As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Luba Pashkovskaya, CEO of Verv. Luba Pashkovskaya is CEO and co-founder of Verv.com, a global health and fitness company. Verv offers a comprehensive wellness app that is now ranked among the top mobile app publishers in the U.S. and Europe. Ms. Pashkovskaya is a Forbes European Top 50 Women in Tech honoree. Under her leadership, Verv has earned more app downloads than some of the world’s best-known fitness brands. Prior to co-founding Verv, Ms. Pashkovskaya served as head of the mobile division for software firm Viaden.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve always wanted to work in innovative technologies. After getting my Master’s Degree in Computer Science and Simulation, I started my career in tech. It has allowed me to gain extensive experience in marketing, product management, and mobile app development.
Then, I crossed paths with Viaden Mobile, which was a new department established back in 2010 that focused specifically on the development of fitness apps for mobile. My job was to manage the whole process from market research to development, app launch and further product marketing. Then and there, I learned how to fully run a mobile business.
When I established my own company — Verv — it was somehow similar to that and yet very different, since I also became responsible for the whole business strategy, financing and brand marketing. At the same time, I was absolutely excited about promoting positive life changes in people’s lives through fitness apps. So, I decided to make it my personal mission and dedicate my time and full energy to it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting and any lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
So many mistakes seem funny now, but felt so real at the time.
The first mistake was made right when we released our first product and were looking for ways to advertise it. We turned to a freelancing platform, where we came across a man who managed to persuade us to transfer him a rather large sum of money, something between $5,000 and $10,000, with no contract and no obligations. We didn’t even have his proper contact information, just an email! Having received the money, he simply vanished. When it all happened, we couldn’t get our heads around how gullible we’d been.
That situation taught me to take all agreements seriously, clearly define the expected deliverables, and always legally protect my interests.
Later, as our business evolved, we made plenty of other mistakes. Still, we never forgot those first few thousands we lost, and how we managed to bounce back and learn from that experience.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I can’t say that either business literature or podcasts impact me in any major way. I resort to them when I am looking for an answer to a specific question.
The book that made a big impression on me most recently, as well driving my personal growth and that of the company, was Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
Mr. Sapolsky attempts to explain human behavior and evaluates all factors that influence our actions. Those factors include our individual past, our cultural heritage and genes, our hormones and the environment in which we grew up, even what we ate for breakfast. The author synthesizes huge amounts of information about the world and us humans, providing vivid examples. For example, how judges hand out sentences, why attractive people tend to be more successful in various fields, how our brain divides everyone into “friends” and “strangers,” and why we simply can’t treat everyone the same way. He even talks about weight-related issues! This book helped me more fully understand the world and our place in it. We can’t explain everything, of course, but we can certainly broaden our understanding of the complexity of this world. Once we do, we’re able to make much more informed and thoughtful decisions.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Verv’s mission is to help people maintain a healthier lifestyle.
The idea of immortality projects, described in Ernest Becker’s book called The Denial of Death, appeals to me a great deal. To me, Verv is like an immortality project, and every decision we make as a company should bring us closer to the fulfillment of our mission. It’s not always easy.
For example, many investors want the apps to have good daily retention rates. But, in reality, people work out no more often than one to two times a week on average. So, in order to increase those metrics, some would introduce artificial features to their product, such as entertaining videos, for example. They are not related to a healthy lifestyle, but they do increase the amount of time people spend on the app. However, there is a flip side to that: the more time a person spends on the device, the less and worse they sleep, and, as a result, they don’t exercise as well or they miss workouts altogether. This is counter to our mission.
Understanding your ultimate goal helps the whole company to act in concert and not be distracted by unnecessary or insignificant things. I truly believe that without this focus, Verv would not have been able to become a market leader with 80 million users.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Go hard or go home.
I know many gifted and extremely smart people. But that’s not always enough. When it comes to business, only the most ambitious and persevering people have what it takes. Those who are not afraid to fail, make mistakes, be rejected, or look stupid, can truly succeed in the long run.
I really like to hire people who were seriously engaged in sports throughout their childhood. From personal experience, I believe these people are more stubborn and stress-resistant than others. As a rule, whatever they undertake results in success. I dedicated six years of my life to professional rhythmic gymnastics and I think that it did temper me, too.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you share a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis?
Both my parents went through coronavirus. It took over three weeks, and, thankfully, they are now in recovery. It was terrifying when one of them was diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia on just the second day of the illness, with a high fever that wasn’t breaking. They got better only after getting a treatment that is considered experimental. We’re very happy we took the risk because it did help them! But those days filled with uncertainty were the worst days I’ve had in a very long time.
I had to learn to work from home, though I’ve never done it before. And I was disappointed that the Stanford Executive Program that had recently accepted me has been canceled for this year. But health is always more important.
Both my kids (4 and 6), who don’t go to kindergarten but do attend many pre-school classes and sports activities, now study remotely, too. I must say that working from home with kids is quite a challenge!
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My #1 takeaway is an even stronger confidence that we alone are responsible for our health and should make it our top priority.
In the face of uncertainty and danger from a disease that was previously unheard of, we are now forced to reject comforting thoughts that there is a cure-all pill or even accessible medical care. Our main defense is our immunity. People should return to basics, relearning how to take care of themselves, their body and mental health. Measures aimed at disease prevention, such as exercise, proper nutrition, healthy sleep, mental health — these are my main guidelines for overcoming this situation.
