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29th Jan 2021

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I worked hard for about two years on a side project called Wodly (I wrote about it here before). In short, Wodly was a performance tracking system for functional fitness. Think of it as Strava for Crossfit. The platform allowed users to create workouts, add scores and share them with the public or track their progress privately with graphs and analytics. Aside from designing and building the platform, I would write a “workout of the day” (WOD) every day that was published on the websites main page. As well as the website, I used to manage an Instagram page for the brand where I would also post daily workouts.

Ultimately, Wodly was not successful and I made the decision to shut it down. I’m going to talk about some of the reasons why I shut it down, some mistakes I made and some things I’ve learned along the way.

Wodly didn’t really do something that people wanted 🤷‍♂️… Okay, so you could say that about anything really but there are some more details. Most people who train functional fitness do it in a dedicated gym. Most of those gyms have systems in place for members to log their scores and compare against other people in their own gym. Others have a physical whiteboard in their gym that they write scores on. In either case, the local community aspect is what is important. You also have to consider, in most gyms, there are huge amounts of people who don’t log their scores. They just want to go and have fun and work out with people who also want to do the same, they don’t care about the score at all!

You can’t force people to want to use something that you think is great if they don’t want to use it. If people don’t want to use the thing you built, they just wont use it.

In case it wasn’t already obvious; I am a nerd, a big ole nerd. I love programming, maths, statistics, data and generally when things are organised or structured in some way. Another thing that I absolutely love is sports and fitness. In specific I love Weightlifting and Crossfit (or functional fitness so I don’t get sued 😬) (p.s. I have also weirdly gotten into running, don’t ask, I don’t know either). In the search to scratch a creative itch and do something that brings together many of my passions, I set out to build Wodly.

My thinking on this was simple, there is a basic principle in Crossfit that you can come up with a measure of fitness based on power output. Power, in general, is defined as work done divided by time taken. So lots of work in a short space of time is high power output. You tend to find that most Crossfit style workouts have one of either two scores, the amount of time it took you to do a fixed amount of work, or the amount of work you got done in a set amount of time. We would call these two scores, time and reps (repetitions). For example, how many pull ups you can do in one minute or how fast can you run 1km? Time or reps. There are an almost infinite combination of workouts you could measure by just these two metrics. If you can test yourself on these workouts over time, you could see your improvements and then infer an increase or decrease in “fitness” (I’m not here to debate the validity of this claim, for the purposes of this discussion lets assume that Crossfit people believe this and those are the people I am interested in marketing to with Wodly).

So… recording work done and time taken, doesn’t exactly sound ground breaking… That’s because it really isn’t! In fact, in the world of functional fitness, there are already a whole load of platforms that do this. Their business models are mostly the same; they market towards gyms and offer whole gym management solutions including POS, billing, scheduling and attendance tracking. The selling point that impacts members is that they usually offer internal tracking of athletes performance on workouts and some (very) basic graphing and analytics. Usually this in embedded into gyms workflows by making the athletes sign in to a class on this platform and then the option is there after the class to fill in their scores. Surprise, surprise, it’s usually a time or number of reps.

My vision with Wodly was to make a personal version of this type of system. Make it so that people could track their own performance privately or publicly. Allow users to create their own workouts and log their results on a public leaderboard or just have them on their own dashboard. The other plan was to offer in-depth analytics on performance over time via a freemium model to allow more advanced features to be paid for. Eventually the plan was to offer a paid version to gyms. However, the basic idea was always to keep it built for users not built for gyms.

As I said earlier, I’m a nerd, I love recording all my numbers and watching them change over time. Turns out, most people, don’t really care that much about that. I only really had to look at my own gym to confirm this. Most people in any given class didn’t bother filling in their scores on the app that they already had to have because they had to sign into their classes with it. Why on earth would these people go sign up for another platform, that they didn’t have to use, to NOT do the same thing with? Another thing that I thought was a selling point was that people could create their own workouts and log their results. It turns out, most people don’t make their own workouts. Most people get workouts from their coaches or from websites etc. So the already niche Crossfit market is even smaller when you filter for this. I also went with a (not very slick) web first approach when most people in the space already have mobile apps, again, not a great sell.

So, as if it wasn’t already obvious why my idea wouldn’t work… Let’s just look at the raw numbers. I said at the start of this that I wanted to make “Strava for Crossfit”. Strava currently has around 55 million users. Last year, in the Crossfit worldwide online open (an online competition held every year that many athletes from gyms all over the world compete in) had 126,461 entreats… Are you starting to see the difference in scale? Handfuls of people worldwide are actively interested and competitive in the functional fitness space compared to the 10’s of millions of regular people who run every day. When you think of scales, you really only need a few people interested in running their 5k a bit faster to make something like Strava work. However, the percentage of the community needed to make something like Wodly work is much, much more.

As a final side note related to modern technology that makes a difference here. I can go running (mostly very slowly) and my relatively inexpensive watch can track my performance on this run and log it automatically to Strava. With this, I can see all the things I might be interested in, HR, pace, split times etc., it’s all very seamless and easy. Unfortunately, Crossfit it a more varied sport, beyond heart rate data, a simple smartwatch can’t give me any real insights. This is another major blow to the “Strava for Crossfit” model.

Ultimately I don’t see Wodly as a personal failure in the slightest. A commercial failure, most definitely, but not a personal one. I spent hours working on this platform. I learned more than I could have imagined and worked with so many tools I had never touched before. I can now confidently say that I know the details involved with setting up every piece of a modern cloud architected application. The confidence it gives me and the experience of building something from scratch, growing it and even shutting it down, was really incredible. Another part that is often over looked in building a side project is the enjoyment of it. In general, the reason I build things is because I love building things. I got hours of entertainment out of building Wodly and solving the various problems I came up against. I always think that if you are having fun, you aren’t wasting your time.

One of the most important things I learned is that having what you might think is a great idea means very little, unfortunately. Even if it really is a great idea, that alone isn’t enough. You need to be able to show other people how good the idea is and be able to sell the concept. There is a tricky area of trying to figure out is the idea bad or is it being sold badly. There are people who have wasted a lot of time thinking it was the latter but it was the former. Sure the same argument above applies, as long as you are having fun, but don’t sell your house and everything you own hoping you are just one marketing strategy away from success. Remember, your value and self worth isn’t tied up in your side project or your startup. You can allow it to fail, that doesn’t mean that you failed. So long as you learn that’s what is important.

Who knows?!?! I don’t currently have any specific plans around a project I want to pick up. I have recently been doing some learning around ML and I might look at some side projects involved in sports tech and ML. I plan to take a break and see what comes along. I might also look at some physical projects again, I haven’t touched hobby electronics in a bit, maybe I’ll pick something up.

As always, if anyone is interested in collaborating on a project (especially in sports tech), feel free to reach out!

Keep on working on your passions!
— Ian

Originally published at https://iancarey.ie on January 29, 2021.

Software engineer based in Ireland, currently employed by Kitman Labs. I love making things, writing code, maths, machine learning and electronics.

Software engineer based in Ireland, currently employed by Kitman Labs. I love making things, writing code, maths, machine learning and electronics.