What it Takes to Run a Successful Business

successful business

Full disclaimer: I don’t own a gym. And, I know – because I’ve been around the CrossFit industry long enough – this statement alone will cause many of you to stop reading. And, that’s okay.

But for those of you who are still with me, it’s time to talk about something. The CrossFit industry is unlike any other I’ve ever seen.

For the last 15 years, I’ve been involved in business management consulting, so I’ve had the privilege of working with the gamut of companies – from Fortune 100 executive leadership teams to Mom and Pop start-up organizations. And I have never seen anything like the CrossFit industry.

The individuals – for the most part – who decide to open a CrossFit gym are some of the finest, good-hearted people helpers I’ve encountered. But fine, good-hearted, and people-helper skills alone don’t make for a successful business. There is a monumental difference between being a business owner who pays a low-barrier-to-entry Affiliate fee, finds an available space and hangs a “Home of CrossFit XYZ” sign on the door, and one who actually runs a successful, growing and sustainable business.

Anyone can be a business owner. Few, it seems in the CrossFit world, can run a successful business.

Here’s the problem. It’s much like the concepts laid out in E-Myth Revisited. Someone loves the art of personal training, or coaching, or group training, or nutrition, or fitness as a whole. They are working in a corporate environment or coaching at another gym, and they think, “I can open a gym myself and do it better than the guy/girl down the street.”

But what they have is little to no business experience, coupled with lots of hope.

They get Affiliated, hang a shingle out and voila! They own a business. The first 30 to 40 clients may be relatively “easy” to get and retain because they are family, friends or friends of friends. But then what? That well starts to dry up real quick, and they’ve got looming bills to pay.

So they do it all themselves: the coaching, the cleaning, the classes, the marketing, the books, all of it. And what happens? After a short while, they are facing burnout. Serious burnout. They are exhausted. They are discouraged. And they are frustrated. They can’t pay Coaches because well, hell, they’re not even paying themselves.

Jamie Gallagher, owner of CrossFit Burke in Burke, Virginia, said it well: “It is 2017 in CrossFit-land. If you open a gym and you are the only paid Coach, you are wrong. The days of the dirty garage gyms are over unless it is a hobby gym. If you are trying to compete against more professional gyms in the area, you will probably lose. Where is the business plan? Where is the capital to start off? It is frustrating to rehash the same story and answer: pay your Coaches, pay your cleaner, pay people! It is a business!”

It’s funny to me that you have to get a license – a.k.a. training – to drive a car, you have to get certified – training – to be a Level 1 through 4 trainer, but to open up a gym business? Nah, no business training is required. And I think that is a major disservice to a new gym owner.

It has been said ad nauseum in this industry that, in order to be successful, you should be running a business and not a hobby. So, why are we still seeing SO many people running a hobby? Because it’s all they know. They are doing their best, but their best just isn’t good enough. It’s not cutting it. So, they are faced with draining their savings, dealing with copious amounts of stress, and then eventually closing their doors with very little to show for all their efforts except lots of gray hair. We’ve heard this same story countless times, and every time it’s still heart breaking.

If this is you, what can you do? Get help.

There are plenty of resources available that you can invest in to grow your skills as a business owner. If you don’t have money to pay for services like this, reach out to your local SBA. They offer free coaching/mentoring/help. It may not be CrossFit specific, but it will be from smart business people. Or find a mentor. Reach out to someone close to you whom you trust and respect in business. Ask to meet with them regularly for coffee. And read books and listen to podcasts. Every one of these things are, minus your time, virtually free.

But, the biggest thing is to do the work. Create goals and a plan, and hustle your tail off. If you’re not willing to do that, the hard truth is that business ownership just may not be for you. Take a hard look in the mirror and determine what you’re willing to do to begin to be successful. Are you willing to do things differently? Only then will you begin to see change.

If you choose to get help here are seven non-negotiable things, in no particular order, that must be in place to be on the path to true business success:

  1. You must have a plan for growth you are consistently executing on. Those who have a plan they follow will, hands down, be more successful than the ones who take each day as it comes.
  2. You must have systems and processes in place. It blows my mind how many gyms do not have documented systems and processes. Start immediately on this.
  3. You must pay your Coaches. Not trade, not barter, but pay them what they are worth.
  4. You must be charging what you are worth. Far too many gyms are afraid to raise their prices for fear of losing a few members. You should never be the cheapest in your area. Raise your rates and provide awesome service.
  5. You must have a professional-quality website. Because this is your best marketing tool, your website must be dynamic, less than two or three years old, and built by someone who knows what they are doing.
  6. You must know and understand your numbers and be constantly monitoring them. So many gym owners live member to member and, as a result, get controlled by their finances instead of being in control of the numbers.
  7. You must be constantly striving to be a better leader. Be humble, be kind, have empathy, but be strong and confident in the choices you make. Always growing and learning.

Your clients come to you as the fitness expert, and you are. However, you may not be a business expert yet. That is OK. Know what you know. But mostly, know what you don’t know and get help. Even Coaches need coaches. Especially entrepreneurs.

Being a successful gym business owner is not easy, but it’s doable. To be sure, most who read this article won’t do anything different. Oh, maybe they’ll want to, but nothing will really change. But for those who do implement the seven things above, success will be just around the corner.

Julie Weldon
Julie Weldon is on the leadership team of 321GoProject. Her diverse background includes being a cake designer, coaching basketball, traveling to 13 different developing countries to do volunteer work on a year-long trip, working in the not-for-profit world for 10 years, starting two businesses, working as a People & Change consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers, taking a product to market (and “failing”, only to get back up and do it a second time), and working as a business coach/consultant to small businesses with her company, A Salty Rim. Her core belief is that it’s always about the people no matter if the company is large or small. Contact her at julie@321goproject.com.
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