In addition, I doubled down on the use of wearables to monitor the health of my family members and myself. Since we know that a person can show no symptoms and still be a carrier, it’s important to track pulse dynamics, phases of sleep, and monitor heart rates. We’ve also purchased a pulse oximeter, which measures lung function. When you are better informed, you can make much more effective decisions about your health.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Switching to remote work seemed like too big of a challenge, but our IT department managed to make all the necessary arrangements over just one weekend. Everything went so smoothly that now I have to admit that I overestimated the role of working in the office and face-to-face interaction in the success of our business. The team does a great job and there hasn’t been a drop in productivity while working from home, though I know that our managers have to spend extra time discussing some issues, because even a video call can’t always replace face-to-face meetings.
Because of closed borders and canceled events, it has also been more difficult to access training and communication with people from the mobile industry. Everything’s changing so fast in the field of mobile, so we give our full attention to training as we try to keep abreast of current and emerging trends. We try to involve our staff in such events so we don’t become stuck in our little reality and continue our forward progress. Fortunately, many events shifted to online.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Working to achieve a healthier lifestyle is the best thing you can do in any stressful situation.
Businesspeople are under a lot of pressure, stress and uncertainty. I like to ask them what they do to deal with stress, and as a rule, every one of them offered similar solutions: physical activity, proper nutrition, sleep, meditation, and other methods that help them balance their thoughts and find focus.
Despite the fact that our mission statement is to help people lead a healthier lifestyle, I have to admit that at first I had my doubts whether this piece of advice was really that helpful for beating stress and overcoming difficult times. And then, I learned it myself the hard way, about four years ago. At that time, our company had stopped making money, switched to a different business model, and also had to grow a team in order to remain competitive. I had just given birth to my second child, and hadn’t been able to return to my previous fitness routine. And then came the moment when I just got overwhelmed. Each new challenge felt emotionally draining.
So, here’s what I did next: First, I reset my sleep routine. If you don’t get enough sleep, you will not be able to stick to a healthy diet or exercise effectively. That said, everyone’s sleep needs are different. Some people require at least nine hours of sleep, and some may find that six hours is just right for them.
Then, I added physical activity. It is important to choose the type of exercise you enjoy, otherwise you will only quit.
Then I balanced my nutrition: got rid of all harmful ingredients and focused only on the healthy ones. I also paid attention to cooking methods: less fried, more stewed, boiled, and raw meals.
Meditation and mindfulness can also be added to your daily routine. Everyone has their own preference: some listen to the sounds of nature, some adhere to guided meditation practices. My advice is to find what works for you.
I have been giving that same advice to all friends and family during this pandemic, though my family has been using our Verv product for a long time now, since it offers an integrated approach to a healthy lifestyle. This app helps balance sleep, nutrition, physical exercise, and mindfulness, and find the right approach to mental health.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
For companies involved in online wellness like Verv, times like these can present a great opportunity. Lots of people who used to train with personal fitness coaches, in gyms and studios, are now choosing online solutions. I’m sure many of these people will not go offline even after self-isolations and quarantines are over. They will have learned how to work out using digital solutions, and they may not want to go back to pricier gyms and fitness coaches. With online fitness solutions, you are getting an annual subscription at the price of a monthly gym membership.
This health crisis has shown us that there’s so much to be done in healthcare and medicine on a global level. I really hope that the next time humanity faces something like this, we will be much better prepared, informed, and acting as a whole. Many foundations are ready to spend budgets on it, and hopefully we’ll see new startups within the next few years.
In addition to other businesses that usually flourish in times of crisis, I think that companies promoting health and safety will certainly gain in popularity, as well as online training for children and adults, remote entertainment, tools for holding online parties, online museums, exhibitions and theater productions, etc.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
It just so happened that COVID catalyzed many processes that have long been brewing in our society: more rapid digitalization of all spheres, including education, art, entertainment and others.
I also hope that this situation will teach people to be more responsible for their own health. Now that we are better aware how fragile we all are and how limited are our healthcare resources, it’s a great time for everyone to take care of their chronic conditions, immunity, and maintain all of our health resources at the highest level through a healthy lifestyle.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization?
Verv is growing and becoming stronger, because online wellness and fitness are now in high demand. We initially focused on content for beginners, but now we are trying to satisfy the needs of more experienced athletes who were used to working out in gyms and with personal trainers.
We are also looking for ways to offer a more affordable price, since we understand that not everyone will be able to pay for an online fitness subscription post-COVID. And helping people live a healthier life will always remain our key priority.
Since we are a globally operating company, geographic pricing is the first thing we study in great detail to ensure that our pricing remains competitive. We’re also looking into a hybrid monetization model, where a user can decide whether they want to see ads or pay for a subscription, but in both cases have access to all content.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
To non-online businesses, I would recommend going digital. These days, it’s hard to imagine any sphere that can’t be digitized.
Change is an integral part of our world. We need to quickly accept this new post-COVID world and adapt to it. It’s not worth waiting and hoping everything will magically return to “normal.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.
This Irish proverb seems even more relevant during COVID times. Let’s always remember to find a silver lining, even in times like these. For example: we get to spend more time with our families and kids; we don’t have to rush to airports, meetings, and events; and we get to focus on the present moment — all these opportunities resulted from the current situation, and we can certainly try to appreciate them.
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