By Lindsay Morris, contributor via the Underground Group
⏰ 7-minute read
Shivani Jain was a senior studying business at the University of Chicago when she and two fellow students, Arnav Dalmia and Ryota Sekine, won second place in the school’s annual New Venture Challenge. Their concept product, a mini elliptical called Cubii, would help busy professionals work out while working in their cubicles.
The trio had tested it out, distributing prototypes -- modified ellipticals and exercise bikes tilted so they could fit under a desk -- to members of Chicago’s 1871 coworking space. They got some surprising feedback: Many office workers envisioned the product benefitting their homebound parents and physically impaired relatives.
“We kept getting people coming to us, telling us, ‘This is something I could use, or my dad could use or my granddad could use,’” Jain recalled.
It was feedback like this that ultimately changed the course — and the target market — for the company. Listening to customers helped Jain and her colleagues learn how to best reach those people who could most benefit.
Cubii is a mini elliptical that affords users low-impact exercise while they sit.
Setting a pace
After winning their school’s competition, "we started doing some research, and we saw that this could have legs,” Jain said.
So, shortly after graduating, Jain, Dalmia and Sekine (now CMO, CEO and VP of operations, respectively) launched Cubii (incorporated as Fitness Cubed) through a Kickstarter campaign in 2014.
The campaign attracted more than 1,000 supporters, raising about $300,000 — three and a half times the trio’s goal.
“It was the most-funded campaign in Chicago in 2014,” Jain said. “That kind of got everything really mobilized after that.”
Cubii founders Dalmia (left), Jain (center) & Sekine were business-school classmates at the University of Chicago.
Cubii hired a team of product engineers to design the machines, working closely with a product design company in the Chicago area to fine-tune the engineering and mechanical components. They began selling the Cubii product across a variety of channels, including their own e-commerce site, Amazon, QVC and the Home Shopping Network.
It’s on these channels that Jain began seeing product reviews and testimonials that echoed her team’s earlier product testing in that Chicago coworking space.
“When we first started ... we thought they were going to be a customer that was really young — people who are usually active and they just want to move more,” said Jain. “They feel kind of trapped and whatnot. So, that was the target audience.”
However, the team learned from Cubii’s customer reviews that there was a larger additional audience benefitting from the product and in more ways than anticipated. Users included a woman who needed to shed some pounds before much-needed knee surgery and someone who ordered a Cubii for her son with attention deficit disorder because increased dopamine produced through exercise can improve attention and focus.
The comments weren’t just coming in through reviews. Every Cubii box comes with Dalmia’s phone number — and the thank you calls were informative regarding Cubii’s ability to help with physical ailments, like recovering from car accident injuries for example.
Even now, “a lot of times, he's getting called even in the middle of the night by people who are sharing their stories; thanking us for building it and changing their life,” said Jain.
“A lot of times, [our CEO is] getting called even in the middle of the night by people who are sharing their stories; thanking us for building Cubii and changing their life.”
There was a lot of anecdotal data streaming in that needed to be organized. Jain and her colleagues embarked on a formal analysis in which they bucketed customer reviews by category so they could better understand how people were using Cubii and the ways in which they were benefiting.
Additionally, the company began testing assumptions with in-person focus groups and by sending email surveys to customers. Using a third-party market research firm, Fitness Cubed asked its customers several questions, such as whether they agreed or disagreed with statements that were based on other collected data (i.e., “I feel like I have more energy when I use the Cubii.”).
The results were a final confirmation that Cubii was not only serving the younger, stuck-at-a-desk crowd: Its users were also recovering from surgery and battling diabetes with limited mobility.
“These stories showed us it's not just people who don't have time to work out, but it's also people who don't have the ability to work out,” Jain said. “... People were using [Cubii machines] for so many more use cases or reasons far beyond [what] we could have ever imagined.”
Intended for young professionals, Cubii now serves an additional audience of those recovering from surgery.
Adapting to a new audience
Jain and her colleagues had found an additional demographic to pursue, and they adapted their marketing to meet it.
“We went from having a very targeted statement of ‘work out while you work’ to now being ‘fitness that is accessible for all ages, abilities and lifestyles,’” she said.
The Cubii marketing team revisited their paid search mix, purchasing SEO keywords related to health and rehabilitation. They added photos and video content featuring people who were older or in rehabilitation. Cubii’s signature TV ad featured a woman using her Cubii while sitting on her couch with a walker visible in the background.
Cubii's 2019 TV ad highlighted its usefulness to older users with injuries.
Following this additional audience and meeting them where they were was critical. Cubii now attends trade shows that cater to orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists who may recommend Cubii to patients. The company also works to maintain strategic partnerships with AARP, the Illinois Physical Therapy Association and health influencers like Doctor Jo, a physical therapist with hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers. There are also several clinical studies in progress designed to underscore Cubii’s health benefits.
All of these efforts have fueled an extra stream of invaluable word-of-mouth advertising. But Fitness Cubed recognizes it is not the only rehab and fitness machine company. Jain’s job is to stay on top of the trends to avoid losing relevance in the global physiotherapy equipment market, which was valued at $18.6 billion in 2018.
Within that sector, Jain sees Cubii playing an important role in DIY physical therapy.
“Medical institutions are putting more emphasis on the individual for any post-surgery rehabilitation and home physical therapy,” said Jain. “People are really having to and wanting to take more control of their health, which is great for us because we are giving them the tools to be able to do that in a very easy way.”
Going the distance for customers
One of the tools Cubii offers is connectivity. The company launched its own app in 2016 to help customers track their fitness against other Cubii users. About 30,000 people in the “Cubii Communitii” have collectively pedaled more than 550,000 miles (twice around the moon) since the app’s launch.
Jain has gleaned insights from customers competing for spots on the app’s leaderboards.
“When people want to work out, they want to know they want to be part of a bigger community; they want to get competitive,” she said. “They want to hold each other accountable.”
Cubii's app lets Cubii users chat with each other and track their use.
Meanwhile, Fitness Cubed has gone the distance itself. It ranked No. 180 on last year’s Inc. 5,000 list, which cited 2018 revenue as $10.3 million and a company growth of 2,142% over three years.
Jain attributes a large percentage of this growth to Cubii entering the physiotherapy market. That pursuit has led the company to expand globally to reach the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and Canada.
And now, the product team is hard at work developing a yet-to-be-announced next line of machines — beyond compact ellipticals — and improving the app to further flesh out what Jain calls “a non-fitness fitness company.”
Listening to the customer remains critical to Fitness Cubed, said Jain, and other businesses might benefit from following in its footsteps.
“Take every opportunity you can to talk to your customers,” she said. “They are telling us what they need. … Not only do the customers appreciate it, but that's where you get the kind of information, the kind of stories that tell you what you should be doing next.”