How exercise and rehab business Symmetrix pivoted and thrived during COVID-19

The company was able to both retain customers and expand.

A Symmetrix kinesiologist helps out a client

The company found a way to retain customers and expand

Kent MacWilliam’s career path has had more twists than an episode of CSI.

The Vancouverite studied science at McGill University in Montreal and worked as a geologist all over the world, including stints in northern B.C., Alaska and Quebec. But after a three-year spell plying his trade in Africa, he moved back home and started working for nonprofit Ancient Forest Alliance to help its mission of protecting the province’s old growth forests.

“The idea there is not anti-logging at all,” MacWilliam says. “It’s really about reshaping the logging industry to be more sustainable.” He also spent some time fundraising for another nonprofit, HUB Cycling.

But in April 2018, MacWilliam took his career for a swerve once again, partnering with kinesiologist Dasha Maslennikova to buy and open a Yaletown training and rehab clinic that they dubbed Symmetrix.

“Honestly, I think it’s been exactly what I needed in my life,” he insists. “In exploration, I was always working for somebody else. And that can be great, but also frustrating. And with fundraising, yes, I had a lot of independence, but you can only do so much.”

MacWilliam sees a different and enjoyable element in “controlling my own budget and building my own team and doing things the way I see them—it’s just such a game changer for me. I wake up excited to go to work, and when I work into the evening, I’m stoked on it.”

Of course, working at all became something of a problem when the COVID-19 pandemic came to Canada, forcing Symmetrix to shut down.

“It felt devastating, like the whole world was turned upside down, just so much uncertainty,” MacWilliam remembers. The timing wasn’t great, either: the company had just closed a deal on a second location in Burnaby that they took possession of on March 31.

“We bought the studio, and it was closed on day one,” MacWilliam says. “And we struggled with continuity of service for our clients who were working with the previous owner and then all of a sudden weren’t. We had to introduce ourselves and be like, Hey, we’re not open, but maybe you should think about buying a package.”

Surprisingly, attempts to bring in revenue through the pandemic were effective, as Symmetrix pivoted to an online model, scheduling personal and partner training and rehab sessions over Zoom. “Within the first couple weeks, we had about half of our clients doing virtual sessions,” MacWilliam says.

The strategy then shifted, with MacWilliam and company realizing that “a lot of competitors are probably not spending much money, so let’s go all in. We found a new marketing agency to work with, and that really helped get things on track. I was doing a lot of the comms stuff—went overtime on MailChimp, lot of emails, making sure we kept in regular contact. At first it was just to check in and see how they’re doing. I think people really appreciated that authentic connection, building the relationships.”

Save for MacWilliam himself and an admin person, the rest of the 10-person team are all registered kinesiologists. As he notes, “most people don’t really know what [kinesiology] is—it’s kind of halfway between personal training and physiotherapy.”

The approach seems to be working, as the company, which safely reopened operations in June (though about 10 to 15 percent of its business still takes place online), achieved B Corporation status and will move to a larger Yaletown space in May.

“As I see it, Symmetrix is a really original business,” MacWilliam says. “We’re probably the only spot in the Lower Mainland that only has kinesiologists. And we like to do things differently,” he adds. “We’re beholden to stakeholders rather than just shareholders. It feels good to have a different model.”