To many aspiring entrepreneurs, Eric Friedman is living the dream. Since graduating from Yale (MC ’99, MS ’00), Friedman has gone on to found several companies with his business partner James Park, including Windup Labs, an image sharing platform which they sold to CNET in 2005. After working at CNET for two years, Friedman and Park left to found Fitbit, the billion-dollar fitness tracking company where Friedman currently serves as CTO.
YEM’s Jacob Bendicksen recently had the chance to interview Friedman and ask about his remarkable experiences at Yale and beyond.
YEM: How did your Yale experience impact your career?
Friedman: In some ways I would almost put it the other way. I think that Yale opened a whole bunch of doors for me, but also the things that attracted me to Yale are similar to the things that attracted me to entrepreneurship.
In some ways, entrepreneurship, especially in the early stages, is really about going into areas that you have really little understanding of as a background. There are some areas where you’re really deep, and some areas where you’re not so deep. I think that the same culture of Yale, that breadth is really exciting and interesting, is the same thing that really appealed to me about entrepreneurship, and is this part that I find really fun. I get to sit in meetings where there are people who know far more about it than me, and I get to learn from them on a daily basis, starting from when we were a very small company and moving up.
Professor Eisenstat was the head of the CS department when I was at Yale, and I remember him talking to me during one of our reviews, and he was like ‘look, if you wanted to study nothing but computer science, you should go to MIT or CMU, if you don’t spend time taking Shakespeare or Spanish or these various key things Yale is known for, why bother coming here?’ The very fact that the head of the computer science department is telling you ‘don’t take these computer science courses, take history or other things’ — to me, that embodies the culture that I’m really proud of being an alum for that reason.
YEM: When did you realize that you wanted to work in the world of startups?
Friedman: I always thought I was going to go off and go to law school, and computers were always seen as my hobby. On the other hand, being CTO of my own company always seemed very natural, so I started an arts and crafts stand when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. I moved around the neighborhood and made $600 at a very early age. Lots of people have lemonade stands, so it’s hard to tell whether that’s normal, but for me, starting my own thing always seemed like the thing that made sense.
For me personally, it was also really fun to have a partner – I don’t know if I could’ve done it alone. I find the entrepreneurial journey much more enjoyable, and much more doable, with a partner that I can trust, and it’s something that I’ve been very lucky to find. We all have strengths and weaknesses, so finding a partnership where you complement each other and where there’s trust — I always knew that if someone else came along and offered James a deal that helped him but hurt me, James would walk out of that meeting in anger. He’d be personally offended that someone would try to do that to him. To me, that’s something that I didn’t even know was important going into it, but I think has been phenomenally important to make me who I am, having that partnership. Also, when you have hard times and when you have tough decisions—on a lot of things, there’s only one person in the world that I can talk to, and if that was zero, that would be much harder.
YEM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Friedman: One is, as the first-time experience, understanding that this is your pot of money, and when you run out the game is over. I got that advice late in the game, but I think it was useful advice and it’s more generally applicable. In the hardware-specific world, I think the most useful advice has been ‘assume the first 500 things you build, you’re going to have to throw away,’ so be prepared for that. It’s something that someone told us early on, we didn’t believe them, and sure enough, we threw away the first 500 things we built.
YEM: What’s it like to co-found a startup that ends up making it big? Everybody dreams of that, but you’ve actually done it.
Friedman: Surreal. For better or worse, we’ve always focused on the next problem we have to solve, and really don’t look back at what we’ve done at all. It’s something that I think our board has regularly had to remind us: ‘you know what you guys have done? Stop working on the next problem—you should actually celebrate a little bit.’ When I take a step back and go ‘this is what other people want to achieve,’ it’s surreal. For me it’s just one more startup. It didn’t feel any different in some ways to me than either of the other companies.
YEM: What was the most challenging part of scaling Fitbit, particularly as a hardware company?
Friedman: On a personal level, and I think this is true scaling any company, as an entrepreneur I love being involved with details — that’s what’s fun. But then you start growing, and you can’t be involved in all the details at the same level.
I remember the first time a meeting happened at Fitbit that I was not a part of, and I was a little bit upset about that. I remember the first time a small decision was made and I wasn’t a part of it, and I was a little bit upset about that. I remember the first time we made a product, and I wasn’t involved in it at all, and I was a little bit upset about that, and taking the time to step back and go ‘wait, I had no value in that, I’ve got so much to do, and if I get involved in all these things I hold up the process and that’s bad for the company overall,’ is a hard leap to make. I think it’s been one of the things that’s been interesting as we’ve scaled, realizing all the things I have to step back from in order to make a contribution in any level. It’s something that might come naturally to some people, but it’s something that I’ve had to wrestle with.
Hardware specifically, the thing that’s been really interesting about hardware is that I used to think that once you build hardware, it’s an assembly line. Everything comes off exactly the same, you do the design up front, and you’re done. It’s kind of like software, right? You write software once, you compile it, it works or it doesn’t work, and you share it out. It’s going to work or not work a thousand times, or not at all. With hardware, in some ways it’s more like snowflakes, where every snowflake in the abstract is generally pretty similar, but every snowflake is different with little things in the manufacturing line and in the process.
