Albert Lee, MBA 04, co-founder of MyFitnessPal, makes it easy for millions to lead healthier lives.By Charles Cooper
Albert Lee’s world would never be the same following the blockbuster announcement that Under Armour was paying $475 million to acquire MyFitnessPal, the company he and his older brother, Mike, had spent 10 years building into the world’s most popular nutrition and fitness app. But as congratulations poured in from friends and acquaintances, all he wanted was a quiet spot to savor the moment.
“Everyone was super happy for us, but I just had this moment where I had to go and hide,” says Lee, who slipped into a phone booth located in the company’s offices. “I was thinking about how far we had come and how I never expected to end up where we ended up, and what an amazing and overwhelming feeling this was,” he says.
By any definition, it had been a breathtaking journey for a kid who hails from a small town in upstate New York, and Lee’s extraordinary success was honored in November with the Berkeley Haas Leading Through Innovation award. The accolade recognizes alumni who have served as exemplars to others in the Haas community.
Lee grew up a few miles east of Schenectady in Niskayuna, New York, where his father worked as a research scientist for General Electric Global Research and his mother was employed by the government.
Niskayuna wasn’t your typical small town. GE was one of the region’s largest employers, attracting numerous scientists and researchers and their families. Both Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, and Colin Angle, the co-founder of iRobot, graduated from the local high school.
“It was a unique place,” Lee says. “Being interested in science or engineering was not necessarily a geeky thing, because that’s what your family did.”
He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1995 with a bachelor’s in economics. After working a few years in the private sector, Lee returned to campus to earn his MBA. It also marked a turning point intellectually. Lee found himself energized by Haas’s culture, where questioning the status quo was considered the norm.
“I was naturally one of those who was willing to ask questions about things when they didn’t necessarily make sense,” Lee says. “But surrounding yourself with lots of other people who believed in that, too—it had an amplifying effect that was powerful. When I walked out the door at Haas, that was a firmly implanted part of who I would be—in whatever company I would work for and whatever I was going to do.”
Lee’s post-Haas career took him first to eBay and then Yahoo, before he joined a now-defunct startup in 2006 called Next Internet. Then Mike called. His brother had been developing a diet-tracking app as a side project, and he needed his sibling’s help.
“I’ve decided to work full time on MyFitnessPal,” Mike told Albert. “So when are you going to quit?”
The thought of leaving a comfortable job and jumping into the great unknown left Lee understandably nervous, but the chance to team up had always been a dream for the two siblings. In the end, it was an offer that Lee couldn’t refuse.
“We knew we had something that helped our users to be successful. We certainly believed it was valuable and that if we kept working on it, more opportunities would arise.”
The brothers bootstrapped MyFitnessPal for more than two years, living off their savings and the emotional support of their family, who understood at holiday gatherings when the brothers huddled in a corner talking strategy.
But every second was precious. It was 2009 and the Lees needed to scale the business to keep pace with the breathtaking changes taking place in the technology market. Apple had launched the iPhone in 2007, followed a year later by the second version of the phone as well as the App Store. In October 2008, the first Android-powered smartphone had hit the market and use of smartphone apps soared. MyFitnessPal started off as a website, but the brothers saw an opportunity to transition it to mobile devices. One of Lee’s first roles was as the product manager for the iPhone app. Besides writing all of the specs and wireframes, he also worked with a designer to create the screens, then collaborated with his brother and the company’s only engineer to build the app.
“Al played an essential role in making the app something millions of people still love and use every day,” Mike Lee says.
By the end of their first year working together, the brothers launched a mobile version of MyFitnessPal for the iPhone, allowing users to track their food intake on the go. That marked a turning point for MyFitnessPal as the app’s popularity soared. Fueling its success was an unrivaled repository for nutrition and calorie data (it now contains over five million foods) and a keen attention to ease of use and the user experience.
The Lee brothers made sure no comment in the forums went unanswered and formed a “customer happiness team” that monitored and responded to users. They also held monthly focus groups. This feedback loop revealed how the technology changed lives. One woman who lost weight with the app said she could get out of a chair for the first time in 20 years without pushing up with her hands. Another recounted that the app helped him discover which foods caused his eczema to flare up. MyFitnessPal’s community was so robust, the Lees never paid to advertise, instead relying on word of mouth.
In 2013, MyFitnessPal received an $18 million funding round led by venture firm Kleiner Perkins. By the end of 2014, more than 75 million users were using the product, which was now the market’s most popular nutrition- and fitness-tracking app.
“I’d be lying if I said that on day one, we thought we had a world-changing product,” Lee says. “But we knew we had something that helped our users to be successful. We certainly believed it was valuable and that if we kept working on it, more opportunities would arise.”
And this they did in spectacular fashion, when athletic-gear maker Under Armour bought MyFitnessPal in February 2015.
“One of the Haas Defining Leadership Principles is to have confidence without attitude,” Lee says. “That helped me to see that someone can be a great leader without being arrogant. It’s one of the themes that we talk about at work—being humble and hungry—which also happens to be the name of the cafe at Under Armour headquarters in Baltimore.”
People who know Lee, such as former classmate Marybeth Thomson, MBA 04, say it’s an attribute that informs his management approach. Thomson, who joined MyFitnessPal four years ago, says Lee’s unassuming mien is part of someone who “doesn’t seek or need glory—just someone making smart decisions and getting it done.”
Lee joked that when a representative from Haas called to notify him that he was one of this year’s award winners, he wondered whether they had phoned the right person.
“I was really humbled and hope that I can do the award justice,” Lee says. “So many of my Haas classmates have helped me along the way—probably more than they know. I have a lot of people to thank.”