Coming out of the pandemic, many of us have changed the way we approach fitness. With more than 60% of Americans saying they’re more focused on their health and wellness since COVID, Americans are realizing they need to take greater care of themselves to better withstand illness and support mental health. CoPilot, a game-changing and growing fitness app (and Spectacle client), is helping many of us stick with it even as we experience a return to normal life.
We virtually “sat down” with Founder & CEO, Matt Spettel, to talk about the current economic environment, the role of brand, and the importance of listening to the customer.
Matt, can you give us some background on CoPilot and the way the company started?
My co-founder, Gabe Madonna, and I come from the world of traditional fitness. We were both “gym bros” and that’s the world in which we founded the company. When we first developed CoPIlot, we were optimizing our results in the gym down to the pound and the rep. It’s been an interesting journey to see how that’s evolved over time. Through listening to our customers, we’ve made a big shift from being super fitnessy to being more about wellbeing and consistency with healthy habits. The app provides a unique one-on-one coaching experience that pairs individuals with a dedicated coach to form lasting lifestyle changes. We now see exercise as a tool for health rather than a tool for getting six-pack abs.
How has customer listening impacted your product and brand?
I talk about this a lot with other entrepreneurs. We always aspire to listen to the customer and iterate the product. I can’t take credit for some sort of crazy process we used to find initial traction. We found success in one of the many random tests we did. So, my advice is to be aggressive in the channels you are testing but also the positioning you are testing.
What led to that initial traction and breakthrough?
The first breakthrough marketing event we did was with a YouTuber, WheezyWaiter, who made a video about what he loved about the product. Previous to that video, we had been talking about CoPilot as a data-driven personal trainer. It was very results-oriented and the idea was to use it to get shredded. But WheezyWaiter spoke to his own experience, which was about none of that. It was about him making exercise a more consistent part of his life and all of the trickle down effects he experienced. And that’s what unlocked our growth.
Our COO, John LaGue, pushed us to aggressively try different channels and messages, and I’m so glad he did because we wouldn’t have landed on that key insight by talking to the traditional fitness audience. You can’t always talk to who you think your customer is, in order to find your core customer. So don’t let your own biases completely dictate the direction you go in.
Who is CoPilot’s core customer now?
Someone who has experienced repeated failure with exercise. It’s a large market, for better or for worse. We are also for people who want to exercise but don’t have the means or structure to execute on that and be consistent. People have tried so many things, but none of it sticks. Fast forward about a month after starting with CoPilot, and they are saying, “Wow this is the first time I’ve actually stuck with something like this”. The ability to inspire consistency is the difference-maker for that audience.
What kind of growth did you see in the business once you found and focused on that core customer?
When we found alignment with our ideal customer, this product, these coaches—it was like a switch was flipped overnight. It went from “Okay, I’ll try it,” to “Wow, this is changing my life. #copilotforlife.” For the people we’re helping, our product can be life-changing. As far as data goes, the retention, engagement, and workout frequency have really gone up. It’s very rewarding to realize you’re providing a huge amount of value to these people.
What makes CoPilot so different from most fitness tech companies?
Human involvement is what makes us different. In the beginning, we found that it didn’t matter how personalized a plan really was. What actually mattered was, is this something a person will actually do? If you felt like a workout was tailor-made for you, to fit into your day, you’re much more likely to do it. It’s less a data optimization challenge and more a psychological challenge. Our customers really like to know there’s someone who cares about them and wants to check in with them—and our coaches do. That’s where a lot of fitness tech companies fall short. That’s why CoPilot needed to exist.
The truth is that we’ve seen a huge shift in the fitness space. Everything is shifting from an old-school fitness mentality of transforming your body as the main goal, to fitness as a way to maintain basic health and wellbeing. It used to be that 80% of people were working out for an aesthetic-related goal. Now it’s 60% working out for general health. Coming out of COVID and the state of the world right now, people are reprioritizing in life. Is it really about getting that 6-pack? Or is it the basics — energy, sleep, mental well-being? That’s in line with where we’re trying to focus. I believe we’ll continue to see a downfall in terms of gyms and fitness companies that aren’t able to adapt fast enough to that new mentality.
