FitTech Insider

Mohammed Iqbal: “Gyms post-pandemic have to embrace the evolved consumer”

Since its inception in 2012, SweatWorks has grown from a fitness app company to a multi-faceted, multi-discipline, digital agency servicing brands in fitness and wellness. They have created some of the most innovative products for the fitness industry, from CLMBR to SoulCycle. With the introduction of several ground-breaking technologies,SweatWorks is paving the path for more accessible and engageable fitness. It was named one of the fastest-growing private companies four years in a row in Inc 5000’s list.

Mohammed Iqbal about starting his own company

Why did you decide to specialize in fitness when you started Sweatworks 9 years ago?
I’ve had a passion for it my whole life because of my own personal journey. I wasn’t the best athlete in school : I was an out-of-shape kid. I experienced a transformation and since then, sports and fitness became an integral part of my life in school and at work.
The first decade of work I was in software technology and it was awesome, but I wanted to follow my passion — so I thought “let me bring my two passions together, tech and fitness”. Around 2010–2011 there was a big gap between amazing fitness brands and technology. So, I formed SweatWorks.

You founded the agency shortly after graduating from the MBA class from the Columbia Business School.  What was the most wrong thing that they taught you on the course and you never used?
Theory. You’re prepared but not really prepared. What they don’t tell you is that: “You don’t know what you don’t know”. Also, the thing you’re most passionate about and closest to you probably know, but no matter what they teach in theory and textbooks – you don’t know everything else. So, you should surround yourself with people who are experts in their area of business.

You leave thinking: “I’m really well around in running a business.” Not true.

About Mohammed Iqbal:

Mohammed Iqbal strives to enhance the lives of people. He believes that knowledge is the only barrier that prevents people from leading healthy lives. He founded SweatWorks to create elegant and functional technologies that would engage, motivate and inspire people to lead better lives.

As the founder and CEO of SweatWorks, Mohammed drives strategy, creativity, and innovation, as well as embodying the core values of the agency: staying healthy and active. Mohammed has been an invited speaker at the leading event and fitness conferences around the world.

Mohammed Iqbal about market trends

What do you think is the biggest change for the industry post-pandemic?

Brands must figure out and learn how to navigate the post-pandemic world. While preparing a piece I wrote, I looked at research from Swiss Institute, and they identified “temporary trends” as a result of the pandemic — things like adoption, not using public transport, and divorces which unfortunately were very high. Interestingly, permanent trends included work-from-home and on-demand fitness.

Gyms are welcoming back a different person from when they closed the doors a year ago. You now have a consumer who is more in tune with their wellness, more digital, knows how to live/work/play, and does fitness on their phone. They are used to connecting virtually to the gym, whereas before they were seeking out in-person connection.

I think having in-person fitness is invaluable. When we look at our brands, we look at four approaches:
1. How can we enhance and elevate the experience in person?
2. We look at a real-time session when you have a coach or trainer do real-time improvements
3. Live is a class having 1–10,000 people
4. Peer-to-peer, where you take a class together with your friend

We try to understand these different avenues and stitch them together. Gym brands need to understand they are working with an involved consumer.

What is one thing traditional gym owners haven’t understood yet?
You cannot evolve with the same people. I see it over and over again. You see amazing minds and really good people running a brick-and-mortar business and then they are trying to evolve and go digital or create a new product with the same team. But you’ve got to bring in the right people. Keep the people you have — they’ll continue to do a good job in their element — but if you’re looking to evolve, pull in the right talent.

What trends are going to shape the future of the fitness industry?
1.Personalization. Consumer behavior has shifted. Look at apps like Uber Eats or Netflix, they’re personalized — if I see a preview for the same movie it will be different from what you see based on your viewing preferences, to get us both to engage with that content and watch the movie. That level of personalization is going to happen in fitness.

Consumers will go to brands that are going to personalize it for them. Just like fingerprints and DNA are individual, how we progress and evolve in fitness is going to happen in how well a brand understands each one of us. Personalization is key for that. You can’t take the same plan and slap it on a million people and expect them to have the same progress.

2.Leveraging AI to do personalization. It helps with personalization but also things like gamification, etc. It can bring so many benefits, like having a personal trainer in your own house.

3. The evolution of wearables. What we’re going to see happen in the next 3–5 years brands are going to start owning the wearable space — Peloton bought Atlas Wearable in December. Why do that, when they already have an app? Because you’re getting a very generic experience from an Apple Watch. If you want the next level of experience, you’re gonna buy the Peloton connected bike. The next evolution from that is wearables.

