Helping People to Become Better Versions of Themselves – Saeju Jeong, CEO of Noom
Before he died, Saeju Jeong's father, an esteemed doctor in South Korea, passed down a question for his son to consider: "Why is healthcare overly-optimized for sick care management?" “My father encouraged me to think about how I can do something great for the community,” explains Jeong. Tune in to this episode of Raise the Line to hear how Jeong's company, Noom, uses science to help end-users unlock their potential and become better versions of themselves through improved diet, nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management. Of prime importance, says Jeong, is actually believing in Noom’s end-users, and encouraging them to leave any previous “stigmatized experience” with weight loss behind. Listen in as Jeong and host Shiv Gaglani discuss the increasing emphasis on “direct-to-consumer” healthcare as technological innovation decreases the gap between patients and service providers, and hear why Noom chose a consumer-first approach in building their company. Plus, learn the backstory on their new product, Noom Mood, and discover what Jeong believes to be the silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic.
SHIV GAGLANI: Hi, I'm Shiv Gaglani. I'm sure most of our listeners already know a few things about Noom. Namely, that it provides a popular weight loss program that uses psychology to encourage behavior change. But one thing you probably don't know is that the company's name is "moon" spelled backwards, and that's because its founders want Noom to be a companion for users, just like the moon is a companion for a journey at night. You also might not know that the company is about more than diet, and is expanding to help people with mental health and chronic conditions. Here to tell us more about the company and its plans is the co-founder and CEO, Saeju Jeong, who has led the company through several years of tremendous growth, helping millions of people improve their lifestyles and health. Saeju, thanks for taking the time to be with us today.
SAEJU JEONG: Thank you for having us today. It's my honor.
GAGLANI: One thing I know we have in common is we both come from families of physicians. I'd love to hear more about your own family upbringing and what got you interested in health and wellness.
JEONG: Thanks for asking, Shiv. I grew up from a medical family. My father was a medical doctor. My uncles are all doctors. They founded a hospital in suburban South Korea, and that is our Jeong family legacy. Medical doctors influenced me a lot, because all my cousins became doctors. They went to medical school and they become doctors. I thought my future was kind of pre-programmed that I need to become a medical doctor. That way, I could succeed in my father's practice. I hadn't thought about the other path. But first of all, I failed to go to a medical college. I don't want to sugarcoat that. Second, I followed the path that I love. I made a record label instead of pursuing medical school. What a surprise. At the age of 19, I started my first business. Because of that, I became like the official black sheep of my Jeong family.
GAGLANI: Yes, I know. I can relate to that. All my family is either a physician, physical therapist, or dentist, and I went the entrepreneurial route. But you've obviously achieved tremendous success with Noom. Can you tell us a bit more about the founding story and the specific problems you were trying to address, and then how you differentiated? Because when you started Noom, there were other companies doing this kind of stuff, but you've obviously been a breakout success.
JEONG: Thank you. So the way I started it, so I followed my passion. That really helped me to think about how I should live my life, and also really helped me to follow my passion and I could live my life enthusiastically. So I liked it a lot. Unfortunately, I lost my father at age 21. My father was very old. He was 51, and he got a terminal lung cancer, and then he passed away. That event is really a troubling experience that I had because I was so close to my father. But that event sped up my understanding of life. For instance, my father, as he was preparing to depart the world, he shared the way he viewed the world. It was very heavy for me, but it helped me to think about how I should live my life better and what I should do. That came down to my father's reflection on his life.
As he became a renowned doctor, he helped a lot of lives, but he had the question mark. My father told me, "I warned and advised my patients to change behavior so they can prevent chronic conditions or complications, but often they failed, and they came back and I met them at the operation room." That became very difficult, because the world respected him as a healthcare leader, but he became a sick care or optimized-for-sick-care-management leader. He felt great about being a doctor because he helped many lives and then he could help the patient. But he had a question: "Why is overall healthcare overly-optimized for sick care management?" That was the discussion I had before he passed away, and that passed down the question to me, to be honest.
Second, as he made a fortune and became very respected, but as he needed to prepare for the departure, it kind of reminded him, because I observed how he finished his life. That helped me to think about what I should do. Why I'm here? My father encouraged me to think about how I can do something great for the community. I learned in America that a lot of people are thinking that I want to change the world. But my father told me to think about how you can contribute your effort out of your job and your passion. Do something positive for the community. That's good, because that's the legacy. That really sat in my heart heavily.
Then I went to the army, which all Korean men have to do. During the army service time, I thought of what should I do, because it was such a big event for me and also big advice, but I did not know how to fly that. But one day it became clear that I wanted to explore my talents and potential as a young man. Second, I knew from my first business when I did heavy metal music record label in South Korea, I loved my job and I loved music, but why don't I apply that but make a scalable way of entrepreneurship, applied with scalable technology. That way we can touch more, and help the community, as my father encouraged me to think that way. Then healthcare came down, and that's how I founded the company in 2007.
