By Steven Overly
Monday, January 3, 2011; 7
Silver Spring entrepreneurs Benjamin Young and Gregory Coleman are developing a new wrinkle on the coupon craze -- a smartphone app that rewards exercise with discounts on items such as energy bars, all natural groceries and workout DVDs.
The founders of Nexercise hope the deals provide a financial incentive to adopt a more active lifestyle while also chipping away at the notion that fitness has to be expensive.
"A lot of the mechanics are driven around the underlying psychology of why people do and don't exercise," said Young, the company's chief executive. "The technology is really a facilitator but most of this is psychology."
Users select a physical activity, such as aerobics, running or badminton, then choose a workout time of 15 minutes or more. The program uses sensors already built into the iPhone and other smartphones to detect motion and other metrics that verify the activity actually takes place.
Users accrue points with each workout, and more points equate to better discounts. Nexercise also has a social component that allows users to compete directly with other smartphone owners or trumpet their workouts on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
The competitive nature of Nexercise is meant to serve as another source of motivation, and those who prefer to keep their exercise habits private can simply tally the points to earn coupons or free gifts and for their own satisfaction.
"We're not so focused on how many miles did you run and how many pounds did you lift, but did you do something today?" said Coleman, the company's chief operating officer.
The application is in testing now and won't be available to the general public until the second quarter of 2011, pending Apple's approval. The duo is currently in talks to pilot Nexercise on local college campuses while working out the app's kinks.
Young and Coleman have bankrolled the company and its staff of four with their own money, instead of seeking venture capital that often requires entrepreneurs to relinquish some control of the company. They have also enlisted the help of two University of Maryland professors and partnered with a USDA initiative to promote healthy messages.
In many ways Nexercise aims to capitalize on current technology trends, including the rise in mobile-based health products and the popularity of online discount Web sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial.
While Nexercise doesn't require users to purchase goods and services in advance, Young said the primary revenue source will be a transaction fee when users redeem coupons. They also hope to form partnerships with companies or municipal governments to promote fitness.
The idea stems in part from Young's own struggle with weight. The 1997 University of Virginia graduate swelled to 250 pounds early in his career while working for companies such as Accenture and MicroStrategy's Angel.com. The motivation needed to drop the weight was difficult to muster, he admits.
He met Coleman, an Air Force veteran and D.C. National Guardsman, in an executive MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. They initially envisioned a data-intensive application that helps users to maximize workouts based on time, location and physical limitations.
Professors and other advisers questioned whether the market for such a product was large enough to be sustainable. The new incarnation of Nexercise, in the works since December 2009, now targets those in a similar position to Young: interested in a healthier lifestyle but lacking the time and energy to take the next step.
"They're on the cusp. It's just enough of a social nudge," Young said. "It will be really nice to know if we can actually alter people's behavior."