the Founder Files

Scaling from South Africa to USA - Steve Uria, SWEAT1000 & Switch Playground

Season 4 Episode 1

In this episode, Steve Uria, the founder of SWEAT1000 & Switch Playground recounts his journey from Cape Town to New York, sharing key lessons and missteps in scaling a business internationally. From conducting due diligence on a napkin to navigating the complexities of franchising, Steve's candid story provides a roadmap for entrepreneurs looking to make a global impact

Fuelled by passion and a relentless pursuit of wellness, Steve's story is not just about scaling a business—it’s about building a lifestyle that reaches across borders. Tune in for an unmissable blend of inspiration, practical advice, and the raw realities of entrepreneurship.

Too Long; Didn't Listen? Here's what to look for:

Who is Steve Uria? - 04:38

Steve Uria is an entrepreneur, a business leader, a consultant, a trainer and wellness coach. He discusses his passion for individual sports, his educational background at Randolph Ricard University, and his transformative military experience where he discovered the limitless potential of the human mind and body. He reflects on the value he's developed along the way such as accountability, resilience, and adaptability. Steve then highlights how these experiences honed his leadership skills and his ability to connect and learn from others, regardless of their status.

From Military to Businessman in LA - 08:40

Steve's journey from the military in South Africa to LA began with a visit to friends, drawn by the city's fitness scene. He stayed for four years, working at World Private Exiles gym and training high-profile clients like Brian Wilson and Stan Winston. A pivotal moment at age 22 solidified his commitment to becoming the best personal trainer.

After the Northridge earthquake, Steve moved to Atlanta, where he started a personal training gym in his basement. His business grew rapidly, attracting Fortune 500 executives and sports stars. He introduced a popular bootcamp method, later expanding to multiple parks with the help of CNN's Sanjay Gupta.

Steve's innovative approach included a kickboxing studio and a treadmill-based workout concept called Blast 900, which he expanded across Atlanta. Eventually, he moved back to South Africa, where he continued to innovate by introducing successful fitness concepts like SWEAT 1000 to Cape Town and Johannesburg.

How SWEAT 1000 Gained Traction - 21:12

Steve's bootcamp SWEAT1000 gained traction by starting in a commercial gym, using a combination of treadmills and floor exercises in an aerobics room. Initially, he reserved only a few treadmills, causing onlookers to become interested.

Seeing its potential, Steve decided to scale up. He invested in additional treadmills and floor equipment to accommodate more participants. SWEAT1000's unique approach involved varied and challenging routines, which kept workouts engaging and effective.

A successful launch event and the cool branding of SWEAT1000 further contributed to its popularity, drawing more participants and solidifying its place in the fitness community.

Selling merch & Creating a Community - 26:06

Steve created a strong community around SWEAT1000 by hosting a great launch party and introducing cool merchandise that people wanted to wear, making them feel part of an exclusive club. By offering high-quality, stylish apparel, Steve tapped into the trend of people proudly displaying brand affiliations, much like they do with high-end brands like Louis Vuitton.

The merchandise not only generated additional revenue but also helped in building customer loyalty. People who bought and wore the SWEAT1000 clothing identified strongly with the community and brand. This strategy was more about customer retention and creating a sticky, loyal customer base rather than just adding a new revenue stream.

Steve also adapted his approach based on the local market. For example, in Morningside, Johannesburg, customers were eager to purchase and flaunt the brand, while in Cape Town, people were more cautious and contemplative. Understanding these differences allowed him to cater to each market's unique preferences, ensuring the community's growth and the brand's success across different locations.

Expanding from Cape Town to Johannesburg - 33:51

Steve expanded SWEAT1000 from Cape Town to Johannesburg by leveraging brand awareness built through social media and a strong presence in Cape Town. The Johannesburg community was already familiar with and eager for the SWEAT1000 experience. For the launch in Morningside, Steve offered free classes for the first weekend, creating significant buzz and immediate demand. He negotiated favourable terms with the landlords by emphasising the increased foot traffic and business SWEAT1000 would bring to the centre. This approach led to packed classes and a thriving fitness community, illustrating the importance of understanding market demand and strategic negotiations when expanding to new locations.

