Joe Wicks: Social Entrepreneur
Joe Wicks is a bundle of energy. The self-styled "body coach", celebrity personal-trainer-cum-chef and, more recently, author and TV star tries almost every trick in the book to avoid sitting down and starting our interview. There's a tour of the office, complete with its running track down the middle; a look at the gym where he films his workouts; and even a trip to the impressive kitchen area which would be familiar to his army of Instagram, Twitter and YouTube fans (his Instagram tally stands at an impressive 1.5 million at the time of writing and his fans on all three channels are growing all the time) from his cooking videos.
It's a theme that has been familiar throughout his life, and one that he admits has held him back at times. "I messed about a bit at school," he says. "I always had potential but I definitely didn't apply myself as much as I could have. I loved sport and all the active stuff, but I wasn't very focused in the classroom. I just wanted to get out and go and run."
The original career plan was to work as a PE teacher - he went on to study sports science - but an underwhelming stint of work experience made him think again. Teaching was out, personal training was in, running individual sessions and boot camps in Richmond Park and Surbiton, often before clients would go to work. "I had about 10 clients and I was making maybe £3,000 a month, and driving a Citroen Berlingo," he says.
The business model, such as it was, worked for a good three years, but two years ago Wicks found himself stumbling into another world - initially entirely based around social media - that would propel him into the stratospheric realm in which he operates today (he now employs 45 people, and there's space in the office for a further 50).
"At first I was just posting out a few motivational things and a few recipes on Twitter," he says. "I didn't set out to create a social media business but off the back of that it started to build momentum, and I had all these people asking questions about diet. I thought I could create a digital product."
The result was the Lean in 15 concept, based on the idea that people could create healthy meals in less than 15 minutes (in a 15-second video) which, combined with his trademark HIT (high intensity training, in case you were wondering) exercise sessions, he is adamant can help people achieve their goal of losing weight but in a sustainable and long-term way. "Most diets are based on a calorie deficit, to burn body fat, but don't really focus on the exercise," he says.
"They drop the calories super-low initially and you'll lose weight but we all know it stops. The whole plan is based around a higher calorie intake to fuel the body but the timing is also important. So on training days the macronutrients - so by that I mean the fats, proteins and carbohydrates - are different to when you're on a rest day, so it's just giving your body the right energy source at the right time. The first thing you'll read on the testimonials is people saying they can't believe how much food they're eating; it's a real sense of relief for people because they think they can stick to it."
The challenge with many social media businesses is just how to turn content into revenue; something Wicks has been able to do through selling his 90-day SSS plans (the SSS stands for shift, shape and sustain) offering tailored training and meal regimes for a one-off fee of £147. "Initially I just thought if I could sell a few plans than it would take the pressure off me and I wouldn't have to do so many PT sessions at 6am or bootcamps in the winter," he recalls. "But eventually it started to tip over; suddenly 10 sign-ups a day became 20, and 20 became 100."
An appearance on Channel 4's Sunday Brunch programme saw a further increase, with as many as 500 people a day signing up. There's also a 30-day plan which those who have completed the 90-day programme can sign up to, but the idea is to create new customers through word of mouth rather than keep existing ones. "People normally do three to four months and then cancel their Direct Debit and go their own way because they have reached their goal or they are independent enough, which is what we want," he says. "I don't want to keep them for ever; I want to transform them and then I want them to tell their mum or dad."
Once the business took off, Wicks quickly realised he had created something of a monster. "There was a point where I was doing all the email, all the social media, and the personal training and the bootcamps," he recalls. "The first thing to go was the personal training, and then the bootcamps, because my income was coming in from other areas. Then I thought I needed some "heroes" - support staff - so I grew that but again I didn't really plan on it being such a big thing. But if you sell one transformation then 10 of their friends want to do it." His "heroes" are there to advise and reassure customers, he says, largely through responding to emails, and have all been through the 90-plan themselves.
To date, the business is largely confined to the UK, and has sold around 125,000 plans; around 75% of which have been to women. Its first year of trading saw a turnover of £1.3 million, which grew dramatically to £12 million in the second year. Much of this is as a result of his increasing exposure, both through his own social media activities but more recently through his books and TV work.
First, the books; of which three are already out - the first became the fastest selling cookbook of all time in the UK, shifting more than 500,000 copies in 10 weeks, and is now the third best-selling cookery title ever with over a million copies sold - and he's already agreed to do another three, with a further two also on the agenda. "Three books in the space of a year is insane but we had the idea of the shift, the shape and the sustain, so we take the 90-day plan and put it into books," he says. "It's a really quick way of getting the books out and means people will really engage and want the next chapter, so they buy the next book."
As well as the income from the plans and the books, the business makes money through advertising click-throughs on YouTube and product endorsements, such as his famous use of Lucy Bee coconut oil - a commercial arrangement only came after seeing the impact he had on that business, he says - or Uncle Ben's, and adverts for Fitness First. "They're just nice bonuses but I don't do too much of them because I want to keep it about the business," he says.
