Q&A with Lauren Foundos, CEO and Founder of FORTË
I had a fantastic conversation this week with the inspirational Lauren Foundos, the CEO and founder of FORTË. Straight after college she began working on Wall Street building a successful career as a trader in government bonds.
Somehow, she also made time to found FORTË, which provides people around the world with access to boutique fitness classes, in 2015 before quitting Wall Street and becoming a full-time CEO in 2016.
Lauren also made an appearance on a brand-new reality show called Unicorn Hunters. She was one of the first CEOs, and the first woman, to pitch to the "circle of money" a group of experienced investors that includes Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, Rosie Rios, former US Treasurer, Silvina Moschini, founder of TransparentBusiness, and Lance Bass from NSYNC. Lauren's episode premiered on Monday May 24 and is available on demand now at unicornhunters.com.
Unicorn Hunters is on a mission to democratize access to wealth, so that it is no longer the privilege of a select group by providing viewers with the opportunity to invest in select pre-IPO companies. Unicorn Hunters also allows founders to reach millions of investors around the world increasing their potential to raise capital, which is especially important for women entrepreneurs who, on average, receive only 2% of VC funding.
Given my love of fitness and Lauren's background, it was an instant connection. It was a fun experience to partner on the show.
Amber: Thanks so much Lauren for agreeing to chat with us today, it's great to see you again. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your background before you started FORTË.
Lauren: It's my pleasure, Amber. My whole career before FORTË was working on Wall Street. My last couple years specifically I was institutionally trading US Treasury bonds, so nothing to do with fitness or technology. I was the most tech savvy person at my trading desk because I was the youngest then. Now I have a tech company and I feel like the least tech savvy.
I've always been very into fitness. I was a big athlete. I was a two-time, All-American field hockey player. I played in the US national program. So, working out has always been a huge part of my life. I wasn't necessarily trying to start a company. I was not trying to leave my job. I was happy in a lucrative and successful career. I was looking to diversify investments outside the market and looking to invest in tech companies that I could be passionate about.
I live next to Peloton. I saw what they were doing, and I thought, "That's really interesting." I started to focus on the space that I knew the most about, which was fitness and started talking to the gyms and studios I knew well to see if they wanted to stream their classes because while Peloton was doing that, they didn't have a community at that point.
I was talking to the gyms because I could see how they hadn't started to leverage technology. I thought they should be asking, "How do we leverage technology to reach a bigger audience?" Not everyone got it, but some of them were enthusiastic and kept asking me when we were going to start streaming. The reality was that I had no idea how to make it happen.
Eventually, I had to stop talking and start working on it and ultimately left my job with the intention of building out this platform with a clearer vision of what it was going to look like.
Amber: That's so exciting and it's amazing seeing you leverage your passion into a real business and making that transition. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when you first started pitching your idea for FORTË?
Lauren: Initially I just didn't know anybody in the tech world. All my friends were traders, working on Wall Street, so just finding and immersing myself in the right community was the first hurdle. Finding the right people to help build this company was the most challenging part of getting started. I had envisioned this great technology without a network of people that worked in tech.
I put together a team of engineers and we were all still working from our old jobs before I realized that I was certain about the company and my intentions leave my job, right and concentrate on FORTË.
Microsoft was instrumental in helping us early on. We were in the Microsoft for Startups program which provided access to the technology we needed to begin testing and building the platform. We hadn't raised money at that point so without that access, it would have cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars to test.
The tech was all new. We weren't building a better mousetrap. We were starting something from scratch that the gyms had never see, so there was a big learning curve in the beginning.
Amber: That's gratifying to hear that Microsoft was there when you needed it. I imagine that FORTË in the last 12 months or so has been in a very different spot. Can you tell me about the ways that the pandemic has affected your company?
Lauren: It definitely supercharged the business. Both, the velocity of the market in general and the increased adoption of digital fitness. But I felt that we were succeeding even before the pandemic started. Pre-pandemic, Goldman Sachs put out some numbers saying that 67% of US gym goers were also working out at home with the digital platforms. When I would tell the gyms that, they weren't thrilled. I told them, "People are already doing it, so if you don't deliver this home-based option, they're just going to find other things."
Then the pandemic closed the gyms and the best way for them to continue to charge members was to deliver a digital service. And from the consumers' perspective, this was also the best way to engage.
I think it's a blessing in disguise for the gyms because it forced them to adopt this technology. We have many customers with over a million members already. Take the YMCA, for instance. It's an enormous organization, and we're excited to deliver that on-demand fitness opportunity for their members without a huge individual investment in home equipment.
Amber: I know that, for me, there's a big advantage in that on-demand experience. I still go swimming and to the gym, but the digital experience has been fantastic.
Lauren: Of course, there are going to be people that revert totally to the gym. But there will also be people who continue with this hybridization because it's convenient on certain days. There will also be some people whose relationship with the gyn will become digital only because they like the convenience or it's more affordable. But I think the biggest opportunity is that currently most Americans don't work at all. Digital is the gateway for those people to build the confidence to go into the gym.
We also offer two-way video which creates an awesome user experience. The instructor sees what you're doing, so it's very close to being an actual class because you're getting real-time feedback.
Amber: Absolutely. I feel more connected with some of my digital instructors than ones in the gym.
Lauren: I think that that's exactly right. When they're streaming, trainers, they need to rope you in differently than when you're there. They're getting really good at creating content that helps people get to know them. I think that part of the digital experience must be to recreate the sense of someone walking into a class versus the old school fitness content was very rehearsed and performative.
Even when our customers are not watching the live stream, they watch the class within 36 hours and they typically don't rewatch content, because with livestreaming you're creating fresh content every day. This way it's more about following the narrative of the trainer's life and what's happening in the news versus a canned and repetitive version of a class with no ties to the real world.
Amber: Yes. Can you tell us about some of the people that supported you along the way? Who gave the best advice as an entrepreneur and is there anyone that you really want to kind of call out or on who deserves some credit?
Lauren: When I started my company, I didn't know anybody in tech. I found a good friend of mine that I knew from Wall Street had started a woman's organization for entrepreneurs called Dreamers and Doers. Everybody asks each other the questions you need answering, like whether to form an LLC or C Corp. It was instrumental and now I like to give back and help people as well because in the beginning you don't even know what you don't know.
Amber: If you could go back now to the start of your journey as an entrepreneur and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Lauren: Mostly that finding the right people is really important. Surrounding yourself with a great team is key. I didn't have a co-founder and it's a lot for one person to do. I think it's probably a great thing to be able to have somebody.
I guess the one thing I was most naive about was the funding situation. When I worked on Wall Street, whoever made money made money. I was never judged for being a woman. The numbers were the numbers.
Now look at the data about the proportion of funding going to female-led companies. That was pretty eye opening. I've always lived in a boy's world, so to sit in meetings and people ask over my head, "Can she handle this?" was surprising to me.
I think there is more awareness and people are trying to change things, but it was something that I didn't understand going in. I just took 1000 more meetings than my counterparts. I didn't give up, but it was just a longer journey than I wanted it to be, I guess.
Amber: Lauren thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I know there will be people reading this nodding along with your experiences in awe at your drive and persistence
I'm also extremely excited to see your Unicorn Hunters episode air on May 24th. It was really fun to be able to partner with you on this new reality show. I am also sure that we will be hearing a lot more from you in the future!
Lauren: My pleasure Amber, and thanks.