When this fitness instructor’s studio closed during the pandemic, she created a line of in-home Pilates equipment.
In February 2020, fitness instructor Melissa Bentivoglio opened Fitness frame, a Pilates studio in Rosedale with custom-designed machines. Only six weeks later, it was forced to close its doors. So, during the pandemic, Bentivoglio designed a sleek, compact and technical Pilates reformer machine for home use, raising $ 5 million in seed funding with her husband and co-founder, Lee Belzberg. This is how she got started.
—As said to Karoun Chahinian
“Growing up, I was a classically trained ballerina, competitive dancer and provincial soccer player. I danced 30 hours a week and competed across North America throughout my childhood and teenage years. Then, at the age of 18, I broke my pelvic bone and a doctor suggested that I take Pilates to help me recover.
“I immediately fell in love with exercise and got my first mat Pilates certification in 2004 while studying psychology at the University of Toronto. In addition to Pilates, I also obtained yoga certification and became a personal trainer. When I discovered the Pilates reformer a little later, I immediately fell in love with the effectiveness of the training. It’s low impact but high intensity and felt like a natural evolution of my dance expression.
“I met my life and business partner Lee Belzberg at a party in Muskoka 12 years ago. Now we have three beautiful and bouncy, whom we are raising at Lytton Park. At the time, Lee was a partner at Summit Wealth, an employee benefits consulting firm that focused on private equity, and I had started teaching Pilates at top studios in Toronto and developed a strong client list. professional athletes, doctors and senior executives.
“Over the past decade, I have continued to build my brand as a fitness instructor. I was happy with my job and delighted to be able to make a career out of passion. However, I started to think more about the reformer itself – it’s a versatile machine made up of a large rectangular frame with a rolling platform and resistance springs – that helps tone your core while keeping your stable spine and back. I asked myself, How can I improve the reformer? At the start of 2018, my focus shifted from training to product design. I searched for one of the greatest industrial designers of the time and flew to New York to design my own studio reformer.
“It took about two years for the Frame by Melissa reformer to be perfect. I was driving back and forth to New York City while we were prototyping for functionality and aesthetics. The most important thing was to make sure that all moving parts, like the handlebars or the springs, were working properly. At the same time, I was also renovating and designing a fully bespoke brick and mortar studio in Rosedale.
“It was all starting to fall into place in early 2020. I had made 16 custom reformers and my studio, which was a complete job, was finally ready. Frame Fitness officially opened in February 2020 with great enthusiasm in the community. In our second week our classes started to sell out and the energy in the studio was infectious. I had no idea we would only stay open for six short weeks. The pandemic has struck and our doors have been forced to close.
“I was devastated following the closure, but these first weeks of the pandemic gave me a much needed rest. The creative part of my brain was in full swing. During one of my home workouts my mind started to wander and I thought about a concept I had when designing my first reformer, which was for a home Pilates machine, but I didn’t. didn’t have the mental bandwidth to explore. a second concept. The downtime allowed me to focus on the idea. It was very fortuitous.
“There had been so much growth in the competitive home fitness landscape before the pandemic and this was something I predicted would only continue to grow. People have busy lives and everyone enjoys the convenience and flexibility. People can work out at home four days a week, but then they’ll jump into a SoulCycle class on Saturday morning or meet their girlfriends on Thursday night for a Solidcore class. I was attentive to this transition and noticed its potential. I knew I had a great idea because as popular as the Pilates reformer is, reformers aren’t designed for the home. They are bulky and require complicated instructions. Once I was forced to shut down, I knew it was time. I thought, Let’s do this.
“I had gone through the design process once before, so when I returned to the drawing board in March 2020 to sketch the New Home Reformer, I had a lot more confidence in myself. I knew my compact version needed to be smaller, lighter, foldable, user-friendly, and most importantly, it needed an interactive video screen that would allow me to guide viewers through the movements.
“We started approaching investors at the height of the first wave of Covid via Zoom from our home in Toronto. It is difficult to get capital with early stage startups due to the high risk. This was my first attempt at fundraising, and the pandemic added an extra layer of complexity. It was intimidating. The first time I pitched my concept to a group of investors, it brought me back to giving presentations for a class in college – only 1,000 times worse because the stakes were so much higher.
“Lee is naturally good at developing a large professional network and he was able to put me in touch with those connections. We closed our private funding round in March 2021 with $ 5 million from a total of 30 investors, including Mark Mastrov, Founder and Former CEO of 24 Hour Fitness; Jim Rowley, CEO of Crunch Fitness; Michael Bruno, CEO and President of Core Health and Fitness; Ernie Moody, founder of Action Gaming; and Jaclyn Johnson, founder of Create and Cultivate.
“I started working on the in-home reformer with my old industrial designer, but then moved on to a phenomenally talented designer that I could bring in-house to collaborate with me throughout the process. In September 2021 we launched Frame Fitness and two months later we opened preorders. The response has been overwhelming. We sold 100 units within the first 48 hours. Our growth has been entirely organic, and it’s exciting and rewarding to see the reception.
“Right now, the reformers are gearing up for mass production and we plan to deliver to consumers in early spring 2022. In the meantime, we’ve been working to keep moving the business forward. We’ve just filmed an exciting video campaign in New York City that will launch in January. I’m also working on creating content for subscribers as well as adding fitness instructors to the Frame team.
“We’re not just creating a system for Pilates. We rotate our screen so users can stream yoga, stretching and strength training classes. We’ve also incorporated kid-friendly tutorials so all family members can participate. Our main goal is to ensure that our user interface and user experience are versatile, functional and intuitive. We are also thinking about other features and elements that we would like to integrate in the future. It is an exciting time.