After recognizing how hard it is for fitness instructors to scale their business within the walls of a gym, FORTË founder Lauren Foundos built a platform that streams live videos from top trainers directly to students all over the world. FORTË now offers at-home access to boutique gyms all over the country, and the company has only just begun to realize Lauren’s vision for it. Her success proves that validating your business concept when you’re still small will allow you to scale to something big.
Lauren shares her tried-and-true methods for securing new partners, identifying and fulfilling her customers’ needs, and scaling a business in a way that allows incredible growth in the future. Her business tactics may not be the most traditional, but her success has proven that they definitely work. This is the story of FORTË with Lauren Foundos on The Build.
More about today’s guest:
[1:28] How this day-trader evolved into a virtual fitness class entrepreneur.
[3:48] Building the technology and marketing stack behind an idea like FORTË.
[6:30] What Lauren looks for in potential partners and talent.
[10:46] The technology and automation that make workouts feel fully immersive for viewers.
[14:50] Seeking investors and keeping a business profitable.
[16:30] Building a wide customer base starts with identifying their needs.
[18:52] Preventing burnout while growing an entrepreneurial idea.
[20:41] The best communication for gaining new customers may not be the most tactful.
[23:58] Looking to the future of streaming with 360 or VR technology.
[26:14] Lauren’s vision for the future of FORTË.
Announcer (00:03): From 2820 Radio in Philadelphia, it's The Build. Conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators about their dreams, their triumphs, and their challenges. Joe Taylor Jr. (00:14): Workout. Stand up comics often talk about working out their ideas in front of smaller crowds so they can get things right in front of large audiences. Building a business works the same way. Validate your concept when you're still small so you can scale to something big. Lauren Foundos decided to test her big idea while working out in a fitness studio. Realizing it's hard for fitness instructors to scale when they're stuck inside four walls, Lauren built a platform that streams live video from top trainers directly to eager students all over the world. And now, instead of running a class for just 30 clients, some of Lauren's instructors inspire thousands of workouts every day. It's the story of FORTE coming up next on The Build. Announcer (01:02): The Build is made possible with support from 2820 Press, providing business consulting and content strategy services to customer obsessed companies nationwide. More information at 2820press.com. Joe Taylor Jr. (01:28): It's The Build. I'm Joe Taylor Jr. Joined this week by Lauren Foundos, founder of FORTE at forte.fit. Welcome to the show. Lauren Foundos (01:36): Thank you. Joe Taylor Jr. (01:37): So I understand you spent about a decade working the trading desk, trading bonds, working in the hedge fund. How does someone move from trading securities to opening a virtual fitness class? Lauren Foundos (01:54): I would go out with my clients and a lot of entertaining used to be around dinners and I decided that I, you know, I'd have to be at work so early that it was getting difficult to work out and to keep my routine, which is what keeps me sane. So I started working out after work, and you know, trying to Just escape for an hour before I would meet my clients and they would always wonder where I was going and I was like, you just kinda give me some time. I'm starting to lose my sense of self here. And so they started to follow me and workout with me. So I started getting really into the fitness groups group fitness scene, which I had always been sort of opposed to just because I was always a self starter and kind of okay with doing my own thing. And then, ultimately I got really into the studio scene and realize that the business was great. You know, boutique fitness is now 25 percent of the entire fitness industry. So it's rapidly rising and I got super into it while I was getting experienced in it. Lauren Foundos (02:49): I would talk about it to people and I wanted them to be able to experience it and would talk about it so excited and they didn't understand it at all. So, you know, as technology is evolving and I think this in any industry, they want to adopt technology but they don't even know where to begin. So I started talking to studios to seeing to see if they were willing to sort of broadcast or classes and make it so people can take it from anywhere in the world. And at first, obviously they were a little bit reluctant, and then they were starting to get into it. So before I knew it, they had said yes. And here now I'm a trader that just likes fitness and now now I've built this company that these people are ready to start. So that was where it all sort of began. I just was interested in myself and I kind of saw the opportunity and from talking to them then they were like, all right, when are we starting? And I was like, oh man, they think I built this thing. So that's sort of how it snowballed into this what we are today. And from that moment on I, you know, I hit the ground running, I knew the opportunity was there and I had to go. Joe Taylor Jr. (03:47): So walk me through the process of building the