August 5, 2020

#94 The Breaking Point

by The Pitch

Background show artwork for The Pitch

When gyms closed at the start of the pandemic, Kevin Allen’s at-home fitness app, Row Vigor, went gangbusters. But there was a problem -- a few lines of code were preventing Kevin from cashing in.

Transcript

In March of this year, something happened at Kevin Allen’s startup. As the pandemic was gutting so many other companies, his business took off. But there was a catch.

Kevin: It's like, oh my gosh, if I, if we had cash now, you would see Vigor everywhere. I mean, everywhere. And we would be growing like crazy but that's not the case. And so to be stymied by such a small amount of cash of capital to be here at this point.

Josh: Right.

Kevin: You know, and I can't leave it now. 

I’m Josh Muccio. You’re listening to The Pitch from Gimlet Media.

Today on the show, Kevin’s dilemma: he needs to capitalize on this moment, but can he persuade investors it’s worth the risk in the middle of a pandemic? Kevin appeared on our show once, way back in 2017. Let me tell you, a lot has happened since then.

We’ll catch up with Kevin, right after this.

[break]

Kevin Allen and Fola Awosika had always been close. They grew up together in a suburb of Washington D.C. in the 80’s and 90’s. And played football together in high school. But the seeds of a startup weren’t planted until 2015, when they met Moses McCall.

See Fola had wanted to build SoulCycle … but for rowing. You know, a gym with high tech sensors and a big screen where everyone competes to work out the hardest. And Moses and Kevin were into the idea, even though Kevin hadn't known the first thing about rowing, until he went to college.

Kevin: And I remember my first day, you know, I went to an Ivy League school I never even heard of Crew. And I saw a guy wearing a Penn Crew shirt and I thought you know, hey, I'm I go to Penn, you know, I can get a Penn Crew shirt and he said, oh, "I- I don't think you're- you're on the Rowing team. (laughs) and I said, "What- what are you talking about I can't." 

Josh: This is not how this works.

Kevin: That's right I was like I can't anybody. You know, this guy is like 6 4", you know skinny, and you know, the typical rowing guy and now he's looking at me and you know, I'm- I'm the shorter stocky football player which I was. Um, and- and saying, you know, there- there's a disconnect and then he- he told me what Crew was and I said, "Huh." 

Kevin: And that was my first experience. And you know, reflecting on- on that exposure and- and my lack of knowledge, the goal for the three of us as African-American founders was like listen we can bring rowing to the world. That was really the vision. 

Kevin the pitch man, Fola the fitness expert, Moses the software engineer, they were a team. And they called their startup Row Vigor. Kevin took their vision to some angel investors in Washington DC, and he heard one thing over and over… “this is cool but why rowing?” How could he know that rowing would be the next breakout sport in a long line of fitness fads. 

Kevin: So, what we decided to do was like listen, we’re gonna prove it. Um, so we said, "Let's open a pop-up gym up. Let's provide data in the way that we would through the app and let's see who comes” and that's what we did. So we scraped together I don't know 30 grand from friends, families, and everyone else who would work with us to open this pop-up gym and Moses was actually able to hack the rowing machines so that people could get individualized data from every workout which was a big hit. We created leaderboards all of this done, you know, by basically breaking up with the console and- and wiring RaspberryPi's to rowing machines-

Josh: (laughs) Wow.

Kevin: And then creating a…

Josh: Oh wow.

Kevin. Uh, yeah, I mean we were going full-on hack 

Josh: You used Raspberry Pi’s That's crazy.

Kevin: That's right. (laughs) But it worked. Um, and people could access their data and they loved that and they loved the leader board and so it went gangbusters. I mean it- it was, uh, it was very successful.

Josh: Wow. 

Kevin: We had people coming in. Classes were packed. We had about eight trainers. and there was just a lot of buzz and excitement around it. I mean we had 1000 members, um, in about I don't know seven or eight months, and we said, "You know what, it's time to scale." (laugh) 

Josh: Yeah.

Kevin: That's really where the business was born. 

After the success of the pop-up, it felt like they were really on to something. Their next step was planning an app. But investors said they needed to SEE the app before they would invest. And with Moses as their developer, an app, was possible. 

So the crew got to work.

