Jan 28 2013

Nerd Fitness: This Online Company Packs a Dragon Punch

Steve Kamb built his fitness startup with online media, collaboration tools and a geek’s touch.

When most people think of nerds, the last place they expect to find them is in the gym. After all, according to pop culture, most nerds are couch potatoes and shut-ins who prefer to huddle around a computer screen rather than break a sweat on a treadmill.

But fit nerds do exist, and 28-year-old entrepreneur Steve Kamb is building an army of them.

Kamb is the mastermind behind Nerd Fitness, a bootstrapped startup that built its business selling fitness advice and products to an online community of nerds looking to get ripped.

As a self-described video game fan and computer lover (he built his own computers during high school), Kamb became infatuated with the idea of “leveling up” himself.

“[I] fell in love with this concept of getting a little bit stronger and a little bit healthier and, you know, really trying to think of my life as a video game,” he says.

After training on his own, Kamb moved to California five years ago and joined a gym that provided free personal training. The personal trainer restructured Kamb’s diet and workout routine, and within a month, he saw more progress than he’d seen in his six years training alone, he says.

That’s when Kamb had his ah-ha moment.

“I'm a huge nerd, and I love fitness, and I like helping get healthy. Maybe I can combine it and specifically speak to nerds about getting healthy,” he says.

So he bought nerdfitness.com, and for the last three and half years, he’s been writing fitness articles, selling fitness guides and merchandise online and nurturing his online community. The business has been successful enough that he’s now doing it full time and has actually hired staff.

We caught up with Kamb and asked him a few questions about his experience building a digital business, gamifying fitness and dealing with the challenges of managing a remote workforce.

Nerd Fitness

BIZTECH: Your startup is bootstrapped, which is great because you have complete control over the company, but it’s also scary because the responsibility of raising capital rests solely with you. How did you make the transition?

KAMB: When I quit my day job to do this full time, I think I probably had maybe $4,000 or $5,000 in the bank and no money coming in from Nerd Fitness yet. At that point, I had been working on the site for over a year and a half and built up a pretty sizeable following.

So I let people know, “Hey, I'm quitting my day job to focus on Nerd Fitness full time. It's terrifying, but I know this is what I'm meant to do, and I will be creating some products and things that people can purchase through the site if you're interested.”

Fortunately, enough people decided to purchase things that were offered through the site, and now it's grown into a full-time business for me. I have somebody that's helping me full time, and a couple people part time.

BIZTECH: So what’s the main way you generate revenue from the site?

KAMB: I want to say probably 90 percent of the revenue comes in through the e-books and guides that are offered in Nerd Fitness, and then the other 10 percent comes through affiliate sales and Nerd Fitness merchandise, things like t-shirts and hooded sweatshirts.

BIZTECH: How did you conceptualize and execute on your idea of gamifying fitness?

KAMB: I was playing "EverQuest", and it's one of those games that’s very similar to "World of Warcraft," where you'll spend 12 hours a day playing this online game, leveling up the characters, exploring new land, defeating dragons, and it’s something I played through high school and through all of college.

And even after college, when I was in the process of getting started with Nerd Fitness, I continually put Nerd Fitness off so that I could spend more time playing EverQuest.

I realized I was spending all of this time leveling up a character on a screen and, as a result, not really taking care of myself personally. So I thought, what are the reasons why I play a game like EverQuest, and how can I apply those reasons and really addicting qualities of a video game to my personal life so that it's encouraging and addicting for me to actually get outside and do stuff?

Steve Kamb

If you're starting at a Level 0, let's say you can walk half a mile and you get exhausted. Well, if you go out next week and can walk six- or seven-tenths of a mile, you're now a little bit stronger and can walk a little bit farther, so, technically, you have leveled up. You're leveling up yourself as a character.

So that was the beginning of it, just kind of looking at yourself and identifying things that you’d like to improve about yourself and then applying game mechanics to those things so that it's fun for you to feel like, “Oh, I went from 10 push-ups and now I can do 15 push-ups.”

I decided to call [my gamified life] my “Epic Quest of Awesome,” and I have pretty much split the world into different levels. So each continent is its own world: Europe is like the old ancient castles world, and Africa would be the desert world, and South America would be the jungle world, and so on.

