
So you have a situation which is actually a fair amount of stress and it’s not a big focus on recovery. And so I think that the reason we took off in golf is that these guys realized how much better they were at golf when they focused on sleep and recovery. And I think the other reason it’s done so well is they all have the game. I mean, they all have the game. The hundredth best player in the world can shoot a 65 at the best course. Right? And so they recognize that there’s these other things that are going on that separate the hundredth best player from the best player. I’ve talked to a number of these guys who have gotten to be number one in the world. And almost all of them will say that there’s not that big of a gap between them and the hundredth person in the world. And so being able to focus on these things like how well you’re sleeping, what you’re doing before bed, how your body’s recovering, it actually can make an enormous difference in your performance.
David: What is a really memorable conversation or moment that you’ve had with one of the great players? Who’s just the person who you see, you’re like, I love this guy.
Will: I will say, I think professional golf in general is a unique group of athletes and that they’re much more collaborative. And this actually also answers why I grew so fast in golf. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are not texting each other tips. Right. In fact, they really want the other probably not to be getting better. Whereas professional golfers are shockingly collaborative. And I’m on text threads with Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, and there’ll be sending out screenshots of their sleep before the US Open, Oh, look, I’m in the green, Oh, look, I’m in the green. And in fact, Justin got on WHOOP because Rory told him to get on WHOOP. Right. And here are two of the top five golfers in the world. And what’s been cool for me along with getting to know those two guys and they’re terrific guys is, I was inside the bubble during the whole PGA Tour returned to golf.
And so it felt a little bit like joining a country club with 150 of the best golfers in the world. I mean, there was no one there, it was just professional golfers and their caddies and the staff and me, and a few, few people from WHOOP to helping them all get their WHOOP straps. And so you just sit in the locker room and players are coming in and out. Like I found myself having lunch with Tony Finau and Jon Rahm and Justin Rose one day. And they were showing each other their WHOOP data, which I thought was the coolest thing, obviously where they… John was talking about how he doesn’t get enough REM sleep. And Tony had gotten nine hours and 48 minutes of sleep. And John was completely fascinated by how Tony could get that much sleep.
And then they were talking about their sleeping habits and it was cool once you get to spend time with these guys. But I think it was also quite fascinating to me that’s the culture within the PGA Tour. And it’s a very special culture. I haven’t seen that in other sports. And I think the reason for it, and I think Justin Thomas, may have said this to me, but I think the reason for it is they don’t feel like they’re competing against each other as much as they’re competing against themselves and the course. And their winning percentages obviously super low, right? Just by the nature of the sport. And so that just makes them all, I think, a little bit more down to earth with each other.
David: You mentioned REM sleep. And my roommate founded a health startup, went through Y Combinator. The startup didn’t work, but he said that it’s notoriously difficult to get sleep data. And when it comes to my Oura ring and my WHOOP, the REM versus deep sleep data is very different. What’s going on there. And why is it so hard to capture sleep cycle data?
Will: Well, it’s interesting, first of all, capturing sleep data in that of itself is a fascinating concept because if you go to a sleep laboratory and you get hooked up to all these different contraptions, most commonly known the polysomnograph, which is really the sort of gold standard and sleep measurement, what happens is they film me sleeping. They look at the polysomnograph data and then two sleep clinicians will actually grade your sleep data. And people don’t realize this, but those two sleep clinicians will actually agree with each other 67% of the time. So that actually seems kind of low if you think about it, right? In terms of being able to accurately grade sleep data, and we’ve gone to great lengths to be the most accurate sleep monitor on the market. And if you look at our data alongside that gold standard, it’s really, really accurate.
And we look at it by variations of if a polysomnograph said you were in deep sleep, but for 48 minutes how long did WHOOP say you’re in deep sleep? Okay. That’s plus or minus two minutes. Okay, that’s, pretty encouraging. And what’s fascinating about REM sleep and slow-wave sleep in particular and why it’s important to measure these two periods of sleep is that REM sleep is when your brain is repairing. It’s when you’re improving cognitive performance. And if you’re an executive, if you’re trying to perform at a high level mentally, you need to be getting a lot of REM sleep. And slow wave sleep is when your body produces about 95% of its human growth hormone. So people think you get stronger in the gym, you’re actually kind of like tearing your muscles down in the gym. You get stronger during slow wave sleep when you’re repairing them.
And I bring this up because someone listening to this who doesn’t measure sleep, if you ask them how much sleep they get, what they will invariably do is they’ll say, “well, okay…” In the back of their mind, they’ll go, well, I go to bed at 11 and I wake up at six. So I get seven hours of sleep every night. And it’s like, okay, well actually, if you were to measure that, that’s seven hours in bed.
