How I Started a Hardcore Strength and Conditioning Gym in the UK

TAGS: gym equipment, opening gym, marketing smarts, Anthony Shaw, training athletes, Elitefts Legacy Log

In the summer of 2009, just as I was finishing my last piece of work at the university to complete my degree, I was in the library with a few friends. We were discussing our job prospects. The conversation drifted between the UK’s recession (according to statistics, I think 2009 was one of the worst possible years to graduate) and the actual necessity of having a degree to work in sport.

Certainly, my training education came down to this. I learned how to train by working in the real world, and I learned why these methods worked by studying for a degree. Results come whether or not you know the ‘whys.’ This is why I always recommend real-life work experience to people who are interested in working in sport. You can always go back to school, but you may only get one chance to work under a certain coach or go to a one-off seminar and learn something incredible.

So after this conversation, I started to ponder what it would be like to run my own business, try out my own theories and experiments on myself and then with paying clients, and adjust my thinking along the way. But first, I had to work for someone else…

I had wanted to be a strength and conditioning coach since the age of sixteen when I realized that my own rugby performance was lacking because I didn’t know how to get stronger and add muscle. In 2009, I landed an unpaid position with Salford City Reds RLFC. I honestly thought that getting a job with an elite club would be a dream come true, but I ended up feeling depressed and stifled. I didn’t feel like I was being pushed hard enough or that I was learning anything new. In fact, I felt like a few of my ideas were knocked back for no good reason.

Being held back as a coach annoyed me, as I love being progressive, learning, trying new things out, and adjusting along the way. Not for the sake of change but in order to get results and stay one step in front of the competition. So naturally, I again thought of working for myself.

Beginnings

In October 2009, after graduating but still working for the Reds, I started looking around Manchester for storage units or a small warehouse space that I could rent so I could start coaching athletes by myself. I found a storage company in East Manchester that was willing to rent me 250 square feet on the third floor of an old industrial mill for £250 a month. The cool thing about this was that the space was in the corner of a 3,000-square-foot open plan warehouse. It was perfect for me! I could rent my small corner but use the rest of the floor for conditioning, group workouts, heavy carries, and other things. I handed over the cash for the deposit and the first month's rent, and the keys were mine!

So at the start of 2010, I started moving equipment into this tiny storage space. I basically made a couple of sandbags and I had one Olympic bar and a few plates. Outside the warehouse, there were a few other businesses. I noticed one guy who was refurbishing old gym machines and free weights. I introduced myself and we got to talking. He had all sorts of gems—old, thick-handled dumbbells, loads of old 20-kg plates, and more. The hard part was that I was on a very strict budget and needed some very specific equipment. Strictly speaking, I needed a sled and a glute ham raise (in 2010, this was very hard to find in the UK for a decent price). This gentleman promised me both for a little over £400! Great gym equipment at a great price—what could go wrong?

Unbeknownst to me, as I was getting excited about starting up my own business (and after I’d started to contact local sports teams about potentially joining my ‘gym’), the landlord rang me to explain a little ‘problem’ with me starting a gym in this particular warehouse. He explained that on the floor above, in the very same building, there was another gym. I didn’t see how this mattered. A general fitness/commercial gym was surely aiming at a completely different target market than I was. However, both myself and this Globo Gym had the same landlord. Globo Gym threatened to leave the site, which would cause the landlord to lose his lucrative rental lease for this larger gym and only be left with my pitiful £250 a month deal.

I thought it was a good deal. but the landlord didn't and promptly asked me to leave. The other gym owner offered to rent me space in his gym. He had a new MMA training room, so it may have been viable, but do you recall how I hate being stifled and held back? My gym was supposed to give me freedom. So again, I hit the phones and tried to find a new location...and quickly. I didn’t have room in my flat for a load of equipment with more stuff on the way from the equipment manufacturer as well.

If you want a fun game, try calling storage units and explaining that you want to start a gym for youth rugby players. I haven’t had that many rejections since I read The Game and attempted to become a pick-up artist with my roommate.

The first (and only) place to grant me a hearing was a storage company in Warrington. I jumped in the car and headed over there where I then explained what I was up to and when I needed to start. To be fair to them, they were really nice and helpful and offered me a 380-square-foot space for £380 a month. I jumped at the chance, mainly because I was fed up with all this business nonsense. I just wanted to start a gym and make some athletes!

