Meaningful Change: 5 Questions with LifeDojo CEO Chris Cutter

November 19, 2016

This interview originally appeared on brandchannel.

We’ve all been there. It’s the end of the year, and we start to think about a New Year’s Resolution. We vow to stick to it this time and see it through. And yet, before the snow melts, we’ve usually abandoned our good intentions. Behavior change is a challenge for most of us—even when we know we’re exhibiting a behavior that is harmful to our health. As our cultural appetite for wellness continues to increase, a number of companies are emerging with their own approach, philosophy, and methodology for tackling behavior change.

San Francisco-based LifeDojo is gaining traction with its 12-week well-being platform that focuses on modifying behavior through self-determination and personal discovery.   CEO Chris Cutter was frustrated and fed up with the expense and inefficiency of in-person health interventions; health epidemics continue to grow and technology should be employed to drive down costs. But Cutter didn’t want to take the predominant approach to behavior change; he wanted to build a brand that would dig deeper into each person’s motivations, pressures and background to see why the behavior was occurring in the first place.

Nicole Diamant and Jane Parker of InterbrandHealth sat down with Cutter to learn more about his approach to wellness and how he’s spurring meaningful change, 12 weeks at a time.

InterbrandHealth: Wellness and well-being are becoming ubiquitous in the marketplace. How do you see LifeDojo’s offering as differentiated from your competitors?

Chris Cutter: Many of the companies in the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout the US were founded by medical doctors, and less emphasis was put on the public health voice. Therefore a lot of our competitors are identifying high-risk people and offering a prescriptive solution: You have to do this step, then this step, then this step. Support for the individual exists but everything is so structured, and what happens is if you’re high risk and scared— i.e., already motivated—then you’re good with that plan. But the average person, even if they are at-risk to some degree, is quite turned off by that prescriptive nature. The intentions are good, but you’re constantly trying to control the pathway that person is going down.

Our approach is a strong contrast in that we come from the person-centered tradition that is primarily seen in evidence-based public health and social work. This is very different from medical and cognitive psychological approaches. We base everything on the self-determination model; people have to feel like they are designing their own paths.

“At LifeDojo, we’re trying to evolve the US healthcare system to think more holistically about a person.”

Part of the person-centered therapy (PCT) model means that our coaches and technology are there to be reflective and help you make your own decisions. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a prescriptive therapeutic approach. We’re going to talk about your feelings; then I’m going to give you some clear steps. With person-centered, you’re actually disallowed as a therapist from being prescriptive about steps. You have to wait until the moment that the client figures out what’s best for him or her. The US focuses on CBT because it’s how we think people change their behavior, but PCT is the most-used therapeutic approach nearly everywhere else in the world. The top-down medical model makes CBT a natural fit in the US. In some ways we’re trying to evolve the US healthcare system to think more holistically about a person.

In our platform, you get to choose from 40 different health habits. You choose your habit, you choose the category, you choose your coach—you choose when and where and how—all of that is designed by you. However, we are determining the habits you choose from and curating your experience; each of our programs and habits are based on peer-reviewed research. I’m confident in saying that we will solve behavior change because the beauty of our software is that every single day, in every single moment, in aggregate and at the individual level, data can be assessed. So if we’re getting people all the way to Day 22, we can figure out how we get them to Day 24, and keep solving until we’re getting to Day 70. I think that’s the vision. And to do that, regardless of the habit, forces us and forces our clients to realize that behavior change is a universal thing, as opposed to something you need a variety of experts for. So that’s what we’re doing—empowering people to lead behavior change in every aspect of their life.

InterbrandHealth: Right now, you’re primarily working with employers and providers. How do you get started and ensure a successful program?

Chris Cutter: Typically the employer or the healthcare group will communicate the outcomes they want, such as stress reduction, reduced obesity, improved morale, etc. And we start to aggregate data. The first thing we do is sit down with the employer and do a social-ecological assessment. This again is more in the realm of public health work. What are the biological, psychological, social, cultural and environmental realities of your population—because that’s going to affect our messaging.

We really treat it like brand communications. Every client’s population requires different communications. We have to think about how to talk to them, through what channels, and in what style. Many times, our initial communications are more about fun and engagement rather than fixing a problem. Simultaneously, we’re working with the employer on other systems, such as IT and additional support assets for the employees, should more advanced care be required. We also identify well-being champions within the company to help motivate and encourage colleagues. This helps to generate what we call grassroots workplace well-being—it’s not the top telling people what to do. It’s the little groups forming and supporting each other—it grows from the ground up. It’s more sustainable that way.

