Josh Clemente was working round the clock at SpaceX when he realized he had a problem. He was physically fit and healthy according to his doctor, but he was tired and run down all of the time. Experiments with a continuous glucose monitor and hundreds of hours of research later, Josh had improved his health and had an idea for a new health tool. Josh is now the co-founder of Levels Health, a tech startup that uses the instant feedback from glucose monitors to empower users to improve their metabolic health by making adjustments to their diet, sleep, and exercise. In this episode of Just Go Grind, Josh talks to host Justin Gordon about how Levels Health went from idea to proof of concept to a 50,000-strong waitlist.
5:14 – Inspiration strikes from a problem
When Josh was at SpaceX, he was experiencing a lot of fatigue even though he was physically fit. Then he read a study by Dom D’Agostino about the ketogenic diet that changed how he viewed overall health.
“It shattered my perception that physical fitness was all that mattered and it told me that dietary interventions can also come with – ultimately what it comes down to – dramatic physiologic changes in the human body. And so realizing, wow, there’s a lot more to health or there’s a lot more to physical performance than just exercise pushed me to start digging into what am I doing every day to improve my health? You know, how am I selecting the meals I’m eating? How am I selecting my sleep schedule? How am I managing stress or all of the factors that make up human metabolism? And I came up totally blank. I used data in basically every part of my life and I realized I’m not using any information, any objective data, in my decisions daily. So ultimately I started reading up on the space and discovered this kind of hidden metabolic health crisis where just one statistic that kind of wraps it all up is: in 2018 a study from University of North Carolina showed that 88% of United States of America adults are metabolically unhealthy. So, it’s absolutely epidemic scale.”
6:40 – A possible solution
Inspired by Tim Ferris and others, Josh started using a continuous glucose monitor. It revealed troubling data, but also gave him the information he needed to improve his health.
“Within about a week, I discovered that I was either pre-diabetic or borderline pre-diabetic and had no idea if not for just kind of stumbling on this experiment. That basically changed my life. I used that same data to not only understand the problems that were happening, that I was basically inflicting on myself through my own lifestyle choices, but I was then able to modify them through kind of a trial and error process. And this took hundreds of hours of digging through primary literature to understand what I was looking at and the realization kind of crystallized that access to this technology and improving the actionability of it could be the key that gives the individual the ability to make improvements every day towards metabolic health.”
11:28 – Instant feedback loops can be powerful motivators
Josh learned the impact of better sleep and more movement throughout the day on his glucose levels because the instant feedback let him know what was working in real time.
“This is not something that you try for 30 days and then, you know, 30 days later you get a result or a week later you get a PDF. It’s in the moment. You eat something and within an hour, you’ve seen how your body responds with data. So you get it directly to your smartphone and it’s telling you directionally whether that was positive or negative for you and for your goals. And so the tightness of that feedback loop makes it almost irresistibly sticky in the sense that data, it embeds itself quickly in your psyche and then it’s habitual. So you’re getting reinforcement either positive or negative depending on the action daily. That is how I personally started to reinforce these behaviors and start to embrace sleep and embrace stress management and embrace more activity more often through the day, rather than just trying to like get it all in in a 90-minute workout in the morning or in the evening. Spreading it out throughout the day and getting a bit more steps in more often, for example, and then the nutrition component, which is just adjusting my dietary factors dramatically.”
18:52 – Turning an idea into a company
Josh moved on from SpaceX to Hyperloop and then into other work, all the while continuing to do more research on metabolic health and the possibility for innovation.
“I started to do some consulting work and I worked on a little startup idea on the side, but my thoughts were consumed with bringing this technology to life. And so I spent a lot of time just again, researching, writing down notes on the state of metabolism globally, essentially, and the state of the technology and where the white space was. So essentially, where are the opportunities to take what exists, which is this amazing hardware and add the components that will bring it to a new audience that will make it accessible and actionable for people who may not otherwise think twice about this.”
24:36 – Building a proof of concept
The hardware for glucose monitoring already existed to help diabetics manage their disease. What Josh’s team had to focus on was how to integrate that hardware with software that helped the user make better decisions.
“Ultimately what we want is to inspire people with their own data to make better choices and that is a user journey. That’s an experience that has to be insightful and educational and so we’re focusing on that whole software experience and developing the insights engine that brings in raw data and provides scores and metrics that are trackable, traceable, and educational for the individual. So making this more of a Fitbit of biological data, for example. And so the proof of concept was: get people access to the hardware that exists today, and then essentially text them back and forth via SMS text and learn about their problems…And so we were able to really just converse in real time using the core tech, the hardware, and then helping us kind of architect a user journey that we could build an app around.”
27:18 – Marketing through education
The Levels team has focused on an education-first approach when it comes to content marketing by publishing long-form health content on their blog and it has been wildly successful. The waitlist for their product is now 50,000-strong.
“There are a tremendous number of labels that we apply to what is ultimately metabolic dysfunction. And so we are building the thought leadership platform that really brings all of this together and educates people who want to learn more about the way their bodies function about all of these processes and how it may be affecting them in their goals. So that’s been a core focus and Casey, my co-founder, has been leading that effort and essentially we will continue to produce content for content’s sake. Essentially, we want to be a platform for educating everyone on this underlying crisis and then the ways that we can take control. And so success there is success generally. Of course it’s complimentary to our product that we’re building and people who go to our blog and really dive in and understand, ‘Oh, wow. Like this makes so much sense.’ There is so much here that people kind of intuitively feel that they are unique and respond differently than others, and that you’re not just kind of this calories in calories out machine, but in fact, you are a chemistry set and the way that our hormones are responding to other chemicals in our bodies will create an environment that we experience as sensations like hunger and anger and frustration or clarity.”
30:35 – Finding a publishing cadence
Consistent blog posts and podcast appearances have led to steady organic growth and new opportunities.
“Our approach has been, you know, publishing at least two to three articles on the blog per week and distributing them through our other channels and then just generally raising the signal of metabolism broadly. So this could be through podcasts, you know, just like this, telling the story of metabolism and getting people to start thinking about maybe moving beyond the concepts of just physical fitness and mental health to the underlying foundation of them, which is metabolic fitness. Our bodies and brains, our muscles and brain tissue need energy in order to operate. And without effective metabolic processes producing that energy, we can’t meet our performance goals in either of those two verticals without metabolic fitness. And so it’s been about kind of a holistic multi-platform approach to just raising the awareness about metabolism broadly speaking. So that’s where our goals have been, to hit that publishing cadence, and it’s really kind of produced this flywheel effect and more opportunity kind of comes almost organically where, for example we’ve had a few collaborations with other companies. For example, a sleep startup or a company producing ketogenic diet products like bars that provide low-glycemic impacts.”
