Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey everyone! My name is Stephen Bilko and I am the proud founder of Exercise Simple.
We officially launched our app to the public February 22nd of this year and we are available in the app stores, iTunes & Google Play. We have downloads in more than 45 countries already, and have spent literally just pennies on marketing and advertising.
Our founding philosophy, our business strategy and our main objective in this world, is to help people. Our society has never been as unhealthy, as it is today. The so-called ‘fitness industry’ has failed. The health and wellness app market has failed. At a time when people really do want to be healthier, happier and stronger, they are continually presented with underwhelming and unrealistic options. We are changing that.
We are a totally authentic, and totally free, exercise app & community. Our workouts are 30’sh minutes. They are entirely bodyweight exercises. We filmed everything in our home(!!), not some spiffy studio. And every person, in every workout, is a normal everyday kinda person; not a fitness model or an action figure lookalike. In fact the very first workout that a user gets after they download, has a 40’something year old Dad, with his 6’year old daughter. We built this in our home, in the most realistic way, to give everyone the most realistic opportunity to get consistent exercise in their life.
There is no metric, or download number, that can adequately capture the value of knowing that a 15-yr-old obese young woman in Montgomery Alabama is on her 17th workout in 23 days! Or that a full-time Mom of three in Pittsburgh, with a full-time job, has exercised 105 days since March! Or that a Loudoun County Sheriff, can invest just 30mins, a few times a week, to get stronger and healthier, and get himself in better shape, to better protect and serve our community.
It has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life, connecting with and helping folks around the globe. We are quite literally changing lives all over the world, every day.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been a teacher and coach since 2005. I was actually a high school English teacher and basketball coach, in my younger years; before I became a trainer and entrepreneur. I’ve worked with thousands of people, from every corner of the earth. Most of us, want to be healthy. Most of us, are kinda lazy though too. And so I just always knew we needed to build something that appealed to that market -- folks who internally really do care about their health, but have been failed by the traditional institutions. Most of us don’t like going to a gym, don’t have time to go to a gym, or don’t have the means to have a gym membership .. and I was adamant on building a tool to help people.
I was reading the Steve Jobs’ biography in 2012 and his insistence on simplicity; in design, in UX, in well, everything. It’s the maxim attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” … and that was a lightbulb moment for this.
So much of the traditional methods rely on going somewhere to exercise, or buying workouts with super fit people in them, or clicking through page after page after page of in-app workouts. My wife walked into our office, and I remember saying to her, “it is exercise, simple -- that’s how we help people!”
We bought the domain name that day. We contacted a branding specialist. And a month later, we filmed, what essentially would be our pilot. So this is many years in the making, to actually get to the point where we launch a live app to the world.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
In the fall of 2017, we were shopping for app builders. We’d met a few, and vetted them pretty seriously, and actually almost signed with one. But, something didn’t feel right. They weren’t really fully picking up our vision.
They weren’t seeing just how super simple the platform needed to be. So, I crowdsourced one day on Facebook to Mary and I’s networks, “who do we know, who builds apps?” And, as with most things in life, the answer was staring us right in the eye! A kid I grew up with -- a guy, a grown man now, sorry, Andy! -- actually owns an app building company. His wife messaged me a few minutes later and gently reminded me that this is exactly what Andy does. He and I texted that day, and set up a call for that Friday.
Sidenote -- we had two kids at the time, a 3 year old and a 1 year old, and my wife was due with our third, that week:-)
Andy and I chatted for a solid hour on Dec 1st. I told him that most likely we would have the baby this week, but to pencil an in person meeting for Dec 15th. As expected, our perfect little angel was born Dec 8th, and one week later, Dec 15 2017, I left Northern VA at 4am for a 9am meeting in Raleigh, NC with Andy and his team. We spent all day white boarding our vision, talking through our MVP, getting tons of the geeky tech stuff out of their brains, and I left in time to make it back to tuck our kids in that night. A wild day.
We started our in-home workouts in February of 2018. 2-3x/week, we had groups coming into our home to exercise. Talk about crazy. Three kids, 3years and under, and we opened our home to dozens of folks for free workouts.
The first 5 or 6 months of 2018, we were just flying blind. We had no money; zero dollars of funding. We partnered with our video guru, Corey, so he earned equity rather than taking payment. We were banking huge amounts of video content. Most importantly, we were helping alot of people. Our money partners, Mr. John and Austin, officially signed on, AUG of 2018. We had seed money! AKA .. let the app build, begin! The tech team started design and building the foundation, in the fall of 2018. What a crazy experience that was!