Expanding in Johannesburg - 39:40

Steve's expansion of SWEAT1000 in Johannesburg faced challenges despite the initial success in Morningside. When opening new locations like Fourways, initial enthusiasm was high, but attendance quickly dropped. This revealed that different suburbs in a same city can have unique dynamics and demand. Franchising proved difficult as franchisees expected significant support, which strained resources and diluted focus from core locations. Additionally, success relied too heavily on Steve's personal presence, making scalability challenging. The key lesson was understanding that even with identical setups, different markets require tailored approaches and the need for a consistent method that doesn't depend solely on the founder's involvement.

Challenges of Franchising - 41:45

Steve faced significant challenges with the franchise model, primarily due to inconsistencies in culture and service delivery across locations. Despite having the visual branding and merchandise, maintaining the core culture and energy of the original gym was difficult. Franchisees often lacked the same passion and commitment, resulting in varying customer experiences. The service-based nature of the business, unlike a product where consistency is easier to achieve, required high energy and personal investment from trainers, which was hard to replicate. This diluted focus and increased the burden of micromanagement, ultimately making franchising less effective and highlighting the importance of preserving brand integrity and culture in service industries.

Alternatives to Franchising - 50:10

In hindsight, Steve found an alternative to the franchising model by considering a licensing approach and offering SWEAT equity to passionate, driven individuals. Initially, franchising seemed a quick way to expand, leveraging other entrepreneurs' investment and effort. However, it led to inconsistent culture and service delivery, high management demands, and diluted focus on core operations. The better strategy, Steve realised, would have been to offer equity, where motivated individuals could earn shares based on performance and milestones, ensuring alignment with the brand's ethos. Licensing, similar to the CrossFit model, could also provide a more scalable and manageable expansion, focusing on training and merchandise revenue without the complexities of franchising.

Getting Distracted by Money - 56:49

Steve learned that focusing on making more money can lead to significant pitfalls for entrepreneurs. Once he's tasted the initial success of his business, he expanded through franchising to replicate the financial gains, only to find it diluted his focus and strained the business. The key takeaway is that prioritising money over maintaining the core values and culture of the business can lead to unsustainable growth and operational challenges. Entrepreneurs should have a clear, purpose-driven goal for expansion, ensuring alignment with their mission and long-term sustainability rather than getting distracted by short-term financial success.

Applying What Steve Has Learnt - 58:57

Steve's learnings can be applied by focusing on innovation, adaptability, and maintaining the core values and passion in a business. After selling SWEAT1000, he used his experience to create Switch, incorporating varied exercise routines and eliminating long durations on disliked equipment. This flexibility allowed for a broader appeal and more efficient use of space, leading to rapid growth and high class attendance. The key lesson is to innovate based on customer feedback and ensure the passion and energy behind the brand remain strong, as these elements are crucial for sustaining success and engagement. This same infectious energy is also what led him to become Chief Health Officer at Ozow.

Expanding to New York - 01:01:58

Steve's expansion to New York faced numerous challenges due to a lack of thorough due diligence and local knowledge. The decision to open a flagship Switch Playground was made hastily, based on simplistic assumptions rather than comprehensive market research. Cultural and operational differences, such as dealing with local regulations and under-the-table dealings, complicated the process. Additionally, the absence of local partners who understood the New York landscape hindered progress. Steve's tenacity and military-inspired resilience helped sustain the venture, but he learned the crucial importance of detailed planning, local expertise, and robust due diligence when expanding into new, complex markets.

Why Did Steve Sell SWEAT 1000? - 01:06:44

Steve decided to sell SWEAT1000 due to a conflict with his partners over expanding to New York. The potential investor wanted Steve to have a larger share, but his partners, who held equal stakes, disagreed. This disagreement escalated into a personal and legal battle, making the situation untenable. Steve ultimately chose to buy out his partners and leave SWEAT1000, despite its strong potential for international success. This decision was driven by a desire for peace of mind and the opportunity to pursue a new venture, which later became Switch Playground. The conflict and subsequent sale resulted in missed opportunities for SWEAT1000’s growth.