Will: Seven hours in bed does not actually translate to seven hours in sleep. Maybe you spend seven hours in bed and if you’re pretty efficient, you’re getting six hours and 15 minutes of quality sleep. Now within quality of sleep, there’s still this notion of light sleep versus REM and slow wave sleep. And by the way, there’s people who get six hours and 15 minutes of sleep and five and a half hours of that is light sleep, right? Versus you could be getting six hours and 15 minutes of sleep and half of it is REM in slow wave sleep. And so when people say, “I think I’m pretty good sleeper, I don’t know that I need to measure this stuff.” Or I know I’m a bad sleeper I don’t need to measure this stuff. I think it’s the most short-sighted point of view. Because it’s a third of your life and you can actually change very small things. And all of a sudden you’re spending the same amount of time in bed, you’re still the guy who goes to bed at 11 and wakes up at six.
But you now are going from having 10% of that time in bed being REM and slow wave, which is when you get all the value, to having 50 or 60%. And that alone can so meaningfully change the quality of your life and your performance. It is shocking.
David: Yeah. I think that one of the struggles that I would imagine professional athletes have is I’ve heard that your sleep is noticeably worse when you’re traveling. And I don’t know what they do to adapt to hotel beds, but I once heard you say that away players in the NBA get an hour less sleep than home players. And what do you do for that? How do you have these controlled experiments? I mean, maybe you basically say, “Okay, I have a red light that I bring around, and then I have the same pillow that I use.” And you try to replicate the environment. Maybe you try to do it with your pre-sleep habits, but I don’t know what you do there.
Will: Yeah. Look, I mean, it’s part of the game and it’s hard. The study you’re referencing, we actually did that with Major League Baseball and we found on average, the away team got an hour less sleep than the home team. So everyone sort of assumes that the home team wins because of the crowd and familiar stadium and sort of these like known quantity things. What if it’s just that they get more sleep at home? And that I think is quite an interesting concept. Now, the other challenge that athletes have is they play late game.
Will: And if you play a late game and a lot of athletes are taking some kind of a stimulant for that game, some kind of a shake or some kind of caffeinated thing, so you’re having a caffeinated thing at like 7:00 PM. I mean, you really don’t want to have caffeine in your system after 2:00 PM. So that just in itself is a huge challenge. The other thing is you’re playing under bright lights in front of screaming fans. So then you’ve got blue light that’s stimulating your eyes and you got fans and adrenaline that’s stimulating your body. So your cortisol levels are elevated. It’s kind of a perfect storm for someone not to be able to fall asleep. And that’s just independent from all the travel and whatnot. Plus after they end the game, they need to get some food in their system to recover.
So then you’re ending a game at say 10:00 PM. You’re getting food in your system 10:30, you actually don’t necessarily want to fall asleep right after eating. Because the food that you eat, your sleep, it will be effected, if you eat close to bed. Your body isn’t as good at digesting food when you’re sleeping and it also screws up your sleep quality. So anyway, that’s a perfect storm for why it’s hard, but it’s also, to me, it underscores why it’s so important to measure this stuff. I mean, I really believe we will look back on professional athletes, not measuring sleep and recovery as like the most insane thing ever. It’ll be like baseball players smoking cigarettes in the dugout. It’ll just seem that insane.
David: Or people smoking on airplanes. I always think about how is possible that you get on an airplane and people would just start torching it up at 40,000 feet. What are some of the constraints on getting inside the body? In terms of… Like I was with a friend this morning, we went swimming at like seven in the morning in the river. And he took off his levels, glucose tracker. And then it basically, by changing it up, became waterproof. But that is like a needle I think, in his arm. But then it can measure a lot of glucose spiking. What do you think that you’d be able to achieve if you did that? And is that even possible? Are the constraints just too bad? The data privacy is just too much of a risk. How do you think about that?
Will: Well, it’s funny. The things that humans are good at dreaming up tend to end up being reality. And everyone seems convinced that at some point you’re going to have sensors inside your body. So it’s almost more fun to just assume it’s going to happen. I do feel that it would be worth doing to the extent that you’re getting a data set that you can’t otherwise get. But it does introduce new challenges as well. I’ve looked at implantables a little bit. They have a one massive challenge is just battery life. How are you going to keep this thing powered that is inside your body? And so then you ask yourself, well, could it be powered by your body and blood flow, or could it be powered by movement, similar to how certain watches work, where they’re powered by mechanical movement.
