Asia’s answer to ClassPass is pivoting to become a marketplace for local services

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One of Asia’s most-funded clones of U.S.-based subscription fitness service ClassPass is pivoting to local services.

KFit, which has raised more than $15 million from investors that include Sequoia, announced today that it has acquired the Groupon Malaysia business in an undisclosed deal. That comes less than six months after KFit, which operates a fitness-style ‘buffet’ for customers in 10 cities in Asia Pacific, purchased Groupon Indonesia.

Why is a fitness-focused company buying Groupon, the much-maligned daily deals site?

Let’s start with the official reason. Like the Indonesia transaction, which was completed in August, KFit said today’s news is about expanding its focus into local services.

Earlier this summer it launched Fave, a platform to help local retailers use the internet — and, in particular, mobile — to reach consumers. That model is often referred to as offline-to-online, or O2O for short, and it is a trend that has taken off in China. In a sign of its potential, China’s largest O2O player raised $3.3 billion earlier this year at a valuation of $18 billion, but the trend is yet to catch on elsewhere. That’s the wave that it appears KFit wants to surf in Southeast Asia.

Buying Groupon’s businesses gives KFit a running start, although figures for the Malaysia operations are a little hazy — with an announcement claiming the deals site is “serving millions of customers and thousands of local businesses” in the country.

KFit said Groupon Malaysia will transition to Fave, as Groupon Indonesia already did, in early 2017. That will essentially see it add new categories for fitness, wellness and other gym-related sectors to its current commerce business. KFit said it will retain around 90 percent of staff, with senior Groupon Malaysia executives likely to move on to new roles inside the company.

“Millions of local businesses are booming in China thanks to the adoption of O2O services, with hundreds of millions of consumers embracing these platforms as part of their day-to-day lives. The convenience and value benefits of these platforms are key drivers of this new norm. This future is inevitable for Southeast Asia and we hope to be at the forefront of this exciting shift,” KFit CEO and co-founder Joel Neoh said in a statement.

Fave is currently operational in three cities — Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Singapore — but KFit is available in 10 cities across Asia Pacific. Neoh told TechCrunch that KFit is focused on O2O in Southeast Asia, which could mean that the original fitness service is shuttered in the future.

“It works well the way it is,” he said in an interview. “Once we are done with the Groupon integrations we will explore [the future of] KFit… there’s no rush right now, it works fine.”

At this point, it’s important to connect the dots since there are many links between the two companies.

Neoh started group-buying site GroupsMore in Malaysia which Groupon acquired within months of launch. Post-acquisition, he led Groupon’s operations in Asia before leaving to start KFit in 2015. Fellow KFit co-founder Yeoh Chen Chow was regional operations director for Groupon APAC, too.

It’s also important to note that KFit has had some issues with its business which may be behind this pivot. Back when it raised its $12 million Series A in January, we reported that it had been struggling financially:

Reaching profitability before the year is up would be notable, given that KFit was carding a fairly high monthly burn rate — negative $320,000 in Q3 2015, 80 percent of which went to staffing, according to documents seen by TechCrunch.

(Our sources within the company have since left, indicating that there has been notable turnover in staff this year.)

The Series A funding came just in time with little money left in the bank. So, an alternative theory for today’s news other than the one put forward by the company is that KFit didn’t find meaningful revenue in offering a straight-up ClassPass-style service therefore its founders went back to a business they know — quite literally — in Groupon to stay afloat.

Neoh admitted that the “unit economics [of KFit] was a challenge” early on. But he claimed the company raised prices and discontinued its unlimited tier, moves that shrunk its user base but, he said, made the fitness business break-even/profitable.

“It was quite painful when we had to adjust it but it was sustainable and profitable,” he added.

That mirrors the struggles of ClassPass, which pioneered this model, certainly shows that it isn’t easy to succeed in with fitness subscriptions, even with a brand and first-mover advantage.

The U.S. company introduced higher pricing earlier this year which saw it lose 10 percent of its customers in exchange for healthier margins. It later ditched the popular unlimited tier altogether in November to search of better finances.

Today’s news will be of particular interest to KFit rival GuavaPass, which recently raised $5 million in fresh funding. GuavaPass’s founders are adamant that they have what it takes to make the model work in Asia Pacific. We shall see.

November 27 22:00 PDT: Story updated with quotes from KFit CEO Joel Neoh