Wealth Issue 2018: Data Savvy

‘Hardware was a Trojan horse to create a business that uses data to modify behaviour’

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Vishal Gondal, founder, Goqii

In 2011, Vishal Gondal was doing pretty well as an entrepreneur. While still in his teens he had started a gaming business in the mid-1990s and at its peak Indiagames had captured more than 60 per cent of the market. His own fitness was a different story, the routine a medley of pizza, cola, late nights and sedentariness. He had once been a national-level volleyball player but now found it difficult to run 100 metres. His weight had touched 120 kg at one point. He had tried to get control by going to gyms, consulting dieticians and so on, but with little to show for it. That year, a single decision changed his life. In his neighbourhood, some friends were using the services of a running coach. Gondal, now 42, decided to follow suit. When he met the coach, he said his work involved a lot of travel and he wouldn’t be able to spare time on a consistent basis. The coach told Gondal to keep him updated no matter where he was.

“I used to message him. He would say ‘Today since you have done this, I want you to eat this or do this exercise.’ That actually worked for me. He became somebody watching me and giving advice,” he says. That same year, Gondal ran a half-marathon, the first of the 14 to 15 he has done so far. It was not just his health that changed. The idea for a new business also germinated from that episode.

In 2012, Gondal would sell Indiagames to Disney, a deal that included him joining the multinational as its gaming and digital head in India. In a year, however he had decided to be an entrepreneur again and by then the idea of a healthcare startup had firmed up. His experience told him fitness solutions fail 99 per cent of the time because the problem was one of motivation. “I was able to make a lifestyle change. And that happened gradually. And that happened not because of just me, but when my entire journey was coupled with a health coach who was pushing and making me do things,” he says. The business then would be around a wearable fitness tracking device in which the hardware itself would be free. What it would sell would be the advice around it. And underpinning the model was the use of the data that the device would throw up. “Normally, what happened was the data was given back to the user and he was told ‘Now you do your own thing.’ Most people are not capable of doing anything on it. But this data going to a third person who can analyse and give specific advice on what to do with it is what was the missing element in this whole business,” he says.

Games came to Gondal early in life while growing up in suburban Mumbai. He got into college on a sports quota and by then was also writing computer games. He had no formal training in programming and self-learnt it.

“The reason I chose Commerce [ as a stream] was because I could bunk classes. It was 1992-93. I thought the extra time would be good for my sports and running my business, which was basically about having fun and somebody somehow paying for it. I started this concept called ‘adver- gaming’ where we went to brands and created games around their themes,” he says.

Gondal dropped out of college in the final year to concentrate on business. In 1998, he was 23 when a turning point happened because of the Kargil war. “Like all young people, we were all angry. I created this internet game called I Love India where you could shoot at Pakistani terrorists who were trying to attack you. The best part about that game was you always won. It got featured on BBC and CNN. It got a lot of coverage because internet had just come in 1996-97,” he says.

The only advice Gondal’s father had given him when he went into business was to never take a loan. After the success of that game, he was contacted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, a company he had not heard of. The firm asked for a meeting saying it was an investment bank and Gondal thought it was selling him a bank loan. “I said I don’t need it. Then finally I spoke to a friend of mine who was doing his Chartered Accountancy and he said, ‘PricewaterhouseCoopers is a big name, meet them.’ These guys came into our office. They said, ‘We will get you venture capital.’ Nobody had heard of venture capital. I said, ‘I don’t need any capital.’ They explained to me that venture capital is like a bank loan which you don’t have to return. I found that interesting. Within no time we went to the market and raised almost Rs 3.5 crore, and this was 1999. Today, if you value that money, it is like having Rs 50 crore,” he says.

If the doctor says ‘I want you to stop having salt’, your coach will know that and will follow up, says Vishal Gondal

This was at the time of the dotcom bubble which would soon burst, finishing most startups in the digital space. Indiagames took a beating, but managed to pull through. They gradually scaled up and had almost 350 to 400 employees. In 2012, he sold the business to Disney, joined the company and left after a year.

“Disney is a great company if you are used to working in that kind of a structured environment. There are things that are absolutely okay from a corporate perspective but not from an entrepreneur’s. For example, once I saw one of our customer service executives with a very expensive laptop. And we found that this was approved from Los Angeles. So, people in America were sitting and deciding what computers to buy here. And you are paying five times the price. When you are running a company, by default, you will go for the cheapest and best. Here, we were not even getting the best because it was an older configuration,” he says.

GOQii launched in 2014. It was going to make a wearable, but the business model would not be driven by the hardware. Hardware, he says, was a ‘Trojan horse’, a way to introduce services to the user, who was essentially buying the information and oversight that coaches on the platform provided. Many told him it wouldn’t work, but for Gondal it was a bet on the future. “I remember hiring a very senior nutritionist. We had to fire her in two months because the only thing she was telling us was, ‘Yeh nahin chalega (this won’t work), this is not what the market will pay for, this is not what the market wants.’ My whole point was we are here to find out how things are going to work, not how things are not going to work. You cannot disrupt the system when you are in the system,” he says.