CoPilot worked with Spectacle to tell a powerful story and up-level visual identity. What role has brand played for you in fundraising up until this point?
Brand has been most powerful for differentiation in a crowded space. At the surface level, our product seems simple in construction. From the consumer’s perspective, if you look at a competitor of ours, Future, you’ll see people doing handstands and Olympic lifts, and all the coaches are in these perfect white backgrounds flexing in athletic jerseys. Those are all amazing coaches and I’m sure they have great success rates with clients. But when most people in America see that, it’s not resonating. They’re thinking, “I haven’t been to the gym in years.”
CoPilot, on the other hand, has a trainer-down-the-street type vibe—we’re the trainer for the people who don’t want to be Olympians and don’t care about that stuff. Our coaches share their passions in life outside of fitness—dogs, families, hobbies—and we have found that’s way more interesting and attractive to clients than anything we could say about their credentials or experience.
At its core, CoPilot is about being a human, approachable brand for the rest of us. Almost every fitness tech company goes after the elite, inspired individual, and telling a differentiated story has really helped us stand out.
What role will brand play moving forward, now that funding is more competitive?
The same story we tell to a consumer is also an equally compelling story to an investor. In the last round we raised, investors definitely resonated with the fact that we’re the only ones serving true fitness beginners (a huge audience), while almost every other fitness app is still competing for a traditional fitness audience.
We are always fine-tuning our language and channels. But the high-level concept of our brand positioning and target customer, and how that juxtaposes against the general fitness industry, is what I’m confident in, especially going into a potential recession. Because we’re not a nice-to-have, we’re a must-have.
Even with amazing traction, we know the current climate is tough, economically. What are your biggest challenges right now as the CEO of a startup?
Universally, most startup CEOs are concerned with runway management and capital raise planning. The last round we raised was an 18-month execution plan, giving us a solid year to execute and 6 months to raise a round. So when the market becomes more volatile and more strict in VC situations, it becomes a question of: how can we extend our runway so we don’t have to raise until the market recovers? Or, how do we execute to a point where we’re in that top chunk of companies that are getting funded?
At CoPilot, our approach is to continue to execute and invest in the company and be in a strong position to raise capital. We carry a lot of operational costs with marketing, coaches, and staff. So for us to suddenly cut back to low-burn mode would be a drastic move that would impact the success we have been experiencing. We have the fundamentals. We’re going to continue to scale, but be more budget conscious.
How should other startups be thinking about weathering a potential storm?
It depends on the stage of the company, and the level to which you’re confident in your product and market fit. If you can cut costs and become profitable before you run out of money, that’s an advisable thing to do. It gives you the highest possible chance of surviving. And if you only have 6 months of runway left, your options are more limited.
But when I talk with my investors and mentors, there’s a downside to cutting off everything.
Yes, the bar is significantly higher right now. But being aggressive now, if it’s feasible for you, can be advantageous. It could help you pull out ahead of the market if everyone else is scaling back.
What’s your take on the VC funding constriction we’re hearing so much about?
One message I’d give to founders is to not get consumed by the pessimism of certain investors or media sources. Some top-tier investors have been extremely blunt in their messages around what investors should be doing during a recession right this… and yet they’re continuing to invest. Watching presentations with smaller investors in more private settings, they’re talking more about optimizing and moving forward, and the opportunities these situations present.
There’s still a lot of opportunity. Recessions are catalysts for consumer behavior change. It’s an amazing time to be innovating and disrupting competitors. If you see a competitor laying off a bunch of employees, it might be time to take more market share from them. There are ways you can be aggressive in positioning and mindset that don’t require you to spend huge amounts of capital.
Let fear be a consideration but not a motivator. Fear is very unreliable. It doesn’t inspire innovation or out-of-the-box thinking. Be aware of the situation, but be grounded in why you founded your company. Focus on your strengths. If your weaknesses are leading every conversation, you’ll be mediocre at best.