Grou.ps, a company known for its social community tools, is adding hardware and a focus on fitness to the mix with the launch of GymGroups, a service targeted at health clubs.
It’s a big shift in strategy, and there’s a lot that’s interesting about Grou.ps’ approach. An early Web 2.0 social service is now embracing hardware and tying a cloud-based service together with mobile apps. It’s an intriguing example of how the Internet of Things can force a dramatic rethink of a product.
Survival Of The Fittest (Groups)
It’s been a long time since ReadWrite caught up with Grou.ps founder and CEO Emre Sokullu, an entrepreneur and analyst who contributed a lot to our early coverage of Google, Yahoo, and other Web platforms. In 2008, his startup raised financing and launched its social groupware product, which at its peak had 8 million monthly unique users and 100 million monthly pageviews.
The Great Recession hit, and Sokullu turned Grou.ps into a paid service in an effort to generate revenues. That worked—the company turned profitable in 2012—but at the cost of torpedoing Grou.ps’s growth.
What Sokullu found was that about half of the remaining active communities on Grou.ps were fitness-related, like Ohio’s Columbus Running Club. Collectively, those groups have some 12 million members (though it’s not clear how many of those are active on the site). That inspired GymGroups.
GymGroups has several elements. There’s a social layer built on top of Grou.ps to connect people who work out at the same location. There’s also a workout app which lets those gymgoers make plans.
And then there’s the hardware—Bluetooth beacons which GymGroups distributes so gyms can affix them to every piece of exercise equipment. The GymGroups app detects when an exerciser is using a given piece of equipment and lets them “check in” to it—in other words, announcing that they’re using it.
The bet GymGroups is making is that gyms will adopt several pieces here: the beacon hardware, the social service, and gym-branded mobile apps created by GymGroups. The rationale for them to do so is the promise they’ll retain more members by making it more appealing to stick to the gym.
The Social Fitness Challenge
I see a host of obstacles here for Grou.ps’s fitness makeover.
The first is that social fitness apps have, by and large, proven a tough sell. Social Workout, one of the best early attempts at the genre, quietly shut down earlier this year; its team is now working on Count It, a workplace-wellness service. Under Armour—now the big kahuna in fitness apps, thanks to its acquisitions of MyFitnessPal, MapMyFitness, and Endomondo—has been slow to develop the social features of Record, its new flagship app.
The premise that people who have signed up to get updates about their running club will be prospects for a social app centered on their local gym has some merit, but I doubt conversions will be as high as Grou.ps hopes. And it’s not clear how much benefit people will get from an app that informs them they’re at a squat rack. Newbies might welcome an electronic tour of the gym, repeat usage seems unlikely.
Then there’s the hard work of signing up gyms. Fitness centers and health clubs are a very fragmented industry; the International Health, Racquet, & Sportsclub Association counts more than 10,000 members, but the 50 largest companies in the US account for just 30% of industry revenues, according to Hoovers.
Smaller clubs likely can’t afford their own apps, which makes them logical prospects for GymGroups. But it also means that GymGroups will have a difficult process of hand-selling small, local businesses on the service.
Sokullu is optimistic about the prospects of signing up a large U.S. chain soon. And he plans to let users sign up as “ambassadors” who will sneak beacons onto equipment at local gyms. The bet here is that a Yammer- or Slack-like grounds-up adoption will prompt gym managers to sign up for the official version of GymGroups. However, it’s hard to see them looking kindly on the company if they catch users slapping these devices (which are capable of tracking other members) around the gym.
Given all the concerns, I don’t know if GymGroups will be the company that makes Bluetooth beacons as standard a piece of gym equipment as elliptical machines and weight benches. But I’d be surprised if, by the end of this decade, our gyms aren’t as networked as our homes and offices.
Lead photo courtesy of Shutterstock; gym exterior photo by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite