Mark Friedman is the co-founder and president of Perfect Fitness, LLC, the creators of the Perfect Pushup and Perfect Pullup. Mark is active in the Young Presidents’ Organization and in the past has served in numerous executive management roles including eLabor.com (which was ultimately acquired by ADP and Microsoft) and The Genetics Institute, acquired by Genzyme Genetics.
Here are my 5 questions with Mark and his answers:
1) Your original fitness product BodyRev was an innovative idea, which solved a problem, and had a great back story but ultimately did not find a big audience. In due course you made significant changes which led you to a product that customers were able to identify with. What was the evolution of realizing something needed to change? What was the process from genesis to realizing finding a market is better than creating one?
In 2002 I met my business partner, Alden Mills. He was working on a device that could measure and track workouts, and that allowed a user to store performance data and track progress. When I got involved I discovered that there were already some major players (such as Nautilus) in this space and they were having very limited success. In other words, money had been invested, products created, yet the early entrants weren’t finding a market. So we decided to switch directions.
This change provided an opportunity for Alden to explore an idea he had during SEAL training for a device focused on core exercise and functional fitness that allowed you to do multiple exercises using a small piece of equipment. I added some innovation to the invention (rotating handle grips) and after several iterations BodyRev was born. As a fitness apparatus, the BodyRev has a high efficacy in a weight loss application. We used the direct response market route and created several 30 min infomercial “shows” that promoted the product on television. We also penned a deal to get them into all 450 full service Marriott hotels in North America and onto the Home Shopping Network ten times.
Ultimately the product had trouble finding a market because consumers had difficulty equating a predominantly upper body workout to overall fitness. Women (the target market) couldn’t envision getting a smaller waist using a device that was held in their hands even though our study group achieved amazing results that backed up the claims.
Three years into the venture, we were running out of money. I was significantly leveraged and even our investors were telling us to pack it up. We had another product that we had been developing — a device for doing pushups that rotates to simulate natural body movement that was easier on the joints and engaged more muscles. Since we didn’t have the capital to launch with TV advertising we adapted our approach, buying small ads in men’s magazines including Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness and Outside Magazine. This allowed us to garner proof of concept at a fairly low price.
Within a few weeks we had thousands of orders for the Perfect Pushup. Although it would be great to tell you this was all by design, the lesson of “finding a market is better than creating one” was rather serendipitous and a result of circumstance, tenacity and not giving up. After proving the market for the product, we launched a small scale TV advertising campaign based on a 60 second infomercial. The spot ran for almost 2.5 years and was recognized as the number one infomercial spot for much of 2008. TiVo tracks which ads viewers fast forward through and ours was one of the top three ads that viewers don’t fast forward.
2) You have admitted that you came close to having to give up on your idea. In the book The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki, he states, “The old platitude is that good entrepreneurs never give up. This is fine for books and speeches, but not for the real world. If three close friends tell you to give up, you should listen. As the saying goes, when three people tell you you’re drunk, you take a cab home.” As someone who benefited from not giving up, would you challenge this analogy?
What I will say is it sometimes takes a high pain threshold to be an entrepreneur. The BodyRev experience can be described as “pushing a rope”. No matter how many different ideas we tried, how much expert advice sought, or how many hours we worked, consumers did not respond to the product. With any new idea it is inevitable that you will get evangelists and distracters. There is a phenomenon I call the “Entrepreneur’s Dilemma” that can come into play with start-ups. It happens when the business concept is not initially successful. Some signs indicate you are on to something good and that it will only take more work and time to succeed. At the same time, you hear it’s a bad idea and to move on. As an entrepreneur, it often takes stubborn single mindedness to succeed and an ability to block out negativity and doubt. However, if your concept really has zero potential, no matter how hard you try, it’s like holding onto a boat anchor. The dilemma is knowing which advice is right and how long to keep at it.
To mitigate this, what I’ve seen good serial entrepreneurs execute successfully is to set predetermined success metrics on a realistic timeline. If the concept doesn’t hit the milestones, they move on to the next idea.
In the early days of direct marketing, if you put something on TV, more often than not it was going to be successful. Those days are long gone. The “direct response” space has become extremely competitive and it is a lot harder to turn a profit through this channel. With most start-ups, you are betting your company with each new product. This is a high risk strategy and especially difficult for smaller businesses if the bet is on a large project with a long lead time. To diminish this risk, one can develop several smaller projects and test them on a small scale. This spreads the risk (like the portfolio effect) and increases the odds of a win. Then it is a matter of avoiding distractions, staying single-minded and focused, and continuing to push forward.
3) Another entrepreneur now famous for not giving up on his endeavor is John Schnatter, the founder of the Papa John’s pizza chain, who sold his prize Camaro to help keep his father’s restaurant afloat and launch his own pizza business. John recently awarded a quarter million dollar reward to someone who returned the original car to him. When you realized you finally had a hit product on your hands what luxury did you afford yourself?
My partner and I went for four and a half years without an income so my “Camaro” is the relief of a paycheck and backfilling the holes we created getting this far. However, I did pick up a good piece of advice from a fellow entrepreneur: With everything at risk all the time, try to take something off the table along the way.
As an entrepreneur there are going to be ebbs and flows in your business that are beyond your control. During the good times taking something for yourself helps ensure that all your efforts don’t go up in smoke if the company doesn’t survive the long haul.
4) Now that you have a successful invention, which has found its market, and is selling well, was there ever a moment of dread or concern of being a one hit wonder? What steps did you take to either avoid or overcome being a one product company?
We have about 50 ideas in various stages of development. We’ve always been good at studying what people are doing physically and seeing what innovation we can add to this to help them do it better. However, the challenge becomes the degree/level with which you take a land grab approach and race to fill retail shelf space while your brand is hot. Do you put your name on everything, as it appears to some extent Under Armour has done, or do you stay true to your brand, keep the bar very high, and only introduce things that are truly innovative.
Ultimately I believe you strike a balance between the two and that is what we are trying to achieve at Perfect Fitness.
5) As a modernizer of sport equipment do you see any innovations and/or paradigm shifts on the horizon that warrant excitement (ex. http://exerciseismedicine.org)?
I know of some guys trying to create an outdoor elliptical bicycle, that’s pretty cool?. I don’t have a crystal ball but in the fitness arena, lots of people are starting to understand that functional exercise is where it is at. Exercises that simulate natural movement, using multiple joints and muscle groups is an important trend and is especially significant for our aging population. The days of up-down and forward-back weight lifting that you see in the gym will decline as people recognize the importance of core strength, balance and stability in their active years and when they get older. I hope to see more innovation that supports this trend.