34:53 – Standing out from the competition
Josh sees Levels as standing in space of their own because they’re not targeting athletes or a specific diagnosis.
“The core benefit of Levels is that we don’t don’t zero in on any subgroup. What we’re saying is that everyone out there has a metabolism and has an opportunity to improve and our technology today can help you get there through your own logging of your lifestyle behaviors. And in the future, no matter who you are, we will be able to reach out to you and help guide your lifestyle choices proactively towards betterment, whether that’s, again, an athlete or someone who is looking to kind of step out on a new path in life.”
36:34 – Leading a company with metabolic health in mind
Levels is a fully remote and asynchronous company, which allows the team to focus on their health as well as their jobs.
“I’m realizing the potential of this asynchronous environment to really allow kind of the opposite of what I experienced at SpaceX. So we can now provide a work environment where people can be extremely effective, and yet they can live a very balanced lifestyle. Meeting the needs of the individual, allowing them to live where they want, you know, have a schedule that fits their own desires, whether it’s getting up and going climbing in the morning or spending time with your significant other and your children in the evening, whatever it may be, but just helping us to create an environment that supports what we’re describing or what we’re putting out into the world. Metabolic health is the sum of our decisions daily and we want our people on the team to be able to experience that for themselves and reinforce it.”
37:38 – Transparency with company information is key
An asynchronous environment can make it harder for messages to spread to everyone. Josh tries to build clear messaging into the company processes.
“In an environment where you are not seeing each other and you’re not relying on the osmosis kind of information exchange like you do in an office environment where it’s like, well, everyone’s going to kind of talk to each other at the lunch table or run into each other and you can just kind of rely on information to spread that way. You have to be very intentional about it in the asynchronous environment. We have to document rigorously and we have to distribute rigorously and make information — not just, generate it and put it out into the ether, you know, into a Slack channel where it might disappear — but make it searchable. Make it relevant so that anyone who is joining the team or anyone who is looking for context can find that information and can feel up to speed. So that’s been key. There’s so many great tools out now that really help with this. We use Notion quite a bit, and that’s really helpful as a platform to host our information. Then we use a lot of collaborative stuff with Google Docs and just generally keeping everything as flat in the information exchange as possible and encouraging complete transparency. Getting rid of DM’s as much as possible.”
42:36 – How a health startup founder structures his day
Startup founders don’t have typical work hours, but Josh still tries to structure his days in a healthy way.
“I’ve struggled a bit with quality of sleep. I’m still trying to nail that down, but overall, I’m definitely trying to get eight hours of sleep. And the next thing is just making space for morning workouts. As with most people, if I put my workouts towards the end of the day, there are two things to consider. The first is that it’s the first thing to get bumped off the schedule when something runs long and we’ve all experienced this. It’s like as soon as something of higher priority comes up, the workout gets lost and for me, the exercise is still like one of the main accountability metrics for me. So I have to get that in in the morning. And the second benefit is that if I do it in the morning, it doesn’t affect my sleep as much. So my heart rate’s not elevated. I’m not kind of flooded with endorphins right when I’m trying to wind down and go to sleep. So I’ll get up, get a workout in. I then typically will not eat until afternoon. So I’ll, after my workout, get a shower in and have some coffee and then I’ll try and knock out, while I’m really sharp, I will try to knock out some deep work in the morning. And this’ll be, if possible, avoiding calls and kind of pushing those into the afternoon.”
49:15 – There’s always room for improvement
Josh is trying to become more efficient at getting through emails so he can shut down earlier at night. He’s also focusing on new physical fitness goals to further improve his metabolic health.
“I’m currently doing a lot of, like I said, morning workouts, but doing them fasted so that I haven’t eaten since dinner the night before, and typically this will be at least 12 hours. In some cases I’ll do even afternoon. I’ll extend my fast into the afternoon and work out around then on an extended duration. And the goal here is to force my body to deplete all of the glycogen that I have stored and then switch into fat burning mode and to put some numbers on this. The average person has about 2,000 calories of glucose available as stored glycogen and you have about 80,000 calories of fat available. So if you can teach your body to switch into this fat oxidation mode effectively without crashing you can really have quite a bit more endurance. It’s something I’m trying to learn and of course I oftentimes run into that wall. I mis-time it, I mis-fuel, so on and so forth, but I am experiencing some really amazing benefits.”
Justin Gordon: [00:00:00] Welcome to Just Go Grind, a show that focuses on helping you launch and grow a business and navigate the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. I’m your host, Justin Gordon, and in this episode, we have Josh Clemente, founder of Levels and previously at SpaceX and Hyperloop. Levels is a company that’s helping people maximize their metabolic health and in this episode we go through what that actually means for people at a tangible level, why he started this company, what his experience at SpaceX taught him and how that led to this company, with Levels, how he’s built a world-class team, gotten a waitlist of 45,000 plus people, the competitive landscape in this space and really what’s been helpful for Josh as he’s been building this company, which recently closed a $12 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz, one of the top venture capital firms in the world and so much more discussed in this episode. As always the Show Notes are at justgogrind.com/podcast and you can support the show by leaving a rating and review over in Apple Podcasts.
This episode is brought to you by Pivot CMO. Whether you’re a startup and you’ve just launched your product or a larger business, accelerate your growth with performance marketing solutions from our partner, Pivot CMO. They specialize in performance marketing solutions that have helped countless companies double or even triple in the first few months of working with them. They’re boutique, extremely data-driven, and launch and iterate quickly. 84% of their clients double their revenue and they’re focused on digital marketing channels like Facebook, Instagram, Google, Pinterest, and of course, Tik Tok. Their founders are involved with every account so you don’t get a low-level account manager, but instead a highly skilled and experienced, outsourced CMO.
They’ve helped a number of Y Combinator and venture backed companies along with fortune 500 companies, so no matter the size or stage of your company, use Pivot to help with all of your marketing and growth needs. To book a consultation visit pivotcmo.com, that’s P-I-V-O-T-C-M-O.com.
