We all strive to make a difference in this world. In whatever it is we do. We never think about the small decisions we make or how they can impact even a small population of people. Even just starting a new job for a small start-up in the great, bustling city of Boston. We enter situations like AJ's in hopes that whatever it is we are doing ends up mattering, somehow. Not often does what we do end up making an impact globally. For the past year and a half, I have gotten the opportunity not only to get to know this hustler, but actually work alongside him. I experienced the in's and out's of what he and WHOOP do for their customers on a day-to-day basis. Their WHOOPers. In meeting him, I myself have become one of those WHOOP users obsessed with the technology, the people, and the impact that they continue to make with each update, new band, and podcast they create. AJ speaks to elite athletes daily to teach and update. Whether they're current users or hopeful users, AJ runs them through the whole experience. I saw and heard first hand how a conversation like that can go. At first I was sure to hear the typical sales pitches. Why this product is something you should use, why WHOOP is better than any other product in this specific field, etc. However, what I realized is that their employees, AJ specifically, don't just bullshit about their values and morals. They care about the people who end up using this product. The conversation was one as if they had met before and just wanted to catch up on life. Talking about cycling, family, and all the things that you're only trying to sell someone on a pitch; you don't truly invest into thinking about. Because that is what WHOOP is as a product as well. Lifestyle tracker. He cares about who he talks to. He cares about what establishment he is representing and the reputation they want to keep with their massive base of users. And he's also an incredibly dope dude. With a mind similar to me. You'll understand when we get off subject a bit.
Without further ado and a long hiatus from the interview category and The Untamed Mind....
Here is AJ Baker.
- First off, who is AJ Baker? How did you become who you are today?
- Thats a loaded question man. Where do you want me to start? Professionally, I work athletes and partnerships at WHOOP and we're a growing startup. Not really a start up anymore. I kind of work within the sports space and ultimately I'm a northeast kid who's kind of, ya know, grown up in that entire world and always wanted to stay there. Sports obsessed, I mean you can call me a sports nerd in some sense. Any event statistic I can get my hands on I want to touch it. Thats what I am, I mean, I'm a nerd at heart and athlete in physicality.
- I guess that's why we clicked off the bat and also why you do so well at WHOOP, because that's that perfect mesh.
- Yeah, I mean the whole thing with WHOOP, I was at an agency before and kind of set myself up to stay there for a while. We were working with the Celtics, we were working with other sports clients, and that was the interesting part for me. And as soon as we stopped working with the Celtics, I thought, "I cant keep working at this agency if we're not going to be doing anything that lets me think about sports. Or be in that world and talk to athletes or talk to people about athletes. Ya know, about the nuance of sports. Specifically basketball and football. Those are the two things I've always loved. So to stumble into WHOOP and walk into the offices before they really exploded, this is about 3 years ago, it's an incredibly fortunate turn of events.
- So really it was great timing too?
- Great timing and also I had really great guidance. My boss now was not at the company at the time, but he suggested it to me. He basically gave me the intro and said "Take it from there and see if you can turn int into something." A few months later I'm working. We launched a consumer product after I started in June and it gets launched in November. So it was perfect timing for me and I got to get my hands on all facets of the business. I started right as things really started to kick off and grow. We've been a rocket ship ever since.
- So when you got to WHOOP, whats the environment like at a young startup? How was the hustle and bustle differ from what you were used to on a day-to-day basis?
- It's a whole lot different than it is right now for us. That's for sure. And then when I first got there, I think about my time at WHOOP in, like, three stages. Three chapters. Chapter 1: everybody's trying to figure out where the hell we're going to be. We have some..