technology and the marketing stack behind FORTE because you go from this idea of let me bring boutique fitness into laptops and to living rooms. But how do you actually build that thing? Lauren Foundos (04:05): Yeah. So I think I knew from the beginning- or I always dream big. So I knew that if we were going to do something that, you know, they couldn't do on their own or that would give us a really strong competitive advantage as the market continued to evolve. Because obviously every big corporation will see the same light in time. So I knew that we needed to build something that was extraordinary and I knew that we needed to build something that they couldn't do on their own. So we built the business- like planning for it to be a billion dollar large, scalable business. Honestly it's more costly and more difficult to do that, but we were competent that there was no way that they were going to escape streaming and that this was happening. So I went and I looked in my Linkedin contacts. Lauren Foundos (04:48): My friends aren't engineers, my friends are traders, now obviously that's very different. But I started going through my contacts, trying to find people that I could talk to to get into the scene basically and figure out what was, what. I was fortunate enough to have a couple of friends that were super into the tech scene that were able to kind of navigate me through getting to the right people. The idea, fortunately, was sort of an obvious one almost. So getting people to understand it was not as difficult as some may be. Some people- obviously there's always naysayers- but the idea seemed like, well, isn't somebody doing that? I'm like, well, no. So that was that was on our side and then really just kind of building the technology. We've built it for two years. Lauren Foundos (05:27): We've been iterating it repeatedly as we learn more and more. The experience, there is no technology built for our exact scenario. So we've actually built it and customize it for studios to operate it seamlessly, so they do nothing. So that's been a two year process of iterating based on their demands and, as a user of this space, I feel that I have a strong advantage versus any other person that goes into this space because I am the studio girl. I am the girl that understands this. I was in the trenches as a user so now building the product has been super fun for me. Joe Taylor Jr. (06:00): So what I love about this story is that you immediately have empathy for your customers because you know, what makes a really good class. What I find compelling is this is one of those rare plays that actually does incorporate some b to b and b to c because you're growing a customer base of subscribers who pay by the month or by the year joined this network of classes from all over the world, basically. And then you also have to go out and attract partners who are actually putting this on. So when you're looking for talent to put onto your network, what are the things that make a really great trainer? What do you look for to program for FORTE customers? Lauren Foundos (06:41): So for us, our main business model is also is the b to b play. So we're partnering with big studios like Exhale, who are absolutely incredible people. They've been at such a great pleasure to work with. They are a big corporation. They have 29 locations. They have partnerships with some more hotels and big companies like that and real estate deals, that's their business and business model. So they're often in a real estate property. So we have great partners like that that have really helped us in terms of our marketing- in that angle. Working together to build that. So, for us, we look for a studio typically. We look at brick and mortar presence, we'll look at their willingness to do it. In the beginning some were very understanding that this was an unescapable future for them and that this would come and that they would have to do this. And some were reluctant to do it. Today- and at fast forward two and a half years later- there is no pitch. Lauren Foundos (07:32): They're like, I need to stream now. I'm like, yeah, no, I told you that, you know the story. The people that were kind of with it in the beginning our early adopters, if you may have been an absolute pleasure to work with. And now as the market is today, pretty much everybody realizes they need to be a part of it. So we really look at partners that I want to be partners with people that want to work with us. That are excited about this opportunity, that see this vision that we do. They're our true partner in this. I'm not a trainer. I don't own a studio. I'm not a coach. So if they don't love working with us and they don't do a wonderful job that we don't have a business. Lauren Foundos (08:09): So we really try to create this partnership and friendship with our partners, to be honest with you, because they need to want to do this as bad as we do. So we're very cautious about not just taking on partners to take them on for that sake. We've been curating the experience, we look at brick and mortar size - obviously their reach is important. But there are also local places that are just sort of - we're doing a little bit of the American Idol style, too - their local places that have this crazy cult following. And for me it was interesting to see when we broadcasted Exhale-- Exhale people would probably understand it and love it. But would