Meet your new (virtual) trainer: Aaptiv.
Meet your new (virtual) trainer: Aaptiv. (Photo: Simon Landrein)

Fitness App Aaptiv Wants to Be More Than Friends

With a goal of forming connections through audio-based workouts on your phone, Aaptiv might be the end of personal trainers

Meet your new (virtual) trainer: Aaptiv.

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On a recent afternoon in March, I laced up my sneakers and headed outside. It was my first run with Aaptiv, a subscription-based fitness app that provides on-demand audio workouts. Over a pop-y soundtrack, trainer Meg Takacs announced through my headphones that she would be guiding me through a 30-minute prerecorded intermediate interval session. Sunny but firm, Takacs guessed when I—or really anyone listening to the workout—started to flag three-quarters of the way in and cheerfully indicated she would have none of it. “Everything you’ve worked for so far in this workout comes down to these last minutes,” she said into my ear. “This is nothing but focus and force.” My lungs were screaming, but I picked up the pace, dodging pedestrians and dog walkers.

On my way back home, I let another trainer, Jaime McFaden, guide me through a 32-minute walk-run for beginners. The music was upbeat, and McFaden was pleasantly chatty, focusing as much on life advice as the workout itself. “Think of a positive habit that you want to implement into your day, into your life…. Whatever it is, take a moment right now and think about the habit that you are working on,” she advised. At one point, she directed me to “find some beautiful stuff that makes you smile.” Dutifully, I took in the washed-out trees, the sky, and the enviable stoops of Brooklyn in late winter. As the class drew to an end and she bid goodbye, I found myself wishing she’d hang around the rest of the way home.

It’s this bond between users and their favorite highly motivational trainers that makes Aaptiv worth paying for even in a sea of free competitors says CEO and founder Ethan Agarwal. Membership, which costs $15 a month or $100 a year, provides access to more than thousands of audio classes in a dozen categories, such as outdoor running, treadmill, elliptical, spinning, boxing, yoga, and meditation, from 20 trainers. This connection may seem like a squishy differentiator, but it’s a sales pitch that has clearly convinced investors: founded in 2015, the company has raised $55 million in venture funding to date, including a $22 million infusion in June that came with a reported valuation of over $200 million. In December, Crunchbase listed Aaptiv as the fifth-most-funded fitness startup behind big guns like ClassPass, Flywheel Sports, and Peloton. It’s one of two companies in the top ten focused exclusively on a fitness app.

Like most self-respecting startup founders, Agarwal’s mission is ambitious. Aaptiv is more than a fitness app, he tells me. Instead, it’s a service designed to help people become better versions of themselves by leading healthier, more active lives. When I point out that the creators of other fitness apps—or any fitness company—would likely say the same thing, he shakes his head. Most of them, he says, are too focused on aesthetic markers like weight loss and muscle tone or fitness goals such as strength, speed, and endurance. “I think of us more as a digital coach,” he says. “We are much more someone who is there for you as opposed to someone who is there to guilt you into looking a certain way.” Other apps are in the fitness business. Aaptiv is, too. But according to Agrawal, it’s also in the relationship-building business. 

At 33 years old, Agarwal is trim and visibly fit. It wasn’t always this way. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 2011, he got a peripatetic job at McKinsey, a top consulting firm. On the road more days than not, Agarwal’s weight crept upward until, as if overnight, he was 40 pounds heavier than he’d been before he started graduate school.

He remembers the moment when the physical transformation fully hit him. It was October 6, 2013, and he was in Chicago for work. He’d just come back from a client dinner and was changing into sweats in his hotel room when he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror. “I had this moment where I was like, Who is that person?” he says. More than the weight gain itself, he says he was devastated by what it represented: “I wasn’t taking care of myself,” he says. He texted his then girlfriend (and now wife), who suggested he take up running.

For all his careful insistence that Aaptiv is not a weight-loss app, Agarwal’s anecdotes sometimes fall into the habit, common among many health startups, of conflating a lower number on the scale with virtuous traits such as self-control, confidence, and discipline. Of the member success stories Agarwal shares with me, some portray weight loss as an inciting incident that led to more essential changes in users’ lives: in the case of the business owner who went from 400 to 200 pounds, it was the gumption to expand into new markets. For the mom who felt comfortable putting on a bathing suit for the first time in years, it was a renewed sense of self-confidence.

