On March 13, as New York prepared to move indoors to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Mirror founder Brynn Putnam closed the offices of her high-tech fitness startup and sent her nearly 100 employees home. The former ballerina now hunkers down in her Greenwich Village apartment with her husband, Lowell, also an entrepreneur. The couple alternates who gets to be on Zoom from the bedroom and who watches their 3-year-old son, George, in the living room.
The only thing that’s easy: working out. Putnam brought home two of her fitness company’s eponymous interactive Mirrors. One is in the bedroom, the other in the guest bedroom. “If [Lowell] wants to box and I want to do yoga, we can,” says Putnam, 36.
With a market capitalization above $13 billion and a product and marketing campaign that have become a meme, Peloton has emerged as the buzziest fitness company of the coronavirus era. But privately owned Mirror is hot on its heels, with a single advantage Peloton can’t match: compactness. At 22 inches wide, 52 inches high and 1.4 inches deep, Putnam’s product looks and acts like a regular mirror. Turn it on, though, and users see an instructor teaching the class (as well as their own reflection so they can work on form); software provides personalized modifications in the corner of the screen and helps track fitness goals. Members pay $1,495 for the Mirror and an additional $39 a month for access to an array of livestreamed classes including cardio, barre, strength training and yoga in 15-, 30- and 60-minute increments.
“No one had thought about putting a screen into a mirror and having it be a workout platform,” says Kevin Thau, general partner at Spark Capital, one of Putnam’s early investors. “It seems obvious in hindsight, but it wasn’t before.”
Brick-and-mortar gyms and fitness studios are an almost $100 billion business, according to the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association. When Putnam launched the product in September 2018, five years after Peloton first started connecting bikes, she was betting on a gradual, continuing shift toward home fitness. Now with millions of people stuck in their homes and desperate for exercise, she’s riding high, with sales surpassing her already aggressive projections—and a spot on our Next Billion-Dollar Startups list, one of 25 private companies Forbes bets will become unicorns. “We’re seeing Christmas in April,” Putnam says, noting that Mirror’s tens of thousands of members are now working out an average of 15 times a month, up from 10.
While Putnam and the company zealously guard their numbers, Forbes estimates that revenue reached $45 million in 2019 and will surge past $100 million this year, which Putnam confirms. While the obvious focus is growth, Putnam now says she expects Mirror to turn profitable by early next year.
“It’s definitely one of the most exciting highfliers in the portfolio,” says Ben Lerer, managing partner of venture firm Lerer Hippeau, which had previously backed Warby Parker, Allbirds and Glossier. “This can be a very big business, as big as Peloton, over a shorter period of time.” To date, Putnam has raised $72 million from Lerer Hippeau, Spark Capital and Point72 Ventures, the VC firm of hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen. Its last raise, in October, brought in $34 million and valued the company at just under $300 million. Putnam, the sole founder, is worth at least $80 million—and after the
Covid-19 boost, probably much more. Her challenge going forward: ensuring that Mirror becomes the new normal, versus a fleeting pandemic trend.
Brynn Jinnett Putnam grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the daughter of a lawyer and a stay-at-home mom. At age 3, she started dance lessons. “One of their earliest stories of me was that they took me to a restaurant where someone was singing and playing live music onstage,” she says. “I had found my way to the stage and was dancing with the singer.”
At age 7, she joined the School of American Ballet, cofounded by George Balanchine. Her debut with the New York City Ballet was noted in the New York Times with a photograph of her and two friends. That year, she played the Bunny in The Nutcracker.
Some dancers only dance; others have additional interests. Putnam was in the latter category. “My dad said to me, ‘It would be great if you could learn some actual skills,’ ” she recalls. She studied Russian literature and culture at Harvard.
After college, she went on the road with the Pennsylvania Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. During the off months in New York, she taught ballet and toning classes. Boutique fitness studios were booming, and it was an easy way to bring in cash. When she retired from ballet a decade ago, she sought to open her own boutique studio.
At the time, she had just $15,000 in personal savings, so she wandered the streets of Manhattan searching for whatever strange off-market space she could find. Walking past an Orthodox church on the Upper East Side, she heard people speaking Russian and struck up a conversation, in Russian, with the minister and some parishioners. The chat soon switched to English, and she learned they had a space available. In 2010, Refine Method was born. “The catch was that every Sunday we had to turn it back into a church,” she says.
