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Tushar Vashisht of HealthifyMe is out to change how you eat

The co-founder and CEO of HealthifyMe on why we should not be subsidising rice, wheat and sugar, and how entrepreneurship is for his heart and mind, and music for his soul

Tushar Vashisht, co-founder and CEO of HealthifyMe
Tushar Vashisht, co-founder and CEO of HealthifyMe

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Two years after it launched, the health and fitness company HealthifyMe Wellness Pvt. Ltd ran out of money. One of the things that kept them going, remembers co-founder and chief executive officer Tushar Vashisht, were the testimonials they received on the Play Store.

“I would look at that and be like, God, but how can we shut this down?” he says. “I mean, look at the work that is being done. This is like God’s work in that sense.”

Vashisht does not always use hyperbole—or refer to the Almighty frequently—but startup founders are tuned to aim big, to oversell their ideas, show that larger picture. Vashisht, an extrovert, derives his energy from people. It shows in the way he talks, with enthusiasm and a little bit of the grandiose.

HealthifyMe, which started as a website and is now an app, is in a fairly rarefied space of the Indian health-tech industry, crossing an annual recurring revenue of $50 million (around 400 crore), aiming to cross $100 million by next year. The company is targeting a turnover of over $500 million by 2027, as it showed 70% growth over 2021-22. Vashisht’s ambition is to “healthify” a billion people, to become a billion-dollar company, go for an initial public offering (IPO) at some point and “make an impact”.

It’s a typically moderate Bengaluru afternoon when we meet at the Araku café in Indiranagar, a short distance from Vashisht’s residence and office. He arrives on a 1200cc Speedmaster Triumph that is both a statement and a practicality in the city’s unruly traffic.

For the first decade or so of his life, Vashisht grew up in different places in Haryana, where his father served in the Indian Police Service. He studied in nine different schools. High school took him to the Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Delhi, followed by the Delhi College of Engineering in 2003-04 and a transfer to the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in the US to finish his graduation in computer science. He wanted something at the “intersection of and interface with business and strategy beyond just tech”.

An internship with the multinational investment company BlackRock on Wall Street in 2006 followed almost as a rite of passage for an east coast Ivy League graduate. A stint with Deutsche Bank as an analyst in San Francisco and then Singapore in corporate finance took him through the financial crash of the late 2000s. “I always wanted to be part of the India impact story and felt disconnected as a banker. So in two-three years, especially when my college education loans were paid off, I figured that I wanted to be here (in India),” says the 37-year-old.

Entrepreneur and investor Raj Mashruwala, who would become one of the early backers of HealthifyMe, was working in the UIDAI, or Aadhaar rollout, and set up a job offer “to help build the next biggest thing for the country” in 2010-11—for no salary. Vashisht signed up as project strategy manager, spending almost two years there, doing everything from filling water bottles in the office to designing the enrolment strategy and working with chief ministers’ offices.

“He’s high energy,” remembers Bala Parthasarathy, co-founder of Snapfish (which was acquired by Hewlett Packard) and MoneyTap and chairman at Freo, about his first impressions of Vashisht at UIDAI. “Not many investment bankers had quit to work for the government at the time. He had the ‘social giving gene’ in him, not a typical banker profile.”

“Much of my early life,” says Vashisht, “even though I studied in small towns, I led a little bit of a sheltered life. Now I could understand India in its raw form as I travelled from government offices to rural communities where you can’t even reach by car. Two years later, we had issued 400 million unique IDs.”

“I thought I was a hard-working guy in banking, 10-15 hours a day,” he says. “But here, it was nights, weekends and all day long. If you weren’t sleeping, you were working. I remember asking Raj, what do you do on weekends? His answer was, what is a weekend?”

There was obviously a price to pay for the grind and the irregular hours. Vashisht, by his own admission, gained 25kg in less than 12 months. He dug into statistics, finding that “the world had gone from being less than a billion people being overweight at the turn of the century, to 2-2.5 billion being overweight now. This is a generational problem.”

Step 1 in his attempt to reverse that weight phenomenon was quantifying Indian food. As an experiment, he started living on 100 a day for a month in 2009 with UIDAI colleague Mathew “Matt” Cherian. During the experiment, they wanted to keep track of their calorie consumption and realised the lack of a nutritional information database for Indian foods.

