This July, Dubai-based health and wellness app Switch & Co will take its first step into the international market, launching in Hong Kong with a (soon-to-be-announced) major insurance partner. It has been a rapid rise for Switch, which has only been operating in the UAE for two years.
Like most successful business ideas, Switch & Co stemmed from a desire to solve a problem; after moving to the UAE in 2015, co-founder Gary Blowers became increasingly frustrated with how difficult it was to book sport, fitness and other activities in the emirates.
“You prepare yourself for a certain outdoor lifestyle when you move to Dubai,” Blowers tells Sport Industry Insider. “But very early on, I realised that online booking just wasn’t widespread and even basic e-commerce was in its infancy. It still is really, the market is just not mature.
“Not only was finding things to do a real challenge but the next step of committing to it and booking it was another challenge. You’d try to call up places, they wouldn’t answer – it seemed that there were too many barriers to participation. There were hurdles to jump over before you could actually go and do the activity or the experience or the fitness class, whatever it might be.
“That frustration just simmered and it seemed such a shame as we’re very lucky here in the UAE that there are so many great facilities and service providers. They just don’t always do a great job of promoting themselves – and more often than not don’t enable you to easily book their service.”
Blowers and fellow co-founders Graeme Perry and Dilesh Bhimjiani set about trying to remove those barriers to entry. Thus the idea of Switch was born; a platform dedicated to simplifying the process of finding and booking activities in the UAE.
“Businesses like Uber or Booking.com or Airbnb – these are the ones we look up to and aspire to be because like them we’re not trying to invent anything. We’re just trying to make things a lot simpler and a lot easier to do.
“Airbnb wants people to go and experience new cities, Uber wants to mobilise people around different cities and we share a similar purpose in that we want people to have a sense of belonging to their community and their city.
“But unless you make it easy for people to do it, they just won’t do it. It’s not about just searching for experiences, it’s about inspiration. When you go into the Switch app, you see things you just didn’t know existed. Like hover boarding or the smash room or puppy pilates! It opens up all these new possibilities on your doorstep.”
Having seen many platform-based businesses launch and quickly fail, Blowers and his colleagues were mindful of being patient in developing the product, building an offering that would be useful, commercially viable and scalable.
After initially investing their own capital, Switch & Co’s founders raised further funds from angel investors in Dubai and were able to launch version one of the platform in February 2018. A number of updates followed and version three of the Switch & Co app will be released in July – driven by a number of key learnings over the past 18 months.
“Many organisations try and craft the perfect product before even releasing it to market, but you quickly realise that nothing is ever perfect. It’s better to learn as you go along and be reflexive. For example, we found that we were having a lot of success with corporate customers so we spent more time developing a more effective interface for them.”
That corporate focus has rapidly become a cornerstone of the business. Organisations pay a monthly subscription to Switch in order to offer the app’s extensive bank of wellness experiences to their employees. It was a somewhat accidental discovery but Switch & Co has taken the idea and run with it.
“We initially went down the path of looking for individual users,” Blowers explains. “But to attract and convert a really significant volume of customers would take a huge amount of marketing spend. The app is still available to individuals but when we started to have conversations with corporate clients it was immediately clear there was a major scope for companies to use Switch for their corporate wellness strategy.
“In the corporate space, everyone is incentivized. We’re incentivized to drive engagement with their users; the service providers are incentivized to offer the best available rate to the corporate users; the corporate client want as much engagement from their staff because employee engagement equals better productivity.
“It was a game changer for us because now we not only work with individual organisations, but umbrella organizations. Looking at health insurance companies, banks and loyalty programs, where we can tap into those networks and really help activate their members or their employees in a totally new way with really engaging content and offerings.”
Among Switch’s key corporate clients and partners are UAE real estate giant Emaar, Standard Chartered Bank and Dubai Future Foundation. Choosing the right partners has been a vital part of the company’s growth, according to Blowers.
“The likes of Standard Chartered and Emaar are very experimental and hungry to try different things, which has benefitted everyone. They’ve known from the start that we’re a startup, but they also know that we can move incredibly quickly. It is super important that they understand what our capabilities are as there’s no point having commercial partners that just try and slow you down.
“There have been several instances where we’ve tried to strike commercial partnerships, but they’re just not able to move quickly enough so we have abandoned them. Having partners who engage actively in a two-way dialogue all the time is incredible.”
Switch is not alone in the UAE as a platform for booking activities, with the likes of fitness app ClassPass launching in the emirates earlier this year shortly after its global takeover of GuavaPass.
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“Every major tech business and major brand right now is a platform of some degree. Are we the only ones doing what we’re doing? No. But competition is great. We have to look at how we differentiate ourselves from the likes of ClassPass and I think we do quite clearly.
“They’re a subscription-based model. You pay monthly to get credits and then you use it or you lose it.It’s not much different to a traditional gym membership. Our app is free, anyone can download it and everything is available on a pay-as-you-go basis. There’s no minimum spend – it’s all about that very easy entry point. Also, we go beyond the fitness marketplace to other activities.”
Switch & Co currently has around 30,000 users in the UAE but will break major new ground in July when it launches next month to 100,000 users in Hong Kong through a major insurance provider. From the outside, it seems like a risky move but Blowers is confident the timing is right.
“I think the best time to expand is when it feels the most uncomfortable – otherwise you could just end up waiting forever and the moment will never come. Obviously we could never have just made this move on our own – it was about having the right partner and we have that.
“The opportunity was there and it was just too good to miss. Sometimes you need that external force, but internally you also need to be ready to move fast and not be afraid of failing. If it feels too comfortable, you’ve left it too late.”
Hong Kong is just the first step in an ambitious expansion plan that aims to see Switch & Co rolled out around the Middle East region and beyond over the next couple of years.
“Ultimately, we don’t want to be a two or three-market platform, we want to be a truly multi-market global platform,” Blowers says. “There are already discussions that are happening in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.
“Any city that offers a good mix of an established and growing service provider base, an established corporate base, strong residential base and tourist space is an option. In 2020-21 we are definitely looking at expansion across the region, across Asia Pacific, and after that who knows. European and British markets? Sure. The US? Why not.”