Making the gym work for everyone

Interview with Philipp Roesch-Schlanderer, CEO and co-founder of eGym

Philipp Roesch-Schlanderer was struck with a ground-breaking idea while working out at the gym as a student at Columbia University in New York. eGym was born two years later with a mission to make the gym work for everyone by innovating and using data.

When Philipp stepped into the gym in New York, it immediately hit him that digital technologies could drastically improve the user experience in the gym. When he returned to Germany later on, he began working on technologies to create a modern internet-connected gym environment and eventually, co-founding eGym in 2011.

Not just for fitness experts

eGym provides an internet-connected training platform through which the exercise machines in a gym can access a user's personal fitness information, understand his or her specific fitness goals, and personalize the experience across every piece of equipment. This connected network of training floors is a key driver for the success of the eGym Corporate Wellness Market Place.

PR: We are basically trying to tackle two problems. Problem one is that the gym just doesn’t work for most people; only 10% of gym-goers actually achieve their fitness goals. People go onto the training floor in most gyms and fitness studios and have no idea what to do when they get onto the strength and cardio machines. In addition, the machines on the training floor don’t know anything about the user’s body or fitness goals.

The second problem we are trying to address is the fact that our current healthcare market primarily focuses on the repair, rather than on prevention, which results in skyrocketing healthcare costs. This is especially true for corporations. If you think about it, General Motors could be considered an employee health company with an attached motor vehicle business. They spend more money on employee health than they do on steel.

“Problem one is that the gym just doesn’t work for most people; only 10% of gym-goers actually achieve their fitness goals. The second problem we are trying to address is the fact that our current healthcare market primarily focuses on repair, rather than on prevention, which results in skyrocketing healthcare costs.”

For many of the largest companies in the US, employee health is the second-largest cost item, right after payroll. At the same time, the US healthcare market is a $3 trillion market. eGym believes that, with a connected platform of training equipment, they can provide turnkey solutions for corporations that focus on prevention rather than repair, drastically reducing employee healthcare costs.

At first, it was difficult to explain to investors how important it was for eGym to go deep into the gym industry. For eGym, it took a lot of time, money, and energy to build a global internet-connected gym platform.

eGym has an open cloud platform with interfaces for a constantly expanding list of devices, fitness equipment, and partner apps – creating a connected training area.

PR: Only if the gym works we will have a positive impact on our healthcare system. For this, we needed to go deep on the gym product and build a gym platform that includes everything that matters for gym-goers because this allows personalization of the workout experience. Once we were able to prove our unit economics and show how we were building a connected ­platform, it became much more understandable for the investors.

One key aspect of eGym’s business is data.

PR: Individual health and fitness data is what enables us to personalize the ­gym experience. In addition, we have the data to show our corporate customers how investing in employee wellness can bring a huge return on their investment.

A “very American German” company

Today, eGym employs about 400 people, with its largest offices located in Colorado, Germany, and Ukraine.

PR: I sometimes describe eGym as a “very American German” company. The Americans have an entrepreneurial mindset and tend, for example, to be very good at painting an amazing picture of what we are doing. Our German engineers are good at making sure we deliver a functionally amazing product. I think our company culture combines the strengths of both regions into a single company.

With a strong vision, eGym has recruited great talent in a tight employment market. Roesch-Schlanderer looks for people who are passionate, ­analytical and highly self-aware.

PR: Self-aware people are easy to work with because they know their strengths; their ideas aren’t tied up in their own ego, so they’re happy for the best ideas to win. Analytical people tend to base their decisions on facts rather than rhetoric. And passionate people are the ones who put all of their energy into making a difference. I really love working with passionate people.

“Self-aware people are easy to work with because they know their strengths; their ideas aren’t tied up in their own ego, so they’re happy for the best ideas to win.”

Philipp’s primary responsibilities are setting the company strategy, deciding what kind of people are in senior leadership positions, making sure there is enough financing, and fire-fighting.

PR: My strength as a CEO is the ability to create a compelling vision that makes sense and convincing others to join that vision. Of my other responsibilities, fire-fighting is, for me, probably the most challenging. Every day there is some fire to put out somewhere — something that doesn’t work or isn’t going well. One challenge is to make sure that I listen first, and approach potentially hectic situations calmly. The other challenge is to make sure that I hand off the fire-fighting responsibility once the initial fire is out.

eGym provides 18 fully electronic exercise machines for all major muscle groups. Each machine has been carefully developed based on the latest scientific findings.
Making friends, being honest and looking long-term

Philipp is constantly exchanging ideas and challenges with his entrepreneur friends and investors.

PR: I am very close to some of my largest investors, who have become very close mentors and advisors. We also have a new chairman who, as an extremely experienced CEO, has become a mentor to me. In addition, some of my best friends are entrepreneurs, and they are also mentors for me.

From early on, Philipp's intuition was to be an open book with his investors. His approach with mutual honesty and transparency is key to his never having suffered from distrust with them, and with his ability to approach problems with investors as one team.

PR: I find that one of the most valuable things our board does for me is to pull me in every quarter, standing with me on the balcony and helping me look out into the distance on the business. This helps me reflect on the progress we’ve made and allows me to focus on the challenges we face in the future.

“I find that one of the most valuable things our board does for me is to pull me in every quarter, standing with me on the balcony and helping me look out into the distance on the business.”

Still, it hasn’t always been easy to work that way.

PR: I tend to present things in an unvarnished way, and someone who doesn’t know me can think things are worse than they actually are. So, the first three months with someone new can be a bit difficult sometimes. But I find that this level of honesty builds a great deal of trust that helps as time goes on.

Moving healthcare from repair to prevention

Phillip is enthusiastic about what digital health solutions like eGym can do for the world.

PR: If eGym and companies like ours can shift the largest market in the world — the healthcare market — from a pure repair business to a prevention business, not only can we save our society trillions of dollars, we can also help people live longer and improve the quality of their lives. The great thing about our business is that if we are succeeding, there are only winners.

Two pieces of advice Phillipp would give to new entrepreneurs: only found a company in a field that you feel passionate about, and start building systems early on — rather than solving problems yourself.

PR: The chance for success is relatively low, and the chance that you’ll spend a lot of time and energy on it is very high. But if it’s something you’re passionate about, even if the business ultimately fails, it will have been totally worth it. So, before you found a company, pick a field where you would want to spend your life, regardless of the outcome.

Over the past seven years, Philipp's role has evolved every six months or so.

PR: When I started the company, I was mostly concerned with getting stuff done on my own; now I am much more focused on building systems. When I was at university, I found organizational theory to be one of the most boring subjects I studied; now I know that it’s absolutely critical to my company’s success and I’ve come to really, really love that aspect of the business.

PR: I’m quite happy where I am at the moment. In five years, I would like to see eGym as the number one player globally, making the gym work for everyone and helping companies improve their employees’ health.