IT STARTED BECAUSE BACK IN HIGH SCHOOL, Dick Talens was too fat and Brian Wang was too skinny. Or rather, Mr. Wang was “skinny fat,” meaning he had stick limbs and belly pooch, as the 25-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate explained to Betabeat during a recent visit to the Soho co-working space where the pair’s startup, the viral hit fitness game Fitocracy, is headquarted.
Mr. Talens and Mr. Wang sit next to each other in a sunny corner alongside their gym bags, with greasy athletic shoes tucked under their desks, an economy-sized bin of almonds and a filing cabinet of goodies such as protein powder, vitamins, oats and Splenda.
Mr. Talens, also 25, is muscular and broad-shouldered. There is hardly any resemblance between the 230-pounder he was in high school and the shredded CTO we found outfitted in a pair of flip-flops, jeans and a backwards baseball cap, typing code on an IBM Thinkpad which he had elevated atop a defunct Dell notebook. While Mr. Talens reclined backward as far as his office chair would permit, Mr. Wang, who has the physique of a welterweight, was a bit hyper. He powerwalked between his Mac and a conference room, preparing for a phone call with a potential business partner, pausing to dump into a thermos of milk what looked like enough powder to make pancakes.
Both Mr. Talens and Mr. Wang are computer nerds who enjoy the genre of online diversion known as “massively multiplayer online role-playing games,” or MMORPGs, like Everquest and World of Warcraft, in which players create a character who grows more powerful the more they play. “I remember one summer, it was like before junior year,” Mr. Talens said. “I’d literally wake up in the morning, play Everquest, like, eat a few times in the day, and just go to bed. And that’s all I did. In a different life, I’m like that kid who got blood clots and died in his room.”
While they still enjoy computer games, at some point the boys transitioned from an addiction to games to an addiction to fitness. Even before they met, they pored over the same online forums where bodybuilders were sharing fitness tips, personal statistics and before-and-after pictures. They met at Penn, over dinner with mutual friends. “It’s actually a very romantic story,” Mr. Talens said. He noticed what Mr. Wang was eating–tuna and broccoli–and thought, dude, he’s like me.
He started prodding Mr. Wang about his diet. “I was like, ‘Are you doing this for health reasons?’ I was trying to flush it out of him,” Mr. Talens said. “And he literally said, ‘I’m cutting right now.’ Cutting is the bodybuilding term for focusing on losing fat. And I was like, holy shit. I’ve never heard anyone offline talk in these terms before. This is only stuff I’ve heard online. And we became best friends ever since.”
The two now live together in Clinton Hill, having learned how to tolerate each other’s constant company after a few hellish months training together for the Mr. Penn bodybuilding contest. A little over a year ago, they quit their corporate jobs (Mr. Talens was working for Comscore and Mr. Wang was slogging through a gig as a product manager at a Connecticut-based agency) and moved to Brooklyn with the plan to launch a startup. After kicking around a few ideas—gift recommendations, sponsored weight-loss contest—they hit on Fitocracy, a website for tracking personal fitness in a way that resembles a game. Fitocracy rewards users for working out the same way Everquest rewards players for killing dragons.
The basic functionality, however, is logging your workouts. Type in an activity, “push-up,” for example, and Fitocracy will suggest categories–”push-up,” “handstand push-up,” “reverse grip triceps pushdown”–and pop up a description of how to do the exercise correctly. Betabeat, at 5’0″ and 95 lbs., received 52 points for entering 20 push-ups. Eighty-two more points, and we’d be promoted to level three. You can add notes to each activity and comment on other users’ exercises. After logging enough workouts, users will start to receive badges, like “No Stranger to the Rack,” for performing a barbell squat for 1.2x your body weight, or “Hello There!” for posting ten comments on Fitocracy. Users can also follow each other’s progress and share updates with friends, join groups and earn “achievements.”
Fitocracy launched by invitation only in February, and the crowd went wild. Users on fitness forums would start “invite trains,” threads where everyone would post their invites, and the site would get flooded with 2,000 new users from a single site. Last month, the immensely-popular nerd web comic XKCD featured a Fitocracy sex joke, which brought in so much traffic that the site crashed. Fitocracy now has about 55,000 users, with almost 60,000 more on the wait list. The startup hired an engineer and early power user and was looking for angel investment two months ago; the founders may be ready to announce funding soon.
