Keeping fit for the future, digitally

Photo by Tim Samuel

Fitness classes and studios are amongst the industries hard hit by the restrictions introduced to safeguard public health against the spread of COVID-19. Technology, however, is one recourse for instructors and business owners seeking to survive the challenges and train themselves for the future.

While the more visible side of fitness involves classes and gyms that are physical and face to face, technology is often used to keep the entire infrastructure and operations of the business running. It also allows for continuity during periods of pandemic related restrictions.

SMEhorizon speaks with Alicia Thew, Director, and Nimi Vekaria, Finance Manager at Yoga Movement as well as Gina Chan, Founder, SgFitFam, businesses that have worked with Xero in digitalising their operations, on how technology has aided their survival and recovery during the pandemic. Xero’s Kevin Fitzgerald also weighs in on how SMEs can survive an unpredictable and volatile environment and strive for future growth.

A new normal of change

Fitzgerald notes that the pandemic has forced many SMEs to evaluate both how relevant and accessible their products and services were, as well as review their internal systems and processes in the current environment.

This was certainly true for SgFitFam, who had previously provided personal training and corporate training to serve clients’ health and wellness. Reflecting on the challenges her company faced, Chan noted that unlike the Retail and Food and Beverage sectors, where customers were at least accustomed to the concept of online shopping and delivery, virtual physical training was much less familiar to Singaporeans.

“On top of that, free YouTube workout videos became extremely popular during the pandemic, whilst SgFitFam had never conducted any virtual classes before 2019,” she added.

“To pivot, we went through extensive trial and error, and it felt like starting a new business all over again—one that was entirely online. It wasn’t just a change in platform, but a paradigm shift amongst our clients too.

Pre-pandemic, our mental wellness talks were the lowest in demand. But in the past year, it shot to the top of clients’ priorities, making it the highest in demand amongst our services.”

For Yoga Movement, the pandemic has put a damper on their plans to expand globally. While Thew shares that the global situation remains quite fluid, Vekaria added that they are planning to take their company to different markets once the world opens up.

In facing these problems, says Fitzgerald, many SMEs are emerging stronger, now possessing well considered digital tools and solutions that increase insights-driven productivity, efficiency and resilience across the business enabling it to grow and scale.

Tools to build strength and resilience

As Fitzgerald reminds us, digital tools have always been a way for SMEs to create streamline operations, create efficiencies and achieve greater transparency and resilience. For example, manually creating, sending and chasing invoices is a time consuming, tedious task,” he says.

“Digitalising this process with e-invoicing can help alleviate this, facilitating faster payment times and ensuring accurate invoicing and improved cash flow for the small business.”

These strengths are particularly essential during periods like the pandemic, when businesses focus their energies on meeting the new challenges at hand.

Chan shares that SgFitFam’s back-end processes were steadily being digitalised, even before COVID-19 hit. “We used to do all our accounting manually on Google sheets,” she says. “But in 2018, when we started to take on corporate clients, we realised that the paperwork overwhelmed us, so we had to scale up our financing processes.”

Partnering with Xero has helped to consolidate their accounting needs, which, adds Chan, has helped them stay buoyant in a volatile market. “Ensuring that we get paid on time by corporate clients using the auto-reminders feature is especially important for a small business like us.”

“Digital transformation has always been important to us, but COVID-19 expedited that process ten-fold.”

Vekaria shares a similar experience for Yoga Movement. “We were using Microsoft Excel for all our finance and accounting needs before 2018, which was very manual and time-consuming,” she says.

“We were spending hours combing through spreadsheets to troubleshoot errors, as well as having to confirm the accuracy or integrity of formulae. This was unsustainable, especially while we were scaling our business.”

Using digital tools has also helped link individual teams of their organisation in ways that were not possible before. “Despite not being experts in accounting, every team lead can easily access the profit and loss statements, track team-specific budgets, and autonomously make financial decisions based on comprehensible data from the Xero platform,” says Vekaria.

“The digital shift has enabled us to work more collaboratively, autonomously, and swiftly.”

Data for agile responsiveness

Beyond stronger operations, digitalisation also makes data more readily available to a company, which can greatly aid survival. Fitzgerald highlights that according to a Xero study, leveraging data-driven insights during the pandemic enabled Singapore SMEs to to quickly pivot their business strategy and tackle the top two challenges during COVID-19, namely retaining existing customers (38%) and attracting and retaining new customers (36%).

Chan appreciates the ease with which her company can see where they are over or under spending, since their profits and losses are now more clearly tabulated. Besides helping them with their financial planning and revenue targets, they can also gain insight to which aspects of their business are performing better. For example, it was through these records that they noticed the increased popularity of their aforementioned mental wellness talks.

Besides having the information clearly laid out, digitalisation can mean having it accessible more quickly. Vekaria shares that they are now able to access financial data in real-time, meaning they no longer have to wait until the end of the month to assess their business performance. “our month-end reports used to take up to eight weeks, whereas now, we are able to report monthly results within only two weeks,” she elaborates.

“Keeping a close eye on our finances was especially helpful in the pandemic. Together with the benefit that our own inbuilt App and its reporting as well we using XERO, we are able to tweak our sales and attendance campaigns swiftly to meet internal targets while keeping track of our sales performance.

“Similarly, we are also able to track spending, monitoring the monthly variance. This helps us plan accordingly to the pandemic situation.”

Fitzgerald highlights the relevance of these experiences for SMEs more generally.

“Business agility is a huge advantage to businesses navigating unpredictable and volatile circumstances,” he says. “Access to digital customer insights and real-time cash flow data enables SMEs to continually adjust their product and service offerings to better serve their customers as well as acquire new ones.

“For instance, increasing sales and distribution networks through ecommerce, virtual products, or marketing could help SMEs reach those 41% of consumers in Singapore who would buy more goods or services from SMEs online to support their community during COVID-19.”

Keeping fit for the future

While the pandemic has undoubtably presented challenges, in managing and overcoming them both SgFitFam and Yoga movement have seen possibilities for the future. Chan observes that local clients attitudes to digital health training has changed. “. It took a lot of time, adjustment, and adaptation for our clients to slowly realise that digital training programmes are just as good, if not better than in-person sessions. Some have even developed a preference for virtual sessions,” she says.

“In the long term, we want to take our digital journey to the next level with a corporate wellness app and possibly even adopt a subscription-based model. We’re also expecting to see mental health remaining a pertinent priority and are working to ramp up that section of our business to meet the needs of a modern workforce that prioritises wellbeing,” Chan adds.

She also sees a new opportunity for overseas growth, finding that with digitalisation, her company is no longer limited by geographical proximity. “We’ve started to receive international enquiries from places like Malaysia and even New York,” she shares.

Yoga Movement also shares their visions of entering markets further afield, and predicts that the ability to report in multi-currency, one of Xero’s capabilities, will be helpful in this.

For SMEs looking to start shaping up their business for the digital future, Fitzgerald recommends them to seek advice from business associations and communities, leveraging experience or expertise they might not have.

“The 43% of SMEs that consulted business advisors claim that it has been the most effective out of all initiatives measured,” he concludes.