people that have never seen it or heard of it, or heard of a boutique fitness studio understand it? And for a long time, I've had these hypotheses that they would. And now it's been so exciting to prove out that the same people that they're obsessed with in the studio or the same classes that they're obsessed with is exactly what the remote users are feeling and they've never heard of it or been there. Lauren Foundos (09:04): So that's been super exciting. Joe Taylor Jr. (09:06): So from the standpoint of your members, do folks gravitate more towards the live sessions or the on demand or do you see a little of a use for both? Lauren Foundos (09:13): We see a use for both. I think there are different users. I think alive is more of a social studio user. Just like women may go to a studio or guys may go and work out at crossfit whatever together. I think there's a person that's just a matter of time and they're just trying to be as efficient as possible and also have access to their favorite things. What's been fun to watch is for a long time we were testing with very few customers. Now we have a lot of customers and so when we do things around, we forget sometimes that there is a lot of people that have built schedules on it. We'll change something and they're like, where'd that live class go? And I look at their stats and they're not watching the live classes during a live time. Lauren Foundos (09:50): And I'm like, why are you getting so mad? You're not even watching it. And they're like, well, I want to know that the content is fresh, I want to know there's nothing new. I want to know the trainers new, everything's new. So, as much as we're trying to understand the live and on demand viewers and who they are and how they operate, it was fun to see that where they were like, no, I'd want to know that it was live even though I'm not watching it live. So that's been interesting to see. Just the fact that the content and everything is real and raw and unedited. And that's something I've been fighting for since day one. You know, workout videos aren't traditionally eighties style. Three people choreographed all trainers and they have a good person, a medium person, beginner person. And so I was like, no, it has to be the class. That's the magic. The studios we'd pick, they already have figured out secret sauces and they have these cult followings and they've already created this culture that people love. And so, you know, my assumption was that if we broadcast those studios, that the same thing would happen when more people had access to it. Joe Taylor Jr. (10:47): It struck me when I was looking at some of the classes in advance of our talking that the camera placement even is very immersive. So there's cameras all over the room, but instead of what you're accustomed to seeing on workout television, it's very much you feel like you're physically in the space. So when you spec out those spaces, who's doing that? Do you have folks that are just roaming around and they know exactly where to put cameras? How do you get folks in the room comfortable with the idea that you've got these little cameras up all over? Lauren Foundos (11:24): So, we actually want you to feel... If you stand in a class you're looking at somebody's back and butt. That's what you're looking at. So that's what we want you to feel like you're standIng in that room. And so we shoot the angles like you are. That being said, you know, we're obviously cognizant of, one getting people comfortable and accustomed to this experience. And two we're cognIzant of it's not like a film and a guys filling you zooming in on your face when you're making bad faces. We are very cognizant shooting really good camera angles that make people look good ultimately. So they feel good about it. A lot of people are hesitant at first and then they see themselves and they're like, look how my arms, they look amazIng. Then they're excited. They feel proud, like you're doing something in unison with this group. Lauren Foundos (12:08): You always think you're the worst one in the room and then you see yourself and people are feeling good, which has been really great to vet out a studio. We take thousands of pictures with our cameras and we basically go through every possible scenario that could occur in that studio. We're trying not to make them sets and tell people don't stand here, stand here. We've, made it so the studios do absolutely nothing differently because I want them to act exactly as they act and I want everyone else to act exactly as they act. So we have not changed the studio's behavior. We have as many precautions in as possible to account for all the scenarios and as we continue to stream a studio, we improve the experience. As the automation and the camera choices get smarter and as we learn more data from that studio. Joe Taylor Jr. (12:55): I'm glad you touch on that because I think another big distinction between some of the other things I've seen in this space is that you have multiple cameras. The cameras are switching live during the session, but you don't have any directors on staff. You've got an automation stack handling that. How's that even work? Lauren Foundos (13:14): Yeah. So we want to build a scalable business and not say a scalable business. So it would not be a production studio or it would be with a lot of money, potentially a lot of people for using it. But ultimately the