Early Troubles

So on March 1, 2010, I loaded up the rental van with all my gym equipment that had, incidentally, been lying in my living room for four weeks (thanks again to my wonderful roommates for putting up with me). I had to get someone else to drive the van because I was only twenty-two at the time (you had to be twenty-five or older), but I was on my way to becoming a gym owner! You can see the first ever gym that I started in the video below. I did a little tour after setting up on day one. (Looking back, it seems terrible now, but hey, you have to start somewhere!)

 

On day two of opening my gym, I realized that I didn’t have any clients. I didn’t know anything about marketing, and I was going to be in trouble if I didn’t learn fast. If you’re wondering how I got my seed money, I raised £2,000 by selling my beloved horse, Taz. I’m from Abergavenny, South Wales, and I'm most definitely a country boy. My life up until about the age of eighteen consisted of shooting, hunting, throwing bales of hay around, and playing rugby against other little Welsh towns. When I was fifteen, my parents bought me a small, six-month-old Welsh colt foal (for £300—bargain!). I named him Taz, broke him in myself when he was three-years-old, and rode him every week for a year. Then I went off to university and basically left my mum to look after him. After I graduated, we both agreed that he should be sold to someone who had time to look after him. It was incredibly heartbreaking to see him go, but now he’s only just down the road from my mum’s house. I can go see him anytime (I haven’t been yet), and the money from his sale let me invest in my own business. So thank you, Taz!

Back to the gym story...I needed to get some clients. I probably read fifty business and marketing books in my first year of business and started to apply this knowledge through writing online articles, going to clubs and doing presentations and free coaching, and emailing and calling every local rugby league. In February 2010, I quit working for Salford Reds and went completely private as a coach.

This resulted in a tiny bit of work. I think I was losing £200 a month for the first year of my business, but it was growing very slowly. I should say that I had a part-time job in the stock room of a shoe shop at this time, stacking hundreds of boxes of shoes every day. I hated being there and was quite depressed at this time in my life. The gym was struggling to survive, I wasn’t coaching elite athletes, and I had to work in a sweaty stock room.

I had a great family who helped me out financially (it seemed like every month I was asking for money), but I had a terrible attitude toward life back then. I’d go out drinking once or twice a week, only work a few days each week on my business, and then wonder why I wasn’t making much money. The truth is, I was extremely lucky to have people around me who supported me, and I was lucky to have clients to train in the first place. With that said, the combination of a small income and £380 a month for rent was killing me. After six months, I started to look for a cheaper location.

During these early months, and still to this day, one of the most important people to my business success is my girlfriend, Sara. When I didn’t have any money (literally zero) after paying the gym rent one month, my plan was to try and survive on just two cans of tuna and a few potatoes for the last seven days of the month before my wages came in. Sara told me that I was an idiot and then bought me a week's worth of food from the supermarket! We’d only been going out for about two weeks at the time, and it was the kindest thing I think anyone has ever done for me.

Sara also helped me with my marketing and brand identity. She’s a graphic designer and knows what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to websites, flyers, logos, and other materials. We worked on a flyer and the website that I currently have today, and I set about moving the gym to a nearby location with cheaper rent, cutting back costs and improving my marketing investment. This was one of my first important lessons in business.

The new equipment that I ordered was rubbish. The glute ham raise literally broke after about ten seconds. Hodge, my training partner, jumped on to test it out and the knee pad fell off. The low handles on the cheap imitation Prowler®-like sled snapped off when I was training a rugby team, nearly breaking the poor guy’s nose as he fell through the sled and onto the floor. I had all of my equipment repaired by a professional welder who worked next door (who told me that the welds on these two items were the worst that he had ever seen), and then I sold them and took my losses.

I found a new place for my gym about half a mile down the road from the storage unit I was in at the time. From what I know now, £380 a month for that much space was extortionate, but I didn’t know any better so I paid it. The lesson here is obvious—find other people who’ve been down the road you’re on and ask them whether or not you’re on track. You might be getting a raw deal and not even have a clue.

I signed a new, twelve-month lease for the new workshop space. It was 320 square feet for £260 a month. So I saved a hell of a lot of money each month, which allowed me to spend more money on marketing, travel, and new equipment. Managing your cash flow, as I found out, can make a huge difference on whether people know about you or whether you’re just a silent business struggling to pay rent. I know which one I’d rather be!

