Fitbit founder and upcoming tech summit speaker Eric Friedman is an ‘eternally optimistic’ entrepreneur

A mere 10 years ago, who would have thought that a small wearable device would turn walkers into avid data crunchers, obsessively tracking their daily steps — let alone start a company based on such a possibility?

Eric Friedman

“Well, part of being an entrepreneur is you’re eternally optimistic,” says Eric Friedman ‘99, ’00 M.S., co-founder of Fitbit, which makes the device of the same name, as well as many other iterations on the market. Friedman is the keynote speaker at the 2016 Yale Technology Summit at the Yale School of Management this Friday. There, he’ll take part in a conversation with School of Engineering & Applied Science Dean T. Kyle Vanderlick.

Fitbit pioneered the personal activity data craze when it launched in 2007, allowing users to track their steps, multiple types of exercise, the number of calories burned, and other personal data. Despite competition from other major companies, Fitbit has maintained its place as the market leader, and has been included in countless “most innovative” lists. And if there’s any doubt about its cultural ubiquity, Friedman proudly points out that the Fitbit was recently referenced in a “Wizard of Id” comic strip.

A key part of the company’s success is innovative software that transforms exercise from a chore to a social activity by allowing users to compare their data and compete with friends and family — so it makes sense that Friedman’s time as a computer science major at Yale played a significant role in the development of Fitbit. Also influential, although perhaps less so, were his lunches in communal dining spaces. One of his favorite things about Yale, he said, was meeting up with students from other fields — literature, architecture, chemistry, for instance — and seeing where the conversation took them.

“I did a lot of linguistics and history, not just computer science,” Friedman said. “One of the things that made Fitbit was that we took multiple and disparate fields and made them greater than the sum of their parts.”

Before they started Fitbit in 2007, Friedman and James Park co-founded Wind-Up Labs, the creator of HeyPix, one of the first photo-sharing services. After that venture was acquired by CNET Networks, they were interested in doing something consumer-focused. Park was an early adopter of the Nintendo Wii, and the two were inspired by how the makers deftly combined hardware and software to create inexpensive sensors that got people off the couch and moving.

A Fitbit user himself, Friedman is not immune to the motivating forces of his creation. He and Park formed the James & Eric Team for a recent company-wide walking challenge (a company uniquely suited to walking challenges, Fitbit now has more than 1,000 employees). The two founders’ team got off to a rather lackluster start, and Friedman and Park found themselves in the middle of the leaderboard.

“We said, ‘This is kind of embarrassing — we should be winning this thing,’” Friedman said. “We’d get home from work and start walking around in circles while discussing work on the phone.” As testament to the Fitbit’s motivating powers, they won the competition (they awarded the prize to the runner-up).

The collective data that Fitbit has amassed is a trove of information about human activity. For instance, Connecticut Fitbit users walk an average of 8,347 steps per day in the summer — making it 10th in the United States (New York is number one); teachers slightly out-walk health care professionals, with an average of 12,141 steps per day. It also offers insights about what motivates people to move. Small recognitions of accomplishments – like emails and “helicopter badges” sent from Fitbit congratulating the user for certain achievements — have proven very successful. Round numbers are also very effective motivator, notes Friedman.

“We see that people walk in circles just before bed time to turn that 8 to a 0 — they turn it into a game,” he said. “It’s something that I do, too. We have that human need for round numbers.”

The third annual Yale Technology Summit takes place Friday, Oct. 28, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (Friedman’s talk begins at 11 a.m.) Evans Hall, Yale School of Management, 165 Whitney Ave, New Haven CT. Admission is free.

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