Tarek Mounir, who spent many years as a corporate executive, admits he has always dreamt of being an entrepreneur. The former head of Deezer’s Middle East operations invested in several ventures before eventually branching out on his own.
From restaurants to wellness technology, Mr Mounir exhausted all options before taking the plunge to full entrepreneurship.
“I burnt my fingers quite a bit before getting to a place where I thought, ‘here's a good idea’,” he says.
“But I always knew I was going to own a business. There was never a doubt in my mind that that was going to happen. I only needed to have the right timing [and] the right idea.”
It took Mr Mounir 15 years before he homed in on that perfect idea: to digitise fitness. It all started when Mr Mounir, a self-confessed fitness enthusiast, could not find a good personal trainer to meet his exercise needs.
“I figured that if we provide a service with quality personal training, a convenient selection, a competitive pricing strategy, and we put it on an application … we would create a proposition in the market that will be very competitive and prove high in demand.”
The entrepreneur is focusing on a multimillion-dollar industry. The UAE’s fitness sector is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 10.9 per cent to more than $600 million by 2025, according to Ken Research. Meanwhile, the online health and fitness market is forecast to contribute $36.5m in revenue by 2025.
In 2018, Mr Mounir founded Enhance Fitness, which allows users to book personal training sessions through an app. The company offers a variety of sessions for individual and group users, with monthly packages starting from Dh2,268 for a standard 12 sessions. It also provides more flexible packages, which tend to be slightly more expensive than a regular subscription.
Training can be done in people’s homes, their community gyms or in gyms that collaborate with Enhance Fitness in the UAE.
The app has thousands of monthly users, according to Mr Mounir, who did not provide exact figures.
Although Enhance Fitness experienced a direct hit to revenue caused by temporary movement restrictions during the Covid-19 outbreak – a period Mr Mounir jokingly refers to as “an acid test” – membership increased in June 2020 when the UAE relaxed restrictions when infection numbers began to fall.
“There has been a lot of improvement for services that are being delivered differently after Covid-19. But if you see gym attendance, for example, it literally skyrocketed after Covid,” Mr Mounir says.
“Our month-on-month growth has been [in the] double digits.”
The regional trend is in line with other countries. About 37 per cent of fitness club users polled by US investment bank Harrison Co in 2020 said they would work out more after Covid-19 while 50 per cent said they were motivated to do so owing to a renewed appreciation for their well-being.
Gym membership has also benefited from the return-to-office trend as economies open up.
Digitising fitness is not an entirely new idea, particularly after the pandemic where measures included physical distancing – often a deterrent to the appeal of sweaty gyms and exercise machines.
But unlike other on-demand platforms that aggregate offerings only from freelance trainers, Enhance Fitness works on a business model in which the company employs its own trainers and generates revenue from training. All personal trainers are on its payroll.
“Your personal trainer is potentially somebody that could see you three to four times per week. It is a very repetitive type of business and not a one-off. Therefore, when you rely on freelancers to offer such a service, there are challenges with that,” Mr Mounir says.
However, managing an in-house team of 200-plus trainers is not easy.
“It requires a lot of rigorous systems, discipline and operational efficiency,” Mr Mounir says.
Having its own team of fitness trainers has helped the company to provide support to corporate or third parties, effectively diversifying its customer base.
“A lot of entities such as hotel and commercial gyms are coming to us … asking us to supply and manage the full personal training experience to them because it is hard for these entities to manage the personal trainers.
“They do not plan their careers, they do not invest in training them. We literally draw a career plan for [personal trainers]. We empower them with technology so that their service becomes a lot more efficient.”
Enhance Fitness also uses technology extensively to create a smooth fitness experience, Mr Mounir says. Trainers are given access to an app that has software that helps to design a customer’s training regimen after taking into account the fitness requirement of the user.
That would mean the trainer can spend more time on the execution of these programmes, monitoring the breathing, posture, technique and engagement in the actual workout, in addition to motivating customers, Mr Mounir says.
“There are a lot of soft skills required for this business. Empowering the trainers with technology really is a key to delivering a superior service, allowing the trainer to really focus a lot on the soft skills and, you know, on the improvement of their clients and the results.”
As demand for on-demand fitness rebounds, Mr Mounir and his team are preparing to expand beyond the UAE, where they operate in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The entrepreneur is finalising plans to enter Saudi Arabia this year as the company aims to establish a presence in Riyadh and, later, in Jeddah.
Although Mr Mounir bootstrapped the venture in the initial years, he was able to benefit from private investors. In September, the start-up closed a $3m series A funding round from Global Ventures.
“The main utilisation of funds usually is to ensure healthy and sustainable growth. There have been more people hired for the technology piece, more spending on marketing, more people hired as trainers and there has been geographical expansion,” Mr Mounir says.
Q&A with Tarek Mounir, chief executive of Enhance Fitness
What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching your business?
I think the greatest change for me has been the direct link to the consumer business, where we really have to take care of each client. It is a service – a repetitive one. And, you know, it is humans and humans can make mistakes sometimes. So, it is very delicate and I think the greatest skill is being absolutely determined to achieve excellence in customer service, no matter what. That was pretty new to me. That was a part I have always dedicated to my teams [in my previous roles]. For example, in the broadcast industry or the streaming industry, your clients are in the millions. So, you are not really touching the client one by one on a customer-service level. Here we are and it only adds a lot of humility and empathy to anyone's skills.
If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?
Hindsight is a great thing. If I knew Covid-19 was coming, we would have done a lot of things differently. I always have mixed feelings about this question because you never have that kind of hindsight, where you can always plan for things. And you can always say, OK, here are the scenarios that could pan out and here is our plan. Coming from corporate, you learn how to forecast for three and five years and put plans that should withstand different types of pressures and different types of challenges. I think keeping an open mind to evolution – and making sure that you are at the forefront and not playing catch-up – is very important for us.
Do you have a role model in business?
I do. I think it goes back to the founders with a lot of empathy and love for their own people. Those who can combine technology with great people are probably [who I think are] the best founders. Steve Jobs is someone who always realised that the core of innovation is people. Another example is Ray Dalio [an American investor and hedge fund manager], who I think was unbelievably skilled at developing talent and caring for people and, at the same time, employing technology to empower them.
What would you tell an entrepreneur who is starting out?
If you are not working hard, ideas do not matter. Your best idea is worthless without execution. If you are already working hard, ideas are crucial. Most effort is wasted on mediocre ideas. I have seen a lot of entrepreneurs become attached to ideas and that is a very dangerous pattern to follow. In a business you need to be attached to your business, you need to find the right people to build it and you need to evolve. But if you are already doing that, then you need to keep creating ideas. Flexibility, ability and agility are at the core of what you do. You always need to think through your decisions again, you always need to make sure that you involve everybody from the team who can and is going to give you value and is going to contribute to keeping an open mind.