Fiit is now one of the premium training platforms out there, providing guided workouts from coaches such as MH Elite expert Gus Vaz Tostes. With two new performance-based indoor cycling concepts launching on Monday 14th November, which integrate with Keiser and the Concept2 BikeErg and provide a full suit of metrics for even the most nerdy of pedallers, we spoke to Fiit CEO and co-founder Dan Shellard.
Read on to find out how he went from the dream of playing profession football to starting Fiit via a little company called Google, how the pandemic actually helped their business grow and why open-source connected fitness is the near future of your training.
Men's Health: What is your personal background in tech and fitness?
Dan Shellard: I studied at university in Bath and the dream was to be a professional footballer. Most kids have that dream in their early teens, but I would say I was deluded for a lot longer. When I left uni I had a trial for a team out in the US and that was going to be my way in. I was going to play in America and then come back over. While I was waiting for that trial, my mum – being a sane person and realising that I was never going to make it as a professional footballer – sent my CV off to Google without my knowledge. Google got in touch and the more conversations I had I realised that this was an incredible opportunity and I need a reality check: I’d never played for a professional club in my life and what was making me think I was going to start now!
I took the job and worked at Google for just over four years. I spent some time in a variety of different teams, like sales and strategy and then the last part of my career there I was working on a project called Google Analytics, which most website around the world have and tells you how many people are coming to your site and what they’re doing on it.
Off the back of that, myself and some other employees there saqw an opportunity in that world. We built a company called Qubit that gathered data about how people used website but then also be able target those users with specific content to personalise the web experience. We built that to a decent size, with a company of about 300 people, raised about £76 million in the process.
With such obvious success, why did you not stick with that?
But I did get to the point after seven years where I loved the tech side and the entrepreneurial side, but web personalisation was not the sexiest thing to talk about every day. I saw the wave of digital disruption happening in fitness with the likes of Zwift and Peloton. I thought it was really cool stuff and I wanted to apply my tech background with my real passion of fitness. That’s where Fiit all started. I left Qubit with one of the other co-founders, Ian, who is an incredible athlete, and joined up with one of his friends from university, Sammi. We set up and started in early 2017.
How has Fitt evolved in what has been a strange five years?
Back in ’17, what was really new and big was influencers. Joe Wicks was starting to gain some really good traction. Our original thesis was that we were going to find these trainers with the biggest following, bring them onto the platform and use their audiences to acquire customers. What we learned quite quickly was that although some of them were excellent and were fantastic trainers with the audience, a lot of them would come down to audition and, despite their following, just weren’t right.
We focussed in on finding only the best trainers and being an authority. We were trying to create fitness a habit for people and if were giving out poor advice, or promoting short-termism, that was not the right missing for the company. So, we evolved quite rapidly, focussing on trainers like Gus, who could do it all. There is a whole process that Gede Foster and her team take the trainers through to get them on screen. You might be able to do a brilliant class at a boutique studio with all that energy to feed off, but it’s completely different doing that in a production studio where it’s quiet and you’re surrounded by cameras and a production team all staring at you. They have music in their ear but the room is silent, so that dynamic is uncomfortable and it takes a lot of practice to be able to deliver a performance. We now have quite a finely tuned process to make the most of their charisma and put them in a place to deliver.
For someone who doesn’t know what Fiit is, what’s your 60-second explanation?
I describe ourselves as a connected fitness app. What that means, is that users can connect pieces of equipment, or chest straps, to our platform, and then take a guided workout of many modalities – bodyweight, rowing, biking – and they can see their metrics in real time to track their performance. They can get involved with challenges and leader boards with friends, which connects people with a community. It’s that togetherness with drives a lot of the long-term retention.
In terms of our flavour of exercise, we specialise on the functional side of things. We’ve evolved to that over the course of time, as we’re constantly looking at the data of how people are using different workouts. The rowing fits in quite nicely.
Do you connect with third-party trackers?
