Owl Labs (OL): Give me the elevator pitch of who you are, how you got to where you are in your career, and what you're working on now.
Jonathan Gheller (JG): I've been working on consumer-facing technology products for over 20 years. I spent most of my time working at small companies building new products but I've joined big companies like Facebook through acquisitions of companies I started.
OL: What is the most important lesson you've learned as a founder that you still carry with you in your current role?
JG: You need to learn how to be both brutally honest and boldly optimistic at the same time.
OL: The mission of your company, One Fix, is to change the way people eat to help them live healthier lives. What inspired you to take on that huge challenge?
JG: When I was at a career crossroads and thinking about what to do next, my thought was that I wanted to find the biggest possible problem I could solve, given my talent and experience. I thought of it as a matchmaking challenge to find the biggest problem I was most suited to solve. I thought about big problems through the lens of how much money and time they cost us as a society, and how many human lives are lost. High on the list of those big problems is the rapid rise of preventable chronic disease. We're getting sick from things we shouldn't get sick from, and we can keep ourselves from getting sick.
If you live in the developed world, the odds are that you have a father, an uncle, an aunt, or a friend who has some form of metabolic disease. They might have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, and this spread is an epidemic.
The reason I believe this big problem is malleable to the set of skills that I've developed working on consumer-facing technology companies and products is that all of these metabolic diseases share the same behavioral root causes: stress, not eating well, not sleeping well, and not exercising enough. And in order to change all of these things to improve or reduce disease, what you need is to change your behavior. If you work on consumer-facing products, you're building tools to shape or change user behavior, so I thought about the highest-leverage way I could change user behavior to solve these problems, and the solution to that question was by changing nutrition.
That's where I started with One Fix. This is how One Fix works: Users take photos of their meals, we analyze them, and then we offer one small nutritional fix users can focus on each month to start eating healthier in a more manageable way.
When I was at a career crossroads and thinking about what to do next, my thought was that I wanted to find the biggest possible problem I could solve, given my talent and experience. I thought of it as a matchmaking challenge to find the biggest problem I was most suited to solve.
OL: How do you think the technology industry is poised to help solve these big public health problems? Where do you see One Fix finding its place between government agencies and regulation and consumer-facing technology?
JG: The first decision for entrepreneurs to make is whether they will apply technology to the current system to make it better, or if they will apply technology to bootstrap a small, tiny, subset of the system and serve consumers directly.
There are many things technology can do within the existing system to make it better, but also a ton of public policy re-alignments would be necessary to make changes there.
On the consumer-facing end, there are a lot of ways technology can help. I'm particularly keen on what we can do to rethink the preventive care experience. When you're trying to be healthy, most people are motivated and understand what they need to do, but it's still really hard to do. What you need is help making drastic improvements to your health is care. You don't need data and dashboards and steps being counted – what you need is care. You need care, support, and context to help you make challenging behavior modifications to achieve your goals. This kind of care requires close attention, time, and expertise. Personal devices, like our computers and phones, are with us almost all the time, making them an ideal vehicle for providing this care.
With One Fix as one example of how to accomplish this, I think there's a world where people take pictures of what they're eating, and professionals do the heavy lifting to give them context about what they're eating, where they're making mistakes, and provide guidance for how to build better eating patterns to make it easier for you. Technology helps lower the barriers to entry into a system and network of care, and you can rethink the care model so it shifts from seeing medical professionals in-person once every six to 12 months, to talking on a regular basis via technology to support preventive health care.
OL: Given that you're in the healthcare technology space, I assume you've been following the story of Theranos. Apart from not committing fraud, which you likely already knew not to do, what was the biggest lesson for you, as someone trying to disrupt healthcare with preventive care technology?
JG: I certainly believe a lot can be done to improve the phlebotomy experience and to make getting blood drawn less painful and anxiety-inducing for patients. My gut reaction to the Theranos story is that in Silicon Valley, one of the challenges we have is that want to use engineering, information, communication, and technology to make things better for our users – whether they're customers or patients or free users. That's proven to be so high-leverage and so impactful for many years. But the challenge that comes with being technologists is that we think about solving problems and view them strictly as an engineering problem, or strictly as a data problem, when they're a problem within a much larger system.
I don't discount at all the value of more competition against LabCorp and Quest to reduce the cost and pain of needle-stick blood draws. When it comes to detecting and treating preventable disease, easier and more affordable access to medical information is powerful.
One in three people are dying of metabolic disease in the U.S. on a yearly basis, 80% of adults suffer from a metabolic syndrome, and one in 5 people have cancer. We have this massive problem that technology can play a role in solving, but technology has to be paired with other things to work effectively. In many cases, it's about working within a model of care to apply that technology. You have to care for people to help them overcome health issues, and only other people care for people. Machines don't care for people, but people can care for other people more effectively and at a much larger scale with the help of machines.
