Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Ari Tulla, Founder & CEO of Elo Health. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here.
Transcript – #157 Ari Tulla, Founder & CEO of Elo Health: Favorite Books, Lessons Learned as a Serial Founder, Superpowers, and More
Daniel Scrivner (00:01):
Ari, I am so thrilled to have you on. Thank you so much for making time and for coming on the show.
Ari Tulla (00:05):
Hey, thanks, Daniel. Great to be here.
Daniel Scrivner (00:07):
So, where I always want to start is if you can give a quick sketch of your background and kind of the impossible frame for this is what is the 62 second version of your story? 60 second, 90 second version.
Ari Tulla (00:20):
I can try. Yeah. My name is Ari Tulla. I'm from Finland, originally, been living in the Bay Area for about 15 years. I was aspiring athlete, my youth, I spent half my time playing hockey, other half I played with computers and games and stuff like that. And in the end, I never became hockey player. I became an entrepreneur. So, the latter one won in the end, and I think that's a good thing. On hindsight now, when thinking about my life backward and then forward, much nice to be a ongoing entrepreneur than X hockey player. Nothing wrong with them, but often many of them need to reinvent themselves. And I spend the first part of my career around tech and apps and games, mobile games mainly. And then the last 12 years I've been spending in healthcare, and I was sucked into healthcare because personal reasons like many people do. I was never a doctor or nurse or scientist, but I wanted to really focus my next 30 years in healthcare because of family history and drama we had.
Daniel Scrivner (01:31):
Yeah, I think the people I know that are building the most interesting stuff in healthcare do not have a traditional medicine background, which probably tells you a lot about what they're building and how they're building it. You're the co-founder and CEO of Elo. How do you describe what you're building to either friends, family, people that ask and how do you think about what will be different if you're wildly successful in building this company?
Ari Tulla (01:54):
I think the best way to think about company description is that what can you say that your mom would be proud? We always underestimate the mom proud aspect of the measurement. That would be the key KPI in the end for, a lot of things who are building things in the world because if your mom is proud about you, I mean nothing else really matters. That's the key KPI, okay or whatever. So, Elo is trying to turn food into medicine, today as we know, many of the chronic conditions, a lot of the healthcare costs we have, many of the early deaths we have today in our society are because of lifestyle and nutrition. So, we are really trying to make that thing that hypocrite spoke 2000 years ago to be real.
Daniel Scrivner (02:42):
And how do you think about, I guess just let's fast forward 10 years into the future. You've been wildly successful. What is different about the world or what's different about the way people maybe approach health in their own lives?
Ari Tulla (02:54):
Yeah, so I think we have this silence today where we spend almost all the money today in healthcare, almost 4.5 trillion in the US, $4,500 billion on management of chronic conditions and sick care. And you might have seen a documentary with the name, but really the idea that we only help people when they get sick. We spend about 2.5%, 2.6% on preventative care. And that preventative care is not really spent on helping people in a little better lifestyle. It is spent on mammographies and colonoscopies and vaccinations. So, those are really huge important factors, but we spend almost no money today on educating people. So, if Elo becomes real, I think we will have a... And not just Elo, we call this smart nutrition as a broad term. If the smart nutrition concept becomes real and food as medicine becomes real as it's already happening slowly, we will spend maybe 20% of the healthcare spend in good nutrition by subsidizing people who are sick.
Today, we spend it all in medications and medical devices and treatments. But what if we would spend it on nutrition and lifestyle senses and coping and that could actually prevent people getting sick in the first place. I think every dollar spend on the smart nutrition, the lifestyle chains will yield back $4 at the back of the envelope on saving cost in healthcare. That's the only way, in my opinion, to lower the cost of healthcare and get better outcomes and make many of us live longer, maybe even 10 years longer or more.
Daniel Scrivner (04:38):
Yeah. Well, and hopefully help some of the things that I'm sure contributing like obesity, lack of movement and exercise, just all of the chronic conditions that are seem like they cluster around that.