*his AirPods die so there is a pause*
We were just starting to launch in a consumer market, so being in the wearable space, there are a lot of products out there. And we're trying to figure out where we fit, who our number one customer base is going to be, and what different groups we can go work with. At the time, Will, our CEO, with working with the NFL, NBA, MLB and all these different sports leagues and then taking that to consumers was the next step. We kind of imagined we'd get some high school athletes, some amateur players, high performance training facilities. A lot of that stuff did come, but I think the more interesting part was tipping into things like CrossFit and cycling. This was the stage where, I'm cold calling every single day and dialing trying to get anyone's attention. You're sending enough emails a day that Gmail shuts you down because you've sent so many without getting a reply. That's Stage 1. So early on the ambiguous part is really what's scary. I use that word in so many different ways, but it really was. We didn't know where we were going to end up, we didn't know what our future held, our investors would have certain viewpoints on how we should go do things and we'd get word from Will and have to think about it all and truly move as fast as we could. Ya know, grow as quickly as possible. We wanted to get a lot of different things going, and we did. We did a lot of cool things, but from my perspective I was beating my head against a wall, trying to make any form of business possible. But there is a ton of learning there. I still piggy back on stuff I learned then about WHOOP as a product but also about how people use it. Then you have Stage 2, where you're trying to figure out who your horses are going to be. Pick the people you want to call everyday. Then things start to get overwhelming, you got to start gaining momentum, and start to build your process. Get more structured snd direct with what your priorities are. That's when having good management really, really helps.
- So it sounds like, even during Stage 2, you're really learning as you go?
- Dude, you're building the plane as you fly it the whole time. I only get to work one part of this business but you get to see the whole thing. Ya know, I'll work marketing, our elite performance staff, our supply chain and our operations team, I'll be talking to our warehouse. Every facet you get to be a part of, but a lot of the decisions that are made, I'm not even close to. Especially on how the business is going to be run in the future. That's Will and he's done a great job of guiding the company and sticking to his beliefs and proving why he's right a lot of the time. I think our software team, for being as small as it is, has built an incredible product. It's a miracle that we've been able to hold up as well as we have with as few issues as we've had given the amount of people there. It's a tiny team and I think the other big learning is that you got to realize the unbelievable amount of work that goes into everything. The Stage 2 part where you're starting to hit that growth phase? It's being able to prioritize. That's the #1 thing. Knowing what's most important and not thinking about it as "The squeakiest wheel gets the grease", but what is most important going forward. Could we save ourselves some headache membership services if we build this feature that's going to change that. So being able to expand our roles and being in line while also taking and applying what we've learned so far is kind of that middle spot. And this third phase, you have too many people calling. Now we raised more money, working with Joe Rogan, announcement goes out, we launch a new product. It's like everyone that you called and didn't answer, is now like, "Hey, what's up? Didn't see your email." Like, that was two years ago. So that kind of shit. It's a totally different feeling and it presents new challenges. I think the really cool part about working in a startup is that you get handed a lot of things. The good thing about WHOOP is that we really have a good product. I'm not having to force it onto people. We never pay anyone to wear it, we never even have to ask people to. If we get it into someone's hand, they're probably going to like it,. It can kinda sell itself. You get exposed to a lot and it gets easier and easier. The more you get handed the smarter and smarter you get. I feel like I've gotten exposed to a ton of stuff that normally someone my age wouldn't get exposed to. Being able to learn from great people and grow quickly.
- One of the things that I loved about working there for a month and you touched on it: the cohesiveness of the company. Working with every department. I feel like you don't necessarily see that a ton? And I feel like that's one of the cool things about a startup. You kind of have to, but it allows you to learn more, grow faster, and become a better employee.
- Yeah! Being able to understand what somebody else is working on and how they're going to think about it, gives you so much more ability to ask for something. Like, I don't know how to write code. I know some of what it entails and having perspective to realize how hard some of the things I'd ask are. I think it opens up a lot more fluid conversation. Knowing their priorities while we talk and seeing where it may line up on the product road map. All the while knowing how long it may take. We all get to communicate and you learn a whole lot more about what other people do. Because marketing people think differently than software people. People start to figure each other out which allows people to ask different questions and feel more open about asking harder ones too. Another thing is knowing my work is going to impact the company in how big it gets but also how it's perceived. To be able to see your work actually translate to an impactful piece of what's going on out there. And every time you see your work impact, it improves your future investment. I think that's why a lot
of people get involved with startups. Being able to be involved with everyone that's doing one big thing.
