Personal fitness coach Kai helps you set and reach your goals -- all through text messaging

Your trainer's always at your fingertips
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 11, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-11 07:15:55-04

If you like the idea of keeping your personal trainer in your pocket -- literally -- you might like Kai.

According to its founders, Kai is the world's first AI fitness coach that communicates entirely by text message. You text Kai your goals, Kai formulates a plan, gets you started on it and then helps you stick to it.

The appeal to consumers is that they get the benefit of personal coaching at a fraction of the cost. 

Whose idea was this?

It began with Taylor Mill native Jonathan Smith, who's now Kai's CEO. The Vanderbilt University graduate worked for Crossroads, the Tri-State region's largest church, to create the church's digital strategy, which was originally called Crossroads Anywhere.

Crossroads wanted to connect with people who watched worship services online but didn't live near one of the church's campuses. So, at the end of webcasts, it asked those who had questions to text a certain phone number.

That received a tremendous response, Smith said, which impressed upon him the power of text messaging.

His own fitness journey also made an impression. He was paying $400 a month to a personal trainer whom he saw infrequently and communicated with mostly via email, he said. Personal trainers are expensive and the quality varies greatly, he said

"Having a good mentor, coach, or leader in life is a luxury that's not available to everyone," said his sister, Jane Decker. "I don't think that's fair."

What's her story?

Decker spent her 15th through her 21st years writing pop songs and singing in a band. She tried out for "The Voice" television show and made it to an in-person audition but wasn't selected to move on. She continues a solo career in her spare time.

She became interested in Kai when her brother did a 50-day pilot of the product last year, and she found that she enjoyed talking with customers and helping them reach their goals. Now, she's Kai's chief operating officer.

Kai's third co-founder and chief technical officer, Dan Rye, worked at Crossroads with Smith doing software development. He participated in the pilot project as a customer, he said, and it helped him a lot. Through his participation, he met Decker and asked her to let Smith know he wanted to help.

Among themselves, friends and family, they've raised $75,000 to create Kai, plus $50,000 from the Ocean accelerator in Over-the-Rhine, where Kai is a member of the current startup class.

Ocean management chose Kai for the program because of the founders' passion for the product, said director Lauren Tiffan. "There's a lot of potential for their solution to scale and transform the concept of any form of coaching and customer communication," she said.

Why the name?

Kai means "and" in ancient Greek, the language the New Testament was written in. It's the most common word in the Greek New Testament, which gives it special meaning to all three founders, Smith said.

They wanted their company to have a name more personal than something like "Automated Personal Trainers Inc.," so that customers can tell their friends that "Kai" is helping them meet their goals, Decker said. 

Now, they have to refine the company's pitch to potential investors for the Ocean demo day on April 24.

Only a handful of people are paying for Kai's services, Smith said, so one big goal is to increase that number via Facebook ads and via word of mouth. Another goal is to hire two to five employees with a background in customer support or coaching, who can help coach customers.

"We want coaches to have deep relationships with people, but at scale," Rye said. That will happen with help from Kai, whose software will help the human coaches remember what they've told customers before, and suggest things to tell them now.

"We're building the tools to turn human coaches into superhuman coaches," Smith said.

Their biggest challenge has been sifting through all the advice they've received to decide what's good and what's not so good. 

"In the startup world, people poke a lot of holes in what we are doing," Decker said. "We have to keep believing that we have an incredible product and that this will grow."