The reality is that, just independent from this question of, can you measure more by being inside the body, the mechanical engineering and the battery questions of that are actually bigger problems. For example, so much of what WHOOP does better than other products is data collection and data granularity. But it would be impossible to collect that level of data if the sensor was trying to power itself. Because again, we wanted to have the product be something that you never had to take off or wouldn’t it be so clever if it was charging itself through movement. It’s just the battery requirements are in a different stratosphere from what a little mechanical watch requires.
David: One of the things that frustrates me quite a bit about the industry, I mean, like I have three wearables on right now and I’m trying to figure out what I like about it, what I don’t like about it. And one of the things is that I feel like none of the individual platforms are actually working together. And I think that this is how a lot of markets actually develop, where there’s a lot of markets that sort of come up and they all have these very specialized tasks and they all optimize on these very narrow domains. And WHOOP is very clearly optimized for like heart tracking and raw performance data. The Apple watches have more casual fitness or for sleep. And so it’s a bit frustrating that there’s no sort of easy way to link all the APIs and have a centralized database.
And also there is the challenge in the space that you have the big tech companies who want to be on your body. Amazon has come in and they want to compete with you guys. And then there’s obviously Apple, which is just sort of not quite the default option, but it seems like those two big companies… I remember Pebble came out a couple of years ago. And I think that one of the big lessons that a lot of people took from Pebble was, don’t compete against Apple. They are going to beat you. So what is your take on the industry given that it doesn’t seem like there’s good centralization and what it’s like playing against these big tech companies?
Will: Well, there’s a lot of ways to answer that, but I think the first thing that comes to mind is what is your core purpose? Why does your product exist? And for WHOOP, the reason we’ve built a vertically integrated system is that we believe it’s the very best way to drive behavior change and improve health. So that’s how we define success. That’s how we define our value proposition. And if you look at people who’ve been on WHOOP for a year, they have dramatically declining resting heart rates, they have increasing heart rate variabilities, they’re sleeping longer and they’re sleeping more consistently. And those are actually dramatic improvements in health. So there’s a lot of signs that what we’re doing is working.As we think about adding layers to that story, it’s bringing in more data sources that could help us again, unpack what you need to do to be a better version of yourself.
What can we tell you to do? I think a lot of behavior change comes from some intervention of sorts. It’s not just enough to say you didn’t sleep well last night, you want to show… You tell someone what can you do to sleep better. But it’s not enough to say that maybe a low carb diet is good for you or paleo is good for you or ketos good for you. You have to explain that it’s working, you have to show that it’s working or show that it’s not working. So this sort of coaching layer to me is where WHOOP wants to live. And to the extent that we can get other data sources to improve that, we are going to. And there’s a lot of different ways to think about what those data sources will be. And some of this, I have to keep a little confidential.
But we want to build a platform where you are going to be able to improve your health. And I appreciate some of your critiques on why are you wearing three different products? I think there’s a fair amount of overlap between Oura and WHOOP. So in that case, it’s less obvious why to wear both of them. I think in the case of WHOOP and the Apple watch, they are actually serving different functions. And I think the lesson from Pebble was not necessarily don’t compete with Apple. I think the lesson from Pebble was don’t do too many things in an average way. And they built a smartwatch that didn’t do anything really well. It did a lot of things in a pretty average way. And they also chose to build wearable technology.
Wearable technology is one of the single hardest things to build because you have to be good at least five things. I mean, you have to be good at hardware, you have to be good at software, you have to be good at analytics, you have to be good at design and you probably need some aspect of branding or community, maybe both. So that just makes the space insanely hard. Nike failed in the space, Adidas failed in the space, Under Armour failed in the space, Microsoft failed in the space, Google has had a lot of start, stops, but they’ve failed in the space. Intel failed in the space. Base is run out of business. Java went out of a business. There’s a graveyard of stuff that failed in this space.And it’s in part because it’s really hard. But I think it’s also in part because it’s a lack of focus. You have to be, in my opinion, very, very succinct about why you’re going to exist.
And for WHOOP, there’s a million reasons why we don’t have a watch face. There’s a million reasons why we don’t let you do push notifications and why the thing doesn’t vibrate when your phone just got a text message. We want to live on two paradigms. We want WHOOP to either be cool, or we want it to be invisible and nothing in between. And that’s a pretty strong point of view. I think if you look at a lot of wearable technology it was lost in the middle. And the design of this stuff’s pretty important. How many things do you wear 24/7? Not a lot.
David: Not many.
David: I think WHOOP is my only one. Because it is the only one because it’s the only one that stays on my body. I charge my Apple watch and my Oura ring every day. I can’t work out with my Oura ring because I can’t lift weights with it. So WHOOP is actually the only thing, which is kind of crazy.
Will: Right. So that’s fairly intentional and it’s again, I think quite hard and given just how few things you wear 24/7 it emphasizes the difficulty of it.
