Four years ago, Arnav Dalmia was catching up with a few comrades from college over dinner in Chicago. All three of them had been in the working world for some time and lamented about sitting at a desk all day. They wanted to be more active, like they had been in college, but either there wasn't time or they were just too tired after work to hit the gym.
The conversation planted a seed. Dalmia approached his boss about bringing standing desks into the office, but he was met with a resounding no — too big of an investment. Maybe with a doctor's note, but probably not. His friends also experienced pushback when they asked about ergonomic office improvements at their places of work.
“That actually caught us off guard,” Dalmia says. “It's not like a doctor can just prescribe a standing desk. And, it's just common sense that moving more throughout the day is good for you. The more activity you can get in during the day, the better you will feel. The whole idea of going through the HR process and getting a doctor's prescription just didn't sit well with us.”
Dalmia had a marketing job at the time, Shivani Jain worked in government finance, and Ryota Sekine, who studied biology, was working in the art field. They started talking more seriously about the workplace sitting problem. After researching the market of at-desk fitness machines, which was not a robust market, they decided they wanted to make a compact elliptical machine designed specifically for an individual workspace.
This idea had nothing to do with what they studied in school, Dalmia says with a laugh. It was pretty much learning as they went.
“We were looking for something compact, something affordable, perhaps something we could buy ourselves, because at the end of the day we are all responsible for our own health,” Dalmia says. “There just wasn't anything like that out there. All three of us had used an elliptical machine in the gym, and we wondered if we could come up with something similar, but designed for under the desk; something with a pretty low range of motion, so your knees won't bang against the desk. We could engineer it in a way that it's quiet and doesn't distract people around you; small enough so it's portable.”
The trio of friends, now accidental entrepreneurs, played around with existing equipment, repurposing parts and modifying the machines for the work environment. They were coming closer to an idea of what they wanted to make: something portable, quiet, elliptical, built with an optimized leg angle so the user's knees don't bang the desk and designed to be used almost unconsciously.
“There were floor pedaling devices on the market, but they were mainly designed for home use, not designed to be used at a desk. In home, there are not certain desk heights that limit your motion, and, they were noisy,” Dalmia says.
The other component they realized this machine needed was a way to track the user's movement. After all, that's the point of a fitness machine, to track one's fitness. They decided to add a device to keep track of the user's stats, which could then be shared with insurance companies, employers, HR managers and anyone else with an interest or requirement to track how the users are doing.
“If you want these types of benefits at work, there needs to be measurable outcomes,” Dalmia says. “We ... integrated product technology that allows individuals to keep track of their movement — all your exercise data in one place.”
Next they made a sort-of prototype. Then, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to gauge the interest level. Their financial goal was relatively modest — $80,000. To their shock, the video went viral and nearly a thousand people contributed $300-$400 each. They raised more than $300,000 and had almost 1,000 orders. There was just one problem: They didn't even have a product yet.
So, Dalmia, Jain and Sekine did what seemed like the next logical step. They quit their jobs, hired some industrial engineers, connected with large manufacturing companies, and the Cubii was born.
The process was a little more complicated than that, of course. They actually talked to all kinds of people and networked with maker groups around Chicago, learning how products are built. The process of perfecting and manufacturing the Cubii took some time. But, the group shipped out its first 1,000 in December of 2015. Four years later, Cubii sales have topped 50,000.
“One of the things we hear all the time, is how does Cubii compare to other forms of physical activity,” Dalmia says. “For us, we were all pretty active. I played squash, Shivani practiced yoga. Those activities started taking a back seat as our work life became busier. We noticed the effect — feeling a little lazier, an increase in our weight and so on.”
Cubii provides similar benefits to that of walking a lot during a workday, according to Dalmia. It's not as strenuous as sports or aerobic exercise, but it does result in noticeable differences. Some people have even lost 5-15 pounds.
“But that's not an outcome we initially wanted,” he says. “We don't even market the product in that way. We don't claim that it's something that will help you lose weight. It is definitely one of the byproducts. But overall, the study and research that we did, we realized that staying active during the workday helps you think better, it helps you be more productive. As humans, we aren't designed to sit behind desks all day. We want to move around. This is kind of what Cubii does — lets you have the benefits of movement. It depends from person to person. Some people might see actual pounds come off, but others might notice that they really feel better about themselves overall.”
In one case study, an employee brought his own Cubii into his workplace and burned 3,000 calories a day. The change in his health and productivity at work was significant so the CEO bought Cubiis for the entire office. Employees at this particular company now have Cubii competitions and track their progress and share stories on a company Slack channel.
Notably, the Cubii is a NEAT certified product for active sitting by the Mayo Clinic — the first institution that coined the idea sitting is the new smoking. NEAT stands for the “science of nonexercise activity thermogenesis” developed by Mayo Clinic. James Levine, obesity solutions director at, Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University, certifies that when compared to stationary sitting, Cubii increases the user's energy expenditure by 84.5 percent. This compares to only a 16.7 percent increase with a standing desk.
The Cubii has been recognized by both the Clinton Global Initiative and The Obama Foundation as an important workplace wellness component and an innovative company in the maker community respectively.
It also has made a debut on QVC and is doing “very well there,” Dalmia says. Earlier this year, Time Magazine selected the Cubii as one of seven top gift ideas for Father's Day.
The Cubii crew was extremely thorough in development before production. By the time it reached out to customers, it was solid, Dalmia says, no changes needed.
“It helped us gain goodwill from customers,” he says. “Not only was it a product that solved a need, it was a really high-quality product. Our Amazon rating sits around 4.5 stars.”
The Cubii is nearly ready to go out of the box, requiring a slight, three-minute assembly. It weighs about 33 pounds — light enough to move around if needed, but heavy enough to be stable on the floor. The Cubii comes in three different models: Cubii Jr., a simple, portable version ($249); Cubii, the complete fitness bundle with Bluetooth and mobile app ($349); and Moku, a designer model with premium wood finish ($399).
The Cubii team is in talks with contract furniture companies to form partnerships.
“We came from outside the industry and moving forward, we're looking to partner with some of these commercial companies to get to know the industry deeper,” Dalmia says. “And, of course, keep focusing on the direct-to-consumer market as well.”
Inventing the Cubii has been an “extremely satisfying” experience for Dalmia and his co-founders.
“It's not like we invented electricity or anything like that,” he says. “But the simplicity of the product is what makes it so special. Something that people say, why didn't I think about that? That's what makes it unique.”
And, remember the former employer who vetoed Dalmia's appeal for a healthier workspace? The company has since outfitted the office with Cubiis for everyone. No doctor's note needed.
by Emily Clingman