As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ed Buckley, PhD.
Ed Buckley, III, Ph.D., is the Chairman and CEO of Peerfit, a platform that makes it easy for insurance carriers, brokers and employers to offer a variety of fitness experiences to their clients, employees and Medicare Advantage members. Ed leads Peerfit’s expansion strategy by driving national partnerships, business development, and fundraising. With nearly 10 years in the fitness industry and a background in digital health behavior research, Ed continues to push the envelope on innovation in the fitness-technology space. He is passionate about designing new ways to drive engagement and help deliver flexibility and personalization to the health and wellness marketplace. As CEO, Peerfit has won national awards for best company culture, best leadership, regional Emmy awards, and best workplaces from Entrepreneur, USA Today, and Great Places to Work. Ed holds a PhD in Digital Health Behavior, and a Master’s of Public Health, from the University of Florida. He is also the co-founder and Vice-President of the Board of Governors for Balance180, a non-profit that encourages children with disabilities to be physically active.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up as a military kid and was taught the value of discipline and structure really early on in life. I went to the University of Florida on scholarship from the Navy ROTC program (#gogators) and went on to earn my Master’s in Public Health and a Ph.D in Digital Health Behavior, focused on human behavior and how community can help influence.
During this time, I launched my first company Wellness2Go, a corporate wellness program that gave employees access to gyms and healthy eats, paid for by their employer, with Atlanta Public Schools as one of our first clients. This company was the inspiration for creating Peerfit in 2011.
I was teaching classes at Gainesville Health and Fitness and other fitness facilities and would hear from my students how they wanted to be able to follow me to the different gyms and facilities. In order to do so, they would have to pay out of pocket, but couldn’t because they already had a membership to only one of those places. So, we thought of creating a “pass” that would allow them to take classes from their favorite fitness instructors no matter the location.
We joined the 2014 Healthbox Accelerator Program (funded by Florida Blue) in Tampa, and that is when we pivoted into corporate wellness. We knew if we wanted to help solve the challenges of being active and healthy we had to go to the source of who administered wellness benefits.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When we were starting out, we would read about the startup world in Silicon Valley and assume those rules translated to Central Florida where we are based. The inflated valuations, ease in getting funds, was not at all the case. And that’s how we approached investors and potential board members. We were quickly brought back to the reality of fundraising in the south after a few pitches. We basically had to write new rules for Florida because when we were starting out, the startup industry in the state was almost non-existent. Looking back it’s funny now, but probably not so much then!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
As a personal goal, I try to read around 20 books a year and every year I re-read the same two books: “Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney” by Lee Cockerell, a book on leadership and management leading from the trenches, and the “Closer’s Survival Guide” by Grant Cardone. Both of these books are hugely influential on how I lead and run Peerfit and I like to read them every year as a refresher.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
As both a fitness instructor and a grad student, I was connecting what I was hearing out in the field to what I was studying.
People came to me with a problem — they wanted to do something and couldn’t. I became obsessed with solving their pain points and friction. It wasn’t just about starting a company or the glamour of being an entrepreneur. I was set on making life easier for them by solving one seemingly small, but significant problem.
We are fortunate as a company that by solving their problem, we are also keeping them healthy and active.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I believe that there’s no such thing as good or bad, but instead, effective or ineffective. This mindset allows you to take your ego out of the equation and look at things from a ‘black and white’ perspective. It’s important to look at challenges from a systemic approach. Just because something is going well doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon. And maybe failures aren’t just that; find improvements along the way to turn those failures into effective solutions.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like everyone, I am going through similar experiences — having multiple people working from home (in a tiny apartment!), who didn’t before and aren’t used to being home at all since we are used to traveling for work and being on the road so much. I also have a grandparent in an assisted living facility that I am unable to visit, and usually on my work travels I would make side trips to visit family and friends. I haven’t been able to see my family at all because we all live in different places. I’ve tried to stay connected to them by video chatting whenever possible, sending them care packages because I know they are also confined to their homes and just trying to communicate as much as possible.
It’s always said that being a CEO can be quite lonely so I also lean on my network of advisors and mentors to get objective advice and listen to how they’ve been handling the crisis. It can be difficult to be open and transparent with our feelings so being able to lean on them and a group to turn to has been incredibly therapeutic.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We had to focus on the cash runway in a completely different way. Like many companies, we had to make very painful decisions early on by way of layoffs and comp cuts. Investor markets froze immediately and we were in the midst of raising our next round of funding. At the end of the day, we had to establish a bunker mentality and are moving forward at 100% in this new environment. When you run a company, you have to think about your co-workers and their families, whether they are still with the company or not. All of this weighs back on your decisions that you have to make because you know everyone is affected in some way. At the end of the day, I have a company to run and am standing side-by-side with my leadership team and our team to make it through this “new normal” so we can rebuild and come out strong on the other side.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
One piece of advice: stop watching the news! The news tends to be blown out of proportion and there is a bit of a controversy tactic no matter the network because at the end of the day, they are all fighting for viewers. I am fortunate that during my studies, I took some courses in epidemiology so I have some background knowledge that gives me the ability to discern between fact and fiction, so I try to stay away from sensationalism if I can. This helps me stay focused and calm through the craziest of times.
Anxiety can be crippling and I think one of the most effective ways to combat that is accepting change. Don’t be afraid to change your mindset, the way you perceive and understand information. Change is going to continue to happen for the next several months and maybe even years. We may have felt blindsided but let’s all pivot as quickly as possible so that we can move forward as a community.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
There are going to be a number of opportunities especially for those looking to new horizons. Think of people’s necessity for safety, cleanliness and social distancing. This alone will open up new economic opportunities and potentially at a different scale than before COVID-19.
People will seek and demand more personalized, 1:1 solutions. They want to go out, but they will not risk their safety to do so. What could this mean? We need smart visionaries to capitalize on the new social norms people will be looking for.
People may want safety ‘bubbles’ around them whether that be in transportation or the food service industry. They’ll want used and new cars if seeking to move away from public transportation. Or options to isolate themselves if they do continue to use mass transport. They’ll want more pedestrian-friendly, open spaces so they can practice social distancing appropriately. Think of the needs people will seek in the future and build to solve those problems.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
COVID-19 did not create new trends; it rapidly accelerated existing ones. How were we not being this conscientious about cleanliness and shared space (which ultimately spreads germs) before this?!
The experiences people have felt while sheltering in place brought about new behaviors, as well. Gratitude for communities and families and just the sense of companionship have amplified and we will see a shift in how people act moving forward.
When it comes to our industry, I don’t think streaming fitness will take over the in-person experience, but I definitely think it’s here to stay. It won’t be a this or that situation, but it will be another option for people to access and for the industry to use as an additional revenue model.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We shifted our messaging to focus on our digital offerings. Some of our product features that were stable bedrocks of revenue had to be either sunsetted or paused and we moved to our other options that were helping solve our users’ problems during this time.
When it comes to re-building, we needed to channel our startup days. We are hosting weekly Innovation Roundtables so that everyone at the company has a voice in giving ideas and thoughts on how to move forward to serve our audiences. We had to act fast to get ideas from all over the company.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I think you need to figure out which part of your business is going to be around 6 months, a year or 2 years from now. If you suspect it may not be or are not confident in it, drive efforts and resources to other parts of your business that you have confidence in. The worst you can do is cling to the old steady stream and not pivot when you see an opportunity. Don’t be like Blockbuster. In order to survive, you have to innovate and take risks. Be willing to give up the safe revenue for revenue opportunities of the future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everyone needs deadlines.”- Walt Disney
How can our readers further follow your work?
Follow us at peerfit.com and @peerfit on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.