(Still, Lauren Hanafin, Aaptiv’s head of communication, is adamant: “Our members come to us for various reasons based on their own lives—some come to run a faster marathon, some come to run their first mile, some come to get stronger, and some came to us because they want to lose weight,” she says. “We promote all of these things if it’s done with the intention to live a healthier life and makes them feel good. It’s not about weight.”)

As Agarwal tells it, his own transformation began with a search for accessible workouts that he could take with him on the road. The available options weren’t satisfying—“you needed to be pretty well educated on the fitness market to learn how to use any of these products, and that wasn’t me,” he says—and for a nascent runner, they were too centered on video. At the time, video-based workouts were blowing up (Nike’s app launched in 2011), and a bevy of YouTube fitness influencers had established themselves with free personality-driven exercise classes that racked up thousands, sometimes millions, of views. Agarwal wanted an audio app that guided him through workouts in a way that was convenient, unintimidating, and didn’t require him to stare at a screen. “I started thinking, How can I make this, and is this something that can help other people, too?” he says.  

Agarwal wanted an audio app that guided him through workouts in a way that was convenient, unintimidating, and didn’t require him to stare at a screen.

In 2015, Agarwal left his job at McKinsey to focus on Aaptiv full-time, raising money, aggressively hiring, and refining the business model. Now the company is located on the 49th floor of One World Trade Center, looking down on Manhattan.

When I visit in March, the office is half empty. (The company moved in April 2018, having outgrown its old space.) Everything gleams: the white floor, the healthy snack bar, the panoramic view of Midtown’s skyscrapers. I head to the back, where John Thornhill, one of Aaptiv’s trainers, is in a dark recording booth working with sound engineer Jack Mullin, who sits directly outside, in front of a mixing desk, to put the finishing touches on an advanced elliptical class. To achieve the personal connection Agarwal says gives the company an advantage, Aaptiv is highly selective in choosing its trainers. While each has his or her own particular style, they share an uncanny ability—aided by user data and feedback from Aaptiv’s community—to tap into their audiences’ psyche and motivate while leaving them wanting more. “The connection and tension of that relationship…that’s the whole goal,” Agarwal says. 

Thornhill and Mullin have already run through the class once and are now in finesse mode, rerecording certain segments to improve the tone, enunciation, or wording. I’m given headphones so I can listen in. “Feel that chest,” Thornhill croons into the mic, somehow pouring energy and optimism into each word.

“I think we need something more specific than feel,” Mullin says. Thornhill tries it again, this time swapping in “engage.”

The two of them continue onward, pausing regularly to edit descriptions, modify delivery, or refine phrasing. By now, Mullin knows Thornhill’s verbal tics, such as a tendency to pepper his instructions with certain words. (“I say baby too much,” Thornhill says at one point.)

Thornhill eventually pops out of the booth for a breather. Tall and predictably muscular, with light brown hair pulled into a low ponytail, he’s a friendly but more subdued version of his audio-booth twin.

“I take one of John’s classes when I’m having a bad day,” Hanafin tells me.

Later, I listen to Thornhill’s Backstreet Is Back Alright treadmill class at my gym. As promised, it’s aggressively upbeat; I can see how people could use it as a mood lifter. When Thornhill tells me to “let the chorus guide you through your speeds,” it feels rude not to comply.

Aaptiv is far from the only company betting on the personalized convenience and (comparatively) low cost of a digital trainer. “The hottest trend in the past three to four years is home-based fitness workouts,” says Rommel Dionisio, the former managing director of equity research at Aegis Capital, a broker-dealer based in New York City. Peloton, the fitness company that sells $1,995 exercise bikes on which users can stream cycling classes (for an additional $39 a month), pioneered the livestream class format. The 800-pound gorilla in the digital space, Peloton has sold more than 400,000 bikes and is laying the groundwork for an IPO.

Peloton has also set its sights firmly on Aaptiv’s user base, having recently launched its own subscription app that, for $19 a month, includes access to audio-only classes for live yoga, running, strength training, and meditation classes, no equipment required. It’s not the only one challenging the company: in July, ClassPass, the in-person workout-class subscription service, came out with its own audio-only app that features on-demand classes from a curated list of trainers. In other words, it operates exactly like Aaptiv. Only it’s free.

