This week’s episode is part of an experiment and so requires a longer than normal introduction.
I’ve come to view this podcast as a learning tool, a means to understand a new topic in a short window of time. One of those areas is venture capital and startups—an area that one year ago was completely foreign to me. I think the best way to learn is aggressive immersion in a topic along with some consequences, what we often call some skin in the game. Accordingly, this is a conversation with the founder of a startup in which I am an investor.
I say this in full disclosure because I believe in being very transparent with you, but also obviously want this business to do well. Part of the reason I invested was because I thought I could affect the outcome of the business personally, in part by exposing the model and ideas to you all. I deeply respect your opinions and collective breadth of knowledge, and welcome thoughts you have on this topic.
The founder is Brett Maloley and his company is called Ladder. Ladder represents an overlap of many topics we’ve explore together over the last year. We’ve talked about venture capital, health and wellbeing, the difficultly of fundraising and power law outcomes in startups. We also spent an entire episode, with Alex Moazed, talking about the business model that Ladder is pursing: what Alex calls platform business model and what my favorite technology writer Ben Thompson calls the Aggregator model.
Alex wrote the book Modern Monopolies about this model, which describes how companies like Uber, Airbnb, and others serve clients. Platform companies sit at the intersection between consumers and producers in a given category, helping make life easier, cheaper, and/or better for consumers and more profitable and flexible for producers. But the value creation itself is about the facilitating the exchange of value more efficiently than it is about actually creating the underlying product. Airbnb, for example, doesn’t own real estate (the value in this case), but they unlock the potential of real estate owned by others. Same for Uber which, so far, doesn’t own cars.
As Alex explained to me in our discussion, a key sign of a market which might benefit from a platform company is some form of latent, untapped supply. Which brings me back to Ladder. The company is being built to unlock latent potential in fitness and potentially other types of coaching. Personal trainers work 11 hours a day but have 4 hours of downtime. That is the untapped supply. Ladder will allow two key things: much cheaper access to a real fitness coach for consumers who don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars a month in the current format, and a way for trainers with lots of free time to both get new customers and to better engage with their existing customers. Think of it almost like Opentable—which started as a way for restaurants to better manage their reservations, but turned into a liquid market for consumers to make reservations.
The reason this is so interesting, I think, is the enormous size of the commercial fitness industry and the fact that it hasn’t changed for a long time. I love people who have an almost bizarre level of knowledge in a niche field, and Brett certainly fits that bill. He grew up with the industry, his mentors and relatives having literally build the commercial fitness industry, what we think of today as gyms and personal training. He knows how this legacy model works and ticks, the flaws and benefits of different business models, and why the future might be different, with a much larger percent of the population using a fitness coach, and maybe other types of coaches, in categories like nutrition and health.
To see the app in action and get paired with a coach, Brett kindly set up a promo code of sorts like you often hear on other podcasts. If you search for “ladder coach” in the app store, download the app, and then use the promo code ILTB (as in, invest like the best) you’ll get 50% off the service forever. I don’t get any cut of that at all. Brett and his team are data heads, and their main goal early in this company’s life is to generate data on the relationships between consumers and their new coaches to figure out what works best for both groups to constantly improve the service, so the early adopters among you get a permanent discount.
Now this will be obvious, but nothing about what I do personally is investment advice—it should not be mimicked. Like my investment in bitcoin, this investment represents a small part of my portfolio, and as always I think the majority of anyone’s portfolio should be balanced and well-priced. I do not expect that I have any skill at selecting startups, as probably very few people do. But I know that having some skin in the game means you learn differently: more efficiently, and faster. I hope you enjoy this collective experiment, which is largely the result of what I’ve learned from past guests and from all of your support which helps me meet those great people in the first place. Let’s dive in to my conversation with the founder of Ladder, Brett Maloley, who starts by describing how he got his start in the fitness world.
5:25 – (First question) – Brett describes his history in the fitness industry
10:04 – Realized he could fix the commercial fitness industry by changing it
12:46 – Explain how Ladder works
14:14 – What does the ratio of digital to in-person coaching need to be in order to be effective coaching
17:12 – Explaining the platform business model as a whole and how to scale these types of business
22:15 – Origin of health clubs
24:01 – Current state of the health fitness space through some key stats
26:44 – What happened where gyms were able to start charging a lot less for memberships
30:20 – How Ladder is going to attract customers in the beginning
36:10 – How to drive engagement
37:46 – The opportunity for coaches on the platform
40:28 – How will ladder ensure the quality of coaches on the platform remains high
42:41 – Exploring the value of the data
45:32 – How will Ladder work with gyms in the scope of how a new business can take advantage of existing businesses
48:58 – Comparing Ladder to crossfit and what is not sustainable about
53:14 – Difference between a franchise model vs a license model
55:12 – Strategy for building an audience
59:56 – Competitors to this business
1:03:39 – Brett’s thoughts on brand broadly speaking and how he’s worked to shape Ladder’s brand
1:05:00 – Best individual experience of the platform so far