automation, the classes occur in a militant schedule. They occur the same way every time. They're doing a production and the production of always occurs the same. The trainers aren't going out there and just getting crazy and do whatever they want. So the automation works really well. They're starting and stopping on the time that they're telling us, the process is always the same. They do the warm up in one place. And so, for us the automation is easier, actually, then it seems. In studios where there's multiple classes in a room, we have maybe different patterns for those classes that sort of cater to the bar or wherever the shots may be may be occurring or maybe one camera will be less productive and we choose to show it. We make play lists for each studio. Lauren Foundos (14:07): And so the playlist, the auto bot will know when to go off, which way for each thing. So we really have it after they stream live, they go on demand. God forbid, something weird happened, they could tell us and we can not put It on demand. But for the most part everything goes as is. We choose to show the milling around in the beginning and the end to make you feel like you're there. That's part of the thing, like if you watch Exhale's videos and you watch them everyday, you know where the yoga mats are, you know what ladies you're going to see, you go there and you're there and you know, everything. That's what we want to recreate. The automation was done so we can build a scalable business that was also cost efficient for studios and our profitability would be much quicker that way. Joe Taylor Jr. (14:51): So right now, are you also taking this idea to investors? Have you taken any money? Are you looking for money? Lauren Foundos (14:57): Yeah always looking for money, money is always good. I self funded initially out of the gate because I had no idea how to raise money or that how to even begin this process from there. When I left wall street, my bosses who had a lot of faith in me and my determination, had been invested as well. So that was exciting. All our other investors that have come to us, which has been super exciting, just from hearing what we were doing. And friends of friends and being super passionate about fitness and stuff like that. So it's been pretty exciting. We are about to raise our series A. We've raised over a million dollars. We are operating a lean ship right now. I'm running a tight ship here. I want to not over infuse the business with cash and be able to be profitable for our partners. Mainly because here we are jostling their businesses right now. Lauren Foundos (15:48): So for us to not to return payment to them at any poInt would just wouldn't be fair. And I just think that because they all have big communities that we don't need to market from point zero. Whereas if you build a company to tell people what your company is. Exhale, is a thing. Rip, does a thing, Aerospace is a thing. So they already have a community and a sense of establishment. So we're pretty confident that without traditional marketing in the sense of big, big, big spending that we can do a pretty good job. The other difference is, people are part of the experience and they're part of the class. So you now know about it, you go to studio, you're in it, you're part of the mix now. So there's that which is unique to any other product out there as well. Joe Taylor Jr. (16:33): It strikes me too that you're not necessarily rolling into this market tryIng to just disrupt it. A lot of what it seems to me that you're trying to do rides alongside of that traditional experience. It almost seems a little bit more like the music industry where there's room for lIve concerts and recordings and subscriptions. So in terms of building that customer base, both for FORTE on its own and with those business partners that you've got, how do you convince somebody to make this a part of their fitness regiment? Is this a new space that you're opening up or do they have to choose between one or the other? Lauren Foundos (17:14): Yeah, I think we're not an at home fitness DVD. If you go to the gym and you put your phone on the treadmill, you have your headphones plugged in, whether I exists or not, everybody in the world is doing that. Now you stare at the wall and you listen to your same playlists on repeat and now with FORTE day you can watch a marathon runners coach treadmill classes or take a class at Ripped and be running with them and they're also talking to you. So I think the devices are always there. So for the regular gym user this is just, like awesome. The gym is a great use case for us too because people see you doing it at the gym and ask what you're doing. When you're doing it in public, it spreads it faster. Lauren Foundos (17:53): Whereas if you're home, nobody knows that you do. So at the gym has actually been fun to watch our users create little communities within where they're doing it with their friends, which is awesome. We, we don't see it as-- I don't think anything replaces an in studio experience. I don't think-- that's just my opinion. I think at the same time, just like Netflix and movies have changed where people less go to the theater because you know, experience in that home is better now and TVs are better and they come out faster and there's an evolution within that industry. I think there will also be an evolution for people to consume that content that are not