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13 Questions with Fitbit's James Park

Dec 29 2017
Harrison Barnes
Dallas Mavericks
Dec 29 2017

B asketball is my first love, but it’s not my only one. From the small town in Iowa where I grew up, to Chapel Hill for college, to the Bay Area and now to Dallas, I’ve been lucky in my life to get to meet a wide variety of people, each with their own beliefs, dreams, habits, and outlooks on the world. Interacting with different people with different stories sparked my curiosity about what makes people not only good at what they do, but good, period. I am drawn to leaders who set out to make positive change in their communities.

In that spirit, I’m doing a series of interviews this season with people who I admire from afar. I want to get to know them better and share our conversations here.

Up this week is James Park, the CEO and co-founder of Fitbit, who, along with co-founder Eric Friedman created the wearable company in 2007. I first got to know James when he brought me onto the team as a “Fitbit ambassador.” But this isn’t an interview he asked me to do. My time in the Bay Area got me really interested in tech and business, and that’s how we met. As I got to know James more and more, I realized how cool his life story is. I recently learned that he dropped out of Harvard as an undergrad to become an entrepreneur. Wait till I tell him I dropped out, too.


Harrison Barnes

I think I know what everybody wants to know about the CEO of Fitbit. What’s your average step count?

James Park

Hahaha. It depends on the month, really. There was a stretch where I was doing 15–20,000 steps a day. When I’m really busy with work, I’m probably doing 8–9,000 a day, but I try to hit an average of 10,000 a day.

Harrison

Not bad … but safe to say that I’ve got you on step count. What is something that you believed in your twenties that you still believe today and something you don’t?

James

I think it’s maybe more of a question of outlook. In my twenties, just by virtue of not having experience, I was definitely naive and optimistic when it came to, for instance, building companies. I think, in a lot of ways, that helped — because it didn’t really occur to me why I couldn’t do something. Now, since I’m a little bit more experienced — and I’ve experienced more failures — I’m more cautious. So I always think back to my twenties and sometimes think, Well, if I were back there now, how would I think about the problems? That’s been a useful way of approaching things as I get a little bit older.

Harrison

I really like that perspective. Do you believe that you can have a lot of success — build a great company — and also do well in the community? Do you think those missions co-exist in this industry?

James

Yeah, I think there are a lot of examples of companies in the Bay that do really well at both. I know that we do a lot of it, working with relevant charities — we’ve done step challenges and funded prizes and everything. I think, luckily for us, because of the company’s mission, we’re able to naturally work with a lot of organizations and help people — just through the work we do every day with the company. So that’s been motivating for me, and I think motivating for a lot of people who work here, and it’s a big reason why people actually choose to come here and work.

Harrison

Favorite food? I’m going somewhere with this.

James

Well, if I had to pick one food that I’d eat for the rest of my life, it’d probably be some type of Korean dish.

Harrison

Perfect. Which dish?

James

Korean barbecue.

Harrison

O.K., great, Korean barbecue. So if you’re having Korean barbecue and you had to pick one leader in the world, at any point in history, to sit down and have a meal with, who would you choose and what would you ask them?

James

You know, if it’s the present day, I’m really interested in talking to leaders who aren’t running companies or countries that are the biggest. I think, in some ways, size and power address a lot of problems, just naturally. But leaders of countries like Germany or Singapore — that are really dynamic — have to be a lot more creative and diplomatic and thoughtful in the way they approach their citizens and other leaders around the world. I think watching and understanding how they work could be a really instrumental education. Then, as far as the past, I always like to think about people who were leaders in really challenging times. There are obvious ones like Abraham Lincoln, the greatest American president in my opinion. I think the challenges he faced, I don’t need to state the obvious, were incredible. I just read an autobiography on Alexander Hamilton and saw the play as well.

Harrison

Absolutely. You know, when we talk about leadership —  in sports, politics, business — we talk a lot about success but not a whole lot about failure. Do you believe that failure can teach us more about leadership than success can?

James

Yes … but not too much failure, I suppose. Take the case of Fitbit early on. My co-founder, Eric, and I had a lot of challenges in the first couple of years. We had issues trying to raise money from VCs, for instance. And rather than getting discouraged or just saying, “They don’t get it,” there were always things we could take away to either improve the product that we were building or the way we were presenting. It was taking those lessons and transforming them into success that led us to become the leading global wearables brand. So, there are always things to learn.

