Interview With a Failed Startup Founder: Building the Nurturing B2B SaaS No One Asked for
Alex started WePlate looking for a way to have a healthy diet on campus. He called it off after eight months. what happened here
Hi Alex! Who are you, and what are you currently working on?
My name is Alex Hu, I’m 18 years old, and I live in Toronto, Canada. I recently dropped out of college to scale up the Education for All Foundation, a 501(c)(3) NGO I started in 2018 that provides life-changing education to underserved elementary schools in rural China. We are currently teaching around 1500 underprivileged students living in poverty.
In early August, I shut down the nutrition startup I’d been building for 8 months. WePlate was your GPS to achieve your health goals. Instead of tedious calorie counting, our diet app recommends specific food items and portion sizes for each user’s unique dietary needs. We developed an algorithm that can calculate the ideal food combination for any given user from a cafeteria menu by matching nutritional information with the users biological characteristics.
We tried selling our technology to college dining teams as a B2B SaaS product, adapting our algorithm to be an analytics tool to help set cafeteria menus and make our app available to their students. By the time we closed, we had contacted close to 100 universities across North America. We also analyzed and found nutritional problems in the menus of several other universities.
What’s your background, and how did you get the idea for WePlate?
WePlate is the first venture I have started outside the realm of education. In the past, I’ve started teaching businesses, mentorship programs, educational AI chatbots, and nonprofits, the latter of which I’m still building.
I started WePlate in December 2021 because I found it difficult to maintain a healthy diet while living on campus. As my mother is a dietitian, I grew up around nutrition and developed an intuition for the nutritional part. You can imagine my surprise when I saw how much weight I had put on in 3 short months.
After suspecting the food was inherently unhealthy, I conducted statistical analysis and proved that it was mathematically impossible to maintain a healthy diet in the cafeteria for students with almost all dietary needs.
How did you go from idea to product?
College cafeterias – or all cafeterias, for that matter – had no idea how to set a healthy menu. After digging further, we found almost no research on the analysis of entire menus; Instead, most modern nutrition solutions focus only on the nutrients within individual foods.
It took some brainstorming, but I realized that when you break down the technical details, the solution consists of a statistical optimization problem – albeit a highly complex problem with hundreds of variables.
But an algorithm is not a product, so I went back to the drawing board and landed on one of the most fundamental ideas in behavioral science – specific and convenient instructions are far more effective than vague and inaccurate suggestions. For decades, the USDA and other companies have tried to persuade the public to eat healthier by telling them how to eat, but no one had created guidelines that were specific and convenient for users. Existing solutions typically advise users to eat “a handful of carbohydrates” or “274 grams of chicken,” which are incredibly impractical to follow.
To solve the issue of how to express portion size, we came up with a simple 3D model of a plate, with food in different sizes.
Another issue we discovered was that most nutrition labels are useless because unless one can know exactly how much of the food they are consuming (which is nearly impossible in a cafeteria setting or if you are cooking for yourself), They won’t be able to calculate their nutrient intake. We solved this by simply converting each nutrient to the recommended portion size and creating an indicator that tells users whether they are consuming too much or too little of each nutrient for their body and health goals.
Our team consisted of me, 2 backend developers, 1 frontend developer, 1 UI/UX designer, 1 algorithm specialist, a nutrition researcher (PhD in nutrition science) and a campus dietitian at a US university with 10,000 students. Unfortunately, no one went full-time on the project except me. However, we eventually built the MVP and beta-tested it in the college cafeteria, which allowed us to collect the user data we needed to train our algorithm.
When did things start going wrong?
We realized that perhaps we underestimated the college budget’s compassion for student health. Out of the dozen colleges we met with in the first round, all of them offered us to work with them for free. Because of this, fundraising was nearly impossible, with most investors saying they needed to see interest from customers for an untested business model.
What were the reasons for the failure of WePlate?
We closed when we accepted that the market didn’t need the products we made. After talking to 100 colleges, none were interested in buying a product that didn’t increase their profits.
We couldn’t compete with mainstream diet apps because we found it difficult to fundraise in a stale market (nutrition and college are not growing markets).
Finally, even though college students were technically in need of our product, most students are too concerned about studies and their careers to pay attention to their diet. Some students outside of those already paying close attention to their diets were enthusiastic about the app, even though we tried to make it accessible to all students.
What were your expenses? Did you get any revenue? In the end, how much money did you lose?
We kept expenses very low, so even though we never reached revenue, I spent less than $10,000 from my savings on the whole venture. Our team members only took equity, so we had little runway.
If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
While our business model failed, our core technology is still valid. No solution yet exists that treats nutrition as a whole day’s worth of food, rather than as individual foods. Eating salad doesn’t mean you’re eating a healthy diet if that’s the only thing you eat.
If I had to start over, I would take that core technology and work with existing nutrition apps or even research teams to advance this technology in a non-profit way. The ultimate goal is to use this technology to help people eat healthier, but until I raise a few million dollars, it will be nearly impossible to compete with current market leaders like MyFitnessPal and Noom.
I would also start by talking with more customers instead of building a product first. I spent months building a product that solved a problem that few people wanted. I should have spent more time thinking about marketing as well. Ultimately, we could build a strong, niche customer base by targeting students who already care about diet.
What are your favorite entrepreneurial resources?
My recommendation for any aspiring entrepreneur is Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why, which explains the power of leaders and the purpose of startups. Another great book for building teams is The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.