James Park

James Park

Determination has always been foundational to the American Dream, and it has been foundational to Fitbit CEO James Park. Anyone who has heard of James Park knows him as the CEO and president of wearable technology company Fitbit, but before he co-founded Fitbit and got on the Forbes 40 Under 40 list in 2015, Park lived a very normal life.

His parents emigrated from South Korea to the United States, and Park’s perspective was affected by watching them work. They owned and operated a variety of small stores, including a wig shop, a fish market, a dry-cleaning store, an ice-cream parlor, and a sportswear store.

James Park was greatly influenced by how hard his parents worked. He feels that they did well to shield him from certain difficulties they faced, but he was very aware that their lives were far from easy. For Park, their example of hard work was “one of the biggest things [he] internalized from [his] parents growing up.” He was amazed by how a living can be made through so many different means. “I was struck by watching how hard my parents worked,” Parks said. “That level of effort and intensity was normal.”

Of course, Park’s parents made use of their son in their stores. “They only really employed me during high school—I use ‘employment’ loosely. I was not really paid, but basically, I was asked to sell things.”

Park attended and graduated from University School in 1994, an all-boys school in Cleveland, Ohio, where he participated in track and cross country.

Dropping Out of Harvard

When Park first entered Harvard, he was struck by how many options were before him; in his freshman year, he quickly lost interest in pursuing a medical career. But he didn’t know what to focus on. During the summer of 1998, after his junior year of college, Park interned at a bank in New York City. “I thought that would be great and I’d like the people there,” he recalled, “but I realized that the job wasn’t for me.”

That year was during what later became known as the dot-com boom. The cultural interest in all things internet and computers got Park thinking, and he realized that he loved computers and had always wanted to start something of his own.

Park decided to not return to Harvard. “I probably thought about it for 10 seconds,” he said. “It wasn’t really a huge deal.” Understandably, his parents were not pleased by their son dropping out of college; they had hoped he would become a doctor. But of course, they couldn’t have known that he would someday be the CEO of wearable technology company.

The First Failed Start-Up

Park got to work and, along with his co-founder Eric Friedman, created a B2B (business-to-business) infrastructure software firm called Epesi Technologies. The company didn’t work out, and Park later described it as his “greatest failure” and “particularly painful.” But the experience taught him many things: “we pivoted way too often, which was highly detrimental to the progress of the business.”

But Park didn’t stop or slow down. He didn’t let this failure deter him at all. He knew from his parents’ experiences that hard work leads to success and that success comes by trying different things and testing different ideas.

“It’s easy to get sucked into things,” Park said. “There’s probably a lot of that going on today, more so than I’ve seen in the past. To create things that truly have lasting value, perseverance is a key aspect.”

Nintendo Wii Inspired Fitbit?

Most Fitbit users probably don’t how important November 19, 2006, was to the wearable technology company they love so much, but in a way, those little wearable devices on their wrists were born on that day, which marked the launch of the Nintendo Wii. The new console was big news in the video game industry not simply because it was Nintendo’s latest console but because of its technology.

The Wii controller utilized motion sensors called accelerometers, which could track the controller’s movements in real time. Though accelerometers had been around for years, utilizing these sensors for video games was novel and created what was at the time a unique gaming experience.

James Park was fascinated by the effectiveness of this technology. He and Friedman (who studied computer science at Yale) wondered how they could utilize the technology in a more portable form. This simple thought sparked the idea for the wearable activity-tracking devices that Fitbit is known for.

Fitbit Beginnings

In 2007, James Park and Eric Friedman started the company Healthy Metrics Research—the name changed later that year to Fitbit. After raising $400,000 from friends and family members, Park and Friedman managed to construct a prototype. They debuted the wearable device in 2008 at TechCrunch’s start-up convention.

Investors were initially reluctant; wearable technology was still very new at that time. The company faced an uncertain future. “We probably have a list of seven times that the company was close to death,” Park recalled. But he and Friedman eventually raised millions of dollars through venture capital and their business took off. In 2010, the company released its first step tracker and wearable technology began its rise.

Fitbit went public in 2015. Park still remembers the event at the New York Stock Exchange: “I felt a mixture of relief and pride—especially at seeing many of the people who started on this journey with Eric Friedman and I with us at the ringing of the bell.”

James Park is proud of what he and Friedman and many others have accomplished with Fitbit’s wearable technology. He knows that mistakes were made along the way and that there are some things he would do differently in hindsight, such as pivoting to Fitbit Premium sooner, but clearly he hasn’t dwelled on those mistakes. Instead, he and Friedman have only moved forward with their business, which, as of 2021 (when Google officially acquired Fitbit) had 29 million users around the world and had sold more than 120 million devices.

How Fitbit’s Wearable Technology Impacts Users

Although wearable technology and digital health-metrics tracking are not for everyone, Fitbit devices and software have been a boon for millions of users, and the usefulness of these devices goes far beyond form factors. The company’s devices have helped encourage millions to get active, become more aware of their bodies, and progress toward a healthy lifestyle.

Beyond physical movements (such as distance travelled horizontally or vertically and minutes in an “active” zone), a Fitbit device can measure several health metrics, including breathing rate, skin temperature, oxygen saturation, resting heart rate, and heart-rate variability. Fitbit devices can connect to a user’s smartphone through Fitbit apps to show the user their health trends, such as sleep habits and fitness routine data.

Monitoring this type of health data can help users improve their fitness and overall physical activity, their sleep, and their overall health. Having this high-level data easily (and almost literally) on hand can also be beneficial to healthcare providers—in essence, Fitbit wearables can function as medical devices. Data from Fitbit devices has even been used to solve murder cases!

Pushing Past the Obstacles

There were many times when James Park could have given up. Things didn’t always work as planned, and not every move he made was successful. But the lessons he learned as a youth instilled in him perseverance and conviction. His parents owned many different stores—they worked hard and always did what they needed to do to find success and take care of James. They had conviction.

“I think you need to have conviction about what you’re doing,” Park said. “There’s a lot of things that society expects you to do—and in some ways, those things are great. … Really have inner conviction, and if it means going against what others think, you should take that leap.”

The road to the American Dream is often like Park’s journey to creating Fitbit. It’s founded by good examples, like diligent parents, and an appreciation for hard work and usually involves risk, like dropping out of an Ivy League school. There are often setbacks, like a failed start-up or waiting too long to open new services, but after gathering metrics, analyzing data, and maintaining a future-oriented perspective, success can be had.

For most, it doesn’t come in the form of $2.1 billion wearable technology company. Most of us are more likely to simply wear a device than to create one, but regardless of wearable devices and health history, no one can be stopped from having conviction.