Kevin: It got to the point where- where Moses was actually sleeping at Fola's house, um, for a lot of the week because he was going through some things and you know, all of us sacrificing our- our day jobs to- to go after this startup. And so we supported each other that way.

Josh: Yeah.

Kevin: Fola's wife made- made dinner for Moses, you know. I had Moses over for Christmas you know, it we did that sort of thing together because we really believed in what we were trying to do and supporting each other at all costs. You know, Fola and I, um, had always considered ourselves family right? And all that comes with that. Moses, uh, came from a little bit different background than the two of us and I think was- was very appreciative of kind of being, uh, a member of this family. 

As members of this new family, Kevin needed his co-founders to know how much work it was going to be. He was in his 40s and this was his third startup. Kevin wanted to make sure everyone knew exactly what they were getting themselves into.

Kevin: Well, what I told them was, you know, “If we're gonna do this, then you know, we're gonna have to stay together, right? And, and it's going to mean there are going to be times when there's going to be no money on the table. Don't expect the business to be able to pay you. And in fact, the business may ask you to contribute at times. But if we believe in this, then we should, we should continue and, and we should keep going. And, and if you ever don't, then we need to have that conversation as well.”

Josh: I mean you really set the expectation straight from the start. That's smart of you.

Kevin: I thought so. (Laughs) 

Moses and Fola were ready to take the leap. And in February 2017, they got an invite to join a startup accelerator in St. Louis, Missouri. There, Kevin and Moses would work on the app while Fola stayed behind in DC to wind down the pop-up.

Kevin: And so every week, you know, I'm married with two kids, uh, Moses is single, but every week, I would go to St. Louis, either drive or fly, be there all week and then come home.  

Josh: You commuted from D.C. to St. Louis?

Kevin: I did.

Josh: Every week?

Kevin: I did. Every week.

Josh: (Laughs) Wow! 

Kevin: It's 14 hours, uh, give or take, uh, in the car. And we had this empty apartment, literally with three mattresses in it, um, three blow-up mattresses, Moses and I would wake up, we'd get there to the office around 7:00, 8:00 AM, and then we'd leave midnight, 1:00 in the morning every day. And we did this, uh, even beyond the accelerator. I think we did it for about three months, but, but we were able to get the app done. We built it. We did it. 

So in the middle of 2017 they put the Row Vigor app in the app store. There wasn’t any marketing, but dozens of people started using it to workout. Those early customers weren’t paying to use the app... yet. Kevin wanted to build a premium version later to put behind a paywall. But it was a proof of concept. Surely that would be enough for investors.

Kevin: Then they started saying, “Well, we see what you've built. Um, rowing is still kind of narrow for us. And nobody's paying for it.” And so those two things became impediments to getting institutional capital. And so we started, you know after hearing that enough, you start to say, "Well, what can we do to broaden our, our total addressable market," right?

Josh: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Kevin: And, and then we said, “You know what? Why are we limiting ourselves to rowing? Why not think about, you know, ellipticals and other fitness equipment that's Bluetooth enabled.” And, and so we started down the path of, of broadening our thought beyond rowing. 

They were about to pivot. Row Vigor would get a new name - Vigor Fitness. Their hope was that investors would be more interested in a bigger market. 

And it’s around this time, when Kevin and Moses first appeared on our show pitching to the investors. 

Kevin: Uhh, my name is Kevin Allen, I’m the CEO of Row Vigor. And this is Moses, he is our Chief Technology Officer. So about three years ago, good friend of mine I’ve known since I was 13 years old, 20 year fitness professional, came to me and he said - I think there’s an opportunity for rowing based fitness in our space. 

And Jillian Manus was particularly taken with Kevin. 

Jillian: Liked him, though. Really, really liked him. I like Moses. Moses is obviously the kind of pensive, quiet, techy. 

Daniel: Kevin should have his own podcast.

Jillian: Oh for sure 

All our investors decided to pass on Row Vigor. And Kevin was getting frustrated with the investors in Washington DC, too. They would say things like “we don’t do consumer tech” or “fitness tech? That’s not our thing”. Their thing was more... tech for the federal government. Plus the Row Vigor team was looking to be in a more collaborative startup city.

Kevin: We said, “We can't afford to move to California or New York. Colorado seems to be a place that's got a lot of startup juice.” You know, folks like Brad Feld and others here.

