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02 Nov

SOLO Workout: How Two Guys from Different Continents Combined to Help Make Gyms Smarter

A team of engineers from Poland and a technological tinkerer from Sydney joined together to attempt to shake up the gym equipment industry.

Dane Dobre, the Business Developer of SOLO Workout told Bullpen how he found like-minded entrepreneurs on the opposite side of the world and have come together to build a tech stack that is allowing gym owners to turn their facilities into smart gyms.

SOLO Workout develops sensors that are strategically placed on gym equipment to make any bit of regular gym equipment smart. The data from the sensors provides many benefits to gym owners and their members.

Members tap to automatically track their workouts and connect with trainers. Whilst gym owners benefit from offering a connected workout experience and can manage their assets from anywhere in the world.

As Dane said, “90 per cent of gyms can’t afford the latest smart equipment, most have regular equipment that works just fine. Our innovative solution turns regular gym equipment into smart equipment. That way everyone gets the benefit of a connected experience without having to update or replace their existing machines.”

We begun with how the parties came together.

You’re working with people from Poland, so you’d have the same mindset and values as a team even though you’re many time zones apart. It’s pretty cool to find people far away that you’re in sync with, so how do you develop and maintain those values and strong business culture?

Dane Dobre: “It goes back to how it all started and how we met. I was a tech hobbyist based here in Sydney, building basic prototypes and hitting the gym in my spare time. I suffered a painful back injury which led to the idea of building a barbell sensor, a digital bubble level to know if I was crooked during barbell exercises.

“With my limited tech skills, I was searching for a development partner as I knew that someone, somewhere had to be developing something similar. I started looking on forums and also flew to China and India looking for suitable tech partners.

“Then randomly, on Android Police, I found a comment and video from one of the engineers of SOLO Workout. We started a conversation and it just so happened that the founder (Rafal) also suffered similar injuries as myself. Both of us went through the pain of being injured, going through a long and intensive rehabilitation process and we found that there was a compelling need to be able to automatically track our workouts because it was frustrating and time-consuming doing it manually using existing fitness apps.

“We were solving the same problem and gelled right away. We spoke online a few times and the following day I end up jumping on a plane to meet them at FIBO 2019 in Germany. This is where it crystallised that we had the same values, beliefs and had the same passion.”

With the physical distance, how do you maintain a good, equal working collaboration?

DD: “We have an incredibly active WhatsApp group, we’re constantly discussing things and it gives a feeling that they’re in an office next door to me. We have set up a team collaboration tool so we can equally see what work is in progress and what’s been done.

“I’ve moved my work hours to line up with their work hours. They’ve got a team of over 10 engineers and technical developers based in Poland, so we start work at 4pm Australian (EST) and my work hours have shifted accordingly so we can collaborate effectively.”

We can technologically collaborate, again it’s interesting that there is this meeting of the minds. The one challenge is building team culture when there isn’t a lot of physical interaction. Do you feel you can build a good team culture without physically being with your co-workers a lot of the time?

DD: “It’s a definite yes and it was because I did visit them and make that personal contact. Then in July, the SOLO Workout team came over to Australia for two weeks.

“Instead of getting a hotel, they stayed at my house. We worked and did everything together. It was great to build that relationship and by the end of those two weeks I felt that we grew even stronger.”

Take me through the pilot phase of your product and sensors?

DD: “The first product that we are launching has been developed in Poland by the engineering team and a local manufacturer that is doing all of the tooling, circuit boards and certification.

“We had to ensure was the certification process meets Australian and global standards so we can make this product scalable around the world.

“Then we had to update the language and design of the software app. Us Aussies like to shorten everything, ‘repetitions became reps and series became sets.’

“In Australia, we started by installing the first versions of the hardware at a large second-hand gym warehouse that services over 300 gyms Australia wide. This warehouse was like heaven for the SOLO Workout team because they had a whole range of machines that they could retrofit and it was a great first place for them to start testing the product.

“I’m based at Western Sydney University which was the perfect place to do our second lot of testing. We’ve now been testing and experimenting in one of the university labs on a single machine with 100 per cent accuracy across all rep and weight counts. Now it’s about scaling that one machine and the machines at the warehouse to be able to cater to all of the different brands there are in Australia.”

So your tech is compatible for any type of machine, weights, barbells, and dumbbells?

DD: “That’s correct. Although there is a setup process involved for different equipment and some machines are easier to work with than others.”

What marks out different brands and weights that you have to account for with your sensors?

