As former colleagues at accountancy giant Ernst & Young, they were used to conducting meetings in boardrooms but when they started courting health clubs for their pay-as-you-go gym website, they realised they’d need a different approach.
“We came from a professional background so we’d be going to sales pitches in our suits and ties and meeting up with gym managers in flip-flops and shorts,” says Harmsworth, 34. “We’d be doing a pitch on our laptop poolside as someone was dive-bombing in the swimming lanes.”
The idea that prompted their departure from the world of boardrooms and briefcases to saunas and steam rooms first started when the two decided to swim to the Isle of Wight for charity in 2008 and found it hard to locate gyms that would let them work out every now and again.
Ward took a break from the corporate world to go travelling, but when he returned the urge to set up their own business started growing. “It’s fair to say I’d always harboured the ambition to do start-ups,” says Harmsworth, “and I’d tried to launch a series of terrible ones Jamie just laughed at.”
They came up with the concept PayasUGym — an online database of gyms where users could buy day, week or month passes rather than have to sign a lengthy contract — over a pint in 2009. Ward decided to quit his job and do a few months due diligence on the concept.
“We didn’t really know anything about the health and fitness market,” the 35-year-old says. “Despite the fact that I qualified in leisure studies,” interjects Harmsworth. The feedback from potential customers was strong. But the gyms, keen on their model of tying in their customers for the long term, were not so enthusiastic.
“The name PayasUgym is instantly appealing to the end user but it took a bit of explanation for the industry to understand what it is we’re doing,” says Ward.
“It is bringing people who are not currently using gyms to get them to use their gyms in whatever capacity they want to use their gyms.”
For their initial fund-raising they spoke to hundreds of angel investors and eventually managed to hit their target of £300,000. But the day before they were due to close, one of their biggest backers dropped out.
“All the other angels said: ‘We’re not closing because we thought you were at £300,000. You need to get to £300,000, we’ll give you two weeks to do it’,” remembers Ward. Thankfully, they managed to get enough to close, and launched a few months later.
Starting with 85 gyms, they now have more than 1700 on the site — about one in three in the UK. Users, they say, split into a number of groups. There are those who often travel away from home for work; those who are too busy to make a long-term membership worthwhile; and gym fanatics, who already have a membership but want to be able to use PayasUgym when they’re not close to their own one.
There are also those who use the website to see what their local gym is like — an audience the industry was missing out on. If you’re thinking of joining a health centre, says Harmsworth, “you go online, see what’s out there.
“You find the clubs you’re interested in and then you go away and talk to people [about them]… Once you’ve actually found the club you’re interested in and you’ve got a referral, only then do you visit the club.”
The gyms, therefore, were missing out on the whole decision-making process, whereas Harmsworth and Ward reckon about a fifth of users now go on to take out a full membership.
The reviews system is good for the gyms as well as the users, they claim. “It’s the best form of insight they’ve got,” says Harmsworth. “I can sit in front of an area manager for a group now and say, I know that your showers are cold in Northampton, the manager in Bristol is grumpy and the rowing machine is broken.”
PayasUgym monitors the feedback too, and has taken gyms off the site that haven’t been up to scratch.
At present, the company is working on letting users organise fitness classes through the site. “We see that as being our complete gym service,” says Ward, and eventually they would like to be a portal where other kinds of sporting activities, such as football pitches, can be booked. “But we’re doing one part of that at a time,” Harmsworth adds.
Despite all the stresses of starting a business together, the two have remained good friends — Ward will be Harmsworth’s best man at his wedding in the summer. “He needs me back at work on Monday, so actually on the stag do I’ve got a second pair of eyes watching my back so nothing too bad can happen to me,” says Harmsworth. “That’s what I think anyway.”
Turnover: £1.3 million (2013)
Business idol: Ward — PayPal founders Peter Thiel, Max Levchin and Elon Musk; Harmsworth — Tony Hsieh of US online shoe firm Zappos.
Source: London Evening Standard