BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — Walking into the Velovoom workout studio feels a little like walking into a dance club — the lighting is low, the music is pounding and people are moving with it.
And owner Marc Caputo said he thinks this atmosphere is just what unsatisfied gym-goers are looking for.
“I’ve always kind of hated the gym,” he said. “The judgment of really walking into the gym, and the lights and the people and the social aspect.”
So Caputo, 44 — who also works in corporate benefits as the president of Cornerstone Financial — along with two partners opened Velovoom, a fitness studio in Bethesda based around a concept that combines cycling, muscle strengthening and core movement.
Following surgery in 2008, Caputo was laid up for about six months and gained 55 pounds. He started working out, but didn’t like going to the gym. After trying out a standalone cycling studio in New York, he came back to Maryland and spent three months looking for something similar.
“It was either, like, bikes that were put in a racquetball court, it was a big open room with windows into the parking lot,” he said. “It was never this kind of holistic thing I was looking for.”
He worked with personal trainers, cycling instructors, doctors and physical therapists to come up with the Velovoom concept.
The Bethesda location is in the lower level of a building on Cordell Avenue. The studio is 3,500 square feet, with three main rooms: a locker room area, the studio and a back room, which is still being renovated. Caputo said he and his partners are also planning to open two more locations in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.
Participants come into the dark studio — mirrored all around — and follow the instructor for an intense 45-minute session. A membership is not required; and one of the 45 bikes can be reserved via the Web. The first session is free and individual sessions after that are $24, but packs of five, 10, 20 or 30 classes can be purchased for a little less.
Caputo said he wanted to create something unique, and different than a typical spinning class.
The lights are very low — it’s almost completely dark — so participants don’t have to feel like others are watching them. Cell phones aren’t allowed in the studio either, so it is set up for minimal distractions. And the music blares over a surround-sound speaker system, which Caputo believes helps keep a “pack mentality” during the session.
According to the U.S. Small Business Association, three out of 10 small businesses fail in two years, and only five out of 10 make it to five years.
Having worked with struggling businesses before, Caputo knows the statistics. He knows there’s a recession. He knows he’s opening a business in a time when businesses are hurting and access to capital is tight.
So he knows the risk he’s taking with this venture, but believes his passion for Velovoom will create a following.
Caputo says the investment from him and his two partners into Velovoom has been about $750,000, but would not be more specific. They expect the Bethesda Velovoom location to be profitable within six months, and to generate $1 million in revenue by the end of its first year.
“There are really a lot of just really unhappy people that have a job. They don’t have a career, there’s no passion, no inspiration,” he said. “The handful of people you actually meet that love what they do are successful.”
Open only a few weeks, Caputo said the feedback he has received from class participants has exceeded every expectation he had. In the first week and a half, he said they had about 400 people come in to take classes.
Michelle Beaumont, 43, a nutritionist and fitness trainer from Bethesda, took a Velovoom class in late January. And aside from the “intense” workout — described that way by many who took the class that day — she also commended the customer service.
“They offer you water, you can get hair ties,” she said. “It’s a very comfortable atmosphere, and the owner is very involved with each and every class and each and every person that comes in.”
Giving people that kind of customer service is important to Caputo, and what he believes distinguishes his model from other fitness centers.
“This is not a big corporate gym,” he said. “This is a community.”
Velovoom soon hit an unforeseen snag after its first few weeks: a snow storm.
On January 26, when the region was hammered with snow, Caputo said the transformer for the entire block of Cordell Avenue blew out, and they lost power and heat for six days.
They had to postpone their grand opening party a few weeks and have only been able to host intermittent classes while they regroup.
“It concerns me only because we lost a little bit of momentum, but we’re just trying to take it in stride,” he said.
The only upside to the storm, he said, was that it gave him a little more time to interview instructor candidates. Currently they have five, and are looking for more.
One of his class instructors, Melissa Kullen, 37, of Rockville, has been teaching fitness classes for 15 years. She said she is inspired by Caputo’s vision, which she described as a “party on a bike.”
“From the first moment we knew there was a connection, there was a click” between her and Caputo, she said. “It’s more fun than I’ve ever had teaching for many, many, many years. I have arrived.”
But despite this initial success, Caputo has had many issues “working out the kinks” common to small-business startups.
“You know, contractor delays and permit delays and stereo problems,” he said. A communication error even led him to have to — with a few friends — unload 6,000 pounds of furniture and equipment from a delivery truck.
“This is everything to me. If I’m able to help people change, and I can give them what they want, then there’s no doubt in my mind that this will succeed,” he said.
“As trite as this may sound, failure is not an option.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)