Ari Tulla (04:49):
Daniel Scrivner (04:49):
You have a fascinating background. Somehow you managed to start out leading the creation of video games and then made a graceful shift into being a founder. You're also the CEO of a company called Quest Analytics. One of the questions I wanted to ask you is as kind of your journey as a founder and I would include being the CEO of Quest Analytics, so I imagine it's different being coming in as a CEO as opposed to being a founder. What are the biggest lessons you've learned and how do you approach being a founder differently today than you maybe did back with better doctor your first company?
Ari Tulla (05:22):
Yeah, so I've been talking about this topic a lot and I help a lot of people who are thinking of becoming founder or who want to become entrepreneurs or built their own thing. And for me, I mean they always ask me how did I lead from... I was at Nokia in a big corporation running a small thing in a big bottle, and I always tell people that, I mean that was not the thing I did mean When I was 19, I ended up working a startup as first employee. We were building websites in late '90s. That was the first time I saw my peers, people who were like 21, 20 and 19 who started the company. We knew nothing about anything. I mean that was the time websites were going to invented. Nobody had a website. I mean, companies had no websites, and nobody even knew what that dot is, really that time.
So anyway, like we were building this company and I was helping these guys and I realized that they're no different than me. They were my roommates. So, they really were no different than me and maybe I was smarter than many of them. And it made me realize that it's not up to you, you don't need to have a better career or certain license to run. If you want to build a company, you just need to have momentum and will, that's the only thing you need. And later, I spent a decade in big companies building businesses from ground up. And in many ways that was more difficult to do than to build your own company because you had to get 15 people to say yes, the same time and turn the key and any person in a chain of command of 50 people, you'd say no.
And I was able to raise money in those environments and then when I did my first startup BetterDoctor, it actually felt almost easy or easier in a way because you can go to the VCs, and you can tell your story. It's up to you, not up to 15, 20 other people who can say no, that you don't really know that well. You don't need to lobby them politically. You can do your own thing and be your own person. So, that to me is the key that you know, just need to start and you just need to be brave, and you just need to put the foot forward every day. But of course, you don't want to be silly. Today, we are entering recession, we are entering first time in 15 years in the world and economy and a top market where you might not be able to get the top next day if you want to do it. So, don't leave today and with double mortgage, but be a bit sensible. But it's all about just making a decision and then moving the foot forward one after the other.
Daniel Scrivner (07:57):
Related to that, one of the things I'm always curious is, and this may be somewhat hard, maybe there's not something here for you, but when you think back to your experience of BetterDoctor as a founder, and what I'm really thinking of there is your decision of what to prioritize? What was most important? Where you should be investing your time, energy, and effort? As you think about that, knowing it's a completely different company, but maybe comparing that to Elo, what are the biggest Deltas, meaning are you spending less time today and more time today? How have you recalibrated and how are you approaching your role as a founder differently just through the gift of time and experience?
Ari Tulla (08:33):
Yeah, and I think your point about mentioning about the fact that I spent almost two years as a CEO of a bigger company and earlier being this sort of a certain mid-management level person in the big companies where you kind of run your own thing with your own P and L. So, I had that business sense, but at BetterDoctor it was more about how do I learn a new industry? I came from the tech, I really didn't know a lot about the ins and outs of the healthcare system. I didn't know how to make money in that type of company. And I'm from Finland, I lived in Europe most of my life, so I wasn't accustomed to the US healthcare system as a kid. I just had been a user of it, super user of it. So for me, I think that was really difficult in the beginning, how do I become credible person to talk about the topic like healthcare that I really knew not much about a fundamental level?
And now, I think the same applied now in the Elo, because now I'm moving from the healthcare again to another reel that is nutrition and wellness in a way. I didn't know a whole lot about it on a fundamental level. Now, I need to read, I have 20, 30 books of myself that I read in the last two years that now about the human biology. How do I understand how the human body works? I mean, I'm talking to scientists, I'm talking to doctors on a daily basis. I can't do that if I don't understand enough. So that was, I think in both cases and every time you move from one industry to another, you really have to learn the lingo, you have to be credible, and you can't just ignore invent as you go. That's been I think one of the biggest areas of time consumption I have.