Why then, healthcare, right? Look, there's a lot of known problems in the United States and globally. As a foreigner, I think this is the immigrant's benefit that, as I came here first in 2005, I had to basically learn a lot of basic stuff. I had to relearn English, cultural things, and social affairs, all that. I was quite surprised by the overall service quality of healthcare and also how expensive it is. Very expensive! Also, I was very surprised that it's not for everyone. So I felt wow, healthcare overall, the service and the systems, are a little dysfunctional in the United States. Then I did gain more, and I learned that there's a lot of room to grow. The doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, and therapists, they have a good heart and they want to help, but somehow, the overall experience is kind of missing. Again, my father had taught me that all our healthcare services are optimized for secure management. So that really got me.
I started the company Noom because I was naïve, but I was bold because I was young. I think I was passionately naïve. I actually think I was lucky that I could start without further thinking. That's the way I could start. If I rationalized how hard it is, then I don't think I could have started that. I had a belief, and still have a strong belief, that if we pay attention to the end-user, and if you deliver great health outcomes, and the way we build a product is holistic approach, that we pay attention to end-users, how we can scientifically approach to the problem, keep up the service, can deliver healthy outcomes and use technology to make it scalable—in other words, make it affordable—then that can be an amazing contribution to the community. That's how I started the company Noom.
GAGLANI: That's incredible. It's really awesome how you've approached the themes behind the founding story.
You've been working on this for well over a decade now, and obviously have achieved breakout success. A lot of companies have come and gone in the digital health space. What are some of the specific outcomes you are most proud of? I'm sure you have tracked how many millions of people have used Noom, and how many tens of millions, hundreds of millions of pounds they've lost, as an example. But can you tell us a bit more about that? The focus on the end-user is one of those things, but is there a specific psychological principle that you attribute a lot of the success to? Why is Noom succeeding for these users when maybe some other things have not?
JEONG: I'm very proud of our commitment that we need to figure the way we can help many lives and the scientific approach to the problem and we use technology. I'm very proud of that. Noom has been 14 years. So as I start a technology startup, 14 years is quite long, and that's what I hear all the time from other people, but that's not the way I feel, because the journey has been very up and down. A lot of up and down, Shiv, and with a lot of lesson learning. We figured out weight loss management around seven years ago. A lot of people think we founded the company for weight loss, which is not true, and that's not also our endgame goal at all. We figured out the weight loss commission over seven years after we founded the company, with a lot of product iteration and pivoting. Why is that?
We thought in the beginning, doing the right fitness activities can deliver greater healthy outcomes, which is true. But we also realized there is a bigger issue more than fitness, adopting fitness as a habit, with diet and nutrition. So we developed a nutrition tracking application, but we realized that it would not d eliver a sustainable healthy habit. We were looking for how to help end-users to become healthy. That means the result has to stay. That means we cannot develop a service that is fad diet or trendy. The service has to really deliver a healthy outcome and the healthy change should stay. That's how we discovered the behavior change and psychology part. Now, why weight loss? We figured there're a lot of healthcare issues, but we wanted to build a strong foundation on how we can tackle this big problem in healthcare but build a great foundation. Then we figured, why don't we pay attention to consumer weight loss first?
Targeting more than 5% body weight drop was our internal goal when we designed the product. Because according to CDC, it is strongly recommended no matter how heavy you are, if you are overweight or obese or exposed to chronic condition or pre-chronic condition stage such as pre-diabetes, losing more than 5% of body weight is a significantly positive impact, 5% plus, more. So that's how we figured. Also, we realized if we guide our end-users to build healthy habits by changing behavior, that can lead to great outcomes such as building better confidence, building better relationships, and obviously, better weight management.
A lot of people are asking, "Why a consumer focus?" The answer is because we realized that in order to work with major healthcare players such as the providers, payers, and employers, we need to prove our product efficacy. Often a lot of healthcare companies engage a pilot to deliver the promise, and they get audited by the prospective client. It takes some time. Also, we realized that if we followed that path, then it would add more years to prove that our services are good. That's why we chose the path of consumer first, to build a strong foundation.
In changing behavior, the method is the part that I am very proud of. Unlike a lot of commercially available weight loss services, we approached it by science. We figured that behavior change is very powerful. We used psychology. We used mobile technology on how we can unload the bottleneck to form healthy habits, all that. But overall our service is heavily oriented around how we can build healthy habits for end-users. That delivers a great healthy outcome. That's the way the company has evolved, and that is our strategy. Build a strong foundation in consumers, which is a massive, million-user base, deliver the healthy outcome of a more than 5% body weight loss, and also by not just pushing them to lose weight, but by changing behavior, which is designed for long-term outcome. That is our chapter one.
