Launching a new business is always a challenge, but add in a career change, relocation, economic downturn, COVID and first-time motherhood and many might have deemed it a challenge too far. Not so Simi Williams, the powerhouse behind Beyond Fitness, Lagos’s trailblazing new boutique. She speaks to Kate Cracknell.
Simi, what is the Beyond backstory?
I grew up in Lagos before moving to the UK for my A Levels and Master’s degree, followed by a career in investment banking. For nearly a decade, I focused on achieving success in the highly competitive financial industry.
Sports and exercise had always been an integral part of my life. Movement had always been my joy, my therapy. However, as I progressed in my banking career, I worked constantly and stopped exercising – until I became seriously ill and realised I needed to re-think how I wanted to live my life. At that moment, I vowed to always make time for some form of daily fitness. I didn’t leave investment banking at that point, but fitness became a regular part of my life again.
“Music and dance are such focal parts of Nigerian life, and indoor cycling is a great way to bring exercise into this culture”
Feeling the urge to get more exposure to my home, Nigeria, I then transitioned into an investing role at Africa’s largest private equity firm. By pure serendipity, my portfolio companies were largely in West Africa, and it was on a visit to Nigeria that I noticed all the gaps in the fitness market there.
For me, fitness goes beyond aesthetics. It’s also about how you feel. It’s about one’s mental state and the human connections you develop while working out in an encouraging community of like-minded people. But I found this was missing in Nigeria, as was the element of hospitality. I saw opportunities to bring joy not only to myself, but also to the local community in Nigeria – and beyond. In 2018, the idea of Beyond Fitness was born.
It required grit and a change of mindset – not letting myself be defined by my previous job or job title – but I was determined. I wanted my life to have real purpose. I wanted to do something about the gaps I’d seen. And when I attended a few fitness industry conferences, it cemented my goal. I felt I was in the right place, at peace with my decision. I felt compelled to move ahead with my plans.
While still in London, I raised funding, secured the location, appointed my suppliers and commenced a talent search for my team. Then, in July 2019, I moved back to Nigeria.
Can you describe Beyond Fitness?
Beyond Fitness is an independently owned, multi-discipline fitness destination that speaks the language of movement and connection. It’s a place of freedom where you are never judged, but always encouraged to push past your perceived limitations.
“There isn’t much to do in Nigeria and people are bored with the mundane, so they’re willing to spend money on our feelgood experiences.”
For our team, it’s also about going above and beyond in everything we do, so our club is people’s happy place. Our resilient, uplifting community is dedicated to helping you live a healthier life. We push for progress over perfection and encourage people to genuinely care about those they’re sweating alongside. It’s all summed up in our motto: Work Hard, Love Harder.
How central is cycling to the concept?
I originally considered opening a standalone indoor cycling studio. Regardless of age, shape or fitness level, this high-intensity, low-impact workout creates a positive mindset and is loved by millions worldwide.
However, research has shown significant benefits of variety in one’s workout, so our inaugural location in Lagos unites three fitness experiences under one roof: an indoor cycling theatre with 25 bikes; a movement studio offering yoga, barre and mat pilates; and a strength studio for dynamic weight sequences and muscle-building exercises.
Our cycling classes are rhythm rides. Music and dance are such focal parts of Nigerian life, and indoor cycling is a great way to bring exercise into this culture. I see it as one of the best workouts to get people moving; with an amazing playlist, a cardio workout becomes a by-product of the ‘party on a bike’ experience.
We offer 45- and 60-minute classes, as well as ‘double-shot’ workouts with 30 minutes on the bike for cardio and 30 minutes off the bike for strength and flexibility. I worked with a master instructor in London to develop our signature cycling format, and each instructor then injects their own personality and, critically, their reading of the room.
How unique is Beyond within Nigeria?
Across Africa, there’s no real focus on fitness as a brand or the customer experience. Gyms are lacklustre facilities + equipment. In contrast, Beyond combines a talented, caring set of trainers with a members-first approach to deliver the utmost in friendliness and bespoke customer service. Everything is done intentionally, from the scent and lighting to the minimalist design that helps people de-clutter their minds.
“Where obesity was once seen as a sign of affluence, good health is now seen as wealth in Nigeria”
We’ve approached things from a hospitality mindset, placing a huge focus on training our team – something that certainly marks us apart – and obsessing over details. In our locker rooms, for example, we’ve recognised how important haircare is to African women and provided spa-like showers and a fully stocked blow dry/braiding bar with everything they need to go straight to work after class.
