Founder story

VAHA is revolutionizing the fitness industry by putting user psychology first

Lady is smiling and giving pose

Common wisdom might warn us against being a jack of all trades, but Valerie Bures-Bönström, founder and CEO of AI-powered interactive sports mirror brand VAHA might disagree. A formidable entrepreneur and one of Germany’s best-known founders, Valerie has spent over a decade becoming an expert at making fitness products that sell—something she learned by doing a lot of everything.

A computer scientist by training, Valerie found her calling at the intersection of tech, business and psychology. When her ex-husband asked her to run Mrs Sporty, a women’s fitness chain, over a decade ago, she welcomed the opportunity to use her experience as a woman to create value for other women in a saturated market. Although there were already 8000 fitness clubs, Valerie was excited to develop one very specific to the needs of women. “It gave me the chance to get into the psychology side of business, because fitness clubs are all about sales,” she remembers” so understanding the needs of a woman by giving them a great customer journey and bringing them towards their goals was a beautiful thing to do.”

It’s hard to imagine that Valerie has any skill gaps–but she says that the Google for Startups Immersion: Women Founders program was instrumental in helping her reach customers digitally. Valerie’s biggest takeaway was one-on-one mentorship on how to use Google tools, such as Firebase, for online sales. She says it was a gamechanger for VAHA because her sales experience had always been limited to the offline realm. “For me, it was amazing to learn that to sell something online, it's not only a question of design and text and channels, but also about using the data you have and then finding the right tools.” Even if she wanted to find someone to manage VAHA’s online sales, she says, she wouldn’t have known what to look for. Valerie called the program “an amazing crash course, exactly the right education exactly when I needed it.”

The training Valerie got from Google for Startups enabled her to put to good use the knowledge she had gained from watching her target demographic evolve over the past decade. “When we started, 50 year old women weren’t so fit and hadn’t ever been in a fitness club,” said Valerie. “10 years later, that group was as fit as people 10 years younger than them”. The evolution of the market forced Valerie to re-evaluate her entire business for a digital-savvy market that had increasingly sophisticated expectations from fitness brands.

Valerie developed Pixformance, a digital personal trainer that offered individualized workouts, with a consistently high quality and user experience that reflected the standards Mrs. Sporty’s customers expected. When Mrs Sporty launched Pixformance machines in their gyms, they immediately increased revenues by 25%. Pixformance was so well-received that Valerie soon launched it as a B2B company, VAHA–but not before they were hit by a serious curveball when the device they originally built Pixformance’s tech around was taken off the market.

“My advantage is that I have the vision in terms of knowing exactly how the product should look, and I can translate that into technology”

Valerie believes she was only able to navigate this crisis because of her unique position as a CEO who speaks tech. “I would say my advantage is that I have the vision in terms of knowing exactly how the product should look, and I can translate that into technology–I know what we can do, I know what kind of software libraries are out there; and when I'm in dialogue with developers, I can speak the language.”

Valerie and her team created VAHA, a market-revolutionising interactive mirror that Valerie describes as “bringing the gym home.” The mirror’s ability for the client and trainer to see each other, life-size and in real-time with motion-tracking technology, has been a killer differentiator for pandemic-mandated virtual workouts.

Valerie’s understanding of her users even enabled her to anticipate issues such as concern for privacy, and addressed them before they arose, such as including a camera cover to assure users of total privacy when the mirror isn’t in use. Valerie admits that this wasn’t actually necessary, because VAHA’s tech doesn’t have the capacity to spy on users–but preemptively validating users’ concerns matters to her. I do think by offering these opportunities to customers, without them having to ask, shows that we have been considering their needs.

What advice can an entrepreneur with such a well-rounded skillset give other founders? Valerie says there were no shortcuts. My father said very early on that the best people are not the most talented. And I never felt talented in one thing–but he said, ‘the one who wins is the one with the longest breath.’” Valerie applied this philosophy through discipline and tenacity, and says that her journey to VAHA via her previous companies was not unintentional: “I never give up–even if it means going through several companies to reach what I originally wanted. You just have to believe in it and do whatever it takes.”

Founders Book Club

What books are you reading right now?

I stopped reading to work actively on my PhD–but the last book I read was Steven Kotler, “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.”

Immersion: Women Founders is a 12-week, skill-building mentorship program for high potential women-led startups selected from startup communities across Europe, including the UK and Israel. The program aims to address predominant challenges for women founders in the startup ecosystem with the aim to close the gender gap, ensuring more equal access to funding, and leveraging strong professional networks.

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