Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Joe Cohen and I’m the founder and CEO of SelfDecode. The company was born out of the journey I went through to decode myself.
Today, SelfDecode helps thousands of people discover personalized diet, supplement, and lifestyle recommendations based on their DNA and lab tests. We cater directly to consumers and also partner with health practitioners & clinics. We also provide genomic infrastructure to other businesses.
I designed SelfDecode to be an all-in-one health software with our flagship feature being our DNA Wellness Reports. Our advanced AI and machine learning algorithms take your DNA file and analyze and predict 83 million genetic variants. Then, we provide you with personalized genetic risk scores for a wide variety of health topics from anxiety to blood pressure.
We don’t stop there though. In my opinion, providing people with risk scores without recommendations usually does more harm than good. With SelfDecode, you also get personalized health recommendations that are prioritized based on your unique genetic variants. No other company is currently doing this.
However, your genes are just one piece of your health story. That’s why we also offer the SelfDecode Lab Analyzer where you can upload or order lab tests and get easy-to-understand analysis and recommendations. Our lab analyzer also measures your results using functional lab ranges, because “normal” doesn’t mean optimal when it comes to lab tests.
In 2021, we launched a crowdfunding campaign and raised a total of $8M and have generated about $2.7M in revenue over the past year. SelfDecode started with my desire to just get healthy and now we’re poised to change the future of health care as we know it. If that isn’t motivation to go after what you want in life, I don’t know what is.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I always say that I won the genetic lottery of bad genes.
When it comes to building a business, the most important thing is hiring the right people. If you don’t have a good team, your company will never grow.
Growing up, I suffered from a variety of health issues that doctors could never get to the bottom of. I suffered from gut inflammation, brain fog, food sensitivities, and lots of other random health problems that left me sick and flunking out of college. Every aspect of my life was affected by my health issues, from my ability to hold a job to be able to maintain relationships.
Doctors wanted to prescribe me dozens of pills to address individual symptoms. No one was addressing the root cause of my problems. Finally, I decided it was time for a change.
I didn’t start with intentions to build a multi-million dollar business. I just wanted to be healthy. And I was willing to do anything it took to make that happen.
I read thousands of PubMed articles, started learning everything I could about genetics, and began experimenting with different supplements, diets, and lifestyle changes. I started selfhacked.com as a personal blog where I documented the health strategies I found. I had practically no money to invest in the site, but it gained traction organically because, as it turns out, there are a lot of people out there with a story similar to mine: suboptimal health issues that don't have a quick drug fix.
In 2017, I partnered with a few scientists and researchers as SelfHacked grew and we started working on SelfDecode. I had spent countless hours researching my genes to find solutions that worked and I wanted to make that process easier for people.
Fortunately, I had grown the organic traffic on SelfHacked enough so that I was able to use the ad and affiliate revenue from SelfHacked to finance the start of SelfDecode.
You shouldn’t limit yourself to people who live in your city. I operate a fully remote team with employees all over the world. Don’t count them out just because they can’t come to work in your office.
We grew more slowly than some startups because I was committed to building a product that worked. It had to be scientifically accurate and good R&D isn’t cheap. But, people’s health depends on our product and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice quality.
Still, by 2020, we closed out the year with over $2 million in revenue and were able to grow our science and engineering team. This allowed us to launch the second version of our platform in 2021 and build highly accurate genetic analysis models rivaled only by 23andme.
By using a technique called genetic imputation, our system turns the ~500,000 SNPs that most genotyping chips cover into data for over 83 million additional variants, all with an accuracy rate of 99.7%.
When it comes to determining risk scores, unlike many companies who rely on information from only a dozen or so variants, we utilize polygenic risk scores. Our algorithms combine the information from up to a million genetic variants to determine a person’s chance of developing a specific trait or condition.
Then, our team of scientists test and validate the algorithm models, and fine-tune their risk calculations for different ethnic groups.
Take us through the process of designing your service.
Most people test the market before building a product. I highly suggest entrepreneurs do this before investing time and money in product development.
