How I Ended Up At A Startup With No Tech Experience


I was on a business trip earlier this year when I had my afternoon meeting cancel, so I decided that I would use that free time to go workout.

I headed down to the hotel gym but there was only one treadmill and there was a lady on it.

"Ok, I'm a member of 24 Hour Fitness, let me try that."  Nope, there are no 24 Hour Fitness locations in Albany, NY.  Damn, I'm o for 2.

Now, I'm getting annoyed.  I really wanted to work out!

I"m just a normal 36 year old guy.  I'm not the world's greatest athlete but I've run a couple marathons and work out 4 times a week when at home, but the real challenge is when you're traveling for work.  It's real easy to order a pizza and zone out to HBO in your room.

That's why force myself to workout when I travel.

So I started on Yelp to find gyms in the area.  I figured I could just buy a pass and lift weights or drop in on a class.  I looked for about 10 minutes before I gave up.  I found some gyms but I had no idea if they sold day passes or for how much.  Plus, I didn't want to have to get the sales pitch. I don't live here so I'm not going to buy a membership at your gym.

I just want to workout for an hour and I'll pay for it.

Why won't somebody take my money?!!!

At this point, I gave up on the gym idea and decided to just go for a run outside.  As soon as I walked outside it started raining!  I kid you not.  I was so irritated that I ended up buying a jump rope and jumping rope in the hotel parking lot (under an overhang) for 30 minutes like a crazy person! (Great workout by the way)

That initial problem of tying to find a gym while traveling sparked an idea..."Why isn't there an app that allows travelers to purchase day passes on their phones?"

I thought about it for a couple of months, talked to friends about it and everyone loved the idea.  I spent weeks writing a business plan and researching the idea further and then I got some terrible news....

I wasn't the first guy to think of this idea.  

I don't know why it took me so long, but I found dozens of companies operating in this new "pay as you go" gym space: There was Payasugym in the UK, Gym Points in Colorado, Fitdaypass in NYC, etc.  There's dozens of them.

Then there were niches in that market, like Class Pass and Fitocracy that specialize in classes.

In my mind, I already had the house on the beach, I quit my boring job, and was driving my dream Ferrari and this news hit me like a sack of bricks.  I felt so defeated.  I didn't even get started and I already lost the race.

I learned a valuable lesson though, if you've got a good idea, there are probably already dozens of people who are already doing it.  

That's not the end of my story thought, it's actually just the start.  Although, there is tons of competition in this space already, I thought that my take on the "pay as you go" gym membership was unique and was the best solution for gyms and the user.

I didn't want to follow the Groupon model, where you flood a business with unprofitable, annoying customers.  I wanted to give the gyms people like me.  Professional people who will pay a premium for service.

I would have paid a lot of money that day in Albany to be able to work out at a nice gym.  I probably would have bought a towel , a protein shake and a bottle of water too.  Why wouldn't a gym want me as a customer?

So I kept playing around with this business because I was passionate about the idea.  I wasn't in this for money, there wasn't even a business yet.

I just thought it would be cool that if one day I could be at a traffic light on the way to my hotel  could buy a pass on my phone before the light turned green.  Wouldn't it be badass if the next time I was in Albany, there were dozens of gyms I could pick to workout in?  Big chain gyms, boxing gyms, little studios, etc.  Do I want to box today or maybe try a yoga class?

I think that passion is what is still fueling me and I think that's probably the most important thing to have when either founding or working for an early stage start up...Trust me, there's no money, and no glory.  Yet, every night and every break I've got I find myself working on Gymsurfing.

So I met with programmers, consultants, etc. after work and during my lunch breaks to see how much it would cost to start this sort of company.  I even had a great name picked out... Drop In.  Get it?  Like you can Drop In at a gym without being a member.

While I was pursuing this on my own, I kept finding more and more companies basically doing the same thing I was trying to do.  Each new one I found got me more and more discouraged.

One day I decided to reach out to one of them...Gymsurfing.  In my opinion they had an advantage on all the competitors because they already had the technology figured out.  They had a iPhone and Droid app.

All the other companies only had web versions of their sites.

I took a shot and wrote an honest letter outlying everything I just wrote here.  My fateful business trip in Albany, my market analysis, howI was trying to start a company, and I even shared my vision with them.

One of the founders got back to me a couple days later and said that my email was the best copy he'd ever read!  We soon had a couple of phone calls, they flew me to San Fran, and we discussed partnering up.

My strength is sales and marketing, so why not help Gymsurfing grow their network instead of trying to reinvent the wheel?

I've been with the Gymsurfing crew for a couple of months now and it's been a fun ride so far.

I've still got a day job, but I'm spending all my free time on Gymsurfing.

There's hardly any money in a young startup, yet every night I'm reaching out to gyms, chatting with the founders about business, etc.

It's fun being the "old guy" on the team at 36.  I've learned more about social media, funding, vesting, new media, and startups than I ever would have learned in a MBA course.

Probably the most exciting thing about this whole venture for me is that this new business model hasn't been figured out yet. If I wanted to start a dry cleaner or an auto repair shop, there are a million resources that have the business model already figured out.  They can tell you what your costs should be, how many customers you need to have per hour, etc.

This new "pay as you go" gym membership business model is exciting to me, because it hasn't been figured out yet.  Will Gymsurfing's model win out?  Maybe one of the competitors will become the industry standard.  Who knows?

I think the most important thing is to be doing something that you believe in.  I truly believe that Gymsurfing benefits all parties involved; the gym, the travelers, and Gymsurfing.

Every day is a new challenge and it's also an opportunity to learn something new.

I no longer dream of that Ferrari and the beach house,

I just dream of a marketing director, sitting in a boring meeting in a strange town wondering how she's going to train for her upcoming triathlon.  She hops on the Gymsurfing app on her phone and buys a pass at a gym that has a pool right around the corner from her hotel.

How cool is that?

Tom WardComment