There’s no better case study of necessity breeding invention than the new ways human beings have connected during the COVID-19 global pandemic.
And for Rebecca Balyasny, CEO and Founder of Bande, the desperation to recreate what she felt in-studio led her to build something new in the virtual fitness space. Not wanting to sacrifice a high-quality live fitness experience for one shared with friends, Balyasny listened to an ever-increasing voice in her head that was calling her towards a new path.
“I never thought I would start a fitness business. I’d spent most of my career in finance. The last six years, I’ve really been building our personal venture portfolio and early-stage venture fund,” she said. “I realized that there was nothing out there that allowed you to connect socially with your friends and get in a great workout and I just saw that white space.”
And, I personally feel very connected to this journey. I had my first call with Balyasny in May of 2020 when we started talking about what I had learned from my pre-COVID, now shuttered FitTech start-up (if you’re not failing, you’re not trying). After a few hours of discussions around what’s missing in the space and the major shift in the way humans are consuming fitness content, I was convinced she was onto something.
In the background, she built a team, a tech stack, and a community – laying the groundwork day-by-day. And a key hire was Amaya Weddle, Chief Product Officer, who brought with her a deep knowledge of the technology that supports fitness from her background at the studio management platform, Mindbody.
Weddle also came to Bande as the perfect user of the product. When I caught up with Weddle, she was conscious of the time – she has a Friday ritual of taking one of Bande’s cardio dance classes with her sister who lives in the Bay Area. They wanted the experience of working out together but couldn’t physically sweat in the same space.
Before COVID, before she was at Bande, and before her Friday ritual had formed – Weddle had her eyes on the virtual fitness space.
“I have data showing that in 2019 there was only about 7 percent of people who do group fitness do any kind of livestream class,” she shared, echoing the reluctance to spend on digital fitness we saw in our 2019 State of Fitness survey, where we heard that most people who were willing to try a digital workout wanted that content for free.
The shift in behavior that COVID ushered in was the same opportunity that Balyasny had spotted.
“At some point it was up to 75 percent of the consumers said that they were doing this regularly, which is just an amazing switch in behavior and adoption,” Weddle explained. We saw a similar swing in our audience: 85 percent of our survey respondents reported using digital fitness in our State of Fitness Survey that we conducted in the fall of 2020.
So, Weddle and her team set out to build what will be – in the dream scenario – a fitness experience layered on top of a social network. Or as Weddle phrased it, “The LinkedIn for boutique fitness.”
Unsatisfied with the technology groundwork that existed, Bande’s tech team had to start from the ground up. They built a new scheduling platform that would allow the social network they envisioned to live on top of it. Then they were able to start building the social network, which the team is focused on now, creating the ability to find and form connections.
“It’s a two-way handshake – where you can see people’s activity,” Weddle said, adding, “We’re creating a feed, so I can see when my connections book a class or when they watched an OnDemand video and posting functionality will be supported.”
Next up? Their own streaming video platform that will leverage those first two layers – the scheduling back-end and the social network – to prioritize your connections in the video view of class.
“This is actually a really neat functionality because you can actually control who you see in class. Zoom does something to order people, but I never really figured out how they do that. Sometimes my sister isn’t showing up and I want to see her.” And Weddle added, they’re working on something they call “whisper,” which allows you to feel like you’ve pulled your mat up to your friend. You can open up a private audio channel with people so you can complain and commiserate as Bande’s seasoned instructors are leading you through your sweat.
And those instructors embraced digital classes, shifting from what they used to know from in-class, hands-on adjustments with 24 people to virtual classes with only verbal cues to push and move around 75 exercisers, Bergen Wheeler, Instructor and Head of Innovation at Bande, told me.
Wheeler, the first instructor that Balyasny recruited, is adapting her teaching practice. She was used to a physically demanding class-load, teaching 13-15 in-person classes a week pre-COVID and physically doing about 50 percent of those classes, she explained.
“It’s gotten a bit cerebral,” she shared about how she’s reengineering the way she leads classes virtually. “I’ve had to sort of shift gears a bit and be even more attuned to people and really sharpen the cuing, the directions, and the directionality of what I want you to do – how do I get it out quicker?”
The tech, the connections, the highly-trained instructors – that’s what Bande’s secret sauce is, Wheeler shared. “I think that the main mission and the main sticking point that is going to make this wildly successful is the accountability and the connection factor.”