David: Talk about cool and invisible.
Will: So cool is creating something that aesthetically you’re willing to wear. And I think that anything you wear 24/7 seven says something about you. Would have been other fads that people have worn on a somewhat continuous way. The LiveStrong bracelet. I know Lance Armstrong is very out of style these days, but there was a time when wearing a LiveStrong bracelet said a lot about you, right?
David: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Will: You could kind of prototype someone once you saw that thing on their wrist. And in many ways we’re seeing the same thing develop with WHOOP, where if you meet someone who wears WHOOP, all of a sudden, you start to paint a picture of someone who’s aspirational, maybe athletic, but definitely aspirational. And in my opinion, that’s a good thing. I think you want to have a strong brand association, especially if you’re developing a wearable technology. Ask yourself what it would mean to you to see someone wearing an Amazon wearable or a Walmart wearable. I don’t want to say anything critical, but all of a sudden it, it just creates a different framework in your mind of what does this person stand for? What does this person’s priorities? Because this isn’t again, just so utilitarian piece of technology, it’s something you’re choosing to wear on your person, to wear on your body.
And for those reasons, I think the brand association and the design of the product are even more important than is immediately obvious. Everyone says, “Oh, industrial design is important.” But it’s actually in this specific case with wearable technology, even more important. And so we spent a long time figuring out how would this thing be completely customizable? And it’s not an accident that you can very quickly just take the sensor apart and swap in and out all sorts of different bands and have this be completely logoed to the moon and back. So we want this to feel like a great representation of who you are. And invisible is the other paradigm. And that’s one that I’m quite excited about. And we’re doing a lot of work on that, which is really all I can say.
David: Nice. Technology becomes technology when it’s invisible, when we don’t think about it. And this is something that I’d like to do some philosophy about actually. I would, at some point in life, like to spend a couple of years exploring the, how invisible technologies impact us. And I mean that in a actually a very different way than WHOOP. But I think there’s another kind of invisible. I think the invisible you’re talking about is like electricity. You sort of assume it’s there. You don’t really think about it. You turn on the lights without even thinking about it. And it just sort of operates in this ambient fashion. There’s another kind of invisible that I’m very interested in, which is like clocks and mirrors. These technologies that we no longer think about. And I have a thesis that clocks created a culture of anxiety, mirrors created a culture of narcissism, and I would love to go study a lot of those ideas.
But I’m reminded of another famous saying that if you are serious about software, you want to go build your own hardware. Talk about some of the challenges of building each of those, and then we’ll work through some of those five things that you mentioned before.
Will: It’s funny. So I started WHOOP when I was a senior at Harvard and that was 2012. I mean, technically the company was founded in 2011. And for nine years, an enormous number of people told me not to build hardware. I mean, an overwhelming number of people told me not to build hardware.
David: I’m sure.
Will: And the slick investor point of view on this was, “Oh, you should just leverage existing hardware and build the algorithms on top of it.” And it’s fascinating to me how many people thought that was like a novel point of view, like a smart point of view. Like they had invented that point of view in the moment and they were so proud of it. Almost like we couldn’t have thought of that ourselves. And so I understand that it’s sort of this thing that people believe which is that, if you can create the simplest path to victory, maybe that’s going to be the quickest return and the best bet. But in fact, if you are actually trying to build something that is, I think truly new, is truly trying to disrupt a space or a market, to be able to control every piece of the puzzle, to have it be vertically integrated is such an enormous advantage.
And the other advantage to it is it’s so ambitious and I didn’t necessarily realize quite how ambitious it was at the time when I was sort of realizing what I wanted to do, but it’s so ambitious that it actually attracts really, really great talent and really, really great people. Because they’re like, “This is kind of bad-ass, we’re going to build every layer of this thing from scratch and we’re going to control every bell and whistle.” And now when we want to innovate, there’s all these different axes that we can play on. We can be innovating within the way we’re collecting the data, within the rate at which we’re collecting the data, within the sensing that we’re doing, within the rate at which we’re transferring it. There’s just an enormous power that comes to being able to own the entire stack.
David: What’s an example of that from a product that you’ve already launched, help me understand, what is something that you have done that you wouldn’t have been able to do had you not owned the stack?
Will: Well, I mean, most of what you see on just the WHOOP overview screen, we wouldn’t be able to do without owning the stack and part, because our hardware is differentiated, but let’s take, for example, the fact that in 2015, Fitbit came out with their first wearable that could do heart rate. And so, again, fill in the blank, clever investor. Oh great. This is an opportunity for you guys to sort of shelf the hardware developments. Now you can just take heart rate from Fitbit and put your algorithms on top of it. And let’s just assume for a second, that people were willing to wear a Fitbit forever, which we’ve now seen is not the case. People aren’t willing to wear a Fitbit forever. But let’s pretend they were, the heart rate granularity with which they were collecting the data was inaccurate under different forms of motion.
