As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times**” we had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Foundos, founder and CEO of FORTË.
A dedicated athlete, a financial expert and an entrepreneur, Lauren Foundos is the dynamic founder and CEO of FORTË. Launched in 2015, her business streams live and on-demand, cutting-edge fitness classes from studios worldwide. FORTË builds proprietary hardware and software that’s installed into partner studios, complete with automated cameras, mobile apps, digital music licensing, and more. The platform enables clients to seamlessly livestream classes, remain connected to millions of members in a virtual setting, and offer an incredible fitness experience from the comfort of home (or wherever participants choose to work out.)
Before launching her own business, Lauren spent a decade working on Wall Street, a majority of the time on the trading floor as an Institutional US Government Bond Broker at Whitaker Securities where she helped to dramatically increase UST Short Coupon and Bill desk revenues. Prior to that, Foundos worked at Deutsche Bank in Synthetic Equities and Cloudview Capital Management, a global-macro hedge fund, on their trading desk.
Lauren is a graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in communications and a concentration in business. She was named to the ACC Academic Honor Roll and Intercollegiate Athletic Honor Roll during her time at Maryland. Lauren is a two-time all-American field hockey player. She played in the Junior Olympics and went on to play Division I field hockey at the University of Maryland, the nation’s top ranked program. In addition, Lauren plays piano and violin, has two older brothers, adores her parents, and loves to ski.
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 in a town called Old Brookville in Long Island, NY. My parents are both Albanian. I named the company as an homage to them, FORTË, means strong in Albanian. Being that my father immigrated to this country, my parents always instilled in me how grateful I should be for the opportunity that this great country provides and that was the catalyst for everything I did in my life.
I always viewed sports and working out as a way for me to relax and enjoy myself. My family really stressed the importance of education, and therefore sports were always my own escape. I started playing field hockey in middle school in gym class, and absolutely loved it. From there, I played hockey against my garage door by myself for hours, and ultimately with that perseverance became a two-time all-American field hockey player.
I graduated college and went to work on Wall Street because that’s what my two older brothers did who I absolutely adored and still do. I spent a decade on the street and had a very lucrative career. After investing my own money in the market and buying a loft in NYC, I was looking for some alternative places to put my money and naturally got very fixated on the fitness space as that was always my escape. I noticed what was going on in the market, and my vision for what the future would look like became very clear, as the industry moves to a hybrid market of both digital and in-person fitness. I was certain about what was going to happen for the next decade and I didn’t want to tell a sad story that I thought of that idea first and did nothing about it, so on a whim I quit my job and began attempting to build what today is FORTË.
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?
I had no idea where to begin when I first started. I was trying to build a tech company, but I worked on Wall Street for a decade so I only knew other traders like myself. I literally went on my LinkedIn, went to the search bar, and typed in the word ‘tech.’ I immediately contacted the few friends that came up, and the journey began.
I’m not sure this is a funny mistake, but certainly, something I learned quickly was to hire people that are willing to do the work required for the stage your company is actually at.
When you are a fresh startup with no money, and you have the opportunity to hire an amazing high-level employee from a company like Google or Amazon you need to make sure they realize they can’t build an incredible team like they had at those companies, because you have literally no money. The team is literally you and that other person, so make sure you hire someone that is ready to do all the work, the good, the bad, and put in the endless hours so that you can get to a point where you can actually build an incredible team.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful for my entire family. Without their support I am not sure I would have had the confidence to make the jump from a really great career to building a company, and not only a company but a tech one in the fitness space which are two industries that I never worked in before.
My father is an entrepreneur, so he was incredibly supportive and I was proud to follow in his footsteps and live the traditional path to build something that I was so passionate about. My mother has been my editor since day one, and I always joke that my brothers are my interns. They have both had very successful careers, and hold very important roles at their respective companies, but I also have them doing my competitive research, setting up our phone systems, and other random tasks, so needless to say without my family’s support I wouldn’t be here today.
