As part of our series about the “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharad Mohan, the Co-founder and Managing Director of Trainerize — the company known for digitizing the fitness club experience — and the driving force behind their mission to “make fitness accessible”. Sharad is helping fitness businesses leverage technology to stay relevant in the digital fitness age and engage their members in new ways using mobile and wearable devices. Sharad’s combined passion for customer experience and digital fitness fuel his commitment to help fitness businesses engage and empower their members through technology. With 80,000+ fitness businesses using the Trainerize platform to digitize their services and offer online training, digital challenges as well as small group training, Sharad has quite a number of stories to share about online fitness entrepreneurship, the rise of the digital fitness club and the savvy digital fitness consumer.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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?
Thanks for having me, Charlie. I got my start at the University of British Columbia where I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in computer science. My first real job experience was working in the world of customer support. In university, I worked at several retail stores, including The Gap, SportChek, and Future Shop (now Best Buy), and loved every element of customer service. Then, after I received my degree, I entered the industry as a tech support agent and leaned into that focus for my career. The concept shifted from customer support to customer success, and I worked my way through the ranks, eventually joining the executive team at Hootsuite, running the customer success team there, and later, at Vend. The idea of customer success started as the foundation for us at Trainerize, and as CEO I’m glad that’s where my roots are.
Trainerize was inspired by my experience going through physiotherapy in the early 2000s. Between sessions, I would forget how to do my exercises, I’d lack motivation, and the whole experience felt really mundane. I just knew there had to be a better way to do it. When smartphones came onto the scene, Trevor Chong (our Product Director) and Ricky Ying (our Director of Engineering), the two other original co-founders, and I decided to do something about it.
We made the business a reality by keeping our day jobs but dedicating almost every other spare minute we had to Trainerize. We expanded our founding team, joined by our COO, Farhad Gulamhusein and our QA Director, John La, and together crammed into one of our apartments and worked on the app from 5 pm to midnight every night. We weren’t focused on revenue, we were focused on solving problems, which resulted in us creating a new category
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’m not sure how funny it was at the time, but it definitely was a lesson learning experience. Back in 2008, when Trevor and Ricky, and I started to digitize the fitness experience, we developed a consumer-focused Blackberry app called Gym Technik. Then, Blackberry went bust. And our fitness app got pretty useless overnight.
Lesson learned: always stay ahead of the innovation curve and diversify the technology you rely on, no matter how widely accepted it may be. Imagine Apple or Amazon not existing in 20 years… it’s impossible to even think about it, right? At the time, BlackBerry was just as big as those companies and limiting ourselves to that specific platform which seemed timeless really hurt us in the end.
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?
There are of course innumerable people who have helped along the way. I credit my executive leadership team for helping me get Trainerize to where it is at.
In the early days of starting Trainerize, I was still working full time while trying to develop the product. My team, particularly Trevor, our Product Director and Ricky, our Development Director worked with me in parallel to build the product, and really define the problem we were trying to solve.
Another person I’m grateful for is John, our Director of Quality Assurance, who brought with him a strategic approach to QA which allowed him to see beyond simply testing for bugs to ensure that our vision for the product is what was ultimately delivered to clients at launch.
Finally, the last two people to join the team who truly made the difference between success and failure were Farhad, our COO, who became a part of Trainerize when we were at our lowest, and committed to the company full-time helping us get off the ground, and Paula Liza Bartis, our Marketing Director. She was able to figure out right off the bat how to win the hearts and minds of the customers we aim to serve, which is absolutely critical when you’re trying to create a new category and as she continues to lead her team from a product marketing position.
They say it’s all about execution, but you need to have the right people around you in order to successfully execute. Anyone can come up with an idea for a product but taking that product and bringing it to life before the customer even sees the product is where the magic is. My idea was nothing without people who knew how to build it out, code it, and deliver on it.
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?
When Blackberry went out of business, it wasn’t just that RIM was dying out — it was that we weren’t fully and truly satisfied with the impact we were having on people’s lives as a generic consumer fitness app. We wanted to do more, and we realized that a critical component was missing: the human personal trainer.
When we started Trainerize, we envisioned a world where a billion people are connected to a coach. As we grew, our vision transformed into Trainerize’s current mission — making fitness accessible to anyone, anywhere. We believe that we can match every person in this world with a real live coach, and by leveraging technology to help trainers provide personalized coaching we’re well on our way to making that possible.
Online training did not exist in 2010. We transformed the industry — and in doing so, we’ve empowered fitness professionals to expand their businesses — something that was essential to keeping the industry afloat during the pandemic. We’re proud of the part we played there, and were recognized across the industry for our COVID response.
Before online training, personal trainers were seen as a luxury and often saw their clients once a week in person. That meant the client pool for trainers was relatively small compared to today and the most engagement a trainer could have with their clients was a few days a week. Now, trainers can impact their clients’ lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year… through fitness, habit coaching, and nutrition guidance. And, for consumers, we offer a never before seen level of accessibility to personal training. Where most people couldn’t afford a trainer before, now, it’s affordable, it’s accessible, and for business professionals, it’s scalable.
Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
At Trainerize, we never stop looking for the next big way we can empower our trainers to motivate and engage their clients. We are always observing the fitness landscape. There’s a boom in connected devices right now, especially as fitness tech players such as Peloton, Mirror and Apple — with their Apple Fitness+ offering — diversify the market. We see a future where we can inspire fitness professionals and health clubs to embrace this optionality so they can, in turn, help their consumers do the same.
Another thing on the horizon is nutrition — it’s lacking right now in the industry and we recognize that there’s a growing need for it. Currently, we track a million meals a day on Trainerize! It’s one of the features that our customers seem to really value. Right now the question we want to answer is ‘how can we help people make better food choices? I see us expanding our focus there in the future to emphasize the importance of influencing positive food choices that are sustainable, making meal tracking fun rather than just pushing meal planning or monitoring calories, and tying it all together with a coach that can make the experience personal.
Moving forward, we’re excited to continue observing what the digital fitness consumer is interested in and building solutions around those trends!
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. As you know, Digital Transformation refers to the integration of technology to speed up processes, efficiency and productivity. Many CEOs have argued that Digital Transformation is not a choice, but a necessity to stay competitive. Do you agree? Can you explain what you mean?
In 2021, the obvious answer is yes, because if you look at the top 10 out of the S&P 500 most of those companies are in tech (Facebook, Google, Netflix, and more). Globally, you’ll find that many of the big companies are now either in the digital space or shifting towards digital and, as a result, the world is following suit.
Plus, I’m biased because Trainerize literally exists to provide digital transformation to fitness professionals and fitness businesses, and we definitely believe digital components are necessary to compete in today’s highly-competitive fitness landscape. We use technology to connect trainers to clients, streamlining processes and enabling them to scale. Digital transformation is very literally the core of what we do for Trainerize trainers. Through the pandemic, we’ve seen this transformation escalate — but we believe the digital adoption would have happened either way, it just happened sooner than expected.
Having said that, digital transformation alone isn’t always enough to remain competitive and it is definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution. Business leaders have to ensure that the technology they’re adopting is relevant to their company’s goals and supports their overall mission rather than just jumping on the bandwagon. Our mission is to make fitness accessible and we do it through technology — so digital transformation is essential to our mission and our business.
We’d love to hear about your own experiences with Digital Transformation. How have you used Digital Transformation to improve customer experiences, and other aspects of your operations and processes?
Trainerize has used Digital Transformation to keep our employees engaged, manage issues and nurture our company culture. If you look at the way we work, we have people all over the world on the Trainerize mission (Europe, US, Canada). For us, we’ve always been a remote team, so the question becomes how do we stay connected? To do this we use a lot of tools to not only build and deliver our product and communicate but also to drive employee engagement.
For example, we’ve implemented a tool called 15Five. This tool takes our employees fifteen minutes max to fill out for an entire week what their challenges and biggest wins are, who they want to recognize in the entire company. On the flip side, it takes their manager just about five minutes to review that and identify successes and challenges, work with different leaders, and address it all through that digital tool. Then, we use our Slack channels to communicate with and celebrate our employees across the company. We also use collaborative apps, for example, our marketing team uses Figma & Canva to design rather than desktop apps, to ensure that our teams have open visibility and communication.
I have to say it’s been working quite well for us because we have a very low attrition rate. Most people that start with Trainerize, such as doing a co-op, stay with Trainerize when they want their first full-time job. In terms of using digital for our customers, that’s one area where we leverage data heavily, we look at all the data points we have inside our application in terms of how customers are engaged with our products. This helps us figure out the direction we should take our products.
How far along are you with the digital transformation of your company?
For our users, we haven’t even scratched the surface. I’m seeing an incredibly exciting ecosystem being built as the world’s largest companies, even in 2021, continue to show an interest in health and fitness. Rather than viewing them as competition, we in the fitness industry should be extremely excited to see companies like lululemon or Apple jumping into digital fitness.
What excites me about this is that the consumer has so many options around them, which weren’t available 10–20 years ago, beyond a gym membership alone. For my company, that means we now have an opportunity to help fitness businesses embrace optionality and help their clients make sense of their options and find their ideal fitness mix. I see the health club as being the anchor in this fitness mix, but that’s a whole separate conversation!
Are there specific areas that you are digitally transforming or are you doing it across your entire company?
Digital transformation has played and will continue to play an important role in Trainerize success, enabling us to achieve growth, retention and efficiency growth. At Trainerize we are digitally transforming our entire company but our focus is truly on engagement whether that’s internally or externally. From using technology to keep employees involved and boost morale or launching our own digital solutions to enable online fitness classes, workout tracking and more we are always looking to engage and inspire our community by constantly trying to evolve and achieve a new level of operational excellence with massive impact for our customers.
