The market for healthy eating is booming. Florian Weißenstein and Sebastian Weber, alumni of TU Ilmenau, recognized this early on and launched their calorie-counting app YAZIO in 2014. Starting as an idea in the former students' shared room, the start-up has risen to become the market leader in Europe today. More than 80 million users worldwide already trust the app for weight management. In an interview, the founders reveal how they set up their company without outside capital and why their app is so successful.
TU spin-offs: What became of ...
YAZIO? European market leader among calorie counter apps
In 2008, you launched yazio.de as a nutrition and health portal with a comprehensive calorie table. How did the idea come about and were there already similar offerings on the market back then?
Sebastian: It all started as a kind of hobby project during our studies. At that time, we lived together in a 2-person shared apartment. Since we have always been very interested in the topics of fitness and nutrition and at the same time were and are very Internet and technology-savvy, it was only a matter of time before we set up a joint project.
Florian: One day we were looking for a calorie chart in combination with a nutrition diary for our own needs, so to speak. There were already a few websites, but none of them could offer us exactly what we were looking for. And then we thought, "Why don't we just build our own website?". And that's how the original idea for YAZIO came about right in our shared living room.
Would you say you had the right feeling at that time for an offer that would appeal to health-conscious consumers?
Florian: Yes, definitely. On the one hand, because of our passion for precisely these topics and, on the other hand, because we ourselves were already on the consumer side. So we knew exactly what we had to and wanted to focus on. In terms of the calorie chart and the food diary, on the one hand it was very important to us to create a platform where we could provide visitors with a huge collection of reliable, detailed nutritional information and an effective way to track their diet in detail. On the other hand, our focus was also on making the interface as clear and user-friendly as possible, to make it as easy and intuitive to use as possible.
Which target groups is the app aimed at and how does it help you lose weight?
Sebastian: YAZIO is aimed at adults worldwide who have a specific health or nutrition goal in mind. This can be, for example, a specific desired weight that they want to achieve by losing or gaining weight or building muscle. Or they have already reached this goal and would like to maintain it in the long term. But even if someone wants to neither gain nor lose weight, but simply lead a generally balanced life and develop new healthy (eating) habits, YAZIO is the best place to start. In these endeavors, the app supports the user:inside with a variety of effective features, such as a calorie counter, a huge food and recipe database, detailed nutritional information and analysis, various fasting trackers and much more.
Florian: All these features not only help to keep an eye on calorie intake at all times, but furthermore to get a feeling for nutrition and one's own eating behavior. This makes it easy to identify existing habits and, if necessary, develop new ones based on this knowledge. Regardless of the specific goal, YAZIO's top priority is that all of this is done in a healthy and sustainable way.
You graduated from the Technical University of Ilmenau in 2011 and founded your company. What experiences did you have during this initial founding period?
Florian: When we founded our company at the end of 2011, the focus was on our website with the calorie table and the nutrition diary, as well as on various online stores. In 2014, the app was added. The early days were primarily characterized by drive and our motivation to get something really great off the ground. On the one hand, this time was totally exciting and thrilling, but on the other hand, it was also extremely challenging and hard. We had a vision and a clear picture of what we wanted to achieve, but starting a company from scratch was completely new territory for us at that time. Therefore, there were not only ups but also some downs and it was not uncommon for us to work through weekends. If I'm honest, we also thought about throwing in the towel more than once.
Sebastian: One of the biggest initial challenges was the issue around funding and finding investor:in. We had several talks and pitches, but unfortunately - or in retrospect rather fortunately - without success. So in the end we decided to finance everything ourselves. The search for office space, on the other hand, was very uncomplicated, thanks in part to the Ilmenau Technology and Start-up Center. Thus, we had the opportunity to use office space in the TGZ for the first years, approximately from 2011 to 2013. In addition, we received a lot of support from the Thüringer Aufbaubank in the first years, among other things in the form of rent and personnel subsidies. At this point, once again a big "Thank you!" to the TGZ and the TAB! When it was time to expand our team, we quickly found qualified reinforcements thanks to our connection to the Technical University of Ilmenau and the generally high density of students in the area.
How has the start-up developed since its founding?
Sebastian: Since its founding, YAZIO has experienced incredible development. Our user numbers have multiplied exponentially over the past few years. In Europe, where we were mainly represented in the beginning, we have now become the market leader. In addition, we have entered many other international markets over the years, such as South America or the USA, where we are constantly expanding our presence.
