Alex started WePlate looking for a way to keep a healthy diet while on campus. After 8 months, he shut it down. Here’s what happened.
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 Education For All Foundation, a 501(c)(3) NGO I started in 2018 that provides life-changing education to underfunded elementary schools across rural China. We’re currently teaching around 1500 left-behind students living in poverty.
In early August, I shut down the nutrition startup I had been building for 8 months. WePlate was your GPS to achieve your health goals. Instead of tedious calorie counting, our diet app recommended specific meal items and portion sizes for each user’s unique dietary needs. We developed an algorithm that could calculate the ideal meal combination for any given user from a cafeteria menu by matching nutrient information with users’ biological characteristics.
We tried to sell our technology to college dining teams as a B2B SaaS product by adapting our algorithm to become an analytics tool to help set cafeteria menus and making our app available to their students. By the time we shut down, we had contacted close to 100 universities across North America. We had also analyzed and found nutritional problems within several other universities’ menus.
What’s your background, and how did you come up with WePlate’s idea?
WePlate is the first venture I’ve started outside the scope of education. In the past, I’ve started tutoring 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 mom is a dietitian, I had grown up around nutrition and had developed an intuition for nutritious portioning. You can imagine my surprise when seeing how much weight I had gained in 3 short months.
After suspecting the food was inherently unhealthy, I conducted statistical analyses and proved that it was mathematically impossible to maintain a healthy diet at the cafeteria for students of almost all dietary needs.
How did you go from idea to product?
College cafeterias - or all cafeterias, for that matter - seemed to have no idea how to set healthy menus. After digging further, we found almost no research on analyzing menus as a whole; instead, most modern nutrition solutions are only focused on the nutrients within individual food items.
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 one with hundreds of variables.
But an algorithm isn’t a product, so I went back to the drawing board and landed on one of the most fundamental behavioral science ideas - specific and convenient instructions are far more effective than vague and inaccurate suggestions. For decades, the USDA and other companies have tried to convince the public to eat healthier by telling them how to eat, but no one had created instructions that were specific and convenient for users. Existing solutions usually recommended users to eat “a fist of carbohydrates” or “274 g of chicken”, which are both incredibly impractical to follow.
To solve this issue of how to convey portion sizes, 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 next to useless because unless someone can know exactly how much food they eat (which is almost impossible in a cafeteria setting or if you’re cooking for yourself), they would not be able to calculate their nutrient intake. We solved this by simply converting every nutrient by the recommended portion size and building an indicator that told users whether they were eating too much or too little of every nutrient for their body and health goals.
Our team consisted of myself, 2 backend developers, 1 frontend developer, 1 UI/UX designer, 1 algorithm specialist, a nutrition researcher (Ph.D. in nutrition science), and a campus dietitian at a 10,000-student US university. Unfortunately, no one apart from me ever went full-time on the project. However, we did eventually build out the MVP and beta-test it at a college cafeteria, which allowed us to collect needed user data to train our algorithm.
When did things start to go in the wrong direction?
We realized that maybe we overestimated the compassion of college budgets for student health. Of the dozen colleges with which we had a first-round call, all of them ghosted us after we offered to work with them for free. Because of this, it was almost impossible to fundraise, with most investors saying they needed to see interest from customers for an untested business model.
Which were the causes of WePlate’s failure?
We shut down when we accepted that the market did not need what we built. After talking to 100 colleges, none were interested in buying a product that didn’t increase their bottom line.
We could not compete with mainstream diet apps since we found it tantalizingly difficult to fundraise in a stale market (nutrition and colleges are not growing markets).
Finally, even though college students technically needed our product, most students are more bothered about studying and their careers to pay attention to their diets. Few students outside of those who already paid heavy attention to their diets were excited about the app, even though we tried to build it for all students.
Which were your expenses? Did you achieve 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 of my savings throughout the entire venture. Our team members only took equity, so we had a little runway.
If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
While our business model failed, our core technology is still valid. There does not yet exist a solution that treats nutrition as meals across a day, instead of individual food items. Eating salad does not mean you are eating a healthy diet if that’s the only food 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 not-for-profit way. The end goal is to use this technology to help people eat healthier, but unless I raised a few million dollars, it would be almost impossible to compete with existing market leaders like MyFitnessPal and Noom.
I would also start off by talking with more customers instead of building the product first. I spent months building a product that solved a problem few wanted. I also should have spent more time thinking about marketing. After all, we could have built up a stronger, niche customer base by targeting students who already cared about diet.
Which are your favorite entrepreneurial resources?
My go-to recommendation for any aspiring entrepreneur is the book Start with Why by Simon Sinek, which explains the power of leaders and the purpose of startups. Another great book for building teams is 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.
Where can we go to learn more?
I’m now refocusing on building my NGO Education For All Foundation! We’re changing the lives of thousands of students through education - if you believe in our work, then support us by donating!
You can also check out my personal blog, where I write about entrepreneurship, philosophy, and the education system.