Josh: Yeah. Boulder, Colorado.

Kevin: Yeah, Boulder. And so, we moved our families out to Colorado, um, to give the business a better chance to succeed.

Josh: Wait, you-

Kevin: So, so that happened.

Josh: Moses and Fola-

Kevin: Yep.

Josh: all picked up, left D.C., moved your families out to Boulder, Colorado? 

Kevin: Hadn't been in Colorado more than 24 hours in my entire life, um, but we felt-

Josh: (Laughs) Oh, wow!

Kevin: We felt that, we felt that it was, gave us the best chance to succeed and all three of us were committed to that, and so we moved. 

Josh: Do you remember, like what did you think when you got to boulder. What was your first impression? 

Kevin: Yeah, well, you know, I remember, you know, my kids saying, like, where all the black people? when when they got to Boulder, because we know we moved.

Josh: Right. 

Kevin: From Takoma Park, Maryland, which is super diverse area where, you know, you hear a dozen different languages every day and people that look like you are all around to a place that is, you know, very nice and full of nice people, but very white.  

The move to Colorado went well for a while. Kevin said there was more of a support system in Boulder. The startup community there was great. But still no investment. And so Row Vigor was still bootstrapped. The business was completely reliant on Kevin putting in his own money. And on Fola and Moses’s willingness to continue to work for no pay.

But after about a year full of planning and preparation for their pivot to Vigor Fitness, it was time to show it off. Moses and Kevin were headed out to San Francisco for a big presentation to investors.

Kevin: And, um, Moses missed his plane.

Josh: Oh to go out to San Francisco?

Kevin: To go to San Francisco. I had bought him a plane ticket, and, you know, and we had talked about how important this was, and he just missed his plane. 

Josh: Oof.

Kevin: And didn't- didn't say anything, or- or attempt to get on another one. Um, and- and, so, you know, I- I gave the presentation, but, you know, I didn't have any technical backup. And it was, like, "Moses, like, we're tryin' to get funded and, you know, you're the CTO of the company. It's, like, well-

Josh: Yeah.

Kevin: you gotta be there, particularly when you commit to bein' there." you know, looking back that was, sort of, like, the beginning of the end. 

When we come back... will their shiny new pivot be enough to close investment, before the team falls apart?

Welcome back. Kevin, Fola and Moses had done a lot of work to attract investment since their successful popup in DC. Investors had wanted to see an app, so they went live in the app store. Then investors said they wanted rowvigor to broaden beyond rowing, so they made big plans for Vigor Fitness.

And so in early 2019, Kevin went out to pitch investors. Again.

Kevin: So, so what we would hear is, is, "What you did with Row Vigor shows us that you can build something."

Josh: Right.

Kevin: “But, we can't see what you're doing with Vigor Fitness. Like, you're still pre-product to us and you're definitely still pre-revenue.” And meanwhile, companies like Hydrow Row get a million dollars without having product one.

Josh: Oh geez.

Kevin: For an idea on rowing-based fitness. 

Josh: Why do you think they got the money and you didn't?

Kevin: Your guess is as good as mine. We had a product before, you know, they had the idea. Um, and, and so, you know, for us, it's like, why... “They're behind us and, and yeah, we're not a closed system hardware-based company, but damn. I mean, what, was it something we said?” 

Josh: Do, do you think it was the right move to make the pivot to pitching Vigor Fitness as a broad fitness app that could be used with a number of different fitness tools? Like do you think that was the right move? 

Kevin: You know, I've had investors tell me, “You never want to build a company for investors.” That's bullsh*t. Investors are going to invest in what they like. And if they're the only ones that can provide you access to capital, then, then you have no choice, otherwise your idea doesn't get done.

Josh: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you changed the plan for your company and launched Vigor Fitness, because that's what investors told you they wanted.

Kevin: Correct. Um, and honestly, you know, we knew that we would grow beyond rowing at some point but you know, the more we got into this, the more it was like, "Okay, well, you guys, you know, we challenge you to do this, you did it, now do this, and then do this, and then do this." And it was like, "Well, (laughs) at what point do we get credit for, uh, doing what we've done and- and jumping through the hoops that you've laid out?" it, again, when you're watching companies get funded around you with far less-

Josh: Yeah.