So if you’re trying to serve an audience that is initially athletic and doing a lot of different sports, you actually can’t control the accuracy of that heart rate data. And you can’t validate the heart rate that you’re putting into a score is actually weighted properly. So if you want to give someone a strain analysis for a run or for weightlifting or for basketball, and you can’t trust the data that’s going into it, or you can’t wait the probability of any given moment, how accurate it is, then you can’t in turn, give someone a score that’s actionable or real. And then it’s just sort of like shit in, shit out. And I mean, for a long time, I wore a chest strap, 24/7, a heart rate monitor chest strap because that actually gave me fairly accurate heart rate data, which I could in turn create an accurate strain score with. Because the chest strap for all the issues with it, was an accurate heart rate monitor.
Now that’s like a very simple point of view, that’s a very simple analysis. It gets so much more complicated. The reason that WHOOP is able to give you a recovery score that is accurate to your state of being and accurate to how restored you are, is sort of a few layers of things. One it’s the fact that we measure heart rate variability. But so you might immediately say, “Oh well, but this other product measures heart rate variability, you could use that other product to give you a recovery score.” Well, wait, we measure heart rate variability continuously, but we only take the heart rate variability reading for recovery during the last five minutes of your slow wave sleep. And the reason that’s important is that heart rate variability is a very noisy statistic. My heart rate variability right now in this moment may say nothing at all about my ability to perform in a somewhat athletic context to later.
But it in fact was a very good predictor if you looked at it while I was sleeping last night and not just sleeping, but during slow wave sleep. So we take it every, within the last five minutes of slow wave sleep because slowly sleep is when your body’s literally repairing. And as we talked about before, it’s when you’re producing human growth hormone. And by doing that and doing that night, over night, over night, over night, we’re able to build a control and that control then can be weighted against itself. And that in turn can lead to a recovery score. And so if we had just grabbed what a random piece or random hardware had said, was your heart rate variability, we wouldn’t know, at what point in the day it was captured. We wouldn’t know how accurately it was captured. And for those reasons alone, it would just be a completely worthless measurement.
So the idea that we could then build a score on top of it, that could then have a coach to tell you what to do off of it, “Oh, you’re green. You should exercise this hard or you’re red, you should rest.” I mean, again, it wouldn’t have worked. It would’ve all fallen over. There would have been no efficacy.
David: We were talking earlier about, let me just sort of summarize it at the risk of being too terse about other people, telling you to be capital light business, you going vertically integrated and dealing with hardware, which means that you’re running now more capital intensive business. The same thing could be said, looking forward, you’re talking about coaching. Do you think that you would hire personalized coaches? So I would work with a WHOOP coach and then my subscription, instead of $30 a month be a hundred dollars a month, or do you think that there, then there’s an opportunity at the software only layer to basically automate a lot of the coaching experience and basically have a handful of critical data points that say, “Hey, your strain score has been too low for the last eight days. Your HRV keeps going down. We think that with how much you’re training you are now at nine out of 10 risk for injury.” Is that how you see this going? Or what are you thinking about with the coaching?
Will: Well, we’re exploring a lot of different avenues of coaching. I mean, the first layer, which is getting much more robust, it’s just that we have a membership services team that in very short order, you as a WHOOP member will just be able to text directly in the app. And that team, you could ask anything from why is it my Bluetooth pairing to hey, I got an unusually low heart rate variability today, what does that mean? So that in itself is going to be an interesting human layer of coaching. And we’re going to build on top of that. And so I’m excited to see where that takes it. Broadly speaking, I think the most accurate coach for looking at your WHOOP data will ultimately be the WHOOP AI that sits on top of all this information. Because that’s the God-view algorithm that can understand not just all these different things that are affecting me, but the other 10,000 people on WHOOP who look identical to me. Right.
And the learnings from that data set too. And so, yeah, I’m quite encouraged that we’re going to be able to build a coach that is going to actually be able to tell you exactly what you need to do to improve. And that is going to be an AI. It’s not going to be a human.
David: Cool. Switching gears here, WHOOP is its own kind of media company. I see the content trap of book behind you. And you now have a podcast. How have you thought about building a media company within WHOOP? What has been your thinking behind doing that?
