Why Your Fitness-Tech Product Will Fail, Part 1: Product Concept Flaws
Common concept flaws in fitness-, wellness-, sports-, and consumer-health-tech products
Having developed and rolled out multiple successful fitness, wellness, and sports training technology products over the years, used in a wide range of vertical markets, I am often asked by inventors, entrepreneurs, and prospective investors in those spaces to review their latest and greatest ideas.
I’ve seen hundreds of such products over the years, and very often they are fun and novel and show real passion from the inventor. But most suffer from one or more fatal flaws that doom them to having little hope of commercial success. To have a place to point people quickly, and to hopefully save some future inventors and investors from lost time and money, I am summarizing in a collection articles some of the top reasons that I see fitness-tech products fail (and obviously, many of these flaws can be generalized beyond this category as well).
This article covers product concept flaws: some fitness-tech ideas are simply conceptually flawed right out the gates. Even if perfectly implemented, they wouldn’t be able to attract and retain a large enough user base to create a profitable business model. Below are some major categories of that broad problem type.
Future articles will cover automating the wrong things, implementation flaws, and go-to-market strategy flaws. In addition to the industry-specific issues, there are, of course, the generic issues of launching and growing a disruptive tech company broadly, which I’ll cover in other articles about startups.
Product Concept Flaw #1: It’s a Gimmick
Some fitness-tech products are PR magnets, but little more. They’re even novel enough that people may want to give them a shot — at the store or gym. “That was cool,” they say after their one and only few minute use. And then they’re done.
Virtual reality (VR) for fitness is a good example. Combine VR with any type of fitness equipment and you are practically guaranteed press coverage: “Up next we’ll see how you can go for a run along the Grand Canyon without ever leaving your home!”
If it’s “real” VR (with stereo vision goggles), it soon turns from cool to either annoying (on a bike) or dangerous (on a treadmill). Even if it’s pseudo-VR with scenery adjusting on a screen based on your pace and the machine adjusting to hills and such on a trail, it’s maybe clever, but just not all that engaging for a 30-minute workout compared to binge watching some TV show. The fun thing about running out in nature is nature, not the pictures of it.
These products never take off much beyond the PR stage, but remarkably, a new VR fitness device seems to get funding every few years from an angel investor or management team that wasn’t around for the last flops and didn’t bother doing the homework on them. This dates back to at least the mid-1990s when I saw my first VR bike (non-goggle in this case), and continues right up to the present in different forms.
VR is just one example of a gimmick. Generally, the test is, if something sounds catchy in theory (e.g., combining fitness with some trendy bit of technology), dig in deeper with an eye toward seeing how that combination might engage the user or improve the user experience in a fundamental way over the long term — not just on the first few uses, but on the 100th. If it doesn’t, it won’t last.
Counterexample: Paul Byrne and the Elliptical
That’s not to say everything new is a gimmick. The opposite of a gimmick, for instance, was the elliptical machine, which became the fourth must-have cardio category for fitness centers (after bikes, steppers, and treadmills). It was more fitness equipment than fitness-tech, but the lessons are still relevant.
Paul Byrne, the brilliant long-time president of Precor (and one of our equipment partners at FitLinxx) once described to me his experience testing the prototype that the inventor was showing to prospective licensees. He said it wasn’t slick and PR worthy, but the workout was a whole new experience: upright like running but quiet and smooth, without the high impact, and with a natural intuitive motion.
He knew it was going to be a hit during his trial use, not simply because of its novelty but because he could envision a large audience of users (a) liking it right away with little instruction, and (b) using it long term. He said he played his cards close to his vest, trying not to let the inventor know how much he liked it. He then moved quickly to secure the exclusive rights, which helped drive explosive growth for Precor for years to come — once you have a must-have category locked up, your sales team is in the door and can expand its reach on the gym floor.
Product Concept Flaw #2: It’s designed by self-motivated super fit people for self-motivated super fit people (which is a small and demanding market)
One of the ways that Steve Jobs is said to have moved so quickly and intuitively on groundbreaking product design is that he designed products for himself as the audience — solving problems that he himself had and with approaches that he himself wanted to use.
Some venture capitalists describe that approach as their preferred source of founders’ business ideas — solving a problem that the founders themselves experience, rather than one they need to research extensively to understand. The catch, however, is that it only works if a sufficiently large market of other people also experiences the same problem, such that solving it can create real value.
