If you’re like me, you’ve tried a wearable fitness tracker over the past few years in order to get a handle on the figures that build a snapshot of your fitness and health. If you’re exactly like me, you have both an Apple Watch AND a Fitbit on right now because you’re a bit obsessive about capturing all the data all the time.

But for a lot of people, wearable and connected health trackers end up gathering dust on the bedside table because while they can tell you the raw numbers of your day, they can’t give you any real insights about how that day came to be. Your Fitbit can tell you how many steps you took today, but it can’t tell you why it’s fewer than this time last week. The Activity app on your iPhone can tell you how well you slept, but can’t tell you what you did that day that helped you get a good night’s rest.

I was looking for a way to track my moods over time as a way to keep tabs on my mental health when I discovered subscription-only app Exist.io. The simplest way to describe Exist is to say that it sifts through all your data sources (and there are a lot of integrations) to find meaningful (and sometimes not quite so meaningful) connections and provide actionable insight.

I spoke to Belle Cooper and Josh Sharp at Melbourne firm Hello Code about the inception of Exist, what it’s doing that the big companies aren’t, and about their reassuringly simple business model.

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My Exist.io dashboard.

Exist is a product that makes it surprisingly easy to see correlations between different parts of one’s day to day life. In that way it’s very personal. Was there a personal event or reason that led to the initial creation of Exist?

Belle: There was, although it’s not a very interesting story! Back before phones counted our steps by default, this app called Moves showed up, which used your phone’s accelerometer and lots of battery power to track how many steps you took. It was free, so I tried it out for a few weeks while I was living in London. But even though I tried hard to be diligent about carrying my phone everywhere so the app could track my activity, I noticed it only took a couple of weeks before the novelty wore off and I stopped checking my step count.

This made me wonder about other Moves users or people with hardware fitness trackers like Fitbits. I started looking around and noticed it was common to purchase a fitness tracker, for instance, only to give up on it after a while because the numbers became too predictable and weren’t meaningful on their own.

That’s when Josh and I started looking into how we could take all these numbers and turn them into something more meaningful and useful.

Having looked at the open way that you report on your business, as well as the fact that you built the app at all, I have to assume you’re data nerds. Do you have a data-driven background, or this just a happy coincidence?

Josh: I think the answer is somewhere in between! The openness and transparency we try to operate with comes not really from values about data, but values about openness. Sharing openly how much we were making was a fairly novel thing, at least in the SaaS space, when we started doing it (though it’s thankfully somewhat more common now). We were inspired by people like Buffer who were open about how much they were making, the size of their team, and their values. Although I don’t agree with all of their ideas, I was impressed by how open and personable they were in running their business and interacting with their users and the broader community, as people rather than some big faceless company. We really took this to heart, and hopefully you can see this come out not just in us sharing our user and income stats, but in things like our public roadmap where we get user feedback on what to build next, and share our current work status and upcoming plans. All our emails, even receipts, also come from myself or Belle — no “no-reply@exist.io” addresses here.

I wouldn’t say I’m intrinsically a data nerd, but I definitely care more about numbers than Belle — I’m the sort of person who obsessively researches a big purchase and compares all the relevant numbers to try and make the best tradeoff, you know. I’ll scrutinise our income and user numbers each week, and I do care about hitting my productivity goal every day. Belle, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in the insights than the raw numbers. Fair enough!

Belle: That’s true! I’m not a data nerd at all. I’m drawn to tracking things but I lose interest really quickly. For me, it’s more exciting to make all that data useful. Turning it into insights that are meaningful to me or help me change my behaviour for the better is what makes dealing with all the data worth it.

But I’d rather 1,200 paying users and zero free users to support than 100,000 free users and 10,000 paying, with all the scale and revenue pressures that come with that scenario.

Exist relies on a paid subscription model. How has this affected the development of the product? What’s the thinking behind this approach?

Josh: Exist is data — and processing — heavy, so right from the start we were really dubious about supporting users for free. Even looking at it purely from a business perspective, we didn’t want to be amassing thousands of data points per user, and crunching all those numbers, in the hopes that the top 10% might pay for a “pro” plan and subsidise all the rest. We also didn’t want the temptation to do anything gross, like advertising partnerships or selling that data, in order to make the figures work. We thought it was better to be straightforward and perhaps even a bit antiquated in our business model — we provide a service and you pay us for it. That’s it.

