SH1FT Fitness Founder Will Brereton

In this Q&A, you’ll hear from Will Brereton, founder of SH1FT Fitness, an education platform and class teaching app for group fitness instructors. Will shares how its technology and structured disciplines help trainers and clubs reduce costs and planning admin, as well as how the pandemic accelerated his business.

Can you tell us about what you’re working on at SH1FT Fitness?

Will Brereton: At SH1FT Fitness, we offer six unique group fitness programmes that instructors and clubs can use for live and online classes. This isn’t a new idea; well-known brands like Les Mills and Zumba have been creating awesome class solutions for decades. But what is new is that we are the world’s first “instructor-tech” company.

Our education platform and teaching app solves three key problems instructors face in the fitness industry:

  • Cost-cutting: Our programmes are significantly cheaper for both individual instructors and fitness clubs to run (up to 80% savings compared with previous licensed formats), which is critical as clubs and individuals are desperate to find ways to save without sacrificing quality.
  • Restriction-free: We’ve wiped out the traditional licencing fee model, which means instructors can teach anywhere on or offline. This became a nonnegotiable for many during the pandemic.
  • Time-saving: We’ve designed a revolutionary app that saves instructors up to 90% in pre-class prep time and allows them to create a custom-made class in a matter of minutes.

How did you come up with the idea? What key insight led you to pursue this opportunity?

WB: I believe that group fitness instructors play a huge part in helping millions of people around the world to stay fit and lead better lives. Yet, fitness instructors’ salaries haven’t changed in 20 years – and I’m not talking about “real pay” versus inflation. Average rates were around $20 per class at the turn of the century, and they are around $20 now. I can’t think of another industry where that holds true.

But the costs associated with teaching – education, certifications, subscriptions, insurance, and so on – have all gone up significantly. It’s not because gyms don’t see the value instructors bring; it’s due to gyms’ own increasing costs of business, licence fees and expensive programming. Plus, if a gym has a budget of $1K and the first $500 goes on a licence fee, there’s nothing left for the instructor.

I was tired of instructors getting squeezed, and I was sure I could use digital and mobile developments to create a solution.

At SH1FT, our goal is to deliver a product that serves instructors – and the more we have staying in the industry for longer means healthier communities. That’s our why.

How did you turn your idea into a company?

WB: Pre-launch, our focus was addressing the biggest pain points for instructors and building an app that solved all of them. We were proud of what we created, but when we launched in 2017, our biggest challenge was that the industry wasn’t ready for our digital-first approach.

Instructors are resistant to change and many still wanted CDs or DVDs and saw our offering as too good to be true. We used the time to build up a strong content business with partners like Wexer and Fitness on Demand while slowly growing our instructor business. We had almost zero churn because those who did take the time to understand what we were doing loved us.

That all changed in the pandemic. Suddenly, instructors were forced to adopt digital and our digital-first, no-restrictions approach set us apart from other companies.

Sadly, clubs were hit hard, but this was actually a pivotal moment in our story. When clubs slowly started to rebuild post-lockdowns, they had tighter budgets and needed innovative ways to save money without sacrificing quality or member experience. This sounded like an impossible task, but it was what we were promising all along. Finally, in 2021, clubs started listening.

Now, in 2023, we have thousands of instructors and millions in digital reach, and we’ve built a respected and trusted brand. We recently entered into a nationwide partnership with 24 Hour Fitness in the US, and we are working on other large-scale pilots with some of the biggest gym chains in the world.

To this day, we have never taken on external investment. I own the company with my co-founder (and sister), and our team is made up of brilliant and talented individuals across the UK, US and NZ. In our early days, we were asked to consider taking on investment, but the most important thing for us was delivering a product that would truly meet our customers’ needs. To do this, we felt we needed to grow slowly, spend time listening to our users and have the agility to change quickly.

We have spent the last five years honing our solution, and our latest app release is a game-changer. It puts us squarely where I wanted to be as true “instructor tech” – we’ve added search and filtering that allow instructors to harness our massive catalogue and build a unique workout in seconds.

We are now growing very quickly and have had some investment discussions, but we’re not in a rush. We have no debt, strong growth and a lean digital model, and we are enjoying the freedom to stay committed to our vision of helping instructors to help their communities.

How big can this get? What’s the addressable market and how do you go about capturing it?

WB: Because of our digital-based approach, our TAM is any fitness facility or fitness professional, including PTs. Our only limiting factor right now is that training is in English, something that is easy to solve when we want to pull that trigger.

To be honest – and this is probably contrary to many founder and startup stories – we are not focused on creating a huge company that will dominate the industry. I’m a technology lawyer by profession (and still consult in this space), and I understand the sacrifices you have to make to achieve market dominance, including with regard to personal ethics and how you treat partners in your quest for growth. It’s not what we want or who we are.

We believe instructors and clubs should have choices, and our goal is to work alongside industry greats to bring fitness to more people.

Who is the core customer? How are you acquiring customers? And how will you grow the customer base?

WB: We have two core audiences: group fitness instructors and clubs. The way we approach each is very different.

Our focus for the first few years of business was on instructors. Our main strategy for acquiring instructors is social media advertising, email campaigns, influencer marketing (through trusted and respected group fitness instructors) and through building an organic online Facebook group that gives value to instructors and has become a lead generation tool.

We are now more focused on growing our club side. Most of our new business comes from organic PR and word of mouth, and this alone is keeping us very busy! We’re concentrating on delivering exceptional service to these partners and then creating brilliant case studies with proven metrics to take to future partners.

Looking ahead, acquisition strategies down the road will be around sales outreach and more PR.

Looking at your road map, what are some of the milestones you’re targeting over the next 3-6 months?

WB: In addition to 24 Hour Fitness, we have two significant partnerships in pilot phase, one in the UK and another in the Middle East.

On the product side, we’ve just launched search and filtering in our app, which took years of hard work but allows fitness professionals to create a high-quality workout in seconds.

Anything else you’d like to share with readers?

WB: We still have many people who scoff at our promises or think there is no way we could actually deliver the level of cost-saving without sacrificing quality. But we believe the industry has been operating in an outdated way for too long and has desperately needed a shake-up – so that’s what we have done.

We had the opportunity to start from scratch and build a different business model that delivers what today’s fitness clubs and instructors actually need. We are thrilled that gyms are finally realising how much better their group fitness offering can be: lower costs, engaged instructors and happier members.

If you’re interested in having your company featured in our Startup Q&A series, send an email to team@fitt.co.

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