About two weeks after I told my current landlord that I was moving to a different location at the end of the month (September 2010), they informed me that they’d just noticed that I’d signed a seven-month lease and owed them another month of rent whether I stayed or not. I didn’t believe this and asked to see the lease. Sure enough, there was my signature. Damn. For one month, I had to pay the rent on two units! You need to read what you sign and take a copy for your records. This was obvious stuff looking back, but at the time, I was a complete newbie to business.

What I did next was straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster. I got my van, went into the storage unit late at night, loaded up everything, and drove away. I was fully intending not to pay the rent, mainly because I was that broke and just couldn’t afford it. I’m a really nice person and have never stolen or done anything nasty to another person, so this made me feel like a complete loser. But I just couldn’t afford to pay the rent on two units in the same month, so I ran! Of course, a few months and ten legal letters later, I got scared and ended up paying it anyway, but it seemed like the only option at the time.

A New(er) Space

Finally, I was in a smaller unit with more manageable monthly rent payments. Nothing much happened for about three months (October 2010 to January 2011), but then I had about six clients sign up at the start of 2011. I had been working hard on my blog, writing articles for elitefts™, and talking to people on Twitter. As a result, I had about ten clients in the summer of 2011, all coming three to four times a week for the rugby off-season. I made my first ever profit after more than twelve months of running a business.

Sara had also helped me get a job as a bank cashier where I realized that I’d been screwed over when I worked at the shoe shop. I did the same hours at the bank and got paid twice as much. I recommend that you get a part-time job if you’re also starting up a business and make sure that you get a decent one!

The relief of finally having a well-paying job and making a profit at the gym made such a dramatic difference in my personality. I felt happier, I was more open to learning new ideas and progressing my coaching skills again, and I was getting more and more clients.

In the summer of 2011, I entered the UK’s Strongest Athlete competition, run by Strength and Performance gym, Stockport. While I was there, I saw other gym owners who were also competing, and Sara was asking me about each one—“Who’s that?” she asked. “That’s so and so. He runs a big gym here,” I told her.

Or “What’s his name?” she asked me. “That’s Fred. He runs an awesome gym there.”

Then Sara said the most influential thing I’d ever heard. She asked me, “So, are these coaches better than you?”

“No, not at all. I’m a good coach!” I said.

“Then why do they all have big, awesome gyms and you have a crappy little shed?” she replied.

I didn’t know what to say to this. Sara had clearly hit the nail on the head. I was/am a good coach. They aren’t better people than me, so why the hell am I choosing to run a gym out of a tiny ‘shed’ workshop?

Finally Looking the Part

Six weeks later, I’d signed the lease for a 1,000-square-foot warehouse, which is the current location of Raw Strength Gym. Of course, this time I checked the end date of my existing lease to make sure that I didn’t have to do a midnight run again!

And I went from the shed to this:

Now that’s more like it! The best thing about moving to a bigger space was that I could now train more people per hour (six instead of three), earn more money, and produce more quality athletes. My mum loaned me £3,000 for the first three months rent (they wanted a deposit up front, and I couldn’t get a bank loan) and for additional equipment in order to train more clients per hour.

I realized that clients (and potential clients) take you much more seriously when you and your facility look the part (as annoyingly picky as this may seem because, of course, nothing really changes in terms of the service). I was still writing the same high quality programs as I was when I was in the ‘shed,’ but now it looked like the world-class training facility I was claiming it to be. Wearing my branded T-shirt as a uniform and having a clean, well-equipped gym got me more clients in three months than I’d had all year.

Apart from changing the planning permission over to use the unit as a private gym (which was fairly straightforward anyway), there were (and have been) no other problems since moving to the new gym. I finally feel like I have a mature business on my hands. Now, if only I’d waited, done my marketing, and started the gym in a nice location with a nice website, I could’ve skipped all of that struggling nonsense. But it just wouldn’t feel the same, would it?

Sometimes I think that I was an idiot to go through all of this the hard way, but I'm really proud that I did all of this my own way. I earned the right to have a decent looking gym and a full diary of clients. If someone had just handed it to me on day one, I still wouldn’t have known what I was doing. Now, what was I saying at the beginning of this story about learning through ‘real life’ experience...?

There are some things that reading and education can’t buy. For me, making all of these mistakes was the best thing that I ever did. Most importantly, despite these mistakes, I never, ever, ever gave up.

*If you have any questions about starting up your own business, especially if you’re starting an underground strength and conditioning business, email Matt Goodwin at mgoodwin@elitefts.com. Take action and work hard!

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