Hayden Steele of SHOCK Training: “Kindness always wins”

Kindness always wins. During COVID-19, we’ve received emails from people who couldn’t pay their bills and needed to cancel their subscriptions. We always respond by giving them a subscription for free, most of which were for an entire year. Treat each customer with value and respect. Larger companies don’t always do this, so as a […]

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Kindness always wins. During COVID-19, we’ve received emails from people who couldn’t pay their bills and needed to cancel their subscriptions. We always respond by giving them a subscription for free, most of which were for an entire year. Treat each customer with value and respect. Larger companies don’t always do this, so as a smaller business, I believe treating others the way you would like to be treated is very important.

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hayden Steele.

Hayden Steele is a husband, strength coach, personal trainer, and co-founder of the SHOCK: Women’s Fitness app.

Hayden began his career at Oklahoma State University as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Oklahoma State Cowboys Football program. He later became the Head Strength Coach for Men’s and Women’s Tennis.

Hayden’s passion for helping clients attain their goals, combined with a desire to instruct with proper form and precise execution, led him to develop the SHOCK training system. He considers his method to be a compilation of his experience, sweat, and countless hours of testing, all informed by extensive study and multiple industry certifications.

Hayden has worked with celebrities, models, fitness competitors, five first-round NFL draft picks, and over twenty professional athletes, and has been featured in SHAPE, Women’s Health, U.S. News & World Report, Oxygen, Weight Watchers, and more.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

In my senior year of high school, I became certified as a personal trainer by the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas. I lived on my own and slept on a couch that was positioned next to a dumbbell rack; the wood floor was covered by yoga mats. I would train clients each morning until school began, and then train more clients for the rest of the day after I got home from school.

After graduation, I attended Oklahoma State University and applied to be a student-assistant for the Strength and Conditioning staff. I knew this was a long-shot — thousands of students applied for this coveted position. But it was worth applying if it meant I could learn from one of the most respected strength coaches in the industry, Rob Glass.

Sometimes dreams come true. I became a student-assistant, and Coach Glass did everything he could to make me quit. For the first three months, I never trained an athlete. I scrubbed floors and was worked harder than the janitor. I still remember athletes asking me, “What did you do to get in trouble?!” Some thought I was putting in hours of community service!

I never quit. Each day motivated me to get my opportunity to train athletes.

The chance finally came. Coach Glass called me into his office and informed me I could begin working with the football team. He gave me the chance to work with the best of the best, including four NFL first-round draft picks: Dez Bryant, Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon, and Brandon Pettigrew.

Each week Coach Glass gave me more responsibility as I began earning his trust. Six months later, I became the first undergraduate student he had ever named as a Head Strength Coach, in charge of both men’s and women’s Tennis.

It was a bit awkward at first. Many of the athletes were older than I was! I had to mature quickly, and I would say this period of my life shaped and molded my entire fitness career. During my first season as Head Strength Coach, one of my players, Aleksandr Nedovyesov, was named the ITA National Player of the Year, the most prestigious award given in NCAA men’s tennis.

A year later I married the love of my life, Ashley — and together we are the co-founders of the SHOCK: Women’s Fitness App. Ashley is the face, personality, and head trainer of the SHOCK app, performing live and on-demand workout classes in front of women around the world.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

By May of 2017, I had built a successful personal training business and Ashley had a great job in the oil and gas industry, while working as a personal trainer on the side. Nonetheless, I had started feeling complacent with my life. I needed to be pushed. I needed a new challenge.

At that time, fitness apps weren’t big yet, nothing like they are today. Ashley and I were celebrating our anniversary in Orlando, Florida, and I vividly recall scrolling through the App Store on my phone while waiting for Ashley to get ready to head to Disney World. I stumbled across a workout app that was starting to gain some traction. I thought to myself: “We can do that!”

At Oklahoma State, I had used heart rate-based training for many of my athletes. I remember saying, “Ashley, we can target a user’s heart rate and gauge exercise intensity. It’s perfect!” Ashley knows that once I get fixated on an idea, it just gets worse. But she believed in me and my vision and agreed: “We really can do this.” We dove in headfirst.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

It’s a good thing that we didn’t know how hard the app creation process would be, the challenges we would endure, and the struggles that we would face. If we had, SHOCK might not exist.

