Why I'm Shuttering Fitnack

*Note: This won't affect any current paying clients, you'll simply have access to the successor side project in a different capacity from most – Daily Training Session. Everyone has been notified already but Fitnack will live on through this side project, rather than my main business focus.


tl;dr: My mission with Koachable had been to enable coaches to scale and impact more people's lives. Fitnack's was to be a case study for the idea of Koachable. With a twist of scaling many of my own coaching ideas.

My real mission as a coach/person has been help as many people as possible improve their quality of life. That's why I started writing in the first place: To scale.

After 4.5 years of working on Fitnack I realized it wasn't having the desired effect. I didn't have the skills to create the tech-based experience I wanted to create. After some self-reflection I realized I had veered from my mission: To help more people.

It's time to bite off a little less and focus my attention on a more doable side project. One I can focus exclusively on training via a premium daily newsletter called Daily Training Session. Smart, planned workouts, for intelligent people who don't want a shotgun based approach to their fitness.

I can't begin to describe how emotional this is to anyone who has never started a business, let alone dissolved one.

For the better part of fifteen years my identity has been that of 'Coach.' Fifteen Years!

Thankfully it has nothing to do with the Coronavirus/Covid-19. I'm feeling for a lot of business owners at the moment and I'm really glad I decided to pivot more heavily into tech when I did.

The Issue of Scale

Flashback to 2011, I was working my dream job as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for a University Sports Team. Okay so maybe I was shooting for a pro team...

A bit later that year the University of British Columbia would significantly change their strength and conditioning department and there would no longer be individual strength and conditioning coaches for each team but one head coach to look after the 600+ athletes on every team at the entire school.

I was asked to put my name into the hat and probably had a legitimate shot at the position given my previous coaching performance. I loved coaching the team and I think I could have handled the responsibility but I also had imposter syndrome to the max. I was too young to deserve the position I already had, let alone this one.

I also felt like I couldn't keep up with the ~80 athletes I was managing already. I was doing the best I could with what I had, but 600 athletes? That's a lot...

Would it be worth dealing with the slow bureaucracy of a higher education institution?

Around the same time I met some people in the tech/start-up world and started devouring books on the concept of scale.

I was struggling to scale myself and these people knew how to scale.

I became preoccupied with the concept of scale. I was pretty good at what I was doing, but once the scale hit 60-80 people I was working 60 hours a week or more just to keep up. It wasn't sustainable. If I wanted to help more people than that, it was next to impossible to keep doing what I was doing.

Where to turn?

Koachable

Through blind luck or open enthusiasm (I could never tell which) I managed to convince an investor to give me a seed round of funding for a web developer to see what I could do about my scale issue.

The concept: let other coaches easily create online systems that allowed them to scale and train more people at one time.

If you spent some time upfront to build out some systems available online from anywhere, then scaling to 100, 200, maybe even more people should be easy.

See most 'fitness' software then (and even now) is just a prettier version of Microsoft Excel. The majority of coaches still default to it for exercise programming for that reason and I'm no different.

Once you've built your templates, no online app can match the speed at which I can craft a custom program in Excel. Excel isn't fast by any means, but the forms web apps use for exercise program creation are three to five times slower IME.

I actually had a broader desire for athlete/client management and more specifically things that weren't related to exercise at all, such as nutrition or sport psychology. Quick daily feedback loops were my focus.

It sounds counterintuitive to people who don't write training programs, but software for delivering exercises to athletes was (is) actually the least of my concern. That is the easy part of the job.

This was going to be a coaching platform for any kind of coach because why not? Coaches of all sorts have had such a big impact on me, shouldn't they get access? Doesn't it broaden my potential customer pool? Well...

Truthfully, I had NO IDEA what I was doing.

I don't think any first-time startup founder really does. You don't know what you've gotten yourself into, until you're in it. By that time you don't know which way is up and which was is down. You simply have to find a way to keep moving forward.

Especially while you're still coaching 25-30 hours a week and trying to launch a start-up in what little spare time you have. Ya that was a bad idea but as a practical person I needed something to fall back on and some income deposited in the bank.

Big thinking, big ideas, poor execution. I did almost everything I was telling my clients at the time not to do. I was trying to be everything to everyone and do it all at once.

