August 19, 2015

Meet Madison’s Newest Entrepreneur:
Wes Garnett of Kurbi

A Q&A with Wes Garnett, CEO and Co-founder, Kurbi Health

Q: Tell us about your company, Kurbi. What does the company do and how did you get into it?

A: Kurbi is a goal and activity tracking app for people living with chronic pain and/or disease, who are striving to maintain an active lifestyle. Our business is to connect people to local trainers, coaches, and other resources at a discounted rate to help them safely get beyond sticking points they may encounter when trying to reach a goal. Say for instance someone is training for a 5K, but struggles with low back pain. If their pain starts to get in the way of their training, we recommend therapists or trainers with experience in treating back pain and marathon running to help them keep moving forward.

Many of the people we’re hoping will use Kurbi are likely already using a tracker of some sort, a wearable like a Fitbit or Jawbone, or a software-based product like the Apple Health app, Myfitnesspal, or Runkeeper. The issue with these solutions is that they don’t know a person is living with a chronic aliment. That may seem like a small detail, but think for a second about someone you know living with health-related limitations. Wouldn’t it seem that the specifics of that person’s story should change the way those products fundamentally work? When we started building Kurbi in 2013, we asked ourselves how a person’s health data could be leveraged to help them set achievable goals and increase their quality of life. The answer to that question is something that I’m personally affected by.

Almost 13 years ago, my mom was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). She was 43 years young. Shortly after her diagnosis my uncle and two cousins were also diagnosed. Despite years and years of doctors’ appointments, notes, tests, lab results, medications, etc. they’ve still not figured out how all that data fits into their day-to-day lives.

I’ve met hundreds of people like them since starting Kurbi.

In 2013, I read an article about Annette Fredskov that really opened my eyes. At first glance I thought she and my mom had a lot in common. The next line has haunted me for two years; it said that Annette “ran 26.2 miles every day for a year and topped off her heroic feat of endurance with a double marathon.” What’s so special about Annette? Absolutely nothing. She’s a self-described “ordinary woman.” She’s a 43-year-old mother of two. She hadn’t been a runner prior to her MS diagnosis. She ran 366 marathons in 365 days even while battling the symptoms of her MS. 

While Annette got lucky enough to find something her MS responded well to, many people don’t. Just like Annette, they were told by their doctors that their futures were grim. These statements were reinforced by friends and loved ones who thought it appropriate to tell her to slow down and not expect too much. I started Kurbi to give those people hope and to walk alongside them as they do extraordinary things that will pave the way for others to do the same. 

Q: You recently moved to Madison from Delaware to continue growing your business. What prompted this decision?

A: Most entrepreneurs are looking for a place they can call home as much as they’re looking for a place to grow their company. I was born and raised in Delaware. In the 32 years prior to moving to Madison, I hadn’t spent more than seven days outside of the state. It was abundantly clear to anyone who knows me that I was trying to build a legacy as an entrepreneur in Delaware. But as I began to meet more and more people that needed Kurbi from around the country, I was compelled to start thinking outside the box. It’s not that I couldn’t have stayed in Delaware. Nearly a third of the nation’s population either lives or works within a two-hour drive. My problem was having to drive two hours to grow my startup, but live my life in Delaware. I didn’t think that needed to be the case. 

When I saw how big companies like Google were investing in the future of Madison and read the story of Zendesk relocating here because of the high quality of life Madison provides, I figured you all were on to something.

So far, I think moving here was the best thing I could have done for my career, Kurbi, and my family. We have absolutely no regrets.

Q: What’s next for Kurbi? What kinds of growth are you aiming for?

A: We’re still in the pre-launch phase right now. The goal is to test the app through the winter and formally launch in the spring.

I’m the only one from the team in Madison right now. My objective is to build relationships, figure out distribution channels, and where our seed capital will come from.

Hopefully this time next year we’ll be passing the 60,000 user mark.

Q: You have an active background as an entrepreneur. Tell us about some of the work you did in Delaware.

A: I never set out to be an entrepreneur. It actually took a while for me to figure out that I could call myself one when I started my first company. I’ve always wanted to do work that makes an impact on the world and solves unnecessary problems. I’ve been really lucky to have had several opportunities to do that over the years.

