“You have to fire me by Friday.”
Chris Cooper told his head Coach those words on a Tuesday in 2013. He had just flown back from Seattle, Washington, bringing with him change to his business.
The owner of CrossFit Catalyst in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, had just been hired for a full-time writing position by CrossFit HQ. He told Greg Glassman he would take the job, but he wouldn’t sell his Box, which was also a full-time job. “[Glassman] replied, ‘You’re supposed to be the expert. Figure it out,’” recalled Cooper.
So he decided he would fire himself. He and the head Coach at the time drew up a job description for her new position — general manager — and by Friday, his Coach had succeeded. Cooper could write for CrossFit HQ and still own his business, while his employee managed the gym. “She did [succeed in firing me] because my gym was built on solid systems that didn’t revolve around my constant oversight,” said Cooper.
Despite the success, it was a change he hadn’t planned. But, Cooper has never been one to let change slow him down. In fact, one could say Cooper embodies change.
Take his journey into CrossFit. Cooper began with a personal training studio. After running a study on retention in which the workouts started to look more and more like CrossFit, Cooper decided to Affiliate in May of 2008. But, Affiliating did not automatically equal success.
Cooper said his Box was just not making money. In 2010, his CrossFit gym was “near-failure” and Cooper realized he needed help. “I got a business consultant at that point, started turning things around, and the way I justified the consultant at that time was, I’m going to blog about everything this guy tells me. And I’m going to just put it up there for other Affiliates to read, because I can’t be the only one in trouble,” explained Cooper.
With a mentor still to this day, Cooper brought his Box back from the brink of failure. Changes included revamping everything from his model for paying staff to membership pricing. Blogging about all of his efforts — which eventually turned into the book “Two-Brain Business: Grow Your Gym” — Cooper became a mentor at 321GoProject. In January 2016, he began a new mentoring venture via his own consulting company, TwoBrainBusiness.com.
His job, he said, is to come face-to-face with clients and get the ship pointed in the right direction. “Great Coaches don’t necessarily make for great business,” he said. “It’s two different jobs. I don’t want to see a great Coach fail because they don’t know the foundational stuff they need to succeed.”
Cooper explained the way he mentors is more Socratic than black and white. He asks questions and makes Coaches fill in the blanks themselves. In fact, it’s a teaching method he’s used since the beginning of Catalyst.
In 2007, Tyler Belanger joined Catalyst and said he soon realized Cooper was an idea man. Where the business of Catalyst was at that time was not where it was going to be, he recalled thinking.
And Cooper wasn’t going to just bring the change about himself. Belanger noted each Coach at Catalyst is encouraged to find his or her own specialty — sort of like filling the blank in Cooper’s Socratic mentoring methods.
A Catalyst Coach’s niche typically turns into a six-week project or program, often developing into something more. That’s how the business has expanded. “You were not just sitting around, waiting for clients to show up. You were always putting something out there. You were always learning. You were always trying to figure out what might be the next best thing for your clients and for your community,” said Belanger. “And it was cool because you got to try out things you wanted to do.”
For Belanger, that “thing” has evolved into IgniteGym, a program combining exercise with education. And over time, it has proven to be an effective treatment for autism, ADHD, traumatic brain injury and behavioral challenges. Ignite has even been able to bill insurance companies for treating people with brain injuries. In the fall of 2015, IgniteGym moved to its own location — an old high school that’s being renovated into a center full of shops, restaurants, a school for vocational skills and trades, and more.
This all goes back to Cooper’s belief in his staff. Belanager explained he had been a teacher before running the IgniteGym program full time. But he was fed up with how he had to teach physical education classes, explaining he believed there were better things kids could be doing. So, Cooper made it happen. “You tell him you want to do something, and he’s going to give you an opportunity for sure,” said Belanger.
The current head Coach of Catalyst, Charity Elliot, had the same experience. “Working with Chris is awesome because he likes to find what each Coach is good at, or what they’re passionate about, and then he tries to direct you that way,” she said.
With a love for youth, Elliot took over the kids program and grew it from 10 to 55 kids, capping the program and incurring a waiting list. Elliot explained the program is broken into six levels. The kids are also given goals, whether that is to move to the competitive teens class or to simply achieve a movement.
On top of the levels, Elliot said they also break down skills into four different rounds. For example, Round 1 of pull-ups is performing a 10-second hang on the bar. Round 2 is 10 kips on the bar. Round 3 is a kip and knee raise. Round 4 is working on the pull-up itself.
“When we started doing just that simple thing of breaking down the skills into four different rounds, we saw a huge increase in motivation, and that just increased the number of kids we were getting because they would stay,” said Elliot.
Elliot explained that it was outside of the norm to be given the freedom to take hold of the kids program. She said nowadays, life and things we do are often controlled. “All of a sudden, someone’s giving you all this freedom, and at first you’re not sure. You’re like, ‘Is that for real, or is he testing me?’” she said of Cooper handing her the reins of the program.
But, allowing his staff to soar with their varying talents is all part of Cooper’s master plan. While CrossFit is the core of Catalyst’s philosophy, he explained having a multitude of revenue streams at the gym makes the most robust business possible.
His goal is to build a Box that could be replicated 100 times over, as well as a business that will be stable for the next 30 years. But building a successful CrossFit gym has taken on an even bigger meaning for Cooper.
CrossFit and the power of the entrepreneur are intertwined. Cooper said CrossFit has given people the opportunity to be entrepreneurial, which is going to have a global impact. “What’s going to save the North American economy? It’s entrepreneurship. It’s risk-taking. It’s making mistakes, learning from them and advancing,” he explained. “What other organization has launched 13,000 entrepreneurs? What school? None.”
At the root of his mentoring, at his challenging and urging Affiliates and staff to pursue dreams, Cooper is helping people take advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities. But these chances are based in a very human desire to bring about a positive difference.
“That’s just it. That’s the word there. We are different,” said Belanger. “We are different because we choose to help first, and we choose to motivate in a very human way.”
But making a difference doesn’t happen without a catalyst to get it moving and changing. Chris Cooper, the Canadian Affiliate whose jobs and opportunities are only bound to grow and change, is a catalyst for his business. That requires a leader, a mentor and something else.
“It takes a lot of strong leadership skills and communication to be able to get everybody on the same page and move in that direction,” said Belanger. “And it takes being a little bit crazy, too.”