This article is part of a series showcasing the winners of VentureBeat’s Concept to Reality Contest.
Joe Vennare was going to teach high school social studies. His brother Anthony was preparing to head overseas with the Marines. They had no idea that in less than 3 years, they’d be partners in a rapidly-growing fitness company with an online twist.
As the owners of Kettlebell Cardio — and offshoots Hybrid Athlete and Race Day Domination — Joe (on the right in the picture above) and Anthony (on the left) have spent almost every waking hour of the last few years building their business from scratch and turning it into something truly unique.
For those not familiar with kettlebells, they are small to medium-sized weights shaped like cannonballs with handles attached. Lifting, swinging and doing a variety of motions with them for resistance is a very effective way to get in shape fast — but has usually been the domain of experienced and serious weightlifters.
The Kettlebell Cardio program scales these exercises down, removes risky movements, and packages them for group exercise classes. Today, Joe and Anthony license other fitness studios to use their workouts, have created a huge catalogue of videos, speak at conferences across the country, and preside over a thriving online community of exercise enthusiasts.
So how did an aspiring history teacher and Marine get here? In Joe’s words, “Life happened.” Their father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
The Vennare family is tight knit, and as soon as they heard the news, both sons dropped their plans and moved home to Pittsburgh to join their mother as round-the-clock caretakers — and spend what time they could with their dad.
“When you have the chance to talk to a loved one who knows their days are numbered, you can talk to them about what they did or didn’t do and why,” says Joe. “There were things he had always wanted to do that he never did, and we could tell that had really stuck with him.”
After their father’s passing, the Vennares stayed committed to helping their mother cope, and knew they couldn’t go back to their prior career paths. They wanted to do something meaningful — to seize the opportunity to start fresh, rebuild and do work they could believe in.
“We said you know what, our dad worked his entire life so that we could do whatever we wanted — let’s make it worthwhile,” Joe says. “Hitting rock bottom sucked, but a lot of people never realize they can only go up from there — our goal was to do it in the best way possible.”
The answer wasn’t too hard to find. Both Joe and Anthony had played football in High School, and Joe had gone on to play in college. Athletics and fitness were core to their experience growing up, and they had gotten certified to teach workouts. During their father’s illness, they both taught increasingly popular kettlebell classes of their own design at the local YMCA for extra money (the gym had to start charging a premium). The universe seemed to be telling them something.
But Joe wasn’t easily convinced. As the more deliberate, reason-driven of the pair, he wasn’t sure they could build a viable fitness business. But Anthony, described by Joe as ambitious but also more than a little impulsive, was very convincing.
“I was like, woah, wait, we need a business plan and a lawyer, and how much is this going to cost…” Joe says. “But Anthony told me I could be a regular guy with a bunch of cool ideas and never do anything — or we could go at this 100% together.”
Anthony also made a handshake deal on a Thursday to lease a 12,000 square-foot former indoor skate park. His plan: to turn it into a workout studio by the following Monday. Joe didn’t have much of a choice. In three days, they cleared out all the skate ramps, painted the whole facility, and had it ready to go in time for their first morning class. When the doors opened, people were ready and waiting.
“By that point, we were both teaching group classes at a few YMCAs and doing in-home personal training, so we had some good word of mouth,” Joe says. “I still thought it was a terrible idea, but then we saw our membership growing from 20 to 30 to 50 to 100, then to 200 members coming through the door. That’s when I began thinking ‘this is real.’”
Class sizes swelled to 30 or 40, requiring two instructors to be on the floor. The boys knew they had a hit and they wanted to do more. Ever the out-of-the-box thinker, Anthony suggested that they branch online. Branding themselves as industry experts, Joe began writing for a number of fitness blogs and speaking at workshops while Anthony set up a website with their first instructional videos and some products to sell.
Today, the brothers have posted over 150 videos available for free, registering downloads in more than 17 countries. And Joe is the face of Kettlebell, Hybrid Athlete and Race Day Domination, dispensing advice and tips to thousands of followers through multiple channels on Twitter, Facebook — and even Pinterest.
“I really like connecting with people, and we wanted to be the complete opposite of traditional fitness,” says Joe of their online expansion. “The culture of lifting can be so intimidating — we want people to know we’re real people. We could have been a local hometown business but we wanted something bigger. Focusing on online totally transformed what we were doing.”
This became such a big part of the vision that the brothers gave up their lease on the studio and have thrown their energy into teaching fitness instructors how to lead their own classes. The idea is to use Kettlebell Cardio’s brand to certify other facilities, which will help get the name out there even more.
“Right now, 15 studios license our name and our program — mostly in the Pennsylvania, tri-state area, but we’ve made a huge push in the last six months to grow beyond that,” says Joe. “By the end of the summer, we’re on track to double the number of studios. Everything we make, we put back in and now it’s starting to pay dividends.”
While the Vennare brothers have never taken outside funds, having “bootstrapped to the max,” according to Joe, they’re now poised for investment to scale their hard work. In five years, they hope to have 300 certified facilities and at least 500 instructors trained in their trademarked program.
But no matter what happens, they have achieved the goal they had from the start: doing meaningful work.
“We hear things like ‘you changed my life’ or ‘you changed my energy, how I interact with my family, how I do my job,’ ‘everything is different,’” says Joe. “That’s our experience every single day, and we start to see how we have helped people improve their health, outlook, attitude. People tell us they never thought they could do it, but now they can because of us. It’s amazing.”
We’ll be profiling two more companies in the coming weeks. Want your company to be next? Enter the Concept to Reality contest below:
[Images courtesy of Kettlebell Cardio and Men's Fitness]