FITNESS SF: From Locked-Down Gyms To A Sophisticated Personalized Video-Based Fitness App

Welcome to the third episode of the Low-Code Ninjas Podcast

Low-Code Ninjas shines a light on industry thought leaders and the strategies they embrace to do business successfully in an app-first, unpredictable world.

Meet our hosts

John Koetsier and Peggy Anne Salz

John Koetsier
John Koetsier is a senior contributor to Forbes, host of the TechFirst podcast, and a mobile industry analyst.

Previously, he was the Mobile Economist for TUNE and the VP Insights for Singular.

Peggy Anne Salz
Peggy Anne Salz is a mobile analyst, a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe, I track and document the trends, companies and innovators shaping how we do business and engage with consumers across the multiple screens, devices and apps that define our daily lives.


What do you do when your industry is turned upside down overnight? Don Dickerson, vice president of FITNESS SF, was confronted with this question when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and made physical gyms a no go for consumers. And like so many other brick and mortar businesses, FITNESS SF found the solution to this problem could be found in a full-featured mobile. Ultimately Dickerson was able to ensure business continuity and become COVID-ready with the help of a low-code app.   

Tune in to the latest episode of Low Code Ninjas as we talk to Dickerson about how his team built 37,000 personalized gyms for 37,000 different people when COVID-19 hit. He says, “It wasn’t until we found our new partner, FollowAnalytics, that we were actually able to rapidly iterate, and I’m talking every night, you know, deliver new functionality and build a best-of-class product.” By using a low-code solution, FITNESS SF was able to get an app up and running quickly to keep customers engaged and help them weather the storm during quarantine. But it also allowed the company to stay flexible, adding new content and features to address changing customer needs.

Full Episode Transcript

(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity).

John Koetsier: How do you build 37,000 personalized gyms for 37,000 different people when COVID-19 hits and your San Francisco gyms are completely locked down? Welcome to Low Code Ninjas. My name is John Koetsier. 

Peggy Anne Salz: And my name is Peggy Anne Salz. And as you were saying, John, COVID-19 had huge impacts, a number of verticals, travel’s one of them as well. But one of the hardest hit was fitness, you know, gyms, wellness centers. No one could enter, it wasn’t happening. You yourself were doing a lot more workouts outside than inside, as was everyone else, I believe. So it was a situation that had formidable impact. 

John Koetsier: It definitely did. I mean, I turned my deck into my gym. But our guest today had that problem times 40,000 or something like that — 8 locations, almost 40,000 members, and obviously a completely existential threat to his business. How do you run a gym when you can’t open up? How can you serve your customers who want to work out when you can’t let them in the front door? 

Peggy Anne Salz: So those are tough questions. We’re going to find out those answers, because our guest today is Don Dickerson. He is vice president of FITNESS SF. Don, you’ve had this problem but hey, you’ve come out even stronger — I want to say fighting fit, so I’m going to say that — coming out even better because of the adversity. Welcome to the show, Don. Great to have you! 

Don Dickerson: Thank you. It’s great to be with you, John and Peggy. 

John Koetsier: Really do appreciate your time. And Don, I want to start here. I mean, I want to take you back to the first few maybe weeks/months of the COVID lockdown, and you run a business that is all about bringing people together to work out, and to work hard — and you’re shut down, you’re locked down. How did you feel about that personally? And what were your thoughts professionally as well? 

Don Dickerson: You know, it was frightening. Our economy has been extremely strong in the San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley, for the last 10 years, and literally overnight our business disappeared. And so it was extremely frightening, so many unknowns and we really didn’t know if we would be able to survive. 

John Koetsier: Wow. 

Peggy Anne Salz: So, we know what the reality was, but what exactly were the options? I mean, you know that it’s there and you have the resolve to succeed and survive, so what were you thinking? What were you planning? How were you thinking okay, how do I continue with my business, but also to serve my customers? 

Don Dickerson: Well, Peggy, we really had to pivot rapidly. We had been building a mobile-first app but it was really designed at the time to deliver fitness across an omnichannel environment. But suddenly we had the need to deal with coronavirus at the same time and the demand for home fitness grew exponentially overnight. So, we consider fitness essential. We think it should be at the forefront of fighting COVID-19, you know, fighting diabetes, heart disease, lowering your BMI. All of those things are in the wheelhouse of our industry, and the question for us was really how do we deliver that with our doors closed?

