In 2005, my wife and I were running our own personal training and outdoor boot camp business. We were renting floor space by the hour at a cramped little gym, but our business was steadily growing.
Even though neither of us had any formal business training, one thing we were keenly aware of was the need to separate ourselves from the competition. We would ask ourselves, “Why would someone choose to train with us, and what makes us stand out from the other gyms in our area?”
As fate would have it, I discovered CrossFit for the first time in a magazine article. I tried the workouts, got crushed and was instantly hooked. We started mixing in the workouts with our clients and they loved it. We made the decision to rebrand our business and become a CrossFit Affiliate in 2006.
Fast-forward 12 years and our little gym had grown to a big gym, which we sold in 2018.
So with everything I learned along the way, and all of the mistakes I made, here are the seven things I’d do differently if I opened a gym today.
This is an issue I still see at a lot of gyms, but most are trending in the right direction. When I started, it seemed like a job I should do myself, and I didn’t think I could afford to pay someone to sit at a desk.
But how many times did I run into this situation: While the owner is coaching a class, a new person walks in the door. The owner has to abandon the class to run over and ask them to wait until class is over to chat. Or maybe one of the Coaches pauses his workout and comes over sweaty and shirtless to talk to the potential member. Is that the best first impression of a professional business?
How does that look to the customer?
As if CrossFit gyms aren’t intimidating enough, now the person who took time out of their day to come in and inquire about the gym has to stand there like a stooge feeling awkward and uncomfortable.
Advice: Paying front desk staff should be built into the cost of opening and running your facility. It doesn’t have to be a full-time position. A few hours a week during the busiest class times can make a big difference. Beyond greeting people, front desk staff can tidy the facility, respond to inquiries via email and phone, and handle time-consuming tasks.
Looking back, I could have saved so much time and money and avoided a ton of frustration if I had someone who helped to guide the ship.
I wish I had found a coach/mentor/guru/wise old sage who had their own successful business; it wouldn’t matter if it was CrossFit related or not.
The same principles of success work regardless of the nature of the company. It took a long time to figure out how to turn our gym into an actual business and we made a lot of mistakes along the way. When we were selling, it would have been invaluable to have had a Coach who could offer their own experience and advice.
Advice: Find someone who has the kind of success you want and network with them. Travel to different gyms, buy the owner a coffee and find out what other people are doing well.
Keep in mind we owned a personal training gym and viewed group fitness as the future. We wanted to move away from personal training because there just wasn’t much leverage of our time. My wife and I continued to train our clients and also teach classes, but our marketing and message was all about the group experience.
But, what’s old is new: After 12 years of running group classes, I loved being able to do some one-on-one coaching again. It was refreshing to be able to cater the workout specifically to the athlete, control their intensity, and not have to worry about the mental game and ego distractions that go along with working out in a group.
How to increase your personal training business is a subject for another article, but if you aren’t already working on your one-on-one training, you are missing out on potentially the most impactful aspect of your business.
Advice: Introduce personal training as an option in the very first meeting. If you have a beginners’ program, run it as a one-on-one course so new members get used to this form of training right away. More personal training clients help your Coaches make a real income, keep the clients around long term and provide another option besides the one-size-fits-all group class.
Knowing what I know now, I would have “nurtured” my email list better. If you’re not collecting emails from people who visit your homepage, you are missing out on the opportunity to ever contact them.
A simple plug-in like the Hello Bar can be installed on your website in minutes and it’s free. It allows you to collect emails with a variety of different pop-up options.
We smartened up later on, and would send out a monthly newsletter and reach out to former members whenever we had a promotion running, but we never fully optimized our list. A basic program like Mailchimp makes sending out newsletters a piece of cake.
Advice: Use a lead magnet offering something of value in order to collect email addresses, connect on a consistent basis – monthly newsletter at the least, and use your list to market new products and events to current and former members.
Since we had a large number of part-time Coaches, it was difficult to get everyone on the same page. Schedules prevented some of the staff from ever showing up for meetings.
Some of our part-time Coaches were amazing, and I wished they could have done more, but they had other full-time jobs and were satisfied with coaching a few classes per week.
It was always tough to get the whole team to deliver the same message with a large, spread-out staff. I’d rather have two full-time professional Coaches and pay them a competitive salary, rather than have five part-time Coaches who simply don’t have the time to put into the job.
Having a cohesive team of two or three full-time, dedicated Coaches/trainers makes it much easier to achieve consistency and schedule meetings and team events. You can also invest more into each Coach when it comes to salary, bonuses and employee benefits.
Advice: There are many benefits to having full time, high quality, 100% invested Coaches than a large staff of part-timers who only have so much time and energy to dedicate to your members after an eight-hour workday at some other full-time job.
Our first gym was small, about 900 square feet, and there was only room for class. If you wanted to stay and do some extra squats after class, sorry, no bueno, we need that rack. Beat it, Dave.
When we moved to our 9,000 square foot spot we had plenty of space for members to do their own “special programming” before or after class.
Eventually, for a handful of members this turned into, “I don’t attend any class; I need to do my own program, I’m going to Regionals so I need to follow what Rich Froning is doing; let me take up a rack, a rower and a barbell over here while class is going on. Also I’m going to time my set of touch-and-go cleans while the Coach is at the whiteboard talking, OK?”
I know we weren’t the only gym that had this problem, and we tried our best to make it work, but in the end the Coaches hated the distraction and the members in class thought the other people were acting elitist or “too cool” for everyone else.
Once the genie was out of the bottle, it was hard to put back in. At the end of the day, it’s a bunch of headaches and isn’t bringing the community any closer.
Advice: Class-only policy. Set open gym times. That’s it.
Man, I was not a good communicator for the first few years with Coaches and some pain-in-the-neck members.
I was 100% confident in front of our group, teaching and doing personal training. That’s where I was the most comfortable.
Coming from a football-coach background where it was more acceptable to be upfront and in-your-face, it took a bit to figure out how to handle these more sensitive, personal interactions.
How I handled the firing of Coaches or dealing with a member who we had received complaints about was something I had no experience with and had to figure out on my own.
I definitely made my share of mistakes, but I learned from each of them and did my best to not repeat the same thing again.
As time went on, we created a system for talking to, warning, disciplining, and if need be, firing employees.
If a member needed to be talked to, it was in a one-on-one setting, face-to-face. No emails, phone calls or texts. Tone and attitude can be misinterpreted in these forms of communications.
Important conversations have to be face-to-face.
Looking back, if I had a mentor/coach who I could have asked for advice I probably could have saved myself a lot of stress and salvaged a few relationships.
Advice: Come up with a plan for the best course of action. Be the bigger person, be an adult and make decisions that are best for the business and overall community, and you’ll be OK in the end. To new owners especially, never react emotionally if a problem arises. Take some time. Calm down and think first. Then meet in person and talk it out like adults.
In order to improve, we need to admit what went wrong and consider how to better handle ourselves in the future. Although I am no longer an Affiliate owner, these lessons have carried into my new business.
As Oscar Wilde said: “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”