Then there's the TV. The August Bank Holiday weekend saw a one-off pilot show on Channel 4 of Joe Wicks: The Body Coach, which pulled in over 1 million viewers. "Channel 4 said viewing figures were 50% up on normal for that time of day on a Bank Holiday, so to pull a million people in on a sunny day like that is pretty decent," he admits.
In fact, the success of the show has challenged to a degree Wicks's belief that social media is what really counts. Sales of the plan hit 600 that day, and brought in £250,000 over the following week, as well as shifting 50,000 books. Channel 4 are interested in signing him exclusively, he says, but he's also toying with the idea of setting up his own production company, in the same way as Jamie Oliver has. "I think I need to get a regular TV show because it's had such an amazing impact on the brand and the sale of the books," he says. "But I'm not sure what we're going to do yet." He's also got a DVD, Joe Wicks: Lean in 15, due out in time for Christmas, produced by BBC Worldwide.
One concrete ambition is to take the business international. To date, Wicks estimates there are people using the plan in most countries, but the base remains the UK, as well as the US and Ireland. "The potential is huge, I just need to get myself out there," he says. "My book has been translated into 18 different languages so that will hopefully get it out there a bit but international TV - having a show that is aired in every country in the world - would be amazing.
"But the timing has to be right," he adds. "I went to America and did a little book tour but the book has done nowhere near as well as here, because I'm not really known there. I've probably got another good year in the UK to really become well known and get the DVDs out, and I'll then go to America and replicate what I've done here. If I had a TV show that was licensed to Fox and had lots of different channels around the world, then there's no reason why 3,000 or 4,000 people a day wouldn't sign up to the plan. That's my vision; big numbers like that."
For now, though, his focus is on continuing to build his profile in the UK. "I'm basically a full-time creative content machine," he says. "I come in and I do five Lean in 15s, I do a YouTube video and I do a Facebook Live, because we're now in partnership with Facebook. That is more like a testing phase but they will hopefully eventually roll that out. With YouTube I'm growing my own channel and keeping on doing the videos, but my only real objective is to keep doing the social media and the content, because that's the bread and butter which drives traffic to my website."
If Wicks's effortless charm gives out the impression that his rise has been relatively painless, there are a couple of times when he hints that it has not all been plain sailing. "The hardest part was probably at the beginning when no one knew what I was doing and people thought I was just being anti-social," he says. "But I was being social online, to create a following, and I worked so hard and I knew what I was doing. It was a couple of years of burying my face in a phone but it's paid off." He admits, though, that his early efforts - "I was literally this obsessive guy on my phone" - did have an impact on his relationships with friends and family, although he claims he's now able to "switch off and put it down for a few hours".
But he's keen to stress, too, the need to take the time to build up a social media following. "You need to treat that as if it were a client because if you get busy on social media then you grow," he says. "But don't expect to have an account and start selling products. I posted 20,000 Tweets and 1,000 videos before I tried to make a penny over social media. You can't just sell, sell, sell; you have to build the trust over a long period of time. I drew my audience in with a lot of free content, so give that out, have a really good database collection and be consistent with it. And when people think you're mad, just keep doing it because the more noise you make the louder you will be heard."
Finding staff - sorry, heroes - has also been a challenge. "You need to find mini-ambassadors for what you do," he says. "That's why I could never expand my bootcamp business. Even though I had the clients, I could never find a trainer who wanted to get up in the morning. They wanted to start at 10am or they didn't want to work in the winter. It's that thing of finding people who are as hard working as you are and as passionate as you are." But he's been able to retain his staff for around 18 months now, he says; something he realises is not easy in what is essentially a customer support role. "We make things so fun here that people will stay," he says, confidently. "They love it."
Yet there's no doubt that this whole venture remains very much his business, despite his army of heroes alongside him, and he's quick to dismiss any suggestion that he might get sidetracked by his increasing prominence in the media. "I'm too passionate about the business to ever just walk away, and I can't because I am the body coach, so I'm the face of it and I have to do the content," he says. "I'm a cross between a chef and a trainer and that's why the market is huge, because everyone wants to lose weight and get lean. I've just come at the right time, with the right message and in the right way."
His passion, though, isn't just for wealth. Wicks is also driven by a genuine desire to help people become healthier, although there's no doubt he also revels in his newfound fame. "Somewhere around the world at any one point people are signing up to diet plans and doing all the things that I know aren't the long-term solution," he says. "Personally I believe I will be a figure in the media that is really on a mission for ever. I'm still going to be doing my Lean in 15, getting people cooking, working with schools, working with the government and the NHS. I'm going to be a nuisance who gets people exercising and eating well, and be internationally known for it."
Post Date: December 12th, 2016