I strongly believe in the role of technology to make things better, but for anyone who wants to make an impact on healthcare, you need to look at things like the models of care or the existing providers they'd need to work with to have a big impact.
If you're a capitalist who is hoping to use the enterprise structure to do something productive in the world, figuring out a way to increase labor mobility is really important. Remote work improves that mobility, because instead of having to build companies limited by national borders and visas, you can have anyone work for your company without physically being there.
OL: What is your philosophy when it comes to remote work and building and leading companies? Do you think companies should be remote-only from the start? Do you think they should be semi-distributed but still have an office?
JG: If you're a capitalist who is hoping to use the enterprise structure to do something productive in the world, figuring out a way to increase labor mobility is really important. Remote work improves that mobility, because instead of having to build companies limited by national borders and visas, you can have anyone work for your company without physically being there. The mobility remote work offers is a game-changer for companies and is good for the world. I think labor mobility is one of the big challenge society is trying to solve, alongside preventive chronic diseases.
My take is that the people who say remote work doesn't work are right, and the people who say that it does work are also right. If you're running a centralized company and then you try to attach remote work as an appendage, that usually doesn't work. But if you design a company to function under the assumption that people won't be in the same office, then remote work perfectly doable. The natural way to set this up is to build companies that are fully-distributed, and what tends to occur is you end up having nodes of people working in different locations. The reason nodes develop is because, when you hire people who are insanely talented and are good matches for your company, they believe in what you believe, and use that passion to recruit their talented friends.
If you're hiring well, nodes around the world should be what develops, along with the key assumption is to accept there's no central node or physical location where information is displayed or communicated in-person. Under this model, there's no place where whiteboards are assumed to be seen or verbal communication is assumed to be overheard. Under this model, everyone has to work on the computer and document everything in some form of a document, chat conversation, or productivity tool of some kind. If you can do all of that, remote work tends to work.
OL: How can leaders build and maintain a strong company culture with some or all of its employees working remotely?
JG: I very strongly disagree with the idea that remote work is a cultural weakness. I'm Jewish, and one of the names of the Jewish people is "the people of the book." I like that name, and the reason it's such a long-standing culture is because it's based on a book. Very early on, there was a strong effort to write things down to provide consistency on the narrative and the stories of the religion. If you're running a remote team and you're interested in building a strong company culture (which you should be), you're forced to write things down. Leaders of remote teams need to be insanely explicit about the things that matter. They have to write it up, and then write it up again. The tools you choose to help you run the company matter, too. The internal tools you select to help run the company in a certain way matter because they help you communicate value around specific things. Company values and mission should be coming up in every conversation and meeting, so you need to make sure the most important things are documented and communicated over and over again so they're formalized.
Culture is way less ambiguous for remote teams than for co-located teams. There are aspects of remote team culture that I'm less interested in now than when I worked on co-located teams. If the team in Buenos Aires goes out for drinks together from time to time, but the team in Kiev doesn't socialize much, those differences are somewhat irrelevant. The relevant question is, when we come together to get work done, do we share the same values and priorities, and do we share a common language we use to talk to one another, to our customers, and to prioritize goals? These shared languages are easier to establish when you're forced to write things down.
OL: What do you think is the gap when it comes to making remote work more ubiquitous in the workplace?
JG: The reason remote work is more ubiquitous now than it was five years ago is thanks to broader access to good internet connectivity, better collaboration and communication tools, and the global democratization of the tools and knowledge to develop good software. It used to be that you had to work together in-person to build something, whether that something is a company, a product, or a piece of software, but now, somebody in Bangladesh has access to the same blogs and open source software as people in Silicon Valley. Those advances have helped us get to the point of remote work proliferation we're at now.
If we allow the process that's starting now to continue to take root in the workplace, remote work will continue to spread on its own. The other thing that might push it further is the fact that so many centers of commerce, enterprise, and technology are now based in some of the world's most expensive cities, like New York and San Francisco.
When I moved here 10 years ago, Silicon Valley was an amazing place to start a company. But right now, from an economic standpoint, it makes no sense. You can find like-minded, talented people here, and it's still the center of the technology universe and it will probably continue to be, but it's becoming incredibly challenging to do so. That will be a catalyst that spreads remote work faster. The remote work infrastructure is already here, so I think doing nothing is the best thing to make it grow. We're set up on the right trajectory, and the cost structure in Silicon Valley and other cities is going to bend that curve and make it go faster.
Another way remote work will continue to flourish will be when there are a greater number of existing success cases to refer to. We also need a broader distribution of tools and best practices and learnings that leaders can apply to their own companies and teams. We need a bigger roster of successful remote companies to look to, more blog and educational resources to learn how to implement remote working policies, and a go-to set of tools that are built specifically for remote teams the way tools are built for management or finance teams. There are aspects of running remote teams that aren't just about how teams can communicate effectively. There's another layer around coordination, legal, and HR that could be further abstracted for remote team leaders to have a positive impact.
