Dick Costolo explains why he shut down his fitness startup after 8 months: ‘We were up against hard-wired human behaviour’

GettyDick Costolo

  • Dick Costolo, best known as Twitter’s former CEO, has shut down Chorus, his fitness app startup, just a few months after releasing the app to the app store.
  • He explains to Business Insider that the app was running afoul of a deep-seated human psychological phenomenon known as “abstinence violation effect.”
  • The app still had money-making potential, but because of AVE, Costolo says it wasn’t doing what he dreamed it would do: helping people use “social accountability” to stay fit.
  • We tried the app and liked it, and agree that it won’t help people overcome AVE.

On Tuesday, Dick Costolo announced to the users of his fitness app, Chorus, that he was pulling the plug on the app and shutting down the company, less than a year after launch.

The problem? Chorus was trying to get people to exercise by having their friends motivate them, but it was running smack dab into a deep-seated human psychology called “abstinence violation effect.”

Chorus was an app in which teams of friends, a so-called chorus, would sign up as a group. Each person would declare their workout plans to the rest of the group for each day of the week (or declare other goals such as their plans to meditate each day, or to eat right).

“The thesis was, and still is, that social accountability and social motivation are the only way to get people to do the things they sort of otherwise wouldn’t do,” Costolo tells to Business Insider.

Launched as a beta just eight months ago, Chorus landed in Apple’s App store in December and, while it was doing OK attracting new users, it was having a lot of trouble keeping people using the app.

“People started using it and then would bail after four weeks or eight weeks. They’d get the flu or they’d travel for work and drop the ball,” Costolo says.

The irony is that this was the exact problem the app was trying to solve.

The “abstinence violation effect”

If a group was training together for a certain event, say the New York Marathon race in November, or a wedding, Chorus users stayed engaged. The same was true for people who were physically training together once a week or so anyway, like a running club.

But the vast majority of people who want to get in shape and need motivational help were bailing.

They were supposed to use the app to check in with their friends, notice when they missed workouts, offer support to get back on the bandwagon, make plans to meet up and so on.

That sounds like a great idea, but it turns out, people find it hard to offer this kind of support, even to friends who have agreed to be workout buddies.

To make matters worse, the app triggered a psychological phenom known as the “abstinence violation effect” (AVE).

That’s when people hide from their support group when when they fail to meet the group’s expectations, instead of turning to the group for help.

Chorus tried all sorts of things to overcome AVE: having trainers on the platform that could answer questions, allowing people to do one-day challenges, encouraging chatting, and encouraging posting a weekly plan. But people wallowing in the depths of AVE would turn off the notifications.

In other words, thanks to AVE, Chorus was contributing to the very thing it was trying to solve, and making people hide from their workout buddies.

I had been using Chorus myself since it was in beta testing with a group of four friends and I can attest that we all loved the idea but all of us still struggled to use the app to really motivate each other. When I told my friends that Chorus was shutting down, one of them said, “That’s too bad. It did motivate me, even though I didn’t use it as intended.”

Another said, “I had a hard time going that extra mile to log in there. I mean they had some stiff competition with Garmon and Strava.”

No pivot, please

The company could have still made money by charging people subscriptions up front, even though they likely wouldn’t use the app for long, Costolo says.

Business Insider/Julie BortThis is Chorus, the short-lived fitness motivation app

The fitness industry is full of this tactic, he points out. Even health clubs do that.

But, he and his team had not interest in that business.

So the options were: change the business model (known in the Valley as a pivot) or close down.

Some 10 people worked at Chorus. It had also raised an undisclosed seed round from the Chernin Group and UTA Ventures.

“We had lots of money left in the bank,” he said.

Costolo is best known as the former CEO of Twitter, which he took public in 2013. He also worked at Google.

But Chorus was actually his sixth startup “if you count Twitter, and I do, because when I got there it was 40 people or so in 2009.”

He founded four of the six startups, he said, and he’s had plenty of startup success, including Feedburner which sold to Google, and an Internet-bubble era company called Spyonit which also sold to a company called 724 Solutions.

He says it’s always a hard decision to know when to keep going or when to shut down because all startups go through wild swings where there’s reason to believe the business will be successful and reasons to think it won’t.

“As a founder you have to be able to be resilient,” he says.

But he knew it was time to pack Chorus in because it didn’t have a business model he and the team wanted to pursue, “and we were running against hard-wired human behaviour.”

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