When I ask about this, Agarwal brushes it off. The difference between Aaptiv and its free competitors, he claims, is the company’s quality—of its trainers, classes, and overarching mission. If these distinguishers don’t totally convince in a category as crowded as digital fitness, Agarwal gets it. The proof is in the user base, he says. After a 20,000-plus new-member influx this January, total membership now sits at 230,000, and about 75 percent of those are yearly subscribers. (Meanwhile, the monthly churn rate is in the mid-single digits, according to the company.) “If the quality or the experience was on par [with other fitness options], our business would go nowhere, because everyone would just go to the free product,” he says.

Peloton has also set its sights firmly on Aaptiv’s user base.

Despite this member uptick, Aaptiv still faces challenges. Before its latest funding round, Agarwal told CNBC that he believed the company could go public in 2020 if it wanted to, adding that it wouldn’t follow the same path as SoulCycle (which registered for an IPO only to backpedal last May, citing “market conditions”). When I ask him if he’s still thinking about going public next year, he hesitates. Not in 2020, he says. Maybe in 2021.

In general, pushing back an IPO can be “a cause for concern,” Dionisio says, a signal that a company’s internal goals aren’t being met. In Aaptiv’s case specifically, it could be an indicator that “the subscription model is not yet bearing fruit,” says Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at the research and advisory firm Aite Group. Still, Peterson says that delaying an IPO is not necessarily worrisome. (In response to these suggestions, Agarwal said: “Our decision to stay private for the time being is not based on company performance and [is] instead based on the direction we feel is best to grow the company.”)

Now Agarwal is focused on continuing to expand Aaptiv’s user base, in part by launching in new markets. In November the company announced an international expansion in English; the app is now available for download in 20 countries, including Brazil, India, and Australia. Aaptiv has carefully studied the way fitness preferences vary based on geography—in parts of Europe, for example, gym culture isn’t nearly as big as it is in the U.S.—and is in the process of recording classes in other languages, including Spanish and German. 

Aaptiv is also working on the launch of a new personalized service that would allow users to integrate all their workouts—whether that’s a session at Barry’s Bootcamp or a yoga class at a boutique studio—into the app. Agarwal won’t go into details other than to say that the platform will better enable users to commit to good habits. He also hinted that the app might include a healthy-eating component in the future.

Given its focus on relationship building, I tell Agarwal that since trying the app, I’ve noticed how it insulates you in a private audio experience even as, in the case of the outdoor running classes, you move through public spaces. We spend so much of our time hooked up to our phones, I say, and Aaptiv, with its chorus of on-demand coaches, takes this a step further. Does he ever worry that his app is just another way we can tune out the world and each other? 

We spend so much of our time hooked up to our phones, and Aaptiv, with its chorus of on-demand coaches, takes this a step further.

It’s something he’s thought about a lot, he says. Only I have it backward. The way he sees it, Aaptiv isn’t amplifying disconnection, it’s helping alleviate it. Yes, it would be nice if we all had the option to work out with friends or family at our convenience, and “everyone should feel free to do that,” he says. But more often than not, that’s not the way the world works. “A lot of people go on walks or runs by themselves because they don’t have anyone else to go with,” Agarwal says. 

On-demand trainers provide the support users need to build better habits, push themselves, and make exercise a regular part of their lives, he continues. For many people, they also provide a form of emotional support and companionship that might not exist outside the app. “If I can help someone’s loneliness by giving them someone they feel like they are talking to, or someone they feel like they are interacting with, that actually feels like I am helping the problem as opposed to causing it,” he says.

In this vein, Aaptiv recently held a pop-up in New York, where users gained access to a private gym where they could work out using the app. All 140 spots were claimed within hours, and attendance was in the hundreds (each attendee was allowed to bring up to two guests). As a surprise, Aaptiv trainers stopped by, allowing attendees to talk to some of their favorite personalities. 

The strength of the reaction has gotten Aaptiv thinking about doing more “real-life events.” For a company that has built its name turning an in-person interaction into an on-demand, one-way, audio-based experience, this expansion would represent something of a bizarre full-circle moment. As intimate as Aaptiv’s workouts can feel, it’s created a novelty of classes where users can converse with their favorite trainers—and the trainers can talk back.