‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. Successful, sustainable businesses are not one-man/woman shows. They just aren’t. They are a cohesive team effort where everyone knows their role and they execute on their role. The most terrifying part of your business is going to be when the thought of you getting hit by a bus means your company dies with you. The goal of all entrepreneurs should be to create something that you can take a two week break from and it’s still operating!
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Dennis.
Nick Dennis is the Founder and CEO of fitDEGREE, a studio management software for fitness businesses. He had his startup funded before graduating from college, and now Nick is disrupting the software industry with a unique and customer-centric approach to development.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I would consider myself an “accidental entrepreneur”, as entrepreneurship found me. In August of 2014, I was a lifeguard at the Rowan University Campus Rec Center. For a staff training week, the ice breaker was “What can we do to help people get into the rec center?” My first thought was, “Get them a fitness partner!”
The concept that community and accountability could get people into the gym quickly transformed into an idea for an app, and I found my co-founder Daniel Read when he picked my idea to develop for a senior project. At that point, a mentor encouraged me to join Rowan’s business plan competition… and I won. A week later, I was pitching the Rowan Innovation Venture Fund, and with one semester left in my college career, fitDEGREE had been funded and my career trajectory had changed.
I graduated with a BS in Mathematics from Rowan University, and began working full time after graduation as the CEO of my own SaaS startup.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Startups are generally defined as high-growth companies, but we found that when your focus is on growing very quickly, sometimes what’s really important gets lost.
While high-growth and big returns sound fantastic, I quickly learned that there’s one big issue no one is talking about in the Software as a Service industry: the second S, as in customer service. Using software to make our lives and our businesses is so commonplace, we forget that it isn’t easy for everyone all the time. The number one thing we heard from potential customers is that they didn’t get support when they needed it in the past, which created problems in their businesses and lots of personal stress.
We decided it would never be like that at fitDEGREE.
We opted for slower growth in order to allocate more resources toward offering a better customer service experience. This means having a dedicated account manager that you can reach out to directly for help instead of calling a hotline or connecting with a website bot. This is a big change for most users. fitDEGREE is also accomplishing this shift to zealous customer service with ongoing education delivered by a dedicated business consultant and a direct line of communication to myself (the CEO). The software development itself is customer led with myself and our CTO, Daniel Read, evolving the product with direct feedback from customers on what they’d like to see next.
With a product suite being driven by customer desires and a team built around driving connection and community, fitDEGREE is showing that it can stand out in an industry that is increasingly becoming disconnected from the people it serves.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The first iteration of our product was a B2C product that was built to help college students find a workout partner on campus. In theory it sounded like a great idea and, said the kid with no entrepreneurial background, a B2C application that I would use sounded like an easy win. WRONG!
While early market research told us this would be a great fit, for one reason or another it completely flopped. I was stunned and heartbroken. Since then I have seen over 5 apps try to do the same thing … no idea why, it just doesn’t work.
What I took away from this experience was two things. First, B2C success requires a lot of luck to get sticky quickly OR a lot of money to offset that and give you time to receive feedback from your user base and build a product for THEM, not you. The second thing I learned was that consumers don’t want their problems solved as much as you would think… I think about this similarly to that of when your significant other is complaining to you about their day — they want you to listen, not for you to problem solve. So if you want to solve problems, work in the B2B space where there are tons of problems with people that want to solve them because it means more money in their pocket!
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Our first angel investor has had an incredible impact on our foundation. Both by mentoring myself but also dictating our growth with his strategic capital injections.
When an entrepreneur is getting started, they instantly gravitate towards the dreamy Silicon Valley mirage and think they need one hundred team members and tens of millions of dollars… well that’s not how you get started, at least for the majority of us. Our first angel investor strategically provided us with enough capital every 9 to 12 months to get us to the next milestone. Did he have the money to instantly let us hire 10 people? Yes he did. However, he made us earn our stripes.
When we met, we had 3 team members, the next year we had 4 team members, then 5 team members, then 7 team members and now 10. Looking back, we both agree how far I have come as a leader and we also both agree that if he gave me that money upfront not only we would have not gotten to this point any faster, I would have been lucky to make it this far at all.
Building technology in the B2B space, especially one that runs a small to medium size organization, simply takes time. It’s a give and take process. You need to learn from your clients. You don’t run their business, they do. Their input to develop the product is critical and they need time in your system to provide genuine feedback.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I am not sure if there is such a thing as ‘not so positive’ disruption but I think that the word ‘disruptive’ is absolutely becoming overused. When a business idea is forming, they have to think to themselves, am I disrupting or am I innovating?