I am admittedly the non-technical, tech founder! And,so most days, we would do a call or a video demo with the tech team in North Carolina, and they’d be dealing with the former high school English teacher, turned personal trainer, turned realtor, turned tech founder. There were some really cool experiences of learning, and I need to give so much credit to Andy and Kristal and their entire team for always being there for me. They’d have question after question coming from me at all hours of the day. But, each and every time, they were as cool as a cucumber and as supportive as the Red Cross. We did a bulk of the technical stuff December. Once we hit January of this year, it was in house beta testing, debugging, and trying our best to ‘break’ the app. Again, for the non technical person, this was like learning an entire new language.
Mock up of our APP STORE LISTING
After our initial whiteboard session -- this is my original mockup i sent to the tech team before we started our design phase -- thank heavens we did!
Describe the process of launching the business.
When we felt good about the functionality of the app, we needed to go through the app stores approval process. As excited as we were, the tech team cautioned us, that this process usually takes days, if not weeks to get the final approval. Ours took less than 24 hours!
We, were, floored. We submitted on the morning of Tuesday FEB 20th, and I remember finishing the kids’ baths that night when my cell started blowing up -- all these emails from the tech team saying we were approved, we were live, we had an app in the app store! We went from ‘HOLY SMOKES!! WE DID IT’ .. to “oh my gosh, we have almost zero social media buzz for a launch!”.
Definitely the highs and the lows of startup life. So, we had a big family hug. I cried a little. We had another big family hug, and went about detailing the next few days of social media posts to hype our launch to our networks. Weds, February 20 was actually a snow day here in Northern VA -- not ideal for trying to get a boatload of work done for our launch -- all of the schools were closed. Mary and I did our best to work the phones, and man our laptops, while doing fulltime Mommy/Daddy duty. And somehow, we pulled it off. We didn’t expect to break the internet or go viral on day 1.
We just wanted to tell our story. And as honestly, as we can. We’ve had incredible traction from our social media campaigns. We have dozens of posts that have reached tens of thousands of people. Our initial social media video, reached over thirty thousand people relatively quickly. And, again, with zero dollars of promotion or boosts. We have a great team, I call them, ‘The Share Squad’ that seemingly spams every social that they can. I’m surprised, on the daily, of our reach.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Being authentic! That’s been our hallmark from Day 1. We opened our home to the world. And in doing so, we needed to be able to show folks that authenticity. Our messaging and branding, is exactly who we are. And (most) people, really appreciate that. We try to do as much within the app, on our social media, and in public, as we can to show people that we live very much like they do.
On days when we feel overwhelmed by the startup life, or by our normal 9-5 jobs, or by kids, or a combination of everything -- we tell the world:-) There’s lots of posts and messages that our users get, saying that Mary or I skipped our workout, or had ‘bad’ nutrition, or didn’t sleep well. It’s crazy important for everyone to see and experience that realness. One of the things that we hear alot, is how much people love seeing our kids in the actual workouts. Since we filmed in our home, and since kids are totally unpredictable, there’s lots of ‘special guest appearances’! In reality, this was very intentional. It makes us relatable. And there’s no app out there, doing this. We’ll be in the middle of a workout, and in walks Mary and the kids from daycare. Smack dab right in the middle of a set of burpees, with lights and cameras, the whole bit .. school bags, diaper bags, art projects, screaming babies, everything.
We have 5-star ratings in both of the app stores! We’ve had some nice press lately. I was interviewed by a news team from India; and have a magazine feature coming in AUG. So much of our publicity has come organically. Users posting about their workouts; strangers messaging me from chat groups about how much they love what we are doing and they’ve convinced their entire family to start; companies reaching out to us to help get their employees healthier.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Incredible. And incredible!
We are absolutely amazed by our global traction. We have downloads in almost four dozen countries with a $0 budget. Our user retention is more than double the industry average. We have some really great offers, already, for funding.
Right now, we are planning our 2.0 build for the fall. We’ve added some really incredible talent to the team as well. As a $0 revenue company, with peanuts left of funding, we’ve been lucky enough to have teammates defer compensation, titles, everything, for the sake of keeping this moving forward.
Our business development team, consists of a group of absolutely selfless folks. And we’ve added in house technical talent as well. That has been wildly humbling. Having a guy who is a super successful Microsoft employee, say “I want in!”, helps alot. And, it allows me to focus so much more on the overall vision and direction we are going, than spending all day prepping for a tech demo that I will only understand a quarter of the conversation.
