As part of my series about “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in the Post-COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Victoria Repa. Victoria Repa is the CEO and co-founder of BetterMe, an ecosystem of health & fitness apps consistently ranked in the top-5 of the US market.
Victoria became the CEO of BetterMe at just 24 years old and has led the company to exponential growth. Since 2016, BetterMe has released 10 health & fitness apps, which gathered more than 50 million downloads worldwide. In March 2020, BetterMe was featured on the App Annie list of Top-30 EMEA-Headquartered Mobile Publishers by Revenue.
A graduate of the Stanford Executive Program as well as Apple Entrepreneur Camp, Victoria is a frequent guest and speaker at global conferences. In 2020, she took part in the Tech Founders panel at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Besides, Victoria was also featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe 2020 in the Technology category.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory” and how you got started?
I grew up in a tiny town in Ukraine, with barely any schooling available. So from an early age I had to learn everything more or less on my own. Luckily, my efforts paid off and I received a grant from the best post-secondary school of economics in the country.
When I graduated, I got a job in logistics, but quickly found out that it wasn’t what I wanted to do and quit to look for something more meaningful and challenging after a year and a half.
I saw that the startup industry was growing quickly, so I joined an accelerator program at Genesis, a well-known tech and media company. They also offered me my first tech job soon after, and that’s where I met my future BetterMe co-founder Vitaly Laptenok.
During that time, the fitness app market was expanding exponentially. As we were looking for some niche opportunities, we started publishing fitness-related content to see if we could attract any demand. Eventually, we released BetterMe: Weight Loss Workouts — our first fitness app that got downloaded 100,000 times in just a few months without any advertising. We knew we were onto something big.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or “takeaways” you learned from that?
In the health & fitness industry, trends come and go very fast, and it’s not always easy to tell whether you’re riding on a long-lasting trend or a fad.
Before launching BetterMe, we had a few other “mistake” apps. BoredMan for guys to kill time in a fun way. BeautyHub for women. FeedYourKid with a collection of food recipes for children. What we learned rather quickly is that all these apps were products that didn’t address real nagging problems for users. Now we always start with an existing problem and move towards product solutions.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Everything Warren Buffett writes or says really resonates with me. I just truly admire his ability to learn and distill knowledge into actionable maxims.
Funny enough, I also find the recent bestseller book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” quite useful. The gist of it is all about how finding something important and meaningful in your life is the most productive use of your time and energy.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
On a personal note, everyone in my family has always been overweight. My mother used to tell me that nothing could be done about it. That stayed with me and eventually drove me to my purpose of helping people achieve their ideal state of body and mind.
Around the time we started BetterMe in 2016, over 90 million adults and 13 million children in the US were obese. “How to lose weight” was the fourth most popular Google search in the how-to category. To solve this, our goal has always been to make getting in shape and eating healthier an integrated part of life — a change in lifestyle.
Eventually, I see ourselves evolving into a sort of digital health assistant, providing an all-in-one solution.
Do you have a “number-one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Fail cheap and fast. We learn the most from our failures, but expensive mistakes can tank any business. For example, 90% of our users come from social media: Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest. We run ads and test them all the time: create 10 ideas, allocate small budgets to each, see what works and then double down on it.
The best part — because our initial bets are cheap, anyone can come up with a valuable idea, and we encourage it as much as possible. We try to keep all the bureaucracy and approvals to a minimum. That’s how creativity blossoms.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Since my family is living in the countryside, they are thankfully well-isolated from the current crisis.
Admittedly, I myself was initially thrown off balance by how quickly the situation unraveled — there were lots of variables to get right. But I think the BetterMe team managed to redefine our priorities correctly and move confidently towards them.
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?
If you go to any news website right now, you’d find that the most challenging task is to keep calm. Letting fear and uncertainty spread within your company is a great recipe for your productivity to take a significant hit.
What you need to bet heavily on during this time, especially when everyone is working remotely, is transparency. Don’t just say that everything is fine. For example, we organize a regular company-wide meeting for everyone to see the progress being made and have an opportunity to ask questions.
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?
I think everyone should give meditation a try. Even though we work fast during the day, I encourage everyone to take some time off to reflect. Besides the often-talked about benefits of reducing anxiety, I believe that meditation clears the mind for interesting business solutions as well. That’s why so many Silicon Valley companies incorporate meditation routines in their employee-support programs now.
On a personal level, I’m an adherent of pranayama — yogic breathing exercises for relaxation and focus. I’ve been practicing it daily for several years and I find that my decision-making improves greatly when I can concentrate on not having my emotions influence my decisions.
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?
I’m always on the lookout for great talent. We have big dreams and we need the support of an amazing team to accomplish them. Now, when everyone is forced to adjust to the new work-from-home culture, hiring across the globe is going to be much easier. In fact, we’ve onboarded 20 people during the quarantine, which tipped our headcount to over 100.
I also see an unprecedented opportunity for self-care. The whole startup world has been about hustling for so long that burnouts have become the norm. Now is the perfect time to slow down, reflect and replenish your energy.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Geography will matter less — we already see this in hiring or work-from-home policies. Twitter and Shopify are going remote. Facebook will have up to 50% of their people work from home. Google is letting employees stay home until at least the end of the year.
On another note, the attitude towards mental health will change. In self-isolation, people will naturally turn to their inner state. This will also affect our relationships, and I predict people will become more selective with regards to who they are letting into their circle of friends. On the flip side, the quality and sincerity of our relationships will improve.
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 in the post-COVID economy?
You have to be honest and objective. Do you need to make hard decisions? Do so as soon as possible, but explain your thinking clearly. This could relate to cutting costs and benefits or even laying someone off. Don’t be afraid to alienate people — if you make logical and transparent moves, they will understand.
Reorganize your company so that everything is geared towards making better things while saving more resources than you used to. Cut out anything non-essential. Celebrate small wins and learn from every single one of them.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Put people first. That doesn’t mean you should treat everyone as “family,” which I see in startup culture guides all the time. I think of it more as a sports team, moving towards a common goal. The CEO is like a coach, coming up with new strategies while nurturing and helping out the players.
Don’t fear defeat. Working in the digital industry, you need to come up with lots of ideas every day so you’ll invariably make mistakes. Realize that even the worst outcome is just gaining more experience.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s something I call the “golden-apple effect,” which is an inevitable companion of fast growth.
In Greek mythology, there’s a story about Atalanta, a huntress, who challenged anyone seeking her hand to a footrace and, subsequently, killed the losers. Many men had fallen until Hippomenes came along and asked Aphrodite for help. Aphrodite gave Hippomenes a few golden apples, which were irresistible. During the race Hippomenes dropped the apples to distract Atalanta and managed to win the race.
In the real world, every startup at some point faces the distraction of golden apples. It could be a large conference that you didn’t plan to prepare for or an important client who asks for some tailored off-roadmap features. It could even be an employee or business partner who is dragging the company down. It’s important to recognize the golden apples and stay the course — that’s the only way to win.
How can our readers further follow your work?