Trying to use household names, an example of each would be the following — Airbnb has disrupted the hospitality industry while Tesla has innovated the vehicle industry.
Airbnb has created an entirely new industry. For the first time ever, it is acceptable and easily available to monetize your spare bedroom. What a world we live in! And what did that do to businesses in the hospitality industry? Surprised and destroyed them. Hotels will never leave us entirely but I am sure that they have taken a heavy hit since the birth of Airbnb. And if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s only a matter of time.
Growing up, my parents always utilized Timeshares to travel for vacation. I am 28 years old and you know how many times I have considered purchasing a timeshare? 0. When our generation thinks of vacationing, we think ‘I wonder what the coolest house I can find on Airbnb is?’ That’s disrupting an industry.
Tesla on the other hand, is innovating the vehicle industry and if they do well, they could completely take it over or at least change the way other companies make their cars in order to compete. You see, we are still purchasing a vehicle at the end of the day. We didn’t decide that we were going to travel any differently, we are still purchasing a vehicle, it’s just that Tesla’s technology brings an entirely new package and that will win them a lot of business when someone goes to make their next vehicle purchase.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
First, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. Successful, sustainable businesses are not one-man/woman shows. They just aren’t. They are a cohesive team effort where everyone knows their role and they execute on their role. The most terrifying part of your business is going to be when the thought of you getting hit by a bus means your company dies with you. The goal of all entrepreneurs should be to create something that you can take a two week break from and it’s still operating!
Second, ‘Adapt or Die’. This game of entrepreneurship weeds out the weak quickly and sometimes the weak could mean just sticking to your original plan when you didn’t see the writing on the wall. We have pivoted an entire business model twice to get to where we are today and have changed up our marketing strategy several times since then as well. Whichever way you want to say it — test, optimize, analyze, rinse and repeat.
Third, ‘Always be the dumbest person in the room’. The founder should be the leader, the visionary of the company. However, you just cannot afford to be the best salesperson, the best developer, the best marketer, etc. You have to start out doing as much as you can yourself but as you get farther and farther, you should be replacing those responsibilities and tasking them onto someone that you think is smarter than you.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
In the beginning, we were really focused on inbound strategies — understand your ideal customer, provide something truly valuable, and then nurture them down the path to purchase — but this really flopped. The value we were providing wasn’t connecting the dots to our actual product, so we shifted to a more direct approach.
First, we created as many directory listings as possible and asked our customers to go give us reviews in those places to establish our brand online and show social proof. Next, we pivoted our ad strategy to get straight to the point: sharing what we had to offer and asking potential leads to sign up for a demo to learn more/get started. And last, our hyper focused customer service was probably the best organic lead strategy we could have created! Without being prompted, our customers were suggesting us to their friends and even to their colleagues via Facebook groups. Those organic referrals have been huge for growing our customer base, and it all happened because our customers felt heard and cared for.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Only time will tell! Technology has been fun but I can also see myself using all of this as a platform to open a gym and turn children into adults, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
Ironically I am not the most disciplined person when it comes to reading/ listening to business advice. I just can’t seem to get hooked when it’s a one way conversation. I’d rather use that as downtime to catch up on sports (Pardon My Take) or listen to a Joe Rogan interview if one his recent podcasts is someone I admire or want to learn more about.
However to offset that lack of discipline, I have consciously surrounded myself with mentors and consultants that have had a lot of success (hence the never be the smartest person in the room lesson). I probably spend about 20% of time talking to them throughout the week whether it’s troubleshooting, soundboarding or actually getting into the nitty gritty of things.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
At a young age, my mom said to me ‘Life’s not fair’. There is no reason to think any deeper than those 3 words. It simply is what it is and you’re only wasting time when you throw yourself a pity party. No one cares (besides your Mom) so pick yourself up, brush yourself off and get back to work.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
Education reform. That is a lifelong dream of mine. I felt so incredibly unprepared going into the real world whether it was taxes, the home buying experience, business formation, industry outlook, health and wellness, the importance of freaking teamwork, etc. I was lucky enough to have had a set of parents that prepared me with enough of the intangibles that I was able to pick these things up quickly, but most are not. I would love to create a program that starts at a young age and prepares us for the real world, entrepreneurship or not.
How can our readers follow you online?
The best place to follow fitDEGREE’s company journey and learn more about what we’re doing for fitness businesses is to connect with us on Instagram @fitdegree.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!