To prioritise the human experience, we’ve also included generous social gathering areas, relaxed seating, an energy bar and an outdoor swimming pool. Lagos is a high-pressure city, so Beyond provides a third space where people can press ‘pause’ and connect with like-minded individuals.
Is Nigeria ready for boutique fitness?
There’s a real need for spaces like ours. Other than going to the beach or out for dinner, there really isn’t much to do in Nigeria and people are bored with the mundane. They’re willing to spend money on the feelgood experiences we offer at Beyond.
We charge around US$18 a class, or around US$125 a month for membership, but we deliver a service that meets global standards and people see the value in it.
Also, where obesity was once seen as a sign of affluence, good health is now seen as wealth in Nigeria. Consumers seeking luxury and status are willing to pay a premium for a boutique studio offering impeccable service.
We have had to do a bit of awareness and grassroots marketing to introduce the new concept, but the moment someone walks through our doors they get it – and they tell their friends. Our conversion rate is extremely high, and it’s exciting to see people discover boutique fitness for the very first time.
How challenging has the journey been?
There have been many points where I genuinely felt it wasn’t going to happen.
The first obstacle was securing funding. I set out to raise US$500k and was lulled into a false sense of security when I quickly raised US$150k from my former colleagues and bosses. With their encouragement I decided to push on, not really knowing what I was getting myself into!
“There’s a huge talent gap in the Nigerian fitness sector. The prevailing belief is that you don’t really need any qualifications so long as you look the part.”
I found two investors for the remaining US$350k, but on the day we were meant to sign the term sheet, I had just found out I was pregnant and decided to be honest about it. They walked away.
I started having doubts, but my faith in God anchored me and I decided pregnancy wasn’t going to stop my ambitions. It did delay fundraising until 2019, however – and then along came COVID, everything started taking much longer and I ultimately needed to raise US$750k. We got there in the end, though!
How did you handle COVID disruption?
COVID hit when we were mid-construction, so we ended up launching digitally first, renting out our 30 bikes, offering Zoom sessions and building a digital platform for stretch, strength and cycling workouts. That income sustained salaries for the whole of 2020, which was critical as it allowed us to focus our funds on completing the build.
We actually got a lot of attention from overseas during COVID, too. Nigeria has some Grammy award-winning Afrobeats artists and we play a mix of local and global music at Beyond, so we got a lot of interest from the African diaspora. That opened my eyes to how we can eventually scale the business globally.
At a personal level, the transition to motherhood really helped me during COVID. I always used to be a control freak, but my daughter has taught me that control is just an illusion: you have to let go and surrender. Learning how to do that helped me mentally navigate the craziness of COVID.
Has Nigeria itself presented challenges?
Even though I grew up in Nigeria, it was a real culture shock coming back. In the UK, there was a reliable infrastructure. Now, in Nigeria – if I wanted to guarantee an exceptional customer experience – I realised I was going to have to build everything myself, from a water treatment plant to drainage to solar panels for a back-up power supply.
“It’s so hard to do something excellent here in Nigeria that most people don’t even bother trying. But for that same reason, there are gaps and opportunities.”
Then came the training requirement. It’s fun to empower people, but they have to be ready for it and there’s a huge talent gap in the Nigerian fitness sector. The prevailing belief is that you don’t really need any qualifications so long as you look the part. I clearly don’t agree, so I’m putting my whole team through a rigorous training programme. That will continue moving forward, too: whenever we take on a new instructor, it will be about three months before they’re ready to teach.
Then there are the challenges around being a woman trying to do business in Nigeria. You’re so often overlooked and underestimated. I’ve never been phased by being a minority, though: I’ve had to be mentally and emotionally resilient throughout my professional life. So I dug deep, stood firm and got back to speaking Yoruba so I could deal with people in their own language.
On top of this, we’ve had an economic downturn in Nigeria: our currency devalued by 18 per cent in six months. That clearly brings challenges when you’re working with overseas vendors, and even more so with the current COVID supply chain issues.
I’ve also had to be intentional about doing things the right way and leading with integrity; in Nigeria, doing things the right way is sometimes more difficult than taking shortcuts. These are also shaky times when it comes to freedom of speech and protests, so we’ve had to think a lot about security at the club – and during recent protests, we even had to work out how to support team members who were unable to leave their homes or who were stuck on the premises.
“I see this as an African business, not a Nigerian business, and I’d like to spread the currency risk as soon as possible. Our next location could therefore be outside of Nigeria.”
