An Interview with CEO of SparkPeople, Chris Downie
It isn’t everyday that you get a multi-millionaire Chief Executive Officer of one of the world’s leading health & fitness online portals popping by your website to write a comment. And it definitely isn’t everyday that a CEO would respond to your request – almost instantaneously – to connect with individuals who accomplished their weight loss goals just to help you achieve your goal of featuring an informative weight loss motivational interview.
But that’s what I experienced in my encounter with Chris Downie, CEO & founder of SparkPeople. Something that makes him so special and different from other CEOs I’ve ever come across in my ex-corporate life. And I know it’s definitely that same sincerity, down-to-earthness and dynamism of his that spearheaded the success of Sparkpeople today.
Offering their diet, fitness tools and services totally free, SparkPeople’s approach to help people shed their weight has been so medically accepted that many professional doctors had even approached them volunteering to support their selfless initiative since inception. Their results are impressive! Featured on various media & publications such as Fox TV, ABC TV and The New York Times, SparkPeople is one of the fastest growing websites on the Internet. In both 2006 & 2007, it was even voted the best online health site in Business Week under the “Best of the Web” awards!
Prior to SparkPeople, Chris co-founded Up4Sale.com, an online auction website which grew so big that it caught the eye of eBay. In 1998, Up4Sale was acquired by eBay for a reported US$70 million (Source : The Enquirer) worth of cash and stock options. He also founded BabyFit, another successful website under the SparkPeople group. Wow, that’s makes him the best person to talk about entreprenuership, isn’t it?
As part of the series for ‘Start A Business’, the 9th ranked goal in my last reader’s poll Top 10 Goals of Goal Setting College Readers, I’m really happy to be able to invite Chris to share his start up experiences in this exclusive interview. If you’ve been itching to start your own business, be it online or just a brick & mortar store, let his experience show you how you too can blaze the trail!
Chris – thanks for your time. Can you give us a personal introduction of yourself and what were your growing up years like?
Sure, thanks for talking to me Ellesse! We have a lot in common – my mission in life is to help people reach their goals and I used to be an accountant too – at Proctor & Gamble (P&G)! One of my current motivations for staying healthy and reaching goals is to be a good husband and father to my two sons. They keep me on my toes!
As a kid, I had anxiety that runs in my family. I didn’t like this, so I developed a personal improvement program which combines topics that help your body like nutrition and fitness with areas that help your mind like goal setting and leadership. Initially I started with tracking my fitness program and then later added other areas. I drew inspiration from writers like Stephen Covey and others. Basically the program is designed to help you become the best person you can be. This program helped me break out and become an entrepreneur.
Wow Chris, I’m certainly flattered to know that we’ve a lot in common. It’s really an overstatement actually as I’ve got so much to learn from you!
I know you’ve always been very entrepreneurial. Up4sale, SparkPeople, BabyFit etc. What made you give up a career as an accountant to start your first business? And how did you startup SparkPeople?
I’ve always known I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I grew up in a single-parent family that didn’t have much money – we often lived paycheck-to-paycheck. I think this fostered a drive to start my own company so I’d have a chance to determine my own destiny – hopefully from a young age.
I remember in a 10th grade project about picking careers, I chose “Entrepreneur” and few people at that time knew what that meant. So, it was natural that I’d start a company at some point. When I hooked up with my friend Rob, we realized we had a lot in common and decided to leave Corporate America at the same time to follow our dreams.
When I was 13 (25 years ago now!), I started combining fitness and goal setting as a way to help me reach my goals. I strongly believe that entrepreneurs should work hard to be as healthy as possible to handle all the stress and maximize their chances for success! One thing I did was set a goal to do a 10-minute workout every day. I ended up doing this 700 days in a row and it changed my life!
That kind of inspired me to start up SparkPeople. I wanted to SPARK millions of PEOPLE to reach their goals. I wanted to help people reach goals from this program like I have been able to. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be a multi-millionaire if it hadn’t been for developing the SparkPeople program and using it myself!
The major difference between SparkPeople and other types of diet and fitness programs is that we combine motivation and goal setting with health and fitness. As a result, members are able to both get healthy and reach many other types of goals.