John Koetsier: So, from what we’ve learned from you already, you tried to build out that mobile experience a couple of times. Talk about that experience. What happened? What did you do? Who’d you go to, or maybe you don’t have to name the names or the brands, but how did you try and get that done? 

Don Dickerson: You know, we are, even though we’re in Silicon Valley and we really consider it a requirement to deliver a technologically forward platform to our members, we are not technologists ourselves. We are used to running our business, our core business, which is delivering fitness and results to people. So we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we went with a recommendation to use several different — a smaller development shop and then one of the world’s largest. And both of those taught us a lot, primarily that different development houses work very differently. And for us, like I said, we’re experts at running gyms. We’re not experts at building out technology platforms and so on. So it wasn’t until we found a partner that was actually willing to help guide the process and teach us what we didn’t know, that we failed to find success. 

John Koetsier: How long did you spend as you were working through those two options? This is COVID time, right? You’ve got to get something out fast. How long did you spend with those two partners that didn’t really work out?

Don Dickerson: So those two partners were actually the three years leading up to COVID. 

John Koetsier: Oh wow. 

Peggy Anne Salz: Hmm.

Don Dickerson: And, you know, while we did deliver various products, we were not able to develop and execute on our mobile-first platform that we wanted. It wasn’t until we found our new partner, FollowAnalytics, that we were actually able to rapidly iterate, and I’m talking every night, you know, deliver new functionality and build a best-of-class product. 

Peggy Anne Salz: I’m imagining that rapid iteration. I can see that that’s very important for you, Don, and also for your customers, because of course they have personal needs, right? Everyone wants to have a different type of fitness, as we said at the top of the show, all of these different customers, all of these different customer needs. So I’d like to understand about the low-code option, because what I think I’m hearing here is that rapid iteration was part of it. But what else was it that worked for you, or changed for you, or convinced you for low-code?

Don Dickerson: Being more agile and able to develop on the fly. And you’re exactly right, different members have different needs. We might need to deliver a one-to-many video product to deliver Zumba classes to our members. On the other hand, we need to be able to coach up and deliver one-on-one personal training in a personalized manner. You cannot do that in a high-code environment, you’ve got to be able to rapidly change what you’re building as needs arise, and so that’s why the low-code option was so attractive to us. 

John Koetsier: It just amazes me — and I’m kind of going back a little bit to what you talked about previously — it’s just amazing that you spent three years trying to build out the perfect environment, the perfect app to try and get what you needed for your members, and then COVID hits and you’re in hurry up offense. And in what was it … a couple weeks, a couple months and you released something? How long was it? 

 Don Dickerson: You know, we did an initial release about two months in, but then we were able to just every night we were adding functionality, and then we’ve just recently released a basically rebuilt platform that we think is one of the best in the nation, and able to deliver across a broad spectrum from nutrition to video classes, to account management. And then, you know, COVID presented specific issues and it became apparent that the guidelines for how we could operate once we were allowed to reopen would change rapidly, and so we also had to be able to build a reservation system. We had to build in a health questionnaire. We had to build in a temperature checking platform to read people’s temperature through a thermal camera when you walked in. So, you know, low-code and the right partner has allowed us to really develop at a rapid clip, which was critical for us. 

John Koetsier: That’s amazing. I mean, I’ve led development teams. I’ve built mobile apps. I’ve built websites, big websites, and just imagining doing it the old-fashioned way, the way I did it — we didn’t have a low-code environment when I did those things — and, you know, okay, we need a big change. Okay, what is that going to look like? How is that going to fit? How is that going to work? Who’s going to do it? You know, we’re talking weeks to make those changes, and you’re making these on-the-fly changes as the rules are changing, as we’re figuring out the pandemic. That’s really, really impressive. 

Don Dickerson: Absolutely. It’s the only thing that’s allowed us to function in this environment. If we were doing traditional development and having to build code for every bit of functionality that we needed, we simply couldn’t have delivered anything. And, you know, that was our experience in the first few years when we were trying to develop, but being in a low-code environment allowed us to literally from night to night add functionality. 