GOQii claims to have more than 300,000 users and over a thousand nutritionists on its platform. It has 18.8 per cent of the Indian wearables market and is ranked second after Xiaomi, according to the latest report of International Data Corp’s Quarterly Wearables Tracker, which monitors this sector. IDC’s press release in August said GOQii maintains a ‘healthy 74% annual growth and 36% sequential growth in its shipments. The vendor has taken its engagement beyond the basic application monitoring when it comes to engaging with its user base. Interactive live video sessions by experts, starting a health store and adding brain training games on its platform are some of the initiatives introduced by the vendor.’

Anyone signing up to the service (an annual subscription is from Rs 3,999 to Rs 5,999 depending on device) gets a ‘care team’ comprising health experts, a coach and a doctor. Health coaches interact on a daily basis, the experts when there is a special need, and finally the doctor for a persistent medical condition. “All this data is transferring between the three of them. If the doctor says ‘I want you to stop having salt’, your coach will know that and will follow up. Or if the doctor says ‘You have a knee injury, I don’t want you to do any running’, the data goes back to the coach,” he says.

The GOQii user is constantly generating and transmitting data back—how much he is walking, sleeping, food intake, etcetera. This is used for not just personal health monitoring but also to provide other services. “We are now partnering with insurance companies who, based on the data, are able to give a lower premium because a healthier individual has a lower risk. We have partnered with health food and services companies who give products cheaper based on your data. Thirdly, we use this data to make treatment more effective. For example, we now know all the diabetics on our platform and how their hba1c (a test that shows average blood sugar level over the last three months) has been impacted. That data can now be used to create a much more effective solution for diabetes management. Finally, we also run a programme where the number of steps you take gives you ‘karma points’ that can be donated to charity,” he says.

We are here to find out how things are going to work, not how things are not going to work. You cannot disrupt the system when you are in the system, says Vishal Gondal

Following abuse of data by social networking behemoths like Facebook, privacy has in recent times become a central and contentious issue for startups. Gondal says GOQii is clear that the data’s ownership belongs to the user. Also, it doesn’t make money from the data but from the user, who pays upfront, so there is no incentive to misuse it. “For example, Google and Facebook give everything free to the consumer and are getting paid by the advertiser. Their job is to take data from here and sell it there. Our job is to make sure you become healthier from the data, which is why our business model is not conflicting,” he says.

Gondal obviously has a GOQii fitness tracker on his wrist and the app on his smartphone. The previous night, at 10, he did meditation with an online coach. It is a habit he has been trying to cultivate this year. His device tells him that he has been doing meditation for 265 days. The longest streak without missing a day has been 244 days. The day before, he bought from the GOQii store a roll-on lavender oil that applied to his pillow helps him sleep. He logs his dinner, lunch and breakfast on the app, putting up their photos, which gives him points that can be used for discounts on products sold by it. “Yesterday, I walked 9,855 steps. I had 3 litres of water and 8 hours of sleep. I did a run in the morning for 17 minutes. You can even see heart rate during the run,” he says.

In the near future, he says wearable devices will be relentlessly giving live information—every heartbeat will be recorded, blood sugar and lipid readings taken frequently in the space of minutes. “We launched this new wearable which actually measures blood pressure off your wrist. Already, we can do heart rate. In the next three to five years, your wearable will be able to measure ECG, sugar, all major parameters,” he says.

A single human being, he estimates, will generate as much as a terabyte of health data in a year and this surfeit of information will lead to immediate feedback on what an activity or consuming something is doing to your body.

He gives the example of a device called Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM), which doctors use on diabetic patients to monitor minute-by-minute blood sugar observations. Gondal, who is not a diabetic, decided to use one for 15 days as an experiment. He wanted to see how different foods affected him. “I learnt two very important things. Firstly, chapati and rice has no impact on my sugar levels. I used to think it will spike it. Second, I learnt what actually has an impact is poha (puffed rice). It was spiking my sugar. Now I am careful of eating poha. I used to not have carbs for dinner and because of that my sugar in the night used to drop. In the morning, I was tired and lethargic. The CGM gave me the data that in the night my sugars were going down. So, I introduced having carbs again at night. That has fixed my sleeping cycle,” he says.

A CGM is a medical device, but a band on your wrist could soon tell you all this. This, he says, is the future where data will make people healthy by modifying behaviour. “Maybe when you eat a burger, all alarms go on and you even get a current,” he says.

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The Wealth Issue 2018: Complete list of Essays and Profiles