This week we sat down with Josh Clemente, founder of Levels. Levels is a device that tracks your blood glucose in real time so you can maximize your diet and exercise. Prior to founding Levels, Clemente was the Lead Life Support Systems Engineer at SpaceX.
What’s your ultimate vision with Levels?
The long term vision for the company is to make a meaningful difference in metabolic outcomes in the world. We intend to do that by having the most robust and actionable model of metabolic health possible.
We’re going to provide an elegant, obvious interface with information that defines metabolic health as close to the point of decision making as possible. This will make it easy for people to know how to make a better choice and to see the results of their choices stacking up. It will truly be the metabolic health coach in your pocket.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started your company?
The biggest lesson for me has been to embrace transparency. If simply knowing about your idea is enough for someone to replicate it, then it’s not a very good idea in my opinion. There should be significant execution risk. There should be a challenge that has to be overcome.
In the past, my approach has been, “I need to keep this thing hidden. I need to be wary of sharing information about this so no one else goes out and does it.” It was really when I partnered with my cofounder, Sam, that I started to understand the flaws of that mindset. He framed it best for me, saying that at this company we share information promiscuously because it’s the best way for potential advocates to see inside your organization, see inside your mind, and understand how you think about and tackle problems. I really wish I had known that and embraced that earlier in the life cycle.
I found it very interesting that you weren’t just marketing towards current and aspiring professional athletes, but instead are modeling the lifestyle brand for regular people to help them make better decisions.
The question that I frame is: you’re sitting down for lunch, what are you going to eat and why? And that’s a very simple question, but most people feel ill equipped to answer that with any quantitative output. They answer, “Well, I’m going to eat something that tastes good,” or, “I think I’ll eat something that I’ve heard is healthy,” but they don’t have any concrete objective data that’s driving that choice.
The people that do know are the ones that have PhDs in physiology or metabolism, and that needs to change. We need to take the disconnect of research versus action and bring these two things together and mesh them into a framework for making better choices. It has to be based on the individual. It can’t be based on population sets or general advice.
When your personal body tells you something, you listen, and that’s the light bulb concept behind what we’re doing. After using Levels, you will never look at food the same way again, and this is a good thing. You start to feel confident in the choices you’re making and your choices are supported by data.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?
The biggest risk for me was leaving my leadership role at SpaceX. I was working on the life support systems team that just flew Bob and Doug to the international space station. It was bittersweet to leave.
I moved cross country to start an entrepreneurial adventure that was in a totally different field, totally different industry. And honestly, the industry did not exist. It was thinking, “Oh, I’ll start a new one,” which was kind of insane.
A year and a half later when I had zero traction, it felt like a devastatingly bad choice. I was getting nowhere on my own and the insecurity was kind of creeping in, “This is crazy. What did you do? Why’d you do this? SpaceX wouldn’t take you back if you tried now.” I think everyone deals with this type of insecurity when they jump off a ledge, so to speak. I certainly felt like I was in freefall for some time.
Ultimately things turned around by just continuing to have confidence in the underlying concept and its potential. I had already changed my own life as a result of using continuous glucose monitoring information; that was the thread of objective knowledge that there is something here that kept me pushing ahead. Having that confidence, having that bit of personal skin in the game, helped me to pull through that crazy decision to leave a leadership role at a company that is doing unparalleled things.
How do you get unstuck in that situation where you’re a year and a half in and you don’t have traction? What’s going through your head? How do you keep going and get to where you are now?
It was the realization that I had allowed myself to forget the value of an exceptional team. Going back to SpaceX, the most groundbreaking thing about it is the quality of the people and the action oriented culture that the team operates under. Elon Musk is a great guy and I’ll get to him in a minute, but he is not the reason SpaceX is successful.
It doesn’t matter how good the quality of your ideas are. It’s whether or not you have the team that can execute. I allowed myself to forget that. I tried to do this venture solo and tried to make significant progress on my own. The inflection point was when I realized that I needed help, I needed support. I needed a framework that was built with multiple perspectives.
