How Jacobs Ladder went from relatively unknown to an overnight success, and why it’s a must-have for the fitness floor today.
Over the years, the industry has seen its share of trends that hit the scene, are popular for a month or two and then fade into obscurity.
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is not one of those trends. Since 2014, the format has been a mainstay on ACSM’s annual Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends, consistently appearing in the Top 10.
This is unsurprising considering the many obligations U.S. consumers are juggling these days across their personal, professional and family lives that lead them to prioritize quick, effective workouts.
The brand Jacobs Ladder delivers on this criteria, creating “Serious Cardio Machines for Serious Workouts.” The brand’s cardio machines — including the original Jacobs Ladder, the Stairway and the new Jacobs Ladder X — offer a higher calorie burn with a lower level of perceived exertion, making them “easier to work harder on” than any other piece of gym equipment on the market.
In fact, the high intensity and effectiveness of the original Jacobs Ladder is what Bob Palka, the current owner, fell in love with when he first began toying with the idea of buying the company in the early 2000s.
“In 2003, I was looking to buy a business of my own,” recalled Palka. “I actually sent letters out to 1,500 businesses in the Western New York area looking for business owners who were wanting to sell. I got 12 answers back and was working on three different businesses in initial due diligence when someone called me and said, ‘Nothing I have is for sale, but if you are interested in listening to an idea, I’ve got one for you.’”
The caller told Palka about Steve Nichols, the inventor of the Jacobs Ladder. Nichols had patented the design and started producing the product in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a business guy, and was running the business cash-dry.
Not knowing what to expect and feeling hesitant due to his lack of experience in the fitness industry, Palka met with Nichols anyway and asked to speak to about 30 past customers about why they’d purchased the cardio machine.
“What I found out was these customers loved this machine,” said Palka. “Not only was it a great workout, but it was durable. Then in January of 2004, I got a chance to get a workout in on a Jacobs Ladder at the University of Buffalo. I fell in love with it. I was addicted to its intensity and its low impact. So, I put a business plan together, got some bank financing and my own cash, and in July of 2004 I purchased the assets and patent from Steve Nichols. I hired him on as our first employee and we launched.”
The first five years were tough. In fact, in March 2007 Palka shared the business came just $285 from going bankrupt. But between some family funding and a few breaks, they were able to turn things around.
One of the biggest breaks came in 2009, when Palka got a call from NBC’s product placement producer for the hit TV show The Biggest Loser. After being introduced to Jacobs Ladder through a friend, top fitness trainer Jillian Michaels requested the equipment be part of the show. This turned into a six-year partnership between The Biggest Loser and Jacobs Ladder, resulting in the equipment company’s brand awareness skyrocketing.
“Getting exposed to 15 million people — you can’t pay for that type of exposure, especially if it’s good exposure,” said Palka. “It really legitimized our product in a gym setting. When we used to go to trade shows prior to The Biggest Loser, everybody thought it was unique, but had never seen it before. After The Biggest Loser people were saying, ‘I’ve been wanting to try this thing for forever.’”
After the first season of The Biggest Loser showcasing Jacobs Ladder, plus partnerships with a couple international companies, the brand grew by 117%. Over the next five years, it grew by an average of 35% per year.
“We put everything we could back into the business,” said Palka. “We were able to launch a number of different products. First was Jacobs Ladder 2 in 2010, then Stairway in 2013, then Stairway GTL in 2017, then RopeFit in 2020 and most recently, Jacobs Ladder X. Jacobs Ladder X has been, by far, our most successful launch and we did it in the middle of a pandemic.”
Jacobs Ladder X, also known as JLX, launched in November of 2020, deep into the COVID pandemic that saw gyms across the U.S. closed for months on end. Although Palka could have viewed this time as one to scale back and play it safe, he doubled down instead.
“We had been working on JLX for awhile, and I just had this belief that we were going to come out of this strong as an economy and as a people,” said Palka. “It typically takes three to six months to get our message across anyway, so I figured if I start delivering the message in November, most people will hear about it right when we’re getting back to a normal economy and right back to when gyms are getting cash positive and they want to spend. So we continued on with our product development, knowing there was a fair amount of risk there.”
The risk paid off. Despite launching in the midst of a global pandemic, in just five months JLX has become the brand’s highest-selling product and its most successful product launch to date.
Palka attributes this to how appealing JLX is to the end-user — which is the result of the hard work they put in on the front end to ensure the product would have wide appeal among consumers.
“When you’re walking by Jacobs Ladder in the gym, you’re not necessarily drawn to it right off the bat,” said Palka. “We wanted to figure out how we could introduce the product better to people, and so we put together a focus group. They gave us great suggestions on how we could introduce the product to people.”
As an example, JLX includes more graphical representations of how to use the product, versus words. “People hate to read,” laughed Palka. “So we have very simple step one, step two, step three graphical representations that match the color-coding on the waist belt. One of our core values is, ‘Define value in the eyes of the customer,’ and that’s definitely what we did with JLX.”
The care and thought that went into the JLX is not only a key to the product’s success but also a representation of company values.
According to Palka, the brand strives to create customer enthusiasm, something he learned from his days at Procter & Gamble. To do so, you can’t just have a great product, you need great customer service.
“From the outside, I think you look at our company and say the thing that has made us successful is a differentiated product like Jacobs Ladder,” explained Palka. “But, I believe we have taken a good product, made it better and then concentrated on creating value for all of our customers by a constant focus on servicing their needs. Whether that be in marketing the products, servicing the products or creating new products, our focus has always been to increase the value we deliver.”
As club operators continue to recognize the importance of partnering with equipment manufacturers and vendors that are aligned in their missions, Jacobs Ladder and Palka are proving to be a step above the rest.