SHOCK is the definition of a small business, started by a husband and wife with a vision. Ashley and I didn’t have any investors, we didn’t have any experience, we were naïve, and we were both still working 9-to-5 jobs to pay the bills.

In early 2018 we decided to pull money from our savings account to fund development. Our first set of struggles was figuring out where to start and finding a developer who could take our concept and create an app that fit our small budget.

Ashley and I interviewed companies all over the world, and the company we chose ended up quitting on us. This was our first setback.

When we finally found a new company to work with, one of the most significant challenges was communication. App companies understand apps, and personal trainers understand the exercise.

Ashley and I had to teach our developers about exercise, so that they could understand our concepts. It worked both ways, though: They also had to teach us about development, so we could understand how to translate these concepts into the form of an app. This process took more than a year, but it became easier and easier as we developed SHOCK.

While our developers built our app, Ashley and I had many other things that we had to accomplish. We had to find a videographer to shoot our exercise videos and a photographer to shoot marketing images.

By the summer of 2018, Ashley’s sister was performing live on the hit NBC tv show The Voice. Since we were going to Los Angeles to watch the performance, we decided to make the most of our trip, and hired Noel Deganta, a well-known fitness photographer, to shoot our images on a rooftop in downtown LA. Ashley worked for over 10 hours each day shooting exercise images for our app. It was incredible, and something I’ll always remember.

The week of our video shoot was extremely stressful. I knew that SHOCK would live or die by the quality of our videos. They had to be perfect if users were going to use our app correctly. But videography is expensive, and we could only afford to rent a studio for three consecutive days. This meant Ashley would have to execute over 500 exercises, with perfect technique, and no recovery between shooting days.

I had a massive list of exercises, but I had to try to make this as easy on Ashley as possible to prevent wear and tear on her and ensure she could endure the grind.

The first day of the video shoot went well, but at the end of day two Ashley twisted her ankle performing a plyometric (jumping exercise). This didn’t stop her; she pushed through the final day and was amazing. Looking back, I don’t know how she performed 10+ hours a day of exercise videos for three straight days. She’s incredible.

In the fall of 2018, SHOCK was approximately six months away from our targeted release date. Between trying to train clients 10 hours a day, manage our app creation process, and keep our marriage intact, I knew six months was not a lot of time. However, I was confident in our timeline. After all, the most demanding parts were over: The app concept was complete, photography and videography were finished, and essentially all we had to do was execute our marketing plan. The finish line was within reach.

And then I got the news from our developers that they had under-bid our project. The SHOCK project had become too much for them and was taking too much of their time. Bottom line: I would have to take on part of the development work on our app. There was no bargaining. Ashley and I were in sink-or-swim mode. We had poured money from our savings into this app, come this far, we were almost there…and suddenly the finish line vanished for me.

I was just a personal trainer who had a crazy idea one day. “I’m not an app developer,” I kept telling myself. My thoughts started racing; my palms became sweaty. I remember thinking, How am I going to do this with a full-time personal training business? It’s been hard enough just trying to survive the app creation process, and Ashley is working 8-to-5 each day…how will we make it? My heart was pounding. I couldn’t breathe. I yelled to Ashley, “Call an ambulance, I’m having a heart attack.”

It felt like my life was flashing in front of my eyes, Ashley standing over me as she dialed 911, begging the operator to come quickly. I’ll never forget hearing the ambulance pull up to our house, sirens blasting, feeling like I was in a dream that had become a nightmare in a matter of minutes.

By the time the ambulance arrived, my heart rate was over 200 BPM. After the paramedics performed health screening and diagnostic tests, they determined I had suffered a major panic attack. It was rock bottom for me.

In the aftermath of that panic attack, I thought a lot about a powerful quote by Henry Ford: “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”

Ashley and I had many moments of literal tears during the SHOCK app creation process. We went through times where we both thought, “We can’t do this anymore,” but we never quit! Each trial we endured made Ashley and I stronger. There will always be trials and hard times, but my experiences have taught me that you have to fight the negative self-talk during those times. Negative self-talk is unrealistic, unnecessary, and self-defeating. It sends you into a downward emotional spiral that is difficult to pull out of, as I learned the hard way.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I feel more empowered today than I’ve ever felt. I used to tell people, “Believe in something, and you can do it!” But if you haven’t ever gone through the fire, if you haven’t “lived it,” it’s just meaningless air.

