I've been a fitness entrepreneur for 13 years and a business mentor for six. I have over 400 clients around the world, who work one-on-one with members of our mentoring team at TwoBrain. In the great information age, we all have access to more knowledge than we can absorb, let alone act upon. And action is the only thing that matters. But what knowledge? What action? When? Fitness entrepreneurs pass through four distinct phases as they first grow their business and then their leadership. These phases are Founder, Farmer, Tinker and Thief.


In the Founder phase, the entrepreneur leaps off the cliff with his big idea. His goal is simple: to survive. He opens his gym. He buys his racks and bands. He signs the lease, the loan, and the letter of intent. He flips the open sign on the door. Then what? The Founder’s big idea might leverage a better life, but his labor is the fulcrum. And that's understood by the Founder, who embraces the romantic ideal of the entrepreneur: poring over the books at midnight, a trace smear of gym chalk on his tired face, pondering the next step up the ladder to success. #hustle #grind

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The Founder phase takes a heavy toll — physically exhausting, financially terrifying, and the largest strain on every personal relationship the Founder has. My job as mentor is to get the Founder out of the Founder phase as quickly as possible. Many businesses never survive this phase. Mine almost didn’t: after three years as a Founder, I found myself on a park bench, broke, and wondering how I’d ever pay for groceries, let alone put my kids through college. A mentor saved me — but that’s another story.


The Farmer phase starts when the entrepreneur begins the shift from self-employed to business owner. He has hired his first employee, even if it's a low-level role. He's begun paying himself a little. But he's probably still the face of the company. He's probably still opening the gym at 5 AM, then answering emails and making sales calls "when he can." He's still working in the business instead of working on the business. He's busy being busy. In the Farmer phase, the entrepreneur is susceptible to martyrdom. "No one can do it like I can!" he thinks, whether about sweeping the floors or training the clients. And he's right: no one else would do it that cheaply, that tired, or at the expense of their kids' baseball games. No one else would work for a boss so demanding, so cheap, so ruthless. But in buying himself a job, the Farmer is beholden to his own self-worth.

My role as mentor to the Farmer is to replace him in low-value roles, and fill his time with high-value roles. It's to systemize his batter-mixing, replace him at the front counter, and teach him to grow his reach. Eventually, it's to get him home by dinnertime. The Farmer phase is where 90% of entrepreneurs spend the entirety of their careers. They call themselves "owner-operators," and most will never even retire from their gym, let alone become wealthy or create meaningful careers for others. But some do. These are the Tinkers.

man walking on stairs

 Image credit: Denis Ismagilov © 123rf.com


A Tinker has built a business that runs itself. Now she's trying to build another, or to duplicate her first success, or to take her first idea to a new market, or to start over with a new idea. If she's not given new challenges, the Tinker will probably stick her hands in the machine, constantly "tweaking" her original business until it's broken. Some of the Tinkers in TwoBrain are turning their gyms into franchises, developing online projects, mentoring other gym owners, and starting second companies. Others are setting up their retirement plans and buying buildings to create cash flow assets.

My role as mentor to Tinkers is to help them identify the next big project, and then keep them focused on it. I've never met a Tinker who didn't have at least three big projects in mind. Free from their original business—and still making passive income from it—the Tinker's greatest risk is killing the golden goose. Many Tinkers in the fitness industry actually need physical coaching. Surprisingly (or maybe not) when your hobby becomes your job, you lose your passion. Many top trainers struggle to get their workouts done. Almost every day, I have to tell a gym owner to take a brisk walk — anything to get some exercise.

The Tinker's attention must shift from developing their first business to developing themselves as a leader. That means a plan for physical activity, mental acuity, and mental training. It means peer support: "It's lonely at the top" describes the Tinker to a capital T. It means mentorship from someone who has successfully navigated the "valley of death" created by hiring a management layer for the first time. If they can, they become a Thief.


A Thief moves resources from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration. Think Robin Hood, not the Hamburglar. With new resources, the Thief seeks to build a legacy business, providing multi-generational wealth or service to his community. Many Thieves become mentors. Others create bursaries or endowments, or found charities. Some continue to build, forging partnerships and taking their expertise to new markets. My role as mentor to the Thief is — well, I don't mentor Thieves. They mentor me. They inspire me, educate me, and ask me, "Who did you serve this week?"

The path from Founder to Thief is the path to self-actualization. The Founder builds a foundation of service; the Farmer cultivates success; the Tinker builds on his invention; the Thief spreads the wealth. Success isn't guaranteed in any phase, but it can be strongly aided through mentorship, and that's why I've chosen to mentor other entrepreneurs. Which phase are you in? Take my test.

Chris Cooper is the author of Two-Brain Business, Two-Brain 2.0 and Help First. A former powerlifter, Cooper opened Catalyst Fitness in 2005 after a decade in the fitness industry. The gym almost bankrupted him. When he realized that being a good coach didn’t make him a good business owner, he found a mentor and began his REAL education. He now owns two gyms (and three other companies, as well as a few buildings) in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Since 2010, Cooper has published over 1000 free blog posts. His new site is twobrainbusiness.com, and his podcast is TwoBrainRadio.