Now, Noom is ready for entering to chapter two, which is how we can apply the success of changing behavior successfully over many millions and expand this to other conditions such as stress management, diabetes management, and chronic care condition management. The way our practice has been focused on management of diet, exercise, stress, and sleep, we can advance what we have figured out for those specific conditions. That's our path and that is our chapter two.
GAGLANI: That's wonderful.
JEONG: Thank you.
GAGLANI: I definitely see the path and where you're entering chapter two. Obviously, chapter two has come along around the time of the COVID pandemic, which has made what you're offering even more important, especially mental health. There's so much talk of mental health and long-term effects. Can you give us a sense of what you think of the COVID crisis? How has it affected both your work at Noom, and then also the healthcare system as a whole? What are some of the lasting changes you think are going to come out of this?
JEONG: Thank you, Shiv. Noom is not a COVID-19 story because we were growing fast before COVID-19. We've been growing very fast with a lot of Noomers', our users', support since four years ago, and we are extremely thankful. That's a reflection of the market. The users were looking for how to adopt healthy behaviors. They are trying to have a healthy lifestyle, a higher-quality lifestyle. They are actively looking for this. Our observation is that people are looking for how to adopt smarter choices in foods, and also aiming for how to have better rest and stress management for a long-term, retainable healthy lifestyle. People are looking for that. Due to data healthcare, it also has evolved so well.
There are a lot of ways that you can measure their status in terms of the biomarkers and the data points that they can address how they are doing overall, including mental stress. What we have discovered over the COVID-19 time, because in the early days of pandemic time, people were scared. But they received enough education from the media and the CDC that they needed to watch out for their overall immune system. If they were exposed to a chronic condition, they needed to watch out carefully because COVID-19 may impact or worsen their condition. So I believe we re-escalated the attention to how to build a long-lasting healthy lifestyle, and that not only Noom, but a lot of digital healthcare services received a benefit.
Not only that, I have seen the active change from the healthcare leaders, such as providers, payer networks, even employers. They are PVM for sure that are actively looking for how they can get close to end-users, how they can also provide actual value for helping the proactive approach on how to have a healthy lifestyle. So this is the part of the positive answer to my question, that my father also had, of why the general healthcare system has been optimized for sick care. I think I see the change rapidly. The overall healthcare system and the overall healthcare industries are looking for how to proactively invest before the patient or users are facing a difficult time, meaning that preventive approaches are now becoming a major theme and they are adopting the technology innovation to become a major value. I think that's a silver lining of the COVID-19 era.
Lastly, mental health care. Before the COVID-19 time, in 2019, we did a survey of our Noom users and we asked, "What else would you like to learn from Noom?" Two-thirds of our Noomers answered that they want to learn how to cope and manage stress and anxiety. Because Noom service currently consists of four pillar dimensions: diet, nutrition, exercise and sleep, and stress management, we already educate partially on how stress management is very important to build healthy habits to change behavior. Then people realize how powerful it is. As soon as they cope with stress better, and realize how to manage the stress, it really impacts them to build healthy habits. So they are curious. I want to learn more.
COVID-19 arrived, so obviously there's a lot of fatigue. Mental fatigue has accumulated because COVID-19 is miserable. It's difficult, so there are a lot of questions from our user base. People are looking for how I can cope with the stress and manage the mental stress I receive from work from home and relationships and general fear of losing health in this COVID-19 situation. Probably financial is a hardship as well because of COVID-19. So I think mental healthcare is now a widely-known symptom and also the market is paying attention to how to manage that better. Of course, Noom will respond properly. So that's why we are launching our new product, Noom Mood.
GAGLANI: Yes, great timing for that. Obviously, you've been working on that before COVID-19, but there are a lot of tailwinds as a result of it. I really like your emphasis on direct-to-consumer, as we talked about before the podcast. We've had a lot of leaders in direct-to-consumer healthcare on our podcast, ranging from Marcus Osborne, who is the Senior Vice President of Health at Walmart, to Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe, who started her company around the same time you did. Great pioneers in giving the power back to end consumers, or Noomers, or patients, which are a big fan of.
I know we're coming up on time, so I have two other questions for you. The first is, since Osmosis is a teaching company—we train current and future healthcare providers, but also consumers, patients, family members—we like to fill in knowledge gaps. I'm curious, are there any major knowledge gaps you see among Noomers, or among clinicians, that you wish you could snap your fingers, design a course around it, and help educate them? That is obviously an important part to get somebody to change their behavior; education is one step in that process. What would you like to fill that knowledge gap in?
