Of the four Internet media companies 27-year-old Howard Lerman has helped start - one sold for $150,000 while he was in college and another went for $60 million in 2005 - he says his most recent, an online lead generator called GymTicket.com, is the most promising by far.
"I've been around a lot of growth companies and start-ups," the chief executive said. "This one is going to be pretty sweet."
Since debuting at the IHRSA show in March, Lerman said, GymTicket.com has become the leading destination for consumers searching for health clubs online. That is why, he added, more than 1,500 clubs around the country have registered on the site.
"We're filling a dual need here," said Lerman. "There has been no good way for consumers to find clubs online, and there's been no real way for clubs to generate local leads online. There's a massive audience out there looking for clubs online, and the clubs have had no way to tap into it."
Consumers looking for a local gym can enter their address on the GymTicket.com homepage, and any clubs nearby that have registered on the site will be listed. Clubs can include additional information on their profiles, such as pricing and classes offered, and can even upload photos for a virtual tour. Creating a profile is free for clubs, but when a consumer request a free trial, which they can do with a click of the mouse, the club is sent the consumer's contact information and billed $5 for the lead.
"We've eliminated the risk for clubs," said Lerman. "Since they only pay per performance, it's a win-win situation. The return on investment is phenomenal - in most cases north of 1,500 percent."
Lerman said the idea for GymTicket.com came to him a few years ago while he was trying to slim down at a high-end
"As I was working out everyday in the club I would watch the salesperson show people around, and I started thinking to myself, they don't have any way to get leads online. There is no hotels.com for health clubs. There is no expedia.com."
Months later (and 50 pounds lighter), Lerman took his idea to the 2006 IHRSA show in Las Vegas and presented it to fitness industry consultant Rick Caro, who agreed that the traditional forms of marketing - direct mailings and Yellow Pages listings - were outdated. Lerman said that Caro, who now chairs the company, "showed me the industry and introduced me to many key people."
"It's a great breakthrough in interactive marketing and membership lead generation for clubs," Caro said of the website. "We're trying to prove to club operators that a lot of people are on the Internet searching for health clubs. We're also trying to show them that they can't efficiently do this on their own. In effect, we're an online national ad agency for clubs."
Doug Pearson, owner of a Gold's Gym in St. Petersburg, Fla., said he's gotten almost 300 addresses, 85 leads (free-trial requests), and 20 to 30 new members through GymTicket since signing up in early March.
"I'm shocked at how much activity we've gotten from this, especially compared to the Gold's Gym website," he said. "And it's so inexpensive. Just today, I've gotten five new addresses and two leads. This is the best thing to come along since popcorn."