Gita Sjahrir of R Fitness
22 September 2020
Welcome, everyone to the 16th episode of Indo Tekno. My name is Alan Hellawell. I'm Founder of tech startup consultancy Gizmo Advisors, and Venture Partner Alpha JWC Ventures. We're super pleased to have one of Jakarta's most dynamic female entrepreneurs Gita Sjahrir join us today. Gita is Chief Executive Officer of R Fitness. Welcome, Gita,
GITA SJAHRIR 0:30
Thank you so much for inviting me to this chat.
Gita, let's just dive right into it. Now, you grew up largely in the US, but you're of Indonesian descent. Can you unpack for us the story of how the family first got to the US, and what brought you back to Indonesia?
GITA SJAHRIR 0:45
What happened was that my father was a political activist back in the 1970s. And it's always been his passion to try to find a way to make the country better. So what ended up happening in the 70s was he was one of the organizers for a very large demonstration that was in the middle of Jakarta. And because of that, he was protesting for free speech and also protection of minority rights. And he was only in his 20s in the 1970s. And what he ended up getting was a four and a half year sentence in a prison as a political prisoner. And when he was able to get out due to good behavior, he ended up taking my mom to the United States. They were just recently married back then. And amazingly enough, he got a PhD scholarship at Harvard University, and my mom got a PhD scholarship to Boston University. So that's how we ended up becoming a first generation immigrant family back in the US. I think it is a very interesting dynamic to be an Asian American. So constantly hearing: "Are you Asian enough? Are you American enough?" And what I found when we moved to Indonesia was, it almost felt like I was new to the entire country. So, although you grew up ethnically with Indonesian parents who are very interested and very much involved in politics, we also had to learn a lot of things from the ground up. I had to learn how to speak Bahasa Indonesia much better, and also have to learn about how to do business and entrepreneurship in the country.
Wow, I had no awareness of the rich history of the SjaHrir family. Now Gita, I notice that one common thread across a lot of your entrepreneurial activities seems to have been strong beliefs around health and wellness. What led you to do such a focus?
GITA SJAHRIR 2:36
I have been one of the co founders of two other companies before this one. One was ecommerce, surprisingly, but that was also 10 years ago. And with the second one, I helped a friend start a beer logistics venture that is still going on. In fact, we're the largest in Thailand right now. And the third one was R Fitness. It started out as Ride, which is a boutique indoor cycling studio, which we started mainly to begin brand awareness. So, it wasn't simply because the co founders were crazy about indoor cycling. We actually weren't. What we liked so much about the concept was that we were passionate about building a fitness brand for people who don't like fitness. Because I have rheumatoid arthritis. I have an autoimmune disease, which I've had since I was 22 years old, and back then it was so severe that it affected my lungs and also my joints. I had joint inflammation that was so bad that I ended up learning how to walk again. I was in a wheelchair for a long time. In fact, I was in a hospital bed for a majority of that year, probably. And it was just a very mentally trying time. One of the best ways to feel better, according to doctors, was to start very gentle exercise. We are not talking about running for five kilometers or even being on a bike for 20 minutes. We are talking learning how to physically get mobility for 10 minutes a day, and even then that was already extremely painful for me. And when I went into gyms or studios in order to start working on this mobility with a physiotherapist, I noticed that fitness at the time was all about having "six pack" abs, looking pretty in whatever way, having a standard of what "hot" means, and not about actual health. And it's not about "can you run and chase after your kids? Can you pick up the groceries?" It's not those things that actually matter. And what I wanted to do is create a community of fitness for people who move because they celebrate and love their body; not to punish their body, not because they ate a cookie. That doesn't matter. What matters is functionality and also joy in movement. And that was the big reason why I started this health and wellness brand, because I believe that there is not a one-size-fits-all to fitness or health or wellness. And there is not one-size-fits-all to health goals. Everybody should have the chance, the equitable chance, to join into the joy of movement.
Kind of a classic example of turning a formidable challenge into a real source of accomplishment. Now, Ride Jakarta became the first boutique fitness brand in Indonesia to ever receive venture capital funding. Gita, can you walk us through the highlights of that process?