In that context, a challenge with a lot of the fitness-tech inventions I see is that almost every person I meet who’s involved in creating them is super-fit and self-motivated to exercise. They seem to work on their invention in between Iron Man training sessions! And with sensors now increasingly available to track human performance in excruciating detail, from body sensing, to bike pedal motion, to the angular velocity of your ski turns, a large percentage of new fitness concepts I’m asked to look at are designed to help already fit exercisers eke out the next few percentage points of performance gains. The information the devices produce might be of real value to elite athletes, but they are more of a novelty item for the vast majority.
Meanwhile, as I’ll discuss further in Part 2 of this series, there are far bigger markets of people who can’t get thru the early stages of a new program and need help sticking with it long-term. As an average exerciser with average athletic ability, I may have been among the least fit people to ever start a fitness-tech company (FitLinxx) and among the least athletic people ever to start a sports-tech company (Great Play)! At first, I actually felt like an imposter at fitness trade shows. But in retrospect, I can see it was an advantage. I could empathize with a larger target audience, and I also was open-minded about what the product needed to do, so we did a great deal of user testing and iterating for both companies, resulting in far better designs that addressed a wide range of users.
Even with that background, we too fell victim to the allure of the pro athlete market at FitLinxx initially. Our very first customer at FitLinxx was the NY Knicks (back when they were good). We were overjoyed. My cofounder and I even got on TV on the MSG network with some of the players and the strength coach. After the PR buzz wore off a bit, we did the math and realized that even if we captured 100% of the elite athlete market, installing in every pro team fitness center in every major sport, we wouldn’t have even recovered our R&D costs. And that didn’t consider the fact that (a) the more elite the audience the more demanding they are and the more customized and intricate the feature set is that they want, and (b) teams and athletes also often want stuff for free for the honor of working with them!
Note: Fitness-tech is not like apparel
For sports apparel companies like Nike and Under Armour, targeting elite athletes makes sense for marketing, since we mere mortals are able to confer upon ourselves a connection to those superhuman athletes and feel we are sharing in their glow simply by donning the shirt or shoes with the same swoosh.
Exercising like those athletes, by contrast, takes actual work, and we probably don’t want to do that in anything close to the same ways. One workout and we’d be done. Wearing their jersey (or drinking their sports drink) is simply not the same as sharing their fitness approaches and fitness-tech needs.
In fitness-tech, the money isn’t in optimizing the last 2% of gains for the top 2%. It’s in helping the rest of us stay motivated to do anything at all.
Corollary: You’re a bunch of guys in your 20s who haven’t tested it with anyone else
If you are thinking of introducing a product that you hope will have a broad audience, you should test it with that broad audience. Most fitness-tech teams I meet are comprised of males in their 20s and 30s. If you haven’t tested your product with whomever you hope to sell it to, you are probably getting it wrong for them in ways you can’t envision. Ideally, you’d have a more diverse team. But short of that, you can learn a great deal simply by having a diverse test group. And don’t just ask them about it. Give it to them and quietly watch how they interact with the product, and then fix the things that they get stuck on.
For instance, I was recently called in to look at a new strength training product. It sounded interesting in theory with some great attributes that could lead to widespread adoption, but management reported that they’ve had some early challenges including that women weren’t using it as much as they expected. I walked into a pilot site and saw the beast of a product with a design aesthetic was reminiscent of 1950’s muscle car. Let me guess, all guys on the team?
Product Concept Flaw #3: It’s Easily Copied
Finally, and this is a pretty standard issue in any startup in or out of fitness-tech, but a good question to ask before you start working too hard on your invention is what if any sustainable advantages would you have in bringing it to market to capture a disproportionate ongoing market share and value share — like patents or network effects or some first-mover (or last-mover) advantage.
At FitLinxx, for instance, one first-mover (or maybe second-mover after Life Fitness) advantage we had was the ability to essentially lock up the other equipment manufacturers onto our platform. They needed a tech solution to compete with Life Fitness’s Life Center, and it was a significant resource commitment to integrate with a tech vendor. So once we got an equipment partner on board, as long as we continued to do our part, they would stick with just us, which created a substantial barrier to new entry (for more, watch my Vistage CEO Summit presentation on this).
Walking around a recent fitness industry trade show, it was obvious that some of the better fitness-tech ideas, like heart rate tracking for group classes, were being implemented almost identically but many providers, leaving what must be pretty limited room for profit margins (see the Sleepy Commercial Fitness Market). In that case the technology is providing substantial value, but the majority of the value is most likely being captured by the customers (like Orange Theory and the like) rather than the tech providers.
Next Article in the Series
Future articles will cover implementation flaws and go-to-market flaws.