The fitness company Freeletics started in 2013 with three training schedules sent out in PDFs. Now it has nearly 53 million users - and a vision of turning “strength training” into “strength gaming”. CEO Daniel Sobhani explains how.
Going to a brick-and-mortar gym and lifting weights has never been a passion of Daniel Sobhani. He took over the German fitness company Freeletics as CEO in 2014. A year before it had started as a YouTube video, a newsletter and three PDF files that taught the first users how to use their own body weight at home or in parks to strengthen their muscles and stamina. It has come a long way since. After being taken over by a consortium of venture capital firms in 2018, Freeletics is offering the world's leading AI based digital fitness coach and has expanded its business model into nutrition and a clothing and equipment label. With Coach, Freeletics launched an AI-powered personal trainer that chooses out of more than 300 exercises what is best for an individual user. Now it is time for the next evolution, a unique new way of strenght training. The next big thing is a new product for the living room, a product called Stadium. But Sobhani does not stop there. His vision is to gamify fitness even more, to take away the frustration of endless repetitions, to make his users collaborate and compete.
Daniel Sobhani at FitTech Summit V: Tech or Die!
On November 8 and 9, 2021, FitTech Summit V: Tech or Die! will take place digitally. At Europe's most relevant conference on the future of fitness and health technology, Daniel Sobhani will reveal the future of Freeletics. Get your free ticket now!
Daniel, everyone is speaking about blockchain and the next big thing called NFT, so what will the future of fitness apps containing crypto currencies and blockchains look like?
Honestly, I do not know that yet. Crypto and blockchain will for sure have a massive impact on fitness and society. These technologies open so many avenues for the future. As a leading fitness company, you must form your hypothesis about that within the next year.
Especially if you are a community-driven app like Freeletics?
Yes, I think this will be a big theme for us. The question is: How can we include the democratization of a community in such a fitness concept.
So how could this work out if you think about blockchain technology, NFTs, a metaverse and the sense of belonging to a community?
The answer for me is to assign value to a membership in the community. This can be done with NFTs for example but also with other forms of engagement. There are democratized communities out there that are valued at almost a billion dollars. So, bringing these megatrends together is something I mainly think about. The options are limitless and I am super excited about these technologies.
Which technology specifically excites you the most?
We are at a point right now where technology allows a widespread gamification of fitness. It is almost like bringing fitness towards online gaming and online tournaments. Blockchain technology can help in this regard by verifying that the users are to be trusted.
Where do you see the fitness tech industry right now in regard to gamification and its potential?
We are still in baby shoes, like really, really small. With the launch of Stadium we will go a big step but for me we are maybe at three percent right now.
Way to go…
I look at it from another angle. How much more fun and engaging can we make working out a lot?
Your answer to that is Stadium. How did you come up with that idea?
For Freeletics, 2020 was a very satisfying year. When the pandemic hit, we tripled our daily active users and we had up to 15 million workouts per month on our platform. We felt like we were helping those people in a difficult situation. But we also noticed that a lot of these new users were using digital solutions for the first time. So, we did some deep research to understand those users. And we found out that 87 percent of them wished for more fun and excitement in their strength training. Most people like the results of strength training, like what it does to them, but not taking up a dumbbell, doing 15 repetitions, then putting it down, waiting two minutes and starting again. This is just as repetitive as it was 50 years ago. So, we took this insight and built game modes to give you real time cues and scores. So, you have a proper strength workout but maximize the fun in that. And since you can now do it together with friends competing or collaborating, we took it from strength training to strength gaming.
Will this kill gyms?
Sobhani: No, our solution is not to kill gyms. It is there to collectively help strength training evolve to the next stage. We start with a home solution that you can use in your living room. But we also want it to expand to the gym of the future. Gyms are part of the fitness ecosystem and they should stay a part of it.
So, are you planning partnerships with existing brick and mortar gyms?
Sobhani: That is definitely a route to go. But right now, we are focusing on our customers and on bringing the experience of strength gaming into their living rooms.
But what will traditional gyms look like in five years?
Sobhani: Definitely different from now. Most of the gyms have not materially changed in the past 50 year. Some of their main principles go back to the times of the ancient Greeks. So, the question is, how can you use technology to create experiences of a sense of belonging together, of passion and motivation in the years to come? And how do you create an omni-channel experience? Right now, the fitness experience is fragmented. You go to a gym, then you use an app, then you have your own equipment at home and so on. It was not the customer that asked for that fragmentation, but the market that just gave these island solutions to the customer.
About Daniel Sobhani
The CEO of Freeletics took over the job at Germany’s most successful fitness app in 2014. Before he studied at the “Center for Digital Technology and Management” in Munich as did the three founders of the fitness app. Freeletics has since received 70 million US-dollars in venture capital and was taken over by investors in 2018. This has caught the intention of the media. Sobhani, 37 years old, was named one of Germany’s “40 under 40” top managers in 2020.
At Freeletics you started with PDF training plans a decade ago, then moved them to an app and added stuff like nutrition. What is the next step for you in the journey?
The Freeletics Coach app is still our focus. Recently we were extremely excited to work on what I like to call Coach 2.0, its next iteration. With that we want to add three things: First we want to build a highly engaging community from the app, like bundle all that energy of our tens of thousands of Freeletics training groups outside. Secondly, we want to create journeys that span across the digital and physical world. An example of that is personalized training supplementation to get better results. And thirdly we will integrate connected equipment. Stadium will for example run on that and it allows stuff like exercise recognition, repetition, counting, verification of range of motion and real time cues as to what you are supposed to do. That gives a next level of coaching quality and a state-of-the-art experience.
"Freeletics should end this negative spiral of fitness for people."
What was the major change your company went through in the past twelve months?
The major changes are that as of next week we are a company that is pushing two innovative products – Coach on one, Stadium on the other hand. That is a massive step for Freeletics and has been keeping us more than busy for the past twelve months. It is going to be one of the most exciting fitness brands to launch this year. You will love it or hate it, but it is going to be edgy, loud and distinctive.
So, what will be the most crucial decision for your company next year?
Sobhani: Now that with our evolution towards Coach and Stadium, we now must set a path for Freeletics for the next three to four years and decide what will be the next level that we put on top. But we have a wonderful team supporting me to get to that picture.
In five years’ time, what would be the most realistic New York Times headline about your company?
That is exactly what we are trying to figure out. If there is one thing to mention, I think that fitness for most people is still a frustrating experience. They were either entering fitness with wrong promises or they were given superficial solutions that did not help them. Freeletics should end this negative spiral of fitness for people.
Fitness of the future is…
Sobhani: … providing the users exactly the solution they require in the time they require it.