No Sweat: How Glofox kept going when the gyms closed and came out fighting fit

CEO Conor O’Loughlin on how his firm aims to be ‘operating system of the fitness sector’

As a former rugby player for Connacht, Conor O’Loughlin has received his fair share of knocks over the years. But the pummelling he received on the pitch while winning his 97 caps as a scrum-half were as nothing compared to the bruising he experienced trying to lead his fledgling business through the Covid crisis.

Glofox, a management software system for gyms and fitness studios, was founded by O'Loughlin and his friends Finn Hegarty and Anthony Kelly in 2014 after injury cut short his playing career.

The company was in the ascendant prior to Covid, having raised more than $20 million (€18.1m) from highly regarded backers such as Octopus Ventures, Notion Capital, Partech, Silicon Valley Bank, and Dublin-based Tribal VC. O'Loughlin even managed to bag himself a nomination for EY Entrepreneur of the Year in 2020.

But as with other businesses, Glofox, which has just announced 150 new jobs, found itself in difficulties when the coronavirus pandemic hit. With its partners – such as F45 Training and Tough Mudder Bootcamp – having to shut up shop, O’Loughlin and his colleagues had little choice but to pivot.

Luckily for the company, the fact that it was in receipt of recent funding allowed it to quickly rethink its options.

Recent funding

Having already considered providing a streaming platform that would allow fitness businesses to deliver training sessions remotely, the team at Glofox went all in, quickly working to roll out a new service that allowed clients to deliver both live workouts and on-demand premium pre-recorded content.

Sitting in a hotel lounge on the edges of Galway city, O’Loughlin reminisces about how lucky the company was not only to survive but to come out looking good on the other side of the pandemic.

“We were very fortunate to have had the capital we’d raised, as that allowed us to get ahead of Covid. While we definitely had a few moments of wondering how we were going to get by as we saw all our clients closing their doors, the move to online helped us through,” he says.

“Having such a big geographic spread also worked well, because we could see how the imposition of lockdown restrictions and their removal was playing out in different places around the world and help out clients prep for the huge pent-up demand there was from people to get active again.The result is that we were able to help our clients, which of course helped our bottom line.

“Even during the worst of Covid, there was never a point when we weren’t growing at least 20 per cent,” O’Loughlin adds.

Lest you worry that Glofox's story could end up mirroring that of Peleton, a company that was everyone's darling during Covid but is now struggling to give away its bikes and subscriptions, have no fear.

“It was never our intention to just be a Covid success story. We’ve worked too hard on the business for that and all we ever wanted to do was to support our clients during a difficult period so that they could continue to have a strong relationship with their members,” says O’Loughlin.

New approach

If anything, the Covid crisis has been of significant benefit to Glofox, forcing those in the fitness industry to rethink how they operate.

One thing O’Loughlin is convinced of is that while people may have flocked back to gyms and studios after the lifting of restrictions, the old way of operating is gone. Increasingly, there is no space for operators who just make money off the back of new members who join up every January but who never actually work out.

“For businesses to be relevant, they need to be part of their members’ fitness journey. They must create a deep relationship to ensure they are where their members want them to be, whether that is online or offline,” he says.

Glofox is one of those names that are often bandied about when people compile lists of Irish “Soonicorns” – companies that are expected to reach the $1 billion valuation threshold which will make them a tech unicorn.

It might be hard to understand initially just how the company could have found such a big gap in the market, particularly when it has little interest in operating outside the vertical it is currently in. But if you look at the fitness sector, it is a big market with lots of small operators, the majority of which are time poor and not tech-savvy.

While the likes of F45, which went public last year, is growing fat on franchising, it still has a small fraction of a market that is valued at trillions of dollars.

Glofox’s all-in-one management platform replaces outdated and overcomplicated systems with a streamlined, easy-to-use experience for members and staff alike. Moreover, it is built to address the intricacies that come with managing both independent fitness businesses and large fitness franchises such as F45.

“I feel passionately about building a multibillion dollar business and, to do that, I am convinced that we have to stay in our lane where we excel,” says O’Loughlin.

US base

Originally from Athlone and living in Los Angeles prior to the pandemic, O'Loughlin, his wife, and their three children all aged under five, made it back to Ireland by the skin of their teeth just before the world closed down.

Having lived in Dublin throughout much of the Covid period, the entrepreneur and his family recently bought a house in Galway city. They won't have much time to settle into it however, as the plan is to relocate back to the US shortly, albeit in Miami this time around.

“Around 45 per cent of our client base is in the US, so it makes sense to be there to build up the business further. Ireland felt very far away when we were on the west coast [of the US] though, whereas the east coast will be much easier for keeping close to home,” he says.

In the flesh, the entrepreneur still looks every inch the sportsman, with any free time he can find usually spent in the gym. When injury ended his rugby playing career at the age of 28, it was fitness that led him to his second career.

O’Loughlin, Kelly and Hegarty initially established a consultancy for web and app development. When asked to develop a white-label app for a fitness studio in Galway, the three friends realised this was a market that was being grossly underserved. From there, things soared.

Glofox does have some serious competitors in the marketplace, not least Mindbody, which was forced to lay off or furlough hundreds of employees during the Covid crisis. But O’Loughlin is convinced that it is his company that can become the “operating system for the fitness sector”.

As part of that push, Glofox is not only increasing headcount but also looking to raise a further $30 million from backers to bring funding to date to $50 million.

According to Company Office filings, the founders still directly own over 27 per cent of the group through an entity called Zappy, with O’Loughlin holding a stake of around 20 per cent.

O’Loughlin brushes aside talk of IPOs or exits, insisting that he and his co-founders are more interested in “the journey than the destination”. Nonetheless, it is obvious that he expects the company to become a global brand.

“We help millions of people to achieve their fitness goals. I feel like we are having a hugely positive impact in the world and I believe we can go on and do even more. There are plenty of liquidity options open to us, but that isn’t the main thing that is driving us,” he adds.

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist