Maya Kosoff

14 January 2021

10 min read

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When COVID-19 hit, it immediately touched every aspect of our lives. Many were forced to abandon their regular work and school routines. Others began cooking at home more often. The ways we’ve stayed healthy also changed, as the pandemic eliminated our regular workout routines.

Some of us tried to replicate the gym experience at home. With millions trapped sheltering in place, 2020 was arguably the best time to buy a piece of equipment on which you could train virtually. Perhaps that’s why Mirror sold to athleisure company Lululemon last year, or how Peloton, which sells a trendy $2000 stationary bike packaged alongside a $39/month virtual class subscription, posted its first-ever profit amid the pandemic.

But bulky equipment isn’t an option for everyone. When you’re living in a 600-square-foot apartment, “at-home fitness” exists only inasmuch as you’re able to wedge a yoga mat down onto the living room rug between the coffee table and couch. I could only do so many “Yoga With Adriene” classes on YouTube in my Brooklyn apartment this spring before I started to feel nostalgic for my $15-a-month gym membership.

As people made do in their homes, fitness trainers were also forced to adjust to the changing environment in order to survive. Those who weren’t tied to some of the larger online fitness platforms had to rethink how they interacted with clients while unable to operate in a physical gym environment.

The most nimble have traded in studio spaces for ring lights and laptop rigs and are now filming their classes. In addition to maintaining their expertise in physical fitness, they have become marketing experts, filmographers, and social media managers who reach their clients through Instagram and YouTube.

Finally, in a world where so much fitness content is available for free, personal trainers have had to find new ways to monetize their classes and find dedicated users.

Pivoting to digital

Britteny Floyd-Mayo is a case in point. Britteny is a certified Vinyasa Yoga instructor and the woman behind Trap Yoga Bae, a yoga and wellness brand that originated as a touring company. Prior to this year, Floyd-Mayo taught in Mexico, Cuba, Canada, and Singapore. But just before the pandemic hit, she had the instinct that she should teach more of her classes online.

“My thought process was, I can't be everywhere at once,” she said. “Come to find out, you know, seven months later I can't be anywhere at all.”

Britteny pivoted quickly. She built an online community through an app she created, and she started offering virtual classes so widespread that she could teach clients in Houston, New York, and Atlanta at the same time.

A major part of her business base is corporate work: In normal years, she trains at the Essence Festival and also works with brands. But instead of leaning into in-person events this year, she started reaching out to companies and creating partnerships with brands like Samsung, Google, Curology, and Indeed. She has quickly become a virtual wellness partner for employees working from home.

For Abhish Desai, the founder of The Desai Lifestyle, giving his clients workouts to do at home has always been part of his brand. “You could just watch Netflix at home and work out, because that's what I did,” he said, explaining the original concept behind his company. “I really wanted to stay true to that. And the pandemic emphasized that and brought more people to that side, since I already focused on it. It allowed me to emphasize the importance of home fitness.”

So, when lockdown and stay-at-home orders took effect, Abhish focused on telling clients that despite what they might be getting advertised online, they didn’t need a gym to stay fit. Instead of buying equipment or weights — which have been in short supply throughout the pandemic — they already had everything they needed to work out at home.

“My initial message was: You don't need all of that. You can stay fit at home for 20 minutes a day, as long as you go as hard as you can,” he said. “You can start creating more than just simple home fitness. You can start going into calisthenics. You can start going into lots of different kinds of endurance workouts. You can actually train like an athlete at home.”

Britteny and Abhish adapted more deftly than many fitness trainers in their position this year. To say the least, the pandemic hit fitness instructors hard. According to a survey conducted by the Personal Trainer Development Center, 58 percent of trainers lost some or all of their income as a result of shutdowns and gyms closing during the pandemic, and 23 percent were laid off or furloughed.

“Because of the pandemic, because so many people lost their jobs, no one was really trying to buy a lot of things,” Desai said. “A lot of brands took a huge hit from that. And, personally, I took a huge hit from that just because the brands that I was working with, that I was supposed to get into a long-term contract with, they had to postpone because they didn't know where the industry was going or how it was going to grow.”

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Adapting to the next normal

Before the pandemic, Abhish hadn’t been posting full workouts online. But when he did, he started with the basics: How to jump rope, how to do a burpee, and other simple tasks he wasn’t able to do when he first started on his own fitness journey.

On Instagram, Abhish posts twice a day. One of those posts will include some variation of exercises or how-tos, and the second could be a picture of anything else. Common topics Abhish touches on include lifestyle issues or mental health issues, as well as his own experiences with fitness. For instance, Abhish talks about how he started his company after completing a three-month fitness program created by Luke Zocchi (Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth’s personal trainer) and lost 50 pounds.

But on YouTube, Abhish is more of a vlogger. He goes much more in-depth in explaining how to start and maintain a fitness journey.

