December 20, 2018 • By Christine Byrd
The conversation started in Richard Chandler’s entrepreneurship class. Alton Chislom, MBA ’15, and Julian Clarke, MBA ’16, were students at the time, and had both developed fashion-related startup ideas separately. But fitness, not fashion, was their true passion.
Chislom was often looking for friends to play pick-up basketball games, and as a former Air Force squad fitness leader, Clarke was always getting asked by friends and family to provide fitness training. Why not leverage the power of digital technology to help themselves, and others, work out together, they wondered?
So they created VersaFit, an app that allows users to connect any time, anywhere, and get active — doing yoga, playing soccer, or joining a game of frisbee. The idea was powerful enough to be featured on Inc.com and CNBC, drawing significant attention. And with the surge of success, came overwhelming amounts of traffic to the new app.
In March 2018, after rebuilding the app to sustain more users, Chislom and Clarke relaunched with more than two thousand fitness lovers signed up and sponsors including Big Five, KIND and KeVita.
Clarke and Chislom credit UCI and The Paul Merage School of Business with giving them theknowledge and resources to get their venture off the ground. In addition to the Merage School’s faculty providing expertise and advice, the students tapped into the UCI ANTrepreneur Center and The Cove @ UCI Applied Innovation.
They got their feet wet at the ANTrepreneur Center, which helped Clarke and Chislom apply to Inc.com’s “Coolest College Startups” competition, giving them their initial publicity boost.
At the Cove, the students benefited from mentorship by experienced entrepreneurs and advice from investors. Mentors helped Clarke and Chislom focus their idea, develop a business plan, build detailed financial projections, and gave them ample opportunities to practice pitching their idea to potential funders. All of it has paid off.
“The individuals at the Cove really helped us by playing devil’s advocate and ensuring that we’ve thought through and addressed many of the challenges we’re going to face,” says Clarke.
Clarke and Chislom harbor no illusions about how hard launching a startup can be. Following their initial success, they have continued adapting and evolving their business plan based on lessons learned through their own experience, and the experiences of others. Similar apps, including one from Nike and another created by the former CEO of Twitter, recently shut down.
“In some ways, we’re trying to change human behavior with this app, and despite our initial success, we know that it will be hard to do so at scale,” says Chislom. The app’s target demographic is people between 18 to 35 years old who are already into fitness and looking for motivational support and friends to work out with.
As they gear up for 2019, the pair plan to pivot and focus more on B2B opportunities, looking at large health-conscious businesses and tailoring VersaFit to help companies empower their employees to get and stay fit, together.
Chislom, who grew up in Lancaster, California, and attended UCI for his bachelor’s in informatics, worked as a business analyst for several years, but he always knew he wanted to be the one making business deals, not just implementing them. The desire to start his own business drew him to seek an MBA, and he choose the Merage School specifically because of the opportunity to build on his technical skills with a specialization in IT management.
The decision paid off. “I learned to speak the language of business,” says Chislom. “But more importantly, every week, there would be an event at UCI where students could hear an entrepreneur talk about their business and their path. I knew even then that starting a business is where I wanted to go long term. A desk job was a short term fix.”
For Clarke, who served in the Air Force before enrolling in his MBA, the resources available to entrepreneurs were a major draw to the Merage School. This included the classes on entrepreneurship and the business plan competition — where Chislom and Clarke first met, each pitching their fashion start-up ideas.
Chislom now focuses full time on VersaFit and sports consulting work. He recently pitched at the prestigious New York Venture Summit. Meanwhile, Clarke balances a full-time job managing contracts at Raytheon with earning a master’s degree from USC, while also pushing VersaFit forward.The founders have already poured more than $250,000 of their own funding into VersaFit, and they are in it for the long haul. “It’s a pretty heavy investment,” admits Chislom. “I would do it all over again, though. I’ve learned a lot and met a lot of good people.”