“Enrollment and engagement are important numbers for us, but the one that catches the most attention is the behavior change. After 9 months, 44% of all participants are still sticking with the health habit they chose, and the high-risk population has even higher rates.”

InterbrandHealth: Once the program kicks off, I imagine people are enthused and raring to go, but do they stay engaged? What kind of metrics are you tracking, both to help “sell in” the platform to clients and also to act as proof points for your method?

Chris Cutter: By having some level of control over choice of coach, of health habit, of your path, the participant has ownership over his or her direction. And we typically get 35% to 75% of the entire target population enrolled. Whether it’s a stress program or healthy eating plan, the outcomes are incredible, both from the engagement point of view but also on the actual health behavior change outcomes. A recent enterprise client in Ohio is a good example of this. In 12 weeks, 46% experienced a meaningful reduction in BMI. It’s very compelling. The difference is that we got a huge chunk of the population to enroll, not just the 3% who were already motivated and scared about their health. When people feel like their employer is providing them with a valuable perk—like the personal trainer they’ve always wanted but couldn’t afford—they’re excited. Enrollment and engagement are important numbers for us, but the one that catches the most attention is the behavior change. After 9 months, 44% of all participants are still sticking with the health habit they chose, and the high-risk population has even higher rates. After years, sometimes decades, of failed New Year’s resolutions, fad diets or new routines that fell flat, they finally succeed and they feel incredibly empowered.

What’s interesting about this space is more than 50% of these companies are making decisions more on soft ROI, as the program plays to their internal employee brand. Everyone talks about healthcare costs, and that is a benefit, but many of our high-growth, high-tech clients chose LifeDojo based on the program’s impact on job and life satisfaction, retention and productivity. These are not healthcare costs—these are indirect. Even just two years ago, we were mostly seeing benefits people in the room. Now it’s HR, it’s training, retention, recruiters.

“The experience of LifeDojo is having a true friend and a process that’s seamlessly mobile.”

InterbrandHealth: How would you describe the ultimate LifeDojo experience for the consumer? What’s the brand experience you’re trying to create?

Chris Cutter: I want them to feel like their best friend is in their pocket. And their best friend wants to help them out with whatever they want to work on, providing unconditional love and friendship. What’s beautiful about PCT, it’s the only therapy model where you are required to self-disclose. Most therapists are trained never to reveal personal information because it ruins the professional hierarchy. With our program, a coach may reveal on the first call, yeah, I struggle with that, too, and it took me years to overcome it. The numbers on American loneliness are staggering, and we see that as an opportunity. The experience of LifeDojo is having a true friend and a process that’s seamlessly mobile. I love that we’re getting to the point that when someone’s in the grocery store and doesn’t know what to eat, he or she starts texting with a coach who they trust and won’t feel judged by.

InterbrandHealth: How would you characterize the business you’re in today, and how do you see it evolving in the future?

Chris Cutter: I’m in the business of solving behavior change, and our dream is no matter what habit you’re focused on, we have a system in place, a universal solution, to behavior change. Not for diabetes or any one specific health issue. No matter what it is that you want to alter, we’ve actually figured out a reliable system for behavior change.

I see much of our future growth in that soft ROI area. I think wellness generally is a bad word—well-being is much more holistic. And with that, comes a more holistic sense of the value that’s delivered. We feel very strong about our ability to drive down healthcare costs for those who are focused on hard ROI, but culture-first companies are a growing vertical. They care about a variety of things related to engagement, and they often believe the hard ROI results will come if the soft ROI is addressed. When we started the company, the holistic nature was what I cared about, the social impact side, and so to see the business space focus their energy, dollars and attention there is exciting.

“When we started LifeDojo, the holistic nature was what I cared about, the social impact side, and so to see the business space focus their energy, dollars and attention there is exciting.”

A lot of companies are avoiding the traditional, annual employee engagement survey. We provide metrics, both pre- and post- programs, that have a huge impact on satisfaction so it’s interesting that we both educate the employers on the metrics that they should be using and then we deliver on that. And tie that to the business outcomes they are all accountable to.

Ultimately, we want to prove, in a long-term basis, in the employer space and healthcare space, that we deliver financial value. And from a mission point of view, demonstrate on a consistent basis that regardless of race, income, age, whatever, that we reliably deliver behavior change above the 50th percentile. Think of that the next time you make a New Year’s resolution.

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