Wearables are going to go beyond wristbands, and into audio and clothing. I think the concept of wearables is going to shift from something you wear, to something you don’t think about. I see wristbands going out in 3–5 years, as the wrist is not a great place to collect data. Now, there are brands like OURA which has a fantastic ring product that is owning sleep and BOSE has evolved their headphone-based technology so they can capture movement and heart rate from the ear, which is more accurate than the wrist. In fact, with our R&D team we are already working on the next generation of wearable technology: in-ear and on the body.

What is the most underestimated trend in your current market at the moment?
Wellness. Everyone is really focused on those 45 mins — 1 hour fitness classes, but it starts with wellness: how you sleep, how you manage stress, and movement. It comes down to less about the intense 1 hour you spend on fitness and more to what you do the other 23 hours in the day.

I am really glad to see brands like WHOOP (focused on strain and recovery) and OURA that focus on that, so you’re not just physically fit and recovered, but you have a better idea of your sleep. Understanding the impact that stress has on you is an underrated area.

Mohammed Iqbal @ FitTech Summit:Digital Edition

On May 25-28 2021, the FitTech Summit is going live with a fully digital edition, with three days full of insights devoted to the future of fitness and health in the post-pandemic world. We are pleased that Mohammed Iqbal will be part of this event.

Mohammed Iqbal about the future

What would a typical gym post-covid look like?
They have to embrace the evolved consumer: understand that they want flexibility, on-demand access, and perhaps a monthly membership isn’t the way to go — maybe you are offering more of a premium experience, but you charging rates per day or per week. No longer can you charge the same membership rate or increase it per year without increasing your value, as there are more choices than ever before.

Everyone was trying to get into the high-end gym and access the “Rockstar trainer” — and now it’s available online and instead of training 10 people, they can train 50 or 100. As an analogy: in my MBA class back in 2009, the most popular professors could only fit 160 people. If you couldn’t get in, you got into another class. During the pandemic, with virtual enrolment, they increased three times as much. As a result, the popular professor got all the good students, and the other ones lost people. Similarly, gyms have to embrace that you’re going to have Rockstar trainers who are kind of their own brand, and that’s okay.

Gyms should ask: “How can I reach a broader audience?” Those rockstar instructors are all over. Instead of keeping them locked up in a studio, they should use the instructor’s skills to elevate their brand. You’d have to find a way to identify who the instructors are, embrace them, and broadcast them. That’s only going to help their brand.

How can commercial fitness and equipment evolve?
There is a big evolution happening because you’ve seen people connecting fitness products at home — it’s usually more intelligent and more advanced than gym equipment.

We’re working with brands like SCHWINN to create a new type of spin bike that is more intelligent, connected, and gives gym members more access. What’s going to happen is you’re going to find consumers finding something at home that might be there every day, but a couple of times a week they might want to get that professional coaching at a gym. They don’t want to feel like they are using archaic equipment at a gym and smart equipment at home.

Brands are listening. You’ve seen the acquisition ofPrecor by Peloton, it’s not just to increase manufacturing in the US. Peloton is buying Precor’s know-how and Precor will also be reinvented by bringing in people from Peloton to make their product better. I think it was a brilliant move on both parties. You’re going to see this evolution happen where big legacy brands that still have a lot of voice in our industry are looking to innovate.

Do you think technology will replace human connection?
No, it will be impossible to replace that human connection. But I think it will make that more accessible. For example, the privileged can access the smartest coaches and best trainers — they’re still gonna be there.

But for everyone else who cannot access that facility — because of location, schedule, or budget — technology is going to make fitness more accessible. As a result, we have a real opportunity to improve society as a whole.

If you were to invest 1 million dollars in a company what would that be?
We are doing that. While I won’t disclose our investments, I will say that the best investment strategy is to look for a brand that:
  1. Has a great executive and leadership team with fresh, new ideas
  2. Addressing all available and accessible channels and innovating on each one of those.

I wouldn’t look for one brand that’s only available on one platform because the future is going to be not about brands that are available only in a mobile app, but that also have a connected product, in-real-life presence, event-based experiences likeLes Mills. It’s a brand that can encapsulate all of that.

Mohammed Iqbal will be speaking at the talk "Bird's-eye view: How emerging fitness ecosystems are changing the rules of the game" on May 25. Get your ticket here.