But really, you're building a company. If you think about you build a company in space of finding doctors or building enterprise tools to healthcare systems or you've built a tool for people to have a nutrition. I mean in the end the business is so similar. And in my case, which kind of unique is that at Nokia when we're building the first smartphone, so we're building the first games on this device we call mobile computers back in days before iPhone and Android, my counterpart that I met for once almost daily and we talked about business weekly, was a Tapio Tolvanen in my current co-founder for BetterDoctor, my co-pilot at Quest and my co-founder at Elo as well. So, I've been with this one person for 15 years and he's the person who knows tech, who is one of the best developers still today I ever met in my life who was a chief architect at Nokia building, new smartphone platform and operating system ground up.
Pretty unique thing. Not many people have done that. There are a few people. So, that person has been my rock in a way that we talk daily about how to run companies. And then, in the end we've been having the same people follow us now in a fourth company, there are some people who have now helped us for almost 20 years. So, you kind have these people that they kind of grow with you and you trust them and they know business, they understand how to build things, but then in what domain you built, it's really not that different in the end. And building a company, you need money, you need direction and a vision, and you need good people. I think all you need to have the rest is really day-to-day and planning.
Daniel Scrivner (12:05):
Yeah, I love how clean that perspective is. You brought up all of the research you've done over the last, it sounds like two years of reading 20 to 30 books. One of the questions I always like to ask founders about is if they have favorite books. And so, I guess the questions that I would ask you is, thinking back on those 20 to 30 books, is there maybe one or two that you just felt were incredible that you would recommend to people that also want to more about the body or how kind of the body and health and nutrition works? And related to that, is there anything that you found helpful as a founder or any other books that you would share with people listening?
Ari Tulla (12:36):
Well, I think the first thing that is important, and this is not of course news to anyone here I think, but you're looking at this world we call today where we are glued to the smartphone day by day. I think the data now says that half the people in the US are getting the news from TikTok. I mean, I'm laughing a bit because that's pretty crazy and wild in a way. And I brought up myself in a way that I was on a book all day every day and I couldn't be happier than I'm today. When I look at my son who's eight, he woke up this morning, six in the morning, I woke up a bit after I waltz into the living room slow or silent. And he's reading a book there close on already, and I'm high fiving him. That's like, that's awesome because he clearly found a love of reading early on and I had the same thing myself.
And not everybody has that. And with love of reading, you built a certain type of brain, a brain that is able to suck information, learn, think about things independently with the TikTok. I don't think you're going to get that. So for me, I mean it's key about what do I do all day long every day. I try to find some time in my day to read and get better. If you don't spend the time to get better every day, you will kind of stagnate and you can't leave and upgrade yourself. So, there are ton of books of course, about business and nutrition that I've been giving out to a lot of people. But there are some old books in business Good to Create by Collins, really, really great book that you know, there are certain manuals of startups. The lean startup, I mean, still is relevant today, I think Eric Ries.
And there are really, really good books for the need. Think about sometimes that you know, want to do something in a business, get the book that helps you. I can't remember the name of the person who wrote the book, but there's a book about how to sell a company. I mean, I've been involved now selling few companies and you take the book every time and you're like, "This is awesome." There's another book about how to structure term seed. I just closed the financing round and I took the book again. I read five times, six times. And every time you're like, "It's awesome." You spend three hours, you are back on track. What is this patterned up term needed to design and define with lawyers helps tremendously.
And then, I think on the nutrition side, there is so many different thesis, so many different diets that I don't know if there's a one thing, but the only person that I recommend to everybody to start with is Michael Pollan. And he spoke a books that are about how to eat, how not to eat, Carnivore's Dilemma I think is a really good one. He's very, very, very good at telling you a simple story about a very complicated topic that people go to war because of food. I mean, it's a really tough topic to learn about.
Daniel Scrivner (15:49):
Especially today. I feel like everyone has their own perspective. And I think in many ways, that's one of the incredible things about today is, it's somewhat of a choose your own adventure and everyone can follow what feels good to them, what makes them feel great. So, okay, I'll definitely link to good, great Mark Pollan and a handful of those books. And I'll try to follow up with you afterwards and see if I can get a name to that how to sell a company book, because it sounds-
Ari Tulla (16:12):
I can give you.
