The heritage of Diablo CrossFit is that of sport.
Although they missed the memo in 2007, Craig Howard and the early team of Diablo found themselves in Aromas, California, in 2008 for the second-ever CrossFit Games. They had a blast and returned in 2009. And when the sport took off in 2010, Diablo rode the wave.
“It was so fun during that period of time, and so overwhelming,” said Howard, the owner of the gym with locations in Pleasant Hill and San Jose, California, mentioning they toyed with capping membership in 2012 and 2013 because of the overwhelming numbers walking through their doors. “We got irrationally exuberant … We made a lot of business decisions then based upon that demand that probably weren’t great business decisions for the long run. But that’s how business works.”
In the early days of Diablo, the gym was simply Howard combining his love for fitness and business. He had fallen in love with CrossFit due to its effectiveness in such a short amount of time, unlike the triathlon training he was doing. The gym’s growth was reactionary in the beginning during the days of putting a few bucks into a jar if you worked out and 700-square-feet of workout space in a mechanic’s garage. It was in 2008 that Howard bought out one of his partners and decided with his other partner to actually turn Diablo into a business.
But that “reactionary growth” would prove to be a detriment due to three things Diablo did: opened a second location — CrossFit Alamo — instead of capping membership in 2012, expanded the original location from 4,000 to 16,000 square feet, and started a fitness equipment company in 2010. “Those three investments were significant and they were certainly not great financial decisions,” shared Howard.
The second location was in a high-dollar retail shopping mall location. The surrounding demographic was made up of an older population wary of CrossFit. Plus, Howard shared the owners/partners of Diablo weren’t often there and that hindered the community being built. In January 2018, the location closed.
The fitness equipment business was something Howard and his team didn’t have much experience running but thought they could do. However, once a gym owner bought one piece of equipment, they didn’t really need any more. Howard shut down that business as well.
“The demand of CrossFit we overestimated because of that period of irrational exuberance when things grew really fast,” said Howard.
Despite the bumps along the way, Diablo is thriving. The gym currently has two locations — Howard has bought and sold and closed down various gyms/locations. One was created out of CrossFit Moxie when Howard and his wife bought it in 2016. Between the Moxie and Pleasant Hill location, there are 650 members. In 2016, Howard and his wife bought out their partner, Jeremy Jones. Howard said he’s learned his lesson to not chase shiny objects and has gone back to the business’ core values, staying true to its mission. And part of that mission is competition.
Since 2008, 55 athletes from Diablo have participated in the CrossFit Games. “We have successfully blended our competition community with our Box community, creating passionate fans of the sport,” said Howard. “Our competition athletes train at the margins of fitness. We learn from their experiences and we celebrate their successes. But, we thrive on the accomplishments of our every day members.”
While some argue competitive athletes at the gym chase off business, Howard said it sets Diablo apart. When people walk into the lobby and see the CrossFit Games jerseys hanging up, it’s apparent Diablo knows what it’s doing. “I consider [competitive athletes] an investment in our community and an investment in our brand,” he said.
Craig’s wife, Yvonne, is in charge of memberships, facilities, the front desk and everything else no one else wants to do – as stated in her own words. But, she’s also a Masters athlete and qualified to return to the 2018 Reebok CrossFit Games.
She said she doesn’t feel like the competitive athletes are separate from the rest of the gym. In fact, they are encouraged to get to know the members and be part of the community. “Craig tells them, ‘You should do classes; that way the members get to know you,’ and he always reminds them it’s important for the members to know you because we do some charity events for them [to raise money for their competitions],” she explained.
In fact, one thing that really brought together the community this year was implementing the Intramural Open, an idea courtesy of Chris Cooper. Four teams across the two Diablo gyms were made up of Coaches and members. Participation points brought in members both Friday and Saturday. Yvonne shared they had members who she would never have dreamed of signing up for the Open participate.
Jennifer Ismar, the general manager of Diablo, described the Intramural Open as being really magical for the gym as a whole. “It brought our gym together like I haven’t seen since I’ve been doing CrossFit,” she said. “It really was truly amazing.”
In the end, developing those lasting relationships is what matters most, said Yvonne. She explained as a staff they have a spreadsheet that shows them new members. They have to mark down if and when they met the new member; a member is less likely to quit if they have connections at the gym. She meets most of the members when she is working the front desk or even in class.
In fact, Howard also takes class at the gym. “I enjoy classes most of all and the ‘friendly’ rivalries that happen every workout,” he shared. “I have an imaginary competition group in my head. Some of my fellow ‘competitors’ don’t know they’re in the group until I beat them in a workout and post it on social media or SugarWOD.”
Ismar said seeing Howard right in the mix of classes, eating healthy and living right shows members he means what he says. “That’s super important and I think people appreciate when they see their owner right in the mix with them, taking class and seeing the things they’re doing,” she said.
But it helps when those classes are run great. Howard repeats Greg Glassman’s words he once heard, “Run great classes,” to his staff and Coaches. “If we run great classes and stay true to our mission and values, our business thrives,” he said. “Great classes include having great Coaches, engaging and fun programming, and top quality equipment and facilities.”
Members come in for an hour workout and they receive an hour of instruction. Coaches not only have quality education but, even more importantly, they are passionate and enthusiastic.
However, while you can get the coaching, programming and facility right, there’s one more thing that needs adjusting, and it’s internal. “There is an inherent conflict in what makes you good at being a CrossFit Affiliate owner and being a good business person,” explained Howard. “If you are a good Affiliate owner, you are a people person, you’re kind, you thrive on the success of your members, you want to help people and help them get better … The business side of it, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily align with those personality traits.”
He has learned in the end to divorce those two sides from each other in order to no longer hinder his business. It’s not ignoring one or the other; it’s instead understanding when to listen to each.
Ultimately, it isn’t without hardships and mistakes that has got Diablo to where it is today. However, it always comes back to its heritage of sport, its mission of competition, its passion for CrossFit. And as tomorrow comes, Howard said that will always remain the same. “We have made plenty of mistakes and have had plenty of successes, yet we continue to learn, to thrive, and aspire to be better and more successful,” he said. “Our success results from our persistent attention to our mission and values, hiring great people, and maintaining our competitive spirit.”