Sunaina Khurana started hitting the gym regularly when she was in college. Over the years, boredom set in about the treadmill run routine. A personal trainer was an expensive option. Soon, monotony set in. Then came a foot injury that rendered the 35-year-old product manager at a dating app unfit for running. As her health started to take a beating, Khurana started looking out for other fitness options and came across alternative workouts.

Four months ago, she joined Cult, a chain of fitness centres that offers workout sessions without traditional gym machines. From boxing, prowl, mixed martial arts, animal movements and Zumba classes, a variety of activities were accessible to members. There were other advantages, too: she could book classes via an app. The same app had a feedback and rating system and also videos of sessions you might have missed. “They have used tech to help make the process of the workout more convenient,” she says.

But swapping exercise machines for the yoga mat alone is unlikely to fix India’s notoriously unfit fitness industry. Rents in urban areas tend to be high, entrepreneurs are saddled with high capital expenditure and yet, membership renewal rates are often as low as 10%. Cult and a few other startups are hoping that marrying tech with behavioural insights, while introducing new workouts and new kinds of subscriptions, can all, together, move the needle and improve the state of affairs. India’s fitness industry is worth an estimated $1 billion (Rs 6,700 crore), according to estimates from Statista. This includes fitness centres, wearable tech, fitness apps, food, clothing and accessories. Only 5% of this market is organised. It’s this opportunity that is drawing entrepreneurs to the sector. It’s a sizeable industry that remains largely undisrupted by tech, unlike travel, entertainment or retail, for instance.

Pick and choose

Growfitter is a platform that aggregates activities and fitness lessons. Chartered accountant Sanmati Pande founded it in 2015, along with machine learning specialist Harshit Sethy. It lists gyms, dance classes, martial arts and other such options.

Its software tracks fitness-related data, and incentivises users — the more you work out, the app offers discounts on gym memberships, airline and movie tickets, and so on. “Before the advent of tech in the fitness industry, there was no transparency in pricing. You could extract a cheaper deal if you had better negotiation skills. And you never know what the manager would enter in the books,” says cofounder Pande.

Curefit
Cure.fit, 2016, BengaluruFounders: Mukesh Bansal, Ankit NagoriFounded by former Flipkart executives, Cure.fit offers a gamut of health and fitness services through Cult.fit (alternative workout centres), Eat.fit (health food delivery), Mind.fit (yoga, meditation, etc), and Care.fit (preventive healthcare solutions). Cofounder Ankit Nagori says the company currently has close to 70,000 subscribers, 70% of whom are members of its Cult fitness centres where the annual membership fee is in the range of Rs 16,000 to Rs 20,000. Cure.Fit’s app interface is widely popular with users for its convenience and utility quotient.

According to Pande, the company sold more than 100,000 annual fitness memberships and booked revenue of $4.5 million in 2017-18. The growth potential is alluring to many. Cure.fit, the parent company of Cult, for example, is looking at revenues of $40 million this year, up from $20 million last year. It now has close to 70,000 subscribers availing a range of services such as health food delivery, yoga and meditation centres, in-house physicians, etc. The Cult.fit chain of fitness centres accounts for two-thirds of this subscriber base, Cure.fit cofounder Ankit Nagori told ET Magazine. His partner in the venture is former top Flipkart executive Mukesh Bansal.

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When the two left Flipkart in February 2016, they looked to disrupt a sector with tech. They zeroed in on health and wellness, a largely unorganised sector that was ripe for disruption. The duo acquired Cult, a Bangalore-based fitness centre, and built a layer of tech into it, before expanding the chain across the country. Their parent brand, Cure.fit, has grown rapidly, through acquisitions as well as organic expansion. It now operates 40 Cult centres and has brought 10 more into the fold after the recent acquisition of Fitness First’s Indian operations.

Growfitter
Growfitter, 2015, Mumbai Founders: Sanmati Pande, Harshit Sethy Growfitter is a software as a service platform that tracks fitness-related data and helps users incentivise their progress in fitness regime by offering discounts on gym memberships, cashback on health insurance premium, etc. It is an exclusive billing and payments partner for fitness brands like Talwalkars, Gold’s Gym, Snap Fitness, and works closely with health insurance brands of Aditya Birla Group and HDFC Life. Cofounder Sanmati Pande says, on an average, the company has sold fitness memberships of Rs 15,000 per year to over 1 lakh users so far, clocking a revenue of $4.5 million

The fitness cult
Cult is a different kind of gym. Hour-long classes run in the mornings and evenings. The group workouts, led by trainers, are intensive. Everything runs on an app. If you visit a Cult centre, there is no receptionist or sales executives giving you a grand tour and trying to upsell an annual membership. You are welcome to download the app and book up to two free trial lessons.

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Impact, 2015, Mumbai Founders: Ishan Nadkarni, Gaurav Mehra, Nikhil Khandelwal, Piyush Nagle Founded by four IIT-ians, Impact is an app that tracks user steps and donates Rs 10 for every km covered by the user. Impact partners with NGOs and CSR wings of corporates. So far, it has had 50,000 people walk and jog to raise Rs 2.6 crore for 23 causes.

Membership is bought and renewed on the app. Users can also buy passes in a pay-per-class approach. You book lessons on the app and log your attendance using a fingerprint scanner, so the app can track your progress. If you don’t turn up after booking a class (you can cancel up to an hour prior to it), you lose a day from your membership. If you turn up late by more than five minutes, you won’t be allowed in. The app-centric convenience and no-nonsense approach to fitness is gaining the brand a growing number of members.