John Koetsier: Wow. Let’s talk a little bit about the results. What have you even been able to accomplish? What have you been able to release? What’s it look like if I’m a customer of FITNESS SF right now?  

Don Dickerson: Well, an example of operating in this environment, so we were allowed after being closed for six months, we were allowed to reopen our brick-and-mortar stores, but only at 10% capacity. So, we have very vibrant busy gyms, and controlling occupancy was critical in a smooth fashion for our members. So we were able to build, with a few days notice, a reservation system and then continued to tailor that. You know, now everyone’s cooking at home, so, and no one knows how to cook — at least in San Francisco — so people have gone from eating out almost every meal to eating in almost every meal. And so nutrition is a huge part of fitness and now we’re able to deliver both recipes and nutritional advice, a meal plan, and the ability to order online all through our mobile app. 

Peggy Anne Salz: Mm-hmm.

John Koetsier: Wow! That’s an expansion. That’s an expansion of what you used to do, correct? 

Don Dickerson: Absolutely. You know, historically gyms rely on an in-house nutritionist, which has limited benefit and limited scope to reach many members. Now, we’re able to provide nutritional advice and guidance to all 37,000 members. 

 Peggy Anne Salz: See, that’s the exciting part. It’s not just that you’re there, but the expansion that’s possible here, you know. You can think about nutrition. You can think about personal health, mental health. You can be a sort of a super app, as far as I’m hearing it here, it’s opened up doors to entirely new lines of business that I believe you’re going to be pursuing, Don. Is that the case? 

Don Dickerson: Absolutely. Our goal is to create a well-rounded wellness environment where we’re providing guidance on sleep, nutrition, activity, tie it back to wearables, and then encourage people to lead active, healthy lifestyles … even meditation and everything that goes into leading a productive, healthy life. That’s our goal to deliver and we’re well on our way to doing that. 

Peggy Anne Salz: I just want to pick up on the customer experience for a moment, if I might, because you’re in San Francisco. So this is different than some other cities — where John is, where I am — you have people who expect you to be super cool, very sophisticated. You know, QR code that’s a feature you’re building in, and you have built in, that’s table stakes. I’m just wondering how you see that sort of fitting together. There’s one, the level of functionality and features you can have, but you have to be relevant to a really sophisticated audience who might not always be in San Francisco, you know, they’re moving around, they’re in the tech space. How do you approach that? 

Don Dickerson: Absolutely. So we’re about to release a paid version. And so instead of our members — you know, all major metro areas are pretty transient, you might work for Google in San Francisco one day, and then you’ll be transferred to the Chicago office the next day. Well, typically with a brick-and-mortar business you lose that client and they’re gone from you. But now that we have them actively involved in a well-rounded wellness platform that’s mobile, we can continue that relationship. We can continue with wearables to take in data, provide guidance. We can train them virtually, we can provide on-demand content for classes. Our goal is to maintain those relationships long term and to become much more than just a brick-and-mortar wellness provider. 

Peggy Anne Salz: Mm-hmm.

John Koetsier: You know what’s really fascinating to me about this, Don and Peggy, is that you’re redefining what a fitness center is. If you think about technological shift and, you know, the old common example is the shift from the horse to the horseless carriage, right? And guess what? The buggy whip manufacturer was out of business. And for us, I mean, for the last what is it, 50 years, 30 years, the gym has been a place. It’s been a thing, somewhere you go, and something that you do. And you’re kind of redefining a gym — you’re redefining your brand from a place where you go to work out, to a brand that helps you stay healthy. Whether that’s through nutrition, whether that’s through exercise, wherever you might be. That’s a real kind of mental shift and an expansion of your business opportunity, perhaps globally, correct? 

