What Keeps Fitbit CEO James Park One Step Ahead?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he took a company from idea to multibillion-dollar IPO in eight years.
By James Watkins
James Park, the co-founder and CEO of health-focused wearables firm Fitbit, shares a crucial characteristic with many other successful tech entrepreneurs: He’s a Harvard dropout. After having founded two other tech startups, Korean-American Park has led Fitbit since its inception in 2007, and has seen sales of its eponymous product rocket to $2.2 billion in 2016, after marshaling it through a successful initial public offering in June 2015.
Having been launched by two tech entrepreneurs with no experience in hardware or manufacturing, Park often talks of the company’s several near-death experiences in the early days. Nine years later, Fitbit was rocked by another existential crisis: tumbling sales in the face of competition from the Apple Watch and dozens of other health-tech devices and apps. After the company’s stock fell 50 percent in 2016, Park announced that Fitbit would undergo a transition from a “consumer electronics company” to a “digital health care company.”
After he shared all about the fine line between success and failure with audience members at OZY Fest in New York City, Park sat down with us for this behind-the-scenes interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Those early days taught us that you’re always one big mistake from going under.
James Park, co-founder & CEO, Fitbit
In the current marketplace, how can smaller companies compete with the consumer giants — the Apples and Amazons of the world?
James Park: Smaller companies have an inherent advantage, as they’re able to focus 100 percent of their being and existence on a particular pull, whereas for a larger company, that might be one of a hundred things that they’re doing. So you have to use that as an advantage.
Second, we’ve always tried to do a great job of partnering with the right larger companies. You always want to find a partner that’s not directly competitive, so you can work together to capture an industry. We’ve worked with several health insurance companies, and that’s been a great partnership for our industry, as it gives us a lot of credibility. It might not have the flash of working with someone like Nike, but it’s worked a lot of wonders for us.
How did Fitbit’s early struggles shape you as a businessperson?
Park: For me it’s about never taking anything for granted. Those early days taught us that you’re always one big mistake from going under. So it was about always being careful and planning for the contingencies, the backup plans — those are always good things to have in place. But that’s had its negative side too: Because of that attitude, we never really celebrated accomplishments. We’ve had to get a lot better at doing that, because those kinds of celebratory moments are important.
When, if ever, did you see the light at the end of the tunnel and realize that Fitbit was gonna make it?
Park: We haven’t yet. It’s always six months out. That’s the running joke between me and my co-founder — we’ll always be there in six months. Success is about making sure that whatever you work on, it’s something that you’d work on regardless of the money. So in the darkest days, you’d at least be learning something and working on something that gets you out of bed every day, on the weekends, at night. That will help you power through the difficult times.
What makes a product cool?
Park: There’s no silver bullet. It obviously starts with the design, the industrial design, the UX [user experience] design. And it’s not just about looking good; it’s about making sure that the product’s intuitive, simple to use. And our marketing team does a great job of making sure that the right people in our target demographic are seeing our devices. So there’s a lot of things that go into making a product cool.
Tell us something about you that other people don’t know.
Park: I only get five hours of sleep a night. I know that’s bad and I need to work at it, but it’s gotten even harder as I’ve gotten older. I just find it difficult to settle my brain at night.
What trends in the business and tech space are you thinking about late at night?
Park: It’s a bit cliché by now, but AI [artificial intelligence] is gonna end up completely transforming many different industries, especially deep learning. There’s so much development there; it’s really exciting to see. In health care, it’s going to allow the knowledge and intelligence and insights of the smartest experts in the field to be captured by machines or systems and be made available to everybody in the world. Today, those experts are available only to a select few.
It’s not all bad news in terms of jobs either. There will be ancillary jobs that are created in adjacent industries, when you think about the amount of people that you need to test systems, train systems. There’s gonna be vast new industries created, and there’s gonna be labor from scientists to manufacturing to quality assurance to regulatory to legal — all of these different things that are going to support these industries. It’s very unnerving to think about the scale of disruption, but to me, work and employment only stop when we’ve solved the world’s problems, and, I dunno, I don’t think we’re close to that. And humans are great at creating problems for themselves.