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The First State of the Spark Address

An Introduction from SparkPeople's Founder & CEO
  -- By Chris 'SparkGuy' Downie
Hello Everyone!

I’m Chris (SparkGuy), the Founder & CEO of SparkPeople. Thanks for being a member of the site! This is the first in a new series of articles in which I’ll be updating the SparkPeople Community on topics that I think our community might like to know about.

The name “State of the Spark Address” obviously borrows from the US President’s “State of the Union” address. Not that I’m important, but I just thought it was a fun name!

This first address will talk about how and why SparkPeople is a free site. We get many questions about this. The answers help show that SparkPeople is a different kind of company with a different kind of mission. We truly want to help individuals and the world.

On with the address…
How Can SparkPeople Be Free?

Personal History
Back in the 80's and 90's, I developed a personal improvement program while conquering shyness and anxiety as a child and young adult. This program combined elements that help improve your body (fitness, nutrition, etc.) with elements that improve your mind (goal-setting, stress management, leadership, etc.). For example, I set a goal to do 10 minutes of fitness almost every day and turned this into a healthy and fun habit. It became as ingrained as brushing my teeth and helped change my life.

While working at Procter & Gamble after college, I accidentally motivated a woman to lose 50 pounds using this same program. She told me this changed her life. I said to myself, "Hmm…this could somehow become a business that helps many people someday."

First Company
The results of using this program for me were incredible. I had more energy and enthusiasm for life than ever. This gave me the passion and energy to leave my job at Procter & Gamble to eventually start an online auction site named Up4Sale with a friend in 1996. By focusing on PEOPLE, Up4Sale grew into the second largest person-to-person auction site behind eBay—well behind eBay, but second place was good in that category! Our company became eBay's first acquisition just before their IPO, and then I worked at eBay for three years.

SparkPeople Mission
After meeting my wife at eBay (we have the same birthday and met on that day at an eBay offsite), I realized that my improvement program had directly led to my personal and professional success, and that it was replicable to all types of goals (like the woman who had lost 50 pounds). So, I dedicated the rest of my life to Sparking millions of other People to reach their goals, by starting a company named (you guessed it) SparkPeople.

SparkPeople's mission is to help millions of people reach their goals using health and fitness as a springboard to success. We also want to create one of the best company cultures in the world by living our brand. For example, we pay employees a significant bonus for following a consistent fitness & nutrition program year-round.

We help our members reach their goals by showing them how to truly make a healthy lifestyle change. This helps them keep the weight off AND helps them in other areas of life—from relationships to career and finances.

Our team is passionate about this mission because we don’t think anyone else has a program as comprehensive as SparkPeople. In fact, many companies in the huge “diet industry” love that people stay on the diet rollercoaster, continuously losing (and regaining) weight by following a fad diet or taking diet pills. This just gives these companies reason to come up with the next fad.

One of the main reasons we want to be free is to spread the word about this program to as many people as possible! I’m not aware of any premium diet solution that works that has ever been free.

A Great Team (This Includes YOU)
SparkPeople has put together a team of people who are passionate about our mission. Now I'm just one small part of this cohesive team. Our technology leaders also have extensive experience at eBay, so they know about building high traffic sites.

We consider our members to be part of this team. We know that for our mission to succeed, we need our members to get great results and help spread the Spark.

Low Expenses
We work to keep our expenses as low as possible to keep advertising at a minimum. I look at Craigslist.org as an example of this. They are able to keep expenses low with a staff of only about 20 people even though they are a huge site.

This is the same strategy we used at my first company and it worked so well we never needed outside financing. Everything went onto our credit cards, which did get quite scary for awhile! Our small team at SparkPeople spends almost all of their time doing projects that will directly help our members. Also, our location in Cincinnati means lower expenses than many other areas of the world, since the cost of living here is relatively low.

Also, I have turned the stock I received from eBay for my first company into a diversified portfolio of investments that have done well. Now, even if we lose money as a free site for awhile, a good chunk of our annual expenses are covered by my investment returns each year. This is another thing that lets us offer our services for free.

Advertisers Help Cover Costs
SparkPeople is one of the most difficult and expensive types of websites to build and maintain because it’s so interactive. We have a staff of highly-trained experts who continue to add new features and content, and find ways to keep the site running smoothly. Without them, this site wouldn’t be possible—they keep working hard to improve their skills as we grow. I’ll be honest and report that our operating expenses for this site are more than $2 million annually—and that’s working hard to keep expenses low. For example, I don’t earn a salary as SparkPeople's CEO.

To support our mission of helping millions of people, we're starting to add advertising to the site. We’re trying hard to balance the placement of advertising so advertisers get their money’s worth without the ads being too obtrusive. The emphasis will be on quality—trying hard to work with companies that support our philosophy.

So, your support of our advertisers is a major key that helps us help you (and everyone else). In fact, if our members strongly support our advertisers, we’ll be able to charge more for advertising space to help us with our mission.

Innovative Ideas
We believe that being a for-profit company is the best way to eventually spread our program to millions of people. So, we will work hard to come up with innovative ideas to earn revenue that our members will also enjoy. Any revenues we earn are used to keep making the site better and to spread the word to more people.

As you can see, I believe in this mission and am putting my money and time where my mouth is!

Thanks for helping us spread the Spark. Together we can make each other and the world a healthier, happier, and more productive place!
To learn how and why SparkGuy founded SparkPeople, watch this video or read his bio.  You can also visit his SparkPage to post a comment.  SparkGuy personally reads every comment on his SparkPage, and often shares them with the SparkPeople staff as motivation to keep making the site better and continue changing people's lives.