there. That beIng said, a lot of these studios are not going to go to a lot of these places and they will not have access to anything but a regular mom and pop gym for the next 10 years. And so, with technology we're bringing it to those people, which is the most exciting. I think that's just the reality. They don't have a gas station within 30 miles, so they are definitely not going to have a studio. So why should they not be a part of this awesome experience. Joe Taylor Jr. (18:54): So for you personally as an entrepreneur, how do you prevent this passion that you have from getting burned out? Because if you came to this business from all the time that you were spending in boutique studios and now you're basically immersed in this world. How do you stay excited for that yourself and how do you maintain your own wellness regimen given that you're now responsible for all of your customers and all of your partners? Lauren Foundos (19:23): I'm definitely working out as the least I having a lot of time right now, but the good news is a lot of people are getting healthy, so that sacrifice of my own helped a little bit. But I think for me it's so exciting. Now we have users and just seeing these emails and hear them saying that they feel like they won the lottery or it's life changing or all these things and just these notes. They make me emotional. I mean, they're super, super exciting. It's just incredible to read that kind of stuff day after day after day and they come in all day now. So that obviously fuels my adrenaline through the roof right now, which has been super exciting. To be able to make a business where we're trying to convince people or suck them into watching something that's going to actually make their life better, it feels certainly good. I think for me, our partners, you know, it's been such a fun experience with them. I know it's working, but as we add a new studio, they get to watch. I watched the evolution of them realize it's working and hearing from their customers and that process and that's been so fun to watch them get excited each new studio that we bring in along the way. And for me, you know, in terms of this has been my whole life has been surrounded around this. So I'm pretty intense when I get into things and I, I intend to not ever let this part of my life go for sure. Joe Taylor Jr. (20:44): I love too that. The communication that I see coming out of the business reflects a little bit of your personality and kind of the free sign up, the autoresponder emaIl that you get when you sign up for free is probably one of the best pieces of copy I've seen a long time because the first line is if you're here for one thing a month, that's not gonna cut it. Wow. It's been so long since I've seen a startup just be so direct and say, hey, yeah, we're giving you one thing a month for free, but come on. Really? Lauren Foundos (21:16): That's not going work. Exactly. That's me. I haven't really edited. Joe Taylor Jr. (21:21): So beyond beyond the free trial, beyond because I know that you're doing a 30 months, 30 days. Yeah. Lauren Foundos (21:28): Our contracts with studios are written like that. Here's what you do, here's what we do, here's why it's going to be fun and this is why. Joe Taylor Jr. (21:38): With all the folks that I talk to, I always try to track the distinctions between how folks communicate, especially on the east coast versus the west coast because I have a sense of you were coming out of the west coast, the communication would be very much namaste and unity. This east coast is like yo, one a month, are you kidding me? Give us a credit card number and try it for 30 days- 'come on. So how are you finding new customers? How are you getting people to convert and put their credit card number into that form and try it out for a month? Lauren Foundos (22:14): So our partners are marketing along with us. They have big databases of hundreds of thousands of people. So that's been one thing. The classes that are listed on MINDBODY, so when you register through MINDBODY that you're, you know, you're aware that you're being live streamed. People always asked me do the people know they're being live streamed. I'm like, I know I come off a little crazy though. What kind of maniac do you think I am? Streaming people and not telling them? We do it through there. so there's exposures through there. Right now we're kind of doing a deal where we're going to be in thousands of gyms across the world. So that'll be in the coming weeks. You'll guys will see something about that. Joe Taylor Jr. (22:52): Well, I love the parallel with MINDBODY because very quickly they went from beIng a piece of software that seemed like a good investment to a pretty essential platform within the industry. I can also see your brand growing to be something that if you're running a small studio, it's a mark of excellence it's mark of, oh, we're in this network. Lauren Foundos (23:14): Even if you have a big studio- that's how MINDBODY works. They're making more simple software, but they're not a tech company. The reality is if a studio goes out and builds an app and spends a few hundred grand or figures out a way to stream, they're outdated in six months, it doesn't work like that with technology. So unless they're building a model where their entire business is focused on this, it's just not a sustainable path for them to do it and do it great. And the good