Noom: How the Silver Lake-backed wellness app handles vulnerable users

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In the two years Taylor worked at Noom, a New York-based wellness startup that secured funding from top tech investors such as Silver Lake and Sequoia Capital, she received alarming messages of customers trying to lose weight through its application.

Some of these messages read: “I’m bulimic”, “I eat excessively” and “I hate myself”.

“I didn’t feel prepared because I’m not a mental health counselor or a dietitian,” said Taylor, who is not her real name. “I couldn’t handle it properly.”

She is among a number of “health coaches” who have worked at Noom and who spoke to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity. They wanted to raise concerns that the design of the weight loss app and the company’s policies could harm vulnerable users.

Faced with these concerns, Artem Petakov, president and co-founder of Noom, acknowledged that the company needed to address the issue.

“Every time I hear about these issues, it really hurts. I want to fix them all . . . and we’re innovating as fast as we can,” he said. Petakov added that “the star of the North” of the company is to “save as many lives as possible”.

Artem Petakov: “Every time I hear about these problems, it really hurts” © Noom

Noom promotes itself as a platform for sustainable weight loss by applying the psychological framework of cognitive behavioral therapy and offering one-on-one support from a health coach. Founded in 2008, the company has grown rapidly during the pandemic, a time when many have complained of weight gain following global lockdowns.

In 2020, its user base grew by 250% to 3.6 million and its annual revenue doubled to $400 million. App subscriptions start at $60 per month.

Its most recent investment round in May last year, led by Silver Lake with participation from Sequoia Capital, raised $540 million, taking its valuation to $4.2 billion, according to PitchBook. It is reportedly seeking an initial public offering this year, which the company declined to comment on. Silver Lake declined to comment, and Sequoia did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Users complete a 10-minute survey which is fed into an algorithm – combined with data from other Noom users – to generate a personalized diet plan, including a daily calorie goal, psychological theory readings and a diet schedule. weightloss.

The onboarding survey asks if the user has an eating disorder and if they select yes they are not allowed to continue. When coaches escalate potentially vulnerable users, Noom said it has clinical oversight and removes about 0.1% of those cases from the platform, directing them to support resources.

But a former health coach said, “I don’t think their processes are diligent enough to protect their users.”

When Taylor reported cases that worried her, she says she was told to “walk around the issue,” rather than advising the customer to see a doctor or offer a refund. “[Noom] would say ‘don’t kick them off the platform yet,’” she added.

Trainers said female clients in particular were given “unhealthy”, “restrictive” and “unrealistic” calorie goals.

The UK NHS generally recommends that women eat 2,000 calories a day and cut 500-600 calories for healthy weight loss. Noom’s previous minimum calorie allowance was 1,200 for women, but it was increased by 10% in November, based on user feedback.

“A lot of budgets are quite low because people have a particular goal in mind and they want to be aggressive enough and we want to let them be in control,” Petakov said, adding that the calculations were done using sound scientific methods. and efficient. .

When the FT tested the platform as a woman, she was given a calorie count of 1,320 to lose 5kg at a “medium” pace. There are no warnings when a user is logging just a few hundred calories a day, unlike rival platform MyFitnessPal which prevents users from logging results if they overeat.

Taylor said she could manually review individual profiles to check calories, but her workload was so high she rarely had time for that.

Noom has 3,000 health coaches globally who are assigned to hundreds of clients at a time and are expected to respond to messages within 48 hours using the in-app service. Some coaches reported being overworked, with goals of up to 100 interactions per day.

“It’s exhausting, you can’t spend time giving the user what they deserve in terms of response,” said a former Noom trainer.

Taylor was eventually fired after the company said she had failed to meet her goals. “I still worry about those users now,” she said. “I felt disposable and Noom didn’t care.”

Noom said performance reviews were conducted for employees who consistently underperformed. There were former employees for whom Noom was not suitable, but job-related happiness remained above 80% according to employee surveys, the company added.

Health coaches follow a 75-hour training program called “Noomiversity”, covering psychological theory and communication with users, based on scripted messages from a guide called “Guru”. They do not need any health-related qualifications.

The majority of Noom’s coaches and users are based in the US, with the UK being its second largest market. Last year, Noom hired around 15 health coaches in the UK on fixed-term contracts as a trial to see if it improved user experience. The band were told in a video call that their contracts would not be renewed after asking for better working rights, a UK contractor has claimed.

Noom said the jobs were explicitly properly classified temporary roles and after assessing the market, the company decided not to renew the contracts.

Salaries for permanent coaches were equivalent to the U.S. minimum wage, people familiar with worker compensation at Noom said.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make the program affordable and balance that with salaries,” Petakov said.

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