The sheer amount of mental resilience it’s taken has probably been the biggest surprise for me throughout this whole process. Transitioning to entrepreneurship, motherhood and a new country all at the same time has been hugely challenging.
The best way I can describe it: it’s so hard to do something excellent here in Nigeria that most people don’t even bother trying. But for that same reason, there are gaps and opportunities.
How is Beyond performing so far?
We opened in September 2021 and the 87 local customers who had rented our bikes during lockdown were the first to join, bringing their friends with them.
We’ve already reached 495 visits a month, and that’s without any marketing and with just three classes a day, Monday to Saturday, across our cycling and low-impact studios only; we’ll launch the strength studio in Q2 2022.
Given there are 20 million people living in Lagos, I’m confident we’ll hit our target of 1,500 monthly visits once COVID fears start to subside – and especially once we start to expand our timetable. We currently have three instructors, including myself, but we’re auditioning more with a view to having six full-time instructors by February, and up to eight once all three studios are at full speed. At that point, I expect to be offering six to eight classes a day, including Sundays.
My aim is to reach profitability on this first site as soon as possible.
And after that?
I’m so grateful to have come this far, and have to credit the amazing support I’ve had from my husband, family, mentors, investors and the amazing Beyond team. But it’s just the beginning.
I have an open mind in terms of growth plans, but I do see this as an African business, not a Nigerian business, and I’d like to spread the currency risk as soon as possible – something that’s always a factor when running a business in Africa.
Our next location could therefore be outside of Nigeria – most likely in Accra, Ghana – and I plan to start looking for it in early 2023. I would also like to open in Nairobi, Cape Town and Johannesburg, and I believe there’s scope for more Beyond Fitness studios in Nigeria too. It’s about finding pockets of professional class people, with the right per capita income, who value boutique fitness. It’s also about finding the right local partners with the same values and passion as us.
This first club is our flagship – the place where we experiment, learn what people really want and make sure we can do it really well before we launch – but I see the model being nuanced for each new market. We need to be nimble enough to pivot locally, and that includes future locations potentially having only one or two exercise rooms.
Alongside the physical clubs, I also want to expand our Academy. There isn’t a body that’s really doing this in Africa – we’re already the leaders – so I’m looking to scale it up to deliver training and certifications across Africa. I want to empower others to take fitness seriously.
And then finally, I see great potential to harness digital not only for an online class offering, but to create strong sales channels for our merchandise, bodycare products and healthy snacks outside of the physical space.
What drives you personally?
I want to bring joy to others, drawing on my experience and my love for wellness to deliver happiness and enhance people’s lifestyles.
My daughter is also an inspiration to me, fuelling my passion. I know that me showing up as my best self is important to her becoming her best self. Being a mother has given me even more drive to really go after things and remind myself that limitations are self-imposed. If you believe in yourself, you can do anything.
And finally, I believe in building a better Nigeria. In Africa, the impact of a well thought-out business is exponential, from creating revenue streams for lower income households to inspiring others to be the change they want to see.
I believe it’s time for returnees like me to come in and make a difference. Because if not us, then who?
Building from the future, backwards
We speak to Barbara Chancey, Beyond’s studio designer
How did you approach this design brief?
Developing a personal relationship with Simi to understand her core values was the catalyst for this bold brand that stands for something much deeper than fitness. Simi believes in welcoming people graciously and maximising their potential. She exudes curiosity and grit, and her boundless positive energy is infused into every aspect of the studio.
Any favourite design elements?
One of my favourite features is the wall-mounted, modular retail system – a timeless approach to function and beauty that showcases Beyond’s wide assortment of clothing, shoes and accessories. I also love the small social niches nestled throughout the studio to encourage human interaction.
What was it like working on the project?
From welcoming the birth of Simi’s daughter to laughing with the general contractor on weekly Zoom calls, this project was far more than building a fitness studio. It’s been a highlight of my life.
Simi is a trailblazer with a brilliant mind who keeps moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things. Her business acumen and executional skills are exceptional, with a level of professionalism we rarely see.
What’s special about Beyond?
The true measure of a space is how it makes you feel, and Beyond has a ‘secret mission’ of sorts: it’s there to ignite dreams and aspirations, to wake people and make an impact.
Simi’s vision and mission for Beyond is all about the future. It was built backwards, starting with a future idea of what can be and setting out to fill the gaps between this vision for Nigeria and what exists today. This is vitally relevant brand, with Simi’s mantra – Work Hard, Love Harder – a constant reminder of her purpose and passion to make her corner of the world a little better.