Jhon Matos was already at work by the time I arrived at Liteboxer’s office in the Seaport District. From outside the door, I could hear Matos punching something and counting out combinations: “one, two . . . one, two, three.” Matos was inside a makeshift studioset up in a corner of the office, with streaks of horizontal turquoise lights affixed to a black wall to resemble the ropes around a boxing ring.
Matos is a boxing coach from Miami, and he was helping Liteboxer create videos for a new product that might best be thought of as a digital punching bag — or perhaps a cross between a Peloton bike and the videogame “Dance Dance Revolution.”
“We’ve been pretty stealthy,” says Todd Dagres, Liteboxer’s founder, “but we’ve been at this a couple years.” This week, the company is taking the wraps off the Liteboxer; it will start shipping in August.
It’s an interesting moment to launch something new in what is referred to as the “connected fitness” arena. With many gyms around the country shut down — or customers wary of returning because of coronavirus risks — companies like Peloton are on a tear. The Manhattan maker of stationary bikes with Internet-connected screens said in May that its quarterly revenues were up 66 percent. Hydrow, a Cambridge startup that sells an Internet-linked rowing machine, has been setting sales records this year, and in June, Lululemon paid $500 million for Mirror, a New York startup that offers a large digital display that streams exercise classes.
But Liteboxer will also be introducing a new product at a time when it’s difficult for people to try it out in person before they buy it. And it’s not cheap ― $1,495, plus $30 a month for access to video coaching sessions like the one Matos was filming.
Dagres has spent the last quarter-century investing in other people’s startups, as a venture capitalist at Battery Ventures and Spark Capital, a firm he cofounded in 2005. One of his biggest hits is Akamai Technologies, the publicly traded Cambridge company that helps speed the delivery of content over the Internet. In one memorable year in the dot-com era, Dagres earned $43 million, according to court filings.
“I had some amazing highs, and a few lows, but I secretly always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Dagres says. “I wanted to start a company and build a product that millions of people would use. And I also wanted to have a patent.” He’s stepping back from making new investments at Spark to focus on Liteboxer.
Several years back, Dagres took up boxing as a hobby. “It was a really efficient way to exercise and relieve stress,” he says. He bought a heavy bag for his workouts. “But it was boring and tedious to punch a bag,” he says, “and if you don’t hit it right, you can do some damage.”
Dagres started out thinking that he might add some lights and sensors to a heavy bag, to make the workout more engaging. In 2017, Dagres got introduced to Jeff Morin, an MIT-trained mechanical engineer — and certified personal trainer. (Morin now serves as the company’s chief executive.) Initially, they aimed for a price tag under $500. But they began to move away from the idea of adding sensors to a heavy bag — “people don’t want a 300-pound thing filled with sand in their house,” Dagres says. And the product “got more sophisticated,” he says. “We wanted it to be an interactive experience — like having a sparring partner.” The product’s design was also important to Dagres. “I wanted it to be cool,” he says. “If you saw this in a gym on a spaceship during an ‘Alien’ movie, it would fit right in.”
The Liteboxer does look like it could land a role as a sentry robot in a sci-fi movie. It has an adjustable stand, an “abdomen” where you can practice your uppercuts, and a “chest” with six lighted pads for practicing jabs and hooks. Each circular pad on the Liteboxer illuminates to show that you’ve landed a punch properly. (The system can measure accuracy and force.) You place your own iPad or smartphone on the stand, so you can get tips from short videos before trying a sequence — and get a score for your workout. Workouts are paired with music, and can be as short as a single song or as long as 45 minutes.
“A fitness product is useless unless it’s habitual,” Dagres says. Part of the motivation comes from beating your last score, or moving up the leaderboard, which is made up of other Liteboxer owners’ results. Building a relationship with a particular trainer whose videos you like can help create consistency, he says, “and we also used the psychology of slot machines, with sounds and lights and small rewards, to create layers of motivation to get you to do it over and over again.”
The company has signed up trainers such as Matos and Leyon Azubuike, who runs the Gloveworx boxing studios, to create videos for its system. Azubuike, who has appeared on several reality shows. including NBC’s “Strong,” says, “This is a way for me to train people who aren’t only in LA or New York, but anywhere in the world.”
Dagres funded the early days of Liteboxer’s development himself. But in June, the company raised $6 million from outside investors, including Boston’s Will Ventures.
Will Ventures’ managing director, former NFL linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski, says he was “just blown away” the first time he tried Liteboxer last September. He and two colleagues spent about 45 minutes using the system. “You can tell how thoughtful they are not only around the industrial design, but the interface and the experience itself,” Kacyvenski says. “It was one of the best demos, hands-down, that we’ve ever tried.” He says that after one of his colleagues tried it, he wanted to try to top her score: “They’re making the workout fun and competitive.”
But Kacyvenski acknowledges that prospective buyers may also want to test out the system before they shell out $1,495. And it’s far from clear where you do that in 2020. There are no fitness expos and few community festivals this summer at which you could set up a booth and show Liteboxer to customers. Foot traffic in malls is down dramatically. Mirror and Peloton both set up brick-and-mortar stores to do demos, but that isn’t part of the plan for Liteboxer, says chief marketing officer Scarlet Batchelor. Instead, it will attempt to leverage fitness trainers and coaches who have large social media followings to build awareness of the product. Even with the product’s early adopters ― assuming they want to help spread the word ― there’s the question of how many people they might entertain inside their homes over the next year. With all of the uncertainty around the coronavirus, would you invite a guest to put on your boxing gloves and give it a whirl?
This has been a banner year for home-based fitness systems. But Liteboxer may need to last a few rounds to figure out a sales model that works in these strange times.