ones want to do it great. So for them, that's our model. Basically, they do what they're good, which is continue to create great content and we do what we're good at which is continue to focus on the user and the experIence and how to make that a better experience for in studio and also remote. You know, the good trainers are watching their classes and in improving their studio experience as well the remote users. Joe Taylor Jr. (24:02): Thinking about that forward thinking technology, how soon before we start seeing 360 or VR? Lauren Foundos (24:09): All that stuff will come very quickly. The live classes now, if you register before we you know, you're taking it, the wearable integration, we're kind of cheering on according to your heart rate. If you stop, we're going to be like saying come on and stuff like that. So all that stuff is about to come now. I think that will take it to a whole other level. I've actually been pretty pleasantly surprised that people were so accepting and loving it so much at the state that it's in because my vision is so much bigger than what you're seeing. So it's felt really good that the scratching the surface was still generating this much excitement. So I think that stuff will be really fun. And sort of anything you see in gaming will be happening. Lauren Foundos (24:48): You can assume all those things. Multidirectional streaming and kind of talking back to each other and work it out with your friends and kind of all that stuff. I think anything that goes on in gaming I think will be super exciting. You know, the main thing I wanted is for it to just really be raw and unedited. I think why the trainers when they do these workout videos, they're like welcome to eight apps and everything is like if their favorite song comes on, they're just still in this character. And I'm like dance when you're favorite song comes on, like get excited. That's your personality. That's what makes somebody fall in love with you specifically. And everybody's is different. Play whatever music you want. Like that's you. And so I've been really adamant and obviously you can see the way I speak and the way I come off, I'm very much am authentically myself and my meetings and so I feel like for our instructors too, I want them to be doing what they do. We do reserve the right, though, to knock people out that are not performing. For me to have a site where stuff people don't watch is not productive either. Joe Taylor Jr. (25:49): It strikes me too that you probably have metrics that show you what's performing well, what's underperforming. Lauren Foundos (25:58): Sometimes things surprise us- things we wouldn't have thought. We kind of give everybody opportunity. We have some x labs where we bring in instructors and studio owners to test. And if they may not be what fits my criteria or what I think is right, but who am I to judge. You know, people like it, then people like it. Joe Taylor Jr. (26:17): So before we wrap up, thinking about the next 5 or 10 years, what does FORTE look like when it becomes that full expression of your vision? What's your dream for this business? Lauren Foundos (26:28): Yeah. My dream is, we thought we wanted to be in every studio, but we realized that just inundates the user. A thousand yoga studios is too hard to figure out. I think our vision is to really be in the top 50 places in the world, very slowly adding new people. Continuing to bring in some exciting people through our sort of x lab experiment there. And really having wearable integration there, being able to take a class at home and really feeling like you're in that experience. Ultimately as technology continues to advance, the wearables will track, the new ones that have come out and actually track your reps and your body will know what you're doing. So being able to kind of make that competitive in some cases or at least for your own knowledge to see what you're doing. Lauren Foundos (27:13): I think, obviously 360 video and VR and all that stuff works for some stuff. Not for all. Obviously headset is difficult for a lot of things, but for meditation and yoga and spin and things like that, you can get there pretty quickly. I think really just making this big world a connected place. What we do with our profiles of our trainers is like ask them things about things about them and one of the trainers that I love and have known for a long time like plays all these instruments and speaks all these languages and I'm like, you're a renaissance man. I didn't ever know this, and I think just really getting down to who they are and building this community and making this people feel connected to something. I think people just want to be part of a community. Joe Taylor Jr. (27:54): Fantastic. Lauren Foundos from FORTE. Thanks for joining us on The Build. Lauren Foundos (27:57): Thank you so much. Joe Taylor Jr. (27:59): Thanks again for listening to this episode of The Build. Our producer is Katie Cohen Zahniser. Our production coordinator is Nicole Hubbard. Our production team for this episode included Amelia Lohmann, Jess Ryan, Faiza Samreen, Giana Seeney, and April Smith. Podfly productions manages our post production and our theme music is performed by Arrows and Sound. I'm Joe Taylor Jr. Announcer (28:23): Thanks for listening to this episode of The Build. We hope you'll share this series with your friends and provide us with feedback on the iTunes store.