Tue, 22 January 2019
From humble beginnings to fitness empire, Sweat CEO Tobi Pearce tells us what it takes to run a multimillion-dollar business and grow a powerful brand with a significant other.
At just 26, Tobi Pearce has accomplished a lot. He’s the CEO of Sweat, a fitness app that’s been downloaded 30 million times. He’s engaged to his business partner and Instagram fitness star Kayla Itsines. And together, they’re worth an estimated $63 million, according to Australian Financial Review.
But just a decade ago, Pearce was homeless and struggling to get by on $45 a week, something he revealed in an Instagram post in July 2017. “I am not posting this for sympathy and this is not a sob story,” he wrote. “I just thought it was time some of you got to know ‘me.’”
To get to know Pearce is to discover many unexpected facets. While he’s popular for his fitness empire, prior to all of that, he was a “nerd” who grew up in a small town in Australia and loved playing classical music. From what we’ve seen on social media, he can just as easily shred it on piano as he can in the gym. On his Facebook page, he posted a video of himself playing a complicated Chopin number, writing, “I used to be embarrassed to tell people I played piano as a kid because it wasn’t ‘cool’ or classical music made me a ‘nerd.’”
Today, Pearce has plenty to be proud of. In addition to his upcoming wedding to Itsines, TechCrunch reports that the couple’s fitness company is on track to bring in $77 million in revenue this year.
From Classical Music to Fitness Classes
Pearce began his foray into fitness when he started working as a personal trainer to pay his way through college. He and Itsines met at a gym and began dating around 2012. Eventually, the pair became business partners, too, with Pearce taking over the marketing side, helping to promote Itsines’ popular Bikini Body Guides ebooks and grow her Instagram account (today she has more than 10 million followers).
Not one to be easily satisfied, Pearce then set his sights on expanding the business “to kind of shake up the industry.” That’s when the Sweat platform was born.
“My whole career and this particular field has always been about trying to push boundaries and kind of see how far we can move the dial and how big we can build things,” he says.
Originally dubbed “Sweat With Kayla,” the Sweat app provides workout videos, meal plans, and progress-tracking tools to its subscribers, for $19.99 a month or $119.94 a year. It targets millennial women with programs from bikini body to post-pregnancy workouts and boasts well over a million monthly active users.
The Appeal of an App-Based Business
Moving from ebooks to a mobile app, what made Pearce choose a new platform for Sweat? As he tells Foundr, there were three main reasons:
First, he wanted a better user experience. Originally, Itsines’ workouts were being shared through ebooks—not a very interactive platform. Pearce wanted a way to have more control over the user experience, including being able to gather user data to improve the product.
Second, he wanted to meet the needs of millennials. Most of Sweat’s customers are in that age group, so Pearce knew that meant the content needed to be mobile-friendly.
Finally, he wanted to be able to scale. To be able to make a real impact on the health and fitness industry, internationally, Pearce knew Sweat needed to switch business models.
“The big move was, yeah sure, from ebooks and a website to an app,” he explains. “But it was also a huge migration from a single-purchase service into a subscription business. And subscription business economics are completely and fundamentally different to that of a traditional ecommerce business.”
Combating Churn With an Engaged Community
As with any subscription business, churn is always a concern. One way to combat the tendency for members to cancel their subscriptions is to cultivate an engaged community. For Pearce, this is a no-brainer: He’s seen how it works from his personal training days.
When he was a personal trainer, he often picked up on the social habits of the people he was training. At 8:30 a.m., for example, a few women attended a 30-minute class with Pearce, while another group of women had coffee together downstairs awaiting their 9 a.m. slot. Once 9 rolled around, the groups would exchange spots, and by 9:30, when everyone was finished with training, they’d all go to the beach together.
“Fitness actually brings people together,” Pearce says.
But how can you recreate the social aspect of in-person fitness classes in a mobile app? The Sweat team knows people feel their best right after they’ve exercised, so within the app, users are prompted to invite their friends once they’ve finished a workout. They can even share their trophies and achievements, as part of what Sweat calls “social currency.”
Beyond the friend-invite feature, Sweat has a community forum where members can share stories, find advice, and get motivated.
“Not seeing much progress :( starting to panic,” wrote one bride-to-be on the Motivation & Encouragement forum.
“There is such a difference between the two photos,” replied another member. “You’re definitely making progress so keep up the good work!”
“There's all these different stories,” Pearce says of the forums. “But there's hundreds of thousands of women that can connect and relate with one another, and that really brings them together.”
On Chasing Growth Without Sacrificing Quality
While Pearce is aiming for growth, he’s not willing to do it at the cost of top quality and a strong brand. Sweat’s trainers, for instance, are carefully curated.
“We're not really looking to have like a hundred or a thousand different trainers and programs,” Pearce says. “We're kind of looking to have best in house and best in class.”
A prime example of this is Kelsey Wells, who joined the Sweat team over a year ago and leads the weight training and post-pregnancy programs. Beyond her finesse in the gym, she’s excelling on Instagram with 1.4 million followers. Her brand growth and depth have impressed Pearce, who says, “We'd much rather work with 10 people like her in their own specific categories than a thousand people that are just generalists.”
