Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
👋 Hey! My name is Aimee Tawhai & I founded my first SaaS business (ALTR Project) at the age of 23.
ALTR is currently being used in 26 different countries, has some of the largest names in Crossfit as ambassadors and was all created from my bedroom.
4 years later and I am still the sole founder, but now with a team and another business (Crossfit Project Bayside) by my side.
ALTR Project is an online SaaS tool that enables gym owners and coaches to program more efficiently saving HOURS of admin time and the use of mind-numbing spreadsheets. Using my analytical background, I created the first automated tool which uses advanced algorithms and logic to replace what used to be a manual task when programming Crossfit/functional fitness workouts for classes and athletes. My main customers are Crossfit gym owners and coaches/personal trainers.
ALTR is averaging $7-8k USD/month which is growing significantly since we launched the complete redesign of our coaching dashboard and our first ever client app 5 months ago.
However, despite the growth and success that ALTR is having, I have only just stopped investing money out of my own pocket to fund the product development of ALTR. Technology is expensive. Innovating and being ahead of the game is expensive. But this is what makes it exciting.
I have been offered investment and funding numerous times, but I have yet to find the right partner or fit for the business. I have always believed that I need to go as far as I possibly could by myself. At this stage of the business, it’s not about the financial backing, but more about finding a strategic partner who has a high influence in the fitness industry and is backed with a wealth of knowledge in this space.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was 23, working in my second ‘graduate’ job (I say graduate loosely as I was still studying on the side to finish my Statistics degree), as a statistical & systems analyst for High-Performance Sport NZ. Despite actually enjoying my job and the people around me, I had the typical entrepreneur trait: I hated the thought of working for someone else for the rest of my life. So, ALTR was born.
I had come up with a few business/app ideas in the past, tried to learn how to build an app through Google tutorials (lol), and, obviously, failed. I didn't have any extra income to spend, so anything I built had to be cheap and done by myself.
Then, something that completely turned our world around happened. Our family house burned down.
In an instant, we lost everything we owned. We literally only had the clothes on our back and had to start completely fresh. As with everything bad that happens, we just got on with our life thankful that no one was hurt. After a few months of re-purchasing everything that was lost, we received a lump sum payout from our insurance: this became my first investment in ALTR.
After a 1 year of brainstorming and planning the idea, I had hired my ideal developer, written and finalized the algorithms myself, built the initial system, beta tested and launched to the public. It was also at this time that I was still working full time and had just qualified for the Crossfit Games so I was training 2-3 hours every day after work, finishing off my two papers for university and building ALTR with every spare moment I had.
I honestly didn't validate the idea. And this is something I regret. I was so nervous that someone was going to take my idea, that I kept it to myself. I didn't talk about ALTR, and if I did, it would be very broad.
I wasn't experienced in the thing I was selling: creating programs for classes/athletes. But I was an experienced athlete who knew numbers and systems.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
My statistical background allowed me to build a prototype in excel using VBA. I could create the logic in a way that made sense to myself and a developer. This became the building blocks for the basis of ALTR and allowed me to explain the advanced rules I needed to a developer who didn't have the knowledge of the fitness industry. Hiring a developer (with no development experience) was A LOT easier having this as an example of how I needed the system to work.
The algorithms were extremely time-consuming. I spent about 6 months perfecting what I thought would be a revolutionizing workout builder. However, after putting them in real-world testing, they just didn't make much sense and a human (emphasized? humane?) approach (touch?) was needed. I then had to completely rewrite the system, re-create the database and spend weeks manually creating workouts/tag and other content for the database.
After a lot of trial and error, I tossed up between hiring overseas and saving on development costs, but in the end, I found a fantastic local developer who was an expert on the back end and had good enough front end experience. When you have no development experience, are not willing to pay an agency (which is nearly 3-4 times the cost), you are going in blind. So do your homework, create as many examples and content you can and ask for advice from any friends/family in the field.
It doesn't matter how good your product is if no one knows about it.
This was my first prototype of ALTR that I built in excel. The algorithms and logic were made using VBA code, which made it easier to give to a developer to create a useable system.
Above is a screenshot of the first system that was sold to clients. There was A LOT of errors and issues with this version, but due to its innovative technology, our customers were very forgiving. It was initially only meant to be used as a beta test, but we deemed it good enough to sell.
This version was not mobile responsive, did not have a printable PDF of the program or a way to deliver to the clients and it constantly came back with error messages if certain algorithms surpassed the limits of the exercise.
This was our first ‘official’ product: we completely changed the way the algorithms worked (eliminating any potential error messages), made it mobile friendly and added a printable PDF.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I remember launching ALTR as if it was yesterday: I was at work and I took my lunch break early so I could launch the live version. My heart rate was through the roof all morning waiting in anticipation… I felt as though my whole world was about to change at the press of a button.
Spoiler: it didn't.
My first trial was my mum and I’m pretty sure for the first week I only had a hand full of people sign up (the majority were friends/family who had no intention of actually using the product, bless them).
This is the first big lesson I learned: it doesn't matter how good your product is if no one knows about it.
