The journey from professional athlete to building a global fitness operating system, with Conor O’Loughlin, Founder and CEO, Glofox, best-in-class software for building fitness empires.
Conor’s Founder Story was written and recorded in February 2020.
What got you started on your journey?
My journey with Glofox started shortly after my previous career as a professional rugby player with Connaught ended. Having transitioned from the field to setting up a professional services business in Dublin, I saw an opportunity to build something that married my passions for fitness and tech. This led to the creation of Glofox and building a platform to serve a new wave of fitness entrepreneurs. This new wave was all about creating boutique businesses, through group exercise, focusing on member experience. Having come from a background that involved a lot of group exercise and a strong social network, I knew how important the social aspect of fitness was in helping people to achieve their goals. I felt that the traditional gym model, operating on premises with low occupancy and long annual contracts where you hope people don’t show up, wasn’t working anymore and that there was a shift towards a more engaged experience. We saw that this new market was completely underserved and decided there was a big challenge to be solved.
The operating system for the fitness industry
Our vision back then was the same as our vision is now; to be the operating system for the fitness industry. That’s important for two reasons: 1) we’re aligning ourselves with fitness entrepreneurs and helping them to build successful businesses and; 2) we’re helping them to improve the health and wellbeing of their customers worldwide. It’s a purposeful, enriching and meaningful vision that still resonates today.
Many inflection points from a bootstrapped PS business to a global SaaS player
We started out by bootstrapping the development of the product and we were using the revenue from the professional services side of the business to fund the initial MVP.
Our first seed round allowed us to move away from professional services and focus completely on building Glofox, so that was a big turning point for us. Other turning points have been some exceptional hires, one in particular that comes to mind is our COO, Oliver Meyrick, who we brought in about a year and a half ago. The wider leadership team that we subsequently hired was also a huge turning point for Glofox.
Our first big enterprise customer was a huge milestone and meant we were in a position where we could build an enterprise version of our product and put in place an enterprise go-to-market model.
Ireland is a very competitive market for talent
The challenge around building our core team in Ireland (and now just starting to build out a team in the US) has been that it’s a highly competitive market. Every US multinational sets up their EMEA HQ here in Ireland, on our doorstep, and we’ve had to differentiate ourselves. I think we’ve done that well and we’ve managed to hire exceptional people because we have a meaningful purpose to our work and a clear vision. We’re an Irish success story that people like to back and I think that, as a result, we’ve been able to create a really strong employer brand in Ireland and become an employer of choice. We’ve approached our recruitment as rigorously as our sales engine and put in place a disciplined approach to hiring, based on the values, behaviours and characteristics that are aligned with where we’re going. We have come across some exceptional people and built relationships over months and years so that we can hire them when the time is right – hiring a stage too early or a stage too late doesn’t really matter for these right people, so there’s been a mix of learnings in there.
Scaling the business is the biggest challenge
The biggest challenge has to be on the scaling challenge and for us there’s probably too much organisational complexity for the stage of business we’re at. There’s Dublin, LA, Sydney, smaller offices around Ireland and we’re just setting up an office in Minneapolis and we are still only 150 people. eing able to transpose / translate / retain our company culture has been a big challenge. As well as maintaining the hyper growth and ensuring that the right people are coming in and adding value. Making that successful is a big challenge, and is a challenge that everyone faces when scaling.
Learning to cope with the stress is important
I’ve developed coping mechanisms over the past few years. I definitely don’t get as stressed about things as I used to and a lot of that comes from experience and knowing that it’s a bit more normal. You might feel you’re unique but after having created a network of other founders you realise that a lot of the challenges that you’re facing are not unique at all and actually very common.
To a certain extent, it can be a very lonely place being a CEO but I’m supported by my great co-founders, Finn and Anthony, and a great leadership team that have been able to take a lot of the burden and share it with me. Creating discipline around things outside of work has been something that I’ve tried to invest more time in to such as being a bit more mindful about the amount of travelling I do, making sure I’m doing exercise, making sure I’m spending time with my family and friends – these things definitely help as it’s a journey, not a destination, so you need to ensure you’re setting yourself up to enjoy the journey. Unless you make the time to look after yourself, you’re not going to be able to do that.
The most important part of the journey is the people along for the ride
The number one thing is getting the right people on the bus. And, as we’ve grown (we were a team of less than 50 last year and now we’re a team of 150) having the right people on board is a big determining factor of the company being able to achieve success and its goals. Your culture also needs to ensure that those people are fulfilling their potential so having a transparent culture, where you’re giving access to information and your values are underpinning the ways that you make decisions, allows you to get out of the way and let people do their best work. I think the more time we’ve invested into the recruitment process and getting that right and then the onboarding process, the greater the payback has been for us. And this is something I underappreciated this time last year, but definitely don’t now.
It’s been a surprise to me how much satisfaction I take from how much our team has progressed
When we started out, we wanted to build something that would have a big external impact, so it was about supporting these entrepreneurs and building a platform that would allow them to have an impact on people worldwide.
What I didn’t realise was the pride I’d have for the team development and the passion they have and seeing the team progress and achieve their career goals within Glofox. That caught me by surprise. The internal impact, the great culture we have and allowing people to do their best work has been the most rewarding. I take a lot of pride in that and it came out of nowhere for me. You don’t build a company to support people’s career goals, but it ends up being the one thing you become really proud of, how people talk about working at Glofox.
The people who inspire me the most are those that ignore the glass ceiling
There’s obviously a lot of sporting heroes who were childhood heroes of mine, and other people in the non-business world who’ve overcome adversity, for example I’ve always been a big fan of Stephen Hawking. In a business setting, you can’t help but have admiration for people who don’t think of a glass ceiling at all, for example Elon Musk and folks like that. Closer to home, I’m inspired by my own family, so my parents and my wife. You can find inspiration in a lot of different places.
I’d tell my younger self to hire great people and let go
I’ve learned to delegate a lot. Or rather, when we were starting out, I definitely held on to a lot of things for longer than I should have. And now I see my focus as slotting into certain areas, until we find the right person to do so. It’s a lot better to be in that position. So, I’d tell myself to find the right people and hand things over and have them figure it out, rather than me holding onto everything.
VC Funding isn’t for everyone but if you do go down that route you need to be aligned
Depending on the business model, it’s not for everybody. Make sure you’re at a stage when you’re ready for it. Make sure you have an understanding first of your unit economics and that you’re at a stage where you can predictably accelerate growth. But the biggest thing with VC funding is alignment between the investor and the entrepreneur and the whole journey. There are a good few really value-add VCs and we’re lucky with Notion Capital and that we have Jos White, who’s an operator turned investor who has been able to help me steer the company. Without him we would have made some costly mistakes. Make sure that it’s a two way process and remember that all money is not the same.