September 21, 2018

From a dorm at IIM Raipur to the University Startup World Cup in Copenhagen: the story of Nearfit, Chhattisgarh’s student-led startup

Most of us will agree that being a student in college was one of the most enjoyable and formative phases of our lives. Look back, and just for a moment visualise your younger, more energetic and confident self, bursting with innovative dreams of creating something pathbreaking. While many of us may not have been able to see those dreams into fruition, and got caught in the trappings of grown-up life such as getting a good degree, getting a job and earning money to pay bills, there were others who had the courage to make their startup dreams a reality straight out of college.

In the past, entrepreneurship as a career option for a college student was not as common as it is today. In the present day, college students across campuses in India are fuelling their startup dreams driven by innovative ideas, greater understanding of the market realities, inter and intra college collaboration and a supportive ecosystem.

Six students from different institutes come together to pin their startup aspiration on one idea

One such story is that of Nearfit –  a fitness startup venture by six students from leading educational institutes in Chhattisgarh.

Founded by Priyanjit Ghosh, a student of Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Raipur, Vinay Khobragade, National Institute of Technology (NIT), Raipur  and Abhishek Kripal,  Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Raipur, Arko Biswas and Anupam Dutta, IIM Raipur, and  Anand Panchbhai, IIT Bhilai, Nearfit aims to make fitness affordable and exciting for youth in Tier 2 cities in India.

Nearfit is a marketplace for local fitness and sporting experiences where customers can choose to opt for a gym membership for a specific period, on avail the facilities on a per session basis for as low as Rs 99 or opt for a bundle of five sessions for Rs 299. From yoga, cross-functional training, swimming, to trekking, Nearfit has a host of indoor and outdoor fitness experiences to choose from.

It all started when Priyanjit Ghosh was working at TCS and could not dedicate time for a regular fitness regimen. “In this context, monthly or annual gym memberships proved a costly affair. I was also keen on keeping myself fit by with a combination of regular gymming and other fitness activities. But I wasn’t getting something that was flexible and affordable.”

When Priyanjit became a student again at IIM Raipur, he knew he could now actually start up and provide a solution to people like him. “Being a student, I was able to network and connect with other students across leading institutions in the vicinity. Naturally, entrepreneurship is a great conversation starter and that got me connected to a bunch of like-minded people.  That’s how Vinay, Abhishek, Arko, Anupam, Anand and I came together to start Nearfit.”

Seeing challenges as growth opportunities

Nearfit was started in February 2018 in a dorm at IIM Raipur. After bringing in people with the requisite skillset, building a platform, getting some good fitness players on board the platform, the team set out to work on the most critical aspect of their business idea – getting customers. “But the response was beyond disappointing. We could not sell even a single fitness experience.” That’s where the ecosystem support helped these studentpreneurs. “That is when  mentors like Salma Moosa and Vivek Srinivasan Salma Moosa and Vivek Srinivasan,Founders Startups Club Bangalore, guided us and gave a direction to our thought process and helped us formalise our business model.”

Priyanjit says the mentorship and the market response helped them plug loopholes and derive vital insights. “We soon understood that the growth of our business was dependent on building a community. That led to partnerships with market leaders like Decathlon India, and organising sporting events. This gave us good visibility.”

Today, the startup has three focus areas – to get more partners on board, bring in standardisation w.r.t. quality across their service offerings and grow the Nearfit community. “We witnessed how building a community helps to drive visibility and thereby get more customers. Hence, community building will be a key aspect of our growth strategy.”

By partnering with multiple fitness centres offering different fitness experiences – from swimming to Zumba to gymming, Nearfit gives its customers the flexibility to switch from one fitness experience to another.  While there are big startups offering similar offerings, they do not have a presence in tier 2 cities and mostly concentrate on metros. Nearfit is using this to their advantage. “We believe there is demand for such experiences in tier 2 cities. And we believe it is segment that will usher the next phase of growth for the Indian economy. We will have a first-mover advantage if we consciously work in this segment.”

The biggest advantage for the startup is the fact that they are all studentpreneurs. On most days, the six founding members attend their respective classes from 9 am to 5 pm and work on Nearfit late at night, “We are driven to make it work by constantly thinking of how we can do it differently and efficiently.  For instance, September is a month that generally sees low footfalls at swimming pools in Raipur. We decided to experiment and organise Raipur’s First Water Polo event. And that idea clicked. The event was a huge success with more than 100 participants attending this first-of-a-kind event in the city.”

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