After more than two years as an investment banker, Tushar Vashisht decided it was time for a change and became a public servant in India. Then, in 2012, he started HealthifyMe, a one-stop digital health and fitness platform that caters to local people’s lifestyle, food culture, and workout habits.
Vashisht’s app has been downloaded more than 20 million times globally, and his company raised USD 75 million in Series C funding in July 2021.
Recently, the founder and CEO of HealthifyMe, sat down with Oasis to reflect on how he went through diverse changes to build his app.
This interview was edited and consolidated for brevity and clarity.
Oasis (OS): Before you established HealthifyMe, you were a public servant in India. What inspired you to switch lanes?
Tushar Vashisht (TV): I was working for the government of India on the Aadhaar project, India’s biometric identity system, where I met Nandan Nilekani, the founder of Infosys. He had attracted a group of amazing talents and people who were entrepreneurs before, and I was inspired by their abilities to build business models to solve real-world problems. I thought to myself, “That’s a career I would like to pursue.”
During that time, I also gained 20 kg after moving back to India from Singapore. I wanted to do something about it but found it hard to lose weight due to my lack of understanding of nutrition in the Indian diet. After doing some research on obesity and losing weight in a healthy way, I realized I was not alone. Between 2005 and 2015, India’s obesity rate had more than doubled from 14% to 29%.
My personal experience and research about local food and consumption eventually translated into building an app with a vision to help Indians and people in emerging markets become healthier and more fit using online tools.
OS: What was India’s digital health ecosystem like in 2012? How did you know your plan would work?
TV: I saw an opportunity in the market as there was a lack of any calorie counters or tech solutions in India at that time. Inspired by my personal experience of losing weight, I decided to start HealthifyMe, which began as a database of a list of foods and their calorie values. Other features were then added, such as digital trainers and nutritionists as part of a subscription service.
We also incorporated artificial intelligence into our platform to build our digital nutritionist, Ria. The data collected by Ria curates advice provided by our human nutritionists, helping them provide better feedback, guidance, and support to users.
OS: You didn’t have a background in fitness and health before founding the company. What were some skills from your previous experience that were essential when you were building HealthifyMe?
TV: In life, no matter what you do, you’re always learning. With HealthifyMe, I think that’s where all the dots finally connected.
After studying computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, I moved into banking in San Francisco and built connections. My banking experience in Singapore gave me an understanding of the Southeast Asia market and I honed my skills. When I went back to India to work for the government, I gained an understanding of Indian customers and the way India works.
From Philadelphia to India, I think every step I took in life built part of the foundation for the entrepreneurial role that I am in now, even if it didn’t seem so at that time.
OS: What did you do after developing the rough sketch of the business in your mind?
TV: My co-founders—Sachin Shenoy and Matthew Cherian—and I visited colleges and hung around hospitals to recruit employees, interns, and advisors for HealthifyMe.
We then worked on the product, launched, and constantly improved it. We built an app with a calorie counter as well as health and fitness plans. New features were included over time, which involved hiring trainers and nutritionists, plus launching a subscription service.
OS: What sort of external help did you receive during the early phases of HealthifyMe?
TV: We were incubated at the Microsoft Accelerator program, which was useful for building contacts and relationships within the industry and getting to know investors.
We also benefited from the valuable advice of our strong advisory board. Its members served as mentors as we started HealthifyMe.
OS: There was a time when the company couldn’t pay employees’ salaries, but all of them stayed on. What was going through your mind back then? What lessons did you learn?
TV: In the early days, we were looking at where we fit into the market, and we ran out of money once or twice. The first time was scary, but the second time, not so much. It’s a big challenge to mentally overcome that fear, but when it happens, there is no other way but to face it. When you pull through, things become better.
Another lesson was that we wanted to do so many things, but we were struggling to make them take off at the same time. We wanted to help people gain access to healthy foods, but that was hard because of limited resources. Focusing on what not to do ends up becoming quite important.
My advice to other founders is: don’t try too much when you’re working on a product. No founder is shy about trying things, but the real challenge is to focus on what you have. People always try to do five things at once. In my opinion, they should only do one thing and do it well.