The popularity of connected fitness grew massively over the last year. With gyms shut, hundreds of thousands of people purchased connected fitness equipment like Peloton bikes or Tonal’s internet connected weight training machine. The category continues to grow quickly, with a variety of devices offering at-home workout solutions where users stare at screens for guided instructions instead of an in-person fitness trainer. But one area conspicuously missing from the line-up of connected fitness options is swimming, a category that has been largely overlooked for years. We sat down with Charlie Melvoin, founder of Zygo, the first wireless headset for streaming underwater audio, to find out why swimming has been late to the party, and what the opportunity is for swimming in the connected fitness market. We talked to Charlie about:
- Why swimming has lacked innovation
- The market size for swimming
- How connected fitness equipment will impact other parts of the market, like PT
- How to create a reliable supply chain that meets consumer demand
Why has swimming been overlooked by innovation in the fitness industry?
There are two main reasons why swimming has been overlooked.
The first is the technology challenges associated with swimming. It is a huge physics challenge to transmit live audio through the water. Anything to date has been similar to an underwater MP3 player but to have live audio is really complicated from an electrical engineering point of view. The only way to transmit audio through water is by using radio frequency and a lot of frequencies are reserved for government use. It is a different band of radio frequency from Bluetooth. The other tech challenge is making a compact wearable for the head. This is a really challenging problem to take on and honestly, if we had known it would be such an arduous journey, we may never have started!
The other reason swimming has been overlooked is that it is seen as a somewhat niche market. But this is a largely false perception. Swimming presents a huge opportunity.
So, what is the market size and opportunity for swimming?
We look at this in two ways: the current market and the latent market.
Today’s market in the US (where we’re based and where we’re launching the product) is about 10% of the population. There are approximately 30 million people in the US regularly swimming for fitness. This is a sizeable market. At the moment, rowing machines are getting much more attention, but this is a significantly smaller market than swimming. Globally, swimming consistently ranks as one of the top five most popular activities.
Initially, our target is people who are already swimming. Longer term, we hope to be able to use a combination of technology and brand to inspire people to try swimming. We know this is possible through other examples. It took Nike to inspire people to realise that if they have a body, they are an athlete. Same with Peloton. The combination of technology and great content has inspired many to become cyclists.
60 million people in the US have gym memberships. These are the people who are waiting for a product like Zygo to induct them into swimming. When swimming is made as fun as all the other activities they do, they will try it. Of course, the product can be used for basic lap swimming, but there is a huge opportunity for other activities like aqua aerobics, prenatal fitness, rehab and water sports. The headset does not have google straps so it can be used more broadly across all aquatic activities. As a result, the overall market here is quite significant.
How do you see this kind of technology impacting other parts of the market? For example, do you expect it to have an impact on personal trainers?
The live coaching aspect is really exciting because coaches have never been able to give real-time feedback to swimmers. From a commercial standpoint, coaches can charge more for private lessons and can achieve more in a shorter amount of time. For example, the client won’t have to stop and start multiple times and come to the wall for instruction. The session can happen continuously in the water. There’s a real opportunity to enhance the revenue generating potential of the people who use our product.
How do you capture and maintain a customer base for a new connected fitness product?
Advertising is the first part of it and we’re already seeing good results here. When you have an innovative product, Facebook and Instagram are both good marketing platforms. We’re able to generate good conversation here. Once the product is out there, the word of mouth potential is fairly significant. The benefit of our product vs. something like Peloton is that when people use it, they are using it in public, almost serving as human billboards. Our customers tell us they get stopped every single swim with people asking about the headset.
To maintain our customer base, excellent customer service is key. As a team of two founders, we make it our goal to respond to every single message within an hour. When people look at our website or see the product, they don’t realise it’s just two people who have been doing this for four years and care passionately about every single early adopter. For that reason, we try to personally interact with all our customers. This has been a great way to maintain customer loyalty.
Swimming is a solitary activity. How do create a community with a connected fitness product like Zygo?
Creating a community is totally central to what we’re trying to do. Right now, a lot of people are buying Zygo to listen to Spotify, podcasts or audiobooks while swimming. Wearables are intimate things so having many people using them creates a vague sense of community. But what will create real community is the app. We’re launching a new version in the coming weeks with guided workouts, built-in social functions and leader boards. Even the fact that people are listening to the same workouts builds a sense of community. This is a transformative way to experience the water. It’s no longer lonely. People feel calmer and more in control because they have someone coaching them. This is especially useful for people who might be new to swimming or have a fear of water.
How do you build a reliable supply chain that meets consumer demand?
My advice would be to bring in an expert. This is a profession and will require a full-time hire. We can learn with our factory as we go, but one day, we will need an expert to manage this aspect of the business. This is not something you can set and forget.
The pandemic is the perfect example. There won’t always be big disruptions like this, but there will be smaller ones and you need someone to adapt systems and processes accordingly.
Given the speed of innovation and the rate at which new products are hitting the market, it’s easy to lose sight of how young the Connected Fitness category really is. Where do you see the industry in the next 12-18 months?
I think there will be a lot of consolidation either through acquisitions or extinction. Even well-funded, VC-backed products could be phased out when the halo effect of the pandemic wears off. I don’t think the number of people wanting expensive connected devices in their home will continue at this rate. Instead, what we might see is gyms that are collections of connected devices for community use.
There’s always a first mover advantage in this category. With all the data collected by these devices, it’s a lot harder to steal someone away once they’re committed with months or years of training streaks or achievements. Over time, this is going to get harder and harder to compete with.
For more information on Zygo, go to https://shopzygo.com