In 2009, my business partner Steve Roettger and I started a marketing firm to help small businesses retain more customers. We started the company after we left our jobs as financial planners. We targeted small businesses, so we learned a lot about their struggles from the inside. It turned out that most marketing firms made big promises and followed fads, but never truly helped their clients grow. Once we realized it was because business owners didn’t have customer retention strategies in place, we built a business to fill the niche. We’ve been lucky to work on projects with Fiat USA, United Way, the University of Delaware, Barclay, NFL, and many others.

In 2010, we decided to open a coworking space. We’d been looking for a big opportunity to showcase our talent as creative problem solvers and brand builders, but ironically didn’t have any good ideas. We were bothered by an address Governor Jack Markell gave at the University of Delaware that essentially called the people of Delaware to step up and improve our national ranking for entrepreneurial activity. The state ranked last at 50 out of 50 at the time. About a month later Steve read an article in Entrepreneur Magazine about coworking, and The coIN Loft was born. Since the launch of the space, nearly 100 early stage companies have called it home, and we recently received $250,000 from the State of Delaware to expand our operations.

In 2012, Steve got a phone call from his alma mater asking for a donation. He declined, but was so bothered by the call that he wanted to find a better way to engage alumni to contribute to the school. We decided to create a Kickstarter concept for college and university students to get projects funded by alumni that graduated from their school. We called it The College Fund (now called USeed), but turned it over to a member of our coworking space to remain focused on growing The coIN Loft.

I was also a very active mentor for high school and university students, as well as established companies through our local economic development offices. Last year I co-developed a code school program for the Boy’s and Girls Club of Delaware.

These are the types of activities I hope to continue doing here in Madison.

Q: What are your impressions of the Madison start-up scene?

A: Prior to moving here I was fortunate enough to meet the Redox guys (Niko Skievaski, Luke Bonney, and James Lloyd) while they were working on 100Health. I was really impressed by how much passion they had for Madison. It left a mark on me that I hope to pass on to someone else considering Madison as their new home.

So far, Madison has been exactly what I expected – open, helpful, and full of world-class talent.

Places like Austin, Denver, and New York were great cities before they were great startup cities. I was Googling for the best places to live before I started looking for the best places to launch a health-tech startup. I was looking for a specific type of life-style in a place with enough resources for my stage of business to grow.

Madison offers me exactly what I’m looking for. Looking back on Delaware, I’ve realized that the holes on the quality of life side are too big to become a startup destination right now. While Madison is certainly still maturing and perhaps even experiences some growing pains that feel like set-backs, all of the big pieces are here and people like me are happy to be here.

Q: As a minority entrepreneur, what are your thoughts about the importance of diversity and inclusion?

A: Growing up, I never considered how the color of my skin would affect my future in America. Sure, I was aware of the reality of racism in America, but it somehow never tainted my worldview that hard work with the right set of tools would eventually lead to success. This is the perspective my parents raised my sister and I to believe in. While I have faith that recent events in our country will lead to greater awareness and behavior change, I am weary of our tactics.

Diversity and inclusion, while well intentioned, tell me that I still need the approval of a gatekeeper for the civil right of racial equality.

When I was in middle school I attended a predominantly white Baptist college prep school in the suburbs. At the end of each year we would have a school-wide field day. It was the best day of the year. Each student got the chance to compete for bragging rights no one could change for the entire summer. I was fast, I could throw far, I was a team player… dare I say I was a natural choice for first pick for anyone's team. One year, our teachers organized a flag football game. Our four 6th grade classes were combined into two teams. Only the boys played, but the teams were still very large. Warming up before the game began I thought I could show off my talent to make sure I got a chance to start. I blew past the other guys in our races. I threw the ball further than all but two people (I was never able to beat these two at anything). I quietly ranked myself in the top 5 on the field.

Well, I didn’t get picked, I got placed. And when I did get a chance to play, despite getting myself wide open on almost every play, our teacher quarterbacks never threw me the ball… not even a pump fake. I was the only black player on both teams.

At the time I had all kinds of questions. Were they being fair to the other players by not throwing me the ball? Was I showing off a little bit too much before the game? Are the other players really that much better than me? Was it because I’m black? Maybe they couldn’t see me because I’m black?

You see, it could have been none of the above, and more than likely wasn't. The problem is that I have no idea why I wasn’t included, and I would have had even less of a clue if I were. This is the fundamental problem with our striving for inclusion; it’s not truly equal outcomes for equal efforts. The questions of one’s race, or gender for that matter, will always loom overhead.

I don’t know what the answers are. I wake up every day ready to work hard with the right set of tools. It’s what my parents taught me and it’s been working just fine so far.