Sweaty Workout Selfies Catch On as China App Fuels Fitness Boomby
Keep raises $32 million from GGV, Morningside and Bertelsmann
China seeks $761 billion sports industry by 2025 to fight fat
Fitness fads come and go. Jane Fonda tape, anyone? Tae Bo? Richard Simmons and CrossFit? There’s no escaping it, even in China. Riding that wave is Keep, a health and fitness app that secured 30 million users in 15 months and $32 million in venture-capital backing as Chinese look to trim their tummies.
Users like Susan Du, a 30-something teacher who transformed from a 101.5-kilogram (224 pounds) bookworm to 69-kilo fitness enthusiast, typify a new type of consumer. With at least one in four adults either overweight or obese, more upwardly mobile Chinese are beginning to value a healthy lifestyle over branded luxury goods.
“Right now, a lot of my friends are also working out, and they never did sports before,” said Du, whose fitness regime has been chronicled in perky workout snaps tracked by 27,000 online followers. “This is a new trend, a fashion in China. Before no one paid any attention. Now, almost everyone -- whether fat or skinny -- is thinking of exercise,” she said.
Du packs in an hour of cardio before teaching English in Beijing and then lifts weights after work, sharing selfies of the results
Battling the Bulge
There’s more than toned abs at stake. Rising wages and sedentary lifestyles have contributed to worsening health. Diabetes afflicting 114 million people, for example, could overwhelm the nation’s budget. A study released in January of 7,603 adults in the city of Tianjin found that about 70 percent were overweight or obese.
China’s cabinet aims to build a 5 trillion yuan ($761 billion) sports industry by 2025 to counter rising rates of stroke, cancer and Type-2 diabetes. China’s sports industry will expand more than 19 percent annually to 3 trillion yuan by 2025, Credit Suisse Group AG estimated in 2015.
Keeping fit, especially for women, is also challenging accepted norms of female beauty, which traditionally emphasized the thin and pale skin highlighted by the viral sharing recently of women showing their waist size narrower than the width of a sheet of A4 paper.
“Most of my friends don’t accept a different body type, but I’m a muscle fan,” Du said. “I hope one day to be a muscle Barbie.”
The Keep app combines fitness routines, informational posts and a social media network where users can share workouts or photos of themselves or even their meals. Some posts and images are showcased by Keep editors. That’s helped nudge standards in a different direction, Du said.
‘Strong and Sexy’
“They are strong and sexy, according to the Western style,” she said. “This has changed a lot of girls’ opinions, too.”
Du said she lost weight after her doctor warned her she was dangerously heavy if she wanted to have a baby. She used acupuncture as an appetite suppressant.
GGV Capital, Morningside Group, and Bertelsmann Asia Investments put $32 million into Keep, whose 25-year-old founder was inspired to launch it after losing 20 kilos by searching online and creating an exercise and weight loss program for himself.
“I found our country doesn’t have a good app to lose weight or stay fit,” said founder Wang Ning, whose boyish face features prominently in the press coverage of his app. “At the time I was losing weight, I was a student and didn’t have any money. I couldn’t afford to go to the gym or hire a trainer, so I went to the Internet.”
Last year, amid a record flow of venture capital into startups, even some of the newest businesses found it easy to raise money. Now, after burning through their cash, many are finding that investors aren’t willing to put money into unprofitable enterprises.
The mantra’s no longer chase growth first, worry about profits later. Instead, investors want to see profits, or the possibility on the horizon.
Jenny Lee, the GGV managing partner who led the fund’s investment in Keep, said she had seen a slowdown in venture funding starting from the second half of 2015, pushing valuations back down to the levels of 2012. Most of the 3,000 startups that raised early stage funding in 2014 will fail to raise more money this year, she said.
R.I.P. Easy Money
“We are seeing deaths; expect to see more,” she said in a phone interview.
GGV invested in Keep because its managers think that young Chinese consumers are becoming more health- and image-conscious as they move away from just spending money on brand-name goods.
This month, China’s leading ride-hailing service and Uber rival Didi raised more than $3.5 billion after Apple Inc. invested $1 billion for a minority stake. In April, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s finance affiliate raised a record $4.5 billion, and online property service Homelink was aiming for $1 billion.
Lee said Keep had the potential to become a portal site through which users would not only go to workout and share their progress with friends, but also buy sports equipment and even food.
“That’s what we’re trying to capture with this,” she said. “In all our venture-capital investments, it’s about finding the entryway, the gateway. The ones that can be a platform can accumulate a big set of users early on.”
Internet entrepreneur Claire Du, no relation to Susan Du, was introduced to Keep by friends. She lives half the time in Beijing and spends the rest on a plane shuttling between the U.S. and different parts of China for work. She uses the app to exercise a few times a week.
“This could be like Taobao for fitness,” she said, comparing it the online shopping marketplace owned by Alibaba.