By Jo Ann Corkran, Managing Partner, Golden SeedsApril 23, 2021
Lauren Foundos thought her life as a successful institutional bond trader was pretty much perfect. But the demands of the job left her little time for working out, a lifelong passion that had made her an All-American field hockey player. Determined not to lose her sense of self, Lauren left Wall Street and sought to parlay her love of fitness into a business. Her familiarity with exercise studios gave her an idea that was ahead of its time – making live fitness classes available online. That vision led her to found FORTË, a live and on-demand streaming video platform.
Lauren recently told Golden Seeds managing partner Jo Ann Corkran about the challenges she’s faced, the evolution of her business and how it fits into the pandemic world we live in today. Her story offers inspiration for other entrepreneurs forming and growing their businesses.
JC: Tell us about the origins of your company.
LF: I was successful on Wall Street, trading billions in institutional bonds, but there was something missing. I felt there should be a greater purpose to working hard. I’ve always been passionate about exercising, so I fixated on the fitness space. I started talking to gym owners about the possibility of offering their classes to more than the 20 people in the room. That led to the idea of live-streaming classes to make fitness more accessible to anyone, any time. I was convinced that was the future and didn’t want to find myself in the regrettable position of seeing someone else develop the idea into a successful business.
In 2015, I incorporated FORTË. The name means “strong” in Albanian, a homage to my parents’ homeland. In 2016, I left my job in finance and spent the next three years developing proprietary hardware and software that would be easy for nontechnical gym owners and operators to use.
Now, users tell us that we are changing their lives and making them healthier. And gym owners say we helped them save their businesses during the pandemic lockdowns. Nobody said I made their life better when I worked in finance.
JC: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?
LF: Before the pandemic, almost nobody was live-streaming fitness classes, though some of the more future-thinking studios had video on demand. Our system makes live streaming easy; we can get a gym or fitness studio live-streaming through their own branded digital platform in 10 days. We hardwire three to five cameras in the chosen location(s) and install an on-site server that duplicates the control room function at a production studio. All an instructor has to do is turn on the microphone. And unlike other video platforms such as Zoom, YouTube or Vimeo, FORTË is designed specifically for the fitness industry. The FORTË system handles everything from bookings to payments in concert with the gym’s existing management software. We are kind of like OpenTable for gyms. We even provide legally compliant music.
I live and breathe this stuff, so we were able to anticipate every problem a gym owner could encounter and provide a customized, seamless solution. Our customers tell us this was exactly what they have been dreaming about. Another difference from the competition is that we aren’t direct to the consumer, so we don’t have to acquire the customers who’ll be taking and paying for the classes. Our customers, the gyms and studios, already have more than 100 million clients.
JC: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
LF: There were a number of challenges in developing the technology. In a TV studio, you have complete control over the environment, but in gyms you have almost no control. Gyms can be dark, noisy and hot, which is bad for the equipment. And streaming video requires a lot of bandwidth, which is not that common in gyms and fitness studios. Solving these problems and making the system scalable took a lot of work.
Fundraising was another hurdle. I never thought being a woman was a disadvantage, but I discovered that venture capitalists don’t take women as seriously or give them the same respect that they give men. It was a wakeup call. I learned that approximately 2.2% of VC investment goes to female-founded companies, while 86% of VC money goes to all-male teams. I feel fortunate in finding funders like SeventySix Capital and Golden Seeds who see the opportunity in funding female founders.
JC: What’s coming up next for FORTË? Any big milestones on the horizon?
LF: We’re building a really strong team – we’re up to 60 people now – and we’ve made some great hires from companies like Nike and Orangetheory Fitness. Many of them are women who joined us because they’re excited to be working with and for women.
COVID has accelerated the adoption of online streaming by gyms and studios, and FORTË has been well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity. We believe livestream classes will continue to be relevant even after society opens back up. People can work out in the gym some days and at home other days. Looking ahead, we think there might be opportunities in industries besides fitness, such as education. We’re working with a cooking school in Tokyo right now.
FORTË is also helping gyms and studios reach an untapped customer base beyond current regular fitness buffs. There are millions of people who are too intimidated to go to gyms because they’re out of shape and/or can’t afford high-priced options like personal trainers and Peloton. Our technology allows gyms to reach these people with livestreaming without costly upfront capital investments.
Our client list is growing, too. We launched with the YMCA, which has a customer base of 23 million people; UFC is about to go live; and we’re streaming from the gym at UnderArmour’s world headquarters. We are already operating in US, Canada, EU and this is just the beginning.
For more wisdom like this from other incredible female leaders, read more on Golden Seeds’ blog.