‘We kept our ear to the ground, didn’t dismiss what was happening and took action to mitigate the risk’. Founder Mohammed Iqbal shares how being innovators helped SweatWorks grow during the pandemic.
Without problems you can’t find solutions, and that’s what innovation is all about – thinking differently to find solutions. So, while the Coronavirus pandemic has been devastating in so many ways, it has also provided a huge opportunity to innovate.
When we first started hearing about this virus in China, many were quick to dismiss it as something that would blow over. It took most of our industry over 90 days to start taking the situation seriously. We already had operations in China, and were being told by our people out there about the severity of this virus. So, we listened and we began to innovate.
Straight away in March 2020 we started spinning out ideas and looking at how to protect our brands, our staff and our company. We implemented a three-stage plan focused on three things: Outreach, training, supply chain.
We took some aggressive moves…
The first thing we did was get in touch with all of our brands and communicate to them that this thing wasn’t going to go away. Three quarters of our brands were entirely reliant on revenue from events or big box gyms. If they went down, so would we. So we told them that this isn’t going to be a 30-day thing, it isn’t going to be a 90-day thing, this will be an actual pandemic. We used that word, pandemic.
Then we posed the question ‘how are you going to prepare yourself?’ And the approach that we took was to advise them to invest in digital and invest in connected technology now, because even if what we think is happening doesn’t, they would have laid the groundwork for where the industry is going anyway.
We let zero people go during the pandemic
I believe we were the first company in our industry to send out a memo to employees, clients and partners stating that we are going to be changing the way we work, effective immediately. We were the first to cancel travel, in person meetings, and retract our attendances at events – to the dismay of many. But protecting our people was of paramount importance. So very early on our staff were adapting to a new normal and we made sure everyone was trained in how to work remotely.
We also knew we needed to provide role-specific training, because the fitness world as we knew it was going to change rapidly. With the need to work from home, the pandemic accelerated the progression of consumer behavior bringing the drive for connected fitness forward by about five years. Before Coronavirus hit, we were already making plans with our brands to move into omni-channel wellness, but only a quarter of our staff were really involved in connected fitness. I’m proud to say we have let zero people go during the pandemic. Instead, we instituted a rapid retraining program and pivoted the entire company. This meant that if someone was a developer that was working on web technologies, we retrained them on mobile technology. If they had never implemented a live streaming platform, we were going to show them how to do that. Now the company started to look like it was made for connected fitness.
We invested in parts at scale
We wouldn’t have been able to deliver anything, had we not foreseen the massive supply chain problem that our industry along with so many others have suffered. In our spitballing sessions in March 2020 we started asking ‘How do we lower our risk?’ Our decision was to pre-purchase hundreds of thousands of components, from touch panels to processors.
“We pre-purchased almost a quarter of a million of these complete sets of components on top of millions of parts.”
These were bold investments, but looking at the broader picture, even if nothing happened, we would still be better prepared for the future and save money by buying in bulk.
By preparing our business, we knew we were best placed to support this new world, where at-home fitness would be more prevalent than ever, where events are hosted online and where access to big gyms is reliant on political policy. We understood where we had to concentrate our efforts: connected hardware, wearable integration, video & music and community.
We were able to create a connected console, which you will now see on Beachbody, CLMBR, CITYROW and SoulCycle, that was beyond just your phone or your iPad, phone or computer screen. These are all productivity tools, not fitness tools. The difference when you build a connected console is that it’s optimized for streaming, has tremendous sound, can connect to your heartbeat monitor and other smart devices. It’s purpose-built and when you look at it, it reflects the brand.
The second pillar we innovated on is wearable integration which was in response to the lack of access to facilities experienced in the pandemic. Because when you’re not in a group studio environment, having a connected wearable is critical. So for us, it was crucial to connect the Fitbit or your Apple Watch, or your heart rate monitor, and contextualise it in a way that is true to the brand. For example, beat-based or rhythm-based riding is core to SoulCycle. When you’re in the studio it’s awesome to see the front row of class riding to the same beat, but when you’re at home, how do you kind of transcend the physical to the connected? And we were able to do that with our wearable integrations.
Music and video
We really understood that the role of video and music would skyrocket. Yes music was important in a physical space, but it was just one of many elements that created the experience, including the smells, the presence of space, the lighting. When you walk into a gym space you’re kind of in that element. But when you’re at home, when you take away those other elements, what you have left is the talent, who is the coach, and you have music. So we worked on bringing those to the forefront.
We built phenomenal streaming technology and made music a core part of that. We optimized the integration of video and music, where if you’re an instructor you can actually select the songs and the playlist that you want. That’s complicated because you’ve got to integrate with the licensee’s music publishers, but we did that.
The fourth pillar we focused on is community. How do you feel like you’re part of something larger than yourself? And that, that does a few things: It helps you stay accountable, it helps motivate you while you’re there and it shows you that if others can do this really hard workout or run or bootcamp, so can you. In a studio, you could see that others are sweating and working, but at home you can’t see that. So we did a ton of innovations there. For some brands the right solution was a leaderboard, like one that shows you your power output like with Peloton. For other brands, it shows effort through your heart rate to compete over who’s working out the hardest in terms of exertion. And in others, it’s just knowing that there’s other people in the class.
The outstanding impact
Throughout all of these innovations we were able to provide our insight in connecting biomarkers like a heartbeat, and integrate our artificial intelligence to hyper-personalized fitness for our brands. We were doing all of this while most other agencies were saying, “Oh my God, what is the Zoom thing? How do we integrate? How do I get people connected?” Because we’re innovators first and foremost, we were there saying, “We’re ready to go.”
We sat at the crossroads of having subject matter expertise and speed to market. So if a brand wanted to go digital and they were in fitness, we were the only game in town.
The impact of that has meant that our revenues and our team more than doubled during the pandemic. Right now, our team is almost 150-strong, we opened up the UK office and we’re looking to expand that. The innovation never stops, so from here on, the sky is the limit.