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Happy days for casual gym patrons

Don't sweat it — you may never have to sign up for a lengthy contract again, writes Christine D'Mello.

Don't sweat it — you may never have to sign up for a lengthy contract again, writes Christine D'Mello.

She is barely in her 20s, but Vanessa Picker already has an innovative app business helping link gyms and consumers. Picker's brainchild, FitUsIn, connects people with fitness centres and personal trainers, enabling them to enjoy a casual gym visit without the shackles of a contract.

The whiz-kid from Queanbeyan witnessed the discouragement of potential casual gym customers during a two-year spell working in the fitness industry.

"When I was working at gyms in the ACT, I remember people walking up to reception ready to work out but walking away due to the high cost of a casual visit," Picker says.

This set the 22-year-old seeking a solution. Seven months since it began, FitUsIn, of which Picker is the chief executive, has signed up more than 2500 subscribers around Australia. About 140 gyms and personal trainers are engaged with her product via its website and smartphone app.

"The great thing about our model is that it's entirely risk-free for our suppliers," Picker says. "It costs nothing to sign up. And our customers get access to the best fitness deals without the hassle of a membership."

How did this start-up take shape? Picker's concept won Startup Weekend Sydney last year. The competition at that event gave her a chance to test and refine the idea.

"Lots of validation occurred before building the platform," Picker says. "We had to speak to lots of gym managers and potential customers, to ensure that they would use the service."

The concept was sold to gyms by highlighting the fact they could collect revenue from an untapped market, while attracting new members. The website was launched late last year and FitUsIn gained momentum when it was selected for the ANZ Innovyz START accelerator program, which ran from January to April this year.

Picker later earned a trip to New York as the only Australian finalist in the NYC Next Idea Competition.

"We were basically pitching in front of leading investors over there, so it was a really good opportunity to build some great connections," Picker says. The smartphone app was released in March.

Building the business was not cheap. "When we started out, we followed the lean methodology and kept costs to a minimum while we validated our idea."

After being accepted into the ANZ Innovyz START accelerator program, FitUsIn hired people to help expand the company. It now has two full-time staff and a handful on contract. Picker says her app is the only one of its kind in Australia and the target expectations are "very high".

The business model is simple. "We take a small commission on each of the passes that we sell through the website and iPhone app," she says. "Customers can sign up free and book passes. They receive an instant notification and booking reference, allowing them to work out immediately. For gyms and personal trainers, there is no upfront fee. It is absolutely risk-free."

Workout prices vary from gym to gym and trainer to trainer.

"On FitUsIn, for example, a casual visit pass at your local gym might be as low as $5," Packer says.

The potential market in Australia is more than 3000 gyms. But Picker is looking to extend her app beyond the fitness industry to other professional sectors. Android and iPad versions of the app are also on the cards. Picker's target market is not only the wired generation, with travellers, young mothers and corporate employees also in her sights.

Most of the marketing is online and via social media.

"We try to reach people when they start their search for a gym or personal trainer online," Picker says. "We have used social media effectively to promote different deals and we are forming a number of important channel partnerships to ensure that we can get lots of exposure for participating gyms."

The response has been positive. Casual gym user Kym says: "I really like sites that help you quickly find what you are looking for and FitUsIn is definitely a smart and fast way to help you get back to the gym and save some money."

Interest in the product has also come from the US. "I think the problems that we are solving over here aren't just limited to Australia," Picker says. "They are definitely global. And given that it's an online platform, I think it can be extended very quickly."

Secrets of success

Vanessa Picker's tips for budding entrepreneurs:

Make a start. Instead of waiting for perfection, be prepared to launch your idea and adapt and learn along the way.

Surround yourself with people smarter than yourself.

Build a cohesive team. You can't do everything alone.

Look for opportunities that can help accelerate the growth of your idea. There are lots of accelerators and competitions out there that can provide invaluable support.

Look for mentors who want to help you succeed.

Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the ride.

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