But for me, it truly was a “build it and they will come” scenario. I built SelfDecode for myself, for my health. Because I needed it to have a life that I enjoyed living.
SelfDecode started as an SNP explorer and symptoms analyzer so that people could upload their genetic file, see their genetic variants and discover if they had risk variants related to their symptoms. I spoke with other biohackers, read through Reddit threads, and got feedback from our early customers.
Then, we started building Wellness Reports to give people a holistic look at how multiple genes could be affecting them in a certain health area, like inflammation.
We needed to build a platform that would take the information in a genetic file and display it in a way that was useful for people and connect specific genes to specific health issues.
However, the first version of SelfDecode was built with biohackers and science nerds in mind. It included lots of detailed scientific information and was built for people who wanted to really “dig into their genes”. It also used the typical DNA report analysis approach at that time - only analyzing the most popular 5 - 50 variants related to a topic.
It was our MVP, but then we started on version 2. We also started selling our DNA kits, because we started attracting more customers who didn’t already have a file.
For this, we had to find a lab to partner with. There are plenty to choose from, but we wanted to make sure our labs were located in the U.S. or Europe rather than China where many other companies secretly do sequencing but don't tell their customers (the Chinese government has access to any information they want from labs on their soil).
When building the SelfDecode 2.0 platform, we focused on improving the design, user experience and made it more easily understood and navigated by the general population. We had to hire very good UI/UX designers who were able to take scientific information and make it easy for people to navigate.
Most importantly, we advanced our scientific models. By adding 65+ scientists and engineers to our team, we were able to build a cutting-edge genetic risk predictor for chronic health issues (Polygenic Risk Scores/PRS).
Genomics is a fairly complex field. The human genome contains 3 billion base pairs, making accurate analysis a complex intersection of science and technology. Because we were dealing with health information, it was also very important to consult with individuals well-versed in FDA regulations to avoid any legal concerns.
We use deep learning AI models to analyze a million+ variants, rather than just look at a few variants for a given topic. It made risk scores and recommendations 10X more accurate and meaningful.
However, there were some challenges with storage and file processing due to the amount of data contained within each genetic file. It required a very skilled R&D and engineering team to overcome these challenges.
Additionally, we brought our Lab Analysis software, which was previously a separate service, into the SelfDecode platform for a true one-stop-shop for personalized health recommendations
Describe the process of launching the business.
I built a following with SelfHacked. By sharing my biohacking health journey through blog posts and podcasts, I had managed to build an email list of followers who were like me in many ways.
Mostly, they wanted to achieve optimal health.
I emailed my list regularly, I even did some 1:1 health consultations with clients for a little while. So, when it was time to launch SelfDecode, I had a list of about 30,000 people who were extremely excited about this next stage of my health journey and they wanted to be a part of it.
The first few thousand customers came quickly and easily. They were all from my email list. I didn’t start running paid ads until 2020; 3 years after I launched my business. I focused very heavily on building my list through organic efforts and nurturing them with value-based content.
It’s crazy to think about how many people have been invested in my health journey. We launched an equity crowdfunding campaign in early 2021 and the support from people who have been around since the very beginning of SelfHacked just blew me away.
We chose equity crowdfunding because we had many users through the years who were interested in investing, but didn’t have a lot to invest. By launching an equity crowdfunding campaign, we were able to allow our customers to own a piece of the software they were so passionate about.
Ultimately, we chose WeFunder as our equity crowdfunding platform and after submitting the required financial forms, we were able to launch our campaign with great success.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
During the first few years of building my company, I focused largely on organic marketing efforts such as SEO, podcasts, and email marketing.
My first website, selfhacked.com, was attracting 1.5+ million visitors per month and I offered readers free ebooks/eguides in exchange for their email address.
My email marketing strategy focused on providing value, not making sales.
I found that when I focused on providing value when it was time to make an offer, the sales came. I gained the trust of my readers. They knew I believed in my product and that I had used it to change my own life.
Here’s an example of one of my emails (you can read the full email here):
SelfHacked became one of the top trusted sources for health information and I appeared on podcasts, spoke at conferences, and partnered with many other leaders in my industry to cross-promote products.