JEONG: Such a great opportunity that I can share what we also learn by monitoring our Noomers, and we were surprised. I want to share. A lot of our Noomers, when they start the program, we survey and we ask and we realize a lot of Noomers have some stigmatized experience about general weight loss or weight. It did impact their day-to-day life in terms of the way they feel about their body shape, the way they feel overall. The general fatigue, and also the overall energy level. It does distort relationships with self and the significant other. A lot of weight loss services available out there might misguide them, so that they often blame themselves, eventually. Often we hear, “My willpower is not strong enough, so I fail to manage my weight.” Or they get completely lost after they attempt to lose weight. It's interesting enough that they join Noom, but they already have a little defeated spirit, and we were quite surprised and we have a deep empathy for that. Stigma experience is real, and it's not only a few. A lot of users are like that.
We also realized—this is the second discovery—that a lot of users are aware which food is good or bad overall in the diet, but they don't pay attention to why they build the habit. They forget about that. So, the relationship with the food. Basically, we reeducate about the diet and nutrition, and we also discover often they are hard on themselves, and that increases the stress, and that sometimes shortens their engagement with Noom because they get stressed and they get burned out of maybe a speedy outcome. They may have a wrong expectation about that, or, just like the path of changing behavior is sometimes challenging, because your body needs to react differently. It takes some time to adopt a new normal, which is recommended in healthy behavior.
We encourage our users to try hard to remove the previous experience related to weight loss management. It is okay, forgive, and accept a realistic goal. That's very important because life is a journey and we wanted to guide our end-users to learn. Noom is a tool. Noom can provide a great tool that can empower them to lead their life, and they can control their life because they are the boss of their destiny. We use science to help them to unlock their potential and we can help them to become a best version of them.
This is part of my story too, where I came from South Korea to New York. One of the reasons is because I wanted to unlock my potential and learn and grow. We apply a similar manner in that we believe in our end-users. They are the full force of themselves. We are here simply to unlock their potential and they can achieve that. But if they carry on the previous experience, which did not work, which is stigmatized experience, then it's a hard start.
GAGLANI: Yes, I believe fully in that, being able to let go of the past and make today a new moment or a new day, a new beginning. My last question for you is, we have an audience of many early-stage healthcare providers, clinicians, and caregivers. What advice would you give to them about meeting the challenges of the COVID pandemic and approaching their careers in healthcare?
JEONG: Well, I'm not a provider; I'm not a physician; so I want to be careful about it. But I want to share my observation. I have seen that a lot of doctors, physicians, and therapists are willing to get close to end-users, and willing to empower the patient to learn the tools so they can actually overcome the difficult, either physical difficulties or mental difficulties, that they face day-to-day. They can overcome the hurdle and enjoy life. There is a lot of positive movement and shifting that has happened over COVID-19. I can tell that the service providers—again, doctors, nurses, therapists—they want to get closer. Due to technology, the data healthcare and also the technology, the wearable devices, and telehealth, they can actually reduce the gap between end-user/patient and professional service providers.
I think it's a great change the way the doctors, nurses, and therapists engage with patients and the whole system. The provider network, PVM, employer, and pay systems, they are looking to adopt this change. That's why I think there is a great chance that the overall healthcare attention might shift over end-user experience. They are more concise in their focus, pay more attention to end-users and patients, pay attention to overall outcomes and the efficacy of the results. There are a lot of doctors, nurses, and therapists, the professionals, raising their voices. They want to help this change so they can lead healthy lives. They are there to assist with this change. I think that's very positive.
There are many good startups that are welcoming the doctors and professionals how to embed their services to get closer to end-users. Let's get united and help our end-users and patients, whatever we call it. At the end of the day, it's the same human. If we do a better job to guide them and help them to pay attention when they have a chance, which is prevention, and if they are already exposed to conditions such as chronic conditions, and we can provide a better service so they can live a life with no limitation, I think that's a very powerful change.
GAGLANI: Absolutely. I think that's really good advice, because I think as somebody goes through their training, they often forget what they're doing it for. They know generally, in the abstract, that it's for patients, but then they get so bogged down with the delivery of care, delivery of sick care, spending more time with the EHR than with the patient. So I think that's great wisdom. As companies like Noom continue to thrive and succeed, I think we'll see a lot more of that in mind.
Saeju, I really appreciate you taking the time to be with us on the Raise the Line podcast, and more importantly, for the work that you've done to help millions or tens of millions of people along their healthcare journeys.
JEONG: Thank you so much for giving me the chance to represent our experience and speak on behalf of millions of Noomers and our passion and Noom beliefs to build a service. It's my honor. COVID-19 has been miserable for us. But the silver lining is that the overall healthcare industry has changed their focus, and they are adopting innovation. So hopefully we can do better all together. Thank you very much for having me today.
GAGLANI: With that, I'm Shiv Gaglani. Thank you for checking out today's show, and remember to do your part to flatten the curve and raise the line. We're all in this together. Take care.