GITA SJAHRIR 5:16
Sure. Man, that was a really trying time! I think there's this kind of feel in the startup industry where people talk about how passionate they are, and how: "it might be hard, but we made it!" But no one really talks about how hard "hard" is. And we try to give this perception that we have things figured out to an extent. But in reality, being in startups now for 10 years, and being in this current startup for five years, you learn that the formula constantly changes, if there's even a formula. There are so many things you can't control. And one of the things in which I learned that there are so many things I can't control was, surprisingly, fundraising. Fundraising hasn't always been easy for us. We went for fundraising in 2017, simply because we had this very grand idea, which is to create an equitable and accessible health brand for the Indonesian market. And we're not just talking Lululemon-wearing girls who can afford so many things. We're talking about "can we give this to most stratas of society?" Can we give them even access? Do we care? Right? Because, how would people know if they can even try any product if there's no product that exists? Because people assume: "Oh, you don't care about health." Who are you? Let's just consistently cater the middle upper market forever. So that was where we were coming in. And when we went for fundraising, one of the first things we had to do was simply know what fundraising is, not just create a strategy, which is the easy part if you think about it. It's the execution part. Speaking with so many venture capitalists, being rejected. A famous story is being rejected 65 times, which literally happened to me. And now the body count is more than, I think, probably 150 times. And all of those rejections: how do you look at it? I'm going to succeed just because. It's because of the rejections, because of the connections that we made along the way, because of the many feedbacks that we get that we were able to create a strategy and also a rapport with many investors, where rather than looking at it from a "Why aren't you giving me money" perspective, it's more like "Okay, how can we look at this from a long term perspective?" This is a marathon. Life is a marathon. Creating a company with a large impact that will last over time requires many years, many efforts, many pivots that they might not see. And that is what fundraising, and being rejected 65 times, taught me.
Wow, some serious tenacity. Gita, in your part of the world, how do VCs add value?
GITA SJAHRIR 7:47
VCs add value in terms of the business, not simply for money. You're can cold call people technically, but network is important. And also, what wisdom can you give us? Everyone has value in terms of their knowledge, in terms of what they've seen, in terms of the failures they've seen. So we're not just talking the one-out-of-135 portfolio companies that became a unicorn. We're talking about: what are the failures that you've seen, and and what can we learn from it? And these days, there seems to be this stigma of: "Oh, you failed so publicly. Oh, you don't have your act together." But the majority of us don't have our act together and so do investors. So it's a full circle. We have to learn from each other. Investors can learn regarding execution and work-life integration from entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs need to learn about how much do investors see from other companies' mistakes and other companies solutions, other companies way of thinking?
Now, Geeta, what is your growth strategy around R Fitness?
GITA SJAHRIR 8:47
When we started pursuing venture capital funding, we started it because we wanted to go online. At the time it was end of 2016, early 2017. We saw a company called Peloton, and I personally met the founders of Peloton back in 2013. Because in 2013, I remember wanting to start a company in the health and wellness space. So serendipity happened. At the time Peloton got a large amount of funding. They were able to create this kind of impact and they were able to reach so many people with this content story. How do we bring exercise and movement to people's living rooms...in people's houses? That seems amazing. And so that was why we started fundraising. Our growth story has always been: how do we create an online-to-offline ecosystem where people can feel like they are able to move and be part of this community of movement that is functional? Movement that is about celebrating your body. How do you do that so that they can experience it at home and also in any of our locations, should we have more locations. After that, what we did last year is we launched "Pod." Pod is one of the most affordable gyms in all of Indonesia. It's actually only 25,000 Rupiah, which is two and a half Singapore dollars per hour. And we also offer Wi Fi, towels and all of the basic needs. It was a very small experiment. We didn't spend hundreds and thousands of dollars, because that's just not what we do. We're used to being very lean. And a lot of it is because we haven't been one of those fundraisers where we can just go out there and meet people, and within the fifth pitch, they're like: "Oh, great, here's $8 million." That hasn't been our story. And that is why we learned so much as to how to market something, despite having $500 a month for marketing. Of course, this might not be a trajectory forever. But it did give us a lot of wisdom. Growth strategy moving forward is to create a holistic environment where we don't just talk about movement. We also talk about your mind. So we are a mental and physical health company now. We diversified also into meditation, yoga, and even B2B life coaching, and also emotional work-life health integration.
I noticed that Ride collaborates with a number of prominent fitness and lifestyle brands such as SaladStop and Nike. Can you describe how these cooperations work Gita?
