Fitness Apps Are Hard — And Other Reasons Why Our App Died

Andrew Cole
Feb 18, 2018 · 7 min read

In late 2015, I set out a year ago to create the best fitness logging application ever made. I had used other fitness apps before (Nike Training Club, Fitplan, MyFitnessPal, etc…) but either they lacked features or the ability to log the workouts I was doing, or they had terrible UI and performance. I thought to myself something that almost every developer has had when he looks at an application.

“I can do better than this…” — said every developer ever looking at an app

So I quit my job at a fancy silicon valley startup company, to start a fitness app. Turns out it was much harder than I thought, and it has ended in more failures than I would like to admit.

In the end, I (which turned into we after I met my cofounder) learned an incredible amount about building a brand and a company, and implemented what we learned in our latest release, but more on that later.

Fitness Apps Are Hard To Find

After you build a great app (because come on, you're a wonderful developer and all the apps you build are awesome), you need to get people to use it. Turns out, texting your friends hundreds of messages to use your app only gets you so far. You need to have new people discover your app, and to do that they need to be able to find it.

Doing a quick search of the app store through the health and fitness category and you can clearly see this is very hard to do.

How can we compete with a Crypto-Fitness App? That is all the 2018 buzzwords!

Even when you search directly for our app “38Plank”, another app would come up before ours in the app store listing because of paid advertising.

This problem is not limited to just us, almost everyone else agrees too that App Store Discovery is Broken. That leaves you with SEO and content marketing. To do that, my partner started writing incredible blog posts highlighting some key fitness questions and how to tackle them.

But the numbers were incredibly low. We were seeing around 25–30 views / week on our site. Our content was lost below the fold, impossible for anyone to find organically.

Competition Is Key To Fitness, and Fitness Apps

The problem of discovery for us could be translated directly into a problem of competition. There are an incredible number of highly downloaded fitness apps, which make it very hard to compete in the space. Looking at those top 10 fitness apps again, they all have thousands of reviews.

Not only was it the sheer number of apps, but the breadth of types of workout apps. There are apps for logging workouts (Fitocracy), apps for logging nutrition (MyFitnessPal), apps just for biking and running (Strava), and apps for individual trainers (Sweat with Kayla) all with millions of downloads.

To tackle this problem, we initially targeted content creators and trainers as our core customer. The idea was that if we could get trainers onboard, then they would bring their athletes with them. To accomplish this, we built an app where trainers could sell their fitness programs in a very easily consumable format. We validated this idea with trainers, who said* they would definitely use the app, and started building without getting a single real commitment. As it turns out, if you just get customers who *say they will use your app, it doesn’t actually translate to users. You need to get people to commit, which became our #1 problem.

A Fitness Program Created By Katie Ring

We released this great app, with tons of functionality, but nobody came. Each week we would look at our statistics and try and figure out why trainers weren’t jumping on board with what we were doing, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. We kept trying to solve the problem by developing feature after feature, thinking the next one was going to be our killer feature. We were doing the Build — Measure part of lean methodology, but we forgot the Learn part.

After about 5 months of looking for that “next great feature” we realized it wasn’t features that we lacked, but a real business model.

Learn— Fitness Motivation Is Not About Fitness

Once we took a step back, we had some time to evaluate what failed. We had solved the discovery part of our app temporarily because my brilliant co-founder got us in a marketing study where we received 7k in free app marketing dollars. That got us our initial 5k+ monthly active users (MAU), but our daily active users never reached above 150. We had an issue of retention, why were people downloading the app but not using it more than once or twice.

Monthly vs Weekly vs Daily Active Users for June ‘17

Upon reflection the answer was fairly obvious. This wasn’t just an app problem, it was a life problem.

Its hard to motivate people to exercise, even if it is in their own interest.

Fitness motivation wasn’t about fitness. People were rarely working out for purely for themselves, they almost always had a WHY that was related to something other than fitness that kept them motivated. Things like, “So I can play with my son more”, or “to loose 10 pounds for the wedding I’m going to”.

Our app never gave people a reason WHY.

So our app was dead in the water, we failed on our first (and second) attempt and used up 6+ months of runway. There were two options on the table, start from scratch, or give up. We decided to take the former option, as both Katie and myself are terribly stubborn people (probably what got us here in the first place).

Why 38Plank?

We needed to give our users a reason “Why” they were using our app, so we did what all great scientists do and we experimented. One of our experiments started with my family, where took what we built and hacked together a small 3v3 fitness challenge for one week to see if fitness challenges were more compelling. It was terribly built, and I had to manually change scores in the database as we went along, but it was definitely more fun than anything we had built before.

Cobra Command vs. Bad Boys (My Team). In the end, my mother was the best athlete (shout-out to Susan)

It turns out it was solid success, at least in getting people to log their workouts. So we took this model and tried it on a larger group of college age kids. We had multiple challenges of people that we didn’t actively communicate with to test the model. Success again, one of the girls in our challenge went from being able to do 3 pushups in a row to being able to do 17, but it was still not perfect. Competition was driving people to post their exercises, but we still had retention issues (~25% active day/day, substantially better than before). Another failure, but only a partial failure.

We had half the answer, but we were missing one last piece. Why start in the first place, and why do you keep going.

What Else Motivates Someone?

Entrepreneurs are incredibly self motivated individuals. They can complete herculean tasks purely through self-motivation. As it turns out, there is a reason why only ~14% of people are entrepreneurs, because this kind of motivation is uncommon. Most people are more motivated when they are part of a team, particularly a team working together towards a meaningful goal. We took this idea and created our first charity fitness challenge, Abs For Epilepsy

In the Abs For Epilepsy challenge, people donate money towards the UCSF Epilepsy Center and the teams are ranked by the amount of money they raise, which is the reason for why they start. The secret sauce for increasing retention lies in our corporate matching program. For every workout a user completes, they receive a certain percentage match of their initial donation. Exercise more, earn more money for the charity, and that is the reason why a user keeps going.

With our newest release we have given the user a good why and I think that will be the most critical part to help people stay motivated. But since we learned our lessons from our previous releases, we not only need to believe in the solution, we need to validate it with users. For that we implemented Apptentive which allows us to gather user feedback and iterate on what our users think should be improved instead of shooting in the dark about what we should build next.

So far we have seen positive results. We just released the new version of our app 2 weeks ago and have seen overwhelmingly positive results since then. User retention and user engagement are up across the board, and we are seeing some organic growth which makes me incredibly excited. The future looks good for both 38Plank, and the causes our users are supporting.

I don’t know if this model is going to succeed in the long run, but we have certainly learned a whole hell of a lot in the process. When I started, I thought that app development was purely a technical problem, turns out the hardest part was the business itself.

If you want to join the Abs For Epilepsy Challenge, click here and come join one of our open teams, or create your own and bring your friends. Just remember, getting in shape isn’t easy, but step one is showing up.

Andrew Cole

Written by

Senior Engineer @Forge. Creating liquidity in the private market. Former Co-Founder of 38Plank

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