Without further ado, here’s Josh Clemente, founder of Levels, which you can find at levelshealth.com.
Josh welcome to the show.
Josh Clemente: [00:02:14] Thanks so much for having me on.
Justin Gordon: [00:02:15] Yeah. Excited to chat and especially with the combination you’re at now with Levels that you started. And for people who aren’t familiar, what are you doing with Levels?
Josh Clemente: [00:02:24] So Levels is seeking to answer the question. What should I eat and why? And to do so in a way that pulls data from you, the individual, and gives it to you in a way that helps you navigate these lifestyle choices we’re all making daily. So this is a process that we call metabolic fitness, which is that our bodies, which derive energy from our food and environment through processes called metabolism need to be directed. We need to be giving the raw materials to our bodies that will best support our individual genetics or our individual composition. And so the way that we do this today is through Internet advice or what worked for a friend or maybe something that we heard on a TV commercial. And the way that we see the future with Levels is your body will tell you what works for you and you can Iterate towards an optimal set of lifestyle behaviors.
Justin Gordon: [00:03:18] I love how far we’ve come from – I feel like just the early days of Tim Ferriss, being a guinea pig on some of these things that are way early on and people are curious about some of the quantified self movement and the number of companies that have come up with Levels, obviously, being one of them now. I’m curious though then, how did you decide to start this company, Josh?
Josh Clemente: [00:03:36] So I came to the realization basically through my own personal experience, discovering that I had some underlying metabolic dysfunction. The process was I was working at SpaceX on life support systems and I’m a CrossFit trainer so I’ve always taken physical fitness very seriously and it was the closest approximation of health, in my opinion . It was like, if you’re physically fit, you’re probably healthy. And so that’s how I lived my life, and yet I was basically taking on the most stressful part of my career to date and experiencing a lot of general fatigue. So waves of physical and mental overwhelming sense of malaise, the desire to just curl up under the desk and go to sleep rather than go into the next meeting or go perform the next lab test or whatever it was we were working on. And this kind of all came into focus around the same time that I read a piece of work from Dom D’Agostino, who is a researcher at the University of South Florida, which talked about the ketogenic diet and how it has protective effects on animals and potentially humans in certain life-threatening environments. And the reason I was reading this is I was developing life support systems that could potentially, in a failure mode, subject astronauts to this environment. And so that study, which talked about the ketogenic diet, which I can dive into a bit if it’s useful, but generally what it did is it shattered my perception that physical fitness was all that mattered and it told me that dietary interventions can also come with – Ultimately what it comes down to dramatic physiologic changes in the human body. And so realizing, “Wow! There’s a lot more to health or there’s a lot more to physical performance than just exercise,” pushed me to start digging into what am I doing every day to improve my health? How am I selecting the meals I’m eating? How am I selecting my sleep schedule? How am I managing stress or all of the factors that make up human metabolism? And I came up totally blank. I used data in basically every part of my life, and I realized I’m not using any information, any objective data in my decisions daily. And so ultimately I started reading up on the space, discovered this hidden metabolic health crisis where just one statistic that wraps it all up is in 2018 a study from University of North Carolina showed that 88% of United States of American adults are metabolically unhealthy. And so it’s absolutely epidemic scale and I didn’t know about this. As I’m digging deeper into the literature, I’m getting more concerned that maybe something’s going on with me. And then ultimately I tried a device called a continuous glucose monitor, which if anyone listens to Tim Ferriss or Kevin Rose, you’ll likely have heard about these devices and within about a week, I discovered that I was either pre-diabetic or borderline pre-diabetic and had no idea if not for just stumbling on this experiment. And so that basically changed my life. I use that same data to not only understand the problems that were happening that I was basically inflicting on myself through my own lifestyle choices, but I was then able to modify them through a trial and error process. This took hundreds of hours of digging through primary literature to understand what I was looking at and the realization crystallized that access to this technology and improving the actionability of it could be the key that gives the individual the ability to make improvements every day towards metabolic health. And so, rather than trying to solve this problem in a social scale with legislature or a one-size-fits-all diet, we can make the individual the prime actor by just giving them better information in real time.
Justin Gordon: [00:07:14] With that as well, josh, none of us obviously came from your personal experience. What were some of the changes you made pre doing all this research, hundreds of hours research, then post understanding more about this in some of the things you were doing? What were some of those changes you made? I’m curious as to that as well.
Josh Clemente: [00:07:29] I started off – When I was really burning out physically. I was in this, like I said, this very stressful kind of vicious cycle where work was crazy. I was squeezing in sleep wherever I could. It was not high quality. I was eating whatever I could get my hands on which – I was trying to avoid fast food for example, but I certainly didn’t have any sophistication in my diet at that time. And so, I went from that mode to the realization that in order to take action that I could trust, I needed a feedback loop. Right now I was flying blind in a sense. At that time, I was really just following traditional sports science. I would work out and then I would fuel up or replenish glycogen, which is basically stored carbohydrate in the body by eating a large portion of low-glycemic carbohydrates. I just had all these ideas swirling in my mind that I was putting into practice. And then, when I put this device on and had a real-time feedback loop from basically the sugar in my blood – So this is a glucose monitor that is measuring the molecule glucose in the bloodstream and as I start to see the fluctuations in glucose, I realized that everything is contextual. So I personally respond differently to a specific meal than likely everyone else and the way that I eat that meal, the stress levels that I’m experiencing at that time, how well rested I am, my body composition, all of this affects the way I ultimately process that food.
And so some of the biggest lessons I learned almost immediately were the difference between a five-hour night of sleep and a nine hour of night of sleep is dramatic. So my body is in an elevated stress environment when I get that shorter night of sleep and stress introduces what’s called acute insulin resistance, which basically means the hormone insulin, which responds to glucose and helps pull it out of the blood and move it into the muscles or store it as fat, is hampered. The effect of that insulin is hampered when we are in an elevated stress scenario. And this is due to the action of another hormone called cortisol. So when you sleep poorly, cortisol levels are higher, the effect of insulin is reduced and what you see is extended elevations in blood sugar or erratic blood sugar. And that comes with a whole host of other hormonal experiences. This can be irritability, it can be hunger, it could be insatiable desire to just keep snacking, all of the things that we experience throughout our day, like quality of life problems, we can now tie to specific actions which are poor sleep and then the benefit of a little bit of activity. So another huge lesson I learned was that if I am going to indulge and eat a meal that I know is going to cause a blood sugar elevation potentially, a lot of variability and crashes which come with all these downstream effects, simple movement, like just taking a walk after that meal can dramatically improve the way my body can metabolize that, so preventing that blood sugar elevation by using the glucose directly in my muscles, in my legs, for a quick walk can completely change that meal effect. So all of these little lessons, they’re like micro optimizations, started to become very immediately clear because the feedback loop is so tight. This is not something that you try for 30 days and then 30 days later you get a result or a week later you get a PDF. In the moment you eat something and within an hour you’ve seen how your body responds with data. So you get it directly to your smartphone and it’s telling you directionally whether that was positive or negative for you and for your goals. And so the tightness of that feedback loop makes it almost irresistibly sticky in the sense that data embeds itself quickly in your psyche and then it’s habitual, so you’re getting reinforcement either positive or negative depending on the action daily.
And that is how I personally started to reinforce these behaviors and start to embrace sleep and embrace stress management and embrace more activity more often through the day, rather than just trying to get it all in, in a 90 day or a 90 minute workout in the morning or in the evening, spreading it out throughout the day and getting a bit more steps in more often, for example. And then the nutrition component, which is just adjusting my dietary factors dramatically.
Justin Gordon: [00:11:42] Yeah. And I was just going to say, on that note, it is interesting you mentioned that because all of us typically would think in that way of, “Oh, I do my workout in the morning and I’m literally going to sit at the computer for the next 14 hours.” And that’s just not great for anyone.
And I’m curious, just to go back to this because I never really heard about it. I never really talked about that much. The working environment at SpaceX when you were there. I can imagine it’s just so difficult, so challenging, so competitive because of what inherently SpaceX is doing. What were you, how much were you sleeping back then? Take me through what a day typically was like, even just for context, for people to understand where you were getting burnt out. I would love to hear more just about what that was like.
Josh Clemente: [00:12:19] Yeah. During my time at SpaceX, there would be peaks and valleys in the amount required and it depends on the project you’re working on and the immediacy of the milestone. But generally – SpaceX is made up of a tremendous number of people who do not like to fail. They’re intensely competitive about success and it breeds a competitive environment where everyone wants to be carrying their load and more. So, what it comes out to is for periods of time – At one point I went close to three years without taking a weekend off. So I worked every weekend straight through for almost three years and I was not in the minority there. That was the standard approach and working on average 12 hour days. And then there were periods of time where it would be even more extreme where the milestone is immediate. We are essentially going 24/7 and sleeping in shifts essentially to make sure whatever that program is, it meets the schedule need. And this might be running a test campaign. It might be preparing a vehicle for launch that comes with a very large contract and payment that would keep the company afloat. So very high stakes and, yeah, at times I would sleep at work or I would sleep in my truck or crash at a friend’s house right down the street on the couch. Again, it wasn’t consistent throughout the entirety of my time at SpaceX, and of course, as the company has grown, this has definitely improved as people can share the load. But certainly, during the timeframe that I’m describing, we were preparing for a critical design review for a very significant program for the company. And so, it’s a lot of taking on that personal accountability and saying, “This is serious. We’ve got to succeed.” And wanting to lead from the front and be a good example for the whole team on how we should, how much heart and soul we have to put in this. And so I was definitely pushing myself very hard and sleeping, honestly, four to five hours and really, I would be eating meals at midnight in some cases. It was very erratic and did not respect the circadian evolution that our bodies developed under. So just totally throwing schedule and routine out the window and replacing it with whatever we could fit in at that time. And this was meals, this was exercise, this was sleep. And so all of the factors that go into a good lifestyle were, in some sense, compromised. Looking back, it’s no surprise, certainly for those stretches of time that we were pushing that hard, that things were erratic but without a good appreciation for the fact that those factors matter so much. Without having some sort of data to point to, it’s very easy to dismiss these sorts of things. It’s easy to say, as long as I eat the right number of calories, I’ll be fine, or as long as I don’t feel super tired in the morning compared to yesterday, I probably got enough sleep. Those sorts of heuristic, hand wavy assumptions are being made every day. We’re living our lives based on emotion rather than on objective fact. That’s what was missing. I just didn’t have a compass to tell me whether every day I’m earning negative interest on my life or positive interest, if that makes sense.
Justin Gordon: [00:15:22] Yeah. It does make sense. And I wanted to have that context with people because I think it’s important to have that, as we are looking forward to what you’re now building and how you’ve gone about this and doing the research then, the hundreds of hours of research into this issue to obviously solve it for yourself initially, but knowing there’s a much bigger issue around for many people, what are some of the first things you did to really make this into an actual company then? Because it’s one thing to do the research for yourself and then, okay, you adjust some things, but really to make Levels, how have you gone about this in the early days?
Josh Clemente: [00:15:50] For one thing, I decided to move on from SpaceX after we got through that critical design review and I worked for a year at Hyperloop on their very first infrastructure scale system, which is basically a high-speed magnetic levitation train. So I worked on that project for a year and during that time is when I was really experimenting myself. So I had first gotten the continuous glucose monitor and I was using it to try to – And digging into the research on the side, in my extra time, to better understand the subject matter. Essentially after a year at Hyperloop, I had sufficient awareness of the value proposition of this new technology and the potential for society to really help the individual take control, that I decided, this is what I want to work on. This has changed my life dramatically and if it can change me, because I was fairly set in my ways and I was convinced that I was doing things right. I’ve never had a problem with weight gain. My doctor, for example, told me that I looked really healthy. So again, that’s what I was using as my yardstick for health. Now, I had a new, a better metric based on objective data for my body and it had completely changed my approach. And so that example of having gone through it myself, just basically told me that there’s a huge amount of potential here.
And so I decided to leave Hyperloop and focus on this full-time. So I quit. I started to do some consulting work and I worked on a little startup idea on the side,. But my thoughts were consumed with bringing this technology to life. And so I spent a lot of time just again, researching, writing, writing down notes on the state of metabolism globally, essentially and the state of the technology and where the white space was. So essentially, where are the opportunities to take what exists, which is this amazing hardware and add the components that will bring it to a new audience that will make it accessible and actionable for people who may not otherwise think twice about this.
