Before Nidhi Kulkarni co-founded Spitfire, she did what many of us do after graduating college — she found a good, safe job where she worked hard and burned a lot of midnight oil. But she soon realized she was only pushing herself to avoid the fact that she felt lost and creatively unfulfilled. When the chance came to take a creative side project to the next level, she took it and launched Spitfire Athlete, a strength training and weightlifting app of thousands of users that helps women build physical and mental strength.
Nidhi and her co-founder have created a community of women that focuses on reconnecting with your body and building a confident mindset. What’s just as special is that they did it their own way, going against the “founder myth” that tells us we have to raise a buttload of money from VCs (most of whom are men). For you good girls with a passionate creative side project wondering whether to take the leap, Nidhi offers some wonderful advice.
Nothing compares to do doing something that is truly your own.
— Nidhi Kulkarni
Majo: So I bet in the last two years it’s been an adventure, with a lot of ups and downs. The launch and being on the iTunes homepage seems like an up?
Nidhi: (laughs) Very much so.
Majo: Paint a down for me.
Nidhi: Actually, the next step in the story is a down. So we’re riding this high, we have all this traction, we got into Tech Stars, which is this prestigious accelerator… You know, We’re doing it! We were doing the whole Silicon Valley thing, right? You quit your job, you found a company, you’ve got some traction, you’re in this prestigious accelerator, now you’re gonna raise a bunch of money and everything will be great. It’s how it’s supposed to go, but that’s not how it went.
We learned a lot from Tech Stars, but the focus of these accelerators is basically to do the next thing on this path, which is to raise your next round. And I don’t think we were really feeling it. We would talk to a lot of VCs… our whole day was just talking to VCs and pitching this idea for Spitfire, which had actual traction and we were getting great feedback on it. But for some reason the idea was just falling flat every time we tried to pitch it to a VC. They didn’t get it. We had VCs say to us, Don’t women just want to lose weight and commiserate about their diets? Do they really want to lift weights and get stronger? And we’re like, What are you talking about?! We had so many conversations like that we started to feel like we were wasting our time. All of the time we were spending trying to get people to give us money we could have been spending making our own, and actually building Spitfire and creating the vision that we wanted instead of trying to convince someone else of it.
Majo: Now most of these VCs you’re pitching to, I imagine they’re mostly men?
NIdhi: Yeah, mostly. I don’t know that we pitched to any female VCs, maybe one.
Majo: And they’re not buying into the idea that there would be an audience for it?
Nidhi: Not at all. They were viewing it as a niche product, they didn’t see it as a mass market thing. And for VCs, since they want to make very many multiples over their original investment, they tend to gravitate towards ideas that they think are going to have a ton of people using them. But we know our vision actually does apply to a lot of people. There are a lot of women who strength train, women are the biggest consumers of fitness products. So we know that it’s a big market, but we had to convince people who probably weren’t convincible of that fact. A lot of times the only reference they would have for a potential user of our product was their wife or girlfriend. They would say, I don’t know any women who would use this. And we’re thinking, Well that’s not a really good measure of whether or not this is a good idea. We have actual numbers to back this up.
The problem with this is that it’s part of the whole Silicon Valley founder myth, that’s what I call it at least. “This is what you have to do next.” We would have trouble sleeping, we would literally wake up one day and say, We have to raise money, we have to do this! And then the next day we just wouldn’t want to do it and would just work on Spitfire. We were flip-flopping every day, sometimes multiple times a day. It might not sound like much of a down, but it really was because it put the brakes on our momentum and excitement about doing Spitfire. We were very conflicted, and so much of that conflict had to do with buying into this prescribed set of steps that we were suppose to follow, and getting to the point where we felt like the next step wasn’t right for us and not something we really wanted to do.
We talked about it and came to the conclusion that we didn’t want to raise money. We didn’t think that was the right thing for us and we wanted to retain more control over the company. We didn’t want to involve these other people who weren’t very convinced of it anyway. That’s when we really made the decision that we weren’t going to buy into this anymore. Suddenly we could sleep and everything we’ve done since then has brought us closer to our actual goal, which is to have Spitfire be a self-sustaining company. And we don’t want it to be small; we envision it being as big as Nike one day. Or bigger.
- Nidhi growing up: On being quiet and introverted, her love for sports, and testing her own limits. [3:38]
- The teacher who helped change her trajectory and what it was like being the only girl in her programming class. [8:05]
- Nidhi reflects on the reasons for holding herself back in the past, and why she forces herself to do things she’s afraid of. [12:46]
- On practice, intimidation, and the rigors of studying computer science at MIT. [16:38]
- Dealing with stress, the importance of rowing (exercise), plus Nidhi’s brief encounter with “imposter syndrome”. [22:02]
- After college: Nidhi talks about feeling lost for a while, working a lot, and the encounter that forced her to decide between taking a chance and playing it safe. [27:46]
- Starting Spitfire Athlete and a new phase of life. [34:12]
- From a super high to a frustrating low: Nidhi shares why buying into the “founder myth” and following a prescribed set of steps didn’t work for them (and what they did instead). [38:03]
- The vision behind Spitfire Athlete: Taking a unique and vital approach to women’s fitness by growing strength and confidence. [43:23]
- Nidhi shares an incredibly moving success story from one of their users. [49:17]
- “Nothing compares to doing something that is fully your own.” Nidhi’s advice to women with side projects they want to move forward. [51:04]
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Spitfire Athlete is a fitness app that helps women build their strength and power through structured training programs. The app features bodyweight and weight training programs for a variety of goals and sports from rock climbing to triathlons to powerlifting. The app has helped women around the world lift more than their bodyweight, learn how to do their first pull-up, and train to overcome anorexia.
Training with Spitfire Athlete is about cultivating the athlete’s mentality — it’s not about what you look like, it’s about what you can do. The warrior’s mentality of strength, mental toughness, grit and dedication.