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Business spotlight: pivoting the fitness industry

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 19 Nov 2020

Raj Thiruchelvarajah, Chief Executive Officer of Goal Master Fitness, tells ICAEW how a grounding in audit provided him with invaluable experience for the startup world.

To be getting one startup off the ground during a global downturn and health pandemic might be perceived as unfortunate timing, or at best risky. But to go on and start a second in parallel certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Fortunately, Raj Thiruchelvarajah, chief executive officer of Goal Master Fitness, is thriving on the challenge as Hytro, the second company he is involved in, prepares for its official launch in a couple of weeks. “Running a startup in a global pandemic is hard but starting another one during a pandemic is pretty brutal. We’re relieved we managed to find a way through,” he says.

Goal Master is a health, fitness and nutrition coaching company. Meanwhile, Hytro is also firmly rooted in the fitness industry: the company is launching a sportswear range developed alongside scientists and fitness experts that incorporates blood flow restriction technology, or BFR, to help encourage muscle growth, speed up recovery and boost performance.

Pre lockdown, the fitness sector was a pretty safe bet as the nation’s collective obsession with being healthy and looking good spurred investment in related products and services. However, the pandemic has forced companies in the sector to adapt dramatically in the face of a whole host of unknowns.

To the untrained eye, Raj’s current roles may seem a far cry from his three years in practice in a variety of audit and accounting roles, initially as an audit trainee with PwC. The parallels between a grounding in audit and running a startup may, on the face of it, seem tenuous, but Raj is adamant the experience paved the way to his current role.

“When you’re in audit, you’re pitched into businesses and business functions you don’t really know anything about,” he says. “You have to learn really quickly, identify problems and recommend solutions. That environment of being constantly out of your comfort zone is similar in many ways to the startup environment where you’re finding your way.”

That ability to find quick solutions to business problems has certainly come into its own over the past few months. “You can imagine the issues we’ve had during a global pandemic,” Raj explains. Bearing in mind that Goal Master was all about face-to-face coaching, lockdown restrictions and the fact that many City employees were now working from home rendered its original business strategy unworkable.

Goal Master’s current strategy hinges on a corporate wellbeing offering that taps into the growing need and demand for businesses to help staff navigate the stresses of remote working in these unprecedented times. It charges a monthly fee for corporate access to tailored small group virtual sessions and company-wide seminars across all aspects of wellbeing including nutrition, movement, habit change and exercise.

Meanwhile, Hytro’s original launch in the summer was pushed back after the company’s garment manufacturers in Portugal either closed down or focused on making PPE. It’s now on track for an official (albeit virtual) launch at the beginning of December and is already working on new designs and ranges and eyeing up the potential of future products suitable for elderly and medical markets. Bearing in mind the ageing population, it seems a savvy strategy. “BFR training can benefit many different demographics. It’s not just about guys wanting to put on muscle, though it certainly does do that,” Raj maintains.

The real challenge, Raj says, is being forced to think about how to rejig the business model for a world you can’t predict. “The trick is to build as much flexibility as possible into your strategic plan.”

He also stresses the importance of resilience in overcoming difficult situations. “The first thing to say is, as difficult as it may be, don’t panic into making short-term decisions. Try to focus on how your business should adapt, not on how everyone else is adapting. In the fitness industry, you could hear from the online chatter that a lot of people were, understandably, quite overwhelmed during the first lockdown. I’m lucky that I have our team to help me think things through and bounce ideas off each other,” he adds. “I really admire sole founders who aren’t so fortunate.”

And while speed is of the essence, there’s a balance to be struck between being nimble, making decisions quickly and not making unnecessary mistakes because you’re rushing things through.

“Startups are pretty nimble by default and you’re used to dealing with issues you’ve never faced before,” explains Raj. “In some ways, you’re better prepared for the challenges we’re facing now than a big corporate, where you’re more likely to be used to a set way of life.” 

Raj Thiruchelvarajah will be speaking at the Financial Controllers’ Update on Wednesday 2 December, on the ‘Business spotlights: experiences during the pandemic’ panel.