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Fitternity, 2014, Mumbai Cofounders: Neha Motwani, Jayam Vora An app-based fitness services aggregator, Fitternity covers 5,500 gyms and fitness centres across six tier-1 cities. It sells instalmentbased membership and facilities such as pay per session. Fitternity offers employee fitness packages to corporates and fitness-related data to insurance companies. Over 5.5 million users have availed a Fitternity service, says cofounder Neha Motwani

Talwalkars, India’s largest organised fitness centre chain, has 150,000 members. Cult has garnered a third of that number within two years of inception. It takes between Rs 60 lakh and Rs 75 lakh to set up a Cult centre, one-fourth of the capital expenditure required for a regular gym of comparable size, Nagori said.

Old and the new
The rise of group activity-based fitness centres is not lost on traditional gyms. Aditya Dhillon, head of operations at Talwalkars Better Value Fitness, acknowledges the success of the likes of Cult. “We understand that going to the gym is a painful experience to many,” he says. The fitness chain has diversified its offerings in recent years. Through a tie-up with celebrity trainer Mickey Mehta, it offers holistic wellness training at its chain of 75 yoga centres, called Zorba. Regular Talwalkars gyms now offer additional packages with freestyle workouts, dancing and Zumba classes. The chain charges Rs 5,000 for an additional package with its annual membership worth Rs 15,000.

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Zumba, boxing and yoga are all good, but do you even prowl?ANIMAL AND PRIMAL MOVES: These exercises are a part of the HRX workout session at Cult. It is based on the fitness regime of actor Hrithik Roshan. Movements like alternating froggers, crab reach and side kickthrough improve agility, increase muscle mass and give your body a taste of what it is actually designed for ZERO MOMENTUM REPS: Also a part of the HRX session, ZMR is a weighttraining methodology. It helps you you put pressure on only that part of the muscle that needs to be worked on. It’s a slow and controlled way of working out. If you’re doing squats, for example, you do it slowly PROWL: A workout technique based on actor Tiger Shroff’s fitness routine, it involves dancing mixed with gymnastics and martial arts Source: Cult

In Pic: Rishabh Telang, cofounder, Cult

Tech is helping traditional gyms improve their offerings as well. Talwalkars for instance, has tied up with Growfitter to digitise its billing and payment system. New workout offerings and tech upgrade have helped achieve a 15% uptick in the rate of renewal, he adds.

Growfitter offers similar services to other chains such as Gold’s Gym and Snap Fitness as well. Its ability to track workouts and activities means it has data that is of immense institutional value. The company is working with insurers such as Aditya Birla Group and HDFC Life to offer users cashbacks on insurance premium if they reach a certain fitness target. “Now that people are getting serious about fitness in India, it’s a great opportunity to integrate fitness data with tech and bridge the gap between insurance companies and fitness centres,” says Pande.

But expansion has come at a cost. In 2016-17, Cure.fit booked a loss of Rs 17.98 crore. Investors don’t seem deterred. The company has raised more than $45 million from Accel partners, IDG Ventures, Kalaari Capital and UC-RNT Fund. Bansal told ET in May that the company is looking to raise additional funding.

Pay-per-play

Fitternity is another app that is trying to allay boredom and monotony through shortterm memberships to a number of fitness centres. It covers 5,500 fitness centres across six tier-1 cities, sells instalment-based memberships and facilities such as pay-per-session. Fitternity also offers employee fitness packages to corporates and fitness-related data to insurance companies (with user consent).

Over 5.5 million users have used the service, says Neha Motwani, who cofounded the service with Jayam Vora. Delhi-based Fitpass, founded by siblings Akshay and Arushi Verma, is another aggregator app. Founded in 2015, the app-based startup offers short-duration membership packages at a fixed price to access any of the gyms listed on the app. “It’s like priority pass for gyms,” says cofounder Akshay. With 2,000 fitness centres listed across Delhi, Jaipur and Ahmedabad, Fitpass’s business model is inspired by the New-York-based startup Classpass.

The likes of Fitternity and Fitpass solve the problem of information and access while simultaneously allowing users to pay-per-session or pay-per-month, instead of parting with a hefty annual membership amount upfront. “There are 20 million online searches around fitness in India every month. Twelve million of these searches are hyperlocal. Yet, only 7 million users seem to have a professional fitness service annual membership,” says Motwani.

In her telling, the Indian fitness landscape has three kinds of people: the sitters, the seekers, and the hunters. Sitters are those who pursue fitness only when there’s an external trigger, like medical issues. Seekers keep yoyoing between pursuing a regime and taking a break. Hunters are the 5% of users who have matured in their fitness journey. “Rest of the 95% need a push to get started.”

Incentivising users can take many shapes for those working at the intersection of fitness and tech. What if a user is most motivated by charity, or a cause? Mumbai-based Impact app lets users work out for a cause. It accepts donations from corporate social responsibility initiatives of companies and pairs them with a prescreened group of charities and non-profits. Users can pick a charity of their liking, and the app donates Rs 10 for every km covered. Companies get to support a cause and promote fitness simultaneously, and users have an extra incentive to walk or run.

With a core team of five led by IIT-ian Ishan Nadkarni — Impact has managed to get 50,000 people to walk or jog and has raised Rs 2.6 crore for 23 causes. While there might be many tech-led experiments, whether any of them can solve the fitness industry’s central problem — motivation deficiency at the individual level leading to low renewal rates — is as yet unclear. Talwalkars continues to see a majority of its revenue from the gym model. “Tech has brought in some consistency of operations but in the long-run, finding more capexfriendly formats is what will make the business thrive,” says Talwalkars’ Dhillon. There is no one-size-fits-all fitness model yet.





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