DD: “It’s been an interesting challenge, but the benefits of working in a gym warehouse were having access to various types of machines. The weight stacks can vary between each brand, some are smaller and some are thicker. The first challenge was to make sure our sensors fit across the various machines. We wanted to ensure every machine would have the same, accurate data whether it’s a machine from the 1980’s or contemporary machines.

“As we’re still in the pilot phase, we are still solving some challenges but we do cater for the most common brands.

“Sensors are placed on the sides of machines so there aren’t any moving parts, it means that the solution is durable and the data is accurate. Our big point of difference is that we have the weight data. There and many products that can count reps and sets, but not many that can capture how much weight is being used.

“If you haven’t got weight data then you can’t give an objective measurement of how hard a person has worked out.”

How do you define the end-user base, can you break down the verticals?

DD: “The hardware goes to the gym owners but there is a mobile app for gym users. We believe our solution is the easiest way to track your workouts. It’s about helping anyone from the beginner, to the person who has been training for many years have a really simple way to get their workout data.

“I also look at this as a complementary tool to person trainers. At the moment, there are heaps of wearable devices out there, and they’re all great, but they all require some kind of manual data entry. This can take anywhere between five or 10 minutes of extra time, tapping away. With SOLO Workout, it takes less than five seconds to tap and connect.

“The reason the gym user is our focus is that there are 190 million gym members across the globe and there is just under five million in Australia.

“We are also developing advanced metrics for strength and conditioning coaches or sports scientists, but that’s something we can target down the track. Right now, the everyday gym owner and their members are our target market.”

I’ve met you in person and you look like someone that does train and lift.

DD: “Oh sometimes (laughs)! I’m usually in a gym every day, but most of the time it’s speaking to customers rather than lifting weights. The startup lifestyle includes lots of long hours but I still try fit in a few sessions per week.”

In your experience, and this is also from talking to other people developing ideas for gyms, but has the gym been a bit static or slow for technological change?

DD: “Overall I think gyms have been one of the later areas to be disrupted. A dumbbell has been a dumbbell for many years now.

“Yes, there are companies that have been building smart gym solutions but it’s all been aimed at the very high end of the market. This simply isn’t feasible for most gym owners.

“The innovative startups are the ones who are providing wireless retrofitted solutions for gyms. A gym fit out is not cheap and if an owner has spent hundreds of thousands to do a fit-out and it’s not connected, they’re not going to make upgrades in the short to mid-term.

“I believe the next five to ten years the solution is a retrofit, which is until smart machines become affordable to the gym owners.”

You’re potentially capturing a lot of weightlifting and training data, thus the potential to capture a lot of data on how an individual trains. Is it on your roadmap to be able to benchmark assorted people of heights, weight, lifting technique to be able to help improve training technique?

DD: “That’s correct. At the moment, SOLO Workout solution captures the essential data of an exercise – machine used, weight used, reps sets, timing and range of motion.

“To go deeper, the solution is to add in a vision-based system on top of our sensors. That’s where startups, such as Sydney-based Activintel add heaps of additional value. Their tech can integrate with SOLO Workout to create the ultimate tool to capture accurate workout data and dive deep into the analytics of technique and form.

“However, at this moment, using cameras in gyms isn’t widely accepted. It might be a few years before every piece of gym equipment has a camera on top of it. Currently, the vision-based solutions are generally reserved for elite teams, athletes and sports scientists who don’t mind having everything captured on video.

“At the moment, I’ve found that most gym members do accept a sensor-based solution, knowing they’re tapping and giving access to their basic information, including how much time they spend on the machine, how many repetitions they do and what weight they’re lifting. All this can be kept private if needed, but sharing the data does make for interesting leaderboard challenges within the smart gym community.”

What does growth look like to you?

DD: “I think it’s about solving problems one step at a time and making sure we have a robust, accurate, reliable solution and do it very well.

“The first products will be going live in gyms in Poland and Sydney, then the plan is to scale that across Australia and Europe, then partner with companies across the United States, India and China.

“The plan is to scale this worldwide as an affordable, simple solution. The thing about being in the gym market is that many gyms are global franchises. Having one franchise in Sydney means there is potential for exposure to markets internationally.

“We are always open to collaboration opportunities with other startups that are creating innovative solutions in the fitness space. With SOLO Workout, there are prototypes for barbells, dumbbells and the entire gym floor. In the next two years, I do believe that we will see the first complete smart gym where all the equipment is connected.

“In a world where everything is becoming connected, we want to do our bit and help more people reach their goals sooner by tracking their workouts and having a great experience in the gym.”