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How this fitness startup is selling freedom from traditional gym contracts

FitKey co-founder on how their app solves the 3 major frustrations of fitness enthusiasts


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The growing interest in healthy lifestyles is fueling a variety startups who are tapping into the local fitness market and are offering alternatives to traditional gym and fitness studio contracts. 

Evan Walther (32) Joshua Shimkin (39) are behind one such startup. They are the founders of the fitness app, FitKey

The app, which entered beta in May this year, connects users to a range of geo-located exercise classes. The idea behind the startup is to give fitness enthusiasts the gift of choice, says Walther. 

"FitKey is a single membership to access fitness classes at different gyms and studios across South Africa. From yoga to pilates and crossfit to boxing and more. Try them all and discover the fitness life that makes you happy".

Evan Walther and Joshua Shimkin.

The service was originally launched in the Cape, however a recent pre-seed investment from Cape Town based entrepreneur and angel investor, Justin Stanford, will see them scale their offering to Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban.

The startup sets to solve three major frustrations of the average gym goer, which Walther says he experienced himself as a fitness enthusiast: the lack of variety of offerings in traditional gyms, lack of information about independent gyms and studios and the high cost of having multiple memberships.  

"I thought there needed to be a better way to discover classes, and to manage multiple memberships," says Walther.

We speak to Walther about the challenges of being an online startup and the importance of early validation. 

  • On their unique value proposition

We sell freedom. Freedom from contracts. Freedom from being stuck at one place. Freedom to vary your workout routine and discover new activities you would have never found before like trapeze, parkour, or pole dancing.

  • On finding a market as a fitness startup

The process of getting customers/clients is not easy. We only sell online, and South Africans are still getting comfortable buying things online. The credit card fraud protection and bank systems in South Africa make it extra difficult for us to take payments online. Beyond that, media and advertising are expensive for a startup, so we have to be very careful with how we spend on marketing.

Over the next 2 years we'll expand into Pretoria, Durban, and Port Elizabeth in South Africa and beginning to move into other countries in Africa, Middle East, and Asia.

  • On being a startup founder in SA

The experience of working in the fitness industry been amazing, some of the most fun I've had working. Our partners are awesome people, and we get to do fun classes all the time. Sometimes I forget I'm working!

This isn't the first time I've been a startup founder, so it wasn't exactly a surprise that I'd be working unpaid for a while, spending my own money on the business, and that it would take longer than I may have first expected to. 

  • On accessing funding

We started out bootstrapping and asking friends and family to invest. We did a deal with Fireworks Innovation where they would develop the product for us and we could pay them partially in cash, partially equity. From there, once we got the product live and in beta, we were able to secure financing from more professional investors like Martin Diessner and Justin Stanford.

  • On startup challenges

It's not easy to register a business in South Africa. In the US you can register a business in a day, and get your tax registration online in about 5 minutes. It really was a lot of work and time to get everything setup properly here.

There aren't a lot of investors willing to take risk at a company's early stages.

 I wish we had know more about the difficulties in accepting payments in South Africa versus in the US or Europe.

  • On what it takes to make it

Hard work, planning ahead, execution, and persistence.

Move quickly and validate your ideas as early as possible, before you've ever built a product.

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