Chris, you’ve really got that started! I’m sure you’ll gain many new SparkPeople subscribers just from that “ I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be a multi-millionaire if it hadn’t been for developing the SparkPeople program and using it myself” statement.
Being able to walk the talk is something so crucial that many businesses fail to recognize! Could you also share with us some of your teething issues during the initial startup phase and how you overcame them?
We spent a significant amount of time in the early days at SparkPeople doing Research & Development to build a better way for people to reach their goals especially their health goals.
Later on, we found it difficult to break through the clutter of so many other large brands in the diet category that we decided to make our site completely free to help reach our mission of sparking millions of people to reach their goals. We’ve had to work incredibly hard to keep improving our site and program because there’s so much competition in the category.
I’ve taken a different approach for the SparkPeople culture. In my first company, I worked 80-100 hours per week every week for about 2 years. I realized that you can’t keep this pace up for more than 2 years or it’s likely you’ll end up in the hospital. I am fairly sure my allergies got much worse because of the stress this put on my body – so I highly recommend that all entrepreneurs work hard to stay healthy – or you could be doing real damage to your body.
At SparkPeople, we decided that employees would work relatively normal hours. BUT, we would work hard at being as efficient and smart as possible. Our team has responded to this culture. One result is that we’ve never had a key employee leave the company and people love working at SparkPeople. We challenge ourselves to get as much done in 45-55 hours per week as other company’s employees get done in twice that time.
Absolutely true. Building a business is like running a marathon race. You’ve to keep up the momentum right till the end! There’s also a common saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? Has this also affected the way how you build your business?
This hasn’t affected us much. We have just focused on building a great consumer experience so that our members are successful and spread the word to their friends, family, and co-workers.
For SparkPeople, the “who you know” has been the millions of people who have signed up for our sites and then spread the word. We also continue making the site better. In fact, that’s our best marketing strategy so far. If you have a site and program/product that really works, people will spread the word and do your marketing for you. This is the same way eBay grew into such a large company. Google too.
That’s very true! Word of mouth marketing is the best marketing.
You know something? During a poll I’ve conducted in Sep 2007, starting a business is one of the top 10 goals of Goal Setting College readers – what have you learned from your own experience that could help them in launching their own business?
I’ve learned that starting a company is extremely hard. So, I always recommend that people find something they are passionate about when starting a company because they’ll be spending so much time with it. In most cases, they should also be willing to make some major sacrifices in life to make their dreams come true – including making their personal expenses as low as possible.
During my first company, I lived with my Mom for free rent and drove a car that my friend gave me when she went back to grad school – and it wasn’t a very nice car – I got a new car right after we were acquired after the brakes on that car gave out and I ran off the road. I ended up putting $50,000 on my personal credit cards. But the determination to reach this goal carried me and my partners through the difficult times.
Another major lesson is to focus on strategy and execution. Getting ideas is relatively easy compared to strategy and execution.
I certainly attest to that! I get a lot of cool ideas about what to write on Goal Setting College and new internet projects from time to time but it can be daunting when it comes to actually working on them. What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see budding entrepreneurs do?
The number one mistake I see from new entrepreneurs is overvaluing their business idea. By this I mean that new entrepreneurs often think if they have a good idea they are more than halfway towards being successful, but that’s nowhere near the case. This single mistake often makes it hard to work with young entrepreneurs for partnering, etc. For example, we’ll sometimes have young companies with not much more than an idea wanting to work with SparkPeople. But, they don’t realize how far along we are on the execution scale so it’s hard to talk to them.
Another mistake I see is not working hard to keep expenses low in the early days so they have enough time to learn from mistakes and be successful before running out of money. We made mistakes every day at Up4Sale – but they were mostly sweat equity mistakes that didn’t cost us much money.
If you had to identify 3 important habits that you’ve acquired that had helped you to become what you are today – what would they be?
Great, question! Here are three I can think of:
Drive to Continually Improve Myself
This originated from the desire to overcome anxiety. I think the best way to improve yourself is through doing something – getting real life experience at something. Of course, reading great authors and other material can give you a good head start.