OL: You share your thoughts on tech, Silicon Valley, and leadership on social media. What trends are you happy to see emerging, and are there any trends that make you pessimistic about the future of work?
JG: Two years ago, when I told my investors I would be building a remote team, they looked at me a little funny. Now, I probably get a call once a month from people who want to talk out the specifics with me because they know I've done it successfully. Another positive trend I'm seeing is there's now a broader acceptance of the fact that it's okay, and even desirable, for some of the team to not be in the office full-time. That's a good trend in the right direction.
One trend there's a lot of uncertainty about that could worry me if we don't sort it out, is the question of whether or not other cities around the world can offer entrepreneurs what Silicon Valley can – readily available capital, a great talent market, and like-minded peer companies to learn from and partner with. The idea of an entrepreneur in Siberia getting 1% of a company by the time it has an IPO, and the idea of what that capital could do to transform the region, is exciting to me. We need to export our learnings about remote work to the rest of the world so other economic centers can start experiencing what Silicon Valley has.
If you're running a remote team and you're interested in building a strong company culture (which you should be), you're forced to write things down. Leaders of remote teams need to be insanely explicit about the things that matter.
OL: When you think about the direction that remote work and distributed work are taking, what do you think the future of work looks like ten years from now?
JG: I'm not 100% sure yet. Ten years is a long time, especially in a world that's evolving so rapidly. We're at a point now where the world is already doing way more remote work than it was ten years ago. When my dad was working for a corporation, working from home on Wednesdays wasn't a concept. You would get fired. Now, working from home one day a week has become extremely commonplace, even at big, legacy companies, which reflects the broader acceptance of the idea that employees don't have to be in the office to be getting work done. In ten years, working from home once a week will go from an odd exception to the norm, to the point where working together in-person will become an odd exception. Productive hours spent commuting and on office distractions will require more justification than working remotely part-time or full-time will.
The second thing I'm confident will happen is a radical evolution of what offices will look like. Offices will end up looking more like a medieval university, and the spaces employees will need will be similar to libraries and reading rooms, with plenty of quiet space for people to get focused work done, instead of the current open office plans that are hell on earth if you're trying to be productive. Offices with a large or majority population working remotely will have a courtyard where people can socialize, classrooms for working on projects together, but will be primarily made up of large, quiet spaces for focused work.
The last thing we're likely to see are the nodes I talked about with talented people working in different disciplines in different cities. Once those nodes develop, we'll have more entrepreneurs building distributed companies from the start, simply by virtue of the fact that they'll want to hire the best talent from those node cities around the world. Right now, we're starting to see that happen outside of Silicon Valley or New York. A lot of great customer support and success talent is starting to centralize around Las Vegas and in Dublin, and I predict that will keep happening in different cities and disciplines that offer economic and cultural advantages to the cities where tech talent has traditionally been concentrated. Nodes get built all the time, and they get built by the talent, not companies, so those next ten cities workers start moving to will set the tone for the future of distributed work.
OL: For a closing thought, what do you love most about what you do?
JG: I love the sense of autonomy and agency that I have. Everything that I do at work I do because I think it's important and I think it matters, and that means a lot to me because it gives me happiness and a sense of purpose. I also love the impact that my industry has on the world, both the larger software industry and the healthcare technology industry. I have the opportunity to work with a lot of very smart people, so I'm constantly stimulated and learning from my colleagues, because the industry attracts cool people who I love working with.
It used to be that you had to work together in-person to build something, whether that something is a company, a product, or a piece of software, but now, somebody in Bangladesh has access to the same blogs and open source software as people in Silicon Valley. Those advances have helped us get to the point of remote work proliferation we're at now.
1. Technology can work within an existing system to improve outcomes for users.
As a healthcare technologist, Jonathan suggests other tech entrepreneurs think about how their idea fits into the existing systems to bring a solution to market that's truly helpful and useful to their target audience.
2. The state of talent around the world will evolve into a model of different talent nodes.
Jonathan predicts we'll start to see nodes of talent concentrated in cities around the world as labor mobility and remote work grows, and as younger people are priced out of today's tech centers like San Francisco and New York. Smart entrepreneurs will start consulting specific markets to find the best talent around the world, regardless of location.
3. The offices of the future will start to look less like open offices and more like college libraries.
Jonathan hopes that the offices of the future will be built for an organization with a large contingent of remote employees. Instead of open office spaces, offices will be built like universities, with numerous library and silent working spaces and small classrooms for focused collaboration.
To learn more, read our interview with Crazy Egg GM Suneet Bhatt next.