How the Fitness App Future Blends Technology With Genuine Human Interaction to Help Users (and Coaches) Reach Their Goals

Rishi Mandal.
Rishi Mandal. Photo: Getty Images.

My conversation with Future founder Rishi Mandal about making exercising more effective–and consistent–for clients and for the trainers who coach them.

My wife has embraced a number of different workouts. Jogging. Pilates. Yoga. Hot yoga. HIIT. A sprint triathlon or two along the way.

But she’s never been as consistent as she would like to be. After a few months on a new program, life inevitably got in the way. So did the nagging feeling that all her effort wasn’t producing results, and she would look for another form of exercise to try.

Sum it all up, and my wife definitely wanted guidance. She also wanted an accountability buddy, but she didn’t want the trainer to be physically present when she worked out.

And as one of the busiest people I know (making my house a tough place to be when you don’t want to feel guilty about your own productivity), she also needed to be able to work out when (and where) she wanted, not at a particular time of day.

Those are all problems Rishi Mandal, an astrophysicist by training who founded Sosh (later acquired by Postmates) and then Future, a personal training subscription app that teams users with a fitness coach, set out to solve.

The first key decision? Even though the fitness industry predominately involves independent contractors and 1099 employees, Mandal decided to bring coaches on as full-time employees.

“The way we arrived at that idea,” Mandal says, “was from talking to people who are successful with their health, and recognizing that many of them realized it takes a village. It’s remarkable when a coach takes the time to get to know you, adapts to your long- and short-term constraints, and stays on top of your needs and goals. The key was to take great coaches and help them engage deeply, help them structure their days so they can do deep work when it’s appropriate, and be available to be responsive when people are working out and want to engage.”

The result is an asynchronous coach and accountability buddy, someone who creates workout plans, communicates via text on an almost daily basis (and on occasional calls), and via an Apple watch can — along with feedback from each user — assess each workout to inform future workout plans.

“When most people think of online personal training,” Mandal says, “they think Zoom workouts, but for lots of people, synching schedules — and having a person stare at them the whole time — just doesn’t work. The asynchronous workout experience, combined with a pseudo-synchronous messaging system, lets us help our coaches create a workday that optimizes the service. While that does add cost on the business side, that’s also why our cost structure is different than the typical online product.”

The Future app costs $149 a month, which could seem problematic since the average consumer dislikes paying for software. (How many times have you decided not to purchase a $1.99 app simply because it costs a couple of bucks?)

My wife’s coach, Chelsea, has a master’s in exercise science. According to my wife, Chelsea is smart, professional, engaging, challenging, and motivating. My wife thinks she’s great. The fact her guidance and support cost $5 a day?

That makes perfect sense to my wife.

And clearly to others. “We’re the largest provider of personal training in the country,” Mandal says, “and have one of the highest retention rates in the fitness industry.”

That low churn rate is in spite of the fact Future doesn’t operate like typical subscription services. There is no annual membership; users pay month-to-month.

“Even with those 12 buying decisions per year we put in front of customers,” Mandal says, “our retention is great because when the person you work with gets to know you, and builds a relationship, once you find that fit, it’s extremely sticky.”

A low churn rate, as well as strong word-of-mouth — 30 percent of new members come via referrals — has helped Future devote less money to advertising and more money to building out systems and infrastructure.

After a capital raise in 2021, “what we’ve spent the money on is coaches, and on engineering, design, data science,” Mandal says, “and building an even better operating system for trainers.”

As for coaches, he feels there are two major aspects to being a great coach. One is IQ.

“When you provide data and history and automation,” he says, “a coach can quickly come up to speed on a person’s background, workout history, physical requirements, etc. Then the system and the data — since we now have tens of millions of individual workouts and interactions we can analyze — make building a personalized workout much easier for the coaches.”

The other is emotional intelligence. What time of day does the user typically work out, and on which days? What are their work and family schedules? What are their normal ebbs and flows? How do they prefer to be coached? The system helps coaches notice and connect with clients on a more personal level.

“We constantly look at data to see where are we not getting it just right,” Mandal says, “and how do we imagine new ways to think about things. Those two universes, EQ and IQ, are where we spend the bulk of our time.”

The result is a paradigm shift, both for personal training and for online fitness tools. Future takes work that is typically local, involves the haphazard matching of supply and demand as well as a lumpy daily demand curve — most people work out either before or after work — and turns that into a job where personal trainers can help more people enjoy unlimited geographical flexibility, greater time flexibility, and more stable pay.

“There’s actually a person, Chelsea, who wakes up every day and thinks about your wife,” Mandal says. “What she will do today. What she did yesterday. What she might need tomorrow. What she can do to be even more successful.”

And deliver that in a way that works for the person, not the provider.

I grew up in an era where athletic coaching was one-size-fits-all, and that size was harsh. Yet the best trainers — and leaders — use different techniques for different people, adapting to the needs each person. Some people thrive on being challenged. Others thrive on encouragement. Some want a lot of interation, others want relatively little.

“Great coaches know what each person needs,” Mandal says, “so we decided to use data and tools to help formalize that approach.”

All of which leads to an important point for every business owner or aspiring entrepreneur. While markets shift, and tastes change, helpful, meaningful one-on-one interactions never go out of style.

“At its core,” Mandal says, “Future works because of a simple human truth: When you connect two people, magical things happen. In Silicon Valley, people ask, ‘When will we replace the human?’ but the way we see it is that we need humans to do human work. The key is to use technology to enhance that.”

And that’s why, even though expanding into other areas of health and fitness could fuel even faster growth, at least for the next 18 months or so the company’s focus will remain on personal training.

“We see a short-term path to being the largest provider of personal training, and being truly profitable. While that sounds old-fashioned,” Mandal laughs, “that’s our goal. Then we’ll take on other aspects of health.”

“For now, though,” he says, “we’re the company that owns the goal of getting as many people who possibly want one a personal trainer. Then we’ll think about helping with non-clinical areas of health: sleep, daily stresses, food, building a constellation of people around you who will check in, answer questions, be helpful, and provide a little accountability.”