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How to work out in live classes with actors and models, sort of

Wish you could work out with celebrities? Be a fly on the floor of one of those high-priced, high-caliber, one-of-a-kind, exclusive fitness studios that don't exist in your world or your wallet?

Well, one woman is making a big bet on your wishes and hoping to cash in on your jealousy.

Forte is a technology start-up that is putting tiny cameras in the corners of elite studios, mostly in lower Manhattan, which has become something of a "boutique" fitness district. The cameras are streaming the classes, live, over Forte's subscriber website.

The workouts then go on demand, so there are dozens of classes to choose from at any given time. From kickboxing to yoga, the offerings are already varied.

Forte Fitness
Diana Olick | CNBC
Forte Fitness

So far a handful of studios have signed on, but CEO Lauren Foundos, a former all-American in field hockey, hopes ultimately to hit 50 live studios worldwide in the next few years.

"We're doing a blend of one-off places as well as some with recognition," she said, pointing to Exhale, one of her biggest partners.

Foundos, 32, a former Wall Street bond broker now clad in black yoga pants and boxing sneakers, came up with the idea because she lived and worked amid a multitude of unique fitness studios. Instead of taking her clients to dinner, she'd take them to classes.

"I started to realize the power of these studios," Foundos said.

But getting the first few to sign on was not easy.

"Initially, when I started talking to studios about two years ago, there was a little bit of a pushback to fill the actual classes, but some people were forward thinking and into it," she said.

Aerospace, a high-intensity boxing studio on West 27th Street, was one of the swankiest to sign on. Its client roster boasts the likes of Hugh Jackman and Victoria's Secret model Adriana Lima. Aerospace co-founder Michael Olajide Jr. is a former championship boxer and was once ranked No. 1 middleweight contender in the world. He turned his expertise into an expert workout and intends to use Forte to extend his brand.

"I think the exposure to the Aero brand and what we do is, for us, No. 1," said Olajide. "For somebody over in Dubai to say, 'I do this Aero jump, Aero Box and it's incredible,' then we have somebody over in Malaysia saying, 'We do it.' They are taking it to a different level."

The subscription model is simple. Anyone can join the website and pick unlimited classes for $39 a month or $288 a year. Forte is running an "early adopter" rate now for $99 a year. The studios get a cut of the fees, depending on how many people click on their workouts. If a studio is not generating web traffic, Foundos said she would not hesitate to take them off the site.

"We're partnering with the best guys that already have loyal communities, that have already built good brands," said Foundos, who initially self-funded the project.

"The last eight investors came to us. People kind of see where we're going with this. We've closed our seed round which is over seven figures," she added.

But the work is yet to come. After a test run with about 1,500 nonpaying subscribers, the site and the classes will now come under scrutiny from paying customers. There is already plenty of competition in this space from big names like Gaia, Daily Burn and Beachbody. Those workouts, however, are produced and scripted — not regular, live, hourly classes from studios.

"That's the beauty of what we want to see, right? This live, raw, unedited footage. We want to see the person who doesn't do one pushup the entire time, we want to see the two friends talking. If something really wacky happens in a live class, then it just doesn't have to go on demand, but ultimately that's the beauty part of it. If you were here, that's what you would see," said Foundos.

In that sense, it has the danger, or perhaps the benefit, of becoming more of a reality show and less of a workout. As for the people in class, not everyone wants his or her sweat streaming over the internet, so each studio has a so-called dead zone where cameras can't see you. That may be where the models and actors work out.


And not every studio format fits for Forte. One popular boutique studio, the Fhitting Room, which has three locations in Manhattan, would not translate well to home exercisers.

"Our classes utilize such a wide variety of equipment, which varies daily. It's hard to imagine a sizable audience of potential users who would have rowing machines, ski ergs, assault bikes, battle ropes, plyo boxes, suspension trainers, etc. at their disposal," said Kari Saitowitz, founder and CEO of the Fhitting Room.

"Those who stream workouts while in a big-box gym would have access to some of the more mainstream equipment like dumbbells, kettlebells and medicine balls, but I think most users would be discouraged by not having the equipment or space our workouts call for."

That said, Saitowitz, who has talked with Foundos, sees that the fitness business is streaming fast. She is considering tailoring a specific floor workout for at-home users. She recently launched goFHIX, a page on the studio's website with do-it anywhere body-weight workouts.

"We have toyed with the idea of paid-for, longer format on-demand fitness videos, but have not yet found an ideal solution," she added.


No question, the workout space is getting exponentially larger — in studios, online and in business — and technology is leading the class. Forte will partner with wearable companies, allowing users to track their fitness and see where they rank in each workout. It is also testing 360 videos that ultimately could have interactive cameras.

For now, it's all about attracting someone in a basement in Boise, Idaho, to a boxing master in Manhattan's meatpacking district.

"These places get national press already, as is, and they're saying, 'Jennifer Aniston goes to this great workout.' Well, great, how am I going to go there? Now you finally have access to those places," said Foundos, bouncing from foot to foot in her black sneakers.