Cross-discipline fitness enthusiast and self-admitted technology buff Alberto Pardo does not regret leaving behind his consulting career of more than a decade to launch on-demand personal fitness and wellness platform Fitlov.
The usual struggles and growing pains of a start-up were worth the effort and Mr Pardo is seeking aggressive growth for Fitlov. He wants to double the company’s revenue and has set his sights on expanding operations in the UAE and elsewhere in the region.
“I don't regret it. If you need to grow, you have to step out of your comfort zone,” he says.
The amount of learning and experience gained is “enormous” and “when you have the passion then it doesn’t feel like a job”.
“You have created something – from a concept to an entity – and that is really rewarding for me,” Mr Pardo adds.
The Spaniard, 33, who did his master's degree in engineering from the University of Miami, landed in Dubai in 2013, knowing nothing about the emirate. But he quickly fell in love with the city and the broader region as his assignments with Boston Consulting Group gave him the opportunity to travel across the Middle East.
A staunch believer in work-life balance, Mr Pardo managed to hit the gym regularly. But it was only when he started working out with professional trainers, he realised how little he knew about fitness.
In a world that was rapidly digitising, Mr Pardo saw a demand for an on-demand service for fitness. He refined the business idea for Fitlov in 2017, while studying for his MBA at INSEAD in Singapore. That is when he met Fouad Farah, an INSEAD classmate, and they launched the platform with $100,000 in bootstrapped cash.
“We lived in the age of the on-demand economy, but there wasn’t anything in terms of fitness,” Mr Pardo says.
However, Mr Fouad left the venture after a rocky year and half, and Mr Pardo forged ahead alone. He later convinced Alvaro Zapata, chief operating officer of Fitlov, and Zena Hamdan, who handles marketing, to join the venture as co-founders.
The pandemic, which initially forced the company to cease operations, eventually helped the business as demand for sessions with personal trainers rose sharply amid social distancing and health concerns.
Mr Pardo, who left his BCG job in May last year, says Fitlov’s monthly revenue has been on a sharp growth trajectory since the pandemic. The company has delivered more than 10,000 personal training sessions in the UAE and it aims to double both its revenue and the number of sessions in 2022.
The company’s growth has attracted investors’ attention and Fitlov has so far received $500,000 in angel investments. It is currently negotiating with venture capital companies and aims to raise up to $1.5 million to further grow the business.
“We are still in negotiations”, for the series A growth financing, Mr Pardo says, adding that the company hopes to close the funding round by the middle of this year.
Mr Pardo sees opportunities to further grow Fitlov’s business in the UAE and is excited about prospects of expanding it into other GCC markets.
“There’s a huge opportunity in the GCC … the fitness industry is growing rapidly,” he says.
Fitlov's current range of on-demand sessions include personal training, boxing, pre and postnatal, kids training, post-injury training, Pilates, MMA and yoga, among others. It has also branched out into nutrition and wellness services.
The platform allows its growing clientele to book a fitness session in a few clicks and select the best trainer around their location. The trainers can deliver sessions at a client's home, office or a beach if they like.
“In Fitlov [app] you drop your pin and you see the trainers and you pick the one you like,” Mr Pardo says.
“People train because they are chasing something. We help them achieve their goals and we offer them real accountability for their efforts.”
The platform is equally beneficial for qualified freelance personal trainers and financially liberates them, Mr Pardo says.
Trainers are increasingly looking to move away from gyms and be independent as “a good trainer likes to be his own brand”, he says
“We are trying to create a platform for them and our customers.”
“Our view is to create a winning product … the future is to empower the freelance trainers to enable them to do their jobs better.”
There are currently about 18,000 personal trainers in the UAE, but a little over 100 are operating on the Fitlov platform.
“It goes beyond [their] certification … we need to know how they work and operate and do they have a certain charisma,” says Mr Pardo.
“The personal training depends so much on personal connection of trainers and people getting trained. We need to be picky, we need to apply our filters.”
Q&A with Alberto Pardo, co-founder and chief executive of Fitlov
What is your mantra for success?
Lead by example. I firmly believe the value of any company is its people, and therefore the only way to succeed in any business is by taking care and inspiring your team. I am an admirer of Gary Vee’s philosophy on building a great culture. You don’t build culture by having cool snacks and a ping-pong table. Great culture is built when you genuinely care about your employees and you help them grow as individuals.
Where do you see the company in five years from now?
I see Fitlov app available and thriving in the GCC and some of the world’s other mega cities. I see users being able to book fitness and wellness sessions, delivered in person or virtually, in a few clicks. There is a massive personal training market that has not been digitised at all and Fitlov will be the technology that transforms how personal training services are delivered.
What other successful start-up do you wish you had started?
I wish I had started Spotify. I think it was one of the first apps that revolutionised an industry and they did it in such a seamless manner. I have a passion for both fitness and music and I firmly believe if you do what your passion is, your chances of success and happiness will multiply.
If you could do it all over again, what would you change?
I wish I had gained some exposure to the entrepreneurship and start-up world before starting my own company. If I could go back, I think I would like to learn a lot from other on-demand apps and then use that learning to fast-track the development of my own start-up. I have worked as an adviser for some of the largest multinationals and some of the most influential policymakers in the GCC. However, the start-up life is different as it requires one to be street smart and a hustler. I learnt a lot in my entrepreneurial journey and I would always recommend my friends to work for a start-up. I believe they offer an accelerated development path that no corporation can offer.
What is the next big step for Fitlov?
Our next big step will be to close our Series A fundraise and bring on-board venture capital investors to support the company through its next phases of growth. Our ambition is to be the No 1 app for fitness and wellness in the region. To get there, we have to improve and expand our products to be able to support our clients on all aspects of their lifestyle. Fitlov exists to change people’s life, and we measure success by the number of clients whose lifestyle we have transformed.
Biggest lessons learnt in launching Fitlov?
First of all: focus. Start small in your business scope and test before you do a big investment. Whether you are selling – a product or service – narrow it down and focus on its core. Secondly, embrace technology, no matter what industry you aim to operate in. If you want to be ahead of competition you need to embrace the latest technology tools and software. Third, follow the demand of your consumers, their needs and expand your services and offers accordingly. Client is king in the fitness industry, so stay relevant and supportive and you will create loyal supporters.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your business?
Initially the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns made us completely stop operations. We had to quickly adapt to be able to offer safe services to our clientele. However, post lockdowns, there was a significant demand growth for personal training, which ultimately benefited our business. People showed a stronger interest in our services as we were offering a safer fitness solution than public gyms, as we were very thorough in our processes including the health and vaccinations status of our trainers.
Date started: January 2018
Founders: Alberto Pardo, Alvaro Zapata and Zena Hamdan
Sector: Fitness technology
Size: 14 employees
Funding Stage: Pre-Series A
Investors: bootstrapped, angel investors