GITA SJAHRIR 11:13
We actually partner with up to 200 brands per year. It's a lot. One of the reasons why we went into this collaborating method is because we don't believe that everything has to be about competition. And the big reason is, you're going into an industry such as fitness, which is very new in Indonesia. At the time, we were one of the first players out there, not even just in Indonesia, but in Southeast Asia. It's not about competition, because the market is too small to begin with. So you have to expand the market. And rather than kill each other, you have to expand the pie somehow. There's enough for everybody. Let the best person with the best execution succeed. And actually, it's not even that. Let the person with the best execution teach others how to execute. And they teach you how to execute. So you have to always raise the game. It's not about being better than moderate performers. Everyone has to elevate everyone else. And that is what we believe in. The big reasons why we also collaborate with many different types of brands is because it's a lifestyle. You know, mental and physical health isn't as simple as: "Hey, I ran a marathon." That's not mental and physical health. It's also: maybe you have a month where you don't "exercise" at all, but you take walks with your kids, and that fills you with happiness. Or you have all these nice moments on sabbatical where you're able to think, where you just read books, and that enriches your mind. That counts as wellness. Never forget that. And, that's why we see it as not just an exercise story. But also, how do you blend it with other brands that also sell that lifestyle aspect, also sell communities, right? So we work with retail brands, such as Nike, even "Love, Bonito." We work with cosmetic brands, because people love looking nice. People love lipstick. People love this feeling of freshness, and it makes them feel like they're done and they're ready. That's great. How do you bring that empowerment and infuse people's lives with it, not just through exercise, but also through their mental state? It is made up of many things. Made up of many products, made up of many services. A lot of different things can help fulfill that.
GITA SJAHRIR 13:23
And the way we do a lot of these cooperations is also "all over the place." We could create activation events. We could also cross market or we could have a much longer lasting vendor type of partnership. It could be many, many things.
Gita, what has the pandemic done to your business?
GITA SJAHRIR 13:41
To be honest, it helped us become a better company. And the big reason is this: I was interning at this one hedge fund when I was at Wharton. I was also there during the Global Financial Crisis, which means you see how crisis can bring out both the best and the worst in people. And one thing that we learned about crisis is our situation currently is not unique. Everyone I know is running around with their heads chopped off, but I'm always saying, "Hey, have you ever considered that maybe back then during the GFC in 2008 to 2009, could it be you are just at university, so you don't actually feel how terrible things were? Have you asked your dad? Have you asked your mom? If you look at the people of the older generation, they have more wisdom for you because they went through the same crappy times, right? And I think there's a lot to think about that. So rather than cry and go: "Oh, no! Now everything sucks," let me wait until the next normal comes about. There is no such thing as a "New Normal" because the world has never been normal. The world has always had a crisis. There is probably a 10-to-16 year swing each and every time for many different reasons. It could be political. It could be just the global financial situation. Except this time it's a pandemic. But either way, you will always be rocked by something. It's equivalent of having a brick-and-mortar store and then having the internet come at you in the 1960's or 1970s. It could be that. And so, rather than looking at the pandemic, and crying because we have to close all five locations, what we ended up saying was: "Hey, this could be the right time for us to launch our online business." So we went 100% online starting from March, and we are planning to stay that way, all the way until at least first quarter or second quarter of 2021. Because this is forcing us to be more creative. How do you create revenue? How do you succeed because of what happened to you, rather than in spite of what happened to you? And that is something that I think has taught us a lot. We've had to look in a lot. We have to change our infrastructure if need be. We have to look at how we hire talent. Is everybody worth the investment? If they are, ask yourself extremely hard questions. Does every person have a very clear KPI? Would you rehire them with all that you know now? So you have to ask all of these hard questions also about your product itself. Are you marketing the right way? Could you take risk? Could you not take risk? Rather than always be on the defensive, we learn how to be on the offensive. So, it's been a surprisingly very positive experience for us.
That's great to hear. Now, Gita, a personal question: what do you like to do during your downtime?
GITA SJAHRIR 16:20
I believe that every entrepreneur should have downtime. And the big reason is because one of the things that I see that kills every entrepreneur is this "hustle culture". It's this concept that you have to be hyper-focused on your thing, 20 hours a day, seven days a week for 10 years. One: that is not sustainable. I literally rarely see anyone be able to do that. And, two: the most dangerous risk is you lose focus. You somehow think that what you do is the center of the universe. You start comparing yourself with literally everybody else, and you forget your purpose. You forget your mission. You become too focused on what you're doing, rather than the big picture. So it is very important for entrepreneurs to have a hobby and to have something else that they do in order to maintain that balance of the mind. I'm not about to talk about work-life balance. I believe in "work-life integration," as I learned from one of my friends, who's also an entrepreneur. Work-life integration is, rather than coming up with this arbitrary "balanced situation," (what is it? 50% work, 50% life, we have no idea), you try to find a way so that life and work merge seamlessly. And for me, that requires having my mind constantly challenged. So I study foreign languages every single day. And I've been doing that now for more than two years, almost two years, if not more. And also I read a lot. I read anywhere between 50 to 100 books a year. And that is very important to not just look at business books. I also try to learn about physics, and also biology. Epidemiology is something I've been very interested in, of course, because of the situation. So it's just very important for me to consistently challenge myself in terms of my mind. Also, in terms of movement, it's also important. I recently attempted dance. I'm horrible, but I don't care because what matters is: did it bring joy to me? Did it challenged me and did it keep me more at peace. Never forget that when you're becoming an entrepreneur. Never ever let the stream and the wild river take you down a terrible path.