And every time I cross something off my list, I give myself 20 percent experience points. So every time I do five things and cross five things off my Epic Quest of Awesome, I get to level up. So at the moment, I'm up to Level 9, and I have maybe one or two more goals to finally get to Level 10.

So it's really just kind of looking at my life as one giant video game instead of playing a character on the screen. I'm the character; instead of leveling up through an Xbox controller, I'm leveling up myself.

BIZTECH: And the main way this leveling up and tracking happens is through the forums, right?

KAMB: Yes, it's through forums. However, we're actually in the process of building an actual program that will allow you to automate all of this and allow people to actually level up a character on the screen by leveling yourself up. So we're in the beginning stages of it.

I can't go too much into it, but it's called risingheroes.com, and if you go to that website, you can actually sign up for the e-mail list and be part of it. But we're actually in the process of letting beta testers come in, in the next couple of weeks, and begin using the process.

I’m thinking real big with this project, and I know it’s something that this community, and even folks who haven't heard of Nerd Fitness yet, will absolutely fall in love with.

BIZTECH: You mentioned that you’d hired people to help out with the site. Are you all located in the same area, or is everything done through telework?

KAMB: The person that I have hired full time, her name is Staci. She has become like a role model to women all over the place because she looks how everyone would want to look, but she did it with super-heavy strength training. She can dead lift 360 pounds.

I found her through Nerd Fitness. She just started posting on the message boards, and I asked her if she could help with stuff, and as soon as I gave her a little bit of autonomy, saying, "How would you want to run this, or how would you make it differently?" she just kind of took over and started running and helping and creating contests and organizing more moderators. So as soon as I had the ability I said, “I'm hiring you.”

But, yes, it's all remote. Staci lives in Boston, and we just hired a managing editor. His name is Taylor and he lives in Washington, D.C., and I'm kind of all over the place. I just moved; I just spent three months in Portland, Oregon, and now I'm moving to Nashville, Tennessee. But before Oregon, I was in Ecuador for a month; before that, I was in D.C. for a couple of months; 12 months before that, I was on three continents.

[The key is hiring] folks who understand 40 hours doesn't necessarily mean that you need to fill up 40 hours. If you can do a great job in 25 or 30, awesome — go for it. If you need to take two days off this week, or you need to take next week off but you're going to double up this week, that is more than okay, as long as the things that need doing get done, I'm all for it.

BIZTECH: What kind of technology tools do you use to stay connected with your remote workforce?

KAMB: We use Google Docs, for sure. We have also looked into some project management software, and it's something we might be considering, once Rising Heroes really hits its stride and we have multiple programmers and artists and things of that nature. But honestly, yeah, it's really Google Docs, Gchat, Google Hangouts, Skype, things of that nature. But as far as collaborative stuff goes, a simple Google document and e-mails back and forth get the job done.

BIZTECH: As a former “solopreneur,” what was the hardest lesson you learned as your business grew?

KAMB: That it's okay to stop working. Honestly, that was my biggest challenge, because I was so used to, before going full time with Nerd Fitness, working a full-time job at 40 to 50 hours a week and then coming home every night to work on Nerd Fitness until 2 in the morning and then waking up and repeat, repeat and repeat.

So all of a sudden, when it was on me 100 percent, I would work 14 hours a day and that was the only thing I knew how to do. I knew how to wake up, sit at the computer and get a lot of things done, and I would just work, work, work, all day.

Now, I have finally come to the realization that I need to be able to practice what I preach. I have been telling people that life balance and being able to work out and have hobbies is important, so I need to be practicing that as well.

Instead of trying to spend 14 hours doing 14 hours of work, I spend 6 to 7 hours getting everything done and then spend the rest of my day exercising or hiking or trying to learn a new skill or reading a book or actually playing some video games and enjoying my time or hanging out with friends. That's been the biggest change I have made within the past couple of months that has been super helpful.

BIZTECH: Looking back at how far Nerd Fitness has come, what do you think has helped make it successful?

KAMB: Nerd Fitness is just so different, I think, compared to the majority of fitness websites out there, which is why it's been able to grow in the way that it has. I didn't try to take over the fitness market. I decided to create my own market of fitness specifically for nerds and allowed it to grow from there. Hopefully, it just inspires folks to think a little bit differently.