Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.
Name: Salman Rajput
Original hometown: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Job: Founder and CEO of SimpleSteps healthy eating app
Where did you get the idea for a healthy eating app?
My family has struggled a lot with the consequences of not eating well: Obesity, diabetes, and things like that. So I have that in my family history. Then, in college, I learned a lot more about how if people just eat better consistently, we could really prevent most of the chronic illnesses that our nation is facing.
And that’s when you came up with SimpleSteps?
I tried a couple different projects. My first idea was thinking that we should try to help people cook at home more often, because it’s associated with eating healthier. Initially, I created these things called meal kits that were packages of ingredients delivered to you. You could cook a meal without having to worry about planning what to buy, shopping, or chopping anything up.
That was a really cool experience and we got a bunch of customers. I actually rented out a local restaurant’s kitchen. I was there sometimes from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., chopping vegetables and packaging. That was a great experience — but the whole reason I’m doing this is that I want to create an organization where our mission is to help America shift the way that we eat. I realized from that startup that it was something people would do every once in awhile — maybe once every few weeks or month. It was a way to give themselves a healthy break, which is great. But it’s not making a systematic shift.
How did you decide to change gears?
I thought, “OK, for many people the cost is prohibitive. What if I created a free product that helps people cook at home more often?” I created this web and mobile app called Time Saver. It was designed to help you figure out easy weeknight dishes when you’re at the grocery store and not sure what to buy. And people were using it and they liked it. But ultimately, the whole point is trying to build a social enterprise that helps people eat healthier. What I realized is that I had kind of the wrong hypothesis.
Why was it wrong?
I was saying, “For people to eat healthier, what we need to be doing is helping them cook more often.” Cooking is often associated with healthier foods, but it’s not the whole story. It’s a small kind of approach. I personally was eating healthier than ever before, and I was in college. So standing in front of the stove more often is not the answer. What matters is putting more fruits and veggies in your mouth and less sugary drinks. So I thought, “What things are available to people to help them make changes in their diet?” There are so many different calorie counting apps and meal-planning apps. But after talking to hundreds of people — probably thousands at this point — I realized the tools that are available don’t really help most people. We can see this because there’s research out there that says counting your calories is essentially futile.
But I had the good fortune of talking to some people who actually have changed how they eat over time, including some users of ours. A common theme was that people who end up eating healthier often make small changes at a time. They start drinking a little less; bringing a piece of fruit with them here and there. Ultimately, they said those small changes became habits.
Looking at my own experience, I used to be pretty chubby as a kid. I used to eat horribly: Toaster Strudel everyday; drinking three glasses of chocolate milk at night. I don’t need any of that stuff now, and I wasn’t trying to go on some crazy diet cleanse. So this idea was compelling. I looked into academic literature too and all the research so far seems promising. I thought, “How can we help people facilitate these small changes in their lives?” I came up with the idea of Simple Steps, which is essentially how you focus on one small change in your life for a period of time until it becomes a habit, and then move on to another.
Were there any stumbling blocks along the way?
Getting up to this point took a lot of work. I didn’t study computer science, so I had to teach myself how to build iPhone apps. That was one big thing. It’s also very challenging to change people’s behaviors. We had to read all of the academic literature to see what things do and don’t succeed in behavior change. Then learning about game mechanics as well.
The biggest challenge is having to make so many different iterations. Realizing, “I thought this would work” and then people aren’t responding to it — why is that. Here’s an example. Right now, how the app works is it’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure. Do you regularly eat lunch? If you say yes, then I suggest you drink water at lunch. If you say no, then it’s not going to let you choose that habit as a small change to focus on. That’s so people can pick changes that actually work for their lifestyle. Before that, people essentially picked from a list.
How did you go about teaching yourself how to code?
I took two introductory computer classes in college. Then I spent the summer after senior year sitting down in front of my computer every day for 10 or 12 hours, taking this free online Stanford course that teaches you how to build iPhone apps. You don’t even have to enroll; it’s just a series of YouTube videos with PDFs you can download. I was like, “I know I need to learn this skill, I’m going to hunker down and figure it out and learn it.”
Is that what you’d recommend to others seeking to create their own apps?
You should spend time figuring out what resource you’re going to spend a lot of time with, because there’s so much stuff out there and a lot of it is not very helpful. There are courses for everyone out there, you just need to be cognizant about which is worth your time. The Stanford course was great because it required some initial coding experience, but then it was built for you to just follow along those videos and learn. I recommend someone learning to code if they’re trying to build an app. Learning to code is one of the most valuable things you can do right now.
What’s next for you?
The thing about healthy eating and nutrition is that every demographic in America struggles with it. Those who are more educated and have more income struggle with it less — but it’s prevalent across the board. So we had the great fortune of being featured in publications like Men’s Fitness but we know that this is something that both men and women can really benefit from. The majority of our users are actually women. We know that this is something that women are really excited about. We’re actually going to be focused on more tech-savvy young women, and then expanding into other areas. Something that I think makes our startup different from many others is that the objective to the startup is to fulfill a social objective or mission.