Exclusive: Pakistani female fitness startup AimFit raises $1 million seed

Pakistani female fitness startup AimFit has raised $1 million in a seed round led by Indus Valley Capital, a Pakistan-focused VC fund started by LinkedIn’s former VP Growth Aatif Awan. The round includes participation of an unnamed unicorn founder, the founding team of direct-to-consumer shoe startup Atoms, and some other angel investors. According to our data, it is one of the largest seed investments raised by a female-founded startup in Pakistan.

Founded by sister-duo Mahlaqa and Noor Shaukat, AimFit operates a chain of four fitness studios in Lahore and Islamabad, serving a community of over 5,000 members. After graduating from Oxford University and returning to Pakistan in 2014, the sisters started AimFit initially to serve their own fitness needs. Disappointed by the lack of female fitness spaces in Pakistan, they began with a small fitness studio at a rented space in Lahore.

The access to studios is available as class bundles valid for a certain period of time (e.g. a 12 class package valid for 1 month) or unlimited classes contract for one year where every month, the members pay a subscription fee.

Mahlaqa and Noor bootstrapped the startup for over six years to grow it to four of its own studios in Lahore and Islamabad. They have a team of nearly 50 instructors and an in-house academy that trains and certifies the fitness instructors. In addition, AimFit has been running a closed female-only Facebook community with over 9,000 engaged members.

Mahlaqa Shaukat, the co-founder and CEO of AimFit, in a statement, said, “AimFit’s mission is to make Pakistan the fittest nation on the planet. We envision a Pakistan where a fit and healthy lifestyle is within everyone’s reach. With this goal, we’re working on developing a viral online fitness platform.”

Within 24 hours of closing their studios due to Covid-19 in March 2020, AimFit moved online, offering pre-recorded online classes ranging from dance fitness to Yoga, priced at PKR 3,900 ($24). Mahlaqa explains, “Covid-19 expedited our online launch and we now plan to double down on our omnichannel model by rapidly expanding across Pakistan over the coming months, before targeting international expansion.”

As a result of moving online, AimFit was able to save all the jobs. “Not a single redundancy or salary cut was issued even though our studios remained closed for six months,” Mahlaqa told MENAbytes.

With this latest investment, AimFit aims to launch an online platform and expand its offline studios across Pakistan including country’s largest city Karachi.

Empowering women

AimFit’s Instructor Training Program

Noor Shaukat, Co-founder and COO of AimFit, speaking to MENAbytes, said, “Empowering women is at the heart of everything we do. We know in our culture that women, as primary caregivers and nurturers put their own health on the back seat to look after others. All evidence clearly points out that a health-conscious matriarch is better for the family, society, and economy. The barriers to women adopting a healthy lifestyle are real though – an absence of information, motivation, skills, spouse & family support, accessibility to places for physical activity, cost-effective services, and free time are real challenges.”

“AimFit plans to remove these barriers using its dedicated online platform and flagship studio locations. Both will be geared to foster an engaged online and offline female community,” she added.

In addition to having female co-founders and an all-female management team, over 90 percent of all the employees of AimFit are women.
Mahlaqa in a statement said, “We are excited to shatter false notions of what women can and cannot do. The AimFit team has already converted thousands of women to the cause of fitness. Simultaneously we have championed a cause of training, hiring and keeping women in the workforce with flexible working hours and supportive policies.”

“As mothers to young children, Noor and I both fully understand the challenge for women to juggle a career and family as well as prioritize their health and well-being. We use our personal experience to help inform our product, service and management strategy,” she added.

The startup also said that their training center has trained hundreds of women, some of whom have found opportunities at other fitness centers in the country.