Will: From a very early on, we wanted WHOOP to be a brand. And that’s sort of a risky thing to say at an early stage of a business, especially before you have meaningful revenue and whatnot. But it does create an orientation. And for us, it was very important that when WHOOP grew up and we’re now pretty close to being a mature company that people would associate WHOOP with human performance. And if they were going to ask themselves a question about human performance, regardless of whether they were customer of WHOOP, they would want to come to WHOOP to answer that question. So how do I sleep better? That’s a question that if someone asks, we want them to come to WHOOP, regardless of whether or not they wear WHOOP. And that’s in part, what it means to be a brand is to have credibility around your universe.
And so some of these different categories that we’ve invested in, like we have The Locker, which is a blog where we write about a lot of this stuff. We have a podcast where we interview thought leaders, athletes, executives, on what they’re doing. We have really detailed analysis on different types of scores and different types of physiological measurements. All of that is to build a content engine that people can use to better understand their bodies, regardless of whether they were WHOOP or not. And what of course has happened is that now society has also caught up. Eight years ago, I was talking about heart rate variability, no one cared what the hell heart rate variability was. Five years ago, we were still talking about heart rate variability. But if you searched for it, WHOOP was on the 25th page.
Today if you search for heart rate variability, WHOOP is one of the answers for what is heart rate variability, right? And so that’s SEO and whatever, but it’s building real estate that you believe is going to be valuable. And then it’s realizing that not only is that real estate a thousand acres, rather than one acre from when you started, a lot of people want to come to your real estate. And so that’s what it’s been for us around content and that’s how we’ve thought about it.
David: So what’s it like to play Augusta National?
Will: I played at Augusta National in May of 2012 and a friend of mine at Harvard’s father was a member. And we went down there and it was surreal, they comb the squirrels. It’s a special place. It is a beautiful place. It does feel like the home of golf, it’s worth the hype. And you can’t really help walking around that golf course, but feeling a little bit of magic in the air. The hole that I thought was insanely hard. That again, it seemed actually less hard on television was 16, the par-3.
Will: So the hole that Tiger put it to like three feet when he won last year. I mean, that whole green is really hard. And I actually dropped a ball from where Tiger made… So the day we played it, just to back up for a second, was where they put the pin on Sunday of the Masters, it’s that pin that’s kind of tucked towards the water. And so I dropped a ball just for fun from where Tiger had made that crazy chip.
David: 2005, 2006.
Will: Yeah. And that chip is so hard. I smile thinking about it. I think I chipped it to like 35 feet and I mean, I’m not a terrible golfer. I’m like a three or four handicap. And I think I chipped it to… I was definitely outside of 20 feet. And it was just so cool that he chipped that in and under the situation that he did. So, yeah, look, it was amazing to get to play that golf course, incredibly grateful.
David: That’s probably the top thing on my entire bucket list, playing Augusta National. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about, and I think that Bryson DeChambeau has been sort of at the frontier of this. I know I’ve been talking to the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff, because I wrote an article about Bryson and it went sort of viral. And a lot of people in Major League Baseball in particular started reaching out. And a lot of what we’ve been talking about is how being more analytical can make your intuition better. And let me give you an example here. So there’s been an interesting thing that’s happened in the world of chess, where a lot of the top players have been watching chess, AIs play, and what’s happened is it has reoriented people’s intuition for those who watch a lot of computer chess.
And there’s a lot of moves that look ugly to the human eye, but that are actually very effective moves. And so my theory is that what you want to do is you want to practice analytically and then you want to improve your intuition. But then when you perform, you want to be intuitive. So you were talking about LeBron James earlier, the way he’s intuitive on the course, same thing with Bryson. He wants to be more of an artist on the course, even though he’s very, very science-minded off of it. How would you think about some of those trade-offs and maybe we could even talk about your time playing squash. How much did you think about being analytical versus intuitive?
Will: Yeah, I mean, I agree with you that I think in general, you want practice to be analytical and you want performance to be intuitive, which I think is what you were getting at. I think it’s very hard to execute when you’re too conscious of what you’re doing. The Holy grail, which athletes get to every once in a blue moon is this concept of a flow state. And the flow state is the very definition of it being completely intuitive.
Will: I mean, everything you’re doing just comes completely naturally. And you’re almost like watching yourself in the act. And I remember having one squash match like that, where I won my match against Trinity and Trinity at the time they hadn’t lost a match for 12 straight seasons. It’s the longest dynasty in all of college sports, they won insane number of matches straight. And I won my individual match, so we still lost as a team, but I remember truly appreciating what this idea of a flow state was. And it’s a fleeting thing. I mean, you almost just feel like you’re watching yourself do the thing and you’re amazed by how easy it feels. And it’s a hard thing to get back to. Joshua Waitzkin writes really well about this whole concept. So I think you have it right. I think the question becomes what are flow states outside of sports, right? How can you be analytical about your performance as an executive, but then all of a sudden embody someone who’s doing it intuitively or executing intuitively?
