The Wild West of CrossFit

Where else would you find a former collegiate rower, whitewater rafting guide, two time Whitewater U.S. Team World Champion, lawyer and mother of two? You got it – co-owning San Francisco CrossFit. “Juliet [Starrett], if I could come up with one word – she is fierce. She has a six pack, we CrossFit six days a week, and we talk more and more about playing the long game – we’re interested in trying to find balance, trying to find more time with our family, but underneath that is the prototypical, mother, CEO, woman balancing it all. She is an extraordinary woman,” explained Kelly Starrett, husband and the co-owner of San Francisco CrossFit and MobilityWOD.

Juliet Starrett’s life has been shaped and molded based on a series of four turning points that have led her to everything she has become.

Growing up in Colorado, Juliet Starrett’s life took its first dynamic turn when her family relocated to Long Beach, California before her junior year of high school. In Colorado she spent years skiing and playing soccer, but after moving to California, those opportunities weren’t as prevalent. Rather, after the move, Juliet Starrett discovered her neighbors were on the high school rowing team – this, not the move, the actual turning point.

“Especially in California, rowing is not a huge sport for high school athletes – it’s becoming a bigger sport now – but it was literally as simple as having a neighbor who was on the rowing team and was like, ‘hey, you’re pretty athletic, you should try out for the rowing team.’ I did, and I loved it, and that’s kind of how I spent my high school time, on the rowing team.”

Rowing was simply one of the turning points that led Juliet Starrett to her current place in life. “The next was becoming a river rafting guide … it was the most important job I ever had that transferred into life skills – secondarily, it was what launched me into becoming a professional white water paddler. And if I hadn’t become a professional white water paddler, I never would have met Kelly. So those were kind of, for me, if I could go back to the decision in my life that created that path, it’s that decision [to be a rafting guide].”

Aside from meeting Kelly Starrett, Juliet Starrett also believes being a rafting guide helped develop her for future opportunities. “There’s actually this huge level of responsibility you take on at a pretty young age,” she explained. “You’re responsible for all of these people; you are taking them in really sketchy, unsafe environments. You have to be social, talk to people of all different types. You have to be comfortable with a group of construction workers one day, and a group of hedge fund managers the next day, so you have to really be able to talk to a lot of people and be responsible for a lot – sort of see the big picture.”

One aspect Juliet and Kelly Starrett love about all the river guides they know is, “if we invite our guide friends over for a dinner party, they’re the kind of people that will be somewhere, see what needs to be done and just do it without having to ask … like, ‘how can I help.’”

The second life changer helped lead her into the third and fourth changes that she carries with her today. The third, making the decision to attend the University of San Francisco School of Law, and finally, her decision to open San Francisco CrossFit with Kelly Starrett.

“Not just the fact of opening a CrossFit, but when we did it,” said Juliet Starrett. San Francisco CrossFit was established in 2004 after Juliet and Kelly Starrett had finally got tired of practicing CrossFit in a traditional gym and in their own backyard. When the couple first opened the Box they never thought they’d make any money. “We really didn’t go into it with that intention,” Juliet Starrett continued. “We didn’t have a business plan; we literally were like, ‘we love CrossFit, we want to do this more.’ That was literally our motivation.”

At the time there wasn’t a lot of business-related assistance. “Nowadays people can open a CrossFit and talk to 20 other CrossFits and find out their financials and what they’re doing, what’s working and what isn’t working,” explained Juliet Starrett. “There was no model for that. There was like 20 other CrossFits when we opened and they were really spread out, and we all weren’t connected with one another. It was like the wild west of CrossFit back then.”

What did help the duo in business was Juliet Starrett’s legal background, which has continued even after stepping away from her 70-hour-a-week practice to operate San Francisco CrossFit full time. “I have no doubt that my legal background has helped me tenfold in running this business, both in MobilityWOD and San Francisco CrossFit,” she said. “I feel like I haven’t totally let go of all the things I liked and enjoyed about being a lawyer. I feel like I use those skills almost every day.”

Some of those skills aren’t strictly law-based skills, but simply aspects taken away from working in a legal environment. “One thing I learned early on as a young legal associate is that responsiveness is one of the most important things in business and otherwise,” she explained. “When I’d get reviewed as a lawyer for my annual review, one of the things that all of the partners and clients always comment on and care about is whether you’re responsive, because there is sort of a mentality in a law practice that you can always fix mistakes … but if you’re not responsive and communicative, that’s when problems arise.”

Juliet Starrett has taken that awareness of responsiveness into her business life. “If you’re a member of San Francisco CrossFit and you email because you want to have your membership changed, or because you have this need or that need, your email doesn’t just go unanswered for two weeks. You get an answer if you email me,” she said. “I’ve noticed when I’ve tried to reach out to people in the greater CrossFit community, sometimes there is no response and sometimes there is a three week response time. I think responsiveness is huge, and I think I learned that in my law practice.”

Growing a business can be a struggle, especially when dealing with clients of all types. “I think working under pressure, learning how to deal with different personalities in business – also literally the amount of contracts I have to read and legal documents I have to read … the amount of legal work is never ending. But I feel like I’ve been able to navigate a lot of that on my own without outside help.”

San Francisco CrossFit has some independent contractors that work for the business, and Juliet Starrett’s ability to draft an independent contract has saved the company time and money, but that’s just one example. “I wrote San Francisco CrossFit’s waiver and there’s just a lot of little ways that my legal background helps me,” she said. “I think the responsiveness and attention to professionalism for me are some of the biggest skills.”

