E.Forum Interview with Jackie Wicks – founder of PEERtrainer.com, 85 Broads member

January 25 2010

In 2004, Jackie Wicks was living in New York City, working at a venture capital firm. She had just given birth and, to her surprise, gained 60 lbs in the process. Everyone told her, “Oh, the weight will just melt off!” Although Jackie had always been in good shape and was fairly well-informed about diet and nutrition, she plateaued with 40 lbs to go.

Realizing that she needed outside support, Jackie and her friend began to exchange food diaries over email. This group quickly mushroomed into 20 members and emails with diet tips and stories began to fly back and forth. Her husband, then a hedge fund manager, quietly observed the obsession this subject matter elicited and told Jackie, “We’re going to pursue this. This is a great business idea.”

As someone who had raised over $2 million and launched a successful internet company during the 90s internet gold rush, Jackie was a seasoned entrepreneur. Moreover, she and her husband always intended to start a business together and the two were constantly bandying ideas back and forth. Nonetheless, her newborn son was just five months old and she had planned on spending at least a year raising him. She weighed this against her husband’s market analysis and the numerous women who, upon seeing Jackie’s progress, tugged at her arm, pleading, ‘I would do anything to lose weight!’” Realizing that this was an unparalleled opportunity, she and her husband launched PEERtrainer.com.

The first generation was a social networking site aimed at dieters. Members created on-line support groups, exchanged ideas and logged their food diaries, much like Jackie and her friends had over email. Since other social networks like Facebook.com hadn’t quite caught on with the general population, many voiced their doubts and confusion over what PEERtrainer was doing. “People get on a website to talk to each other about diets? How does that work?” “What does your website do again?”

Dieters, experts and the press understood and PEERtrainer’s members and its public profile steadily grew. Physicians contacted Jackie to voice their support. They told Jackie that compliance, i.e., creating a plan to improve one’s health and actually following through, was the toughest part of their jobs and PEERtrainer was providing the necessary forum and resource.

Over time, PEERtrainer started adding expert articles from doctors, personal trainers, nutritionists, psychotherapists and a wide array of other experts. Today, the Company offers one-on-one diet coaching sessions from Jackie and a psychotherapist for a fee, in addition to the myriad free resources.

I spoke with Jackie last week about the development of her company, her career as an entrepreneur, and what motivates her on a daily basis even when she’s up against that proverbial wall.

1. Can you offer a snapshot of what PEERtrainer is?

Our aim is to give people the best information possible to lose weight and to improve their overall health. We also provide group support, leadership and motivational tools since we believe dieters need all of these resources. We want to bring them to the point of no return, where they feel confident and in control of their own health.

The vast majority of Americans are dieting and we all hear the same advice: eat less, eat more vegetables, move more. What does this actually mean? Dieting is not one-size-fits all. For instance, Weight Watchers does a great job of giving people support around the weight loss process. What we realized with PEERtrainer is that some people want to be anonymous but also receive group support, so we give them that forum.

The new coaching program was designed to put diet and weight loss into the context of someone’s lifestyle. And since so much of diet and weight loss is psychological, we confront the issues underlying emotional eating with a psychotherapist. Some diet experts tell people to exercise at least 30 minutes 6 times a week, but they are setting dieters up to fail. We all have busy lives! PEERtrainer breaks down the information and customizes the approach for each person’s life so that she has the tools to succeed.

2. How is the site doing today?

I want to emphasize that our company really has grown organically. We’ve never had to purchase web traffic, which a lot of sites do to improve their statistics. In terms of monthly unique visitors, I would say we have averaged about 1.2 million in 2009. I am thrilled at the growth of our company.

3. What has surprised you, if at all, about being an entrepreneur? Tell us both the good and bad.

I was a venture capitalist, I have launched my own company, and I worked for a trend forecaster (Faith Popcorn) out of college. All of these experiences help in different ways in my work with PEERtrainer. Being an entrepreneur is a constant surprise. I started a business and thought, I will become an expert in this field. I will learn the market, my customer base and continue to improve the company. While this is true, I must say that I am really becoming an expert in myself. I didn’t know I could manage my stress at this level.