Kevin: in- in terms of execution and opportunity, you start to wonder. Like, you know, "Wh- what is it that we're not doing?" It does start to wear on you.

Josh: Yeah.

Kevin: Um, it- it, and it weared on my partners. And it- it just, you start questioning, you know, why are we doing this, and, you know, who's really gonna take us seriously, and- and how are we gonna get this done? Um, and especially when you're fighting as hard as we were, I mean just tooth and nail to, uh, to keep the business moving.

As 2019 lingered on, with nobody at the company getting paid, things started to come to a head for Kevin’s cofounder, Moses.

Moses: It was just constant, almost like almost on the verge of not having any money It's just constantly monthly. just kind of worried about, you know, how I'm gonna pay for rent next month things like that like I was in I have some credit cards, I just haven't paid off. And so I was just like i was like in default my student loans. I mean, it just comes down to money. And so for me, I just kind of hit a breaking point. So I just couldn't continue on.

Moses: I think that everybody has a kind of risk reward tolerance like it seems glamorous on the outside But it's just like a huge risk you're taking on, like all people betting on you that you're gonna be successful and that was just too much for me. 

Josh: Yeah. Like the emotional pressure of that. 

Moses: Yeah. Any idea that you have to grow like exponentially. 

Josh: Right.

Moses: You know, it is that pressure that you have to grow exponentially. And I just don't want to do that. Like the big risk. The pressure from venture capital firms raising money, that's just not like what I want.  

Kevin: Well, he- he came to Fola and I, um, later on that spring, early summer and said, "You know, hey, I- I can't do this anymore." And he told us, you know, " I- I'm tired, and- and, you know, don't like having any money, and- and I just, I don't feel like I'm, I can do the job." And so we said, "Okay, that- that's okay, and- and we get it. But we're gonna need you to help us do a couple of things." We said, "If you can get us to a point where we've got the paywall up, and we've converted everything to Vigor Fitness then I think we'd be in a good position," right? and, so, we asked him to do that and he agreed. He said, "I could do that."  

Josh: So..and the- the reason was if- if you could get the app moved over to Vigor Fitness, and if you could turn on payments, those are the things that you could go to investors with to say, like, "Hey, here- here we did this. We- we jumped through this other hoop," and then they-

Kevin: That's right.

Josh: would be able to invest in you, so then you'd have the money to hire another lead developer?

Kevin: That's correct. So- so we could raise on the premise of showing paying customers, showing Vigor Fitness in- in at least a beta form, um, and then saying, "Listen, now we're looking for scale capital," right? There's no more-

Josh: Yeah-

Kevin: we- we- need to see it. Uh, here it is and- and let's go. 

So that was the plan. Moses, the only developer they had, would finish up a few tasks before he left. Kevin would have to raise money from investors to bring on someone new. But before Moses finished the work, things fell apart.

Kevin: This is in July of- of '19.

Josh: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Kevin: And, um, Moses says, "I have to leave now. I can't be a part of this anymore,"-

Josh: Whoa.

Kevin: Yup. 

Josh: What- what broke?

Kevin: Well, um, he said he felt really bad about letting his family down, right? And- and he felt that he couldn't deliver anymore on what we wanted to do, and he just needed to get away. And- and Fola and I we're- we're, sort of, like, uh, "You do realize the position you're putting us in?" And he said, "I know, but I- I can't do anything else." And- and, you know, we- we just sat there for, you know, talkin' this through, and Fola and I trying to convince him, like, "Listen, we- we plotted an exit for you. Like, help us see this through. Just get us where we need to be."

Josh: Yeah-

Kevin: Um, and- and he just- just said, "I can't do it." 

To finish the work that Moses was going to do, Kevin would need to find another developer. And he figured he would need 50 thousand dollars to do it. The fate of Row Vigor was in investors’ hands.

For three years investors had been saying to him, just jump through this hoop. Ooh what about that hoop over there, oh wait just one more hoop. But finally, in January of 2020 there were no more hoops. He found an investor that was ready to write a check.

Kevin: So after all of this, we finally got a fund to commit one hundred thousand dollars toward our half million dollar raise. 

Josh: Oh wow. 

Kevin: Written commitment! And so now we've got somebody else who's an investor who believes in us and we can go shop this.