It flopped. Hard.

Eventually I got that email from the investor, "we need to talk..."

I knew it was coming and it took the wind right out of my sail.

They were honest with me, I couldn't argue with anything being said and thankfully we remain friends. By that point I was more concerned about fucking those friendships up than I was about making this start-up a giant success. I hate disappointing others and my mind had shifted to loss-aversion.

If I was lucky it might appeal to tens of thousands of coaches. It was probably never going to be a billion-dollar business. I was scratching my own itch and as it turned out very few people had the same itch. And as I'd later figure out: most people are lazy. Sad but true.

"Pay you for the privilege of building out all my own content?"

No one explicitly said that to me, but I got this vibe from the majority of coaches on the platform. And you know what?? I don't blame them...

I look at my current exercise library of ~650 videos, and the dozens of nutrition/psychology modules I've written since Koachable shut down in 2015 and the amount of time I've spent crafting it all. It would make a lot of people cringe.

Even I've found it incredibly difficult to keep up a regular pace of creating and modifying content. It's a lot of thankless work. Yes after 4-5 years, I accomplished quite a bit, but it still feels woefully inadequate compared to my "grand vision."

Was I expecting these coaches to pay me $99/mo only to spend an entire year or two creating the content on their own? Where would they find the time to actually coach?

I think at its peak we had maybe 50 coaches using the platform. None of whom ever really used the system as I intended. Fewer still who were paying to use the software.

Meanwhile, I just kept adding features. I might need it to X someday! Reminder system? Check! Messaging system? Check! Want to add audio or video to something? Check!

Need to track something? Anything? 

If a coach in the system made a request, we built it. I had this developer on stand-by that I felt I needed to keep busy. It was a mistake.

The only QA was me. The only marketer was me. The project manager was me. Everything was me except development and the odd bit of design work we had done. I learned a lot about startups very quickly, but it was too late.

I had created a monster.

As I know now, "wouldn't it be cool if it did..." is a terrible idea and saying no is the key to start-up success.

In the end, it was a giant sprawl of an application with a ton of features, a lack of focus, no apparent or sustainable business model and I was the only person truly using it.

Rather than let it die completely. I did what I probably should have done from the beginning.

Fitnack Evolved Out of Koachable

I'm anything but lazy. I don't always focus on the right things, or finish all the things I start and I tend to bite off more than I can chew but I'm not lazy.

My Hail Mary at this point was to use the existing Koachable software and focus my attention on the thing that I had been asking the other coaches to do:

Build and sell my own vision of an online coaching program.

Fitnack using the Koachable Software on a Phone (pre-Wordpress reconfig)

If I could do that, it would prove the system worked. Then I could reopen Koachable to coaches with my pre-built content and eliminate or at least reduce the suspected choke point for scale.

We halted development, paused coach sign-ups and stopped supporting any coaches still using the Koachable system so I could spend a few months focusing on the Fitnack coaching program using what we had built so far.

And...it felt like it was working...

But ultimately it was too late for Koachable. Web applications need maintenance and after a few months without funding or a full-stack developer that just wasn't going to happen. I didn't have the technical skills to maintain it on my own.

I didn't give up, but I needed something easier to maintain as a less technical person. I could use a little HTML and a little CSS, so I moved the content I created to a new Wordpress (WP) installation. Bought a theme that looked good and hacked together a little membership system out of various plug-ins. It was nowhere near the functionality of Koachable but it was something.

This is probably what I should have done from the beginning.

At the time my thinking was, if I could build a system that worked and was making $$ then I could take those numbers back to an investor and reignite Koachable as a project. At the very least slowly build it up back into a small tech business I could run with a few contractors.

The numbers were good enough for me to fill hours I wasn't training, but never good enough to take back to an investor or hire anyone for anything other than minor contract work. I was still working 60+ hours a week.

I could design pages like this, but I couldn't get it to sequence the programs the way I wanted.
Maybe this was an issue of only putting my toe into the water? Rather than jumping all the way in?

I kept running into maintenance and logistic issues despite WP. Plugins, themes even Wordpress itself would be upgraded and break stuff in the app or stop being supported. Stripe API's would change and subscriptions would need to be migrated. At one point my checkout just didn't work and no one could help me figure out why. It was down for weeks before a potential client brought it to my attention! You can't run a business like that...

