Part I: Opportunities Come from the Oddest Places
The founding of BSDI was an accident. There is simply no other way to say it. BSDI’s founder, Dr. Mark Brittingham, was a research scientist in the field of Artificial Intelligence in 1988 when our company’s story began. His career path was set, his paychecks were solid and his future was bright. But then something happened that slowly but surely set him upon a new – and far riskier – path.
In the fall of 1988, Mark and his wife Pam were given fitness tests at a local gym by a young trainer named Kelli Calabrese – who, as it turns out, is now a nationally famous trainer and speaker. Although it was quite unusual at the time, the fitness tests at this gym were entered into a computer so that results could be printed out and saved. The problem was that the fitness testing software was just terrible. The genesis of BSDI lies in a single moment – when Mark offered to build a better piece of software in exchange for a discount on their membership.
Over the next three years, Kelli continued to request new features and improvements to the software and Mark continued to build them – getting free memberships in exchange. In 1991, the software had improved to the point that Kelli suggested that Mark get in touch with Dr. David Nieman, the author of one of the textbooks she was using. Not being in the field, Mark had no idea that Dr. Nieman was one of the most prominent and respected research scientists in the field of exercise and public health. So, having no real stake in the outcome (his career path was already set and all) and blithely unaware of the audacity in calling someone of Dr. Nieman’s stature: Mark called Dr. Nieman and asked whether he would be interested in taking a look at the software. Dr. Nieman offered to take a look since he had written a number of software reviews in the past but he made it clear that he was working with a programmer to build his own package. Out of curiosity more than anything else Mark bundled the package up and sent it along.
Brittingham Software Design, Inc. (BSDI) as an official company was born two days later when Mark and Pam came home to an excited message on their answering machine from Dr. Nieman: “This software is light-years ahead of any package on the market! I have fired my programmer and set you up with a distributor! Call me!” So, the package was christened “The Fitness Analyst,” the company was created and Mark and Pam were in business.
Part II: Growing Up in the Fitness Market
In the first few years of business, BSDI’s software was sold primarily to a small circle of ACSM research scientists who were interested in automating fitness testing. By 1995, however, demand was picking up strongly. At BSDI’s first Trade Show, the 1995 IDEA Personal Trainer conference in Baltimore, the crowds at the BSDI booth ran three or four deep almost continuously for the entire show. We sold dozens of copies of the Fitness Analyst at the show and dozens more in the weeks that followed. It was clear that there was a market for BSDI’s software but, to succeed, Mark would have to make the entrepreneurial plunge and leave his full-time work at Bell Labs.
Growth in the market for testing and training software grew strongly from 1995 to 2000 and BSDI grew even faster. There were challenges as well: hiring employees, deciding on price and expanding into overseas markets presented a whole new set of challenges. Our single biggest asset, however, was a simple commitment to building what our clients wanted. Especially during the transition from DOS to Windows software (yes, we’ve been around that long!), we had so many clients giving us ideas that we began naming features after them. It was just a great feeling to send out new editions with a personalized letter telling people that “their” favorite feature had been added.
The fitness market was an ideal place to start our business because the passion and commitment of our clients for their work was just inspiring. They were pretty passionate about the Fitness Analyst as well: in 2003, BSDI won Fitness Management magazine’s “Nova7” award for “Best Computerized Technology Supplier” based on votes from our customers. In fact, BSDI collected more votes that year than all other vendors put together! We went on to win this award every year in which it was given – five years in all.
Part III: The Web Rises
By the late 1990s, the Internet Bubble was in full bloom and it was clear that our business model needed to expand to include web software. The key event of this period was a phone call from Lucy Polk – a personal trainer who had used and loved the Fitness Analyst. Lucy, who by then had a position at the Defense Contract Management Agency, wanted to have a version of the Analyst on the web so that she could take care of employees of the agency spread across the country. The only catch was that Lucy wasn’t just looking to recreate the Analyst but was hoping that we would add a suite of health promotion and incentive program management features. Lucy’s call was important because we had built DirectWellness in 2000: a web technology focused on the fitness facility/personal trainer market. Sensing an opportunity to jump to the much larger health promotion market, we shifted gears and built the first Motivation® health promotion system.
Motivation was not exactly a health promotion web portal. Instead, it was a technology for building health promotion web portals. It was unique in that all of the pages were structured around typical health promotion tasks (e.g. logging workouts, tracking incentive program participation) but staff could change the content of these pages. Thus, rather than being a “one-size fits all” solution, Motivation® brought a very high degree of customization to the market. This played well to BSDI’s strengths because we were primarily a technology company rather than a provider of health promotion programs who happened to have a technology. Thus, companies with a strong internal health promotion program chose us for our flexibility. At the time, our competitors were companies with strong suites of content or on-site coaching but with rather weak technology foundations.