After about a year of research and writing down business plans and then I did also write a white paper, it became clear that it’s time to bring on a team. I reached the point where I, as an individual, couldn’t push this any further and needed to force multiply. And so I was able to convince my good friend, Sam Corcos, to join me as co-founder and we launched Levels and immediately started to focus on the two key problems, which were build a world-class team, because this problem is sufficiently large in scale and scope that we need, not ‘a’ team, we need ‘the’ team that will bring to life. And then secondary to that, start testing our assumptions. Get a proof of concept prototype out there and begin to get feedback from real people who are living real lives. So that was the step one and two.
Justin Gordon: [00:18:31] Yeah. And I note then with the team side to build a world-class team solving this problem. How have you gone about that? How have you pursued the top people and then been able to convince them to join you on the startup?
Josh Clemente: [00:18:43] judging from my time at SpaceX, people, exceptional people love an exceptional challenge. So it’s the work or what constitutes the work can be exactly the same at one organization to another, the day-to-day for example, but the culture is grounded in the mission and the mission is grounded in the problem you’re solving. So we had the benefit of a tremendous and immediate problem. It’s very rare for someone to say that they’ve never been touched by metabolic dysfunction. You may not quite understand – Most people may not understand the term metabolism, but we all know what diabetes is and heart disease. We know what Alzheimer’s is, which is called Type 3 diabetes these days. We know what cancer is. All of these have grounding in metabolic dysfunction. And once we were able to start to tell the story of how dramatic and how widespread this problem is, and then also the de-centralization possibilities with this new technology, the ability to empower the individual and give them direct insight into how to make better choices every single day and trend towards optimization, this problem space really opened up. And, so just basically reaching into our networks and starting to have conversations with people we know and trust and respect, started that whole process and we were able to very quickly get a pipeline of exceptional people who just embraced the idea and understand the potential without really having to – We didn’t even have a proof of concept at that time. So we brought together a founding team of five people all with technical, but varied skillsets. Casey Means, my Co-founder. She’s a former surgeon from Stanford and functional medicine doctor, David and Andrew, both exceptionally skilled Google employees who have built platforms there and built technologies that are in use by millions of people and then Sam and I. So amongst the five of us, we had a sufficient scope of capability that we could really start to take on the chunks, the bite-sized chunks of building a proof of concept, getting it out there, getting real customers, and that set the flywheel in motion where additional interest started to form and we were able to really have a pool of interested talent who wanted to join us. And it’s been extraordinarily beneficial and I think rewarding to be a part of thus far and how quickly that all came together.
Justin Gordon: [00:21:00] Yeah. And I want to double click on the product side. So obviously the team side, building the world-class teams who can develop this is step one. But then you said having this product’s proof of concept. What did that look like? Or what does that look like for you at Levels?
Josh Clemente: [00:21:14] So the core technology, the continuous glucose monitor is a device that was developed for the management of diabetes and essentially diabetes is when blood sugar control is lost because of either your body stops producing insulin, which is called Type 1 diabetes, or you develop whole body insulin resistance, which is Type 2 diabetes. And so this technology, it’s key for people with diabetes to have an immediate understanding of their blood sugar levels so that they can work to control them. So for decades, blood sugar monitoring tech has been iterated on and moved from the lab to the doctor’s office and then ultimately, out into essentially a consumerized product, which is this little device that you wear on your arm or on your abdomen and it’s sampling, using a little filament in the skin, it’s sampling glucose in the blood in real time and sending that information wirelessly to a device, like a smartphone. So that tech exists. Now, where we were focusing is the interface between that device, the raw data it produces, and behavior change. So ultimately, what we want is to inspire people with their own data to make better choices and that is a user journey.
So that’s an experience that has to be insightful and educational. And so we are focusing on that whole software experience and developing the insights engine that brings in raw data and provides scores and metrics that are trackable, traceable and educational for the individual. So making this more of a Fitbit of biological data, for example. And so, the proof of concept was get people access to the hardware that exists today and then essentially text them back and forth via SMS text and learn about what are their problems. You’re using this device, you see something counterintuitive or intuitive and a light bulb goes off or a question mark pops up. And so, people were just texting us like, “I would love to know more about this,” or “I don’t understand this,” or “This is shocking. I can’t believe this is happening.” And so we were able to really just converse in real time using the core tech, the hardware, and then helping us architect a user journey that we could build an app around. And that was the first step and then, of course, from there we were iterating to build backend insight engines that can create magic moments that you would otherwise miss. Like it’s not up to the customer anymore to identify something interesting. Now, we can surface those proactively.
Justin Gordon: [00:23:45] And one of the things you mentioned with that as well, the educational component, and writing about this, and educating customers on what this even is, and what they can do. How do you look at that, on the educational piece? What type of content do you want to create around this and how do you use that to get people interested? And I heard you have a massive wait list for this as well. How have you gone about that?
Josh Clemente: [00:24:04] Yeah. Another key mission for the company is to raise awareness about the metabolic dysfunction epidemic. So that is in and of itself a goal and in order to do that, we’ve developed a content platform. So right now it’s our blog. But if you go to our blog, you’ll see a lot of very long form, extremely rigorously referenced articles that describe the ways in which metabolic dysfunction manifests and I mentioned some of these earlier on in the conversation, but they go well beyond the standard diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Metabolic dysfunction can manifest all the way through to skin wrinkling, weight gain, PCOS, which is the number one cause of infertility in women, mood disorders. I mentioned Alzheimer’s as being called Type 3 diabetes. There are a tremendous number of labels that we apply to what is ultimately metabolic dysfunction. And so we are building the thought leadership platform that really brings all of this together and educates people who want to learn more about the way their bodies function, about all of these processes and how it may be affecting them and their goals.
That’s been a core focus and Casey, my Co-founder, has been leading that effort and essentially we will continue to produce content for content’s sake. Essentially, we want to be a platform for educating everyone on this underlying crisis and then the ways that we can take control. And so success there, is success generally.