YEM: How do your responsibilities today, as CTO of a multinational corporation, differ from your responsibilities in the early days of Fitbit?
Friedman: I don’t write code anymore. I would like to, but I don’t have time. For me personally, I think I’ve moved from being an individual contributor to more of a engineering manager type role. The thing about CTO is that the CTO of a small company is either the technical co-founder or the other technical co-founder, and in Fitbit’s case I’m the other technical co-founder—James is just as technical as me, if not more so in many ways.
For me in my personal journey, it’s been about scaling a team: I’ve got about 600 people, so it’s more about making sure that ‘hey, you’re trying to do this thing over here, it’s exactly the same thing that someone’s doing over there, let’s combine efforts’ or ‘there seems to be friction between this particular part of the system and that particular part of the system, how do I jump in and help provide grease to smooth that out?’ It’s actually been a really enjoyable problem—it’s almost like a chess problem, since everyone has strengths and weaknesses, so how do you stick together?
I think that my role moved from architecture and technical vision to more of people management and clearing hurdles to let people do what they do best, and making sure that it all comes out as a consistent product at the end.
YEM: Wearable technology is clearly a huge growth sector right now, but it seems like the trend is not towards standalone fitness trackers like Fitbit, but more towards integrated things, like an Apple Watch or Google Glass, not that either of those has been the end-all, be-all of wearables, but things that are connected to more than just you. Where do you see Fitbit’s role or niche being in a world like that?
Friedman: I’m not sure I agree with that fundamental view of the world. First of all, Google Glass was discontinued because people didn’t want it. The Apple Watch has basically morphed from an all-purpose computing device to a fitness-centric device—if you look at their advertising, their advertising now looks like our advertising in terms of focusing on health and fitness.
To me, it’s actually ‘what do people buy?’ and ‘what’s something that adds value?’ People are really concerned about their health and fitness, and that’s what gets something on the body, and then the question is what keeps people using it day in and day out. I think it’s really about evolving with people, figuring out at this point in time, what’s going to work for you.
People’s interest in their health and fitness ebbs and flows, so general-purpose capabilities are important. For example, on Fitbit devices we have things like caller ID and text notifications, so our general-purpose things don’t necessarily apply directly to health and fitness, but actually provide value. We think at Fitbit that people ultimately want to be healthier, they want to live a healthier life, and they want to pick something that’ll help them do that, so if they’re going to wear something on their wrist that’s occupying that real estate, they want some other features to go along with it. That’s how we approach it.
We also think it’s very much not a one-size-fits-all perspective: different people want things in different form factors, so that’s why we have different trackers and watches. Some people want something that’s big like a watch, but also fashion is really important. The thing about wearables is there’s the group of people who are much more interested in the features than what it looks like, but I think for the mass market, the appearance is really important. We were having a company-wide meeting where we introduced the Fitbit Alta, and we were talking about that with our whole team, and one of the engineers said ‘hey, this is just like one of the other products we’ve shipped, why do people care about it?’ Turns out this was one of our fastest products to ship a million units, and the reason was that you can change bands, the fact that you could actually personally customize it to fit your style. Your aesthetic and my aesthetic might be very different, but ultimately if it doesn’t match your aesthetic, long-term you’re not going to wear it, which means we’re not going to get the data, which means you can’t use it. We can’t use the social motivational features, we can’t use guidance to ultimately change your behavior, which would make the device more attractive to you, but you have to be wearing it.
YEM: Why did Fitbit buy Pebble?
Friedman: We were really impressed by the thought and the process they put in in terms of developing a platform, and we believe that we can use a large part of that platform to allow for rapid development to bring capabilities to Fitbit’s system faster and better.
YEM: Ten years from now, what does your industry look like? How will Fitbit evolve to fit that?
Friedman: Ten years is a long time! I think that over time, Fitbit needs to move from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’ — the ‘check engine light for your body.’ Some of our early pitches were about the screen in a Prius that shows where the energy’s going and how it’s working, and I think ultimately that’s where Fitbit will be going.
YEM: Why do you do what you do? What’s your motivation?
Friedman: It all depends on the phase of the career. I think why I’m doing what I’m doing at Fitbit as a 2000 person company is very different than why I did what I did at Fitbit when we first started. It’s grown beyond anything I was ever capable of, and it’s just phenomenally rewarding, and really enjoyable.
I genuinely believe that Fitbit has the opportunity to make the world a healthier place, and it seems the way people think about health, and the way people think about their health, and people live their lives. We’re in the midst of a world full of chronic disease where I think we can help reduce the incidence of chronic disease and help people manage those diseases. Good health leads to better, happier lives, and the very fact that we’re doing this at scale and have touched so many people around the world is phenomenally rewarding.
It’s something where I think I’ve got a unique opportunity where as I progress, at some point I’ll be able to look back and say ‘wow, I’ve left the world a better place when I’m leaving it than when I entered it.’ That’s not something that everyone gets, and I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to be able to do that.