Daniel Scrivner (16:12):
... interesting and I bet, and I bet a lot of people would be interested in it. I want to kind of switch tracks and ask a different question, which is founders have very limited amount of time, almost an infinite number of ways that they can spend it in a given day or kind of invest in any given day. Do you have an approach to productivity in performance? And really, I think what I'm asking for there is how do you think about how to allocate your time and prioritize your work?
Ari Tulla (16:35):
I have done a lot of different optimized hacks and all these things that you read about in blocks and I tried many of them and very few stock in the end. So, what I think is that you have to find a balance because building a company or doing anything meaningful in life, like learning a new language or learning a new sport or excelling on anything, it'll take the 10,000 to a 100,000 hours. So if you don't like it every day, if you make it too tough for yourself, you're not going to end up doing it for that long. So there has to be the balance first and balance in my life means that I always prioritize sleep. I prioritize physical activity that happens to me, my drug. I mean, not everybody has that, but that's my drug for all my life.
And then I always focus on one thing that comes every day. My screensaver here says what's the most important thing right now? And trying to live in a moment that as a CEO now of the company, we have 30 people only today. So, what can I do right now to unblock my team to do the best work they can do? Don't worry about myself. I mean, I can do my work at some of the hour, but what I do right now to unplug the others and make them happy and productive and moving forward, that's the most important thing for me on a daily basis. And then, another thing that I did few years ago that I think is a really good idea, and I think many people would greatly benefit if they would do something similar. So, I picked the Wednesday as a day that I don't have any meetings.
Wednesday is blocked completely off from my calendar for the company calendar. Nobody can book Wednesday. That's been the case for many years already and people know it now. I rare even get no notes to try to meet somebody. Nobody's calling me on Wednesday, I spent the morning on Wednesday when my kids were a bit younger, they were not in school. I spent it with the kids. So, with my son first and with my daughter, I went hiking or do doing something with my kids for four, five hours. And then, the afternoon I was reading and working or writing. And now, as the kids are in school, I've realized that time is mainly mine. So today, I go surfing or long bike rides or do something like that and that's when you get the best ideas, that's when you become most productive, and it breaks the week nicely. I do work on Sunday or more Sundays, half a day. I really work on Saturdays, but I work a lot of hours. But that one day has been a really, really great hack that has kept me sane at least on some level.
Daniel Scrivner (19:15):
Related to that, do you have any practices around reflection? And I think what I'm kind of asking there is there's clearly the kind of always on act of what you're doing of saying what's the most important use of my time right now? And then, this act of making sure that there's a day, a week where you have some breathing space to be able to learn, to be able to spend this in other areas feels like related to that. And something I just think is very undiscussed, under discussed generally is just time for reflection. And some people, they don't have an intentional reflection process, but it's something that's always going on in their mind. Do you have anything that you do around reflection? Does that show up in any way in your life or work?
Ari Tulla (19:50):
Yeah. One of those things again, I don't know why, but maybe it's just my type of praying. But I've been trying to for some meditate for... I don't know, 15, 20 years. And I never really gotten into a meditating practice that sticks with me. And then, we were working with one guru who is a pretty well-known guru in India who moved to Bay Area, and he became a friend and he was telling me that you don't need to have a meditation practice as somebody defined it to be. You can have your own practice. And then, he taught me to realize that I have had a meditation practice for 30 years every night when I go to sleep. So, every night I go to sleep, I'm actually rock climbing or bouldering the last problem I had. And that's the way I fall asleep every night for 30 years.
And he explained to me that is exactly what meditation is about, but I never really realized it. And then, I've been being happy about the fact that I don't need to sit in the morning 25 minutes in silence because I have the kids and everything. It's like it's compartment and if you live in the West Coast, you have the less time. So, the morning is the busiest time. So, that finding was really key for me. Reflection, same thing. I think my wife, she's sorrowling every night. I've been trying to do that for a long time. It never stuck with me. And again, I found my own practice that is a bit different. I don't do it every day. I do it on a weekly basis. I clean up stuff on Sundays and it's just a better way for me to do it. But I think the point here is that you can read a blog post, you can read about people that you can admire you look up to, and they might have these systems that they've built, but some of them might not be right for you.
