Team Talk: CEO of WIT, Dan Williams, on Building the Biggest Business in Fitness

·9-min read

What started as the germ of an idea while at university has grown into the premier destination for fitness apparel and equipment. WIT is now the one-stop shop, both online and bricks-and-mortar, for the functional fitness and training obsessed, collaborating with the biggest brands in sports and the brightest names in CrossFit.

Dan Williams, the founder and CEO of the company, spoke to us to talk about how business became such a bulky business, why you need a good bit of luck to go with your big ideas and where he sees the fitness sector going in the next few years.

Where did the idea for WIT come from?

At school and uni, I was really into sports. My dream, like a lot of us, was to work for a Nike or an Adidas when I came out of uni. I was a semi-professional runner, so I was trying to make it as an athlete for a while after university. I knew I wanted to be part of sports and fitness but I didn’t know quite what it would be.

I knew I’d have an idea, as I was always entrepreneurial, even back then. The ides for WIT came from me walking into a CrossFit gym in Leeds, all those years ago. I noticed people wearing the same clothes and shoes, which I thought was a bit strange at first, given that I was still going to the gym in my rugby shorts and socks!

CrossFit was such a small sport in the UK at that point. There were probably 50 boxes in the whole country and one of them was in Leeds. They were all wearing Reebok shorts and Nano 1s. They were such cult consumers and they followed each other’s trends, be that nutrition, training or apparel. It was obvious in a short space of time that fitness, whether that’s CrossFit, or other group or class setups, was becoming a sport in its own right.

Brands were sitting up taking notice: Under Armour, Nike, Reebok and smaller brands. They were focussing on that consumer for the first time ever, just like they had done on running, football or basketball.

So I realised there was an opportunity for someone to become the conduit between that consumer and those brands. I understood the consumer and the brands wanted somebody authentic as a retailer. I thought I could be that person.

I was really early to market and there weren’t an awful lot of CrossFitters. But the evolution since then has been stunning. Even a few years ago, you still had people training in their rugby shorts at the big chain gyms. But now, everyone is wearing specific training gear. It’s been adopted as a lifestyle and people want to invest in the right apparel and footwear.

In your opinion, how much has fitness become a 24-hour a day lifestyle?

We rode the wave of CrossFit and F45 to start with and now training is so central to so many people’s lives. It’s now such a wide demographic and diverse background. It’s become such a huge part of our society and we’ve been lucky to place ourselves in a position to help that.

Originally, our data suggested that our target demographic was strictly 25-35. But the last two years has dramatically changed that. There have been so many people who have adopted fitness in their homes, or at the park, that we’ve seen them move into the gym eco-system.

The CrossFit consumer was very 25-35 and male dominated. Generally, the fitness audience is now a much wider demographic with a more 50/50 gender split.

What was it like starting WIT from scratch?

I love Leeds but I knew it wouldn’t work for this idea. I need a large volume of people that I could access quickly. There was no business plan, to be honest. I just had a feeling that this consumer and the sport of fitness was about to take off. Somebody was going to take hold of the opportunity, so I thought I may as well. I move to London almost immediately, with a bit of cash but not much. We rented the lower ground floor of an Intersport. We were in a basement and had no actual shop fascia. But we branded it up and I brought in some inventory from Reebok and some cool underground CrossFit brands from the US.

We took off really quickly. Because I’d been involved in the CrossFit community, I knew so people were crying out for this concept. So we didn’t need a fascia. As soon as they were aware of it they were there, as the wanted one place to get this equipment and apparel.

We did get lucky, like a lot of entrepreneurs do. We pitched to Nike – the golden goose for a start-up like us. We knew that they were trying to get into the CrossFit space with the Metcon shoe, so we pitched to them and actually got the head of training for Nike Europe to the store and, somehow, he was impressed with this crazy basement with strange lighting and dodgy décor.

I said we need 1000 units of all the colours, so wanted to order 5000 units. They wouldn’t give them to us. They said we were a start-up and too much of a risk, so they only gave us 200 units in total. I told them they would regret it. The day we launched, we sold those 200 pairs of shoes in ten minutes. We had 200 people queuing down Cheapside for the Metcon 1. I went back to Nike with a picture of the queue.

The beauty was that nobody else knew about the shoe, so it was easy to replenish stock straight away and the boost of Nike and the Metcon we got over the next couple of years allowed us to really take off very quickly.

Did that inform the idea of hyping up and ‘dropping’ new releases?

People are so obsessed with fitness now, that they are as excited by the release of the new Metcon and they are about the new Jordan. It’s also quite a similar demographic in some ways, the 25-35 year-old male especially. The sneaker culture carries over.

Now we’re lucky enough to do collaborations with brands with is even more exclusive. And it elevates the brand externally with investors and other stake holders. We utilise the drops to drive hype around the business. It’s not our bread and butter. But we love a launch.

Can you identify a turning point when you knew WIT was really taking off?

Granted it was my idea, but I had a feeling this was the big one right from the off. I understood the customer so well. Our relationships with the brands have supercharged the business without a doubt. Our relationship with the community has helped us over the years. But to be honest, it was the boring stuff. We got really lucky with our first round of investment. I’d run out of money and a guy walked into that basement store and asked us what we were doing. He’d just spent three years in New York, so had seen where the fitness space was going. He asked me if we were looking for investment. And I said that we were!

Based on a phone call and a coffee, he gave us enough money to open our first permanent physical store in Shoreditch, which really gave us a blueprint to really launch things.

I like to think we’ve executed things quite well. But there is an element of luck the comes into it.

What was the Shoreditch site like?

It was another basement! But the good thing about being downstairs with no fascia for the first three years was that we got used to working tirelessly to get people in the space. It’s so reflective of what we do now – we always do activations and events, athlete appearances and all those things, long before it was the fashionable.

Once we moved out of basements in the more recent years, we carried on doing those activations but on a grander scale, and that allowed the brand to take off again.

How important is it to ensure that your part in the fitness sector is accessible and approachable?

It’s a difficult balance, to be honest. I think we could do a lot better with a lot of the things that we do. Fundamentally, if you’re just looking at CrossFit, it’s quite intimidating to a lot of people. And the price point is not accessible, particularly in London. I think we have struggled in the past. A lot of consumers come to us who are quite mature in their training and they want to access the drops. We’ve struggled with the beginner athlete and getting them into the store or website.

Diversity has always been one of our core values. Whether that’s internally or externally with our community. Right from board level, through mid-management all the way down the junior team members, we have got a company with all ranges of background and ethnicities, with a male-female split that is very even. In fact, I’m outnumbered on the exec team.

The network of people that we work with hold the same values and that makes us, I think, more accessible. There is always going to be the issue of price points for getting into training, particularly in London. Something has to be done about it. We’re thinking about opening a training space for three months that is totally free, just to give people access to the ecosystem and doing fitness. We might be a bit better at it than some others but we are desperate to improve.

Where do you see fitness going in the next five years?

Firstly, I think it’s just such an exciting place to be. Both as a business owner and as somebody who just loves going to the gym. It’s only going one way and that’s expanding exponentially. I hope it becomes more central to the lives of a wider diversity of people and that we can be a part of addressing those issues. Post-COVID, it’s just an amazing place to be as we’re all so much more focussed on our health.

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