We went through the fire. And, we continued to believe, “We can do this.” It’s no longer just a dream. It’s a reality to me now. And I can say with more confidence than ever, that if you have a dream, and are willing to work hard enough, you can accomplish anything you set out to do, especially if you have someone like Ashley to support you, someone who believes in you and your idea as much as you do.

Over the last year, SHOCK was named one of the “12 Best Workout Apps” by Harper’s BAZAAR, and was featured by CBS in their Tech-Talk segment with Jessica Nazari. SHOCK has opened up windows of opportunity for me personally as well. Since starting our app, I’ve been interviewed by SHAPE, Women’s Health, Oxygen, U.S. News and World Report, SELF, and more! It’s absolutely crazy to see where we are today. It’s amazing.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I have made a lot of pretty funny mistakes during our journey. One of the funniest — or worst — mistakes was when I reached out to a company to discuss collaborating with us to develop a feature that I thought could be a game-changer for fitness apps. I later found out they owned one of our competitor fitness apps! And I had given them our blueprint to implement.

Lesson learned: Do your homework.

  • Keep your ideas close to your heart.
  • Remember that those who you think are your friends may actually be your competitors.

Fitness is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and many major companies are trying to capitalize. Lululemon now owns The Mirror, Nike is in the game, Adidas and Apple have joined in — ASICS, POPSUGAR, the list goes on. Even fitness magazines, which you hope will promote your product, may in fact have invested in certain apps. It’s becoming tricky to navigate marketing and collaborations. I started out naïve and have learned to be careful who to trust and open up to, and to and check to see if they have a vested interest elsewhere before pitching them an idea.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think the current state of the fitness industry is in disarray. Why? Because most companies are trying to make money, not create sound programs.

For example, Instagram and TikTok created platforms that many individuals use to promote fitness, but many of them aren’t certified trainers or otherwise qualified to give exercise advice. After the pandemic started, this got worse. People craved at-home workouts, so influencers started giving their audiences what they wanted. I know their intentions may have been good, but suddenly anyone and everyone was “qualified” to give training tips, whereas this is something I’ve dedicated my lifelong education to! Most of these social media workouts were an assortment of movements or dance moves combined with weights, which no fitness professional would recommend because they aren’t good for your joints. It also created what I call the “workout of the day” mindset. There was no structure to the workouts from day to day.

COVID then caused a ton of companies to jump into the fitness world to make money. However, that doesn’t mean they knew how to structure a fitness plan. Many corporations saw what the social media influencers were doing and adopted a similar model to provide users with a ton of variety — of completely randomized workouts! You open up the app, the app has categories for users to pick or highlighted workouts to perform, and the “workout of the day” mentality continues. Workout apps are catering to entertainment now instead of to people’s health.

As a fitness professional, I cringe. I hate the state of our industry. Based on years of personal training and experience, I know that if you have specific goals, you have to follow a specific training program. The workout of the day mindset will only get you so far. And if you’re working out just to be entertained, you’re going to fade out quickly.

This is how SHOCK stands out: Ashley and I are both personal trainers, and we created our app the same way we train people in private sessions. When a client comes in to see me for a private workout session, I don’t let them tell me what to do; I choose the best exercises to lead them to their goal.

SHOCK is not a barrage of random, individual workouts. The SHOCK training system is a 52-week program with four training levels designed to build your fitness level from the ground up. SHOCK not only structures all 52 weeks of training according to a user’s level, but it also guides each workout session. Fitness levels one and two consist of bodyweight and minimal equipment-modified exercises, getting progressively more challenging as you move up to levels three and four. If your workout has a piece of equipment that you don’t have at home, our app provides a bodyweight alternate for each exercise.

Each workout consists of four training zones, and each of our zones provides our users with an intensity goal. If a user has an Apple Watch, our app monitors their intensity by tracking their heart rate. At the end of each zone, the app provides feedback to our users to let them know if they are on track or if they need to pick up the pace. If a user doesn’t have an Apple Watch, we track their intensity using the RPE scale (rate of perceived exertion), and we provide tips based upon their RPE at the end of each zone.

Our latest update added a new feature to our app: providing our community members with live and on-demand workout classes. Plus, we have hundreds of targeted at-home workouts found in our “quick workouts” section.

We set out to create progression, structure, and training guidance to help women reach their fitness goals, all designed by fitness professionals.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

There were nights that I worked on our app until 3 AM and had to wake up the next day for a 5 AM training session. I did this for almost a year. A few times I was so sleep-deprived, I would hear noises that didn’t exist. Sleep deprivation is scary territory and ultimately results in burnout and decreased productivity. You feel as if you’re getting more done because you’re staying up late to finish a task, but the next day you’re less productive and almost worthless.

Focus on your health and keep a consistent routine. For instance: go to bed at 9 PM, wake up at 5 AM, brush your teeth, work out, shower, and begin the day. That’s the routine I try to stick with, and it’s boosted my productivity exponentially.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My grandparents came from nothing and worked hard to build a business; they have always been a major inspiration for me. Our development team is highly skilled and works hard. SHOCK wouldn’t exist without them. But other than that, it’s just been me and Ashley.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

2020 marks our second year in the App Store. We have really grown despite the difficulties this year has created for small businesses. Our app has been viewed over 1 million times, which is up 86% from the previous year. Our subscriber list has grown over 1000%, and we’re now sending mass emails to over 16,000 community members. We have grown more than 126%, more than doubling our sales this year, even though, like so many other small businesses, we took a serious hit because of COVID. SHOCK has also been ranked in the Top 100 of the Health & Fitness category in over seven different countries this year. We’ve turned lemons into lemonade, and we are proud of our growth in 2020 and can’t wait to continue this trend in 2021.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

Step 1: Never Sacrifice Quality

Ashley and I built a native iOS app, focused on quality. You have to find a good development team who sees your vision and can help guide your product development.

Most people think that SHOCK is a big company because they see a quality product ranked on par with multi-million-dollar apps. For example, we received emails during COVID complaining that our “corporation” wasn’t doing enough to help those hurting financially. This was during a time period where Ashley and I had both lost our jobs. We aren’t at all a big corporation! I never got upset; I was actually flattered that they thought we were big. It’s proof that Ashley and I have built something special.

Each year the app market becomes a little more saturated. If you sacrifice quality, as a small business app, you can’t compete against the larger apps funded by investors with millions of dollars in resources.

Step 2: Leverage Your Value in Exchange for Free Marketing

When COVID-19 hit, our gym was forced to shut down, putting me out of a job. Then Ashley was laid off when oil tanked shortly after.

We were at a fork in the road. Our money supply was in jeopardy, our job security outside the app was on shaky ground. I had to figure out a way to market our app with little to no cash. We needed exposure.

I decided to start using the one form of value I could provide: giving away free app subscriptions as marketing leverage. It’s a win-win situation. You give a consumer something for free that they may not have downloaded otherwise, but if your product is good enough, they may decide to stick with you and buy it.

I started spending my days of unemployment sending thousands of emails to journalists, tv reporters, bloggers, social media influencers, you name it. A few months later, after giving away more free stuff than I had ever done before, our sales jumped 400 percent! Social media influencers started posting about our products, not because we were paying them, but because they liked it. We beat our total sales from the previous year in a matter of months. The SHOCK app was featured in Harper’s BAZAAR as one of the “Best Workout Apps,” and shortly after we were featured on CBS-Los Angeles as one of the top fitness apps to use at home!

Ashley and I had more marketing exposure in a span of a few months than in two years, without spending a dime.

Step 3: Embrace Rejection. Don’t Fear Failure.

As a small business, I’ve learned there are going to be tough times. But giving up is the only sure way to ensure failure.

Building our app was a significant risk for us, but it takes a risk to create opportunity. Emailing writers, journalists, and other influential people creates a feeling of vulnerability. Vulnerability is what it takes to grow. In 2020 I created a new mindset for myself: “If you’re not being rejected, you’re not trying hard enough.”

My first email sent to a journalist, offering my expertise as a fitness professional, received this response: “Take me off your list, and don’t email me again.”