I had known my cofounder Sam, who’s a good friend of mine, for several years and he and I stay in touch about our projects. One of us reached out and we had a deep conversation about what I was working on and the light bulb went off in his mind too. At that moment, there was a 48 hour period basically where we went from conversation to partnership and what I had worked on for a year and a half with very little inertia became a real thing overnight. It was just the force multiplier of having two minds on it.
Eventually as the team came together, it’s gone in an unbelievable amount of time from an idea to a reality. I think the lesson is to just realize your own limitations. It’s always better to have support, to find people who have similar values and work together.
Who did you look up to while growing up and who inspires you today?
I’ve always looked up to my dad and then my grandfather. These two guys have shaped my worldview in ways that are just kind of hard to fully describe. My understanding of independence and equality, the benefits of challenging the status quo and thinking outside the box, hard work, and close relationships are all things that I learned from them specifically.
My mom is also another hero in my life. She patiently taught me from kindergarten through 12th grade. I was homeschooled. Having those tight relationships with my parents and my grandfather, I am cognizant of those lessons learned and how impactful role models can be.
Today, I’m inspired by Elon Musk. This is a guy who completely ignores the objective impossibility of his ideas, and he just works to shape the future in his mental image. He’s just says, “This is how it should be. I’m gonna make it happen.” Many say that what he is doing is “crazy” or “impossible” but he does it anyway.
It is challenging to push past the limitations other people put on you and I continue to be blown away with Musk’s work. I’ve worked with him, everyone’s got their faults, but this guy is someone I think is utterly inspirational for me and for many generations to come.
How did homeschooling shape you?
The biggest thing is that it taught me to teach myself. When I got to college, I went to class maybe 40% of the time. I would take the textbook, sit down, and teach myself through reverse engineering problems. I take the answer key in the problem and figure out how the concept works. That was kind of how I learned. I learned by myself basically because I’m from a large family and my mom did a really good job showing us how to string together those concepts. That’s what mattered, not so much reading and trying to memorize the words in the book.
My parents were both nonconventional in many ways. We were allowed to set our own schedule and I spent a lot of time outside in the woods. I spent a lot of time in the garage building crazy machines that were made out of chainsaws and bicycles. That homeschooling environment of being able to really think independently and freely ended up being what I think got me my job at SpaceX, because I knew how to build stuff. I knew how to solve problems that I had not seen before because I needed to teach myself. I think you can get a lot of this through various means of education.
I certainly feel that I was lucky to have had that opportunity. And, in retrospect, even though I didn’t like it while I was going through it, I think it was critical to where I am today.
What do you think the future of software is?
I’m going to caveat this by saying I’m not an expert. My personal career has been in hardware, but I do have some feelings about this. I think, in general, the future of software is that there will be more of it and it will be more actionable and insightful rather than just this utilitarian toolset. When I hear the word software, I think about Microsoft Excel. I think the software of the future is the integrated external second brain. Obviously we hear that term a lot, but something that is a layer in our lives that helps us make better choices every day.
Of course, I have a personal reason for believing that. This is what Levels is doing. Look at the future of health software as an example. It will be predictive and much more like financial software than our current medical records, which are totally useless; no one has ever consulted their personal medical record to make a decision in their lives. Today, I can pull out my phone and I can pull out my mobile banking apps and see my retirement projections, 15 to 30 years in the future. I have an opportunity to share that information with an expert, to get their opinions. I can see projections, best and worst case outcomes.
Yet the question I would ask myself is, “How do I know I’m going to be there to enjoy that retirement?” I think the future of software will be our health information being available in the moment via software in the same way that we use our financial information now. It will help guide you in real time so you understand the “deposits and transactions” you’re making daily and how the interest on those “assets and liabilities” are going to set you up for good or bad outcomes. I see the future of software as being embedded, useful, and actionable.