I am also extremely grateful for my friend who came up when I typed up ‘tech’ in my LinkedIn. Her name is Gesche Haas, she is the Founder & CEO of Dreamers & Doers, which is an organization of like-minded founders and people contemplating their next steps. This group of strong women was pivotal in helping me get started from how to incorporate the company to where to find good engineers to having a place to talk about how lonely being a Founder can be at times. Gesche also ended up becoming an investor in FORTË, and has continued to build an even more amazing community over the years.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My vision was always to make working out more accessible and affordable through technology, coupled with the fact that it would help the fitness industry reach a much wider audience as gyms no longer had to be confined to the people that could physically fit into their space.
My goal was and still is, to make people enjoy working out as much as I do. Working out has always been my escape and a time of day that I cherish. Working out has only positive benefits which include reducing your risk for heart disease, improving sleep and your mental health, weight management, and it ultimately makes you healthier and happier. My goal is to help people easily find some type of workout they enjoy from dance to spin to running and more — the options are endless and you can do many of them right from the comfort of your own home or on-the-go.
Only 23% of Americans currently get enough exercise, and my goal through digital fitness is to get the other 77% of this country moving at home. Hopefully they build enough confidence to actually step foot in gyms as they continue their fitness journey. The biggest barrier to working out is actually having the confidence to step foot in a gym when you feel completely out of shape and don’t know where to begin and I believe digital is the path to breaking down that barrier.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When times are difficult it’s important to lead your team by being honest. I ensure that my team knows the company’s goals, how many new clients we need, how much money we need to be earning, and so on, so that we’re all on the same page. I now have a large team of 60+ people, as well as a large group of institutional investors that I have to answer to so it’s important we are all aligned on what needs to be achieved.
When I wasn’t sharing all of this information, I would find myself super stressed and my team or investors didn’t understand why this was the case. Making sure we are all aligned has been a game changer, because when things are going really well it’s super exciting for everyone, and in slower, more difficult months, everyone also knows what we have to do to get to where we need to be.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I started FORTË in 2015, and it has been a long journey filled with many late and very difficult nights, weeks, and even months. That’s the beauty of a startup. It’s in those hard moments when nothing seems to be going in your favor that you continue to power through and keep working on making your vision a reality, and then some great stroke of luck or news comes your way. It’s truly about grit and perseverance. If founding a successful company was easy, everyone would be doing it.
I’m not sure I would have started this company if I knew what it entailed, but that navitay was probably the best thing I had going for me. If you know me, then you know that I will not stop until I win and so here we are today and things are really coming together after years of hustling harder than most people can probably imagine.
What keeps me going is that I am building a company that fuels the soul of my existence.
My old career was super lucrative, but I didn’t realize how unfulfilling it was until I started this company which makes people’s lives better and helps an industry evolve with technology and stay competitive. FORTË has brought a whole new meaning to, “find a job that you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.” That statement is more true, than I ever could have fathomed. I go to bed thinking about FORTË, dream that I’m working, and wake up excited to tackle the next day.
For me, being so passionate about my company coupled with knowing what it takes to win has been a solid recipe for success.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
As a leader, it’s critical to be in tune with your people. We work long and hard hours here at FORTË, so it’s important that people feel like I have their best interest in mind as a person and for the future of their careers.
We have been growing exponentially and it feels like there are never enough hours in the day, but when I notice that someone seems to be having issues at home or in life I always pick up the phone to check in, ask if they are ok, and see if they need to take some time. At the end of the day, work is still work, and people’s health and family are always of the utmost importance so it’s important to keep that in perspective and take care of your people.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I think the best way to boost morale is to remind your employees that you are a team. At FORTË, we call ourselves the ‘Dream Team.’ We dream big, and work hard together. This company cannot succeed unless we all work together, and that’s the truth.
As an athlete, this gets ingrained in your head from a young age. No one is in this alone, we can’t win alone, we must support each other and if we do that coupled with hard work then together we’ll all see the results and reap the rewards both monetarily and emotionally as our dream becomes a reality. It also helps when that dream helps to save businesses and make people’s lives better, which is the ultimate reward at the end of the day.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news to your team or customer is by being fully transparent. People appreciate the truth even if it’s not ideal.
When delivering bad news it’s also always good (when possible) to deliver some positive news.