- And especially with our generation, I feel like that's one of the reasons why startups are so popular for the younger generations. We get dogged for it a lot, but we want to learn everyday and grow everyday. I feel like that's what a startup allows you to do while also being able to see your work impact.
- It's funny you bring up generations. You know TikTok? My younger sister is on it and has been begging me to get on it. So I finally got on it to see what it's all about. I open it up and it's just 15 year olds dancing to the same song. So I read about it and think, Okay, this generation is clearly different from mine. You got the boomer generation that's the 'put your head down and get your work done and don't complain about stuff.' Then you have '65-'85 and our generation which is like '85-'97 or whatever it is. And for whatever reason, everybody thinks we're the Gen Z group. Everybody is blaming Millennials for Gen Z problems and then Millennials hate Gen Z because they get all the blame. Gen Z hates everybody because they think everyone is so austere. Millennials have always been more of the interesting people to advertise to. They have all the moral compass of all the people before them, but also the means of today to do it. Like having Instagram to be a self-sufficient way of the American Dream type thing. The earlier generations are going to be like, "Oh, thats such a shitty way to live." But it is what it is. Times are different and I can make a lot of money on my own. So it's a weird time to live in.
- I always tell people that our generation is the best. And I know everyone says that about their own. But we grew up before the true advancement of this technology we see today. Kind of grew up like our parents grew up and then when we got to high school it all kicked up. So we had that nostalgic childhood but were able to adapt to the rapid advancement of tech. Gen Z? All they know is what we have today. Which is wild to me!
- And my sister is only 3 1/2 or 4 years younger than me and I feel like she lives in a completely different world. She grew up where everyone had a cell phone, everyone had social media in middle school. That's a weird thought, middle school is already weird for everybody. Fucking weird and crazy time. Growing up and you have no idea what's going on.
- I'm glad social media wasn't around for us in middle school!
- Dude. It's like a highlight reel. Social media is like "This is how happy I am" and shit, when everyone has their own problems. And it's not always what's happening to people. So if you're at that age, and you see all these people doing all this awesome stuff? So much insecurity gets promoted from that. I wonder how much suicide and depression has happened from that shit. You're still trying to fit in.
- That's why I always hate when people tell these kids to toughen up. Their minds are still developing. You guys didn't have to experience that growing up so who are you to tell kids to deal with something you cant even figure out how to do on your own phone? You're getting happiness and all this cool shit shoved in your face while you're not even old enough to realize that the grass isn't always greener. Not old enough to realize those videos and pictures you're liking are of people going through their own problems as well.
- Exactly. And another crazy thing is that there is always a picture of something. You make one stupid decision and it ends up all over the internet. You're just so much more public in general. I guarantee my parents, God knows what they did, but nobody will ever know. No evidence of it. This all boomed around us in college, so there is so much video evidence of the dumb shit we did. I feel like that is so much harder to grow up with. I have a 16 year old cousin and I asked him. "Do you ever ride your bike over to your friends house and knock on his door and see if he's there?" And he's like, "No, I'll just text him." That's a key experience of being a kid is that failure of your friend isn't around. What am I going to do now? Ya know? You're exploring a little bit. Knocking on doors to round up the crew, that was the fun part. To see this younger crowd and how they're hyper aware about everyone around them and how they feel. It's such a different way to grow up. I feel like the people in between ours and Gen Z. They can be best equipped to make decisions. For humanity in the future.
- We got off on a little tangent there, which I love. But relating it back to WHOOP, how does some of that play into you all there? The platforms, digital marketing and the niches we now have across those many platforms?