We connect with pretty much all wearables, such as Apple Watch and MyZone. Those give us heart rate, which is great and you can see what zone you’re working in. What our own chest strap does is also track movement, so you can see how many repetitions you’ve done. If you think about an average functional fitness workout – you’re on a rower for five minutes, then the floor for five minutes. I want to know how hard I’m working on both. Other wearables give you 50% of the data. Then we also sell the air bike, rowing machine and treadmill through partnership with the top manufacturers.
How many classes did you launch with? Was it bodyweight to start with?
Exactly that. We have developed over time but began with pure bodyweight HIIT, yoga and Pilates. What we’ve found, is that when you start adding in pieces of equipment the retention of those users goes up quite dramatically and that’s for a number of reasons. Firstly, you’ve committed financially to the service and you want to continue use it. But also, people see results far quicker with progressive overload on their muscles and finally, we can design much more interesting workouts for the platform. Somebody who buys and Assault Bike, for example, over the course of a year we won’t lose any of those customers. Of the people who just do the bodyweight classes, it’s roughly half that in terms of retention. Dumbbells and kettlebells falls somewhere in between.
Did COVID and the lockdowns actually boost your business?
It did really help up. We started April 2017 and launched April 2018, so we had a two-year runway before the pandemic, where we managed to fine-tune everything. So, by the time the pandemic hit, although it was a wild period for us, the hard work had been done. We’d honed down on the trainers that were right, we’d introduced the dumbbell and kettlebell workouts and certainly felt that we were mature enough as a company to take advantage of the situation.
With your background in analytics, did you see a huge uptick in users?
Yes, all metrics improved dramatically and there were some interesting insights. Before the pandemic we were 90% female, now we’ve got a 60-40 female-male split. Which is a huge shift. In terms of ability level, we were more geared towards the beginner, but we brought through an intermediate audience who obviously couldn’t go the gym. Most of them have stuck around and the hybrid concept we’ve added means that they can now take us into the gym and connect to the Concept2 Rower and/or BikeErg as an example, and still train with a set of dumbbells or plan some yoga when working out from home.
We've recently launched a partnership with The Gym Group, to integrate with their in-gym experience. So you can go on any bike, tread or rower and seamlessly get all the metrics whether working out at home or in the gym. It was a partnership that was obviously put on hold due to the pandemic, but if anything our hybrid theory makes even more sense for them now. For us, supporting that hybrid approach to training is where we’re going.
Do you use the app yourself, or is it a bit of a busman’s holiday?
I do. Out of the three founders, I’m definitely at the top and probably train five times a week. My father-in-law puts me to shame, though. He’s at over 1000 classes. We had a customer get in touch last week to tells us about their 1000-day streak. They’ve not missed a single day in 1000 days. That’s better than me. My working week is typically three days in the office and two at home. So when I’m WFH I can just nip down to the garage and do a 25-minute workout. Obviously, we have a gym in our office, so that’s more convenient than most people.
But being able to train on the app at both locations means you miss far fewer days. Also, for me, not having to think about it too much is a real bonus. Fiit is going to tell me what I’m doing. I normally need, at most, a piece of cardio equipment and some dumbbells. It’s outsourced fitness and it’s refreshing for me. Your programming is in the hands of those super-credible trainers we talked about, and you can see your metrics and how hard you’re working. You just don’t have that worry about whether you’re doing the right or the wrong thing while you’re training. When you’re busy with work and family, you can just switch off and get on with it.
Finally, what do you see as the next step in the fitness space?
I feel like all wearable and apps will become an open source to make your health and fitness entirely connected. There is a way to go, obviously. But if you go back five years, we would have seen each other only as competitors. Some of us were ‘at home’, others were gyms. Ultimately, you have to put the consumer first. If you’re doing one thing at home and another at the gym and nothing is joined up, that’s not a good experience. The industry is starting to realise that a connected ecosystem is only going to be beneficial.
Take the narrative coming out of the new CEO at Peloton for example. It’s always been very closed, but now they are thinking and talking about maybe being a platform that can put their content elsewhere,. Perhaps it will not just be their own bike, but any bike. That’s a smart play and we’ve always wanted to play with this ecosystem idea. More compatibility across more platforms, places and equipment is what we need.
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