I've operated a gym for just over three years now that has been either breaking even or losing money the entire time.
We've had a lot of challenges with real estate throughout our existence. All of the details aren't terribly interesting, but we've had to share space with other businesses, we've had to stack gymnastics mats while dropping weights (and still got threatening, legal-sounding letters from neighbors), we've packed 15 person classes into a 1200 square foot hallway, we've had signed leases never get counter-signed – and shopped on the market to find a better deal, we've had investors flake out on checks that we were counting on, and more.
This is par for the course in small business ownership.
We've recently taken on investment and built out a space that's just for us – no more sharing. We have a few months of operating capital, and we need to grow our business very aggressively if we're going to survive. We will see if we can make it happen – although we wouldn't have taken the money if we didn't think we could do it.
It's difficult for me to remember exactly what I thought gym ownership would be like when I was first taking steps towards it at the end of 2011, but I guarantee that I was very, very wrong.
I can think of several hilariously and dangerously wrong ideas I had back then. Some of these ideas came from the music scene that I grew up in. I was very involved in hardcore and metal growing up, and I gladly took on the harsh DIY ethos of that subculture (moreso hardcore than metal, although I definitely preferred listening to metal). At some level, this has been very valuable in business. The type of recklessness and enterprise it takes to sneak into the school office and make hundreds of copies of your political zine after hours certainly translates into small business ownership at some level.
However, hating corporations and money and thinking that sales and marketing is sleazy and manipulative certainly doesn't.
Over the last few years, I've had to unlearn many of my beliefs – often times the hard way.
I always find it somewhat disingenuous when people say things like, "I wouldn't go back and change anything. My experiences made me who I am today."
If I could go back, there's a lot of stuff I would change – deals I wouldn't have made, people I wouldn't have hired, conversations I would have phrased differently.
Still, I do see the value in the learning from experience, and my goal with this article is to share some of my "most wrong" beliefs that I held when opening South Loop Strength & Conditioning back in 2012. There is also a lot more information out there right now on the internet about getting involved in the fitness business – like the great blog Inside the Affiliate. Although, there is some value in youthful naivete, since I'm not sure I would have had the stones to get started if I knew everything back then that I know now…
"Do a great job and clients will come to you via word of mouth." is horrible advice.
There is certainly truth in this statement.
However, to say that this is all you need to grow your business is disingenuous at best.
I see this advice as a defense mechanism used by people who hate selling and marketing – so they say things like this to justify why they don't do anything to actively grow their business. "If you build it, they will come."
Sure, there are countless examples of this being the case. I know many gyms in Chicago that are extremely successful based solely upon word of mouth marketing. They've never done anything more than open up shop, put up a website, train some people, and maybe dabble in some Facebook ads, and they're absolutely crushing it.
However, I don't think this success is just because they've done a great job with training. I know far too many struggling gyms that do a fantastic job of training their clients. They have coaches who really care about their members. They have intelligent programming. They reinvest any money they make into the gym in buying new equipment or hiring great coaches. And these gyms are beating their heads against the wall trying to add members and find the growth necessary to pay rent, make payroll, and give the owner a salary more than he or she would make working a retail job.
What's going on here? Business success in training is not a meritocracy. The best trainers and the best gyms don't always have the best financial success.
Simply doing a good job is not enough to drive business growth.
The folks who claim that serving your clients is sufficient to grow membership likely stumbled into something unbeknownst to them: social proof.
See, depending on where and when your gym opened, there may not have been a lot of options. Just as recently as 2010, there were really only three CrossFit gyms in the entire city of Chicago. Based upon the growing buzz surrounding CrossFit, these gyms had customers from all over the city seeking them out. Provided the quality of service wasn't horribly abysmal, these gyms were pretty much guaranteed to grow.
Now, the market is much more saturated. People interested in CrossFit training have options. And, despite what you may think is important as a coach, very few of these people are comparing gyms based upon the quality of the programming, the coaching, or the attention given to members
Instead, people are making decisions based upon social signalling: How long has this place been around? How many Yelp reviews does it have? Where does it rank in the Google searches? How attractive are the members when I walk in? Does it seem organized and well put together when I call or walk in?