And of course, it’s complimentary to our product that we’re building and people who go to our blog and really dive in and understand, “Oh, wow! This makes so much sense.” There is so much here that people intuitively feel that they are unique and respond differently than others, and that you’re not just this calories in calories out machine, but in fact, you are a chemistry set and the way that our hormones are responding to other chemicals in our bodies will create an environment that we experience as sensations like hunger and anger and frustration or clarity and all of these experiences start to crystallize. So that content platform has been tremendously successful thus far and that waitlist you mentioned, it’s now close to 50,000 people and that’s basically without marketing. So our efforts have been focused on content and product and just publishing through our blog and through our Instagram. And there’s so much organic traction because I think this really speaks to people on that deep, personal level in an intuitive way that I think many products may not be able to hit because it’s that real-time biological information, as opposed to the one-size-fits-all approach.
Justin Gordon: [00:26:36] Yeah. And that 50,000 waitlist, that’s pretty significant. I had someone on recently who also had a similar thing with their business as well, where they have thousands of people on this waitlist as a way to grow and you can use that as you move forward with the business in terms of getting feedback and everything as well.
But from that – I’m going to just dive a little bit deeper on the content side then. How often are you creating blogposts or guides or other things on your site? And how do you look at what topics around this to dive into deeper versus just educating people at a bit higher level? How to think through that, Josh?
Josh Clemente: [00:27:05] There’s a fascinating array of opportunity here. Basically we’re all on this spectrum of metabolic fitness, from the person who is trying to lose a huge amount of weight to get back on track, to the elite athlete who is trying to shave a few seconds off a hundred mile time. Our bodies are producing energy in the same way through metabolism and just the broadness of that landscape allows us to both originally develop content ourselves from the raw research that’s out there on metabolism in the academic environment, all the way through to cross collaborations with other individuals, for example, athletic trainers, athletes, individuals who have been working in the ketogenic diet space or the plant-based space forever and they can each tell their story in a unique way. And so our approach has been publishing at least two to three articles on the blog per week and distributing them through our other channels and then just generally raising the signal of metabolism broadly. So this could be through podcasts just like this, telling the story of metabolism and getting people to start thinking about maybe moving beyond the concepts of just physical fitness and mental health to the underlying foundation of them, which is metabolic fitness. Our bodies and brains, our muscles and brain tissue need energy in order to operate and without effective metabolic processes producing that energy, we can’t meet our performance goals in either of those two verticals without metabolic fitness.
And so, it’s been about a holistic multi-platform approach to just raising the awareness about metabolism broadly speaking. Yeah, that’s where we’ve – Our goals have been to hit that publishing cadence and it’s really produced this flywheel effect and more opportunity comes almost organically where, – For example, we’ve had a few collaborations with other companies, for example, a sleep startup or a company producing ketogenic diet products like bars that provide low-glycemic impacts. You don’t see these big blood sugar elevations.
And so, we can start to explain the science behind other products and people can test them for themselves and see the benefits of a full night’s sleep versus – And see the benefits of one product that is formulated for a low-glycemic impact versus another that advertises the same effect but may not actually deliver on it.
Yeah. We’re really trying to . cut through a lot of the advertising noise out there and just provide a clear signal on, “This is what’s ultimately happening and you can confirm for yourself through this product.” And that, I think, is what’s generating all of the organic demand.
Justin Gordon: [00:29:30] Yeah. Being leaders in the space is one less thing that’s going to happen. When people are finding information it’s constantly going to, “Okay. It’s Levels. So you’re finding it on Levels,” over and over again. It’s like, , “Okay. They’re obviously a leader in this.” And people then want to join forces as well with that.
And I’m curious though, is there – What does the competition, the competitive landscape, look like then for you guys right now?
Josh Clemente: [00:29:51] We’re in a nascent space, so we’re really opening a new market where traditionally this is entirely medical or therapeutic. The devices are used once you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes and we’re essentially redefining what it is to be metabolically fit and how you get there. So, using the technology, but then also saying, there isn’t this binary scenario where you’re either normal or you’re unhealthy. It’s actually that, again, you’re on a spectrum and every person can be making choices that can be trending further and further away from optimal or closer and closer to it.
Yeah. The next step in what we’re trying to accomplish is, I think, moving beyond just a device that is responsive to your inputs. You’re adding information, you’re logging your lifestyle and then getting feedback thereafter, and closer to a device that learns your patterns and behaviors and provides proactive insights.
That process is really, I think, separate from anything we’ve seen thus far. There are a few organizations out there, to name a few, Supersapiens which is – They’re focusing on triathletes, so helping athletes who are trying to fuel for extreme endurance events, helping them to navigate fueling timing. So making sure that you don’t run out of energy in the midst of a hill climb in the Tour de France, for example. And then there’s another company called January AI, which is working on the therapeutic end of things. So as you’re, I think, trending more towards dysfunction, getting more education there and helping guide back towards optimal.
Lots of stuff happening, and these are both great companies doing great things, but I think the core benefit of Levels is that we don’t really, we don’t zero in on any subgroup. What we’re saying is that everyone out there has a metabolism and has an opportunity to improve and our technology today can help you get there through your own just logging of your lifestyle behaviors and in the future, no matter who you are, we will be able to reach out to you and help guide your lifestyle choices proactively towards betterment, whether that’s, again, an athlete or someone who is looking to step out on a new path in life.
Justin Gordon: [00:31:59] With all of this, and you’re doing some incredible work, obviously, and hours and hours of research and assembled really a high quality team to be able to pull this off. But I don’t think – You’ve been at Hyperloop and SpaceX and all these other kind of either startups or big companies, but in terms of running the company yourself as a founder, what’s been most helpful for you personally, as to how to guide a team, how to lead this company? What’s been helpful for you?