Don Dickerson: Absolutely, and moving forward, we really see an opportunity to be there as a lifestyle brand to be active in your life. We think there’s value to all movement,  whether that’s mowing the lawn or doing deadlifts on a platform. We really believe that all movement has value and people tend to look at, you know, okay, if I go to the gym for 30 minutes then I’ve done my job and I’m out. Our job over time is to really educate people to look at their life holistically and help deliver guidance to nudge them in the right direction. You know, and then I think there’s a lot of value in the accumulation of this data that we’re taking in, in more of a holistic view. As an example, personal training. For the last 30, 40 years of the fitness industry, you worked with a personal trainer, you typically do what they specialize in, and so if they’re more about TRX, for example, they’re going to put you through a TRX workout and you’re going to continue to do that. But now that we’ve built a programming application to where we’re tracking exactly what every trainer’s doing, it’s our hope that in a year or two, with the accumulated data there, that we can start scientifically generating workouts based on results. So, you know, with your age, your health condition, etc. we take that data in and then we’re going to know the best way. And we’re not going to rely on somebody’s opinion, we’re going to have scientific evidence that says if you’re trying to get from point A to point B, we’ve got the data to prove that this is the best route to do that. So it opens up a lot of new frontiers. 

John Koetsier: That’s amazing. Your daily decisions are no longer what equipment am I going to buy? What location will I open? You’ve totally changed that. I do want to hit on one particular capability that you’ve built into the FITNESS SF app, and that frankly leapfrogs you over what’s available from Apple. Apple of course released their new Apple Fitness app, but you’re actually leapfrogging what they do. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Don Dickerson: Yeah, absolutely. So, we think wearables is a major foundation for fitness moving forward. You know, they’re really designed for our industry and right now, that  tends to be a watch or a ring. Moving forward, we’re going to have sensors in our clothes, our shoes and everything. So we’re going to be a collection point for all of that data, and we’re going to use that to help push people to better outcomes with their wellness plan. You know, Apple has set this up for one-on-one type versions. We’re trying to do it at scale to drive reactions and drive behavior based on the data we’re taking in for tens of thousands of members. 

John Koetsier: Very cool.

Peggy Anne Salz: That’s extremely impressive. I’m thinking about just not the agility now, but we’re getting to analytics, and I think there’s something coming through here that says you have to have both, and that that’s very central to your business. Is that what I’m hearing? 

Don Dickerson: Yeah, absolutely. So historically gyms have known, you know, people always think gyms are large collection points for data, but that’s not really true. Typically we’ve known when our member shows up and when they leave, a little bit of background information on them, and that’s it. Now we’re actually collecting a ton of data from different points — heart rate data, activity data, sleep data, nutrition data. That starts to create a really holistic view of what someone’s doing and the life they’re leading, and it enables us to really start driving better outcomes for them.

John Koetsier: I’m hearing what you’re saying and I’m just having kind of nightmares thinking about trying to build all of that … connect into HealthKit, connect into devices, all those sophisticated technologies, connect into heart rate monitors, all those sorts of things, and building that from scratch … that’s a little daunting.

Don Dickerson: It is, but that’s why the low-code environment works so well for us, you know, and the thing that COVID has made clear to me is you don’t know what’s coming tomorrow. And so you’ve gotta be able to adapt. The only way you can do that is to have a great integration partner, a great developer, and then operate in a low-code environment where you can iterate at a very rapid clip. You know, we see how fast technology changes … well, today our environment is changing that fast also. 

Peggy Anne Salz: Mm-hmm.

John Koetsier: One thing I wanted to hit on as well, is that you don’t just offer classes where, you know, it’s taped, it’s recorded — you’ve got live video classes. That’s pretty high-end technology.

Don Dickerson: It is. So we’ve built a large LED wall into several of our studios in downtown San Francisco, and so instructors can actually see the participants and interact with them. FollowAnalytics has actually built the platform for us to do this. It’s really a unique situation. Many different fitness companies are trying to master this space right now and move forward, but what gives a brick-and-mortar gym the advantage is we already have the talent. So we have the talented instructors. We’ve got the great spaces in San Francisco. It’s really then can you deliver the technology platform to have a great experience, and FollowAnalytics has helped us achieve that.

Peggy Anne Salz: That’s amazing. I mean, not only just being able to do that, but you’ve got holistically you have a great experience, right? You have it lined up in the back end. I’m experiencing it so to speak at the front end. That’s amazing in itself, but when you look at your business now, you know, you’re thinking, how do I compete with the chains? And before you might’ve been concerned. Now you seem, to me, to have a competitive edge there. I mean, how do you look at that now when you say to yourself, okay, a family-owned company against the big chains. How well are you prepared for that now, compared to maybe three years ago when you were working on your app — sorry about that — but you know, they did have a headstart then. What’s it look like now? 

