Career Advice Successful entrepreneurs’ story

Fitness Goes Digital

Taking a holistic approach to health and wellness, fitness app Freeletics not only develops bespoke training plans but also advises users on related issues including nutrition, sleep and stress. With 40 million users worldwide, Europe’s most popular fitness app is now winning over fans in Asia, says CEO Daniel Sobhani, who is based in Germany where the company is headquartered.

The reason for Freeletics’ success is arguably its flexibility, he says. “We offer users the chance to work out anywhere, anytime for around the price of a weekly cup of coffee [a minimum sign up of three months is required, which costs HK$269]. To better understand user’s preferences, we take into account their sports & fitness history and work out what exactly they want to achieve,” he explains, adding that Freeletics is a global community, where users can meet online or even face to face.

Taking into account that long-term fitness solutions must offer more than just training, Freeletics prepares personalised training plans that incorporate related aspects such as nutrition. Once the algorithm kicks in, users can assess whether the programme is working for them, and tweak it if anything in their daily routine changes. The best training plan is one you are going to stick to, Sobhani believes. “So many providers of fitness solutions make extreme promises. It’s unrealistic.”

Sobhani joined Freeletics in 2014 when the company was still in its early stages of growth. “In the beginning, there was this great feeling… it felt like us against the world. There was this fantastic amount of energy from just a few people.” Having bootstrapped their way to success, Sobhani recalls he had to be a jack of all trades in the beginning, taking care of everything from creating that first algorithm to collating feedback from the app’s early users.

Sobhani was at the helm as the company closed a US$45 million series A funding round in 2018. “It was a special situation, because until then, we’d never taken any investment cash, and this was a very sizeable round.” By far the biggest challenge was helping investors to understand the company’s vision and building their trust, something that he says worked out ‘extremely well’.

For Sobhani, however, it isn’t the capital raised that brings the most joy but the difference the Freeletics app is making to people’s lives. Finding out that users finally had the strength to battle medical conditions and become more confident in life, and that the product has helped other people on other side of world is by far the thing the CEO is most proud of.

The #1 fitness app in Europe — Germany accounts for its biggest market with a 15 per cent market share — Freeletics is rapidly gaining traction in Hong Kong. It currently has around 100,000 users in the city. “We did a survey here and found that exercising was a top priority for 70 per cent of respondents, but they face extreme difficulties in fitting it into their schedule. The survey also revealed that 84 per cent of respondents believe they needed to exercise for at least 30 minutes to see the benefits, which is a common misconception.” Cost was another factor: 79 per cent didn’t have gym membership and almost 90 per cent had never used a personal trainer due to the high costs involved.

Freeletics gives users the flexibility to train wherever and whenever they want, and can devise short work-outs too, says Sobhani. “Fifteen minutes [of bespoke training] can be effective as 45 minutes in the gym. We can also help users create a workout that’s respectful of noise to their neighbours, or if they only have 2m x 2m space.”

With around 30 per cent of the world’s population currently obese and 29 per cent of Hong Kongers classified as such according to the World Population Review, many need help to lose weight and get fit. Sobhani says the key to reaching out to these people is to gain their trust. “When we talk to users and prospective users, a lot of them have been disappointed by some fitness solution that’s unsustainable, and they’ve not only lost trust in solutions but also themselves.”

As more and more of us resolve to get fit, Sobhani says there still a role for stationary gyms and personal trainers alongside fitness apps. “I believe no one size fits all. Some people achieve their goals using digital solutions, others are more suited to the gym. Some combine the two. With Freeletics, we unite the digital and physical world. If users want to train in a gym, they can, but at home is fine too. It’s not where you work out that’s important, but that you actually work out in the first place.”

Despite slight local differences from region to region, the wants and needs of Freeletics users is markedly similar. To further grow market share in Hong Kong and the rest of Asia, Freeletics will adapt the app according to factors such as cultural considerations, media consumption and tech infrastructure. “The Asia market will become our focus by the end of 2020/2021, with the key priority to improve the overall app experience,” he confirms.

While Sobhani hopes Freeletics will have 42 to 50 million users by the end of the year, he is more focused on how users engage with the app. “We want to develop deep and lasting relationships with users as we help them reach their goals, and we’re aiming to have around 30 per cent higher engagement.”

The CEO has ambitious plans for his company’s future. “In the next five years, we want to build a seamless experience that switches from online to offline so that we’re not just a digital product. In the next decade, we hope to develop our own global competitions, and move deeper into the core root of health problems in society, and include some education around health and fitness. Ultimately, we want to help people get on a positive track early on in their life.”