Saturday, June 22, 2024

How Freeletics Became The No. 1 Fitness App In Europe

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(Courtesy of Freeletics)

NEW YORK — The ultimatum had been made by Daniel Sobhani and his handful of teammates at health and fitness app Freeletics: make money or move on.

“We were very close to killing the project then,” recalls Sobhani of the Munich, Germany-based bootstrapped startup during a media tour.

That was early 2013, when Sobhani — the companys Chief Executive Officer — said he and his colleagues were rejected by all of the potential investors they had discussions with, calling the feedback “quite harsh and super demotivating.” He explained that there were two main points of concern presented by the venture capital firms. They didn’t have any trust in the founding team because everyone had similar backgrounds and no one had any technology or product experience. Additionally, the core concept of Freeletics was extremely tough workouts, and they suggested Sobhani and his team tone down the intensity.

So, naturally they listened to what their investors said and constructed the app with easier exercises? Wrong and quite the opposite.

“We didn’t listen to a thing the investors said. We didn’t change anything,” he said.

Running alongside the stalled-out investment conversations was the internal Freeletics clock to pull in revenue. Over the span of a month, they blasted weekly emails fit with training plans to different groups and newsletter lists they had compiled. It was one of the last-ditch efforts to build brand awareness and market the company. However, after the four weeks, Freeletics stopped emailing their community, which included fewer than 1,000 people at the time.

“What happened and what we didn’t anticipate, is they asked us, ‘Hey, where is my five week training? Here is my Paypal account, charge me whatever but send me the fifth week.’ I was like, ‘Oh, wow. There’s a need for this,’” Sobhani said.

He and his colleagues then “did the most offline thing you could do in an online world.” Freeletics sold three separate PDF workout plans via Shopify for €1 each. With the incoming revenue, which still wasn’t much, it could hire its first engineer and start creating the initial app. It was a move that could sustain the company for time being.

In April 2013, Freeletics launched its first app, which was “fairly low tech-based” compared to the current artificial intelligence-powered edition, according to Sobhani.

“It was much more about the experience,” he said. “There were three things we built into the experience. Make sure the people, if they do it, get the results. The second thing is make it an experience that differs from everything they’ve had so far. The first workout, make it really brutal. The next day they get up, they shouldn’t be able to move that well. We named the workouts after Greek gods, giving it a mystic touch and putting epic music to it. We had hell days and hell weeks. Every seven weeks, there was a hell week to go through. There were community gestures, handshakes. Third thing, make it in such a way that would get people to talk about it, and it could spread by word of mouth. Those were the three design principles.”

The inflection point in Freeletics came towards the end of 2013 and into 2014 where the company grew 20x, according to Sobhani. Through some networking and what sounds like happen-stance luck, the company ran a low-budget €200 commercial that aired on the local television station in Munich during New Year’s. Additionally, the company incorporated both Facebook and YouTube into its social strategy, with the latter platform being used to showcase physical transformation stories from different users. Freeletics created content on its own for social but the user-generated authentic content and success stories, as Sobhani described, generated a snowball-effect of momentum for Freeletics.

Not to mention, around the same time, a Munich-based brand ambassador traveled to Paris where he came into contact with a few local reporters who grabbed hold of Freeletics and managed to showcase a transformation story on the 8 o’clock news.

“Once you have Paris, you have the whole country,” he said, saying that the product had spread throughout Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France.

Added Sobhani: “It exploded overnight…People liked the concept that we were just a couple of guys, and we weren’t venture backed.

“It was super intense because none of us had done anything like that before. We were learning on the go.”

Three years later, and Freeletics is No. 1 fitness app in Europe with 20 million global users. Though Sobhani declined to discuss specific revenues, he said that from 2014 to the present, the company has experienced roughly 10x growth, is profitable and nearing 150 employees. Of that figure, about 85 team members revolve around product, engineering and algorithmic work.

Freeletics has since evolved into four apps, including running, gym, bodyweight and nutrition, with the former three coaching apps eventually being lumped into one app that will communicate with nutrition. Depending on the workout app a user currnetly utilizes, a profile is initially constructed based on health and fitness information provided. As Sobhani illustrated, the artificial intelligence and machine learning looks at what an individual can do but also what should he or she do.

Through a person’s own exercise objectives, characteristics and current health state combined with a standard fitness test and the machine-learning algorithms, a suggested workout is prescribed for the user. Freeletics also weighs information provided by the other 20 million users when issuing a recommendation that ultimately answers the question, “What would be the workout that has the highest retention probability for you?”

According to Sobhani, Freeletics is “80 to 90 percent accurate” in its recommendation. At the end of each workout, users can then provide feedback if they enjoyed the workout or not.

After a few weeks utilizing Freeletics and as more information is inputted, the machine-learning algorithms will provide users with certain benchmark exercises that, in turn, generate high information density regarding one’s general fitness ability. With that data, Freeletics can better understand where someone falls on the normal distribution curve compared to other similar users.

Sobhani said that the running, gym and bodyweight apps — which are priced at three, six and 12 month subscriptions ranging from €34.99 to ‎€79.99 — will be “fully synchronized” into one over the next six to nine months that will overlap with nutrition.

“Whatever you do on the training side will affect the nutrition side and vice versa,” he added.

Another future focus is bringing more social features into the app, including the ability to find other workout users within geographic proximity, communicating with them via the app and finding training spots together. Building off Freeletics’ two million users in the United States is also a priority heading into the latter half of 2017 and the next calendar year, with the app sitting in the top 5 fitness and nutrition apps within the U.S. App store.

Finally, further leveraging the company’s 150-plus ambassadors and community activists, especially domestically, will be vital in continued growth, Sobhani said. Not only can those individuals lead training groups and act as role models for the broader Freeletics community but also provide feedback to leadership about ways to improve Freeletics as a whole.

“They’re passionate users who can show the community how they fit in short workouts, how they manage their nutrition despite being on the run constantly,” Sobhani explained. “Giving them this feeling that the struggle you have and the difficulty you have incorporating fitness into your lifestyle is normal but there are strategies and tactics to cope with that.”

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