Harrison

Did you grow up a sports fan?

James

Well, I grew up in Cleveland. Yes, I have a lot of painful sports memories. And I have Warriors season tickets, so when people ask me who I root for now, I decline to state. Haha. No, but this ties into the failure question. I think with Cleveland, there are so many sports failures that people have learned to be very resilient around sports. There’s, you know, the Fumble, the Drive, the Browns. The Indians blew the World Series a couple times in the ’90s and a year ago against the Cubs in Game 7. You know, there’s the Cavs, too, but I’m not gonna go there with you.

Harrison

Haha. Moving along, then. One thing I definitely want to get into with you, since you’re based in Silicon Valley, is the lack of diversity in business and specifically in tech. Why do you think that diversity has been such an issue in Silicon Valley?

James

I think there are a lot of root causes. One, historically, is rooted in the fundamental DNA of Silicon Valley — technology. And if you look at just schools, starting from elementary school and onward, and you look at how we teach kids computer science and who gets interested and for what reasons, I think that’s lent itself to less diversity. So I think it starts there, but I think it’s also a cop out to say, “Hey look, we’ve gotta just fix stuff in the talent pipeline.” I think there are ways to think about recruiting and how we promote people internally and train people that can help improve things in the short term, too.

Harrison

Focusing a little bit more back on your work at Fitbit. How do you encourage creative thinking — thinking outside the box — whether it’s in product design, innovation, just coming up with the next “best thing?”

James

Yeah, it’s always a challenging problem. As the company gets larger, it’s more difficult to do as part of the normal process, just because I think — especially as a public company — things like predictability become more valued than in the past, when predictability was less of a desired attribute and it was more about speed and taking risks. So we try to actively foster innovation. There are things that we do around hackathons, which we call Hackbits. We’ve created a process called Fit-Starter to basically have an internal pitch process — it’s kind of like The Voice or America’s Got Talent for internal ideas.

Harrison

Coming from the sports world, I’m interested in the secrets of team culture and chemistry. How important is the culture, in terms of not only in growing the business but keeping the oil to the engine going?

James

Culture is important. I mean, people naturally think about compensation as a key attribute for keeping people happy and that is important, but culture is equally important. Who you work with, your managers, the respect that leadership gives everyone all the way down in the organization. And I think a couple of the attributes that we’ve tried to develop over the years really focused on having a collaborative environment and being as transparent as possible. Those are two things that, as we get bigger, are harder to keep up, but we’re actively trying to maintain those two cultural values.

Harrison

My mom was huge into making sure that education was a focus of mine before basketball, and it’s something that I still try to do a lot today with my charity work, so I was just wondering what advice do you have for these young kids who are trying to equip themselves to get started with their careers?

James

Yeah, I don’t think it’s a recent phenomenon, but I think maybe there is less appreciation for the steps and milestones that you have to go through to get where you want to go. You just can’t become vice president on day one at a company. So understanding that there are skills you need to build — that it’s a progression of things over a whole lifetime. It doesn’t all have to be about immediate gratification. And then secondly, you know, sometimes people ask me — because I didn’t finish college — whether I recommend it. And I say, absolutely you should finish.

Harrison

I didn’t finish, either, but I definitely agree. I hope to someday to go back and complete it.

O.K., last question. One of the generic things people always ask is, “Tell me something that people don’t know about you?” I hate that question when I get asked it, so let’s switch it up. I feel like I can learn a lot about somebody based on what kind of TV they watch, so what are your five favorite TV shows right now?

James

Better Call Saul. Westworld. Homeland. Billions. Veep, Leftovers. That’s six, but those are just the ones that come to mind that I’ve seen in the past year.

Harrison

Have you done Silicon Valley?

James

Yes, I loved the first two seasons. Then in Season 3, they hired Dick Costolo from Twitter, and it got way too realistic. When they started talking about things we do everyday at work … too close to reality!

Harrison

Same for me if they made a Ballers for the NBA — unless, you know, I got to make a cameo or something.

Well, James, I really appreciate your time. This was really interesting.

James

Great questions. Thank you.

Harrison Barnes
Dallas Mavericks