Whoop: the Private Members’ Club for Wearables

The company has a unique strategy, but one that leaves many sceptical

I’m always on the lookout for the latest wearables news; this week, an announcement from Whoop grabbed my attention. The health and fitness-focussed wearables company offers a $30 (£30) monthly subscription to its platform and free hardware. In September 2021, it announced its latest device, Whoop 4.0, and a brand-new range of sports apparel, Whoop Body. The latter comes with slots for users to insert their Whoop device, which the company says will help “wearables live up to their name”.

These announcements come after a busy summer for the start-up. During a funding round led by SoftBank in August 2021, it raised $200 million, representing a valuation of $3.6 billion. According to Whoop, this makes it the most valuable standalone start-up wearables company in the world.

The Whoop 4.0, shown below, is a one-size-fits-all sensing device that includes heart rate, blood oxygen and temperature monitoring. Notably, it does all this without a screen; the device is concealed behind a simple woven band. The company also recently launched AnyWear technology that allows the user to place their wearable device on the torso, waist or calf using a strap. Subscribers also have the option to insert the device into the company’s Whoop Body apparel range, which stocks boxers, shorts, sports bras, leggings and compression tops, priced between £30 and £90.

Whoop’s subscription model stands out in the wearables category. The concept is simple; once you’ve subscribed, you receive a free device and access to personalized lifestyle and training feedback from the platform. This approach inverts the strategy of the likes of Apple and Samsung, which sell high-margin wearables and provide a companion health app to boost device purchases and ensure users remain loyal to their ecosystems.

Whoop also sets itself apart by focussing on how the body performs during a workout and how it recovers, providing guidance about the “strain” a user experiences at any given time and suggesting a good time to exercise. As such, the company is laser-focussed on enhancing its health-tracking algorithms, and a good example is its recent acquisition of Push, a provider of velocity-based sensor technology for weightlifting.

For Whoop, its central “strain” metric is calculated by triangulating heart-rate variability (HRV), sleep-tracking information and average heart rate. HRV, the lesser-known measure in this calculation, is a term used to describe the average variation in time between heartbeats. It’s also allegedly an accurate metric to indicate the overall readiness of a person to exercise. This isn’t widely used on other devices but does feature on high-end Garmin models.

In terms of design, “it’s a Whoop, not a watch” is the guiding philosophy in the company’s approach. Whoop aims to retain subscription customers by providing a premium smartphone application rather than a wrist-based experience; this results in a deliberately pared-back design, making the band “disappear”, according to founder Will Ahmed. The Whoop Body range of clothing is an extension of this strategy, and I believe the company is hoping that its fashion credentials could lead to an element of “gym posturing”.

But who is Whoop really for? Well, the device enjoys success among elite athletes and has benefited from the credibility delivered by its high-profile users. Indeed, when watching Whoop’s inaugural Unlocked 2021 event, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a private members’ club for high-achievers. The event featured glowing testimonials from the most successful Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, NFL player Patrick Mahomes and golf Olympian Nelly Korta. This is reminiscent of Nike’s approach a while back, when it heavily relied on high-calibre celebrity endorsements to build its brand. However, Whoop may dream of achieving a similar level of brand recognition, but it still needs to pass the consumer “cool” test first.

Even with such a star-studded set of users, it’s unclear to me what the mid- to long-term strategy is for Whoop. After a staggering valuation that no doubt benefited from an investor-friendly recurring revenue model, the subscription business will have to grow. Mr Ahmed says the company is experiencing “tremendous user growth”, but Whoop has never given an indication of its user numbers.

I doubt personalized feedback about workout recovery will be enough to entice fitness enthusiasts, let alone more casual users, to take on the steep $30 subscription fee. In my experience, for most fitness enthusiasts it’s enough to know how hard they pushed, how far they travelled and how fast they went. Although Whoop has been at pains to educate the market about the value of its analysis, it remains to be seen if the mass market is convinced by this.

So the real challenge for Whoop starts now. It will need to do more to communicate to the average person what the real benefits of its fitness and health technology are beyond understanding recovery better. Celebrity endorsements and funding rounds are always welcome, but I’m not convinced that the $30 subscription will pull in the number of users Whoop needs to repay the investment it has drawn. Still, the company is blazing a new trail in the wearables market, and I’ll be tracking its health with interest.