Gym Business: What I Wish I Knew When I Started

TAGS: client referral, new gym members, auto payments, gym ownership, group training, matt mills, owning a gym, marketing

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It’s been a little over 10 years since I started my own business, which is a huge milestone for any business owner. I probably made every mistake there is to make, but I learned some valuable lessons along the way. There were plenty of times in the beginning when I didn’t think I could own a business anymore and would lose my mind on a weekly basis (well, I still do that). Looking back, I’m amazed I even survived the first five years, and there were plenty of times I wasn’t able to pay myself a dime.


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When I started the business with my partner at the time, I honestly thought it was going to be easy money. My partner’s exact words were, “We’re going to be making hand-over-fist cash.” Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. For anyone reading this thinking about opening up your own gym, please do it for the right reasons. I’m going to tell you that only making money is not one of them. You should start your own business because it is something you love to do — and no, not just because you love working out. You need to love the business of owning a gym. If you train people like I do, you also need to love helping people. "Passion trumps everything" is extremely true with your own business. Without passion for what I do, I would have closed down a long time ago. I get a lot of questions about starting a facility similar to my own, so here is some advice I wish I knew from the beginning.

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Group Training

I started out doing only one-on-one training, as I was coming from being a trainer in a commercial gym. I was also able to start with a small client base right away because some of my clients followed me to my own location. With that being said, one-on-one training was dying out in my area. CrossFit was becoming more popular, and boot camp gyms were popping up as well. Both CrossFit and boot camps do group training classes at a fraction of the cost of personal training. After three years of only doing one-on-one training, and barely surviving, I knew a change had to be made. I slowly integrated group training times at a lower cost, which started out very small, but in time grew bigger and bigger. Soon enough I was able to switch all of my training times to only group training.

Now, I’m not saying to not offer one-on-one personal training if it fits your schedule, but certainly, don’t make it the priority of your business. Where I’m located, I don’t know of any “personal training studios” that have made it the long haul. Also to add, my partner at the time had another location, and he didn’t want to make the change to group training. After we split ways, he closed his facility down shortly after for the same reason. I find group training to be far more beneficial for both the trainer and the clients. In this situation, clients are in a more motivating atmosphere, where everyone can train together like a team. You’re now able to a make a lot more money per hour, as opposed to a one-on-one session. Using my own business as an example, I used to charge $60 an hour. Now let’s say group training is $150 per month (I’ll get into monthly payments later). If that member pays $150 per month and comes 12 times a month, that’s $12.50 per session. When you get your group training moving with 10 people, you’re now making much more and helping more people.

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Auto Payments

Asking people for money can be uncomfortable when you are first starting out, but it is something you have to get used to. Unfortunately, I have to add this in: if you let people slide or give them a break just one time, they will walk all over you. This is not true for all of your clients of course, but you have to be firm right from the beginning. When I started out, I did everything by the session, so people bought packages from four to 12 sessions. The problem with this is that people don’t always use all of these sessions when they are supposed to. Someone may go on vacation, get sick, or cancel a one-on-one session. What ends up happening is that you are out of a lot of money over the long-term.

This especially hurt me when first starting out, because literally, every dollar mattered. Just when you think that a client is up with sessions, and has to buy more, they go away on vacations or a business trip. This is where budgeting becomes very difficult as well. The solution to this is to do automatic billing.

I can’t say this enough: I wish I would have started out doing it because it would have saved me a lot of trouble. As I have moved to group training, auto-pay is the only way I accept payments now. Also, please don’t let anyone fool you. Everyone has a credit card and can pay like this. I’ve heard a thousand times that someone can only pay cash because they don’t have a credit card. When I say we don’t accept cash, every time they come back magically with a credit card. I would also recommend doing contracts, as doing month-to-month billing will give you a whole different headache. I would recommend doing them in three-month and one-year contracts. I always explain to people that you need at least three months to see real results, so that’s why we do contracts. Most people really don’t have a problem with contracts in the first place. Just think about how many you sign already: cell phone, cable, and pretty much any kind of monthly membership.

Invest More Time in Learning About Business

When I first started, I was obsessed with learning as much as I could about training and nutrition. Of course, it’s why I started my gym in the first place. However, what I really needed to learn more about was how to run a business. My previous job as a trainer at a commercial gym was pretty simple. I had a lot of clients, but at the end of the day, I could go home and not think about work. With your own business, you really never leave work, because it’s always on your mind. This is why a lot of gym owners get burnt out.

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Unfortunately, you can’t just open a badass facility and expect that people are just going to show up. At least not right away. How to get new members needs to always be a top priority, and how you do that is by taking care of the members you already have. I wasted a lot of money when I first started on newspaper ads and even a radio commercial. All of them ended up with a few phone calls and not much else. This goes without being said, but you have to be a good trainer first, and you have to be good at teaching people. This is why someone who is a great athlete won't necessarily be a great coach. Getting results out of people is your walking, talking billboard for your business. Giving your clients an incentive for referrals will easily add more members. I give a free month to any member that refers someone new, which your members will greatly appreciate.

I can only speak from my personal experience, but what helped me grow my business was competing in both powerlifting and strongman. Part of succeeding in business is being able to market yourself and make connections. Competing in powerlifting opened me up to a whole new world, making a lot of new friends, which for business is extremely important. The more I competed, the more people I met who learned about my gym. It didn’t matter if they lived in the area or not because the word would spread.


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Unfortunately, there aren’t many powerlifting friendly gyms, so the serious competitors will travel. Through the help of social media, anyone in the powerlifting/strongman world from this area now knows of my facility. I made that sound very simple, but I put my body through hell the first couple years. I competed in 10 powerlifting meets, strongman competitions, and even a CrossFit competition in just one year. The more I competed. the more people knew about my gym. I don’t recommend anyone compete for that much, but you must learn of a way to market yourself. Competing was just my way of having a bigger social media presence that helped me grow my business. Now after 10 years, I have numerous competitors that do the same for my business, spreading the word as they go compete. I will end with this: Having your own business can be a burden, or it can be something you love to do every day. You just have to be ready to make sacrifices for it.

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