And most of all that damn issue of scale!

I should have been spending 50% of my time marketing the app but I spent 75% of it building, editing and creating content and the other 25% in video calls with the clients using it. Spending hours each day editing and uploading videos was/is necessary but tedious and more than a little boring.

I fell back on what I knew. Designing custom fitness programs and giving them to people online.

Even after we started travelling and I dropped my in-person business altogether – another heartbreaking but "necessary" experience – I still couldn't get the scale I desired.

That mythical triple digit client number still feels just beyond of reach.

The Next Steps

You'd think I should be doubling down on Fitnack right now based on Covid-19, right? Well I didn't know we'd be dealing with this when I decided on the next chapter!

After 4 years of working on Fitnack it became clear to me that the original goal has eroded. At first it was a way to keep the Koachable legacy/dream alive. But now?

I needed to change, a new challenge and I wanted to work with a team again.

The original goal of Koachable was to help coaches scale, and even at Fitnack's peak I still wasn't helping 100 people. I wasn't having the impact I wanted to have.

I love coaching. I love helping people. I think fitness is my conduit for giving back. And I've come to love technology. Especially web technology.

After 9 years of toying with the latter, it was time to take it more seriously.

I enrolled at Lighthouse Labs in their 12 week web development course in Toronto.

Upon graduation, I seriously wish I could completely redo Koachable or Fitnack in Node/ Express/ React, in a reasonable time frame but I'm not that good...yet...

It's probably for the best. It's time for Koachable to die. The school was pretty upfront about this. They'd give me enough technical knowledge to get a job, but only about 20% of what I'd need to build a production level app on my own.

For that I'd need ~3-5 years of job experience and one month post bootcamp, I have a clear sense of why. It's a HUGE field that is constantly evolving and I'm nose down looking for the right opportunity with the right company as you read this.

At the same time, maintaining a wordpress site with these new skills seems silly. Pfft, I can tackle something far more complex than that, so I am.

I simply won't have the time to maintain Fitnack or coach as much as I have been, and work a full time development job. It's time to change my identity from "coach" to "web developer."

The New Digs

You can take a coach out of the gym, but you can't take that desire to help others out of the coach.

For my mid-term project at LHL we built a doodle clone. Nothing crazy but the first step of the design process stated: everything starts with DATA.

Not that Data...

  • What is the data you can access or acquire?
  • Can you correlate that data to something else?
  • How can you pivot that data to add value?

Starting Fitnack meant I had accumulated this giant amount of data. I wasn't going to throw all that data away!

What could I use that data for that was more complicated than traditional Wordpress development, but less complicated than a full-stack web app with hundreds of features?

One that could be maintained on evenings and weekends, but would keep the data train slowly rolling? One that could potentially reach thousands of people and keep me a little connected to my roots in strength and conditioning?

I give you: dailytrainingsession.com

The Idea

The premise is simple.

Sign up for the list. And every day at 4:30AM Eastern Time (starting sometime soon, I'm shooting for May the 4th...be with you) you'll get an email with a workout I designed for that day.

It's not a WOD, it's a DTS. And it's free.

Think a smarter Crossfit WOD, featuring an actual plan (i.e. not random) for each month. I've got a pretty big collection of videos I can share so you can see the technique.

And I can add some quick commentary (my goal is to keep it < 1000 words, probably much less), give you equipment recommendations, and share some research/articles by other professionals I think you should read.

For the time being I'm going to keep it focused on short at-home workouts (for obvious reasons) with minimal equipment. In the future? I want to give you an exposure to a variety of training methods and approaches I was previously perfecting.

If you want to throw a little shade my way to help pay for the servers that's awesome!

You'll also get more input into the programs I design, and some exclusives like a private Facebook Group so you can ask me questions, get modification suggestions and access the back catalog. That's going to be measly $5/mo or $50 a year.

*Don't sign up for the paid plan yet though, just put your name on the list and wait. I'll let you know when I formally launch via email.

I'll keep using my new dev skills to push the exclusives in a direction the community prefers on my evening/weekends and I can hone those skills further with a day gig at an awesome tech company in Vancouver.

Deal?

Darren Beattie

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