But before all the details could get hammered out, March 2020 happened. 

Kevin: Covid hit and the world changed. And so...

Josh: Ahh man.

Kevin: It stopped everything dead in its tracks. And so the financing goes away, but then the business goes crazy. We saw our row vigor application user base grow by 100 percent in about 35, 36 days. 

Josh: Wow. So it doubled!

Kevin: It was it doubled in about a month. 

Josh: And this is just all the people who are, like, I'm workin' out from home now 'cause I can't go to the gym.

Kevin: That's right-

Josh: Oh geez.

Kevin: And so we had to think quickly and try to figure out a strategy for us to to be able to take advantage this momentum. It's just maddening to watch your numbers grow the way ours did and know that you can't do anything to support flipping the revenue switch, putting up the paywall, doing the development as as small as a development task as it might be to get you to the other side. It was just it was maddening.  

Josh: So you're literally seeing the numbers on your mobile app double in a matter of 30 days. Yes. And you don't hold the key to be able to update the app, turn on payments and start collecting money or do any sort of development because you don't have a developer. 

Kevin: That's correct. And the commitment we made to Moses was we won't ask you to do this. We might ask you to consult back, but we will never ask you to do dev work for us. And, you know, he I went to him and I gave a call, I said Moses. I mean, look, he said, I know I've seen the numbers, he said but I can't do it. Like, I don't want to feel that pressure anymore. And so what are you gonna do? We had to respect that. And so what we decided to do... 

Josh: Kevin!

Kevin: Was say, look, I, I what can you do? 

Josh: Oh man.

Kevin: It's still killing me because I keep the numbers are doing what they're doing and it's like I am probably fifty thousand dollars away from flipping the switch and changing the profile. And I can't get to that number because I've used literally every number, every name in the book that I have access to to get to the point where I am. It's crazy. I mean, all this stuff is happening. I mean I can't get a hold of 50 K to get my app connected to to PayPal. So I can I can put up the paywall and change everything from Row Vigor to Vigor Fitness. It's I mean, it's literally that simple.  

In the meantime, over the last year since he left the company, Moses has been keeping busy as a freelance developer. And he didn’t really know what was going on with Row Vigor. So I called him up, and I told him.

Josh: This is basically it. This is the end that, that like, you know, hey, can you help us, like, turn on payments for the app? Like that was his last ditch effort to try and keep this thing afloat.

Moses: I didn't know that. No, I didn't even know that. Yeah it’s really. Yeah, I thought it would be easier to actually find another person, a technical person that could just kind of get the work done. You know I really I mean, I personally really want to see them succeed. I mean, I think it means a lot. Yeah I think I need to talk to Kevin. I didn't know the details about how dire it is, but I'm going to do that. 

The two of them got on the phone right away. Here’s Kevin.

Kevin: He said, I don't want to be the person that keeps you guys from being successful, umm you know? That's what he told me. And, you know, I believe him 100 percent. And, you know, he said that he didn't realize the position he was putting us in. you know, 

Josh: In the position where you can't update your own app.

Kevin: Right. Right. In the position where we can’t update our own app. I don't know what he thought was gonna happen on the dev side. But, you know, he just he just didn't think about that piece of it. 

Moses agreed to turn on payments in the Row Vigor app and then submit those changes to the App Store. If it needed more work than that, Kevin would have to find someone else.

And then! The moment comes. For the first time in over a year. Kevin’s tech company is finally able to make a change to their tech.

Moses: So this is the first time I'm looking at the uh Row Vigor uh source code. The first thing I notice is that it hasn’t been updated in about 2 years. (Laughs) that’s pretty long. 

Moses worked on the app for a couple hours and turned on the paywall. Just like that.

Moses: Like we’ll just wait for Apple to approve. It should be just a couple a day or two. And you know that’s it. 

Moses: I thought it was going to be an easy task. and everything looked like it appeared to work. And I tested it and everything. And I submitted to Apple and I got rejected.

Josh: It got rejected? 

Moses: In the rejection note, it just basically said that um that I need to implement Apple's subscription API. And I discovered that Apple basically forced all their people on their app store to basically use their API for payments. 

According to Moses, this new requirement from Apple meant it would take a lot more work to get it up to date … work Moses said he just wasn’t willing to do. 

