We interview Mahlaqa Shaukat, who along with her sister Noor, conceived Aimfit and recently secured $1M in seed funding to bring it to fruition. Let us look at how she has spent almost six years to bring her imagination to life, from a small rental space in Lahore to 4 studios with more than 55 certified instructors.
So tell us a little about yourself and how you came up with the idea of AimFit?
There is a study that links the mood and happiness of a person to movement and I am really passionate about fitness. As a teenager, I really struggled with anxiety. I came towards fitness and working out as well as rowing and exercise because it gave me an outlet for my anxiety from academics as most teenagers experience nowadays. Fitness helped me through all of that. This is the reality of so many youngsters in Pakistan which seeps from your personal life to your family, your house, and your social life.
So, coming to AimFit, we are a little different as compared to current start-ups as we’ve been around for some time now and our model is a mix of offline and a recent introduction of the online part.
My sister and I are co-founders of this venture. When we were in Oxford University in the UK as science majors, we really got into sports, into the college rowing team, and that’s where we got into fitness. Going to the gym is common in Pakistan, but when we started there was little or no knowledge about actual fitness. We were about to embark on our professional careers, Noor almost accepting a Ph.D. position, and me working as a consultant but we saw a group fitness concept over there like yoga studios. So as a hobby we even got certified as instructors because we were really interested.
Coming to Pakistan in 2014 and seeing the gap between the fitness standards and the fitness drive over there, we saw this as an opportunity, and whilst keeping our jobs we started teaching a few classes to our friends and it just really grew fast because of two main things; one being that there was really no innovation in the fitness field here and the second that the women gyms weren’t suitable for anyone especially due to bad timings and not many instructors. As the community grew, we realized we had to scale immediately so that’s when we got a studio in Lahore where we could conduct our classes. At this time, we realized that Pakistan also lacked fitness professionals viewing it as a career when you’ve failed at everything else. So, we set up our own academy offering certifications in collaboration with international organizations. Afterward, we did some R & D and brought people that could certify it themselves. We’ve already certified more than 300 professionals now.
Our mission was always to build something for the people and keeping that in mind we introduced the online product giving access to everyone who can’t really come to our studios. A 2008 study showed that out of 150 countries, Pakistanis ranked 149 in their interest and participation in fitness. Pakistan used to be everywhere in sports and now we’re just lacking behind the world, so it goes back to that. Women need a tailored approach for their fitness according to their health, and they’ll pass it on to their family eventually and this will breed fit generations and that’s our goal. Fitness isn’t just about your physique, it’s about your health and it can eventually relieve the burden on hospitals. We always had online in mind and COVID just expedited that. With the recent funding, we can build an even better technological product.
What locations are you working out of currently and where do you plan to expand to in the future?
Currently, we have 3 locations in Lahore, and one is in Bahria Town, Rawalpindi. We did have some expansion plans that we had to put on hold due to COVID-19. As the situation is improving, we are back on track. Karachi was a part of the expansion for this year, but we had to delay that somewhat. Now it seems like we will be able to open it in early 2021 and we’re also planning to be in Islamabad as well. While keeping our online presence, our goal has always been to keep our physical footprint because the studio acts as our R & D lab, where we experiment, make fitness curriculums, train instructors.
That’s where we come up with different programs for women from girls to mothers based on what they need and what they want using a very scientific approach. I’m always studying how other people look at fitness and I can proudly say that others don’t research on this as we do. We plan to expand even further to other emerging markets and not just in Pakistan. We have been studying Riyadh closely. Places like Riyadh, Dhaka, and other places with middle-class women don’t have fitness solutions that are tailored to them. Western solutions are there but everyone has their own needs which they don’t cater to. We want to localize the solution in any market that we penetrate.
Can you highlight some of the products and packages that AimFit offers?
We’ve held online mass sessions cheaper than our studios, we’ve gone to schools, there is a PTV program for kids, and other initiatives as well.
Talking about studios, even though the studios are a premium facility, we don’t charge an arm and leg. Our mission has always been to incorporate as many people as we can so even our studios are prices between 8 thousand to 16 thousand per month for the studios. When we launched our online product, it started at approximately 4 thousand per month, but we are always working to bring that down. Our goal is to bring to around 1500 to 1000. As we continue to expand our market, the pricing we see is going to be much lower and affordable for everyone.