It’s definitely affected the numbers of users we have — we’re still tiny. And there’s still just the two of us making it. But I’d rather 1,200 paying users and zero free users to support than 100,000 free users and 10,000 paying, with all the scale and revenue pressures that come with that scenario.

 

exist_mockup_hand
One of my Exist correlations. Not one of my hands, though.

 

I use a couple of other apps for health tracking, especially Gyroscope, but the thing that keeps me paying for Exist is the ability to see correlations. That seems like such an obvious thing to do in retrospect, but was there an A-ha moment when your team realised that this was what the product sector was missing?

Josh: I don’t have a data science background, but I had this idea that by tracking lots of different variables about a person you could build up a better picture of their life and what goes together. I did a little digging into how this might be accomplished and sure enough, there are statistical formulae for calculating correlations that even mere programmers can make use of. At that point I was excited because I realised we could pull this off. I totally agree that it seems obvious! I don’t know why nobody else is bothering, to be honest. For years we worried that someone like Fitbit, or even Google or Apple, would come along and steal that idea. They could take it to such a huge audience. But nobody else seems interested (which works for me, to be fair, I need to pay the rent).

I’m also sort of boggled at the fact that nobody else uses rolling averages as goals. “10,000 steps” as a static goal for every single day doesn’t make sense for so many people, and it’s so so easy to do something better. I really think that’s an idea that would make so many people’s fitness tracker interactions much more useful, and I don’t understand why the companies in that space don’t give it a try.

Diversification definitely helps here — we have so many different integrations now that losing any single one shouldn’t be enough to cause too much grief.

A while ago I noticed that Gyroscope was trialling their own movement tracking, and then just recently saw that Moves was shutting up shop. How do you deal with the fact that third-party data integrations come and go and that your product is dependent on those integrations?

Josh: Yeah, it’s funny, we’ve outlived quite a few of our integrations now (as well as some competitors). Jawbone has all-but-died, Moves has shut down, and Withings was acquired by Nokia. When we first started building Exist, our reliance on third-party sources really worried me — the core value in Exist comes from other companies who could cut off our access if they didn’t like it, or even just die on us. In reality, though, it’s been a pretty minor issue. Diversification definitely helps here — we have so many different integrations now that losing any single one shouldn’t be enough to cause too much grief.

 

Screenshot 2018-08-03 16.47.30.png
Take more photos, get more steps.

 

 

Screenshot 2018-08-03 16.49.37.png
Get more steps, have better days.

 

A bigger related issue is so many services people use just don’t have APIs, so there’s no way for us to integrate with them or access that data. We have so many integrations that people have asked for in our “not possible” list because of this. I feel strongly that users should be able to make use of their own data in whatever way they see fit, rather than having it stuck inside an app, and disappearing forever when you delete it. GDPR compliance mandates you need some way to export your data, though, so maybe in future we’ll see that situation change.

 

integrations.png
Last.fm and Github, together at last.

 

Belle: When we first started out, some other successful startup founders advised us to just focus on a single service, like Fitbit, and build our product around that until it was working well, before looking into adding other services. While I do think it’s good to start small, the reason Exist is useful is built on the fact that we integrate with lots of services. It’s also harder for any one service to Sherlock us when our value comes from integrations across multiple services in different verticals.

Have you had much interest from medical or mental health professionals? If not, why do you think this is?

Josh: Yes, every six months or so we’ve had people asking us to help in trials or studies — the last enquiry we received, I was offered a job as a technical consultant at a medical startup founded by two doctors. That was flattering! I do wish we could get involved with many of these opportunities as they come up, but we just don’t have the time or resources.

Do you folks use services other than your own? What do you think of alternatives that are out there?

 

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My Gyrosco.pe dashboard. Pretty, but no insight.

Josh: I’ve settled into a routine now, I mostly just use Exist and a few integrations that I’m interested in. I’ve been scrobbling stuff on last.fm since 2005, actually (geez!), so it’s cool to be able to use that in a more meaningful way too.

 

I really like RescueTime and I’m glad it exists. I’m not surprised lots of RT users also use Exist (or vice versa) — we have similar aims.

Gyroscope is very good at pretty graphs, for sure. You can tell that they have designers and we just have me!

I don’t know a lot about any of the other alternatives.