You never want to hang up the phone or leave a call with a doom and gloom conversation, so make sure you end on a positive note.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
As a leader, you always need to have a plan, but also need to realize that it’s highly likely you will not end up where you intended.
You need to be agile and respond to what you are learning along the journey. That said, you can’t constantly change your plan because things do take time to work, so it’s a fine line that needs to be established between these two places.
You need to be confident in your decisions, because no one is more equipped with information than you to run and lead your company. If you are not making plans with confidence, it will be difficult for your team to follow suit.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
It’s always important to remember that tough times are just that, and that they will most definitely pass. It’s those tough times that make the good times feel that much better. Getting through them is just a matter of keeping your head down, working hard, and then your luck (which of course isn’t so much luck) begins to pay off because of your perseverance.
Success doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of a series of ups and downs, and the ones that achieve great success just did not quit.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
A few common mistakes that I’ve seen businesses make are:
1. Not acknowledging the shift in consumer behavior and wanting things to continue on as they were when in fact things are quite different than they were (as a result of the pandemic).
2. Businesses were reluctant to adopt technology, which was completely necessary during the pandemic (and in general as technology is unavoidable even if you don’t consider your company a tech company).
3. Businesses not knowing their customer well and making quick decisions without gaining their perspective. Your customers will tell you exactly what they want and need if you listen.
There are many examples in business where entire industries have been uprooted by not being willing to adapt to change, adopt technology, and evolve with the endlessly evolving consumer. Examples of this are Spotify, Amazon, Netflix. I don’t want the fitness industry to sit idle and fall prey to the same mistakes that the music industry, the movie industry, the book industry, and others have made. The pandemic has forced many industries to think differently, and for that I am extremely grateful and I think despite how catastrophic it may have been for many industries in the long run this change will benefit them greatly.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
As a startup, no matter how big or small, I believe it’s important to remain lean and instill that attitude in your team. It’s very easy to begin quickly spending money, and eventually struggling to determine the value of those tools and divisions within the company.
There are varying degrees of turbulence in a startup, you need to ensure you have enough runway always to get you to a place of stability. You need to determine how much scaling back that means, and make sure your team understands why this needs to happen and for how long. If you don’t have a clear understanding of these things yourself, then you could be putting your company in jeopardy.
All that said, you need to spend in order to continue to grow so you need to be cautious about just how much you go into conversation mode or you can hold yourself back while others take greater risks. Again, it’s a fine balance that you’ll get better at over time. You need to be able to take risks, and have a strong stomach to weather the storm of running your own company. That I know for sure, it’s not for the faint of heart and that burden only becomes bigger as your company grows and you are not only responsible for your own future but also the well-being and success of other people’s futures.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- It’s important to be completely honest and transparent with your team. They will be more willing to make sacrifices and work hard when they understand the gravity of the situation.
- Make sure your team knows they are valued as a human being, and make them see one another as humans (friends, fathers, mothers, etc) and not just co-workers. People will be much more supportive and understanding of one another when this is the case.
- Make your team knows that they are just that, a team. We are all in this together. There will be difficult lows, but if you preserve you will attain the greatest of great highs.
- It’s important to understand your funding situation so that you can survive through difficult times and get to a point where the tide turns and your business can be able to thrive.
- Be positive. The attitude of the company disseminates from the top, so it’s important to always remember that even if it’s difficult for you to do, you must do it. People can get through hard times, so long as they remain positive and dream together of how awesome the future can look and how you’ll work hard to get there.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.” — Michael Jordan
I love this quote as I aspire to be someone that makes it happen. I think the biggest mistake that people make is they just don’t get started. Michael Jordan wasn’t MJ the first time he picked up a basketball. He practiced every day, harder than everyone around him, and eventually became the best. That’s how it happens, there is no glamorous secret to success so just get started, persevere, and do the work constantly when no one is watching and it ‘will happen.’
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can learn more about my company by watching my recent appearance on the TV Show, Unicorn Hunters here: https://unicornhunters.com/season1-episode2-forte/
More information about my company can be found at: https://www.goforte.fit
You can follow me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lfoundos/
Or Twitter & Instagram at: @LFOUNDOS & @GOFORTE.FIT