So, pick what fits for your life. And I've been trying too many things that did didn't feel right for too long and I was miserable because I was adding mental burden. It wasn't clearing anything up. So now, I try to think about every time I pick a new thing, what else has to go. And I think there's a long story. But then the last point on this, my wife, she had a corporate career for a long time, and she became KonMari consultant in the last few years and she's helping people to get rid of the stuff and only own the processions that they love. But you can also kind of think about the KonMari Method into your files on a computer or your calendar or on your life, how much burden you put yourself in. The less you have, the more you are in a way.
Daniel Scrivner (22:36):
I love all of those points. I guess, ask maybe one follow up question on the guru, because it sounds very interesting. Am I kind of getting it right that basically his point was just I think getting you to recognize that you actually have a contemplative practice and it's just something that you do very simply in your own mind at night before you go to sleep. Is that the point is just to try to find the contemplative quiet moment practices in your own life and maybe consider that your own meditation? Am I understanding that right?
Ari Tulla (23:04):
Well, I think the whole meditation idea is, it's a really big concept and I think we all who have tried and all who believe in it, I think we all believe firmly that it can be one of the most impactful things in your life. It can really change the way how you behave. Now, I think what we are hearing about is that psychedelics are likely going to be the big frontier that may help people to get there faster. Again, I don't know if that's a good or bad, but we tend to be very, give it to me now society. Yes. And I think the psychedelics might be able to do that really, really well. That's a topic today and let's not go deep, but I'm really curious about when that will happen, how it will happen.
But for me, it really was about that I had a practice that gave me the same benefit as I would get if I do a 15 minute meditation and try to really block that time every morning, for example. And I mean, how do I behave what type of person I am? I'm pretty calm and collected in most times. So, I already kind of had gotten some of the benefit that I didn't realize. I was thinking I need to add another thing, another layer in my life to get there and I might have already been there.
Daniel Scrivner (24:19):
That makes sense. That's super helpful. Okay, last question, ask this of every guest. If you could go back in time to your childhood or to the start of your career, is there anything that you tell your younger self that you could carry forward in time? Whether that's advice, reminder, words of wisdom, anything?
Ari Tulla (24:35):
Well, somebody asked me this sometime ago, and I mean this was maybe a year ago, and I had been in Finland with my parents' place and my mom had found a letter that I wrote when I was 18, perhaps done in high school, that letter. And it said that open a year later or something. And now I open... Oh, she had opened it 25 years later and I read it first time in 25 years. And it basically describes what I wanted to be what I want to do. And I was like, "Wow. I mean, that's pretty smart." But the funny thing was that I had done all of the things I wanted to do and I was like 43 and I was like, "Wow, that's pretty cool." And that made me feel pretty awesome that I wanted to see the world. I wanted to build something unique that is mine.
I wanted to find a family and build the family. I wanted to live in different places that I can... I mean, had done all those things and it hit me in a way that... I was pretty smart already as a kid in a way where I wanted, but now it's up for me to really think about what is next mountain, where do I want to go next? What more can I do? And then I think it becomes a lot more about being patient, not being so hurried up every day, trying to live really long, good life, being healthy and also giving to people and helping other people to get where I might have gotten or not just... I'm looking at this in a way that there's a milestone you have to get to. It's not amount of money or success or fame or anything, but it's more like getting to a place where you feel content on most days, and you are crowned, and you can live in a moment. Those are really the key points that I think are important now that I did not know before.
Daniel Scrivner (26:24):
Yeah, I'm guessing those didn't show up on that letter to yourself. I don't think anyone when a teenager writes those things down on a piece of paper. Well, it's a perfect note to end on. Thank you so much for coming on, Ari. I really appreciate it.
Ari Tulla (26:34):
Okay. Thank you.
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