Note from Matt: This interview was recorded from a phone call and then transcribed at a later date by me. I’ve edited Steve’s responses slightly for an easier read.
Matt: Steve, you started Nerd Fitness back in 2009 and have since built it into one of the strongest online fitness communities that I’ve seen. Could you tell me a little bit about what Nerd Fitness was like when you first got started?
Steve: Oh man. It was a basic wordpress blog with free templates that looked fairly terrible and a series of articles I started to write specifically about helping nerds get healthy. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the business or if it was even going to become one. It was simply just a hobby of mine. I started to write articles on topics that were interesting to me and things that helped me as a fitness beginner. It really just started as a blog and has since grown into something far bigger that’s more supportive and more community focused. It’s much bigger than I ever could have imagined.
Matt: What was the turning point that allowed you grow this into such an active community?
Steve: Two things, which I both didn’t really plan for them to turn out the way they did. They actually happened within a month of each other.
The first was that I was slowly building up the community on Nerd Fitness and had a decent following with around 1500 email subscribers. I saw the interaction that I was having with them through email and the comments on the blog and realized that I needed a way to get everyone interacting with each other instead of just me. Being a nerd I had spent a ton of time on message boards so it was an easy decision for me to add a message board component to the site. Right around the same time I also decided that if we were going to have a message board community that the focus should be on everyone rather than having it focused on me. I didn’t want to just call it the community. Our sites called Nerd Fitness so we try to do everything a bit differently. Our focus and what’s interesting to us is much different than what’s out there. So I put a column up on the site and asked, “Hey! What are we? Are we building an Empire or we starting a Rebellion?” The response was overwhelmingly in favor of starting a Rebellion. They said that it sounded a lot more like the community we were building. Then I started looking up the Star Wars Rebel Alliance and noticed that their logo was circular just like ours. I really loved their color schemes – the maroon, grey, kinda concrete look to it. It matched the underground movement thing we had going on. We simply adjusted the color scheme on Nerd Fitness to match the Rebel Alliance a bit more and started calling our community the Rebellion and the members Rebels. I made a very specific shift in my writing and instead of saying “I” or “Me” I started to use “We "or "Us”. I would talk about what we, the community, stood for and what was important to us. I think that it might have alienated some people who didn’t really line up with the ideals that we set forth, but as a result of that I think it really strengthened the support from the people who did line up with those ideals. So in a couple months it went from a guy with a blog to a community. Still a very small community, but it was extremely tight-knit. We were very passionate about interacting and helping out each other.
Matt: So you essentially did the same thing that Mark Fisher did with his target market over in New York and spoke to a new audience that wasn’t really being spoken to by the fitness industry at the time.
Steve: Yeah. I don’t think that this was intentional either…I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Blue Ocean Strategy or not, but the way I looked at it was that every other fitness site out there seemed to be cannibalizing each other. They were trying to take everybody that was already interested in fitness and get them hooked on just their site amongst all the others. Because of that I think there was a lot less loyalty from the fitness consumer who jumped from one site to the next because it all kind of seemed the same. When you compare that to Nerd Fitness we were reaching out to people who weren’t interested in fitness. So we kind of went to that part of the ocean that no one else was swimming or fishing in. We went for the group of people that were maybe interested in fitness but had been turned off by what they had seen. They didn’t want to go to gyms or buy supplements. They had nowhere to turn because everyone else had screwed them over in the past. When that person found Nerd Fitness they were attracted to it because it was different. They listened to the Nerd Fitness message and could really get behind it. They ended up seeing it as an opportunity to start making a change and felt confident that they were doing it the right way. I think that’s why Nerd Fitness has been able to help as many people as it has today.
Matt: So you were able to take the forums and the Rebellion and grow it into Nerd Fitness Academy which is a space where Rebels can follow fitness programs, level up, and support each other as they pursue their fitness goals. Could you tell me about how this grew and developed over time?
Steve: Absolutely. Initially my way to generate revenue was by creating a few ebooks. We had the Rebel Fitness Guide, the Rebel Strength Guide, and the Rebel Running guide. Each of these were catered towards a certain group in the Rebellion. We did these ebooks and they were the majority of my income for a few years. Ultimately what I found out was that it was a very challenging process to update these ebooks. Even after you had spent all this time to update these ebooks you would send it out to your community and only a small minority would download the updated version. I got to the point where I realized that we had the resources and the opportunity to build out the technology for a really cool online platform. We wanted people to log in to receive higher quality video demonstrations, add lessons on the fly, and make changes on the fly based on feedback from our readers. Overall just provide a much better experience than before. Several months ago we got to realize the beginning of a dream of mine which was to gamify life. The tagline for Nerd Fitness has always been ‘Level Up Your Life’. I’ve always looked at life like a giant video game. Now we’re at the point where you can sign in to the Academy and you can pick what role-playing archetype you’d like base off of your training preferences. If you’d like to do strength training you are a Warrior, if you like to run you’re a Scout, if you like martial arts then you’re a Monk. I took some nerdy archetypes from the games I’d grown up playing. Now we have a list of something like 200 different quests that are built based off of difficulty and when completed will add experience points to your character so you can level up. For example, I’m currently a level 14 Assassin in the Nerd Fitness academy. It’s been a dream of ours to do this forever and only in this past year have we been able to invest the time, money, and resources to bring it to life.
