Entrepreneur Joel Edwards is Fit to Succeed
Seeking like-minded gym partners? He has an app for that!
It’s a common story. You sign up for a gym membership — as a New Year’s resolution, after a nervous look ahead to swimsuit season, maybe on your spouse’s hint to shed a few pounds — and then rarely make an appearance.
Industry data from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association indicates that while 52.9 million Americans were health club members in 2015, less than half were “core users” averaging twice-weekly visits, and a mere 13.5 percent used personal trainers. The personal finance site CreditDonkey says 80 percent of January gym joiners quit within five months.
“Gyms don’t keep people. They’re just not good at it,” says Joel Edwards, founder and CEO of Boston-based Fittus. “I’ve quit gym memberships myself — it’s hard to stay motivated.”
To tackle the problem, the 32-year-old Dorchester native created the Fittus mobile application to connect gym members and link personal trainers with clients.
Edwards was part of Smarter in the City’s 2015 entrepreneur cohort. The Roxbury-based early-stage incubator provides promising startups with a five-month program of expert mentoring, a stipend and office space, and plenty of opportunities to network and pitch their ideas.
During their time at SiTC, Edwards and partner Jefferson Meyer, now Fittus’ chief of sales, simplified their app design to make it easier to build. One critical decision was whether to hire an internal software developer or contract out. They opted for the latter, and found a Hungarian firm to develop a prototype.
With the prototype nearly ready to submit to Apple and some funding in hand from Suffolk and private investors, Edwards talked with Banner Biz recently about his startup path.
The idea phase
The light bulb moment came in 2013, while Edwards was pursuing an entrepreneurship degree at Suffolk University.
“I knew I wanted to start a business,” he says. “I was at the gym one day, and someone offered me assistance, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool, to have that every time I went?’” It sparked an idea. He mentioned it to a professor. The professor happened to know a gym owner, and the Fittus wheels were rolling.
Over the next year, while working his day job managing a UPS store, Edwards tinkered with the idea. He surveyed gym members and gym owners. “I asked, ‘When do you come? What do you like to do?’ And then, ‘Would you do it more often if your friends were here?’ They said, ‘You know, I probably would.’ So there’s a cry for networking, making the gym a warmer environment,” he says. “On the flipside, I heard owners and trainers say they’re having a hard time connecting with people.”
Edwards is the first in his family to venture into a business startup.
“I know in the black community, entrepreneurship was really huge in the past, but not in my family per se, ” he says. “So the milestones I’ll talk about may seem like a big deal to me, but my family will ask, ‘Are you rich yet?’ This is the first time someone’s jumped off this ledge.”
In conversation, Edwards exhibits an engaging enthusiasm and fluent idea flow. Readiness to talk has long been a key trait, he says.
“I was a class clown in school. I talked a lot,” he says, a little sheepishly. He attended Boston Latin School before his family moved to Minnesota, where he spent his senior year. “My teachers knew I was able to do work — it was just a matter of shutting up and trying not to make my friends laugh.”
In the 1990s, he had a stint as a junior broadcaster on “Kid Company’s SportsWorld,” a live sports talk show on New England Cable News.
“My family thought I would go into broadcasting,” he recalls. “And it’s funny because, in what I’m doing now, I’d say my biggest strength is still talking — presenting it, pitching it, formulating ideas in front of a group of people.”
SiTC Founder and Executive Director Gilad Rosenzweig has watched Edwards grow, develop and pitch the Fittus concept.
“We were convinced, and still are, that it’s a good idea,” says Rosenzweig. “Joel has a business background and understands the problem. He’s definitely forward-thinking. He’s a go-getter. And he knows how to sell his idea.”
Edwards spent most of last summer pitching and networking. He credits SiTC’s “Pitch on the Deck” event and Banner Media’s “Pitch in the City” for providing invaluable feedback and contacts.
Assessing the competition, Edwards says Fittus fills an unmet need.
“There are fitness apps for networking, but we’re finding that most apps are not about being in a gym,” he explains. “What we’re trying to do is match up people with similar struggles and similar schedules who want the same things from the gym.”
Edwards and Meyer plan to do a “controlled release” of the app soon to test it on real users in about 10 gyms. Then they’ll need to work for about a year, Edwards estimates, to build user numbers and a monetizing strategy. The app will be free for gym users, so revenue will likely come from fee-based features for gym owners and trainers.
Edwards took a new job recently as customer success coordinator with Skyword, a content marketing software and services company. His plan is to keep learning the business ropes and keep a steady income while the Fittus app comes to life.
“I’m not going to just pray that I land on a big pile of money!” he says. “I try to be as realistic as possible.”
If all goes well, next spring when your New Year’s motivation start to fade, Fittus will be there to help find your fitness tribe.