Another catch: There wasn’t enough space for standard equipment. So she jerry-rigged a solution with the help of her husband, who, aside from having cofounded fintech startup Quovo (acquired by Plaid), grew up sailing as a member of one of Boston’s blueblood families (his great-grandfather founded Putnam Investments). The device they built was a series of sailing pulleys and resistance bands that could serve as a wall-mounted weight machine, enabling each person to do strength training exercises with just two feet of space. “It looked kind of like an S&M den,” she recalls.
Clients raved about Refine, and Putnam expanded the studio into a mini-chain. By 2016, though, newly pregnant and suffering from severe morning sickness, working out in a club no longer appealed to her. Peloton was booming, but Putnam didn’t want a bike in her apartment. Nor did she like the content and interactivity of the streaming apps she tried. Her aha! moment came when she upgraded Refine, adding more mirrors, and got rave reviews from her clientele. “I realized a lot of the technology I had been thinking about could be put in a mirror,” she says.
Putnam built a crude prototype in her kitchen with a cheap tablet from Amazon, a piece of glass and a Raspberry Pi, a small, low-cost computer often used by do-it-yourself hobbyists.
By the time she had a prototype viable enough to raise funding, she was seven months pregnant, and as she sought guidance from entrepreneurs and investors, many told her to hold off. “I met with a lot of other founders who said, ‘It’s great you’re doing this, but I think you’re going to meet resistance. They don’t like backing solo founders, they don’t like backing solo female founders and they certainly don’t like backing solo female founders who are seven months pregnant,’ ” Putnam says.
But she didn’t want to wait. She had seen boutique fitness chains like SoulCycle and Barry’s Bootcamp turn into behemoths, while Refine, which she still owns, was stuck at three outlets.
She ultimately closed her seed funding with Lerer Hippeau from the hospital on November 15, 2016, the day her son was born. “Don’t mess with Brynn,” says Lerer, who agreed to invest after seeing her janky prototype. “She is extraordinary at getting people to believe in her vision and follow her.”
Putnam and a small team figured out the fitness regimens from her kitchen table. Then came the engineers, whom Putnam parked at a WeWork. “There was always stuff everywhere, attachments and mirrors and different prototypes and ideas,” says Abby Bales, a personal trainer who now serves as Mirror’s scientific advisor. Product testing? Early on, Putnam dragged a Mirror prototype to the Refine studio to see what loyal customers would think. “It was very large, like huge, with a lot of metal, and it was not the easiest thing to move around,” says Kailee Combs, who was then an instructor and director of programming at Refine and is now Mirror’s VP of fitness content. “My fiancé was driving the U-Haul, and I was in the back of the van with Brynn, and we were literally holding this hunk of a mirror that was wrapped in an old blanket.”
Putnam says her lack of technical expertise was an advantage because it enabled her to focus on the few things customers cared about rather than trying to build a perfect product. For her, what mattered was that the Mirror be an inch deep or less, look frameless and have the right balance between transmission and reflection. “The member doesn’t care what the back of the mirror looks like because it’s hanging on the wall, and the member doesn’t care if it weighs 50 pounds versus 60 pounds,” she says. “I was ruthless, and we were able to make good decisions on time, cost and quality.”
“We’re seeing Christmas in April,” says Brynn Putnam, noting that Mirror’s tens of thousands of members are now working out an average of 15 times a month, up from 10.
After two years of design work, Putnam launched the product, now made in Mexico, in September 2018. Though that was six months later than she hoped, it went off without any major flaws, a big win for a complex piece of electronic equipment.
Three months later, she was at her in-laws’ house for Christmas, hoping sales would be strong. “I heard my cousin scream from the other room—Alicia Keys had posted on Instagram her family gifting her a Mirror,” Putnam recalls. In the video, Keys’ children lead her to a closed door and tell her not to yell out, but as soon as she sees the Mirror mounted to the wall, she begins to shriek and dance with excitement.
Soon, Mirror was attracting other celebrity clients, and Putnam was promoting their names as a seal of approval: Reese Witherspoon, Ellen DeGeneres, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson, among others. “It was this funny network effect that started to happen,” she says. “In the early days, orders would come in and your jaw would drop because there were so many celebrities.”
