By NICOLE LaPORTE New York Times
WHEN Myles Berkowitz first met Steven Kates through a mutual friend in 2006, Mr. Berkowitz had serious doubts about him.
First, there were the tattoos. Mr. Kates, a personal trainer in Los Angeles, is covered in them, including one, on his neck, of a dead mouse. Mr. Berkowitz, an indie filmmaker known for the mock documentary “20 Dates,” favors khakis and button-down shirts. Second, what Mr. Kates was saying seemed too good to be true. At the time, Mr. Berkowitz was the heaviest he’d ever been, 219 pounds, and asked Mr. Kates for advice on how to lose weight. Mr. Kates told him to eat all his favorite foods — ribs, hamburgers, pizza — but to eat less of them.
Mr. Berkowitz didn’t buy it.
“He thought I was a know-it-all pop off,” Mr. Kates, 56, said recently, sitting next to Mr. Berkowitz, 51, at a restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif.
“The jury is still out on whether I like you,” Mr. Berkowitz shot back, smiling.
Meet the creators of Lifesize, a weight-loss company that evolved out of that encounter, and that after a long, tumultuous and costly journey is finally beginning to succeed.
Mr. Berkowitz and Mr. Kates are an example of how complementary, if somewhat unlikely, pairings are often what it takes to get an idea off the ground. Think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak or Coco Chanel and Pierre Wertheimer, her partner in the perfume business — even Sonny and Cher. All are instances of how two very different skill sets, and personalities, united to create something innovative.
In the case of Lifesize — a portion-control diet system meant to be easy to follow thanks to plastic measuring devices for food groups like carbohydrates, meats and dairy — Mr. Kates brought dieting and nutrition expertise. After studying biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, he spent years running fitness clubs and advising clients, including celebrities, on their diets. Mr. Berkowitz, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, brought salesmanship. As a filmmaker who often had to scrape together budgets, he knew how to hustle for start-up capital and make a good pitch.
Not that either man knew they would ever be partners based on that first meeting. Mr. Kates said that to lose weight, it didn’t matter what you ate, — in fact, he insisted that Mr. Berkowitz not limit himself to grilled chicken and vegetables — but it was how much you ate. Mr. Berkowitz remained unconvinced, but took note of the portion sizes that Mr. Kates showed him with his hands.
The next day, Mr. Berkowitz began to wonder if Mr. Kates might actually be right. “So I run out and I get clay,” Mr. Berkowitz said. “According to his measurements, my wife and I make bowls.” They took the bowls to Color Me Mine, a pottery studio, and fired them up. “I put a big ‘M’ under one bowl for meat. A big ‘C’ for carbs, and ‘D’ for dairy, because that’s how they’re divided. I started eating that way. My energy was up and the weight started falling off.” He ultimately lost 46 pounds.
Mr. Berkowitz was intrigued by the simplicity of Mr. Kates’s plan. Unlike Weight Watchers, which also advocates portion control, there was no need to add up points or know how many grams of fat were in a piece of food. Also, Mr. Kates’s portion sizes were bigger than those of other diets Mr. Berkowitz had seen.
Mr. Berkowitz saw a business he could sell. And by now he had gotten over Mr. Kates’s tattoos. Within a few weeks, he decided to put off a film project and work with Mr. Kates on what would become Lifesize, figuring it would take six months to a year.
The Lifesize diet includes some “free” foods, including all fruits, low-fat yogurt and non-fried potatoes, that can be eaten freely, regardless of portion size. As he sought investment dollars, he thought that would be a selling point. But that was not the case for someone he calls “the potato man.”
“I talked to him for days, he loved the whole program, he was going to invest $50,000,” Mr. Berkowitz said.
“And then he suddenly said, ‘I believe in this, but I don’t think potatoes are good for you. They have a high glycemic index. I cannot get behind a program where potatoes are free.’ ”
There were other obstacles, including an appearance on the Home Shopping Network, where the men were forbidden from saying that Lifesize helps people lose weight because they had not done a study proving that.
“It was like, what are we going to say?” Mr. Berkowitz said.
In the end they focused on the words “portion control” and sold $55,000 worth of merchandise. But Mr. Berkowitz felt they could have sold far more without the restriction.
THAT was in 2011. This year, having spent $400,000 in savings and borrowed financing, things are finally falling into place as the two men devote most of their working hours to the company. It is Mr. Berkowitz’s full-time job; Mr. Kates remains a personal trainer. Lifesize kits have been selling on the company’s Web site, and another HSN appearance is being planned — yes, Mr. Berkowitz paid to have a study done at Colorado State University proving that the program helps people lose weight.
Dr. Tsz Ying Lee, an internal medicine specialist in Los Angeles who also runs a weight management business, has a Lifesize kit in her office and recommends the system to patients. (Dr. Lee, who goes by Amy, consults with Mr. Berkowitz and Mr. Kates on a casual basis about Lifesize because she is interested in their product, but she is not paid. As the company grows, Mr. Berkowitz says, she will have a more official role.)
Lifesize “is not a perfect system, but it is a system that makes you think, which is more important,” Dr. Lee said.
“When you look at the kit, it’s sort of like, ‘Duh,’ it’s just a bunch of measuring apparatuses,” she said. “It’s a tool. But people don’t know what to do when they don’t have a tool to go by. I’m always trying to use my hands: ‘This is what four ounces of chicken looks like.’ With the kit, it becomes a no-brainer.”
Mr. Berkowitz said that Lifesize’s dieting-for-dummies simplicity was inspired by his own lack of knowledge about nutrition when he and Mr. Kates first met — he wanted the system to be easy for anyone to use.
“I was just a complete idiot about calories and food and stuff. Steven had done it before. But I didn’t know that rice was a carb.”
“He thought it was a vegetable,” Mr. Kates said, smiling.