When this fitness instructor’s studio closed during the pandemic, she created a line of at-home Pilates equipment
In February of 2020, fitness instructor Melissa Bentivoglio opened Frame Fitness, a Pilates studio in Rosedale featuring custom-designed machines. Only six weeks later, she was forced to close her doors. So, during the pandemic, Bentivoglio designed a sleek, compact and techy Pilates reformer machine for at-home use, raising $5 million in seed financing with her husband and co-founder, Lee Belzberg. Here’s how she got started.
—As told to Karoun Chahinian
“Growing up, I was a classically trained ballerina, competitive dancer and a provincial soccer player. I was dancing 30 hours a week and competing all over North America throughout my childhood and adolescence. Then, when I was 18, I fractured my pelvic bone and a doctor suggested I take up Pilates to help in my recovery.
“I immediately fell in love with the exercise, and I completed my first mat Pilates certification in 2004 while studying psychology at U of T. In addition to Pilates, I also did a yoga certification and became a personal trainer. When I discovered reformer Pilates a little while later, I immediately fell with the efficacy of the workout. It is low-impact but high intensity and felt like a natural evolution of my dance expression.
“I met my partner in life and in business, Lee Belzberg, at a party in Muskoka 12 years ago. Now, we have three beautiful and spirited children, who we raise in Lytton Park. At the time, Lee was a partner at Summit Wealth, a benefits consulting firm that focused on private equity, and I had begun teaching Pilates in Toronto’s top studios and developed a robust client roster of professional athletes, medical doctors and top executives.
“For the last decade, I continued growing my brand as a fitness instructor. I was happy with my work, and ecstatic to be able to make a career out of a passion. However I started thinking more about the reformer itself—it’s a versatile machine made up of a big rectangular frame with a rolling platform and resistance springs—that helps tone your core while keeping your spine and back stable. I asked myself, How can I make the reformer better? In early 2018, my focus shifted from training to product design. I sought out one of the leading industrial designers at the time and flew to New York City to design my own studio reformer.
“It took about two years to get the Frame by Melissa reformer right. I would fly back and forth to New York while we were prototyping for functionality and aesthetics. The biggest thing was making sure all the moving elements, like the handlebars or springs, functioned well. At the same time, I was also renovating and designing a fully bespoke boutique brick-and-mortar studio in Rosedale.
“Everything was starting to come together by early 2020. I had manufactured 16 custom reformers and my studio, which was a full gut job, was finally ready. Frame Fitness officially opened its doors in February of 2020 with a lot of excitement in the community. In our second week, our classes began to sell out and the energy in the studio was infectious. Little did I know, we would only stay open for six short weeks. The pandemic hit and our doors were forced to close.
“I was devastated as a result of the closure, but those first few weeks of the pandemic allowed me much needed rest. The creative part of my brain was in full swing. During one of my home workouts, my mind started to wander, and I thought of a concept that I had while designing my first reformer—which was for an at-home Pilates machine—but I didn’t have the mental bandwidth then to explore a second concept. The idle time allowed me to focus on the idea. It felt very serendipitous.
“There had been so much growth in the competitive landscape of at-home fitness prior to the pandemic and it was something that I anticipated would only continue to grow. People have busy lives and everyone likes convenience and flexibility. People may work out at home four days a week, but then they will jump into a SoulCycle class on a Saturday morning or meet their girlfriends on Thursday night for a Solidcore class. I was paying attention to this transition and noticed its potential. I knew I had a great idea because as popular as reformer Pilates is, reformers are not designed for the home. They are cumbersome and require complicated instruction. Once I was forced to close down, I knew it was time. I thought, Let’s do this.
“I had gone through the design process once before, so when I went back to the drawing board in March of 2020 to sketch out the new at-home reformer, I had a lot more confidence. I knew my compact version had to be smaller, lighter, foldable, user-friendly and, most importantly, it needed an interactive video screen that would allow me to guide viewers through movements.
“We began approaching investors at the height of Covid’s first wave via Zoom from our home in Toronto. It’s challenging to secure capital with early-stage startups because of the high risk. This was my first attempt at raising money, and the pandemic added an extra layer of complexity. It was intimidating. The first time I pitched my concept to a group of investors, it brought me back to doing presentations for a class at university—only 1,000 times worse because the stakes were a lot higher.
“Lee is innately gifted at developing a far-reaching professional network, and he was able to get me in front of those connections. We closed our private seed round in March of 2021 with $5 million from a total of 30 investors, including Mark Mastrov, founder and former CEO of 24 Hour Fitness; Jim Rowley, CEO of Crunch Fitness; Michael Bruno, CEO and chairman of Core Health and Fitness; Ernie Moody, founder of Action Gaming; and Jaclyn Johnson, founder of Create and Cultivate.
“I started working on the at-home reformer with my previous industrial designer but later transitioned to a phenomenally talented designer that I could bring in-house to collaborate with me throughout the entire process. In September of 2021, we launched Frame Fitness and two months later, we opened up for pre-orders. The response has been overwhelming. We sold 100 units in the first 48 hours. Our growth has been entirely organic, and it’s exciting and gratifying to see the reception.
“Right now, the reformers are getting ready for mass production, and we’re planning to ship to consumers in early spring 2022. In the meantime, we have been working to continue to evolve the business. We just filmed an exciting video campaign in New York that will launch in January. I am also working on creating content for subscribers as well as adding fitness instructors to the Frame team.
“We’re not just creating a system for Pilates. We’re making our screen swivelable so users can stream classes for yoga, stretching and weight training. We’ve also incorporated kid-friendly tutorials so everyone in the family can join in. Our main goal is to ensure our user interface and user experience are versatile, functional and intuitive. We’re also thinking about other features and elements we would like to incorporate in the future. It’s an exciting time.”