Mr. Talens works out three times a week for about 45 minutes, doing mostly deadlifts, squats and bench presses—but fitness is 80 percent diet, he told Betabeat. “I try not to be too anal about it, but I try to keep my feeding period from 12 to eight,” he said, and only eats two meals a day, which he says has several benefits including prolonged lifespan and a higher naturally-occurring GH level when the body is in “fast mode.” The popular idea that one should eat six smaller meals throughout the day in order to keep the metabolism running is “bro science,” he said—folklore that gets passed around the gym.
Eating two meals keeps him from thinking about food all day, he said. “Those meals are also glorious, which I’ll show you in a second, for somebody who likes to eat like me,” he said. “When I say I like to eat, I mean I like to eat huge quantities of food.” He giggled. “Like, enormous quantities of food.” Giggle. “I can make it when ever you want to take a little tour of the kitchen.”
We agreed, and Mr. Talens pushed back his chair and padded over to the kitchen, where he used a scale to measure 16 ounces of cooked chicken breasts, followed by three cups of white rice; opened a can of black beans, and extracted two strawberry-frosted Pop Tarts from a box, put each food on its own paper plate and microwaved it all. He brought the feast into the break room and began devouring it with plastic silverware, stacking the plates as he finished each course. Mr. Wang joined us. He had no lunch. “If I’ve worked out that day, then I’ll eat right after and that will probably be my biggest meal of the day,” he said. “The other day I just had a whole bunch of oatmeal and whey protein. And today I had a whole bunch of ice cream sandwiches and whey protein.”
Mr. Wang doesn’t always have time to eat at work, he said, although he keeps chicken, boiled eggs, tuna and some veggies around. The boys also schedule a regular FreshDirect order delivery to the office. “We’ll make a beeline for the tuna cans,” Mr. Wang said. “They’re coming in today!” said Mr. Talens.
Fitocracy hit the web in an opportune moment. Startup guru Tim Ferriss, author of “The 4 Hour Workweek” has made body-hacking trendy among the web-savvy set with his current bestseller “The 4 Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Green coffee extract Supplementation, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman,” and an instructional blog post titled “From Geek to Freak: How I Gained 34 lbs. of Muscle in 4 Weeks.”
Betabeat noticed a copy of the book on Fitocracy’s filing cabinet. But when we mentioned it, the founders started rigorously shaking their heads. “That was a gift,” they said.
“What Tim Ferriss has done is surface a lot of stuff that fitness geeks have known for a long time,” Mr. Wang said charitably. “Even though some of the claims he makes in there are completely outrageous and misleading.”
The boys pointed to the blog post about gaining 34 pounds of muscle in a month as an example. A lot of the weight Mr. Ferriss gained was probably water weight, they explained, and the fact that he was a wrestler in high school and already had a muscular frame would have helped accelerate his progress.
The fitness industry is also rife with sham before-and-after pictures, they said.
Mr. Talens pulled out his cell phone. “Here’s a before-and-after,” he said, showing Betabeat a picture of a bloated belly in a mirror, followed by a picture of the same belly, in the same mirror wearing the same basketball shorts, but with a chiseled six-pack. “Guess how many weeks apart that was?” We had no idea. “That is six hours apart,” he said. The chiseled picture was actually the before shot, he explained. “This is like, in the morning when abs were still visible, I was like okay, I’ll take a picture of myself,” he said. “And then, six hours later”—he tabbed to the bloated picture. “That’s just water weight! Water and food.”
“We don’t want to turn this into a Tim Ferriss bashing session,” Mr. Wang said, so we moved on to prodding the boys for fitness tips. “What should a person who smokes, gets irregular sleep and doesn’t exercise do to be more fit?” we asked. “Stop smoking!” Mr. Talens said, incredulously. “And get regular sleep. That’s really important.”
Playing computer games also seems to help. Mr. Wang still has time to play Starcraft, he admitted to Betabeat, although he gets to the office every day at 8:30 a.m.
Mr. Talens, however, only plays Fitocracy. “I’m the exact same person I was when I was a fat kid,” he said. “Except instead of leveling up my character, I’m leveling up myself.”
Want to try Fitocracy? Click here. Invite code: BETABEAT.