Owning a gym for over 15 years, I've had a lot of time to reflect on my mistakes and what has grown Lightning Fitness. I'm lucky enough to have survived COVID lockdowns and even flourished afterward. Understand, every decision made is a risk, and hopefully, it's a calculated risk. You have to weigh the benefits against the consequences. 

Recently I've been thinking about what has made my gym successful as the owner. We have a lot of amazing equipment at my gym, and whatever strength sport you are training for, we have you covered. However, I've known gyms with amazing equipment that have had to sadly shut down. 

What it really comes down to is how the gym is run. Now that can mean how your staff runs it if the owner isn't around, or in my case, how I run things with no employees. 

It took me a while to write with this list, but I've come up with nine ways business owners should conduct themselves when operating a gym.

Help People

When starting a gym, helping people should be your number one goal. Owning a gym for so long, I get a lot of questions on how to start. Occasionally the first question is, "How much money can you make?" If this is your first question, owning a gym is not for you. 

If you see owning a gym as just a revenue stream, I guarantee you will fail. Commercial gyms see their members as dollar signs. 

When owning a small business, you need to show how you are different. What separates you from others? For me, I'm on the gym floor a good part of the day, answering anyone's questions, even if I'm not their coach.

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Another big part of what I do is answer everyone's questions I get on social media. If you're an expert at your craft, it shouldn't take very long to watch a video and spot what someone needs to work on. Many of the questions take me only a minute or so to answer. Now, I'm not saying to do everything for free. 

I've had people ask me for free programs, which I won't do other than the ones I have right here on elitefts. I like to help people, but that doesn't mean letting people take advantage of you.   

I promise you these things all come around. I've had people join my gym or contact me for online coaching because I helped their friend who had good things to say about me from years ago. 

Not everyone, of course, will come back around and hire you, but some will. Over time, the more people you help, the better your reputation. 

Trust me, a bad comment, unfortunately, goes much farther than a good one. The theme here is to be a kind, helpful person. These are all things I had no intention of ever coming back around to me, but after being in business for over 15 years, it's funny how you can see the opportunities that come around from years of doing the right thing.  

Be a Person of Your Word

It is sad to say that in business, you can't take people at their word until you see it in writing. 

I've been burned on this many times, having learned the hard way. If you shake my hand or tell me how something will be, I expect it to be that way. 

If I can give any advice on business deals, make sure you get it in writing.

Unfortunately, you can't trust people at their word. Now that doesn't mean this is how you should act either. I've been in this business a long time, and there's a reason why people trust me and continue to do business with me.

I don't do business with people who have lied in the past. 

Don't lower yourself to someone else's level. 

The same concept can be applied to your members. Do not make false promises to them. Once in a while, I send an email out to my members asking what equipment we need or if there is anything I can do better. With just about every equipment request, we eventually add it to the gym. If there is something I can't do now, or I can't ever, I will be honest with that person and tell them why I can't. 

Do not string people along, telling them that you will do something you have no intention of ever doing. You will lose business in the long run, as well as people's trust.  

Pay People ASAP!

Over the years, I have had to hire many different people to do work on my business. In the beginning, I had a partner to handle the business side of things while I handled the training. It turns out he would try not to pay people after they finished a job. People would call or show up looking for their money. It was embarrassing. It's also one of the many reasons I will never have a partner. I'd recommend the same to any of you looking to start your gym. 

When we finally paid these people for their work, they would not respond to our calls when we wanted something else done. Honestly, I can't blame them. Once I took full control of the business, I paid people once they completed a job as soon as possible. 

Whenever I needed them again, or if there was a problem, they were right there, willing to help. 

I know I wouldn't want to train someone and then expect to be paid in 30 days or more. 

For example, I have cameras and a security system in my gym. The guy that installed them said he would send me a bill for everything, and I replied, "Can I give you a check right now?" He was very surprised and said yes very enthusiastically. 

I've had a few issues come up, and he was right there whenever I needed him to make sure everything went smoothly. I can give multiple examples of this where this had made things much easier for me when I needed help.   

Be Present

I asked a question on my Instagram about expectations from a gym owner, and a frequent response was that the owner should be present. 

You don't know what's going on in your business unless you are there to oversee it. 

I understand you can't be there all of the time, but as a small business owner, people are going to expect you to show your face occasionally. Even if you have a manager, or other people overseeing things, trust me, no one will look after our business like you do. There will be problems that will arise that you will need to handle. 

With you being present, you will have a much better grasp of what's going on and will make a better decision on who needs to be removed from your facility, for example. I know many gym owners that went on to open multiple locations and failed shortly after—they can't be in two places at once, and it loses their personal touch. 

Also, the owner should train and at least fit the part of a gym owner. I know many gyms where the owner doesn't train at all. Now I get it, they might be in it strictly for business. However, I can tell you right now if you are looking to run a serious gym like mine, your members won't respect you. I'm not saying this is right, but it's how it is. You want a gym full of meatheads, then you better be a meathead. 

Again, I own a gym because I love to help people, but I love to train even more, if I can be honest. I have this gym to own every piece of equipment I could ever want. With training being a top priority in my life, it also gives me very important insight into equipment. 

Lack of insight is where many commercial gyms fail. They go with one brand and do a whole line with them. 

Everything at my facility is handpicked because I know what feels right and what doesn't. This is why elitefts produces such great equipment. Dave knows how equipment should feel. Just recently, I was there when he was on the phone explaining why a piece of equipment was made wrong and what they needed to fix. These little differences in angles make all the difference.  

Remove Negativity

It's never easy removing someone from your gym, but you will need to do so at some point. When I started, I was way too nice and gave too many second chances. All this did was keep the negative people around, and I lost the good people because of it. 

I know some of you who own gyms are struggling and certainly don't want to remove a paying member, but this will only hurt you in the long run. I went through and removed members that caused multiple problems a while back. After that, my gym has only grown. 

Some people came back, and others finally joined, knowing that the bad apples had been removed. You need to have a strict code of conduct and stick to your guns if someone breaks it.  

Listen to Your Loyal Members

This quality is for the gym owners that have been at it for a few years. You might be doing just OK and need to figure out how to get more members in. A common mistake is the owners or employees focus more on getting new members and don't give the same attention they used to, to their loyal members. 

Remember, what got you these loyal members is the outstanding service you provide, and you need to keep up with that. The absolute biggest way I have increased membership is through referrals, hands down. 

I have done magazine ads, radio ads, and even put flyers on cars in parking lots. 

I also have to give credit where it's due. 

I picked this up from Alwyn and Rachel Cosgrove of Results Fitness. Ask your members for referrals. Talk to your members about their friends and family. Just do it because you genuinely care, and not to give them a sales pitch. Your members will appreciate these little things, which will be what sets you apart from other places.   

Be Honest and Admit Your Mistakes

Every boss or leader needs to admit when they are wrong and take responsibility for their actions. Sadly, many try to blame others, causing even more problems at the loss of good employees and gym members. 

We all make mistakes. 

The important thing is you learn from them your mistakes, apologize to the appropriate party, and do your best to make up for it.  

Don't Burn Bridges

There's going to be a lot of times in business that someone will piss you off. Act like a professional at all times, even when you don't want to. 

Whenever I've had an issue with someone, I just keep my mouth shut, be as nice as I can, and don't do business with that person again. 

When you handle things calmly, you won't have the regret of flying off the handle (which we all do at some point). I'm sure we can all look back at times in our lives when we overreacted and wished we had handled the situation differently. I'm not saying to be a pushover and let someone walk all over you, but explain what you feel was wrong and move on. 

I've had many business opportunities and clients sent my way because even though I disagreed with someone, they still respected me.  

Don't Try to Please Everyone

A lot of what I'm saying here is how we should all act as human beings. As a gym owner, there will be decisions you will have to make that will please one group of people and upset another. You have to use your judgment for what is best for the business. It could be something as simple as only having enough money for one piece of equipment. Buying one piece of equipment will upset some people who feel like you aren't listening to what they want. I've dealt with this before. 

Or it could be deciding what federation to hold a meet with. I have many different groups of powerlifters at my gym who have requested different federations they like to compete in. For this reason, I hold different meets here. That way, I can at least make an attempt to cover what people want.

Just be honest with people about why you made the choice you made. If you lie to please everyone, it will come back to bite you.

Matt Mills is a graduate of the University of Connecticut, earning both his bachelor's and master's degrees in Strength and Conditioning. He is also certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist. As a strength athlete, he is an accomplished powerlifter with a best deadlift of 800 pounds. He is a middleweight pro strongman with best competition lifts of a 360-pound log press, 900-pound pound Hummer tire deadlift, and a 410-pound Farmers Walk. Matt is the owner of Lightning Fitness, located in South Windsor, Connecticut. He has worked with over a thousand athletes, helping them reach their fitness and nutrition goals.