Failure is the default

A lesson in human nature from scaling a global fitness app to 40 million people.

Failure is the default

A brief history in time...

“10% of people that purchase a non-fiction book make it past the first chapter.” – Tony Robbins

May 2019. I run my morning route through the Englischer Garten in Munich. Tony Robbins finishes that sentence, and I open my notes, writing it down. It's a bold statement, and it feels true.

Months pass, and it is now December 2019. I reflect on the year. I've learned many things, but there's one insight that I can't let go of: failure is the default.

Mining for insight

December 2017. I know nothing about what makes a fitness app great and aim to change this by interviewing over 40 people. I want to know what they like and dislike about their current fitness routine.

I listen to people that use competitor apps and some that quit apps completely.

Listening to their stories, I spot the tension between autonomy and variety, and a desire for accountability. Those with no routine celebrate the freedom but complain that they're not making progress. Those with a set routine complain of monotony.

Everyone has their own motivation, or at least the one they're willing to admit to a stranger. Young men want muscles and aim to show them off. New mothers want a moment for themselves when their newborn is napping. Women want to feel good and avoid high school acquaintances staring at them in the town gym.

The digital gym

I spend the next two years building a team of 21 product managers, designers, and researchers. We come face-to-face with the contradictory nature of human intent and reality.

We experiment, tailoring the first fifteen minutes of the experience using data from ads and answers to questions like experience level, fitness goal, and gender. We learn from millions of people.

We empirically learn the obvious: people like people like them, helpful default settings rarely change, and personalized wins over generic.

Most sales happen in these first minutes, and like all good salespeople, we get better at making it easy for people to say yes. But the easier we make it to say yes, the less likely the customer is to start their fitness habit.

Another chart tells a similar story: 50% never return to training after month one.

We ran a digital gym.

We assume these customers will cancel their subscription. We're wrong. The majority keep their subscription because they intend to get started.

They just haven't started yet.

Building the habit

We throw reminders, stats, community, and other gamification tricks into the app to help people on their journey. Seventy-two experiments later, nearly 70% of customers start a workout in their first week.

It's an achievement. But, after years of experimentation, here's the reality:

  • 10% of new people will start working out with the app – for free or with a subscription – and you work tirelessly to shift the mix of free to paid
  • Of those people, only 15% will finish a 12-week program

Said differently: for every 1,000 people that sign up for your fitness app, only 15 will finish a 12-week training plan.

I interview a loyal customer who trains in waves. He's fit, successful, and French. He trains with the app 3-6 months out of the year. Every year, for years. The rest of the time, he climbs mountains and enjoys the beach. He always comes back and never cancels his subscription. Being someone who trains is part of his identity, even when he isn't consistently working out. And he likes discovering new features when he comes back the following year.

The game isn't a perfect workout retention chart.

The game is keeping the dream alive.

But sweating is hard

I wonder if it's just us. I reach out to others in the business of self-development apps. Learning a new language, playing a new instrument, or learning new skills for work. It turns out it's all the same.

We all see the highly seasonal patterns – hello New Years – followed by drops in activity. The narrative is the same: people intend to start something new but find it difficult keeping the habit. We all share stories of throwing the kitchen sink of behavior change tricks to attempt the seemingly impossible.

But social media is easy

I learn of similar engagement patterns on Reddit and other social media platforms. While it varies by platform, it is said that:

  • 1% of people generate the most engaging content
  • 9% of people generate the majority of content engagement, and
  • 90% of people just lurk

Posting content on the internet is hard too.

Inertia in play

I never find any corroborating evidence to support Tony Robbins' quote, but I never doubt its accuracy. It fits the narrative built from other data points I have accumulated over the years.

  • New Years Resolutions – 92% of people don't achieve their goal
  • Open Online Courses – 87% of students don't complete the class
  • Savings – 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 saved
  • Gym Memberships – 67% (or more) go unused
  • The Digital Gym – 85% of people won't finish a 12-week plan

We tend to relegate inertia to physics, but it's evident in human behavior.

It takes a lot of energy to build momentum on both the cellular and psychological level. Often, it's easier to keep doing what we're already doing: nothing.

A world (or at least, a nation) of contradiction

Americans spent $67 billion on gym memberships and supplements, and the average monthly health and fitness spend per American was $286.

If you only analyze spending, you might conclude that Americans are the healthiest, most fit inhabitants of this planet.

Unfortunately, CDC data shows 74% are overweight, and 43% are obese.

Doing hard things is hard, and most people don't do hard things. Or at least, they don't finish them.

Sometimes – most likely – you're going to fail.

Just don't give up.