Why VC

Speaking about why they raised money when they had been operating a bootstrapped profitable business for over six years, Mahlaqa said that they had been building their community and brand all this time but are now ready to rapidly scale both online and offline operations, “Partnering with a seasoned investor brings not only an injection of capital but also the right strategic value-add. The last few years have been an exercise in perfecting the studio blueprint for AimFit’s experience centers (studios) as well as testing the waters for a mass-market fitness play in Pakistan (through large scale events such as an annual Danceathon).”

Indus Valley Capital, the investor that led AimFit’s seed round has previously led or made investments in companies like Airlift and Bazaar – which have technology at the center of everything they do. Even though AimFit has always used technology to run its operations, it mainly relied on its offline studios for both its business and community, until Covid-19 at least.

Aatif Awan, the Managing Partner at Indus Valley Capital, speaking to MENAbytes about why they decided to invest in a business that has largely been offline, explained that fitness has been moving online and to home even prior to COVID-19, “Between Peloton for cycling (now a $25B company), Tonal for weight-lifting (raised $200M) and Mirror for home workouts and yoga (acquired by Lululemon for $500M), the trend is firmly established. These startups used a device as the wedge and built a community to eliminate the one advantage that gyms and studios have.”

He noted that the COVID–driven lockdowns have accelerated the trend of home fitness and shown to the masses that it is possible to do workouts at home without requiring an expensive device, “AimFit experimented with the online format quickly and maintained the sense of community online. AimFit members loved the online experience and were willing to pay for it. The time saving from not having to travel and the flexibility of schedules are both extremely attractive.”

The former LinkedIn VP added that in a market like Pakistan, the majority of women don’t have access to quality gyms and studios, “An online offering actually can provide a fitness solution and community to millions who didn’t have access to it before. Just like developing markets adopted mobile networks quickly without first having extensive landline coverage, we believe online fitness will take off in markets like Pakistan, leapfrogging the physical infrastructure.”

The online product

A workout session in progress at AimFit Studio

AimFit plans to use the funds to build its technology product starting with a dedicated web platform and later a mobile app for Android and iOS. The web-based platform will offer home-based workouts both in the form of pre-recorded sessions and live workouts aired in real-time from an AimFit experience center.

Without disclosing exact details, AimFit has told MENAbytes that the upcoming online offering that will available through its web-based platform (and later on apps as well) will be priced at lower rates than what it currently charges its online subscribers.

The current online offering allows subscribers to access an on-demand, professionally filmed, recorded, and edited fitness library (ranging from Dance fitness, Yoga, Pilates, HIIT and other programs, all localized to the Pakistani market). AimFit also releases a brand new featured workout for its paying members on a daily basis. All its classes are 45-minute follow-along workout sessions.

“We have spent a lot of time thinking about product design that enables an engaging user experience catering to women from all walks of life. We have leveraged a lot of learning from our studios and online offering these past few months. This guides us to develop the right level of gamification and milestone motivation at the heart of it.” said the startup.

Noor said that although they see online as the key to unlocking the mass-market opportunity, AimFit studios or “experience centers” play a critical enabling role. “Studios are where we innovate and create that magic spark – our propriety workout plans and choreographies. They are the hub for instructor training as well as community events and engagement. Both online and offline business models are joined at the hip. Eventually, we see 80% of our community joining us online and 20% attending classes at the experience centers across tier 1 and tier 2 cities,” said the co-founder in a conversation with us.

The startup in a statement said that the last few years have seen a boost in health and fitness clubs in the major cities of the country but smaller cities and the female population have largely been ignored, “With increasing proliferation of smartphones and high-speed internet connectivity, AimFit plans to use its online fitness solution to reach this segment.”

The online offering will also enable AimFit to offers its services to users out of Pakistan starting with the Pakistani diaspora in different countries. It already has a few international members paying to access its online workouts.

Mahlaqa concludes, “We want AimFit to be the spearhead in the transformative fitness and wellbeing journey for millions of women around the world. With health becoming a primary focus due to global events, we feel that a new dawn is on the horizon for emerging markets like Pakistan.”

Zubair Naeem Paracha
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