So now here we are, right now, summer 2020. And Kevin, for the very first time, is starting to question if he should continue. 

Kevin: I can't continue to put my family at jeopardy. I am losing not only the cash that I'm investing in the business, but what I could be making in the market for myself.

Josh: Oh gosh yeah.

Kevin: I mean, and that opportunity cost is not insignificant for me. 

Josh: Right. 

Kevin: That and my kid, you know, my oldest kid's going to start high school this year. Both my kids are going to private school this year for the first time, which which adds more pressure. And so, you know, there's just some real life considerations for, for us. And so it is where we are. I mean, we love what we've built. We love the potential. We believe in this. I mean, as you can see, I put my money literally where my mouth is. umm And, you know, it's just maddening to be so close and to feel like it's such an insignificant amount of money in the grand scheme of things but not be able to get it done.

Josh: This is like the founder’s dilemma right here.

Kevin: Yeah.

Josh: Do you just let go of the past 2-years and let that all… let that all go to waste right?

Kevin: Yeah.

Josh: So you can pay your bills and provide for your family which you really want to do? or do you keep.. Do you keep going? 

Kevin: That's really what it comes down to. I mean, it's it's, you know, as a result of what's been happening in the world and, With all of these Black Lives Matter protesting going on and renewed interest in what's happening to the African-American community. Stories from all different industries are popping up. And the entrepreneurial story has been a big one. And you look at the African-American community and how underfunded it is and, you know, people coming out and asking for input now, like these funds that have turned us down, you know, asking for input on, you know, what can we do to help finance African entrepreneurs? 

Josh: You’re seeing that?

Kevin: Yeah, we're seeing that.  

Josh: You've gotten messages from like investors who've passed on you. And now they're asking, what can we do better to support the black founder community? 

Kevin: Not asking us. Which is the interesting part. What they're doing is they're putting out messaging that that is asking that a community at large when they have us already here. But I see all these letters from the you know, the managing directors of this firm or that firm saying, you know, we are committed to finding great companies and finding qualified and great entrepreneurs of color. And here I am. You know, you've spoken to me and you know me, and yet my e-mail goes unanswered.  

Josh: The hard part is it's so hard to tell when you look online and you see people's Twitter feeds just like they're all saying seemingly the right things. But so few of them have the track record to be able to come out and say, we've been doing this all along. 

Kevin: That's right. You know, I remember my first company. I actually had a venture um MD pull me aside and tell me I was too young and too black to get funded like they weren’t going to listen to me.

Josh: No sh*$!

Kevin: Straight up told me and I appreciated it. I can't tell you how much I appreciated it because that was real. And that was a real you know, he didn't do it to be condescending. He just said, listen, they are not ready to hear this kind of a message for you in this industry. You are too young and too black. And I said, well, thank you. And that's when I started to try to look to sell my company (laughs)

Josh: Oh my gosh.

Kevin: I mean, but this is what we deal with quietly all over the place and, you know, in garages and living rooms and all over this country. And that's what they don't understand. You know, it's tragic to see great ideas and hungry entrepreneurs with the right skill sets continue to get passed on because of that you know “Ah I just can't bet on that, that guy or that girl” and not knowing why. And really, it's unconscious bias and an ignorance of their situation. Umm, you know, that sort of, you know, lack of appreciation for the realities of this world and our situation is what I think needs to change and hopefully will. Because I know there are some genuine actors out there, umm who are trying to make change. 


The Pitch is hosted by me, Josh Muccio. Produced by Muna Danish, Heather Rogers, Chris Neary and Max Gibson. We are edited by Sara Sarasohn.

Original music in today’s episode from Emma Munger, Matthew Boll, Breakmaster Cylinder, and The Muse Maker. We are mixed by Enoch Kim. 

And, we have a quick announcement. Coming soon, we’ll be doing another advice show with our investors. Where we give you, the listeners a chance to call-in and ask our investors for advice. More details to come, but if you have a question. That’d you’d like to ask the investors, give us a call and leave us a quick voicemail and tell us what is your question…The number to call and leave a voicemail is 833-748-2448. Again that’s 833-748-2448.

Thank you so much for listening. We’ll be back with a new episode in three weeks. See you then.