Florian: But not only our user base, but also our team has grown many times over the years. Today, we are proud to have a team of over 70 employees working every day to make the world a healthier place. While the majority works remotely, part of our team sits in our recently renovated office in the old Carthusian Church in Erfurt, which we moved into in 2017. And last but not least, of course, the YAZIO app itself has evolved significantly. Over time, we have continuously improved the app by revising and optimizing existing features, but also repeatedly developing and implementing completely new functions.
At the moment, apps for losing weight are swarming the app stores. You are now the market leader in Europe. What makes your app so successful?
Sebastian: We currently have over 80 million users worldwide. There are many reasons why this number has been growing continuously for years. One of them is that we put a lot of focus on making our app intuitive and user-friendly. Reaching a certain desired weight or forming new habits can feel like an impossible task for many at first. We see it as our job to relieve them of this worry and actively support them on their personal path.
Florian: Speaking of "personal paths": Another aspect that makes YAZIO so special is the ability to customize almost every area and feature of the app to your own needs and personal situation. Especially with topics like nutrition, weight and health, this is extremely important in our eyes because they are so individual.
Sebastian: We could list a few more reasons here, but the last and one of the most important points we would like to mention at this point is our team. When hiring new employees, we have always attached great importance to ensuring that they not only meet our professional requirements, but also fit in well with us in human terms and in terms of their values. Over the years, we have been able to build a really great team, which is directly reflected in the quality of our product.
What kind of work is behind a successful app? What areas do you work in and what does your day-to-day work look like?
Florian: It's unfortunately a very common assumption that apps are small projects that don't require much work, which incidentally also leads to the expectation that they should therefore be free. But in fact, there is a lot more work behind it than many think. At YAZIO, we have over 10 different departments, from development to marketing to a legal department and even a dedicated team for our recipes.
Sebastian: Our day-to-day work includes both strategic and operational tasks. Basically, our role is to define the direction of the company and the next steps together with our team, but also to keep an overview of the current situation in the company and in the market. To do this, we have daily meetings where we exchange ideas and keep up to date on current projects with each other, but also with the various managers in the company. In addition to such internal and external meetings, we also invest a lot of time in competitive analysis and brainstorming sessions.
What are your plans for the future?
Sebastian: As our ultimate goal, we pursue the vision of changing the lives of as many people as possible for the better through healthy eating habits. Our mission is to help them develop healthy, realistic and sustainable (eating) habits through a user-friendly and nutrition-based solution. To this end, we continue to work, among other things, to establish the YAZIO app and brand as a quality product and feature, and to further expand our presence worldwide. In doing so, we not only want to focus on our strongest markets at the moment, but also continue to open up new markets worldwide and solidify our position there. And, of course, we want to continue to do this with the best possible product! That's why we continue to focus on making the app as user-friendly as possible and adapting it as much as possible to the wishes and needs of our users.
In an interview, you described universities as "incubators for entrepreneurship". To what extent did your studies at the TU Ilmenau and the environment on campus inspire and enable you to realize your product idea and found a start-up?
Florian: TU Ilmenau played a big role for us in realizing our idea and founding YAZIO. In addition to the very good academic education itself, it was, among other things, the aspect of freedom and personal responsibility during our studies that we were able to benefit greatly from. By being able to freely divide our time, we also had the opportunity to deal with projects alongside our studies and really pursue these ideas.
Sebastian: Another point worth mentioning were the inspiring people and the atmosphere on campus. Due to the high diversity and internationality on campus, we had a lot of contact with students from many different countries. We were able to learn and take away a lot from this intercultural exchange, not only personally, but also with regard to the design and implementation of our idea. At the same time, we were able to benefit from the technical courses at TU Ilmenau, through which we were able to quickly find qualified working students.
Florian: And last but not least, we received incredibly valuable support from the TGZ as well as from the "Auftakt" initiative with its excellent network and consulting services.
What tips and advice would you give to prospective founders at universities?
Florian: There are so many factors and aspects to consider when starting a business. However, the most important thing and our biggest piece of advice for aspiring founders is: Just do it! If you don't start and at least try to turn your idea into reality, even the best concept will be useless. And that's where most of them fail.
Sebastian: It is impossible to prepare for every eventuality in advance. Of course, the framework conditions have to be defined and well thought out. But a lot is also "learning by doing". Therefore: Just start, dare to take the first step and get the ball rolling. And when the ball starts rolling downhill and not only uphill, remember that this is normal. Don't let this discourage you and keep at it. Good luck to all of you!