Stacked Deck

An innovative fitness product has come a long way since its college poker game roots.

Finding time to exercise is a common problem, especially for those who travel. Workout gear takes up space in luggage, and hotel gyms often offer little more than a treadmill and a handful of dumbbells. After a long busy day away from home, it’s tempting to skip the gym and hang around the hotel room playing solitaire.

That’s exactly what Phil Black, the founder of FitDeck, wants to hear.

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FitDeck is a deck of playing cards that builds a new custom workout with each use. Workouts are created by revealing a series of cards from a shuffled deck and completing the exercises that appear on each card.

Designed to make exercise fun, simple and different every time, the product also facilitates workouts of any duration, such as those 15 minutes in the morning when you don’t feel like leaving the hotel room.

“I actually call it ‘the black socks and boxer shorts’ workout,” Black says, in reference to those travelers who might lack fitness gear and motivation. “People don’t want to bother going down to see what the dingy gym has. They just want a turn-off-my-brain 15-minute workout.”

FitDeck launched in 2007, but the inspiration goes back to evenings Black spent with college buddies at Yale. “Every night while studying, we’d take breaks to play poker. We were all athletes, and one night [we made up] a push-up contest, where you had to turn over the cards one at a time and do the number of push-ups on the card,” Black says. The Push-Up Game (or “PUG” for short) spawned campuswide competitions that drew crowds to see who would prevail.

After serving six years as a Navy SEAL, Black graduated from Harvard Business School. He then set out to start his own company. “I had a list of ideas, but PUG was something that kept coming up over the years.” Black had incorporated it into SEAL training as an instructor and eventually into personal training programs he designed for the less rugged.

So what makes FitDeck so effective? “It’s very simple: It’s social and there’s an element of surprise,” Black says, noting that this combo is almost universally appealing and can be applied to wellness-focused moms and professional athletes alike. There are even specialized decks focusing on everything from soccer to prenatal fitness to playground equipment routines, and, of course, Navy SEAL workouts.

American supports entrepreneurialism and small-business growth through its Innovators Initiatives, which focus on working with startups and small-business customers to empower their success. Visit to learn more about Innovators Initiatives and FitDeck.

While FitDeck’s origin is analog, there’s clearly a digital opportunity for the company. FitDeck recently earned a coveted spot in Nike’s inaugural Nike+ Accelerator, a three-month program that hosted 10 companies with extraordinary potential to motivate people to be more active.

While the actual card decks will remain a core part of the product, FitDeck has embraced the scale opportunity afforded by digital and has rolled out apps for the iPhone. So far, 20 of the 40 FitDeck titles are available for iPhone. Android apps are soon to follow.

Great business ideas come from the oddest of circumstances, and FitDeck appears to be on a very short list of those that have emerged from a college poker game. Yet for Black, the investment banker-turned-SEAL-turned-Harvard-Business-School-grad, it appears to be working out just fine. And his product sure makes for one less excuse to skip the hotel workout.

Content written by Chris Johnson, Co-founder of Wakefield Media. Wakefield Media is one of American’s many small business partners.

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