By Nur Isyana Isaman
When COVID-19 hit, virtual running events exploded in popularity as people sought safe ways to exercise during the lockdown period. The audience for virtual runs is also very large since participants can run wherever they are based.
Zhou Mi (NBS/2013), the co-founder of 42Technology which developed 42Race, a fitness social platform, caught the emerging trend, and today, her company is one of the frontrunners in online fitness solutions in Southeast Asia.
The talented businesswoman did not set out to own a company when she was a business undergraduate at NTU. Her first ambition was to become an accountant.
Zhou Mi is the co-founder of 42Technology, the developer behind fitness app 42Race.
She first encountered entrepreneurship when she signed up for the Minor in Entrepreneurship programme during the summer break after Year 1. As part of the programme, she was offered to set up a pushcart business at NTU South Spine at a very affordable rental rate.
She continued, “My business model was very simple. I procured stationery with cute designs from overseas and sold them at a profit. I earned about S$80,000 in just one year. That experience opened my eyes to the opportunities of entrepreneurship and made me believe that I can be successful at it.”
Zhou Mi’s first business venture: selling stationery at South Spine in 2010.
Yet Zhou Mi did not pursue her newfound passion. After graduating with a double degree in Accountancy and Marketing from Nanyang Business School in 2013, she joined Procter & Gamble as a marketer.
In late 2014, the avid runner completed a 250km ultra-marathon in Madagascar and raised funds for NTU student bursaries.
Zhou Mi (left) and fellow NTU alumnus, Lim Zhen Long (CCEB/2013) whom she befriended at Procter & Gamble, after completing the 250km ultra-marathon in Madagascar in 2014.
That sense of achievement gave her a morale boost and the confidence to quit her job and launch her entrepreneurial dream.
With her co-founder, Augustine Chua, whom she had met during an inter-university programme, she set up an Internet-based business providing travel packages for running enthusiasts participating in global marathons.
Before that, they participated in various hackathons and won a S$10,000 cash prize. They also raised S$500,000 in seed funding from investors.
However, while their business idea was good, the business growth was not good enough.
The bubbly 34-year-old said: “In 2016, we decided to pivot from travel planning to virtual running. Virtual runs were a fairly new concept back then and we were the first such start-up in Singapore. Our company provides a branding platform for brands and a dashboard for runners to record their timing and update their social feeds to show how they are enjoying the run experience. Our big break came when we organised a major virtual run with Reebok in 2018, which attracted over 7,000 participants across Southeast Asia - setting our company’s record.”
The company name was inspired by the sci-fi novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. According to the book, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is 42.
During the pandemic, her company delivered more than 400 online running projects through partnerships with companies including AIA and Great Eastern, and about 50 fundraising virtual runs for charitable organisations. For example, the virtual SAFRA Run and Army Marathon saw even higher participation rates with over 30,000 runners.
Nevertheless, like most businesses, 42Race was also impacted by the pandemic.
Zhou Mi explained, “The logistics chain was affected. At one point, we couldn’t provide medals for our runs. We also had to quickly come up with solutions and developed new products to keep our business going. We sold our software to companies that needed an employee engagement system for health and wellness tracking. We also introduced 42Class, a virtual gym system with curated fitness videos, user-generated content and customisation features.”
Zhou Mi (sitting, first from right) leads a team of about 20 people at 42Technology.
Zhou Mi is proud that the platform has now served over 600,000 users. She attributes her success to three groups of people: supportive investors who believed in their unconventional business, her well-connected NTU alumni friends who gave her good advice, and the brand partners who provided them with golden opportunities.
One of the many lessons she has learnt as an entrepreneur is to stay resilient and be adaptable, especially in the ever-changing and fast-moving Internet business landscape. She advises budding entrepreneurs to “make a lot of friends and build safety nets because there will be a lot of risks”.
Additionally, she says that it is important to identify the issues faced by your target consumers, before thinking of providing them with solutions.
“For the fitness industry, it is not so much about new equipment or more services. The hurdle is that people lack the motivation to keep fit, so this is the value that we try to deliver through our products. We are currently working on a new app called Tiny Pets, where we will use gamification to motivate people to be happier and healthier through exercise.”
With consumers becoming ever more health-conscious, Zhou Mi has a long and satisfying race ahead of her.