Manisha Sood: 10,000 steps every day

Leading Fitbit in India means only one thing: the tough job of making a nation obsessed with food think about fitness


Manisha Sood. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Manisha Sood. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

For close to one and a half years, Manisha Sood, the 52-year-old country general manager at Fitbit, best known for its fitness-tracking wristbands, has been working round the clock to sell health and fitness to a country obsessed with food and eating out. In the process, she has managed to improve her own sleep pattern and meet her “steps walked” target on most days.

“When I first wore Fitbit, I realized I was walking only 3,000 steps. That was a big revelation because one is not aware of these things. That’s when I realized how sedentary my lifestyle was. So I made those little changes—made sure I went for a walk for 40-50 minutes, did those 10,000 steps every day. The next big thing I changed was the sleep pattern because I realized I was sleeping very little,” she says.

Fitbit’s Sleep Schedule feature, which has been developed in collaboration with sleep experts from the University of Arizona, Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University, gives its users a sleep goal along with bedtime and wake-up targets based on personal data recorded by Fitbit.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

We meet Sood in Gurgaon, at the office of Genesis Burson-Marsteller, Fitbit’s public relations agency. Unexpected rains in the city have delayed our schedule a little, but Sood, dressed in black trousers, a turquoise blue top and a beige blazer, is eager to start the meeting.

Headquartered in San Francisco, Fitbit came to India in August 2015. The company is known for its products of the same name, which are activity trackers—wireless-enabled wearable technology devices that measure data such as the number of steps walked, heart rate, quality of sleep, steps climbed and other personal metrics. The company’s India presence is still frugal, with a team of just three-five employees. Sood is, however, confident about the Indian market and consumer acceptance.

“As far as the last one year is concerned, the trajectory of the company has been good; the brand is very well established. I no longer hear things like ‘what is Fitbit?’ I think the shift happened in March, when we started running the Blaze and Ultra (advertising) campaigns. Soon after that, we saw a tipping point. Wherever I went, the right target group, which was supposed to know about Fitbit, knew about it,” says Sood. She is also referring here to the Indian cricket team, which sports Fitbit bands.

"Manisha Sood is a gourmet. The one thing she has picked up on her numerous travels is an interest in cooking. Sood can cook 15 different local cuisines, but Thai and Italian are her favourites. She can be found in her kitchen on weekends, cooking spaghetti and meatballs for friends and family. "-

The ideal customer base for Fitbit is people in the age group 25-45 living in the top 10 metros. The company’s products, including Blaze, Surge, Charge HR, Alta, Charge 2 and Flex, are priced from Rs4,500-25,000.

The thought of leading an international brand in the country isn’t daunting for Sood, who jokingly calls herself the “start-up queen”. She has done everything from training and marketing to sales and distribution in her career.

Sood studied at the Holy Cross High School in Kurla, Mumbai. In 1985, she graduated with a BSc in chemistry from the University of Mumbai. Sood also completed her post-graduation in computer science from there. She started her career in 1990 as a management trainee at DCM Data Products, an IT company. She then sold digital cameras during a 10-year-old stint with consumer electronics firm Kodak, where she was the country manager.

“Retailers used to say things like ‘Yeh toh bikega nahi (this won’t sell)’. Film cameras were much cheaper than digital cameras. So I used to tell them there will be a time when only digital cameras would sell,” Sood says.

Sood was also country manager, India, of California-based SanDisk, supplier of semiconductors, from 2006-2013. Before joining Fitbit, in August 2015, Sood worked as director and country lead for small and medium businesses at Microsoft. “I spent about two and half years there, leading a team of 140 people. But I realized then that enterprise is not my cup of tea. My forte is to be in front of the customer.

“Consumers in India are very brand-conscious when it comes to fitness. They really don’t want to compromise on the quality. I think that’s where Fitbit scores really well,” she says.

Sood’s customers are spread across 300 cities in India, including places such as Guntoor in Andhra Pradesh and Shillong. For the fitness tracker, 55% of the audience is women and 45% men, globally. Its top four products by price— Surge, Blaze, Charge 2 and Alta—account for 90% of all sales at Fitbit, in line with the company’s global consumption patterns.

The company did not share India-specific numbers.

Fitbit was founded by James Park and Eric N. Friedman in October 2007 after they realized that sensors and wireless technology had advanced to a point where they could bring unprecedented experiences to fitness and health.

In November, the company posted weak third quarter results in the three months to September. It posted a revenue of $504 million (Rs3,445 crore), lower than analyst expectations. Fitbit also gave weak guidance for its forthcoming fourth quarter. “We continue to grow and are profitable, however not at the pace previously expected,” Fitbit co-founder and CEO James Park said in a CNBC report. “We are focused on improving the utility of our products and integrating more deeply into the healthcare ecosystem and believe we can leverage our brand and community to unlock new avenues and adjacencies of growth.”

Fitbit filed for an IPO in May last year. While the company operates in the consumer electronics segment at present, it is focused on becoming a digital healthcare brand.

In August, Fitbit’s newest products, the Alta fashion-conscious fitness tracker and the Blaze fitness smartwatch, accounted for 54% of sales, underscoring the pressure on the company to keep up with technical advances and shifting consumer tastes, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal.

“Wearables is a relatively new technology in India. Retailers and channel partners have always associated me with new technology, whether it was digital cameras or it was SanDisk or now it is Fitbit, so it wasn’t hard to convince them to keep these new devices in their showrooms,” Sood says. The company has an offline and online distribution set-up with retail chains such as Croma, Reliance and online retailer Amazon, among others.

The Indian middle-class has expanded. So has its girth—the result of sedentary living. We are at the centre of the world’s unfolding epidemics of lifestyle diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular ailments. From 2005-2015, the incidence of diabetes rose 50% in India, moving five ranks up to No.7 as a cause of death, according to the latest “Global Burden Of Disease” report. All this simply means Sood has her work cut out for 2017.

“The potential for Fitbit is enormous in this country. The key is how we get that message right in a country where most people are overweight and love food. Our focus in 2017 will be to take Indians in the direction of fitness.”

Sood is married to Ajay Sood, a travel photographer. Spending time with her two daughters and her pet German Shepherd Czar are her favourite things to do when she isn’t busy travelling across the country. But while she is travelling, she loves trying out local cuisines.

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