How are things going with this new direction? Has your digital transformation enabled you to provide a better value for your customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Things have gone very well for us so far. To be a personal trainer you are almost like an entrepreneur. You are trying to help your clients live their best lives but you are also trying to grow your business and earn income. With that in mind, I think we’ve been really successful in leveraging digital transformation to provide a better value for our customers. In addition to growth, our platform in and of itself has also enabled trainers to enhance the overall impact they are having on their clients’ fitness journey. From enabling online training and on-demand and broadcast classes to making it possible for trainers to create custom content and launch their own dedicated Apple Watch apps, we’ve consistently delivered unparalleled value to our customers.
The best example of our impact is Trainerize Pay, which allows our trainers to grow their businesses. In the last year we’ve transacted an average $2–3 million a month and last month alone trainers earned $6 million. That is money that has helped trainers pay rent and put food on their table during the pandemic. When we talk about digital transformation impacting lives I can’t think of anything better than what Trainerize Pay has done for personal trainers. We’ve helped personal trainers monetize their digital services and diversify their revenue streams.
Has integrating digital transformation been a challenging process. What are the challenges? How do you resolve them?
The biggest challenge Trainerize faced was going beyond being just another generic fitness app, we were really no different than many of the fitness apps provided to consumers on the app store. In the beginning, we didn’t feel like we were doing anything to help people achieve their fitness goals because there are thousands of apps that do just that. We address that challenge by bringing human trainers into the mix and supporting them with technology which sets us apart from most digital fitness companies. And that is how Trainerize was born.
Another challenge was how to sell client engagement which is at the core of our company’s mission. We saw that most people were working out two days a week, and often missed sessions. The question became how to get people to be consistent in their workouts? So through technology, we released a feature called auto messages to remind and motivate clients to complete upcoming workouts increasing the likelihood that the client would show up. This helped us grow from a platform that averaged two workouts a week per client to having clients workout out 3+ times a week.
Additionally, we always looked at engagement and in the early days it always came down to workouts. Wanting to increase the value proposition of our products, we introduced the nutrition feature on Trainerize where trainers can customize meal plans for their clients. This started increasing engagement where trainers and clients communicated daily and not just the two or three days a week they actually worked out.
Finally, getting trainers to embrace digital transformation has always been a challenge. One way we’ve overcome this obstacle is to center our product adoption strategy around educating our consumers about the ‘why’ of Fitness, Nutrition Programming, and Habit Coaching. It was crucial for us that our trainers understand the why before they start implementing the how. To achieve this, we launched the Trainerize Education Partner Program and worked with three partners to make it happen: the ACE Certification for Habit Coaching, Precision Nutrition Certification for Nutrition, and when it comes to the fitness and business element of online training we turned to the Online Trainer Academy by Jonathan Goodman.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take A Company To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Start with your mission: Simon Sinek sums this up the best. People buy why you do something, not what you do. So as you explore digital transformation, revisit your mission, and make sure that whatever path you take, is helping you do better at delivering on your mission.
- Use tech to solve a problem: Don’t start with a tool, start with a problem. We see so many people trying to convince businesses to use this tool or that and try to fit that into their organization and it’s a recipe for disaster. Because technology and tools must always support your strategy, ask yourself where you need support for that part of your business. Establish the strategy, then find or create a tool to support it.
- Automate the tracking and analysis of data: Data is important to help you understand how customers behave. If you can figure out how to streamline the way all employees interact with and make decisions based on data, you can enjoy the benefits of the flywheel effect that Jim Collins describes in “Good to great”
- Monitor customer engagement: This has been a core mission of our company and has led to its success. It’s important to keep customers engaged and develop customer loyalty.
- Build company culture: Regardless of what the mission statement or your company values may be, the company internal company culture is what defines and manages the way your employees think, feel and behave towards their work. If you succeed in creating a great company culture this will ultimately lead to the overall success of your business.
Based on your experience would you recommend using custom software to digitally transform, or off-the-shelf software?
I am a little biased, but in my experience, we’ve been better off using off-the-shelf software. It’s important to look at mission-oriented off-the-shelf companies. They have a unique insight into where the industry is going and which products will evolve with the industry. For example, Trainerize has been off-the-shelf, and we sell to trainers, large gym chains, boutique studios and my commitment to this industry is to keep the personal trainer relevant no matter how many people have an Apple Fitness+ subscription. My commitment as an off-the-shelf company to the gym industry is for them to be the anchor behind this movement that I’ve envisioned where we need to help people embrace optionality. That means that I have a single-minded focus to deliver the best and most comprehensive products that allow our clients to maximize their growth and provide a superior experience.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s a Charlie Munger quote where he says “People always say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but the real problem is that you can’t teach a new dog old tricks,’’ and I really take that quote to heart. I started my business quite young and it’s very easy, especially in the world of tech, to think the world has changed and we know better. Also, it reminds me to never start anything from a place of arrogance. Instead, I start from a place of learning; recognizing that I’m new on the scene and there are still things I can learn. This helped me a lot when I was getting started because from day one I was able to cut through the noise of the startup world and focus on profitability and business fundamentals.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow me on @trainerize, and @sharadmohan on all social channels. You can also follow my Medium page @sharad-mohan where I share my insights into industry news and trends.