A Real Focus On Execution Once I Set Goals
Setting big goals is easy, reaching them is much harder. One of my favorite motivational techniques is to build a vision collage. I did this when I was at P&G when I set a goal to become an entrepreneur. I cut out pictures that represented my goals and hung that picture in my office. Then, anytime I was feeling down, I could look at those aspirational pictures and keep my real goals in mind. I’m also a fan of telling people about your goals.
At SparkPeople, from day 1 our goal was to help millions of people. This sounded ludicrous at the beginning. But, now I’m starting to talk about increasing our potential to helping tens of millions of people!
A Revelation that “Your Daily Actions and Words Impact More People Than You’ll Ever Realize!”
This is what eventually led to SparkPeople and my goal to help other people. I came up with this quote when working at P&G. A co-worker started using my program. She then transferred to another location and I didn’t see her for about 6 months, but stayed in touch via email.
When I saw her again, she had lost 50 pounds. She told me she had been waiting to see me in person to tell me I had changed her life. She had started a walking group at her location where the others said, “Pat, if you can do it, we can do it!” So, my small actions to improve myself had helped this co-worker and then she was motivating other people. In other words, nobody can tell the ultimate impact once they help someone.
I certainly understand where you’re coming from on your last point. In fact, it’s your seemingly simple comment that really touched and motivated me to contact you!
Oh by the way, do you blog at all? If yes, how is blogging important to your overall business?
I do some blog posts on SparkPeople, but I spend more time posting on our message boards and making comments on member pages. Blogging and board posts are extremely important to our business because members give so much support to each other. SparkPeople gets millions of blog posts and board posts each month. Some of them bring tears to my eyes. Here’s an example of a recent post about a lady who lost 100 pounds on SparkPeople.
It has been amazing getting our members to appear in national media outlets like People Magazine, The Today Show, Woman’s World, Good Housekeeping, and many others. There is a real chance that SparkPeople is becoming a cultural phenomenon.
Thank you for sharing that testimonial, Chris. I must admit it’s very touching, knowing that the things you did actually went on to change someone else’s life. I didn’t really understood that until I finally got to experience it for myself as well.
Now back to our interview. Well, it’s certainly not everyday that I get to interview a multi-millionaire CEO, Haha! Can you provide us with a peek into a particular day of a CEO’s life?
Ha, that’s funny – I don’t think of myself in those terms. In some ways I’m more normal than you might think, but in other ways it is strange compared to my life before the business success.
Since I work from home and I’m 3 hours behind my co-workers, I usually wake up around 6-6:30, have a cup of tea, and then walk 20 feet to my office and start working – almost always in shorts and a T-shirt – unless it’s cold, then I wear sweat pants. I take many quick breaks throughout the day to get fitness and sunshine. This helps me stay high energy and productive.
I spend my time handling a mix of higher level strategic issues with being right on the front lines with my team motivating people on the site. I’ve made over 8,000 posts on our message boards to motivate people. I’ve learned that in a high growth internet company, no two days are the same and you never know what will happen from one day to the next.
Working from home, I probably get to spend more time with my family than the average CEO. Overall, I feel blessed to have this opportunity to help people while having fun in the process!
8,000 posts! Are you basically living in the forums? Haha. Having helped so many people achieve their goals, how have you adopted this same philosophy into your life?
As you can see from a peek into a day of my life above, I live the SparkPeople brand every day! First, almost every day I post messages in our online community. It’s fun for me to help motivate people to reach their goals. I know that if I’m motivating them, they are in turn motivating me to stay on track!
Another thing you may have noticed above is that I do is take frequent fitness breaks outside to keep my energy levels high. This is also the time where I usually get my best ideas – when I’m outside and away from the computer.
We also pay a significant annual bonus at SparkPeople to employees who follow a consistent fitness and health program. We call this the SparkPeople Adventure program.
Also, even though I’ve had success already, I realize I still can learn something new every day by continuing to work hard and having that drive for improvement!
Spot on, Chris! Success is indeed a process and never an end in itself.
Thank you for sharing your wonderful insights and please continue to SPARK the lives of millions of PEOPLE around the world. I know you will and you can, because you’ve just sparked one.
** Photo Adapted From Violator3‘s Collection