Two rapid fire questions. Number one: what language you're studying. And number two: what was your favorite book over the past year?
GITA SJAHRIR 18:30
I am studying German and Spanish right now. And then second: I read "Unbowed" by Wangari Maathai. She is the one who won the Nobel Prize for planting millions of trees in Kenya. And she is a really inspiring woman, because she not only became a very loud voice for women and also for the environment, but she is just so brave. And she's a mom, and she's just a very loving person who seems to really work towards her ideals. And although a lot of people said, "Oh, you're too idealistic, that's dangerous," she just truly, truly lived her life back then. And she said yes, "it is dangerous, but this is worth it." Because if life is not about making other people better and making people happier, what is your life about?
Now, Gita, you've lived in Singapore Indonesia, the Middle East and the United States. Frankly speaking, where does Indonesia sit, relatively speaking, in its acceptance and support of female entrepreneurs in your mind?
GITA SJAHRIR 19:32
This is an interesting question that I get asked a lot about, and I am very honest about it. And that is the way it is. I didn't live in the Middle East because I was based in Singapore. But I did work there a lot. And that was also an interesting place for me to learn about being taken seriously when you are female. And at the time in my career, I was also very young, in my 20s, and I was still trying to gain my footing in the business world. I was also an infrastructure by the way. I was in the power plant industry which as you know, has been traditionally very male oriented. Anyway, in terms of supporting female entrepreneurs, to be very honest, if you look at all the numbers, and you cannot deny it, there is no other way to explain it. And I know this is very hard to accept for so many male entrepreneurs and male investors. But the fact is, all female founders in the world combined, literally globally, have raised less money than the company Juul, which is nuts if you think about it, right? So only 2% of venture capital funding has gone to female founders in the entire world. This is a systemic issue. When I say systemic, I'm not talking about individuals. I'm not pointing fingers. No, we're talking about a systemic problem. And if we're talking about a systemic issue, then it will affect negatively not just women, but men. A lot of male investors miss out on great founders and female founders, not just because of rejections, but we also have to look at the supply. We also have to think about: why aren't they coming to us? Why aren't they pitching? What have we missed? And a Harvard Business Review study showed that 69% of female founders are asked different questions than male founders. And we are not talking about" "Hey, what happens if you have children?" No, you're talking something much, much softer. So it's a softer kind of discrimination, because it's systemic. It is not individual men. Now, when you think about that, relatively speaking, Indonesia I will say, is about the same as everywhere else. I experienced discrimination in the US and in Singapore and Indonesia overall, because it's just the industry in and of itself. Why is the environment still the same as it is? I'm going to challenge male investors to, rather than think about how much good they've done, think about how much good could they keep doing, and how much they can learn along the way, and grace each other on the way.
Gita, a closing question: what advice do you have for young female entrepreneurs in Indonesia?
GITA SJAHRIR 22:01
I'm not sure if this is going to be a little depressing. But there's a really great chance that you will have to work three, four or five times harder than male entrepreneurs. And you can cry about it all you want. But the fact is, when I came into this life, I chose it. I chose to become an entrepreneur, I chose to have a harder life. That is my fault. So as much as I'd like to protest against any type of discrimination, I chose this harder life. So if you're going to choose this harder life think, what is your bigger goal? What is your bigger value? Why are you even in it? Why can't you just work somewhere else, make a lot of money, and then finally, do what you want 15 or 20 years later, become an entrepreneur. For anyone, it is never too late to start anything. It is never too late to become an entrepreneur. Basically, there is no expiration date on effort. And then second of all, what are you going to do to pick yourself up? And rather than look at your failures and your weaknesses as something you need to overcome, how could you look at it as a positive? How could you look at it as: "I succeeded, and I became happier. And I created an impact because of all these limitations, because of all these weaknesses, because of all these restrictions." So rather than for example, looking at a lack of capital, ask yourself: "How do I myself make that become more?" And also ask yourself: How do you create more inspiring moments within your team so that they become more creative? So those are the two things I highly recommend. One: know why you're doing it, because this isn't easy life for every single person. Just know, this is a 50-year game. You are not making a five-month game. Think far. Think of a marathon. And then second of all is: how do you look at all your limitations and see it as a way for you to become better than you already are?
Wow, some great sentiments. Really fascinating to hear your story Gita and thanks a lot for joining today.
GITA SJAHRIR 23:50
Thank you so much.
This concludes our 16th installment of Indo Tekno. Thanks so much for joining, Gita. The podcast was translated from English to Bahasa Indonesia by Alpha JWC Ventures. Terima kasih untuk mendengarkan. Sampai jumpa lagi!