How Aaptiv Built The Netflix Of Fitness

Like many of the innovators who build and launch their own platform businesses, Ethan Agarwal’s business, Aaptiv, was inspired by a big friction that he found difficult to overcome.

Agarwal told Karen Webster in the latest episode of The Matchmaker Is In that he’d put on some weight while in graduate school and thought running would help him shed the pounds, but he also wanted some expert guidance on getting started and staying motivated. Enter friction. At the same time that Agarwal wanted to lose weight, he hit the road as a consultant.

Finding help that could follow him on the road was tough. Sure, he told Webster, there were plenty of studios with classes and personal trainers in big cities, but neither were practical solutions for a traveling runner. As for digital products, they were mostly video, an impractical option if one wanted to run outdoors and not inside on the treadmill.


That’s when the idea hit him: What runners need, Agarwal reasoned, was audio-only guidance they could listen to while out running, coupled with playlists that inspired the right speeds and tempo. Since that product didn’t exist at the time, Agarwal decided to build it. Out of his own problem, Aaptiv was born as a subscription platform that connects motivated exercisers with music and “the best trainers in the world” to help them reach their fitness goals.

A Model Under Development

In the early days, Aaptiv offered two options: a la carte live classes taught by the Aaptiv trainers for $5 a shot, and the archive of those live classes to users via a subscription. Agarwal told Webster that he and his team quickly saw the subscription to the content on demand was the much more popular alternative and doubled down on a fuller catalog of fitness training content on demand. The live a la carte classes were no more.

Today with Aaptiv, most members opt for a single $100 annual fee to explore a variety of fitness options, as well as the interplay between a lot of workout types. (Aaptiv also has a $15 monthly billing plan.) The runner who wants to train for a 5K gets guidance on running, but also on strength training, stretching and, ideally, maybe some yoga, all to create a well-rounded fitness program that provides balance needed to improve the member’s overall fitness experience.

This approach happens to align more closely with Aaptiv’s mission as a company — to make its fitness training easy and accessible for consumers on their own fitness journey, on whatever path they choose. The platform’s goals, he notes, isn’t to just help consumers exercise more, but to get them on the path to exercising better. What started as an app catering to runners around three running training programs has expanded to include 22 areas of fitness with over 2,500 individual classes. Agarwal said that Aaptiv releases 40 new classes a week.

“We are much more committed to helping our user on their fitness journey,” Agarwal said. “What people don’t like is the idea they have to pay more money every time they want to work out more — or in a more specialized way. That becomes a disincentive to working out — giving people an unlimited offering removes that disincentive.”

A fact, Agarwal noted, that is visible in the use rates seen on the platform. The average Aaptiv user takes 10 classes a month, roughly double the number of times the average American spends actively engaged in fitness training.

An Incentive To Add Excellence

The problem with the studio model, Agarwal told Webster, often comes with building out scale as the products become more successful. The more people who become interested, the more space and trainers the studio needs to accommodate their business. Being a digital product, Agarwal noted, there is obviously no need to worry about physical space — the “classes” take place in the users’ ears. But Apptiv also has both an easier and more difficult challenge when it comes to recruiting talent.

Over the years, Agarwal noted, Aaptiv has viewed trainers from all over the spectrum — from inside New York City’s most popular studios, through organic connections made through the trainers that are already working with the company and through a host of other referrals. Over the last two years, Agarwal told Webster, Aaptiv has easily spoken to over 1,000 trainers — and hired 22.

“The benefit of our business model is that, unlike a studio [that] has to keep hiring on more trainers, our digital product is something that a master trainer can create and ship out to users millions of time. That, among other things, means we can be extremely selective about the trainers we hire, and we can really preserve a high-quality experience.”

That fact that the company doesn’t always have to be on the lookout for talent — always recruiting to fill too many spaces — is good, Agarwal noted. He said the challenge is in making sure it can expand enough to continue offering rich variety for users while also making sure to offer the best trainer talent and content available.

A New Fitness Journey

As for what’s next? Agarwal told Webster that a good workout app is like a good workout routine in that they both require the same single ingredient: focus.

“I am a great believer in focus and the idea that, when you are an up-and-comer, you need to do one thing very well. And there is a huge market for us to serve — 17 million people run a 5K in the U.S. per year; 8 million people run a 10K. There are a lot people we can help.”

That is why, he noted, were we to check back in with Aaptiv a year from now, we would see a firm doing a lot of what it does today, but for a bigger set of clients — and while offering an even larger library of content. l

“I think a year from now, we will have more trainers and be serving up more of the right content for the fitness customer at the right time. Honestly, I think a year from now, we will be better at it than we already are.”