With a team of talented trainers who are also Instagram rockstars, does Sweat have aspirations of acquiring influencers abroad to boost international growth? “There's definitely a potential for that,” Pearce says.
How a Fitness Power Couple Finds Work-Life Balance
Google “Tobi Pearce” and you’ll find plenty of headlines referring to him as “fiancé of Kayla Itsines.” From the start, he’s been comfortable doing the behind-the-scenes work while Itsines steps into the spotlight for the Sweat brand. As soon-to-be spouses and current business partners, how do they strike a healthy balance between work and personal life?
“It has its testing moments, that's for sure,” says Pearce, adding that he’s obsessed with the business aspects while Itsines loves handling content creation and community interaction.
“She’s able to switch off,” he says of his fiancée.
Pearce, on the other hand, not so much. “I've always been probably a little bit too interested in ,” he says. “If I'm not talking about it, I'll be reading about it. If I'm not reading about it, I'll be listening to something about it or learning one way or another.”
Pumping Up Your Personal Brand
In recent years, a movement to build your “personal brand” apart from your company or product brand has taken hold of the entrepreneurial world. Big names like Gary Vaynerchuk and Neil Patel come to mind; both social media powerhouses use their personal brands to funnel clients into their consulting agencies.
Sweat has a similar story. It began as Itsines’ personal brand, which Pearce helped grow into the formidable Instagram presence it is today. Recently, Forbes named Itsines as the top social media influencer in fitness. Many of her faithful fans have followed her to the Sweat app, too, where she leads high-intensity workouts based on her Bikini Body Guides.
So what’s the secret to building a powerful personal brand? “Content and messaging are really king,” Pearce says. That means content that is high quality and messaging that creates interest.
“There's so much crap on social media,” he adds.
In the fitness sphere, he says it’s more than just looking good and posing for the camera. You need to create content in an intimate and authentic way. Just take a look at @kayla_itsines on Instagram. Instead of polished, picture-perfect content, it’s a mixture of motivational quotes, funny memes, before-and-after praise for her clients, and of course, workout videos—all with conversational captions where Itsines’ personality shines through.
While Pearce is hesitant to give a one-size-fits-all strategy for growing your Instagram—”Every industry is different,” he warns—there is one Instagram tip he recommends for fitness brands: lay off the endorsements.
“It's all well and good to sell a product or do endorsements, sure,” Pearce says. “But if that becomes everything that you do, it really becomes a bane of your existence and it's actually quite saturating for your personal brand. It's impossible for you to maintain credibility and authenticity as a brand if every second post that you do is talking about a new deal that you've done.”
Instead, says Pearce, focus on what you’re good at. Let’s bring Gary Vee back into the discussion. Take a look at his social media accounts. How many times does he mention his agency?
“I don't think I've ever actually seen him do that,” Pearce says. “The point that I'm making there is that if you do have a product, it's very often what you're trying to do is sell yourself and sell the opportunity, sell the dream. You're not really actually trying to sell the product itself because telling people to buy stuff is irritating.”
The Sweat brand steers clear of hard sells. That’s no small feat in an industry that’s always pushing guarantees of six-pack abs, a celebrity body, or a nice rear-end. “We would never, ever do that,” Pearce says of his company, “because reality is that it instills the wrong cycle of mindset in consumers. It predicates the wrong perceived mindset before consuming a product and that only actually sets up consumers for failure.”
How to Sell Without Selling
If people hate being sold to, how do you get them to buy? Sweat focuses on the benefits, not the features. For instance, instead of promising you amazing abs, Sweat’s messaging would tell you how you’re going to feel more confident and develop better relationships by getting healthy with its app.
“The best car salespeople are the ones who actually don't try to sell you anything, but they make you feel like you really want to buy the product,” Pearce explains. “They're telling you why this car's going to be perfect for your family. … They're not telling you that it's got 19-inch rims and blah, blah, blah.”
For Sweat’s Instagram account, Pearce focuses on posting educational, credible content that adds value: healthy eating tips, user-generated content, and motivational quotes, with a few posts highlighting the Sweat app sprinkled in.
“It pitches us as industry experts—which we rightfully are—but then it makes people turn to us when they do want to spend their money on a product that's actually going to help to solve these problems in their life, rather than going for the one that just says six-pack abs, because no one actually believes that crap.”
And Pearce doesn’t get fixated on the one-off purchases; he’s looking to create long-term users and repeat buyers, which is something the Sweat platform is built to nurture. “They develop friendships with other members of our product and that builds our community.”
Working Out What’s Next
For the next year or two, Sweat will be focusing on reducing churn and improving the product, namely, getting more quality content and keeping users engaged.
Long-term, though, Pearce hints at something more. He says there are three big pillars in the fitness industry: facilities (think studios and gyms), trainers and therapists, and content. “We obviously kind of only play in the content spectrum of that at the moment,” he says. “I think in the longer term, we'll probably, hopefully, get a chance to play in some of the other areas as well.”