I started to incorporate social media, sending private messages, & following my ideal customers which slowly allowed me to start gaining traction.
Because most of my clients were in the USA (and I was in New Zealand), I was taking demo video calls at all hours of the night, early mornings and late into the evening. I was super nervous before every call, feeling as though these gym owners would call me out on being young or inexperienced… but every call made me more confident and I had a 100% conversion rate.
I was stuck in a hard place financially. We had a mortgage, ALTR needed to be continually funded, and although my parents were helping out as well, it wasn't enough to be able to justify quitting my job. So I continued to do both.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We are a new product in a new space. Education on what ALTR actually does has been the hardest barrier to overcome. Our first 10 customers were found via Instagram: I cold messaged a number of CrossFit gyms/affiliates and out of the 100 or so I contacted, a few were interested. I continued to do this to grow my initial user base: every customer sat down with me for a Skype chat/demo and a number of these first adopters of ALTR are still customers today.
The early days were tough to prove my concept, not only to people I knew but to complete strangers. I distinctly remember writing an anonymous post on Reddit explaining my idea and asking gym owners whether this was a product gym owners would use. One of the responses was (along the lines) “this will never work. Gym owners will never use a product like this or trust a piece of software to program, so good luck getting any customers”. Ruthless… but it didn't deter me at all. In fact, it was motivation to prove that comment wrong.
Great customer service, well-known ambassadors and listening to our customers have allowed us to continue to grow. However, this is a space we are working on really tackling down in 2020: marketing, education and creating strong channel partners.
We are in the era of videos, so I try to always include screen recordings/in-depth demos when we release features. Social media is such a strong marketing tool, but our challenge is educating that we are a software tool and not an athlete program/account. People like to watch people, but getting to that stage where you can use beautiful images and not have to explain what your product does first is where the real challenge lies.
If you take a look at successful SaaS companies like Adobe, Mailchimp, Hubspot, Airbnb… their social media acts as a beautiful canvas on images/lifestyle. They are not in the stage of explaining their product, as they are already established. This is something I believe a lot of new businesses try to jump straight to the end like the bigger players and are left with an audience who has no idea what they are selling and will potentially never be a customer. Of course, it has its advantages, like brand awareness, but if you don't sell you won't have a business.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Since launch, I have also opened a Crossfit gym (the best business I never knew I wanted). I did this to really allow myself to step into the shoes of my customers: if you are your own customer you can really understand the problems they have and can create a better product through real-life application.
The hard part of all of this is not getting stuck in the day-to-day running of the business and missing out on the 1%-ers which could be the thing that really makes your business take off. I have recently hired a relationship & marketing manager to allow myself more time to focus on these 1%-ers which is our main focus in 2020.
Our company values have always been that we are not looking to build something for a quick sale to make a quick buck. We are building a sustainable business where our relationship with the customer community and your brand are at least as important as the product.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I feel like so many people doubt their work ethic or capability. I struggled to ‘stay motivated’ at my 9-5 job and wondered how so many people around me felt so passionate in this space. Once I started creating ALTR, pulling 12 hour weekends, working through the night, before & after work, even on holidays seemed normal and effortless. “Entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours to avoid working 40 hours a week” -- this quote could not resonate with me more.
DO NOT try to get investment when you only have an idea. Build your product as far as you can or at least a solid prototype.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Webflow is my tech crush. So much of my design/UI has been inspired by them. Even our business model is similar: enabling the tools for designers/programmers to complete create their work.
I initially had to use Braintree for our billing platform as Stripe was not launched in New Zealand at that time, but as I have made the switch over the last few months, I wonder how I ever went without it!
We use Intercom for all of our tickets/support/new feature launches & user onboarding. This can be better and as we grow we will be looking for other systems to help enable the best workflow.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
In the early days of building ALTR I had episodes of ‘Shark Tank’ playing in the background to get me through 12-hour work sessions or late nights. Yes, it's a bit cheesy & staged but the stories always made me get through the toughest of times. However, these days I am addicted to the podcast How I built this. I try to listen to content rather than read (podcasts/youtube/audiobooks) and leave the hardcovers for mental escape and fictional books!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I found a note I made to myself a year after I started on my entrepreneurial journey. I think they all are pretty relevant today.
Tips to self:
Work to fund it, do not get a loan.
DO NOT try to get investment when you only have an idea. Build your product as far as you can or at least a solid prototype.
Hold on to as much ownership as you can.
Do as much as you can yourself.
Do not pay a fancy company $11,000 to design your website.
Always be searching & researching for new things/ways to develop your business.
Learn Photoshop & iMovie.
Build a social media following as soon as you think of an idea.
Give the best customer service possible.
Tell people about your idea, talk freely about it and do not be defensive when others give their 2 cents.
It's ok to cry when you're stressed.
Continue to live your life.
Do not get caught up in the future.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for strategic partners like established billing systems to connect with so we can combine programming and payment solutions.
In terms of employment, we have recently employed a sales & marketing manager, but I am always interested in receiving CVs for future roles.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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