Not everyone is going to like you or believe in you or be interested in your product. Don’t let that stop you. If you don’t believe in yourself, who else will? You have to make yourself vulnerable to create opportunity. Everything you want is on the other side of fear. Don’t let your biggest failure in life be that you never tried.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Listen to your users and fight for exposure.
    Ashley and I take user feedback very seriously. We respond to every email, and every app review (both positive and negative). If a user complains about a feature, or reports a bug, listen to them and be responsive. Create a list of the most common app complaints or feature requests and turn that into a hierarchy of future app updates.
    When you’re small like we are, exposure is challenging. Giants like Peloton and Nike dominate the health and fitness industry. At times, I’ve felt like SHOCK was a hidden gem tucked away deep in the App Store. It’s hard to make a profit, even if you have a great product, when no one can find it.
    The game isn’t always fair, but neither is life. Don’t focus on what you can’t control, focus on what you can control. Email writers, connect with influencers, give away free subscriptions, and do whatever it takes to get your brand out there.
  2. Add value to your app at reduced costs.
    When we launched the SHOCK app, it cost us approximately 20,000 dollars to shoot and produce exercise videos. One of our goals for this year was to update all of our exercise videos. When COVID hit, our 20,000 dollars budget for shooting video seemed like too great of risk; we didn’t feel comfortable making this type of investment with so many questions around our finances. So I researched the best 4K cameras, bought green screen paint, and transformed our two-car garage into a studio with lighting equipment purchased on Amazon. I took YouTube lessons to learn how to post-edit the videos with proper loops. Ashley and I were able to update all of our exercise videos for the app for less than 7,000 dollars. Better yet, our new videos have the new H.265 codec, which is much better than the standard H.264 videos found in most apps; it produces a clearer video and takes up less space on the phone. Now we have our own production studio in our garage to add new exercises at any time for zero cost. This will continually add value to our users and allows us the opportunity to invest our money in other areas to grow our community.
    If you look at our new exercise videos, you would never know they were filmed in our garage! Cut out the middleman, control your destiny, and figure out ways you can continually update your app in the background to provide extra value at little cost.
  3. Adapt quickly to a rapidly changing environment.
    Times change, and business changes as well. If you want to achieve success as an app, you need to learn how to adapt. When Ashley and I started our app, I told our developers we would never do live workouts. 2020 changed the landscape of fitness, and people needed connection and extra motivation to help them push through the tough times, and so, despite what we’d originally said, we created SHOCK Live and On-Demand. We’re now able to connect directly with our SHOCK community. Ashley performs live workouts with thousands of women from all around the world — it’s pretty crazy.
  4. Set yourself apart.
    Find ways to separate yourself from other apps on the market. SHOCK is a Health & Fitness app, which may be the toughest industry to compete in right now, especially if you’re a small business like we are. Market how you are different from your competitors. SHOCK is unique in that it’s a women’s fitness app, with four training levels from beginner to advanced. Each level offers a unique program and helps build up to the next fitness level. We also offer another unique customization in the sense that we determine heart rate and rate of perceived exertion to guide your exercise intensity. Women rely more on high-intensity exercise to release the key hormones necessary to build tone muscle and burn fat. Gauging exercise intensity isn’t just a cool feature, it’s a feature that is important for our niche: women’s fitness.
    Don’t compare your app with your competitors. Comparison is the thief of joy. Being aware of your competition is all well and good. It’s even necessary. But studying them without specific goals in mind doesn’t help you build a better business. It distracts you from it. It creates a habit of reactiveness that takes you away from pursuing your own vision. It turns you into a follower instead of a creator. It takes you off of your path and down one that — while different from the competition’s — is still parallel to it.
  5. Kindness always wins.
    Kindness always wins. During COVID-19, we’ve received emails from people who couldn’t pay their bills and needed to cancel their subscriptions. We always respond by giving them a subscription for free, most of which were for an entire year. Treat each customer with value and respect. Larger companies don’t always do this, so as a smaller business, I believe treating others the way you would like to be treated is very important.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This year has been crazy. People are more divided than they’ve ever been, about politics, wearing masks, you name it. Many people are thinking about themselves instead of thinking about others.

If I could start a movement this year, it would be centered around grace. Give people grace this year. Everyone has their own struggles; before reacting to someone else, realize they may be going through something tough. People are losing their jobs, dealing with the deaths of a loved one — I’m confident to say that 100% of humanity is dealing with something unusually tough this year. So, I would like to start a movement centered around giving people the benefit of the doubt if they react funny or exhibit unusual behavior. Maybe ask them if everything is ok, before scolding them for something they did wrong.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Yes! You can follow me on Instagram @haydensteelefit, you can follow my wife @ashleyksteele, and our app as well @shockfitapp

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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