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Adala Bolto, founder of Zadi

“Eighty-nine per cent were negative”; How Adala Bolto defied her critics

What do you do when you’re running your startup and 89% of critics don’t believe your business will be a success? Well this is exactly the position Adala Bolto was in when she founded Zadi – fitness gyms designed for women, and her persistence led the business to have nothing but success. 

We actually previously spoke to Adala last April, when the brand was only 7 months old and was growing 20% each month.

Adala was previously a franchisee at Fernwood fitness and a personal trainer for 12 years before approaching its founder, Di Williams, to help her establish another women’s only gym, Zadi, in July 2017.

Having only run the business for 16 months, Adala talks about what she’s learned, her big franchising plans and differentiating yourself in a competitive industry – all while keeping up a positive attitude.

Tell us about the business plan and how you got to where you are today.

“The original business plan was to fill a gap in the market but not in a traditional way. The women of today just want awesome, quality experiences. Zadi is sexier, edgier and science based. I knew we were going to do well if we got those things right – everyone wants to look fit and everyone wants to look hot. Part of the business plan was getting the best of the best to work on the project, such as picking out the best technology, scientists and trainers. I was very confident in my ability to create an experience as that’s what I’ve done for years as a trainer. The tone of Zadi is strong – it’s not to do with age, it’s an attitude.”

Was it just the one location you started with – was that your initial plan?

“The initial business plan was to find the right partners, get the money, get the right people on board to make the programs amazing. Then it was to get the members and make sure they get the best experience. We’re in the city in Surry Hills and in a suburban location – Neutral Bay – on the north shore. To our franchisees in the future – if we can make it happen as a new brand where no one has heard of us in the most complicated locations in Australia with the most expensive rent – we’ll be fine! The franchising activity is going to kick in very fast this year. We’re planning on 50 locations in 2 years from the day we decide to franchise.”

What have you learned since starting your business?

“What I’ve learned in those 16 months is equivalent to what I’ve learnt in my entire life. It’s such a concentrated matter of time where you grow as a person and businesswoman. You’re forced to have to learn new things every minute of the day. You don’t ever want to be reliant because you’re the leader and you need to know everything. It’s a great environment to put yourself in if you want to grow and learn. Women can do so much in so little time if they have to. We are only limited by the bullshit we put in our heads – anything is possible!”

Where did you go to learn all this – you say because you’re a leader you have to learn a lot of things – was it online learning?

“I never learnt through formal [education]. If I meet somebody and I feel like that person is interesting and is going to add value and is someone I should talk to, I’m not afraid to go up and talk to them. I surround myself as much as possible with the right people. I go to the critics the most – I invite them to come to the studio and we build good relationships on mutual respect and trust. They’re also able to give me feedback from the industry. I was prepared to get their critical assessment. I seek leaders in the industry to build knowledge rather than reading books.”

Yeah definitely. I think with the next one, we’ve almost kind of answered it because you’ve obviously got your experience as a personal trainer and Zadi is really well designed around the customer – so I suppose it would be good to go over why it’s been so important to you to hone in on who your customer is. Did you do any research specifically for that customer base?

“We did a lot of research in the market. I found that reading most studies year in year out, most things I put into Zadi are in the top 5 trends. As a personal trainer, I can recognise a trend that’s a fad and one that will last. People are more health conscious nowadays and that’s not a trend, it’s just a lifestyle. When it comes to why I’m so passionate about it and what I’ve researched – I’ve seen that women are always driving the change. For all studies on boutique fitness space, it’s majority women that are hitting the boutique studios looking for specialisation, specific experiences and quality and fast results. I think it’s crazy – they’re the ones that are paying all the money but there isn’t one boutique for women that’s franchising and trying to grow.”

And so why has creating an experience for customers been so important – especially in such a competitive industry?

“I don’t look at the competition and what they’re doing – I don’t care at all. I tried to create a place where you take in all these factors – if it’s not fun, let’s make it more fun. If they’re not seeing results in three months and are losing motivation, let’s make sure they see results in two months. If you can look and feel different in a short period of time, they’ll come back.”

“Eighty-nine per cent were negative”; How Adala Bolto defied her critics
Adala Bolto, co-founder of Zadi

So how did you find the right investors for Zadi? Were there any bad experiences?

“You make your own luck – if you put out who you are and what you’re about, what you accept and what you don’t accept, the right people come to you. I’ve attracted the right people from the start where they were watching [Zadi] and since they’ve been in business, they can see how hard it is to launch a business. Every single one of them looked at me and said “how the hell did she do this in such a short period of time? If she can do that with this much resources, what if we give her more resources – what could she do?.” When you do your best and put your best foot forward and work your hardest to achieve your goal, the right people recognise that and they come to you and ask how can they help and be a part of it? I thought, surely with all this hard work, someone will notice and say hey, I want to be a part of this! If we don’t share the same values and vision, it’s already a deal breaker – the money’s not a factor.”

Was the investment critical for you in the beginning or was it bootstrapped? With the initial studio, did you need to secure the funding before you went ahead?

“To get the investors to grow, I had to prove the concept and prove that it was up and running successfully. I needed to prove retention rate, member results, feedback and testimonials for investors to take me seriously. I had a lot of critics – 89% were negative! A very small number of people actually supported the idea. I was very adamant, but a lot of people didn’t believe that there was a gap in the market. I thought, unless you know better, have done it yourself or can prove me wrong with facts – I’m not interested. Otherwise, it’s just opinion! I’m still prepared for failure – I just know every day I take another step forward and try to achieve something that is going to drive the business in the right direction.”

That’s good! And one last thing, you founded Zadi with Di Williams, the founder of Fernwood. Did you go to her and say hey, I’ve got this great idea while you were working at Fernwood?

“She was my boss and I was a franchisee. So, I thought, oh I want to start a female only thing and she’s done it before! I know I’ve proven myself over the years to be a very hardworking individual and I’ve made it successfully in my club and I thought, what have I got to lose? I’ll start there. It went well from the first conversation and we both decided let’s go. Since then the brand has taken a life of its own.”

That’s great to take the advantage to just go and have a conversation with someone. Otherwise, it’s interesting – they’re not really your competition after listening to you talk and describe how Zadi is different, but it’s unusual for someone as invested as the founder of Fernwood to say yeah okay, I’ll open up another female only gym.

“We were always on the same page that women are different. Even with Zadi, there could be many other versions of female boutique studios with a different take and style. There’s enough room for lots of different female boutiques. It’s not really competition unless it’s exactly the same, like for like. Women’s taste changes so they might go from one [boutique] to the other.”

Definitely, and franchising is your next big project now?

“It always started with franchising in mind and that hasn’t changed!”

So, start in Australia and then global after that?

“Yes. These things sound really crazy hard but they’re not – there’s so many people hungry for new ideas and new concepts. Australia is very well respected for its fitness products, personas and leaders. My team – when you look at who’s on it – there’s a lot of experience there and things you can’t replicate by trying to mimic. So, if a foreign investor in America or China – which we have been approached by big investors in China, it’s just early days – why would they want to start from scratch when something is ready to go and has an amazing ability to scale? We’re open to that and they’re open to new ideas so that’s how these things will happen.”

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Momoko Metham

Momoko Metham

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