NEW YORK CITY’S START-UP SCENESTERS were nowhere near the isle of Manhattan when the 4 Hour Body fad hit its tipping point among the local tech set. In fact, according to Rick Webb, co-founder of the Tribeca-based digital agency the Barbarian Group, the digerati diet craze currently upending start-up snack supplies and clogging Twitter feeds with the hashtag #4HB reached comic proportions during the city’s annual pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, back in March.
Mr. Webb traced the outbreak back to the carbo-loading marathon that is South by Southwest. Or “beer and taco week,” as Mr. Webb described it. He and several other techies had recently become disciples of The 4 Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, a life-hacking manual written by Tim Ferriss that distills a decade of experiments into chapters about slow carbs, self-tracking and, yes, how to make a woman orgasm in 15 minutes.
The book is a follow-up to Mr. Ferriss’s wildly popular debut, The 4 Hour Work Week, which also came with its own garrulous subtitle: “Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich.” Mr. Ferriss’s second installment purports to help readers “reach their genetic potential in six months” and “lose more fat than a marathoner by bingeing,” featuring seductive advice like “How to Lose 20 Pounds in 30 Days Without Exercise.” The near-600-page tome climbed up the New York Times’s best-sellers list over Christmas and has clung to the top 10 of Hardcover Advice & Misc. since. But judging by the uptick in “cheat day” tweets over the past few weeks and our sudden familiarity with the body fat percentage and breakfast habits of local start-up types, the diet—sorry, body-hacking lifestyle—has taken a few months to fully infiltrate the New York tech ecosystem.
Although better-known as a music festival, SXSW’s 10-day affair in Austin also serves as a petri dish for start-up founders to culture their latest app with eager early adopters. To stay on the no-sugar bandwagon during SXSW’s 24-hour party cycle, Mr. Webb looked to another high-profile New York techie also in attendance, Michael Galpert, co-founder of Aviary, a Madison Square-based photo-editing site. Mr. Galpert knew he would need some kind of support group. So, like any self-respecting start-up founder, he found a way to automate the process.
GroupMe, a New York-based group messaging app, was heavily-hyped heading into SXSW. Mr. Galpert decided to use it to set up a public SMS group to text out what he was eating to fellow techies like Mr. Webb and “my boy,” Foursquare’s Naveen Selvadurai, arguably one the most recognizable faces out of the city’s tech scene. Mr. Galpert sent out messages like “You can eat here” or “This bar doesn’t have wine.”
“That was an important one,” notes Mr. Webb. (Did we mention you get two glasses of wine every night on this thing? Big selling point for folks who see every elbow-graze as a networking opportunity.)
The buzz around GroupMe, which eventually brought home SXSW’s breakout prize, was bubbling up. “Everybody’s trying the software out. They see this group with me and Galpert and Naveen and they join it to see what we’re talking about. Then they realized it was about men’s dieting,” said Mr. Webb, disintegrating into raspy belly laugh. Men’s dieting? “Well, it was a group of five dudes. They’re like, ‘What are you guys doing?’” Even Mr. Selvaduari was befuddled. He put the group on mute.
“It probably seems like a cult, huh?” Mr. Webb asked The Observer, his deep laugh reverberating through the phone. Well, maybe more like an infomercial.
The word cult (or “cult-y” or “cultish”) came up repeatedly when we asked start-up founders, venture capitalists and developers why The 4 Hour Body was so popular with the city’s newly forged creative class. No one mentioned the sex advice. “Haha. Everyone’s read that chapter, but so far I don’t know anyone who’s claimed to try it,” Mr. Webb typed via gChat. Another acolyte, Meghan Keane, a former tech reporter and editorial director of B5Media, put it more pointedly: “If you’re staring at/thinking about sex diagrams while having sex, you’re probably doing it wrong.”
If you forgo the sex chapters, questionable tips on holding your breath longer than Houdini, and unapproved Chinese supplements (the readers we spoke to do), the slow carbs and kettlebell regime doesn’t sound that different from, say, the South Beach diet or Power 90 Extreme. Rather, the biggest difference seems to be who, exactly, is downloading it onto their Kindle or iPhone.
Mr. Webb, who’s been a 4HB-er since January, said about 20 of his fellow Barbarians have now read the book. In late July, when Whitney Hess, who has designed user experiences for start-ups like Boxee and Seamless, tweeted, “What are the chances I vomit during cheat day tomorrow?” she CC’d seven other start-up folks, including First Round Capital’s principal, Charlie O’Donnell, and four members of New Work City, the co-working space in Chinatown where a growing cell of 4HB followers regularly plug in their laptops. “Tim’s use of social media probably drives a lot of usage,” Mr. O’Donnell told The Observer. “It’s the only diet I see with a hashtag.”
The tech appeal of The 4 Hour Body also lies in Mr. Ferriss’s personal brand. No optimization aficionado worth his real-time productivity app would be caught dead without The 4 Hour Work Week on his bookshelf. The man Wired magazine once called the “greatest self-promoter in the world” also comes dude-approved. Everything from the cover to Mr. Ferriss’s extreme experimentation barks: It’s not a diet, it’s a life hack, brah. The emphasis on quantifying progress using spreadsheets and tools like Fitbit, a sleep and fitness tracker you can wear around your wrist, also helps sell the idea that The 4 Hour Body is all about optimization, the same way you’d track the financials or traffic for a new web feature. We didn’t meet any 4HB-ers who attended the first-ever Quantified Self conference in Mountain View this May, but we imagine there was some overlap.