Now, these are not necessarily decisions at a conscious level. Humans use heuristics when making buying decisions. Take something like headphones.
I was trying to buy some bluetooth headphones the other day. Despite being a long-time musician, I am the furthest thing from an audiophile. Past a basic level of functionality, I don't really care what my headphones sound like. I use them mostly for podcasts, anyway.
What did I do? I searched on Amazon. Opened up maybe three of the top results in separate tabs. Glanced at a few customer reviews and the product specs. And I bought a pair. Not based upon any sort of comparison chart or detailed analysis of capabilities. I impulsively bought one of the top choices based upon it being one of the top choices and liking one of the customer reviews and the color scheme it came in.
My thought process was something to the effect of "Well, this one seems fine. A lot of people have bought it. It does basically what I need it to. The reviews are mostly positive, and the negative ones seem like people being crybabies." Add to cart.
And you know what? I kind of don't like the headphones. The way they fit in my ears is strange and uncomfortable.
Am I going to switch? Probably not. Why? Because I don't really care.
Sometimes I want to be able to listen to podcasts without being tied to my phone. These headphones serve their purpose just fine.
I would probably have a much better experience with some other brand, but it's just not a priority for me to order another pair of headphones because they fit kind of weirdly.
This is what happens with gyms.
People will take a look at the most highly-rated, most socially-proofed gyms in their area. They may do a cursory comparison based upon the feel they get from the website and online reviews. And then, they'll pick one based upon either convenience or some sort of subconscious intuition.
And, even if their experience isn't great, they probably won't make a change to a new gym unless something disastrous happens. If my headphones cut out all the time or shocked me or something, I would certainly buy a new pair. But, they just fit kind of weird. Whatever. I can still listen to podcasts while walking around my room.
And, most people can still train hard, have fun, and make friends even if the gym they're at doesn't have great programming or coaching.
So, the most socially proofed gyms are able to grow with minimal effort – simply because they're automatically part of the conversation and their product is "good enough," while everyone else struggles for a slice of the pie.
Having great coaching, great programming, and great relationships with clients is not sufficient for growing your business. If you have all of those things and you open up at the right place at the right time and stumble into social proof, then you could be one of those folks spouting platitudes about "just serve your clients and the rest will take care of itself."
Otherwise, you'll be doing a great job in obscurity while other folks do a serviceable job in the limelight and continue to rake in cash.
Clients are uneducated and don't care about the things that you care about.
As a coach, I'm obsessed with best practices. I voraciously consume content on coaching, nutrition, program design, technique, psychology, marketing, business, and sales. I subscribe to blogs and podcasts, I have an uncontrollable folder of bookmarked videos to watch, and I spend money that I don't have traveling to attend continuing education courses.
When we first started at South Loop Strength & Conditioning, I thought clients would care about the same stuff that I cared about.
I thought they would care that we had the best progressions for correcting flaws in the squat.
I thought they would care that we knew how to properly program a balance between aerobic work and strength work – while only touching on the anaerobic lactate system when necessary.
I thought they would care that we use movement screens to attempt to reduce injury risk and create long-term progression in our clients.
Guess what? They don't. While these are all great things and our clients do appreciate them, that's not why they come to us.
There are very few folks out there looking for a detailed movement assessment and a program designed to target their weaknesses in energy systems and structure.
They want to lose weight. They want to have more energy. They want to feel comfortable taking their shirt off at the beach. They want to get their lab values on their most recent blood test under control
Or, they want to win in their sport. They want to set PRs in the weight room. They want to beat their friends.
Sure, all that lactate stuff and diaphragmatic breathing and motivational interviewing is cool, but who cares if it doesn't produce a result?
So, when trying to grow your business, it can be very frustrating since you know that your coaching is way better than the coaching at much more successful gyms.
But, the more successful gyms probably have a lot more social proof and are much better at showing clients that they're going to get results that matter to them.