Josh Clemente: [00:32:25] We’re all in a strange environment in the world today. Obviously, with COVID, it’s very much transformed the working environment, at least for now, and so Levels is a remote organization, by default, we’ve been remote since before COVID and a few of the things that I’ve learned as someone who has previously worked in hardware engineering where being close and in person is really key to getting your iteration times shortened as much as possible, especially when you’re working with hardware where it’s quite challenging to crank out multiple iterations rapidly. That’s been my historic experience. So now at Levels, I’m realizing the potential of this asynchronous environment to really allow the opposite of what I experienced at SpaceX. So we can now provide a work environment where people can be extremely effective and yet they can live a very balanced lifestyle, so meeting the needs of the individual, allowing them to live where they want, have a schedule that fits their own desires, whether it’s getting up and going climbing in the morning or spending time with your significant other and your children in the evening, whatever it may be, but just helping us to create an environment that supports what we’re describing or what we’re putting out into the world. Metabolic health is the sum of our decisions daily and we want our people on the team to be able to experience that for themselves and reinforce it. Several of the things that have been most valuable for me and just great lessons learned is the value of transparency, a) to attract exceptional people and then to retain a culture of exceptionalism. And so in an environment where you are not seeing each other and you’re not relying on the osmosis kind of information exchange like you do in an office environment where everyone’s going to talk to each other at the lunch table or run into each other and you can just rely on information to spread that way. You have to be very intentional about it in the asynchronous environment. So we have to document rigorously and we have to distribute rigorously and make information, not just generate it and put it out into the ether, into a Slack channel where it might disappear, but make it searchable, make it relevant so that anyone who is joining the team or anyone who is looking for context can find that information and can feel up to speed.
So that’s been key. There’s so many great tools out now that really helped this. We use Notion quite a bit and that’s really helpful as a platform to host our information. And then we use a lot of collaborative stuff with Google docs and just generally keeping everything as flat in the information exchange as possible and encouraging complete transparency, getting rid of DMs as much as possible. So side exchanges between people and direct emails and exchanging it for a chat environment where anyone can see it and be up to speed. It really helps both with, again that feeling of being on top of what’s happening in the company. And then also it bolsters morale because you can see the pace of progress across all departments. And so rather than maybe having a tough week yourself where you were struggling on a problem and didn’t really have a breakthrough and feeling maybe a bit dejected, you can then see that across the company the net progress was really powerful and fast. And so it can help just even out the bumps in the road for folks who, again, aren’t spending every day together.
Justin Gordon: [00:35:27] And one of the things we haven’t discussed yet that I want to definitely talk about, especially because other people listening are going to go through a similar thing, is the fundraising side of it. How has that gone for you? How have you approached funding this company? I’m really curious to hear more about that.
Josh Clemente: [00:35:40] Yeah. So when we were starting off on the prototype phase that I had discussed earlier, which is the proof of concept phase, we also started to raise some money from angels primarily and we did that through networks. Sam is extremely, he’s a multi-time founder. He’s very well connected and had a lot of angels who would be interested in something like this. So we started up conversations, got them to try the product and we were able to put together about a million dollars over the course of six months on a safe note. And so that kicked us off and it got us to the point where we could start, again, building a team and building the product. And then over time we’ve done a few – Well, really we did an ongoing safe round where we brought in additional strategic and angel money and then just this past week, we closed our seed raise, which we’re going to be formally announcing sometime in the next few days, I think. We’re just putting the finishing touches on that press announcement. And so that seed raise is going to be the next phase of the company. So bringing in the capital that we need to go from the beta program where we’re invitation only and availability limited, to moving into phase one of growth and expanding availability, expanding the potential and the insights that the product is producing. And then also starting to really take on acquisition and rather than relying on just strictly organic, also focusing on understanding our channels, understanding our sourcing. And so, those are the – The pace that we took was very intentional about raising money early on and then as the signal for the company increased, we were able to rely on the product and its merits to bring in attention and people who see – I think the organic testimonials really want to support a business like us and we’re very – We’ve been very lucky and grateful to work with some great people in the investment space as well.
Justin Gordon: [00:37:22] Yeah. And one of the things I brought up earlier, the context around the environment at SpaceX in terms of how you were working and what your schedule was like and everything there, is because I want to talk about now of your current day-to-day and how you look at things now. Obviously we’re in a interesting environment with the pandemic and work from home and everything, but how do you structure your day now understanding the aspects of sleep, of working out and everything like that. I’d be curious to know a day in the life. Obviously entrepreneurs have varied days in terms of a quote unquote “normal day”. It could be different every day, but just take me through what that looks like for you now.
Josh Clemente: [00:37:51] Yeah. So now I pay a lot of attention to that physical exercise component still and I think that – So just to walk through it, I try to get at least eight hours of sleep every night and I’ve noticed an exceptionally strong correlation between both mood and metabolic control as it relates to sleep and the sweet spot for me is about seven and a half hours. If I get more than that, I’m really feeling good generally. I’ve struggled a bit with quality of sleep. I’m still trying to nail that down, but overall, I’m definitely trying to get eight hours of sleep. And the next thing is just making space for morning workouts. As with most people, if I put my workouts towards the end of the day, there are two things to consider. The first is that it’s the first thing to get bumped off the schedule when something runs long and we’ve all experienced this. As soon as something of higher priority comes up, the workout gets lost and for me, the exercise is still one of the main accountability metrics for me. So I have to get that in, in the morning. And the second benefit is that if I do it in the morning, it doesn’t affect my sleep as much. My heart rate’s not elevated. I’m not flooded with endorphins right when I’m trying to wind down and go to sleep. So I will get up, get a workout in. I then typically will not eat until afternoon. So I’ll, after my workout, get a shower in and have some coffee and then I’ll try and knock out – While I’m really sharp I will try to knock out some deep work in the morning and this will be, if possible, avoiding calls and pushing those into the afternoon and I’ll just focus on whether it’s writing memos or doing some strategic thinking or digging through candidates for hiring, which are all front of mind right now, just getting that out of the way while my brain is still operating at peak capacity. And then shifting in the latter half of the day to manage your schedule. So calls and knocking out any tasks that I can turn through quickly and getting to emails and stuff like that. So I try to compartmentalize my day in that way. And I’ll admit, my days are pretty dominated by work right now. I really enjoy it. It’s not something that is super draining and of course the environment is – Being at home, I think, is really a huge adjustment from SpaceX. I’ve got the benefits of being able to go on a walk outside on calls and I’m not in a manufacturing environment basically turning wrenches and such. So it’s a very different environment. I’m really benefiting from it. I can feel it in the quality of my days and in the stress levels, and my ability to, I think, manage my schedule predictively rather than always reactively.
Justin Gordon: [00:40:18] And on that note, just to go a little bit deeper. Do you have a set time that you try to get to bed and wake up each day? On that note as well, do you have a set time where I’m stopping work as well? I’d be curious.