For New York techies in particular, however, Mr. Ferriss’s weight-loss philosophy happens to have arrived at a moment of reckoning. Between the late nights and the office kegerators, the first flush of the start-up lifestyle can play out with the same limit-testing zeal as leaving your parents’ house for the college dorm. Now with some experience under their belts, techies are stepping away from their keyboards and deciding to do something about that “founder 15.”
“It goes along with the hacker culture of optimizing and perfecting all different kinds of your life,” said Mr. O’Donnell from First Round’s conference room above Union Square Park. “The tech community in general is unsatisfied with the status quo and wants to find hacks and cheats,” he added, fidgeting with the water bottle that accompanied him on his 9.2-mile bike ride from Bay Ridge that morning. “This is like when they used to play video games and figured out the Contra code: Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right B, A, Start.” The 4 Hour Body operates a self-serve menu of hacks. Even Mr. Ferriss acknowledges there’s no need to read all 592 pages, although the hardcover edition does make a handy kettlebell alternative.
“IN MY CASE, IT WAS MORE LIKE THE FOUNDER 30,” said Mark Webster, who started his own interactive design consultancy, Kickstart Concepts, back in 2009, and is currently working on another venture. Mr. Webster got a copy of The 4 Hour Body when he attended Mr. Ferriss’s launch party in December. “It was at that horrible nightclub, Greenhouse, where there’s always tech parties.” Mr. Webster said he hadn’t seen a critical mass of compatriots on the diet, but a behavioral switch had definitely been flipped. “That whole Mountain Dew late-night pizza culture is dying out. When I go on business breakfast, we’re all ordering egg whites.”
“Maybe it is tech’s dirty little secret, because I’ve seen a lot of people opening their burritos lately,” he added, describing a recent tech lunch, “We were basically standing around some lecture, they got sandwiches, and everyone goes to throw the bread away and eat the filling.”
As evidence of the healthy-office trend, Mr. Webb said, just last month four employees asked him to swap out their office chairs for standing desks at the Barbarian Group. “Standing desks are definitely in vogue right now. You know Jay Parkinson?” he asked, referring to Williamsburg doctor behind Hello, Health. “All of us read his Tumblr and he’s been going on about all this new data about sitting and how bad it is. So, yeah, you’re out all night, you think ‘I don’t need to exercise if I stood up all day.’”
Last month, in a blog post announcing its new ergonomically-optimized 5,000 sq. ft. office space on 6th Avenue, ff Venture Capital partner David Teten also mentioned standing desk, as well as subbing out desk chairs for exercise balls and wobble boards for the VC firm and start-ups that would call the space home. The next week, Mark Peter Davis, co-founder of Kohort, a service for organizing groups, wrote a blog post about office culture entitled, “Why We Do Push-Ups.”
DATA NERDS KNOW that adding variables requires measurement to see what works. “Oh, yeah, personal informatics? I love that shit,” said Mr. Webb. “We all have Daytum and RescueTime. Do you know that one? It’s a personal productivity thing for your computer. It tracks how much time you spend on each program. You look at your stats and you’re like, oh, I spent half my week on Facebook.”
Mr. Webb lost his Fitbit, but he’s created his own system. “I have a spreadsheet in Evernote where I do all the abdomen and leg and arm measurements each weekend and still measure my weight every day. You lose weight so fast, it’s rewarding. I keep it all on a giant spreadsheet and chart it out.” He uses the Withings scale to weigh himself. “Of course we all have it. It’s a scale with Wi-Fi in it that sends your weight to a personal informatics site, which is awwwwwwwwesome.”
Ms. Hess, a self-described numbers person,who got into the 4 Hour Body after watching fellow New Work City denizens Tony Bacigalupoand Fredrick Selby encourage each other by texting photos of cheat day meals and emailing support, says she’s just as into the self-quantifying aspect. “As a curvy woman I did a few different measurements in my torso–butt, hips, belly button, and waist–and then I did bust and I did face. My friends were like, what’s ‘face’?!” Ms. Hess, a pretty, diminutive redhead, told The Observer, moving her hand up her body as she listed each area. “I get puffy in my cheeks when I gain a few pounds, so I put the tape measure around my neck and under my ears and then around to just over my mouth to see what the horizontal circumference would be,” she says, miming the movement. “I tweeted it and people were like, how do you measure your face? They thought I was doing it vertically, like to see how big my chins were.”
After adopting the plan three weeks ago, Ms. Hess says she’s still in the euphoria stage although she’s heard it takes woman longer to drop the weight. “It definitely skews tech and that’s because of Tim. I’d also say it skews very male,” she explained. “There are not a lot of diet books if any out there that a man would be caught dead reading on the subway. But The 4 Hour Body, it sounds like something futuristic, it sounds like Superman.”