Don Dickerson: They did, and they definitely have more money behind them. You know, all of our competitors are national firms with venture capital money behind them. They operate at a different plane than we do. We are a local family-owned and operated business, but we compete against those chains. And the advantage that I’ve found is that we’re able to adapt and iterate faster. They tend to do much broader, long term projects. We’re changing overnight, and I think in today’s environment, we have an advantage with that.

Peggy Anne Salz: Mm-hmm.

John Koetsier: I’ve seen small companies be able to do what large companies are not able to do. And of course, tools is a part of that, but also just the mental gymnastics to be able to be agile is really, really critical. I have to see, at some point, I have to see this LED wall where the instructors can see all the people. It kind of makes me think of … is it, I think it’s the NBA right now, they’re of course in their bubble, and you see a few fans their videos piped into the — it must be something like that. I look forward to seeing that at some point. The question I have for you is somebody else, maybe they’re in an industry that’s impacted by COVID, and most are actually right now, but they’re considering low-code for their development project. What advice would you give them?

Don Dickerson: Find the right partner. That’s really when our success took off. You know, having a partner that’s willing to lead the charge and teach us what we don’t know. And we come at things from a business — most business owners are gonna come at it from the perspective of their industry, their business, but technology opens up a whole new world. And so a great partner is going to guide that process and say, ‘Have you thought about  tackling it in this direction because of this technology that’s available.’ And that really opens up a lot of doors and really opens our minds to new possibilities. Had you asked us three years ago, would we be playing in a paid fitness wellness app and for members that don’t go to our brick-and-mortar gyms? I would have thought no way, but here we are.

Peggy Anne Salz: So I just have to ask, because I’m curious. Is there something in that relationship where an example of, you know, opening up that door, opening up your mind and saying, Hey, did you think of this or think of that?’ because a lot of it comes from you obviously, but where does maybe that spark of inspiration from the partnership?

Don Dickerson: Oh, there’s actually been many of them. You know, the one-to-many video platform is definitely one, but also the ability to tailor push communications that are not just random push notifications but are triggered based on events. So if I take in data from a wearable that says that one of our members went on a 30-mile run yesterday, well on Monday I don’t want to communicate to that person that, ‘Hey, go do a heavy workout’ on Monday. You know, it’s easy to set up triggers and base that on outcomes from the data that we’re taking in. So that’s something I did not think would be possible at this scale that they definitely taught us. 

John Koetsier: A 30-mile run. I’d be asking for the notification about where’s the coffin? I mean… [laughter] 

Don Dickerson: Yeah, 

John Koetsier: That would be challenging. Don, this has been really, really wonderful. It’s been super interesting. I’m inspired by your success. I’m inspired by what you’ve been able to do. I work out, I made a little gym on my deck, right out that window, and I don’t have every piece of equipment that I might want to have, but I’m doing body weight stuff and a few other things here and there. It’s impressive to see what you’ve been able to do. 

Don Dickerson: That’s great. Thank you so much. It’s an exciting time, you know, challenging times can also be exciting times and we’re anxious to see where it leads. 

Peggy Anne Salz: I have to pipe in and say that I’m really excited to see the super app come into play here. I can see that coming and all of the partnerships and what that can mean, and how you can reimagine what a fitness app is. So I want to thank you for sharing that as well. 

Don Dickerson: Thank you. 

John Koetsier: Well, Don, we thank you for joining us on the Low Code Ninjas podcast. And we thank all the listeners as well, 

Don Dickerson: We really appreciate the opportunity and look forward to continuing to learn from the Low Code Ninjas podcast. 

Peggy Anne Salz: Well thank you, and everyone else should too as well. We will be back. Of course, in the meantime, you know, like us, subscribe on all the usual platforms.

John Koetsier: Excellent. Until then … this is John Koetsier for Low Code Ninjas. 

Peggy Anne Salz: And this is Peggy Anne Salz signing off. Stay well, keep safe, and we’ll be back.