The mix of fitness, glitz and technology turned out to be the perfect combination for Putnam, who signed on influencers and put up billboards, rather than first building a following with targeted Facebook and Instagram ads, as most direct-to-consumer startups do. “We knew from the early days we were launching not just a new product, but a new category,” she says. “I knew we had to have a launch where the brand seemed bigger than it was.”
People have posited that fitness was destined to move to the home since Jane Fonda released her first workout tapes in 1982, and the cycles of home versus gym have ebbed and flowed since then. The difference this time? Technological advances that offer a more personalized experience and a way to track your own results. “This is here to stay. It’s not a fad,” says Jed Katz, managing director at Javelin Venture Partners, who personally invested in Peloton but is not invested in Mirror. “It’s addicting, it’s convenient and the content has gotten so good.”
For Joe Popson, a 32-year-old IT support manager in New York, that’s been the case. Although he previously struggled to go to the gym, since he bought a Mirror last May he’s been working out five times a week, generally starting his day with 15 minutes of dance cardio, and has lost 20 pounds. With Mirror, he says, he loves that he can see both the instructor and himself as he works out, and that afterward he can interact with the instructor on Instagram. “They’ll send you a fire emoji or a ‘100’ emoji or put you in their story,” he says. “It goes back to making you feel incredibly connected, especially at a time like this.”
Putnam incentivized her talent, making eight founding trainers full-time staffers with stock options. They’re encouraged to focus on teaching the class and delivering an entertaining experience, as software handles the music and any necessary modifications based on customer input.
Then came the coronavirus and social-distancing mandates, which Alex Alimanestianu, former CEO of Town Sports International (parent of New York Sports Clubs) and an advisor to Mirror, terms “an existential threat to a lot of gyms.” In May, Gold’s Gym, with 700 locations worldwide and minimal digital strategy, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. There have been reports that Town Sports or 24 Hour Fitness could well be next. Publicly traded Town Sports is now worth just $12 million and has nearly $200 million in debt coming due in November. It issued a “going concern” warning in a regulatory filing this spring but did not respond to requests for further comment. 24 Hour Fitness said in a statement that it is “considering a broad range of options.”
Brynn Putnam has big plans to expand beyond fitness. Mirror already added meditation classes in partnership with Lululemon. Next up: physical therapy, rehabilitation and maybe even telehealth.
Unfortunately for Putnam, others have also done the math. Beyond Peloton, there’s now Tonal, which offers a smart home gym powered by 3D modeling and artificial intelligence; Hydrow, which sells smart rowing machines; and FightCamp, which sells interactive home boxing and kickboxing classes. Meanwhile, the big gyms are turning to digital home fitness to help salvage their businesses. This spring, Equinox, the gym chain with nearly 100 clubs across the U.S., began offering its members Variis, a streaming platform from its sister company that includes free digital classes and also pairs its SoulCycle workouts with an at-home bike (priced at $2,500). There’s even a competing interactive mirror from startup Echelon, which it calls Reflect.
Putnam’s plan to stay ahead: Position Mirror as a third screen for the home. “I think of a Mirror as the next iPhone,” she says, without irony. She has already added meditation classes in partnership with Lululemon, the yoga clothing brand, and launched personal training sessions at $40 a pop, which are now happening remotely from trainers’ homes. Next up: physical therapy and rehabilitation sessions, though it’s not clear if insurance companies would cover them. Long-term, she thinks Mirror could ultimately be used for telehealth, therapy and a host of other interactive applications, conjuring answers with the ease of Snow White’s Evil Queen.
In fact, Putnam has been getting calls nonstop from people who want to talk about partnering to use the screen for chat, scrapbooking, education and a million other things. It’s a bit overwhelming. “In a business that is growing so fast and that has so much potential, how do you stay disciplined about saying no?” she says. “That has been the hardest but most important lesson of the past 18 months.”
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I’m a senior editor at Forbes, where I cover manufacturing, industrial innovation and consumer products. I previously spent two years on the Forbes’ Entrepreneurs team. It’s my second stint here: I learned the ropes of business journalism under Forbes legendary editor Jim Michaels in the 1990s. Before rejoining, I was a senior writer or staff writer at BusinessWeek, Money and the New York Daily News. My work has also appeared in Barron’s, Inc., the New York Times and numerous other publications. I’m based in New York, but my family is from Pittsburgh—and I love stories that get me out into the industrial heartland. Ping me with ideas, or follow me on Twitter @amyfeldman