The self-knowledge that I gain as an entrepreneur is night and day different from what I learned about myself as an employee. When you work for someone else, you want to make sure you do a good job, move forward in your career, and hopefully contribute to your company. The level of emotional investment as an entrepreneur is akin to having a child. You absolutely cannot quit and you have to tap into your inner resources to meet all of the different challenges that are inevitably going to come your way. I will give you an example that I’ve not told anyone before. All CEOs will face issues with payroll at one point another. I faced this back in 2000, when on a Thursday I realized that I may not meet payroll the next day. Not making this happen is off the table; it’s just not an option. You just have to get it done no matter what. And sure enough, I got the money and I paid all of my employees on Friday. CEOs face this level of pressure more frequently than you would ever know.

4. In a recent New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell argued that contrary to the prevailing narrative, good entrepreneurs are risk mitigators, not risk takers. What is your take?

He is absolutely right. Good entrepreneurs prioritize and calculate every move. As far as I’m concerned, those who depend on one paycheck from one source are taking a far greater risk than entrepreneurs who, if they were to lose one client, have a pool of others to draw from.

5. What is your vision for your company? Are there companies or individuals that you hold as role models?

I love Bill Belichick (coach of the New England Patriots) for his level of attention to the smallest details. I mean, he reviews his players’ meal plans on flights! Target is a great example of how you can bring expensive design to the masses. Whole Foods does the same thing with health food, which used to be hidden away in obscure health food stores. That’s what I want to do with PEERtrainer. A woman working two jobs to support her kids and a woman running a multi-billion dollar public corporation now have the same access to expert information.

6. Is this what motivates you?

I am on a mission to help people who feel fear and frustration over all of the conflicting information. I want to help people feel confident about their ability to succeed.

7. Can you tell me some success stories from your users?

I have so many stories of users who have lost 100+ lbs., but the biggest successes in my view come from users who have lost 15-20 lbs. More than one mother has told me that at 5PM, they just didn’t know how to get through the rest of their day without a few glasses of wine. And these are successful, accomplished women! I never would have expected such a statement. One mom with a modest amount of weight to lose felt so helpless because she was doing all of the “right” things, like cutting out carbs, but not seeing results.

We helped with what I call “Diet Fusion”: 1. You need energy from eating. 2. Portion control, which this mom was doing, and which means you need to understand the reality of how much food to consume. 3. You need to live a high nutrient lifestyle. This means that you understand what green vegetables can do for you, instead of thinking, “I need niacin. I need vitamin B12.”

I was helping her design an eating plan and I asked, “Do you like eggs?” And she responded, “Well, I suppose I can deal with them…” And I told her, if you don’t like them, we can come up with something else you will like to eat! It was a relief for her to know that she can identify her likes and use those to lose weight instead of just suffering through this process. She lost the weight with this new sustainable lifestyle and she told me that “You brought me to a place where I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to lose weight, but now I’ve grown as a person.”

Our users are realizing how all of these areas are intertwined and becoming leaders of their own lives. They are telling me, “I am no longer alone.”

8. Finally, how did you become connected with 85 Broads?

When I was at the venture capital firm, one of my colleagues from another division told me that I should meet Janet Hanson. I took him up on his advice and Janet and I really hit it off. And I have to say that I love what 85 Broads brings to its members. I have worked in predominantly male industries and companies; I know how challenging it is for women to find mentors. I have to tell you, when I was just starting my career in my early 20s, all I wanted was a mentor! I love that 85 Broads gives that resource to its members and connects all types of women.

E.FORUM is a unique platform for entrepreneurs within the 85 Broads network to connect, grow, lead and innovate with the support of the 85 Broads global community. As the group continues to build its programming for 2010 and beyond, stay connected by joining the E.Forum LinkedIn subgroup ([linkedin.com]).

The E.FORUM will provide you with the inspiration, innovation, and motivation to expand and grow your business. If you have any questions/suggestions please email Founder and New York Chapter Leader Diana Sonis at [gmail.com].


Eunice is a lawyer, avid music lover and writer. She is an active member of the 85 Broads New York Chapter and frequently contributes to [85broads.com].