Juliet Starrett possesses an outstanding amount of admiration for her former legal colleagues – many of whom she said are extremely smart in terms of law, but also in how they handle themselves in a professional manner. “I sometimes think in this crazy world that is health and fitness, there’s a lack of professionalism,” she said. “I think people kind of see it as it’s a ‘lifestyle-thing,’ but in the end I see it as a business, and a business has to be run with a certain level of professionalism, responsiveness. Those are the little details that make a difference.”

San Francisco CrossFit has battled to develop a strong sensation of competitiveness, but also teamwork within the gym. “We’ve had a lot of members who have been members [of] our gym since the very beginning,” explained Juliet Starrett. “They’re still getting something out of it, and I think it’s because we haven’t had a ton of turnover in our staff and we’re always bringing on new Coaches. All of our Coaches are movement nerds, I would say. They literally sit around together during the day when there aren’t clients around and they talk about movement patterning and proper mechanics. They just really care a lot about that. I think that our members pick up on that and know that they’re getting a high-quality coaching experience.

“There is something about the vibe at San Francisco CrossFit, and it’s hard to really even think of a word to describe it … sure there is a competitive feel during some of the workouts, but we’ve really deemphasized the competition part. We’re actually one of the gyms that we don’t write people’s times up on the board at the end of workouts, because no one really cares. That’s not why we’re in it.”

Maintaining that atmosphere at San Francisco CrossFit stems from Juliet Starrett alluding to a low Coach turnover during the life of the business. “We have endeavors to create a payment structure for our Coaches where they can actually not just make a living, but make a really good living,” she explained. “One of our other goals is to try and create an environment where our staff thinks of themselves as professionals. If you go to any other mainstream gym, a lot of folks become a personal trainer in their 20s because they aren’t really sure what they actually want to do after they get out of college … and it’s not really sustainable because they are getting paid $20 an hour. They’re just going to be wallowing around making $40,000 for the rest of their life; then they leave and go get a real job, so to speak.

“We wanted to create a place where our Coaches could think of coaching as a true profession, that they could do something for their whole life if they wanted. Not just sort of a job you do in your 20s. The only way to do that is to make sure our staff is being well paid and incentivized to stick around and actually make money. I think that’s a huge part of it.”

In more recent years, San Francisco CrossFit has brought on perks and incentives such as health and dental insurance, and 401k. “We’ve tried to make this a professional environment so it’s not just a fun little job you do for a little while in your 20s until you go to law school, or whatever you do,” explained Juliet Starrett. “Also, we have been very open at allowing our Coaches to use our gym as a launchpad for their own independent businesses. Carl Paoli, Diane Fu and Nate Helming, we allow these people to have their own banners underneath our banner at San Francisco CrossFit. That means different things for every person, but I think a lot of business owners would be uncomfortable with that scenario because it would feel competitive or strange. For whatever reason, it’s never bothered us. Partly because we see that coaching one-on-one clients, day after day after day, is maybe not the most sustainable thing, and if we do want to keep Coaches, and make it a profession, Coaches really need to diversify what they’re doing. We realized we want to encourage that, as opposed to discourage that.”

In the end, all the opportunities help San Francisco CrossFit because they can hold onto Coaches and better the lives of those associated with the gym. “I think what’s happened in a lot of CrossFit gyms is that your best Coaches decide to leave and open their own CrossFit,” said Juliet Starrett. “We think that maybe our best Coaches would’ve done that if we hadn’t been more open to let them diversify within our framework.

“We wanted to create a space for example where Diane Fu could go out in the world and teach seminars and have a bunch of different income sources. Obviously Carl has his other website and [launched] his own book … We wanted to create a space where Coaches could be true professionals and they could be creative and have their own business within our business. I think those things have made the biggest difference in our retention. I think they’ve seen themselves as professionals; this isn’t just a job they are going to do for a while until they do the next thing.”

It’s easy for Juliet Starrett to understand why her Coaches want to be successful without compromising their dream. She had a similar situation as she contemplated following a desire to work full time at San Francisco CrossFit and leave her legal career.

“For me there were a couple of things at play,” she said. “We both had other jobs for the first three years of the gym. Kelly got out of PT school and worked at the Stone Clinic for two or three years, and by that point our gym membership was taking off and Kelly thought he could open his own physical therapy practice under San Francisco CrossFit. We kind of made the family decision that it made sense for me to continue practicing law and for Kelly to work at the gym full time, taking physical therapy clients and coaching.”

In 2008 the couple’s second daughter was born. “I had this complication called placenta previa, and I literally while giving birth to my daughter lost half the blood in my body, almost stroked out and had to have nine blood transfusions,” explained Juliet Starrett. “Needless to say, I had a very epic and complex birth, and our daughter was born six weeks early and had to spend four weeks in the NICU. So, I had been CrossFitting up through most of my pregnancy; needless to say after that whole experience I was back to zero in terms of my fitness and general capacity.

“She was born in August in 2008, and I competed in the summer of 2010 at the CrossFit Games. For me that was a huge accomplishment, to literally be like mostly dead with no blood, almost stroking out, then competing at the Home Depot Center. For me that was a big milestone.”

Juliet Starrett’s entire life has been a whirlwind of milestones and turning points – four of which have completely shaped her life. From rowing and being a river rafting guide to law school and opening San Francisco CrossFit, all have sent Juliet Starrett in various new directions. All that’s left is one question – what is the next turning point?

Tyler is a former editor of Box Pro Magazine.