Our 2.0 will have some really cool in-app purchases available; from custom alarm clocks, to teammate challenges. We’re adding some tiered memberships as well. And we’ve made some great relationships with public school systems, police & fire departments, and the military as well -- we are connecting with people who’ve longed for realistic and practical solutions to getting healthier, happier and stronger.
We’re also really focused on the corporate wellness market. The current market is just, well, underwhelming and overpriced. The vast majority of these plans, don’t even offer the user any exercise, at all. They charge an astronomical amount of money and the users aren’t even connected to a real person. We are changing the entire approach. We are the new internet -- were the app services and helps the user, through real relationships; not just having a user track and log all of their info. So we are incredibly excited about 2020, and beyond.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Surround yourself with like-intended people. This world is crazy enough, don’t keep the crazies. Honestly. We are very intentional about helping others, and only allowing folks who also want to help others, into the inner circle. Often times, we get distracted or get off course, and we need our team to be the stabilizer. If your team is made up of people whose moral compass isn’t inline with yours, and your brand’s, you start chasing things that you never would believe.
Be true to your word. I think that’s incredibly important. We’ve made big moves, be it with investment money, partnerships, co-founders, etc., that were merely handshake agreements. Full disclosure, our attorney will probably kill me for saying that:-)and, in that light, tip#3, have great legal counsel every step of the way. But back to being honest and accountable. As a small business, esp., as a startup, your word, your character, are the very foundation of the brand. It’s imperative that the word of mouth reputation of your business, is as clean as a finished load of laundry.
And, yes, back to the legal advice -- it’s a must do. From the very beginning, taking the time and money to invest in a solid legal founding is so important. We shopped around a bit on this too, and ended up with an awesome attorney. He’s always available; he’s thorough; he’s honest; and thank the heavens, he’s ok with partial payments every once in awhile.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, have fun! I can’t imagine doing something, or having a job, that I couldn’t have fun. Whether I was in the classroom, or coaching, or doing real estate deals, I need to be smiling. It gives me life. As you can see from the workouts in the app, or our social media, we are adamant that we enjoy the ride!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My best, and most used, tools are our cell phones! And we are an Apple & Android family! We use our cells for everything under the sun -- our app is run on it, obviously. But, the app’s admin side, the coaching side, is also run through it; none of our platform is on a desktop, yet.
So, all of the coaching we do, is via mobile. Most all of the social media campaigns we do, cell phones. Can not stress enough how important a tool it is! We are connected with real users, all over the world, through it.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I mentioned earlier, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson; such a great book; so many lessons learned. I’m a big biography nerd though .. biographies are my jam ..
I love reading anything I can about founders, coaches, presidents; anything leadership really. My degree from Penn State is in English, so I’ve always preferred reading over podcasts. So I can highlight and mark up the pages.
To name a few from my shelf:
- Quiet Strength, Tony Dungy’s memoir.
- Onward by Howard Schultz.
- Decision Points, George W. Bush.
- Good to Great by Jim Collins.
- Outliers by Malcom Gladwell.
In the last few years though, I’ve really gotten into startup podcasts like How I Built This, and a youtube series from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I’m normally doing at least one of these audio lessons a week.
Normally on a Monday, my exercise is a treadmill incline walk, listening to ‘How I Built This’. I’ll normally take ten minutes after, and do a quick written summary of what I liked, learned, etc., and save it as a draft in my email.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If you’re the person, or family, that must-have a reliable paycheck, or schedule -- this is not for you. And that’s fine. The first part of success, is knowing what you’re getting into. Too often, people love the idea of ‘being their own boss’ until it’s time for the biweekly direct deposit. The ‘weight’ of your entire paycheck, sits squarely on your own shoulders.
And, to flat out listen to your heart. This life, this world, is what you make of it. If you believe in yourself, if you have an unshakable faith and confidence, there is nothing in this world that can stop you. I truly believe that. We have these handwritten notes all over our home, “CREATE.YOUR.WAY.” And so, that is entirely how we live. We spend each day, living and creating our way.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now? We would love to have a few more hungry teammates, who want to help the world. We just don’t have the money:-)I have conversations most every week, with people who love what we are doing, and want to help. Or, love helping people, and want to see if there’s a way for them to fit in. Our next round of funding, may open some doors to those types of paid positions. But for now, it’s Mary & I, and The Dream Team; all unpaid, all trying our best to help others.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how!