I believe that my focus on organic efforts within the beginning stages of my company is what allowed it to grow and thrive within the precision health industry. I built a level of trust and a loyal following that can be difficult to achieve solely through paid advertising efforts.
However, in 2019, Google introduced some core algorithm changes that penalized alternative health websites and resulted in a sharp decline in organic traffic on SelfHacked. Thus, I turned to paid advertising.
I started with Facebook ads. We were able to use our list to build lookalike audiences and start collecting more leads. These new leads went through the same funnels and received the same value-based emails as previously obtained organic leads.
Although the new leads from paid ads converted at a lower rate than the organically generated leads, we saw significant increases in conversion numbers when it came time for big sales, like Black Friday.
Recently, we’ve been working to build out our affiliate program and expand our paid advertising efforts across numerous platforms (e.g. Google, Facebook, Quora, LinkedIn). Our affiliate program offers partners high commission rates (50%), with an AOV of $200 and typical conversion rates of 3% - 10% depending on the partner.
One strategy that works well with affiliates is giving them a custom landing page with a banner that mentions the affiliate. That way, fans continue to feel connected to the influencer, even while on your landing page.
When affiliates hear about our terms, they get excited, which helps to further our reach and easily attract new customers within our niche.
In terms of retaining customers, we are always working on improving our product. We continuously add new health reports to our platform and regularly release new features. We employ top-notch customer service representatives and keep a customer-first mindset in everything we do. That has allowed us to maintain a very low churn rate (around 1.5%) and high ratings on Trustpilot.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’re soon to close out our first round of funding from equity investors, including over $1+ million in crowdfunding through our Wefunder campaign. This is on top of the $7M we raised in 2021 from family offices of people who used the product.
We are profitable when excluding R&D, which is by far the biggest expense of the company. We are committed to making sure our science is the best.
Raising capital has enabled us to rapidly grow our science team, accelerate our product development and invest in customer acquisition.
I’m excited about this new phase of our growth and humbled by the faith so many people have shown by investing in SelfDecode.
Today we have about 80 full-time team members, a handful of part-time people, and over 60,000 active subscribers.
One thing I’ve realized is that many people are looking for even more support in understanding the real science behind optimizing their health.
With that realization, a new focus of ours is empowering functional and integrative health practitioners with even more advanced tools and training. So, that qualified professionals can better guide people on their health journeys with AI-driven insights based on the person’s specific genomics and lab markers.
In addition, we realize the powerful tools we built can help advance the genomic revolution, and we are licensing these tools to other businesses.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
When it comes to building a business, the most important thing is hiring the right people. If you don’t have a good team, your company will never grow, which is why I’ve spent a lot of time developing advanced hiring software that allows me to accept and sort through large numbers of people to find the best.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My favorite tool is that hiring platform I mentioned that I had custom built to ensure that we only hire the absolute best people. It’s a pretty advanced system that includes tests and analysis of applicants’ scores.
However, my software isn’t available to the public (yet!), so here are some of my other go-to tools:
- Business tools: Google Workspace
- Communication: Slack
- Email Marketing: Active Campaign
- Affiliate Program: Post Affiliate Pro
- On-site Engagement Platform: Convertbox
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The best lessons I ever learned came from doing the research myself. When I was solving my health issues, I read through thousands of PubMed articles and did a lot of self-experimentation.
I found that there are never one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to your health or your business. I’ve learned that compiling the research from many different sources and then making my own informed decision based on what I know about myself, or my business almost always produces the best results.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Hire well and surround yourself with a good team. I know I sound like a broken record here, but I truly believe that hiring is the key to a successful business.
Another important aspect when it comes to hiring is that you shouldn’t limit yourself to people who live in your city. I operate a fully remote team with employees all over the world. There are very talented, and sometimes more affordable, people out there who would love to work with you. Don’t count them out just because they can’t come to work in your office.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for talented people to join our team. Here’s our Careers page where you can learn more about working with us and see what positions we have available.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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