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Brisbane fitness startup bets on buzz and personality

Last year, Australia’s fitness industry kick-boxed in delight when the Suncorp “Cost of Being Fit” Report revealed that, as a nation, we’re spending $8.5 billion on fitness each year – with 4.6 million Australians paying for gym membership and nearly one million Aussies spending in excess of $100 per month on membership fees.

But what can you do if you can’t afford high gym membership fees?

That’s the problem Patrick Koehler and Rudy Yazdi have been working to solve since August 2015 with fitness startup Buzvil, a platform that offers fitness class passes without the burden of monthly subscription fees.

However, the journey has not been easy. Their yellow brick road has been littered with false starts, potholes and desperate measures to keep the dream alive.

“I went to all the startup talks,” Koehler said. “I listened to the failure lessons from other founders.”

“I never thought those things would happen to me,” he said. “But in just one year, I’ve lived through all the nightmares of a startup founder and now I’m the one with the lessons to share.”

Lessons from Buzvil’s early days

The startup’s first major blow came when CTO Yazdi accepted a corporate role, which required time away from the company. While the temporary split was amicable, Koehler was left paralysed by his inability to code or afford a replacement. “I was either going to quit or start learning how to code”.

In a last ditch attempt he leaned on Yazdi to work on Buzvil in his spare time, and brought on others to help at discounted rates. While not providing a permanent solution, this did successfully patch the hole in Buzvil’s tech capacity and Yazdi has continued to work with the startup to this day.

Koehler’s second nightmare lesson came when he outsourced the production of an animated explainer video to freelancers abroad. He went through six different production people over five months to make a “simple one-minute explainer video,”only to be told by his startup peers that the video sucked and was effectively a waste of time and money.

Come launch day, overestimating traffic from the explainer made for his third soul-destroying moment. Koehler had poured his heart and soul into the video and he was counting on it as his secret magnet for the launch. He now laughs about the day he asked Yazdi whether “our server will be able to handle the traffic?”

Mistake number four was spending too much on customer acquisition, too early. “In hindsight, I spent a huge amount of money on advertising before we were ready. I should have better tested the product and checked we had better systems in place before spending so much precious cash.”

Desperate to keep his dream alive, Koehler did anything he could to bring in cashflow, including working as a removalist and side-hustling web design and video editing work. In short, he refused to give up on Buzvil and was confident the company would turn around; he just wasn’t sure how.

Turning the company around

Three months ago, while working out of The Coterie in QUT’s Creative Industries Precinct in Kelvin Grove, Koehler received a serendipitous phone call that would prove pivotal for the business.

At the end of the line was former professional BMX racer and semi-pro basketball player Meghan Jarvis, who had met Koehler two months earlier at a FIRE night (aka Fitness Industry Recruitment Evening) at the Australian Institute of Fitness. A Canadian expat and former AIF academic, Jarvis has been in the fitness industry for fifteen years and had already witnessed fitness professionals trying to start businesses without understanding customer acquisition. She was looking for a way to help fitness class leaders just as much as Koehler and Yazdi were looking for a way to help fitness class participants.

When Jarvis came on board as a co-founder as Buzvil’s Head Ambassador, she brought with her contacts for personal trainers and gyms from across Brisbane. More importantly, she brought a renewed sense of energy and helped revitalise Koehler and his Buzvil vision. The pair have since been meeting with investors, and recently oversaw the launch of the Buzvil app on July 1st.

To differentiate themselves from New York-based competitor ClassPass and Sydney-based startup competitors BodyPass and AnyPass, Koehler is betting on Jarvis’ networking and grassroots marketing to help grow the brand. “She’s been starting to build her Buzvil social media profile and she’ll soon run her own Buzvil fitness classes to generate local momentum.”

In Jarvis’ words, they’re “not the first startup with this idea. But it’s who’s got the racehorse to get it done faster who will win.”

So, will Jarvis prove to be Buzvil’s Michelle Payne and help jockey Koehler and Yazdi’s dark horse across the fitness-space finish line first?

Place your wager, and watch this space.

About Andrea Martins

Andrea Martins is a startup founder, writer and passionate participant in the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane startup ecosystems. Say hi to her on Twitter at @andreaexpat