Before getting started with serious training, clients have no idea what lactate power is, what a skill transfer exercise is, or why they would do a set of ten vs a set of three. All they know is that they want to look better, feel better, and/or perform better, and they're going to go to a gym at which they think they're going to get those things.
Client psychology is the biggest barrier to both growing your business and achieving results for your clients.
Over the years of coaching people, both individually and in a group setting, I've learned that the psychology of a client is far more important than the Xs and Os on pieces of paper.
I've coached people for both elite performance and for modest weight loss, and, in both situations, my job is much more about keeping them bought into the program and helping them manage their psychology surrounding whatever their limiting factors may be.
I'm an information nerd.
I just pulled Supertraining out again today and am considering reading it again. I scribbled a bunch of notes from Joel Jamieson's energy systems training protocols the other day. I found my Pavel Kolář textbook on Clinical Rehabilitation while cleaning my room that I never finished reading.
This is the stuff that is exciting to me and that I love to learn about.
But, the reality is, that most of these details and tips and tricks with program design and movement correction only apply in .01% of cases.
The prescription for most people is simple. Eat food that's based around meat and vegetables. Have a rough idea of how much you're eating. If your goal is performance, make sure that you stay far away from caloric deficit.
Train using mostly compound exercises. Attempt to progress over time. Don't do anything that hurts (as in "ouch" hurts, not just power clean/burpee repeat hurts).
Most people will get massive results if they can implement those simple concepts consistently. It's much more about creating accountability for clients, helping them find consistency, and making them feel safe to make changes. It's not about writing the perfect prescription of waveloading back squats and on-the-minute hang squat clean skill work.
Similarly, when acquiring new clients, it's not about astounding them with technical knowledge or impressing them with how great the athletes are who you've trained. It's not about showing them the pictures of your all-star client standing in one leg of her old pair of jeans.
Do those things help? Probably.
However, most new clients are limited by their own psychology surrounding training. They've tried things before without seeing results. They've bought workout DVDs that are collecting dust. They've signed up for year long gym memberships that went unused after two moths. They've bought ten packs of personal training and didn't feel like they got any stronger or lost any weight. They've read diet books and tracked calories in myfitnesspal.
Or, if they're CrossFit competitors, they've followed every blog out there. They've trained with training partners. They've done an offseason Oly cycle mixed with regular gymnastics work and rowing intervals.
People are skeptical of the claims of the fitness industry, and they doubt their own ability to follow through on plans that they create.
There's a lot of risk in trying something new. On a surface level, there's the fear of being judged. Everyone has had an experience going into a new athletic environment where you're worried about what other people are going to think of you. Have you ever not wanted to do a new exercise at the gym since you thought that other people there would laugh at you for doing it wrong?
While the judgment of others can be terrifying, what about the judgment that we place on ourselves?
If you fail to achieve your goals again, then maybe you're a failure. If you fail to stick with the program, then maybe you're a quitter.
Or, what if you achieve success and start to lose weight or put on muscle? How will family and friends react? Will they tease you? Will you become that weirdo who is chugging protein shakes and turning down pieces of birthday cake?
These thoughts can be overwhelming and paralyzing and completely stop folks in their tracks before they even get started.
These are the types of things that squat cycles and structural balance spreadsheets can't handle. Even a great ability to connect with clients isn't helpful – if they never get started.
So, what do I do with what I've learned?
I'm in a position where I have to drive a lot of new clients to my business to make it survive. That's part of the reason why I'm writing this blog, in fact. I've learned that, for my business to grow, I have to create an identity for South Loop Strength & Conditioning that's attractive to people who don't already know us.
I have to manufacture social proof for us through blogging.
I have to create systems that track leads and make sure that everyone who e-mails us, calls us, or walks in is followed up with.
I have to build relationships with other businesses that will be mutually beneficial and will put us in positions to support each other.
I have to create systems that encourage clients to refer their friends to us.
And how is all of this going? I don't know yet. Talk to me in three months.