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The Business Generals Podcast | Helping You Maximize Your Entrepreneurial Dreams - Every Single Week - Davis Mutabwa 18th July 2018
085 – The innovative treadmill desk: Getting your innovation from idea stage into a profitable business and scaling up (w/ Rob Jacobs)
00:00:00 00:57:28

085 – The innovative treadmill desk: Getting your innovation from idea stage into a profitable business and scaling up (w/ Rob Jacobs)

Rob Jacobs is the guy who gets people up-and-out of their chairs and moving again! A personal fitness expert and the co-founder of UnSit, an innovative company working to get people UP out of their chairs and moving again with the world’s first Treadmill Desk optimized for use in an office environment. His background is firmly in the fitness industry having been in treadmill retail and commercial equipment including a repairs and servicing business model. Being a fitness enthusiast sitting at a chair all day made Rob research into how to help people with desk jobs get fitter by moving more.

First business startup – the walking centre.
This was a fitness centre targeted at middle aged stay at home mums who would go into the store, rent a movie, and walk on a treadmill while watching their movie! This proved to be a great model for Rob. The results were very good and people started buying these high ticket treadmills in the Beverly Hills area, and opened more stores which also included the sale of commercial fitness equipment. Rob eventually sold out of the retail model after a number of years as the market changed with increased competition and margin pressure.

Before selling out of retail Rob had developed a service model that repaired and serviced fitness equipment for health clubs and fitness centres, so with a new business partner Rob developed and grew this business to include retailing of spare parts. Rob has maintained and continued to grow this business over the last 25 years plus and it still continues to be his core revenue generator.

The business model is ecommerce based enhanced with telephone technology support, targeted at out of warranty fitness equipment servicing clients in different countries.

The problem that turned into a new business idea
Rob found himself constantly sitting at a desk, servicing clients and growing his spare parts business, and found himself having less and less exercise, feeling lethargic, lower back problems all from sitting behind a desk far too long.

A book by Dr. James Levine, who is credited as the popular inspiration for the treadmill desk, inspired Rob to work on solving his problem. Book reference: Get up – why your chair is killing you, Dr James Levine

Rob had seen the idea before but he discredited it on the basis that he didn’t think a treadmill desk provided real exercise or real practicality in an office setting. [During this interview Rob was walking along at 1 mile per hour on his treadmill desk and by about 15 minutes into the interview he had clocked over 2,000 steps! Pretty impressive].

Dissecting the research and looking at the market opportunity

  • Obesity is one third of US population, and this same third is also at the pre-diabetic stage estimated to require medicated treatment in a few years time
  • Sitting disease is a term used in the book by Dr Levine which includes diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses which can be prevented or recovered from through exercise
  • Mental creativity is a softer science but this is the marketing point Rob has picked, exercise leads to a more productive and creative workforce and this can be achieved through the treadmill desk technology

Designing the product

  • After reading Dr James Levine’s book Rob decided to work on designing a product that was fit for purpose
  • Most designs at this time simply took a tread mill and stuck it under a desk, but Rob figured there was better way
  • Rob shares that while his academic qualifications are minimal and his learning quite empirical and self taught, this did not disadvantage his entrepreneurial journey
  • Rob took out an old treadmill, a piece of plywood and created a frame around the treadmill, tweaked it and after a couple of months came up with half decent treadmill desk
  • Then after using it a for a little while Rob identified further key refinements like making the desk wider and longer, then also found a way to re-engineer the motor of the product that wasn’t noisy and could power the machine at slow speeds
  • Rob connected with Paul his business partner and they together partnered up with a manufacturer who was given equity in Unsit as a way for all partners to have ‘skin in the game’
  • The manufacturer with their experience and expertise developed the first 12 beta units which were in line with the initial mock up prototype.

Beta testing of the product

  • Found 12 beta locations and got feedback from users of the treadmill desks over a 6 – 12 month period
  • Through networking Rob managed to sell all of these units out to business owners, office managers, professional service firms and other locations
  • They got the model pretty close in the beta round and didn’t need to change it too much
  • This led to the first production unit point with about $100,000 invested into the project at this point which included the prototype, the initial marketing, website and initial beta run

First Shipment

  • 104 per container, so they got 2 containers loads in quick succession as the first production batch
  • This was shipped over to some of the dealers the Rob is connected to
  • Rob rented out some space at a We-Work shared office location which has generated sales, doing lunch and learns in different office environments with in person demos and online marketing approaches which are still being built up

Small group selling and marketing

  • Due to high ticket item of $2,500 a unit, it only takes a few units sold to make good revenue
  • Anyone who had high value units can follow this model of show casing products to a small targeted group of prospects, Rob shares how each lunch and learn is an opportunity to get content for social media sharing of images from the event, he records the talks and demos and re-purposes them online and on social media
  • To get real scalability Rob is focused on building the online channel

Growth and marketing

  • Rob discusses how their current product is more of an executive high end line so working on a lower cost option is a natural evolution in order to access growth
  • Based on research, Rob discovered there are over 1 million stand up desks that have been sold, and so the next pivot was to sell the treadmill separate from the desk, and about 50% of sales is attributed to people who have already acquired a stand up desk and just after a treadmill
  • Having the product in the field, showrooms has generated revenue opportunities
  • Online marketing is also a key driver to growth on unsit.com website
  • People have resonated to the message that they can do more than one thing at once, i.e. work and exercise and the same time
  • Testimonials also play a key role in validating the brand online and there is a dedicated customer testimonial page on the unsit.com. website

Coaching tips from Rob

  • Be willing to change when you go into business
  • Get focused on the end goal, if your site is there to sell, then make sure this is the focus
  • Your original vision may not be how the market sees it, your original design may not be the hot you expect, “be willing to change and let go”

Revenue since launch

  • Took about 12 months before they started gaining traction
  • A market emanated after they started selling and found out lawyers are their key customers and buying 50% of their units
  • So they have recrafted their message to target lawyers and this has been successful
  • The product is still in early adopter phase, even though there are other similar products the market uptake is still in its early phase
  • Being cash positive is a critical part of the Unsit business, while this means no debt and no outside capital, scaling is slower and revenue growth not as aggresive

Developing the Unsit brand

  • Before building the first batch of products the founders focused on getting the branding building blocks all sorted out
  • Had a branding workshop, using professional consultants, spent 10 weeks working on this
  • The logo, colour scheme, the voice of the company in marketing messages – all contained in the brand style guide
  • This sets apart Unsit from its competitors, as the brand ID guides the business along in a strong identifiable way

Other topics we discussed with Rob

  • Biggest breakthrough moment – Rob shares a personal story about the California earthquake, his Tony Robbins event and the value of having a group of loyal customers
  • Legacy and what Rob would love to remembered by when all is said and done
  • Best two books on Robs entrepreneurial journey
  • Best way to connect with Rob

Look forward to serving you again here on the blog and over on our podcast!

#3 Miles of walking while Rob was on the interview with me, 5,000 steps – well done Rob!!