Exposure to new would-be clients in 2020 was just as important to Abhish as sales would be in a normal year. “One of the things that I learned was that it's not about sales this year, but more so about keeping the exposure up,” he said. “So I went out and created as much content as possible, taking pictures, taking video, and doing everything possible to get people excited to get back into normal life, get back into just their daily lives.”

Meanwhile, Britteny learned a different lesson about platforms and growing an audience in 2020. “It became very important to me in the digital space to understand the importance of owning my data,” she said.

Britteny had been on Facebook since 2007, but one day she woke up and, much to her horror, learned that Facebook had deleted her account. It made her realize she couldn’t ever depend on any one platform; she had to own her data herself.

“I realized, ‘Wow, if the same thing happens to my Instagram where I have 55,000 people following me, I'm toast. I'm done,’” she recalled. “I mean, I've got a newsletter of 16,000, sure, but it took me years to build. I had to start thinking: in what ways can I gather more email addresses?”

The most important thing for Britteny was having the ability to engage directly with her clients. Part of how Britteny was able to do that was through Trap Yoga Bae’s app.

“I know the impact that my brand has. This pandemic has taught people the importance of self-love, self-awareness, and self-care,” she said. “I'm grateful that the digital space exists so that I can provide that to people in a way that is safe for me and them, and still allows people to grow during this immense time of isolation and loneliness.”

And when it comes to making money, the biggest lesson she learned is the importance of adding value. “There are a lot of people who are like, ‘I'm a yoga teacher, so I want to charge people.’ And it's like, what value have you given people? What story have you told?” she said.

To make people want to pay for your service, Britteny explained, you first have to create a product and serve your users in a way that’s benevolent, beneficial, and authentic. You have to tell your story and connect with users. And then you can start thinking about monetization.

You can stay fit at home for 20 minutes a day, as long as you go as hard as you can. You can actually train like an athlete at home.” — Abhish Desai, founder, The Desai Lifestyle
A global market opportunity

As the world went through a physical-to-digital transformation in 2020, it created challenges but also a new set of opportunities, according to Samsung Next senior vice president and head of product Travis Bogard.

“All of a sudden, the size of your market is not just a geographic square that can physically get to you,” he said. “The world is your potential addressable market.”

As fitness trainers find new ways to embrace digital solutions, they’re finding some advantages. Directly reaching a wider set of customers more efficiently can make a difference for trainers. Instead of having to lease a physical space or convince a bank to give you capital to get your gym up and running, virtual at-home fitness comes with fewer traditional restraints.

“We can use tech as a way to amplify the access and connection rather than disproportionally direct the wealth generation out of that,” Bogard said.

By pursuing new, digital avenues, fitness trainers are also helping to democratize consumers’ access to a personal coach. No matter where in the world you are, your trainer is there with you. You also don’t need to buy equipment to work out: Many personal trainers have created programs relying on body weight or a small number of pieces of equipment, instead of depending on a fully equipped home gym.

For Abhish, in-person training was a time sink. He would run around to different locations to see different clients or wait for them to come to him for training. He wouldn’t have time to get feedback from them or learn what kinds of content people wanted from him.

Now, Abhish said, he has more time than ever to create content for and to listen to his audience. These days he can sit down and, if only for an hour a day, read over comments, messages, and suggestions people have and tailor his workouts accordingly.

“It allows me so much more creativity. I can think it through,” he said. “It allows me to just evolve constantly at home and in the comfort of my own home instead of going outside and kind of staying stagnant the entire time.”

But despite the upsides of going virtual, there are newfound costs associated with reaching the people taking classes wherever they are. “Upgrading was very expensive. To get the right camera, to build our crew,” Britteny said.

There were also emotional costs. To be an instructor who gleans energy from a crowd makes talking directly to a camera all the more difficult. It can be daunting to provide instructions with no direct feedback.

And, of course, fitness trainers are people too: There are days when they don’t want to have to do the work and show up for dozens or hundreds of people virtually. “I need today, but I've promised the world that I was going to show up for them,” Britteny said. “And so, with love and boundaries, I still have to be who I am, regardless of how I'm feeling in that moment. I have to create.”

As she looks toward the future, it seems inevitable to Britteny that virtual home workouts are here to stay for one reason: What she sells isn’t confined to a single geographic location. “Everyone's rushing to get back to normal and what they're going to find is normal is nothing like what they knew before,” she explained. “The online option is a way to reach my tribe. My tribe is not geo-targeted.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, fitness trainers have had to be nimble, think on their feet, and to wear many hats to adapt to an ever-changing and increasingly at-home situation.

No longer are they just fitness trainers: They’ve had to learn marketing, copywriting, social media, and video in ways they’d never anticipated. They’ve traded in leases on studio spaces for at-home rig setups where they film their classes. They’ve had to build apps and forge new business partnerships in an effort to monetize their classes and attract dedicated, paying users. But their adaptability proves that they’ll be ready for the future — whatever it may look like.

To learn more about smart fitness in a post-COVID world be sure to check out this article.

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