George Foreman III on Digital-First Business, the Power of Boxing, and How Brands Can Succeed in Uncertain Times
As part of an ongoing series that examines the rapid changes to our world and way of life, Artemis Ward is gathering thoughts and analysis from leaders and experts to shed light on what’s already happening and offer insight on what’s to come.
July 7, 2020
By Ryan Hatch
In February, what feels like six years ago, everything was humming along for George Foreman III (yes, the champ’s son) and his fitness company, EverybodyFights, a boxing gym with more than a dozen locations in the United States and one that’s trained nearly 150,000 people around the world.
Then, seemingly overnight, the planet came to a standstill as the Covid-19 pandemic kneecapped global economies and everyday life, not least of which affecting when, where, and how we work out. Bike sales, for one, have spiked; so too has outdoor running.
And for brick-and-mortar fitness companies like Foreman’s, the formula for success — or survival—no longer included selling the spirited experience of showing up to a gym and sweating alongside dozens of fellow fighters while listening to curated playlists; rather, the new script called for recalibrating business almost entirely to digital platforms, connecting with customers in ways previously given little consideration. Indeed, the fitness industry’s business model flipped in a matter of weeks—today, it’s somewhat unthinkable for any fitness center or gym not to be pouring resources into online services that customers can access from home.
Fortunately for Foreman, 37, not only has EverybodyFights survived the upheaval, but it’s been thriving in the new landscape thanks to some nimble business maneuvering, deep customer loyalty, and prescient technical design and engineering dating back more than a year. Recently, Ryan Hatch caught up with Foreman to discuss fitness’s new relationship to digital, the business’s challenges past and present, and how, as he sees it, boxing remains one of life’s most important endeavors. Hey, it runs in the family.
(Below is a condensed and edited version of the conversation.)
Walk us through the early days of closing all of the EverybodyFights studios.
The first step was: What are the experts saying? What’s their opinion? I hunted for those. Because even though people were staying home from work, our gyms were packed at all hours—we were getting our best numbers ever. But it hit me: They were saying young, healthy people won’t get the virus, or feel its full effects, but older people will. But at the same time, they’re saying younger people can spread it, and older people can die. So, basically, I’m going to be running a place that can harbor a virus and spread it. With some back-of-the-hand math, I said, ‘This is just not going to turn out right’. And while closing may have upset some people, if you’re thinking long-term, you need to be making long-term decisions.
How were you able to pivot to digital so quickly?
We’ve talked about home fitness for seven years. But we had the gyms and said, ‘We’re good at this. We have a proof point. We have revenue and profit. We have investors that bought-in. Let’s just keep opening gyms and we’ll get to home fitness whenever we get to it.’
And then my gyms closed.
But we were lucky. I live more in 2023 than in 2020. It’s always been that way. And for the past year, I had been tinkering with a platform that I built from scratch with our engineer and developer to create a better connection between us and our customers. I designed it as a progressive web app but hadn’t done anything with it. But with a database of over 140,000 people who’ve visited one of our gyms, the timing was perfect, and I said, ‘Let’s just go digital’.
We want to be a digital-first company while our gyms serve as experiential hubs.
I called my team and showed them the platform. We had no gyms to run, no memberships to sell, so they said, ‘Alright, cool’ and we all switched gears. So within four days, we launched EF Live. As of now, we have 12,000 people who have created their account. On it, you can take a class, do a personal training session, or take a class on-demand.
So is this the new normal for fitness companies?
The gyms are still part of our experience, and they always will be. But we realized that EverybodyFights is an idea—the idea that you can use boxing as a platform to change your life.
And sweating, all that, you can do it from home. All you need is someone to motivate you and hold you accountable.
Going into next year and the following, we want to be a digital-first company while our gyms serve as experiential hubs. Yes, we’ll run classes when it’s safe to run classes, but it’s digital-first. I encourage everybody to take the same approach.
Why do you think boxing remains so popular?
Boxing is the best way to change yourself physically, mentally, emotionally. You can buy a $10,000 bike, but you’re still not going to get a better experience than boxing. And a big part of it is having a great trainer and a great relationship with the trainer. Before and after the class, people want the experience of feeling a connection and a community, and great trainers help that. Boxing is like going to church—you’re there for the message, the people, and the community.
Your mantra has to be building a brand. You’re not building a business.
Look at CrossFit, a company worth $4 billion—it’s essentially people working out in garages. What does that tell you? What they captured in their community was more valuable than an expensive piece of equipment. It’s about the message, it’s about the community. Look, if you want to spend $500 on a bag, buy it at my gym. But we want to be a place where people come to be connected to a community. That, so to speak, is our thousands-of-dollars bike.
It’s one thing to retain current customers during times like this. But how do you now reach new audiences and consumers?
My gut says it’s all about aligning with influential people, and those people being influential because they have actually accomplished something. I like people who have accomplished feats of emotional strength, feats of spiritual strength, feats of athletic strength, and who have earned the right to tell a story and create content that’s engaging for our community. It could be a podcast, a masterclass, it could be any number of things.
That’s the way we spread our message: We align with great people.
Say someone’s starting a fitness company in 2020. What’s your advice?
You need a really good reason, and I would ask a lot of hard questions. I’d ask, ‘Why are you doing it? Would you buy the same product yourself over and over and over? Would you pay a premium for the same product you’re trying to deliver? Would you run the business yourself’?
And at all times, your mantra has to be building a brand. You’re not building a business. Because a real brand can create value in so many different ways beyond the core business. It can be licensed, and sometimes a brand can help align with talent or an executive. A brand can help you get financing when you’re down and out, or get better terms when you’re up, and the brand is going to give you a lot more flexibility with your customer to make mistakes and bounce back. And, most importantly, when you do need to pivot—which we just needed to do—you rely on your brand. And, in essence, you’re relying on your community.