How A Top-Ranked Female Tennis Champ Became An Exercise Entrepreneur In Kenya

By Kurt Davis Jr. AFKI Original Published: January 17, 2017, 10:56 am
Class at Saloni Kantaria Mathur's Reform Cycling and Strength Studio in Nairobi. Photo: Diana Ngila/Business Daily

Kenya has long been known for churning out fantastic long distance runners but not so much for entrepreneurs who focus on making a business out of fitness. In fact, being a fitness nut on the African continent used to be a bore. That has changed in recent years.

Meet Saloni Kantaria Mathur, who in 2016 opened Reform Cycling and Strength Studio in Nairobi’s affluent Westlands neighborhood near the city’s central business district.

Reform is an indoor cycling studio that distinguishes cycling and strength experience from the daily gym experience. You know the experience if you have been to your average gym for a cycling class: blast the music and get pumped up by the instructor yelling “Faster, you can do it, if you can’t, medium is OK, or go at your pace.” That does not necessarily get my blood flowing or push me over the top. It is the one-size-fits-all approach that Reform has changed.

I am a 220-pound man who loves weight training and prefers a good run or elliptical training over cycling. I also appreciate dedicated studios that address specific types of training.

Reform does this with 20 Schwinn Carbon Blue indoor cycling bikes and integrates performance data technology into its classes to enable clients to see their data in live stream during class. This immediately makes everyone’s buried competitive instinct come alive and pushes participants a little more. After all nobody wants to be at the bottom of the leader board. The facility also, for those desiring a dose of strength training, has a strength studio that offers non-traditional classes focused on improving cardio, strength, flexibility and mobility such as BOSU, Pilates, barre and hybrid classes incorporating a cycling and strength workout in one hour.

Born in Kenya, Saloni has lived in the U.S., Australia and the U.A.E. She graduated from the University of Chicago’s LLM program and practiced litigation and arbitration. The Reform brand is unmistakably Kenyan — the Kenya flag is on the logo.

How did she dream up this concept for the business?

Saloni was a competitive tennis player and played for Kenya in the 1990s, ultimately becoming the No. 1-ranked female in Kenya and playing NCAA Division I tennis for Cornell University. She continued on to law school and as a lawyer, maintained an incessant passion for working out and periodically playing tennis. Always finding unique ways to stay active, she participated in boutique class-focused studios, including Pilates and indoor cycling studios in mature markets across major international cities such as London, Sydney, Hong Kong, New York and Singapore.

Saloni Kantaria Mathur at her Reform Cycling and Strength Studio in Nairobi. Photo: Diana Ngila/Business Daily

The concept of these boutique studios became the reality of Saloni’s life. She had become bored with the gym as it mainly consisted of constantly working out on machines. She, like her peers, could only spare 45-to-60 minutes for a workout in an efficient space and manner. She, like her peers, saw group exercise classes as method to address those concerns. Saloni and her peers were willing to pay a premium for these classes and amenities. Saloni’s life experience and international exposure gave birth to the concept for Kenya. Having grown up in a large family that has been in business for over a century, Saloni found inspiration to make her concept become reality.

What motivates her each day?

Being a lawyer was fun for Saloni. She said she enjoyed the arbitration and strategic thinking but never desired to be a partner at a large law firm. The politics and the nature of business made it slow for the “doer” in her, she said. Waking up as an entrepreneur each day, she said she finds motivation in the opportunity to focus on her fitness passion, mold and drive ideas with quick efficiency, and explore concepts or new ideas with a sense of free thinking.

For example, after Reform had been open for four months, Saloni noticed there were fewer clients on weekends. After speaking to clients, it became clear that people were not against exercising on weekends. But they wanted to be outside after being caged in an office all week. Reform, in response, offered a one-hour outdoor workout (such as Pilates) followed by a sit-down breakfast.

Saloni has also come up with her own blend of cardio and strength classes to keep things fresh at Reform. In 2017, she introduced a number of hybrid classes including Cyc.Core.Flex  — 30 minutes of interval training on the bike to focus on cardio, 15 minutes of a core workout and 15 minutes of flexibility training to elongate those exhausted legs.

Saloni describes her business as her baby and said she finds great joy in growing and nourishing it. She loves that she’s been able to create a community of clients at Reform from different cultural backgrounds who all share a love for exercising.

What is she doing to pay it for forward for other female entrepreneurs?

Saloni has given several talks to organizations focused on supporting female entrepreneurs in Nairobi, including Young Women Social Entrepreneurs and, more recently, to her high school on the difference between being employed by a professional organization versus having one’s own business. She recently offered an internship to a female professional looking to transition to becoming a fitness instructor and found comfort in exploring the initial stages in the transition with a person who had a similar transition.

Lawyer, former tennis champ and exercise entrepreneur Saloni Kantaria Mathur. Photo: suluzulu.com

What is her advice to a new entrepreneur?

Saloni’s top tips to new entrepreneurs include:

  • Start a business because you have a passion for it. Clients can tell if it is for other reasons.
  • If you are transitioning from being a professional to an entrepreneur, ensure you have enough experience to return to your profession if the business fails.
  • Just because you like something doesn’t mean the market will react the same way.
  • Ensure you have enough capital to support your business for the first year and carefully perform your due diligence before launching (i.e., what is the cost of building materials)
  • Take your time recruiting and training your team on their role (and the standard expected with that role) – it doesn’t matter whether it’s a manager, sales rep or cleaner.
  • Maintain a budget for marketing and embrace social media. (That said, she maintains the most effective marketing tools are clients.)
  • Pay attention to detail and don’t think anything is beneath you. (Saloni teaches classes, but also manages Reform’s front desk from time to time.)
  • If a team member isn’t doing their job despite repeated requests, get rid of this person. Such decisions can be tough but one bad apple in your team can poison your business’s reputation and bring down morale. This also sends a signal to other team members that you will act when you see things going wrong.
  • Listen to clients and take constructive feedback as a way to improve your business. Keep asking “How can I improve my business?”

Saloni says her family members may have given the best advice:

“A business will make money as long as all the fundamentals are in place.”

Exercising should be a fundamental for many of us. Maybe 2017 can be about the fundamentals for everyone.

Kurt Davis Jr. is an investment banker focusing on the natural resources and energy sectors, with private equity experience in emerging economies. He earned a law degree in tax and commercial law at the University of Virginia’s School of Law and a master’s of business administration in finance, entrepreneurship and operations from the University of Chicago. He can be reached at kurt.davis.jr@gmail.com.

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