Belle: I used Reporter for a while when that first arrived on iOS. It’s an app that sends you a survey you can customise at random intervals throughout the day. Then it tells you how often you answered in a particular way. So you can randomly ask yourself what you’re doing right now, what you’re eating, or how you’re feeling, for instance, and then see how often you said you were watching TV vs. working, or how often you felt good or bad.

The random timing of the surveys is an interesting approach that’s often used in social psychology studies, and we’ve had a few users ask if we could do something similar. Unfortunately, the novelty of answering those surveys wore off pretty quickly for me, and it’s the kind of tracking you need to do diligently for the data to be useful.

I tend to like data that’s tracked passively, as it doesn’t require effort on my part, which makes it easy and more accurate than manual tracking. last.fm is a good example of this, and I think it’s one of the reasons so many people still liked used Moves, even though it had been pretty much abandoned for years.

Exist has recently had a design refresh, however it has retained its relatively minimalist visual style. Do you care to tell me about the design philosophy behind that?

Josh: The philosophy is: I am a programmer with a tiny design ability, so by keeping it simple I have more chance of pulling it off. I do sometimes dream of the things we could do with some real design talent, but hopefully people aren’t too upset by what we’re producing now. Aside from that one guy who was furious and rude about the redesign. There’s always one bad egg.

What’s been the most interesting story you’ve heard from your users about their use of Exist?

Josh: We hear from people who use it to keep tabs on their mental health, and chronic illness, and that feels really good. Belle and I often worry about how we’re not doing something that’s improving society, but for a few people, maybe we are making things better in some small way.

I don’t think I have any specific stories though. Belle?

Belle: No specific story stands out, but I love hearing from people who’ve used Exist to manage and track their mental health. This wasn’t something we set out to focus on, but it’s a trend we’ve noticed in our user feedback, and it’s really nice to hear from people who’ve had trouble tracking or managing an illness in the past and are finding Exist helpful for that now.

It’s also really cool when people tell us they’ve used Exist with their doctor to figure out the cause of their symptoms or how to manage an illness.

It’s also really cool when people tell us they’ve used Exist with their doctor to figure out the cause of their symptoms or how to manage an illness. It’s great that our product can help people take control of their health and take data to their doctors to help them make better-informed decisions.

Exist users share huge amounts of personal data with you, which would be a dream for many other organisations to have. What is it about your company that makes people trust you with that much information?

Josh: I hope the openness, transparency, and personableness (if that’s a word) that we value and try to embody is part of what convinces people. We recently wrote a post about how we feel about people’s data and then later formalised that with a landing page about it. Of course, talk is cheap, but I hope people think our actions match.

On the other hand, I think there’s a pervasive data privacy fatigue these days and many people just don’t care. Gyroscope explicitly mentions in their privacy policy that they’ll use your data for marketing and ad retargeting. I haven’t seen anyone make a stink about that. The recent Facebook scandals have caused people to re-evaluate their relationship with their personal data and their attitudes towards sharing it, but I still think mostly we’re weary of thinking about it. It’s much easier to sign up because something seems cool and convenient and just hope that nothing bad happens.

On the other hand, I think there’s a pervasive data privacy fatigue these days and many people just don’t care. Gyroscope explicitly mentions in their privacy policy that they’ll use your data for marketing and ad retargeting. I haven’t seen anyone make a stink about that.

Belle: Combined with our values, I think the fact that we’re a tiny team of two really works in our favour. I think people are less likely to trust a big, faceless company to not do nefarious things with their data than two programmers who are willing to put their names and faces to their work. A big company might say they’ll protect your data and your privacy, but I think it’s somehow easier to believe coming from a small team of individuals.

And because there are just two of us, we do everything. So every time someone sends in a support request because they need help, or writes an angry email about something they disagree with, or reads a blog post we wrote, or listens to our podcast—in every case they’re interacting with one (or both) of us. So our users start to know our names and many of them have had interactions with us directly, and I think that also helps with goodwill.

What feature do you wish you could add to Exist that isn’t currently possible or feasible?

Josh: I’m cheating a bit in my answer, but I’d love to have a data scientist, or maybe a behavioural psychologist at Hello Code. I’m sure there’s so much more we could do either with finding the most interesting and useful stuff to tell users, or helping them act on it. There’s so much I know that I don’t know about statistics and data science, and I wish we had someone with that formal training who could just tell me all the amazing things we could do and how to do them.


The best way to start using Exist.io is to head over to their site and start a free trial.

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