For the general instructor training or GIT, we offer that for 22 thousand which can be done by anyone and we only have a minimum fitness level that is required for that. This is a 4-day intensive course which gives you general instructor training. As compared to the international market, people pay lacs to get these certifications so it’s quite necessary that people come towards this and it is on par or even better than some of the certifications I did when I was abroad.
What do you have to consider when you want to expand like you are doing right now for Karachi?
So, the cost is varied, we have really been looking more at how to make a blueprint for our requirements. Like we need studio space, reception space, changing rooms for men and women, bathrooms, children’s play area, so what we have done is make an intricate blueprint that can fit all of these facilities inside it which we use whenever we open another studio. So, it comes down to about 4,000 square feet of space, and the rent for this space as I said before differs from place to place, in Lahore, and Islamabad. Mostly our cost structure is based on the classes we run and the instructors we pay.
Who do you think is your competitor as you grow in Pakistan?
We consider CultFit from India as our competitor. Their model is pretty similar to AimFit, they had been building their community online, but they only started online monetization in COVID-19. They had around 100-200 studios all over. They have expanded into other areas like food fitness, mental fitness, medical centers, etc. They have been running on VC funding from the start. We see their market; their growth and we see the potential in Pakistan and that is what inspires us.
Can you share a particular success story with us? Something that keeps you motivated to do this every day?
Many stories come to mind, but the best thing is that in our personal ERP system, we see that we have 45K 5-star reviews for our classes which is the biggest success story of them all. These success stories are what keep us going. So, there was a lady, a mother of 2 kids, 32 years of age who had struggled with sciatica pain for almost 8 years since the birth of her first child. She has spent lacs on her treatments in Dubai as well, and she had really given up because of her constant pain. She decided to come to AimFit and take our classes for a month. Our instructors are also trained to deal with special needs as well if someone has problems like this. Our team catered to her and within a month her pain was gone, and it had healed, I’m not just saying that either, her interview is available online as well. She has always been a believer in us since then.
We also had a divorcee with a kid who had tried to take her life because of the mental stress, but she came to us and she has been doing really good. She has a stable job now, looking after her child. There are normal stories as well where people have lost the weight they wanted to but these stories of empowerment are what makes us strong.
It’s not just fitness, not just weight loss, it goes way beyond that. This empowers the people we deal with in so many aspects.
What are some of the problems that you have faced or are facing as a business?
The biggest problem isn’t the competitors, it’s not anything else, it is the status quo. Yes, doing business in Pakistan is hard due to the structure but the biggest hindrance is the people’s mindset and converting them to understand fitness, to understand how beneficial this is. Our middle-class society aspires for a lawn suit more than anything else. It’s like we are competing with Netflix way more as compared to the next-door gym because people have maybe one hour of free time and they’d rather spend it on Netflix. These indirect factors affect us way more. We have competitors but we don’t mind them because we want to create an ecosystem where people stay fit. Our enemy is the status quo.
What we are proud of is the positive environment we have set up at AimFit. We incorporated cultural values, which as co-founders Noor and I really keep close to our heart. We want people to bring each other up and not put each other down. Like an instructor goes through a 2-month training with a senior instructor to be selected for AimFit and inculcate those values. We welcome everyone openly and teach them everything we know, and we have the same relationship with our community as well and this has helped us make our brand.
What advice would you give to female entrepreneurs and someone struggling with their fitness routines?
For female entrepreneurs, I would like to say that you should go for it. Find mentors early on. Find people who you can learn from early on so that you are not making the mistakes that someone has already made. You would be surprised how many people are willing to help. Like Noor and I, we both are mothers with 4 small kids less than 3 years old but our challenges are what other moms face as well yet it is still possible if you have the right support system around you. All you need to do is find it.
For people struggling with fitness, I would say just do it. Do things you have fun doing. Start moving and it will reflect in your mood and happiness because fitness is for everybody. You have to keep fit whether you’re under or overweight. It’s all healthy movement. Whether it’s a YouTube video or a walk, or you come to AimFit, that’s where your fitness journey starts because we are all always one day away from our fitness journey.