“What do you eat for 18? Largely carbs, rice and rasam,” says Vashisht, as his phone pings a reminder to break his intermittent fasting. “It also created a lot of sugar spikes in the system. In fact, we should not be subsidising rice, wheat and sugar—we are potentially subsidising diabetes. We should be subsidising protein instead.”

The duo built a spreadsheet with their findings and as they contemplated startup ideas in health and education, different people sought access to that spreadsheet. The business itself started in early 2012—with Vashisht and Cherian as co-founders.

Today HealthifyMe has over 35 million users—three million active ones—in more than 300 cities, with over 2,000 coaches. There is currently a free app and paid plans from 200 to 6,500 a month.

It hasn’t been an easy ride. HealthifyMe started as an online calorie tracker, quantifying, in particular, Indian food. That’s how the first 1,000 users came in. It was free—the idea being to build a large community of users and then figure out ways to monetise. Between 2012-14, the number of users grew to 100,000. They raised a small angel round, including from Mashruwala, and launched the app in 2014 with a seed fund of $1 million.

But since there was no clear revenue model, they ran out of money. Cherian, who had been chief product officer, would eventually leave but Sachin Shenoy joined as co-founder. Going back to the drawing board, they figured out how to use customised coaching—nutritionists and trainers—and got into the subscription model. By 2016, they had their first 1,000 paying subscribers. That created a revenue model, which became near profitable before investors took notice.

The seed cheque of a million dollars led to opportunities of scale, followed by $18 million in Series A and B rounds in 2016-18 from investors such as Inventus Capital and Blume Ventures. In this period, they launched RIA, their AI coach, and started an AI-powered low-cost plan for users, HealthifySmart, crossing 10 million users.

“During the covid timeframe, we have seen huge tailwinds for the business. I think the world has woken up to health and fitness. (Venture capital firm) Andreessen Horowitz just carried an article saying the next trillion-dollar company is likely to be health-tech. I feel we are that much closer to realising our vision to help a billion people now,” Vashisht says.

A Series C round last year of $75 million, led by Khosla Ventures, has enabled them to add bloodwork, smart scales, psycho neurosciences, etc., to their coaching and hire a chief medical officer, Shebani Sethi.

“He is an eternal optimist,” says Parthasarathy, who is on the HealthifyMe board. “He is not the proverbial entrepreneur with a startup. Entrepreneurs need to be brash but caring about people, having some compassion makes him different.”

Vashisht talks me through his CGM (continuous glucose monitoring) patch. It shows a spike in the morning because, he thinks, he had a high-stress meeting for quarterly board planning. “If you are within your goal, then whatever you are consuming, your body is burning that. So you are not really going to gain weight.”

The monitoring has helped him realise that wine is better for him than beer and dosas don’t suit him. “I don’t think an AI can ever replace a human being,” he says. “It can crunch data, analyse it and provide you feedback that’s far better than a human being can. Where tech struggles is in the empathy and motivation component. Our coaches can dive deep into the behaviour change space.”

He says that of a quarter million paying subscribers, about 150,000 would be using the coaching services, 100,000 the AI services; only about 10,000-odd plug into the CGMS and connected devices.

“One of the greatest barriers to eating healthy is healthy food,” says Vashisht, who dabbles in some cooking at home for his partner, Neha. “Having it at the right time and the right place…”

As the background music in the café softens for a moment, I ask Vashisht about his stint with Penn Masala, the South Asian a cappella group, when he was in college in the US. “Entrepreneurship is for my heart and for my mind but music is for my soul,” he says. “Honestly, I did have an identity crisis on (whether) I am a musician or an entrepreneur.”

Music runs in the family, from his grandmother to his mother, Sunita Madan, who started him on Indian classical when he was six years old. His latest single, Udja Re, talks about taking the leap and finding purpose. “Incidentally, a lot of my songs are also about purpose, which also drives my entrepreneurship,” says Vashisht.

Besides the bike and bicycle rides, Vashisht now finds himself immersed in the Bengaluru world of entrepreneurship, the search for the next big idea. “Half of my leadership team is founders, and, you know, a lot of them have tried, failed, joined something probably before they try again their next thing. So it creates this nice ground for innovation.

“Every other guy is audacious enough to change the world here. That’s exciting, it also has a sense of humility, which I really like because knowing that while you have the audacity to change the world, you are also gonna fail many times.”

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He tweets @iArunJ.

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