I think in general, my process for running WHOOP is very intuitive, but then again, you have these moments where you’re consciously looking at your calendar and you’re thinking, okay, well, I say that recruiting is very important right now, but how many hours a week am I actually spending recruiting? And you sort of like, okay, well, that’s sort of where the analysis needs to come in because you need to sort of recalibrate.
David: Well, I think there’s another cut on this. That WHOOP shows that there’s times where your feelings about, can I play today? Can just be wrong and you can look at HRV and what people are saying and what they actually think is just wrong. And so there’s times WHOOP has proven that our intuition leads us astray.
Will: A hundred percent. And look, I mean, one of the core reasons that WHOOP exists today was this belief that feelings are overrated. Feelings are overrated. And if you’re a hard driving person, it’s particularly true because your feelings can betray you, because your mind can betray you. I mean, this is why you see talented entrepreneurs burn out. It’s why you see great athletes over-training get injured. It’s because their minds are able to push themselves to a place that actually isn’t all that productive. I started WHOOP because I over-trained as a college athlete and I wanted to know what day should I train hard or what they should I not train at all? And I think this point about feelings being overrated is being actually really amplified during COVID-19. COVID, I think has changed consumer psychology in a big way, in this regard. Where you can be carrying a virus that you can’t feel. You’re asymptomatic, and you can give it to your grandmother and it can kill her.
And unfortunately, this is happening every day in the world. As a shift in psychology is quite powerful. And the reality that you can measure things about your body to understand whether there’s a meaningful shift occurring in your body. And so it’s why I’m so bullish on the whole space and the whole concept of health monitoring is that I think it’s inevitable that health monitoring can make people so much more aware, so much healthier. It can improve healthcare costs. It can shift a lot of things to being preventative versus curative, which is where you save a lot of money. I think it can be good in every way.
David: Yeah. I’m going to give you a thought experiment that I called the paradox of battery, and it’s probably my single biggest complaint about WHOOP. I think that the battery lasts too long. And let me tell you why this-
Will: I haven’t thought about this.
David: -Sounds ridiculous. But battery life is more effective if you have to charge it every day, because it becomes a habit. And the reason why I don’t have great data on my WHOOP, the reason why I lose my charger all the time, is well partially because it’s mobile, but I really just forget to charge it because I don’t charge it every day. And so I think that there’s something very weird going on there with consumer behavior that analytically wouldn’t make sense. You would think that the longer the battery, the battery of the product might not be the case.
Will: Well, it depends what you’re solving for, but I’ll give you the empirical answers to that paradox.
Will: The empirical answers to that paradox are that in fact, having a five day battery life versus a day and a half, which is what we used to have, our Generation Two is about a day and a half, two days. So it was one of those things where you had to charge it every night. You had to build that behavior. Today with a five day battery life versus then with the sort of day and a half, more people are able to consistently upload data to the server. So what that means is that having a longer battery life has improved efficacy of data collection. Despite what your point of view on building a habit. What we’ve also seen though, is that more people are buying battery packs.
So our battery pack sales on a per person basis have also increased. And I think what that signals is, what you just described is that the behavior of not having this sort of habit everyday of charging means that you’ll put your charger somewhere. And then four days later, you’ll forget where it is and you’ll have lost your charger. And so that in turn is why people are also now buying more battery packs. And I think that in general, we’re going to keep trying to extend the battery life. And I think we’re probably okay with people buying battery packs too, although I’d like them to get cheaper.
David: It might also flip at some margin, right? I’m not saying it’s true, but let’s say that my thought experiment is true, it might be the case that at 17 days now it becomes easier. Certainly, if you had an unlimited battery, then you’d never run out of battery. Or if you only had to charge once a year and you had it at the same place, that would probably be better. So I don’t know, it’d be really interesting to look at a habit curve of that. As we begin to close, I think that one of the things is, there’s a very David and Goliath element of WHOOP, which I think that you’re into. And I think that it shows that you have been first to market with a lot of innovations and you’ve beaten a lot of companies that have a lot more money, theoretically, that shouldn’t be possible. What are you doing differently in terms of the structure of the business? We talked about control and pace earlier, we talked about delegating down. We talked about your obsession. What else comes out there?
Will: Well, we have had a strong point of view on the space. And for a while, that point of view was quite contrarian. I mean, eight years ago when I spoke to coaches and athletes, just to start with that market, about what they wanted, they kept talking about exercise. I mean, oh, could you give me more information on GPS? Could you give me a more information on sweat? Could you give me more information on video analysis? And when I asked them, well, what are your problems? It always came back to training optimally and injuries, like player availability. And there’s a learning in this by the way, which you learn as an entrepreneur over time. You always want to ask customers for what their problems are. You don’t want to ask customers for what their solutions are.
