Last fall the entrepreneur Josh Weinstein went on a pilgrimage with his friend Ethan Penner and Ethan’s wife, Marisol.
Marisol, a professional triathlete of Venezuelan extraction, had an interest in and knowledge of esoteric fitness equipment, and she had heard that somewhere in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a man had developed a distinctive device. The man’s name was Doug Brendle, and he was said to hold a black belt in several martial arts. Brendle, who had consulted with the military in the past, had developed the Fitwall, a device resembling the offpring of a ladder and a bookcase. Brendle had invented the device six years prior and acquired some renown, but the Fitwall’s fame was mostly local.
Weinstein and the Penners met with Brendle and tried out his device. And at the end of their workout, Weinstein was convinced: The Fitwall would be the next exercise sensation in America, and he was determined to make it so. He and his partners threw together $3 million of their own money, set about acquiring the IP, and started to brainstorm how to make Fitwall a household name.
Weinstein and his partners didn’t merely want to market a piece of equipment to gyms. Rather, they wanted to create their own branded experience. You wouldn’t go to the gym and use a Fitwall; you would go to a Fitwall. They assembled a team from various disciplines, all representing "the best, period." A top architect was brought into reconceptualize the storefront athletic space. A technology officer was hired to help rethink how devices could help ensure Fitwall enthusiasts got, in fitness parlance, "results."
Within mere months, the team had opened up a studio in La Jolla, California—daringly, on a block already cluttered with rival fitness concepts. "On our street you have half a dozen different yoga concepts, you have a couple Pilates concepts, a couple of spinning concepts," says Weinstein. There are two giant gyms and a dozen more boutique-sized personal training gyms within a three-block radius. But where better to try their idea by fire, reasons Weinstein, than where competition is most fierce? There are already plans to open a second La Jolla studio soon, followed by further clusters in Southern California. The team is also hoping to gain a toehold soon in Manhattan.
Weinstein says that he would like Fitwall to be the gym experience what the Apple Store has been to traditional retail. And while every brick-and-mortar entrepreneur says this, the experience he and his team have crafted seems to make a more sincere attempt to hack the fitness user experience than any other I’m aware of. Fitwall offers 40-minute classes that occur on the hour, every hour. (Pricing packages will vary regionally, but four classes a month will run around $100, eight classes around $200, and an unlimited package somewhere between $220 and $300.)
Technology is leveraged in several ways to modernize and streamline the workout experience for users and trainers alike, and to provide data that can help Fitwall’s management make smart business decisions. Members enter a Fitwall, where instead of being greeted at a welcome desk, they make their way to a wall-mounted iPad to check in. They pick up what Fitwall calls a "peanut," a wearable Bluetooth monitor that sits on their chest and will track a few metrics throughout the workout, combining those into a number Fitwall calls the "F-Factor." Throughout your workout, rather than compete on absolute metrics, the various trainees can compete for a percentage of their best F-Factor—a gamification element that enables 75-year-olds to compete on a curve with 20-year-olds.
Data is stored and helps management make all sorts of decisions—about promoting and firing coaches, for instance, and about customer relationships (why did that former Fitwall enthusiast stop coming in?). And the system enables other interesting and serendipitous features; if timed right, a friend in New York can take a class concurrently with a friend in La Jolla, and the two can compete like Internet gamers.
The workout includes 14 fundamental maneuvers with names like "perfect pullup" and "cowboy squat." Classes have a minimum ratio of one trainer per eight students. Each workout ends with a ritual shot of coconut water followed with a mint-and-lavender-infused towel. After 40 carefully choreographed minutes, you’re free to go. "We respect your time," says Weinstein.
Several professional sports teams as well as some Olympians already use the Fitwall to train, says Weinstein, who adds that the company’s advisory board includes Julius Erving—perhaps better known as Dr. J. "It’s the best workout you will do in your life, period," says Weinstein, a longstanding fitness buff. He intends for rapid expansion to begin in 2014.
Ultimately, though, the main inspiration remains not Dr. J. but Uncle Steve. Fitwall strives to "think different."
"There are so many products out there in the fitness industry that I would call ‘me too’ products," says Weinstein. "It’s yoga—but with heat. It’s spinning—but the music is louder. There’s so little innovation in the industry, and that frustrates us, not just as entrepreneurs but as individuals who have a passion for working out."