Josh Clemente: [00:40:27] Yeah. So I wish I could say that I had a set stopping time. I really don’t. I find myself doing email these days right up until the end of the day. And yeah, that’s just one of the things I’m getting better at adjusting to. So my email volume skills are going up. I’m able to triage much faster. So I’m getting to the point where I think I would be able to pull that back further away from the bedtime. But generally I try to be shut down and asleep by around 11 o’clock and so I’ll be up at around seven and working out and that’s like those two, I consider those my thresholds. I feel much more on top of my day, if I can be up in the 6:00 AM hour or even earlier. I really love the morning. It’s my – To me, it’s the most peaceful time of the day and it’s very centering for me to have that extra time before the flood of events starts up. That, of course, requires a phase shift in my bedtime and that, of course, requires me to be able to tackle email faster. So it’s an ongoing process and my goals are to phase shift to an earlier day, starting earlier, shutting down earlier and being more effective overall. But yeah, like I said, we’re all – Every day is a challenge, right? We all got to learn and then iterate.
Justin Gordon: [00:41:35] Yeah. And I think there’s something to be said, though, for that shift to early and people who know me are going to start laughing already like how early I wake up. But it’s all around more if – You have the same hours in the day, regardless and if you can just shift one or two from the evening to the morning, typically more hours there are uninterrupted and so I found that’s why I’ve done that for a number of years now is because of that exact point where I get the most important things done before any pain comes in because no one’s emailing me at that hour, it’s super early and nothing’s really happening but you have that peacefulness to really get quality work done and you mentioned, you just briefly mentioned, deep work, and if you’ve read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, creating those hours and hours of pockets of time to be able to do some of the best things or most important things you need to do is important and I think by shifting your schedule allows you to do that a bit, which is the interesting thing on that.
And on the, just because, again, of my exercise sports science background, what does the working out schedule consist of? And what are some of those activities? I’d be curious.
Josh Clemente: [00:42:29] Yeah. So I’m a CrossFit L2 trainer. It’s something I really love, but recently I have been moving more and more to – I feel a little bit silly, but to endurance training. So my endurance is really, really not on par these days. But it’s a focus for me right now because it has some really interesting overlap with the subject matter of metabolic fitness. So my goals are to train for longer duration events. My stretch goal is to complete an Iron Man race, but the real focus is to improve metabolic flexibility, which is the ability for your body to switch between fuel sources effortlessly. So there’s this concept, which, I think we briefly touched on, which is bonking, where you run out of your stored glycogen, which is your stored sugar, and people who maybe do a lot of running might have experienced this. So maybe 90 minutes into a long run, you just suddenly crash. And this is actually your body running out of sugar, your blood sugar starts to plummet and you experience all the symptoms of hypoglycemia, which is not what you want right in the middle of a race. So metabolic flexibility is essentially teaching the body to adapt to both incoming food, so calories that you’re consuming, or stored energy that goes beyond glycogen, which includes your fat stores. And the ability to switch between burning sugar and burning fat is a trained experience that it requires a lot of hormonal adjustment in the body to make that easy and straightforward. And so I’m currently doing a lot of, like I said, morning workouts, but doing them fasted so that – I haven’t eaten since dinner the night before and typically this will be at least 12 hours and in some cases I’ll do even after noon. I’ll extend my fast into the afternoon and work out around then on an extended duration. And the goal here is to force my body, to deplete all of the glycogen that I have stored and then switch into fat burning mode and to put some numbers on this. The average person has about 2000 calories of glucose available as stored glycogen and you have about 80,000 calories of fat available. So if you can teach your body to switch into this fat oxidation mode effectively without crashing, you can really have quite a bit more endurance. And so it’s something I’m trying to learn and, of course, I oftentimes flunk. I run into that wall. I mistime it. I miss fuel so on and so forth, but I am experiencing some really amazing benefits and there’s other folks on the team. The head of customer success Mike is one who – He just completed a fasted marathon. He fasted for 18 hours and then ran 26.2 miles without consuming a calorie and his blood sugar was rock solid and he felt great, had great energy, great pace. And that’s the type of thing that – This is the whole point. That’s closer to optimal. And so that’s my current focus with exercise.
Justin Gordon: [00:45:10] That’s fascinating, you’re doing that. I’ve been doing the same on accident. I think I just, at one point didn’t have as many weights around and especially now during the pandemic. I don’t have the gym the same. But I look at – I’ve somehow gotten into more endurance training and more so, most being half marathons. But I look back at the ones that I’ve done in the last number of months and they’ve all been fasted. It’s always, typically I’ll do it in the morning and, yeah, I don’t have any food at all before a half marathon and those are when I performed the best and actually feel really good during those even my personal best of it. That was fasted as well. I’m looking back on that thinking of which ones – Yeah, they were all fasted. It’s fascinating to learn more about that then, like the numbers behind this as well and see where the glucose numbers would be interesting. It also reminds me of – I think you should talk to the guys from Beam. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Beam CBD?
Josh Clemente: [00:45:55] I haven’t.
Justin Gordon: [00:45:57] Yeah. They just raised like, what is it? 5 million so far. But I want to say that eventually they’ll raise Series A. But they do this like endurance – Essentially, both of them and I think – Pretty sure both of them are doing endurance training as well and then obviously they’re using CBD as a mode for performance and recovery and everything, but they’re both former athletes, former professional athletes.
Yeah. So just an interesting – People will talk to you potentially, but where can people go to learn more about all the things you’re working on and getting through to you as well, Josh.
Josh Clemente: [00:46:22] So I definitely recommend going to levelshealth.com and checking on our blog. That’s likely the best location to understand more about metabolism, understand specifically what we’re building at Levels and how it may affect your specific goals. You can also follow along with ourselves on the team and then also our beta users on Levels, Twitter and Instagram, which is just @Levels. That’s the handle there. Reach out to us through those channels. We’re always excited to engage and share more about the beta program, availability and, of course, all the content we’re producing and feedback on that is really powerful for us.
Justin Gordon: [00:46:56] Awesome. Josh, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show today.
Josh Clemente: [00:46:59] Thanks so much, Justin. This was great.
Justin Gordon: [00:47:00] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Just Go Grind. If you want to follow along on the socials for all things Just Go Grind and with me as well, find Just Go Grind on Instagram and Twitter @justgogrind. You can find me on Twitter @justingordon212 . Find me on Instagram @justingordon8. Thank you so much for listening. Have a great day.