Famed for its intensive kit-free home workouts, fitness app Freeletics has grown from a bootstrapped German startup to Europe’s leading fitness app and the world’s fastest-growing digital fitness company.
In just six years since its launch, Freeletics Fitness Coach – the company’s flagship app which offers customisable workouts using an AI algorithm to create tailored plans – has attracted a reported 33 million users in over 160 countries.
This year, following a $45 million injection from its first investment round, Daniel Sobhani, who joined as CEO in 2014, is focusing on an aggressive US expansion as the company’s primary target.
But in a fiercely competitive landscape, with fit tech companies Aaptiv, Zwift and most notably Peloton muscling in on its market and raising eye-watering sums of capital in the process, Sobhani knows he has his work cut out to stay ahead of the game.
Here, speaking exclusively to Welltodo from Freeletics’ Munich HQ, Sobhani shares the five defining moments – both positive and negative – that have helped drive the brand’s success.
Authenticity is a core value of Freeletics – and Sobhani personally. “Fitness has always been a personal passion of mine since I was a teen,” he says. “I struggled with poor health and being overweight but I was able to turn it around.
“In doing so, two key things stood out: my journey was characterised by trial and error because nobody could guide me and in the end, it was only a few small changes that made a huge positive impact.”
Those two lessons are ingrained in his vision for Freeletics today. “First, Freeletics provides you with a concrete path to get healthy and fit. Second, you’ll learn how to put in commitment and consistency that will help you become the best version of yourselves.”
An authentic appreciation of fitness is also encouraged throughout the Freeletics team – from the coaches to the data scientists. “You aren’t required to be into fitness to work here, but everything is set up to help you achieve your best version,” says Sobhani, adding that smoking and Big Macs aren’t banned – but they are discouraged.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Sobhani is equally willing to set the standard. In December, he challenged other CEOs to train using Freeletics for four weeks to earn their staff a 50% discount on the app. “As CEOs, we need to take responsibility to show you can combine working in a stressful environment and still find the time to exercise.”
From top to bottom, healthy living is actively encouraged at Freeletics. “Next to all the professional focus – we always focus on the next challenge and next figure we need to hit – we aim to enable our employees to have minimum barriers to train and eat healthily. We have a great kitchen that’s open 24/7 and our on-site training room is always available for the team throughout the week and weekend.”
RELENTLESSNESS AND RESILIENCE
As Sobhani puts it, the young company’s “long path to the first dollar” has been instrumental in shaping its success to date. “We had to take a very long path to generate our first revenue,” he says. “Although we are an app business we didn’t start as an app. First, we offered offline training in Munich in training grounds, then pivoted to Facebook groups, then email groups, then pdf plans before finally earning the revenue to build the app.
“That relentless drive is deeply ingrained in the fabric of Freeletics. That long winding path to the first dollar means we don’t take anything for granted. Above all it’s taught us to never accept that you can’t find a way,” he says. “There has to be some way to get things done.”
INVESTING IN PEOPLE
When asked what his greatest impact on the company has been since becoming CEO in 2014, Sobhani points to being able to “bring in truly great people who truly buy into our vision”.
“Everyone who joins Freeletics understands there’s a really high buy-in [to the vision],” he explains. “You need to be passionate, collaborative and care deeply about people and our mission. Yes, we are a business but people count. Identifying top talent and developing a strong culture is so important to our success.”
LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
Investing in top talent is vital, but Sobhani admits hiring mistakes have happened when initial high standards have slipped. This has taught him his greatest lesson as CEO of the company.
At times like these, it’s how you react to adversity that will define you as a company. For Sobhani, that meant fronting up to the “internal struggle and crisis” that developed when rapid growth led to high staff turnover and erosion of company culture.
“You have to be a role model,” he says. “You can’t quit when you’re going through tough times. It’s going to be very hard and you will doubt yourself. But unless you quit, you’re never defeated.
“It actually led to an Aha! moment for the business and we became stronger. How you behave and what you do in that time will define your company going forward. The night is darkest before the dawn. That for me was really mind-blowing.”
Want more insights into how technology is disrupting the wellness industry? Check out our newly released 2019 Business Of Wellness Trends Report: