“We were just two guys and a PowerPoint”…
From start-up enterprise to celebrity-endorsed fitness app, in our interview, GoJoe co-founders Will and Phil, revealed all about their proud Leeds roots, love of sport (even though they’re not very good at it!) and the risks and rewards of quitting a stable job to pursue their passion through tech.
GoJoe is a fitness app which transforms everyday exercise into motivational, social and team-based activities. Designed to make solo exercise more enjoyable through fitness challenges with friends, colleagues, celebrities, and the growing community of GoJoe users.
Tell us a little bit about the origins of GoJoe and your connection to Leeds.
Will: It all started here in 2003. Phil and I met on the first day of University in Leeds. We both did a degree in law here, we lived here together for two or three years. It’s really close to our hearts and, as time has gone on, Leeds keeps popping up. Including with GoJoe, some of our big investors, are based here.
Phil: Yeah, we lived in quite a modest house, let’s put it that way. There were ten of us all living together as students, all very ordinary Joes, which is where the name GoJoe came from. We loved sport but we were all rubbish at it, and we used to do this silly event every year. We would meet up, hire an athletic stadium, split into teams and compete.
The events would range from 100m sprint, long, jump, high jump, and anything that could be recorded, and it would typically end in a pub somewhere. They were ridiculous events, but everything was scored and it was a great social experience. We would train for it, even though we were all rubbish, and we still do it to this day, don’t we?
Will: Yeah. I think for the first one we hired out Wrexham Athletic Stadium. I remember it was £35 to hire this massive stadium and the ten of us just rocked up. One of the guys was injured, so we got him a referee shirt and we did all kinds of events, even javelin, which we were not qualified to do. It was so much fun and we found was that it really motivated us, to the point where we started training for this event in advance. We’ve all done so many other challenges, your Tough Mudders, half marathons etc. We’ve also used all the different fitness apps, but this particular event led to us to getting motivated. We came away from it thinking, there’s something in this.
So we did a bit of brainstorming. We took the essence of the event and thought we could potentially commercialise it.
When we started GoJoe, the first idea was to create a physical event in a stadium, we did all the numbers and worked it all out. We even had some developers starting on a ridiculously complex point system, which reflected our real-life experience. But we quickly realized that it wasn’t scalable and pivoted to creating a digital product. That was how GoJoe started.
Phil: Will had too much time on its hands, and would spend weeks planning this event, even though there were just ten of us. For example, we would get there, and he’d made a big banner saying something like, athletes register here, welcome to the such and such weekend. There was merch, one year he hired a drone to record professional footage, you can see some of it on the website. It just grew from that. Every year Will and I were coming away from it thinking we need to do something around this.
As Will said, we did the number crunching, but you can only get so many people through a physical stadium. So we looked at creating a digital product to replicate what we were doing with our mates.
Before you took the leap with GoJoe, you both had successful careers. Tell us a little bit about the journey that took GoJoe from side hustle to full-time business…
Will: It snuck up on us really. We had the concept around 2018/2019, but we were just two guys and a PowerPoint. We had our two full-time jobs, which were pretty demanding, to consider as well. Phil was a partner at a law firm, I was at Team GB. It was a side hustle and we had no product, but we started applying for various accelerators.
We ended up getting to the final of one in Berlin, which was an incredible weekend pitching to rooms of high profile investors. The feedback we got was that we love this concept, but you’ve got no product and you’ve got no one techie on your team. You can get away with not having one of those things, but both was a problem. Fortunately met our now CTO, a guy called Costi.
Costi said, I love this, I’ll build you an MVP or prototype, don’t worry about payment, I’ll just build it for you. It took us a while to realise, just how lucky we were to meet him and for him to do that for us. It was so serendipitous. He’s an incredibly talented developer and so many tech start-ups fail because of the tech. Outsourcing is great and it has its place, but a lot of the time what happens is, a tech start-up gets some money, spends it on an agency, runs into problems and then has no money left. We were able to build up gradually and raise a bit money off the back of Costi’s prototype. Then we were both able to jump across. Phil made the leap about six months before me.
Phil: Yeah. Will, sent me over the top first to see how I’d get on and then joined a little bit later. It was a tough process, at times thinking am I having a mid-life crisis, is this crazy? We got a lot of advice from people at the time and we’re lucky to have really supportive partners who knew that we needed to do it. And we’re also lucky, I think, to have supportive employers.
For me personally, I have a great relationship with the law firm that I left after 13 years. They gave a sabbatical so I could try it out and see how we got on. I’ve still got a great relationship with them.
Will: We’ve had to make sacrifices. What always tickles me is Phil had a really nice car previously, but he downgraded his car and he bought a Fiat 500. One of the smallest cars on the market!
Phil: My mates used to call my old car the hearse because it was too long. Now I get called Bowzer, because I’m not the smallest guy, driving around in my Fiat 500.
But I love it, and it was important because GoJoe, as a start-up, couldn’t pay us what we were earning before. So it’s part of what we needed to do to make it work. It was a hard decision and when we finally made the jump I think it took a lot of people by surprise. But the decision was made easier by the fact that we just were so busy with GoJoe that it needed us there.
We weren’t just two guys and the PowerPoint anymore, the demand was there and we were working with lots of different clients.
Will: It got to the point where we had to go full time. The product was improving, we got our seed money through, and this coincided with the start of COVID. We do a lot on the workplace side and found that there was a huge demand around corporate workplace wellbeing. That hit us for six, but it led to us developing faster in certain areas. Our first ever client was PWC, we got an email from them that said, we’re looking for a product, but we’re a bit tired of step challenge’s, we’re looking for something different, something fun and social. Can you help? We still don’t know how they found us. We’ve asked them so many times and they can’t remember. I’ve got no idea how it happened, but once you get a client like PWC through the door, it becomes easier to get other big clients as well.
We started making money and at that point, it was a no brainer to come over. I was at Team GB, so I was in Tokyo for the games, but as soon as that was finished, I moved over.
You’ve also received investment from some high-profile figures, haven’t you?
Will: That came through GC Angels, a network of investors. It was quite surreal, we pitched to a blank screen basically. There were loads of people watching our pitch, but we had no idea who. We could see comments and questions coming from say ‘Jonathan’, but had no idea who that was. Then two weeks later, we got an email saying there’s a high-profile sportsman interested, so of course, we agreed to speak with them. It turned out to be Alistair Brownlee.
Phil: It was a brutal process. It wasn’t as simple as just doing one pitch and getting someone like Alistair involved.
Will: We’ve made so many mistakes and will continue to make them, but you learn from them and improve. I think that that kind of mantra applies particularly to investments.
When we first started looking for investment, we just emailed people, we didn’t know what a VC was, we didn’t know the differences between types of investors. We were just scatter gunning our deck, which again was terrible in the first instance.
But over time, you get so many rejections and you just refine, refine, refine. Then suddenly something will click or you hit the right person. I suppose you learn through failure, but it takes a lot of patience.
Phil: I think, as Will said, the different types of investors are really important and, Alistair has been incredible in his contacts, connections, advice and the rights that he’s given to GoJoe. He’s been really helpful. For example last night we sent him a WhatsApp and said, don’t suppose you’re around, not really expecting either a response or availability. But he replied and it was great just to meet him for dinner and chew the fat with him.
Will: We could talk all day just about investment. The other one for us is traction, as a tech company, that’s the word we were tearing our hair out over. It’s chicken and egg with a tech business, because you can’t get investment unless you’ve got traction, but you can’t get traction unless you’ve got a product. We were in this cycle for ages. Luckily, through getting Costi on board. We managed to build something that was cool and got a bit of traction with that. But it was a dirty word for a while. Building tech is hard and you need capital or luck. In our case, we got bit of luck when we met Costi.
Let’s dive into the app in more detail, how does it work and what different challenges people can take part in?
Phil: Of course, our strap line is ‘exercise on your own, but not alone’ and GoJoe is underpinned by the theory that exercising with or against people is more motivational and is more likely to keep you on that journey. Whether that person is a friend or a colleague, or someone you follow on social media like an athlete or a celebrity. We’ve done a lot of work with Stanford University on psychology which I won’t bore you with, but the product itself essentially turns your everyday solo exercise into something social.
You can connect to a wearable fitness tracker, or you can use your phone, and go for a 5k run or a cycle or a swim or whatever it is. Then instead of just looking at the wattage or the power it becomes something social.
You can join mass participation events on the app, we have an open team challenge and workplace challenges where you’re competing with people across your organisation. We just ran one called the squad game, which is a play on the TV show Squid Game. You enter as a team of three, do some exercise and each week we knock teams out. There are infinite types of events and challenges and journeys, but essentially it’s using GoJoe as a motivational tool to turn that everyday exercise into something meaningful and motivational.
Will: I think another kind of key part of GoJoe, is built into our name, the ordinary Joe stuff that runs through the heart of what we do. Inclusivity is massive for us. On the workplace challenges, for example, a dog walker is just as relevant to a team as a professional triathlete. The mileage of both counts towards the team. It runs through everything we do, you don’t have to be Alistair Brownlee to get out there and exercise.
Phil: It’s appealing to ordinary Joes like ourselves because there’s loads of fitness apps out there, but we think that they target predominantly what they call invested athletes.
The kind of people that don’t really need the motivation to exercise. They’re great as a kind of diary-based tracker, but they’re very serious, sometimes a bit elitist and sometimes a bit off-putting. So, on GoJoe rather than seeing wattage data, you get compared to the speed of a llama or something which we think is more fun, shareable and interesting than just a power meter.
Gamification is central to GoJoe isn’t it? Can you tell us more about that and your choice to include NFTs in the app?
Will: NFTs can be confusing. I think more recently they’ve had a bit of a bad rep as well, probably fairly in some cases. Essentially NFTs give people the ability to own something digital and evidence that ownership on the blockchain. When I was at team GB I was part of the team that delivered the first Olympic NFT and so I knew a bit about it.
When we were working through our plans on the gamification and reward side of GoJoe, we were struggling to work out how we could deliver value to users. We wanted something meaningful and authentic, not just a tacky medal or whatever because we’re not really into that. NFTs solve that problem
Essentially, within the GoJoe app, you might get given an NFT if you hit certain milestones or complete certain events. It gives people something meaningful that they can have in their wallets and use to unlock various things. But by their nature, because you own it, you can sell it as well. So previously, if you made in-app purchases, once you were done with that content you couldn’t really do anything with it. The great thing about NFTs is you can sell them or you can keep them for as long as you like. It’s pretty cool.
Phil: I think it’s trying to replicate what happens in real life. In that, if you do a marathon or another kind of challenge, you typically get a goody bag afterwards. We think this is a great opportunity to deliver that value in a digital way through a fitness app. So if you’re finishing an event, or you hit a certain milestone, it unlocks rewards and products without us having to ship them.
Will: We’re also building what we’re calling the GoJoe Pavilion at the moment and playing around with the metaverse. That’s our longer-term vision, everything we’re doing now is geared up to that and NFTs are the first piece of the jigsaw.
Phil: To give an example, for some of the bigger corporates that we work with, we do a virtual closing ceremony. At the moment that takes place via Zoom, and they might have a professional athlete that is captaining a team who will do a Q&A and give shoutouts and prizes to the participants. In the future we see these taking place in the GoJoe pavilion, where you’ll be able to see them on a stage, it will be more interactive. It’s for everything we do, it’s about utility and practical benefits. Will mentioned before about NFTs getting a bit of a hard ride, I think that’s because they haven’t given value to people. It’s important for us to be giving our users or those in our community something of value.
What kind of feedback are you receiving from customers and clients?
Phil: It’s great! What we’re most proud of is that the majority of our corporate clients have come back again multiple times, which is really important to us. Everybody from Premier League football clubs to fashion brands to accountants and lawyers. They all share the same problem at the moment, which is connecting their staff through remote or hybrid working. Being able to put a smile on their face and also recreating those little conversations that you have when you’re making a brew.
James: Yeah, that’s a massive one, to be honest. Previously we were fully in the office and then, we went fully remote and now we’re hybrid. Companies are wondering, how do you connect everyone back together? Anything that can help with that is an amazing thing, especially with the well-being aspect. I’m a big believer in trying to keep people fit and healthy as well, so I love the product, but it’s an added bonus on the engagement side.
Phil: We always talk about that having the water cooler moments because when you work from home you have the ease and the convenience of dropping on Zoom or Teams. But it’s actually the gossip and the chat that people are missing out on. It’s those social interactions that we try and help with basically.
Will: One of our clients, ‘Not On The High Street’ said that their all-company meeting turned into the GoJoe hour, which is great to hear. Getting people away from their desks and just talking about other stuff is really important.
We’ve had amazing feedback from our clients saying that Go Joe does that for them and it’s something that the staff actually want to do. I think there are a lot of products out there that get forced onto the staff by HR, but don’t get used. So it’s great to hear that the staff drive the decision-making and want to do it.
You’ll admit you’re latecomers to the tech party, but that’s no bad thing. Do you have any advice for people thinking about pivoting into tech and the importance of finding a career they’re passionate about?
Will: I think we both fell into law. It was a good degree and we weren’t particularly inspired by anything else. I certainly fell into it and then because of that fell into the legal career, but I was never particularly passionate about it. I’m thankful for it because it gave me a lot of skills and experience that are now incredibly useful. But, I would have loved someone telling me, don’t worry about a career, do what you’re passionate about and, you’ll find your career from that. That’s what I’m going to tell my sons. Just find your passion and follow that.
We’ve taken quite strange route, I suppose, at quite a rare age as well. We’ve got young families so it’s been difficult to transition from a secure, quite well-paid job to a high-risk start-up in tech. I’d probably advise my younger self to just, pursue something you’re passionate about. It is a real cliche, isn’t it? But it’s true
Phil: My advice would be just to pick up the phone. If you think you might have an interest in a certain job, speaking to people and saying, can I come and work with you, shadow you? That proactivity, I think would really set someone apart. When I was in law, for example, nobody ever picked up the phone me and said, ‘Can I come and do some work experience with you?’. Had I received that phone call, I would 100% have said yes and sorted them out.
Will: I got a couple of emails when I was at Team GB from people interested in meeting for coffee. I was delighted to do that, and they both managed to get work placements. I completely agree that thinking outside the box and approaching people, whether it’s on LinkedIn or wherever. They do get noticed.
The other thing I should mention is that we’ve just taken on a couple of young people through the Kickstart Government program, which has been amazing. We interviewed a few people for that and one was, she doesn’t mind me telling the story, the most nervous I’ve ever seen anyone in my life. But, we found her passion for creative design She’s been working for us for the last three months now and has been incredible. So that’s been a great scheme.
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