- You can be so much smarter with your marketing. Rather than putting up a billboard and having no idea who is going to pass it, you go to influencer marketing. Athletes are huge in that realm. People follow their favorite athletes, people believe in their favorite athletes. So, getting that trusted referral from that athlete, you can have a million people following them every second, right? So if that guy says, "Hey I love my WHOOP strap and here is why", that is direct to one million people who care what they guy has to say. That's an important piece of the puzzle. And then there is responsibilities you have. We work with very intimate data sets. How much people are sleeping, when they sleep, literally how their body is recovering everyday, how they treat themselves. We protect that stuff as much as possible and I think privacy, data privacy in particular, is so important to keep top of mind. Especially as you're on the internet. You have to have a responsibility to the people you're advertising to and your user base. Realizing this is people's personal information. And then with being your own brand as a company, you have to be responsible in a politically correct way. Not even necessarily that, but just being good people. Showing that you're not just trying to get people's money, but more so that your message actually means something. That's important. We're not going to cut corners and edges just to make more money. We'll do things the right way to ensure that our users or potential users are held to a high standard.
- What was your biggest surprise with working with athletes and tech combined?
- I think there's a couple things. And working with athletes, they're real people. We often put athletes at a much higher standard. Like they're super humans and in some sense they are. But they're regular people. That's one of the cool things about it is that you get to some cool people as people. Even if they do have fame and a lot of money and an incredible athletic ability. They also live in a very transactional world. They have all these different entities around them. Marketing representation and all of that. And all those people are making a living off this athlete. So being able to understand that. I had a convo with a 20 year old in the NBA. We're sitting there talking and I can tell he's trying to figure it all out. He's skeptical of everybody and I thinking there is a lot of shit going on. Forced to grow up way faster than a normal 20 year old. It's the transactional part and a lot of their decisions are isolating. That's definitely one of the more interesting things. Secondly, everyone wants to pull every lever they can to be better. And everyone knows being able to have information on themselves is important. Data for sleep, recovery and trying to figure it all out. And I think thats why they use WHOOP. But people are also trying to protect themselves. So it makes sense there is some skepticism with a new product like ours. If you haven't heard of it before, you gotta trust us. We have to get them to trust us. We won't sell your data anywhere or throw your name around. We think this can help them and we want to help. So building trust is the most important thing when it comes to tech. It's a bit different if their team tells them to wear it as opposed to doing it yourself. If they want the information from you. If you're doing it for yourself, you can self analyze and see how you can fix that.
- Answered that so differently than I expected and those were things I never really thought about. Even as an athlete myself. I was expecting the lack of tech knowledge from individuals and things like that.
- No there's some truth in that too. I mean, heart rate variability is brand new. We try to make the data very digestible with the three main scores as our pillars. That's why we work with the strength staffs, coaching groups, and thought leaders in health and wellness. To help educate people on what it does. And it's an on going process. I think we're doing a better job at it now, but it's always going to be an education practice we'll have to do. The coolest thing is that it can detect things like emotional stress and diet. Things that are really difficult to quantify. I always think that WHOOP can quantify the qualitatives. Which is so different from other products. FitBit will count your steps, Catapult can detect how fast you move. None of that is internal. You couldn't tell what was effecting you physiologically. Your job, the meal you had, that shitty phone call earlier. It factors in to what we put out everyday. It's a really interesting way to gauge your next day.
- And here we get to my must ask. Do you have a phrase or motto you live your life by day-to-day? What do you strive to live your life by?
- Understanding. The word as whole. You can never really set yourself up for success, unless you understand the situation you're in. The goal you have. To be a more nuanced person is to understand. You can read a headline and not have any substance behind what it means. I really want to understand the topic, the people I am talking to, their point of view. You keep getting better if you're a more nuanced human. It's like being an athlete. If you understand your strengths or weaknesses, you'll have a better opportunity to get even better. Or your opponents as well. Just a better overall opportunity to succeed. I think it's an important word. Like I don't have a phrase or anything like that. I'm not going to be like, "WIN THE DAY!" If you understand more, you can learn more, and apply more, and help more.
- I love it. I like words better than catch phrases anyways. The last one is a fun one. If you had ten seconds to pitch WHOOP, what would we get?
- See this thing on my wrist? It's going to tell you exactly how hard your body works everyday. It's going to tell you how much sleep yo get and how good that sleep was. And every single morning how recovered your body was on a 1-100 scale. How many seconds I got left?