Slovakian born, now Perth based father, entrepreneur and CEO/founder of SpeedFit, Matej Varhalik, reflects on the opportunities he has experienced to start and grow a business since arriving in Australia.
It all started with a holiday. The year was 2008. My wife Zuzana and I had finished our studies and decided to travel across Australia for a year. Being from Slovakia, we were used to hopping around Europe in a matter of hours, and the novelty of travelling to the other side of the world for an adventure had great appeal.
We were here for a good time, of course, but what we didn’t count on was falling in love with the country.
A year in Australia wasn’t enough
When we returned to Slovakia, Australia remained in our thoughts. There was something about the lifestyle it offered – a great place to raise a family, the space, the freedom and the opportunities – that compared favourably to my home country. A year of Australia wasn’t enough, and we wanted more.
Life in Slovakia was good though. I had several business interests and we had family, so there was no overwhelming reason to move. We considered a situation where we might spend nine months in Slovakia and then in the northern winter, come down and spend three months in the Australian summer for the best of both worlds – but we would have to create a situation where that would work.
A new direction
Then I started to get lower back problems. It didn’t feel ‘fortunate’ at the time, but this was the catalyst for our move.
I was a pretty active person, so it was hard to maintain form. One of the recommended treatments was EMS (electronic muscle stimulation), a low-impact, high-intensity training technology which not only did wonderful things to help my back pain but also helped me regain my fitness.
I saw the opportunity to introduce this to Australia, where very few people had heard of it. I used my knowledge of the European market to source the best possible equipment and with the help of another Slovakian in Australia, Roland Safar, we started a studio offering EMS training with a personalised, one on one approach.
The right product came at the right time and I know now that I made the right move.
The perfect rejection
In 2013, I started a Diploma in Sports and Recreational Management and a Certificate III in Fitness, and moved to Australia to study so I could help Roland set up the business in Perth.
A few years later we appeared on Shark Tank, which was a unique experience in itself.
We did really well and attracted an offer from Boost Juice’s Janine Allis, but in the end decided to turn it down to prove we could do it ourselves. I don’t know if her offer or our rejection of it was the best endorsement for SpeedFit, but since that appearance I have continued to self-fund the business and gone from strength to strength.
A land of opportunity
What I appreciate most in Australia is the opportunity this country has given me to start and grow something. It’s hard to introduce something new, but Australians have been so willing to ‘have a go’ at SpeedFit, that we’ve managed to turn that positive attitude into momentum for the business.
This carries through to our team members all across Australia who have such a positive and welcoming attitude to our clients. We have a team of more than 20 different nationalities who have all seen how Australia has embraced newcomers.
Since then we have committed ourselves to Australia in more ways than one. In 2019, my family, including my wife and two young daughters, officially became Australian citizens. My English is a lot better than when I first came on holiday and my lifestyle compares very well to the one I left in Europe. I believe that people are generally happier here, which is down to the lifestyle and the weather.
And finally, we are expanding the business through franchising across Australia. We are well-known in Perth and are steadily moving east.
We now have 28 studios in a network spanning WA, NSW, VIC and the ACT – including a strategic purchase of three studios belonging to a competitor during the first extended COVID lockdown in Melbourne.
One of the biggest things I miss is probably European handball, but I’m trying my best to build the team here in Australia in my role as president of Handball West and as a current member of Australia’s national handball squad.
But I feel if we can make SpeedFit happen, maybe the handball will follow.
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