Matt: That’s awesome. This next question is something that I really care about and is a focus of ours with StrengthPortal. What have you learned as you’ve continued to refine the Academy while aiming to encourage positive behavioral change?
Steve: The biggest thing for me has been getting people to understand how habits are built. Not to think in terms of weeks, but rather in months or years. A lot of people have seen the fitness industry advertising 30 day detoxes and P90x. People end up spending 3 months killing themselves and changing everything in their lives. It works for some, but for most people it isn’t something that’s sustainable over a long period of time. As a result of that they end up backsliding pretty quickly to their old habits and old form because they’ve tried to change too much too quickly. With Nerd Fitness we’ve really dug into the behavioral psychology aspect of why people are the way that they are, how habits are built, and truly encouraging people to look at life from a much bigger perspective. We want to let them know that changing one small habit at a time and making it permanent over the next two months is much better than attempting to make give habits and abandoning them all over the next month. It’s a permanent lifestyle change because these habits will become a part of who you are. This is a big focus of ours with the Academy to not just look at the diet and fitness aspect, but mindset as well.
Matt: With StrengthPortal we have awesome personal trainers and coaches of all different types scattered around the world who use our software to build their own online communities. If you could tell these trainers/coaches to focus on one thing to have the biggest possible impact what would you tell them?
Steve: Honestly I think the biggest thing is just caring. One of the biggest reasons that I think we’ve been so successful with our team at Nerd Fitness is that we understand that every email we receive is coming from another human being. Someone who has struggled and really wants to get fit, but is just lost. They need help. I think that the caring and compassion part is very easily lost when it comes to online training and even in-person training. It’s very easy to go through the motions when in reality with each person you have an opportunity to change their lives. The second part is that they should really look beyond just the exercise and diet stuff. If all it took was more education to help people eat less and move more there would be a lot more people in shape. But there’s clearly a lot more to it than that. You have to build habits focused on your health and fitness. I think if you’re coach actively taking a stronger position with your clients and getting them to understand how habits are formed and why they do certain things from a behavioral perspective is going to be much more valuable than just teaching them the basic movements.
Matt: Earlier this year Anthony Mychal told me that he was training you online and you recently put up an awesome post of the results you got from working with him. How has it been being trained remotely by a high quality coach?
Steve: It was honestly really great. He’s introduced me to some new movements that I was not initially familiar with, but it’s really amazing what you’re able to accomplish when you have someone else telling you what to do compared to just doing it myself. There’s a lot less willpower involved. He’s had me spend a lot more time on mobility, handstands, and ancillary movements that I would always tell myself I didn’t have time for in the past. But because it has been prescribed to me and I had put my faith in Anthony to put my down the right path it really worked. It’s been great to outsource this part of my training. I’d been doing my own programming for the past decade along with the hundreds of thousands of people that visit Nerd Fitness so it’s kind of nice to put that on someone else. To be able to tell him my goals and what I want to accomplish. I knew I’d see some things I knew but I was interested in seeing his unique ideas and to follow them. We’re coming up on 9 months of working together and I’m in much better shape than before. I’m healthier and at a much lower risk of injuring myself than I’ve ever been in the past. I just turned 30 back in June and I feel better than I did at 25. I feel great about it and I plan on working with Anthony for the next few years at least.
Matt: So this market of fitness and health professionals leveraging their expertise through online training is still relatively new. Where do you see this going in the next few years? How do you think it fits into the industry in the long-term.
Steve: I think it makes complete sense. From a technology perspective it’s only going to get easier to have an online coach. As a result of that you’re no longer limited to the poorly informed coach at your local gym who got their certification over a weekend. You are now opening yourself into an entire world of top trainers who can train you from anywhere around the globe. Obviously there’s an issue with not having someone there in-person and there will be certain types of people who need that type of motivation. However, for a strong majority of folks they are very good at following directions and they just need someone to someone to provide those directions for them. As technology increases and it moves into the mainstream I think online training is poised for a tremendous amount of growth. I think it’s going to result in a really cool industry of people and opportunities for coaches who otherwise would never been able to reach so many people. They can coach the type of clients they really want to, the clients who line up with their philosophies much more than the people in their local market. I’m really excited to see what happens with all of this.
Matt: What are you focused on improving right now with your business and your personal health and fitness?
Steve: For the business we just had our very first large-scale event called Camp Nerd Fitness which took place in Georgia. We ended up having close to 200 people with the guests, coaches, and volunteers. From a business perspective it was a total game-changer. It was so much fun to see our online community come offline and interact with each other in real life. Not only that but to spend a few days together to watch them, learn from them, make mistakes with them, not be afraid to fail…it was just incredible. There’s already a FB group for the alumni group of Camp Nerd Fitness and the level of activity, support, and success these people have had in just a few weeks has been so amazing to watch. We’re gearing up for Camp Nerd Fitness 2 for next Fall. We’re also working on building out our team of 6 and most likely will end up at 8 overall in the next few months. We want to continue to develop the Academy and continue to make great courses for the Rebellion.
For me personally I’d like to add 10-15 pounds of muscle over the next year through heavy barbell training for lower-body stuff and gymnastics training for my upper body stuff. It’s been a lot of fun to play with those things. It’s just kind of slow and steady. It’s been 9 months of steady progress and I’m excited to see where I’m able to get in the next 9.
Matt – Big shout out to Steve for giving us his time. If you’d like to read more from here you can do so here: NERD FITNESS
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