David: I love it.
Will: Customers are very good at describing their problems. They often can maybe mislead you sometimes when they try to build that solution. And it’s really the role of a great product team is to come up with the solution. So I believe that the solution for those problems was actually understanding the other 20 hours of the day. I think you have a lot of information already on exercise, but I don’t think you know anything about how people are sleeping and recovering. And I think if that got a hell of a lot better, maybe you could even exercise more. So that was the contrarian point of view, that sleep and recovery more important to performance than performance itself or exercise. And the other contrarian point of view was that the data needed to be really accurate. There were so many opportunities to make a quick buck. I mean, we saw this with the companies that just came quick to market with Step Counters, and we were so stubborn about it.
We’re still stubborn about it today. We don’t think steps is relevant. It’s a completely irrelevant metric in my opinion. In part, because it’s not even measuring steps, it’s measuring how much your arm moves. And again, you look at all the products, even the Apple watch, it’s measuring steps, which I think is the silliest thing. So one key to being different is truly being different. I mean, you have different points of view. We’ve had different points of view. We invented a recovery score when no one was talking about recovery. And I think the other bit is we wanted to anchor WHOOP around performance in athletics. I believe that one secret to owning health monitoring was to not look like a tech company, but to look like a sports apparel brand. When WHOOP grows up, we want to look like Nike. We don’t want to look like Microsoft.
And by the way, that was another decision that was more expensive and hard, which is sort of been a recurring theme. And if WHOOP had failed a couple of years ago, the critique would have been what you tried to do is to do was too hard. And we almost did fail. It’s taken a lot of resilience to get where we are today. But that turned out to be an incredible anchoring, the fact that these professional athletes organically wear and by WHOOP is so incredibly validating. And we believe for the longest time that there was no amount of money we could pay an athlete to wear WHOOP if they didn’t get value out of it. And on the flip side, we believed if we truly could tell them, exercise hard today, don’t exercise at all, or go to bed at this time, or wake up at that time or this supplements good for you, this supplements bad for you, if we can truly deliver on that value, then they would pay us for the product.
And so those were some of the points of view that we had that I would say were hard driving points of view. We were just looking at all the same information, but we were looking at it very differently than other companies. And it served us well. And now I think we have a pretty passionate community that’s building on itself. And it’s a community that likes the affiliation with WHOOP, which is in turn a sort of self fulfilling cycle where you’ve got something where people like the feeling of the brand. They like what it says about themselves wearing it. So then in turn, they wear it more so than they get more of their friends to wear it. And then all of a sudden you’ve created a flywheel.
David: Last question, go back to you when you’re senior at Harvard, 2012, what do you think you would say to yourself? If you could tell yourself one thing that you’ve learned, whether it’s about health, exercise, science, how to live, how to run a business, what is it that you think is the kernel of wisdom that you’ve learned since actually founding this company?
Will: Don’t give up. I mean, keep going. I think truly that was really my attitude for the last 10 years, but it is hard, man. I mean, it’s very hard and you know this, you spend time with other founders and you’re entrepreneurial yourself. It’s hard, it’s lonely, there’s times where you really feel like you can’t do anything right. And enormous. The other thing about building something that’s ambitious that I didn’t fully realize is the number of people that will tell you, you can’t do it. The number of people that will tell you that you’re going to fail. There’s something about crazy ideas being a good thing, right? It’s a crazy idea that you would want to rent your bedroom out to a stranger, but that’s Airbnb, right? That was a crazy idea. But if you have these sort of wild, ambitious points of view on the world, in part, they don’t exist because a lot of people don’t think they can exist.
And what that in turn does is it makes you a magnet for criticism and negative feedback. And that was hard for me I think over the years. It’s also hard if you’re a very young person, because so much of your identity as a business person is also tied up in the company. It’s why I think you can sort of develop an unhealthy relationship with your work in turn, because so much of your identity again is tied up in the success of the thing that you’ve spent so much time building. So there’s a real vulnerability I think that I’m getting at that at least I felt at various points of time in building the company that I would say to all founders out there, keep going, believe in yourself.
David: Keep going. Well Will thank you very much. Congrats on pushing through. It’s really cool to see Rory and Justin Thomas and these partnerships with Major League Baseball. You’re working on something that I don’t think I would have believed would have existed either. So I’ll put myself in the doubters and you’ve proved me wrong. So congratulations.
Will: David, thank you for having me. This has been a pleasure.