With the explosion of boutique fitness during the last decade, new technology is making boutique classes more accessible and affordable by bringing them into people’s homes. One platform leading the way is FORTË, which claims to be “revolutionising the fitness industry”. Its founder and CEO, Lauren Foundos, is brimming with passion and energy when she tells me exactly how she developed a platform that would allow studios to extend their reach far beyond their walls. FORTË is continuing to trade through the pandemic.
“We’ve developed the industry’s only cost-effective, live-streaming technology platform optimised for the challenging fitness class environment,” explains Foundos. “We install hardware and software into boutique studios, and instructors’ homes, which enables their classes to be streamed live to FORTË’s platform, where it can reach an unlimited number of people.”
Subscribers to FORTË receive access to a “fully-immersive, interactive, real-time fitness experience with daily content covering a broad range of exercise disciplines”. Classes can be accessed live or on demand.
A revolutionary idea
Foundos was working on Wall Street and struggling to fit in her workouts when she came up with the concept for FORTË, and the idea would turn out to be the perfect way for Foundos to combine her business expertise and her passion for fitness.
“I spent a decade working on Wall Street, with the last five years in finance on the trading floor as an Institutional US Government Bond Broker at Whitaker Securities,” she tells.
“Working out has always been instrumental in helping me stay focused and grounded. During my university years, I was a two-time all-American field hockey player, I played in the Junior Olympics, and played in Division 1 at the University of Maryland, the nation’s top ranked programme.
“However, once I began working on Wall Street, I had to be at work very early. Working out in the morning before work became increasingly difficult, so I started taking my clients to work out with me prior to our evening events. That was the catalyst for the FORTË concept.”
Foundos explains that she has always been self motivated when it came to working out, steering clear of studios. But once she began dabbling, she was immediately hooked by the energy and unspoken camaraderie within the room.
“As I began to build friendships within the fitness industry, I started to realise that what seemed so obvious wasn’t being done. Studios and instructors wanted to stream their content and have a digital platform, but that’s costly, and streaming wasn’t their strength – it’s an entirely different business.”
Foundos was sure that technology could bridge that gap between the boutique studios and high level instructors and those people who either don’t live in close proximity to top studios or don’t have the time or resources to attend or hire PTs. She set out to find a way to make it easy and affordable for them to stream their classes.
“If you want to livestream, you can build a TV studio, which is very expensive, or use Facebook Live, which costs nothing but sacrifices quality and the interactive user experience. I was adamant we could develop a platform that mirrored the high quality of content produced in a TV studio, but for a fraction of the cost.
“We spent two years developing our proprietary system, which we hard-wire into partner’s facilities, enabling them to livestream through our fully-automated system.”
Taking a leap
While Foundos had the idea and the business know-how, she admits she needed help with the technology side of things.
“I decided to build a tech company with very little technical experience, so the learning curve was extremely steep at the start. I went on my LinkedIn and started typing in ‘tech’ to see who I knew in the industry. I was fortunate to find one of my brother’s best friends who was heavily immersed in it, and he was instrumental in helping me to get FORTË off the ground.
“I also found an incredible women’s group called Dreamers & Doers, where female founders support one another and share information. This group was pivotal as I incorporated, found payroll options, engineers, press, etc.”
Foundos explains that the key to FORTË’s success is that the system is fully automated, producing TV-studio quality with no human direction, and no hassle for the provider.
“The first few years of the company were dedicated to building our proprietary hardware and software. We developed it, iterated, and, after deploying it into many locations and a wide variety of different situations, we iterated again and again. After watching thousands of classes, we cracked the code and were able to successfully automate our product, so that during a livestream, it switches between multiple camera angles and mixes the trainers mic and the music, all without any human operators.
An unknown concept
Since launching in 2015, FORTË has grown, with both studios, instructors and consumers now subscribing. In the beginning, however, people took some convincing, says Foundos.
“When I first started pitching, people were very uneasy about the idea of streaming their classes. They thought other studios or instructors would copy what they do, and that it would cannibalise their business. Fortunately today that mentaIity has totally evolved, and people are excited about the prospect of having a digital offering.
“It gives studios the ability to reach far beyond the confines of their walls and instructors to reach new clients. The amount of money that may be lost from one or two members switching to just streaming is heavily outweighed by the amount that streaming can bring in.
Nothing replaces an in-studio experience; and when you stream, it actually drives people to your studio and builds brand awareness.”
Consumers, on the other hand, have been an easy sell, tells Foundos.
“Consumers totally get it. Right now our customers are primarily people that live in and around major cities, so they are either regular attendees at these types of studios, or have been at one time before moving out to the suburbs. As we start to market beyond this group, we may have to change our messaging and adapt.
“So far, we’ve spent zero dollars to acquire customers, and thankfully the product has successfully grown via word of mouth. It helps that the people who attend the classes in-studio appear in the videos – this creates virality.
A win-win model
FORTË partners with top studios and instructors across the USA, from all workout disciplines. The model requires the studios to cover the costs of hardware installation and software, then revenue is split 50/50 between FORTË and the content creator, based on minutes watched.
Foundos says that while FORTË’s contract is mainly with the studio, they strongly urge them to properly compensate instructors.
“We give the studio a monthly data report that shows the most popular instructors, classes, etc., so those trainers can get credit for driving users.”
Putting studios in control
As the popularity of the concept has grown, the brand has been inundated with requests from studios to appear on the platform. In response, Foundos made the decision to launch a new offering for these studios.
“We limit the amount of studios that we allow on our marketplace as we don’t want to overwhelm the user,” explains Foundos. “That said, we have over 1,000 gyms that have reached out to us about streaming their classes. This has led to our second business offering, a white-labeled SaaS product which allows gyms to stream their own classes both live and on-demand directly to their own website or app.
“This enables studios to leverage our automated streaming hardware and software, so they can stream their own classes and market the product as they see fit.”
In this model, the studio pays for the infrastructure, but acquire the users themselves and collect payment directly from them – a set-up which is pandemic-compliant.
Taking fitness streaming to the world
In today’s technology market, there’s no time to stand still, says Foundos.
“We just completed the integration of all wearables on the market – Apple Watch, FitBit, Garmin, Polar, etc, etc,” she tells. “You’ll be able to track your progress in real time, and compete on our live leaderboards. Our goal is to make the product as interactive and fun as possible.”
The goals for FORTË don’t stop there. Foundos says plans for worldwide expansion are underway.
“Our plan is now to close our current funding round and to grow. We currently operate in the United States from coast-to-coast, and plan to also start expanding beyond the US.”