Thoughts on Equity - 01:10:10

Steve and Cameron emphasise the importance of balancing equity and profitability in business. They argue that holding onto equity out of greed can hinder a company's scalability and success. Equity only truly matters if it results in substantial distributions or a major buyout, which is rare. Instead, they suggest focusing on the journey of building the business, making a decent living, and enjoying the process. For entrepreneurs, it’s crucial to recognise that time is irreplaceable, and the goal should be creating a successful, sustainable brand rather than obsessing over equity. If an exit strategy is planned, equity should be prioritised, but the overall emphasis should be on the business's growth and personal fulfilment.

Starting Switch Playground in South Africa - 01:16:31

After selling SWEAT1000, Steve Uria used the capital from the buyout to start Switch Playground in South Africa. While dealing with the trauma of the fallout, he conceptualised Switch during yoga classes. The first Switch Playground was built with immense logistical challenges, including air-freighting equipment and using cranes to move it through windows. Despite an internal trial run only 12 hours before the launch revealing major flaws, Steve and his team quickly adjusted, leading to a successful public launch. The unique workout, combining intense intervals with a grounding yoga session, resonated with clients. However, the real challenge came when expanding to New York. There, the lack of local connections and market understanding, combined with high operating costs and intense competition, underscored the importance of thorough market research and local expertise for successful expansion.

From Competition to Community - 01:26:59

Steve Uria turned his competition into a community by fostering collaboration and mutual support among different boutique fitness studios in New York. Rather than viewing other studios as competitors, he invited trainers from various disciplines, like Barry's and Rumble, to participate in classes at Switch Playground. Steve hosted community classes where trainers and clients from different studios could experience and share each other's offerings. This approach emphasized that the mission was to make people better through diverse fitness experiences, rather than competing for customers. By promoting a sense of community and industry-wide improvement, Steve built strong relationships, enhanced the overall fitness landscape, and positioned Switch Playground as a respected and integral part of the boutique fitness community. This collaborative mindset not only helped sustain client interest but also established Steve as a visionary and role model within the industry.

Learning Appreciation - 01:31:25

Steve Uria learned to be grateful for the journey and the successes he achieved, even amidst the challenges and dark times. He recognised the importance of living his truth and appreciating the present moment rather than constantly striving for more. During his time in New York, he faced intense pressure and emotional struggles, often questioning why his efforts weren't yielding immediate results. However, he also experienced profound moments of success and community, which he later realized he hadn't fully appreciated at the time. The pandemic underscored the value of gratitude for him, highlighting how quickly circumstances can change. Steve's key takeaway is to maintain a balance between ambition and appreciation, ensuring that the drive for success doesn't overshadow the joy and fulfilment found in each moment of the journey.

What is Success to You? - 01:39:10

Steve Uria's definition of success is measured by the positive impact he has on people's lives rather than monetary gain. He values the ripple effect of his coaching, seeing success in the hundreds of thousands of lives he's influenced through his trainers and their clients. Despite the pressure to align with investors' financial expectations, Steve remains committed to his goal of making a difference. For him, true success is knowing he is fulfilling his purpose on Earth by helping others, rather than the balance in his bank account. He advises entrepreneurs to stay true to their initial motivations and regularly reflect on their goals to avoid getting sidetracked by the allure of financial success.

What’s next? - 01:43:05

Steve Uria's next steps involve a pivot towards wellness and natural pharmaceuticals, aiming to expand his impact beyond just exercise. He serves as the Chief Health Officer at Ozow, a FinTech company in South Africa, developing a model for integrating wellness into corporate environments. Additionally, he is exploring opportunities in the hospitality sector with wellness retreats. Steve's mission remains to help people feel better in their own skin, and he is excited about adapting his approach to continue making a positive impact while staying true to his core values and purpose.

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