How to Start a Gym with Less Than $20K

TAGS: wil fleming, Dan Brown, Terre Haute Intensity and Resistance and Sports Training, THIRST, Julia Anto, gym business, starting a gym, Purdue University, business, gym ownership, elitefts.com, Brandon Smitley, matt wenning, david allen, Chase Karnes, success, gym, athlete, JL Holdsworth, Julia Ladewski

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Anyone who has followed my log on elitefts for a period of time knows that I was training out of my garage for years. My story of starting powerlifting goes back to my undergraduate days at Purdue University. But far before that, I always wanted to be a gym owner.

From the earliest beginnings, I was traveling to learn from Julia (Ladewski) Anto, Chase Karnes, David Allen, Matt Wenning, and JL Holdsworth; I interned for Wil Fleming; and I worked for Dan Brown.


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Those who have followed me from the beginning have probably seen a very cool story take place for over five years. The building of Terre Haute Intensity and Resistance and Sports Training (THIRST) has finally come into fruition and is now a year old.

Enough about that. But the crazy thing is it cost me less than $20,000 last year to open my gym.

Yes. Less than $20,000. Cheaper than your car, most likely.

How did I do it? Well, the help of my amazing wife was a huge factor. But let's dig deeper into this story.

From Humble Beginnings

To kick this story off right, let's go back to about 2012, when I moved back home from Purdue University. After getting back home, I was in a pinch to try to find a job. I ended up finding a decent part-time personal training and strength coach job about 30 minutes from home. It wasn't the best gig, but it let me continue doing what I loved, and that was train and coach people.

After about six months of doing this, I applied to Indiana State University for my master's degree in physical education and coaching. I was still training clients but was having some issues with the owner and his ethics on training and working with younger populations. I decided to remove myself from this issue entirely (it ended up costing ME money, but it was what was best for the athlete and myself as a coach).

Bicep-Curls-Smitley

I was back to trying to find a job, so I went to work at the local Lowe's Home Improvement store while volunteering with Coach McMannus at Indiana State. I got to work with cheer, dance, cross-country, women's golf, and a couple of other smaller sports. It wasn't the best, but at least I was learning and getting better.

That summer, I went to intern for Wil Fleming at Force Fitness and Performance. This was the best educational experience I had working with clients and athletes, and Wil even offered to hire me full-time. I ended up turning down the position as I was selected for a GA position at Rose-Hulman working in the facility and the rec center for a student management position. I was getting a paycheck and school paid for, it so it was a financial decision more than anything.

That experience ended up being pretty lackluster at best, but I made some more great connections with a now amazing cross-country coach in Michigan: Jake Issacson.

I started my garage gym while I was finishing up grad school. I was still living at home, so I just started to buy cheap equipment as I could find it. A crummy rack here, a bench there, a few dumbbells, and some plates there. Next thing you know, I've got enough to do some decent training.

That final year I ended up joining elitefts, and I made even better investments in my garage gym. After grad school, I went back to personal training and working crummy part-time jobs to save up money and build up the garage.

By the time this was all said and done, from 2013 to 2017, I added the following:

How THIRST Came To Life

Back in 2017, I met my wife Adrian at work while doing personal training and working the desk at Indiana State.

I had all the business stuff lined up for my future gym, but I never had a space or a business partner that I felt I could go in on this comfortably.

After dating for nearly a year, I asked Adrian to be my wife on December 2nd, 2017. A month later, I got the best news I had heard in a long time.

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My very first training partner, Kyle Dean, hit me up on my cell phone and told me he had something I need to see. So I took a day where I had some free time and went to meet him at a building he and his dad owned.

I pulled up to this older building on the north side of Terre Haute, Indiana, wondering why he wanted me to look at this huge building. There was no way I could afford it, and I hadn't seen this building in years.

Kyle and his dad (my landlord), took me into the building to look at this huge space. It looked like total shit with crummy, rusty bricks, stuff all over the place, and it smelled like someone left a dump in the bathroom for over a year... with no heat.

Kyle and Kenny asked me what I thought.

At first, I was awestruck. It was massive at 6,500 square feet. But it looked like shit.

I told Kenny, "The size is great, but I don't know if I can even afford this. And there is so much to be done just to get it ready to be a commercial business space."

Kenny told me, "Don't you worry about that, I'll take care of all that for you when I talk with Dave. How's $XX,XXX sound for monthly rent? You tell me how long you want the lease for. We'll get it done."

I was baffled. I couldn't even offer a counter-offer to his price. He was going to dump his own money in on me (and his space) at my own pace. Needless to say, a couple of months later, they dropped the lease in my hands in April 2018, and by May, I was a gym owner (kind of).

I leased a gym space before I bought my house or married my wife, which was probably one of the most selfish things I did, as I immediately wrapped my future wife into a legal contract with me before we even said our vows (hence why at the beginning I said I'm lucky to have the wife I do).

After the paperwork was done, every day after working my full-time job and working with clients, I would go to the gym and work on moving my gym from my garage to the new space of THIRST. This took dozens of trips in a regular truck, hours upon hours of moving and lifting stuff, more help from my friends and training partners than I ever care to ask for help from them again.

All the meanwhile, I got on the phone with Matt Goodwin at elitefts and ordered the equipment I needed to make the gym happen:

I also took the time to order the turf, flooring, and build more platforms. I bought all of the little stuff: desks, office supplies, printer, bathroom needs, and all of the other things you never care to think about.

From a business perspective, here's the kicker: I didn't even spend $20,000.

I tried to get a small business loan to help out just a little from what I had saved, and what I needed was so small that I couldn't qualify for one anywhere. No one wanted to loan me such a small amount of money for a new business.

As much as I hated it, I had to open a new business credit card (so I banked on the sky miles and free interest for the first 18 months), which in hindsight was probably cheaper than a business loan once interest is factored in.

I had so much saved up from my days of building my garage gym that I didn't need much more, and it turned out to be the best thing.

Now at THIRST, we've got more equipment than I thought we would have after a year of being in business:

Needless to say, it's growing a good, healthy rate!

gajus © 123rf.com 

gajus © 123rf.com

The Logistics You Need To Know

OK, so I guess the main thing here is: How can someone take a look at this article and figure out how to open their own facility?

I'll be blunt: You're going to have a hard time doing it the way I did things.

This was a vision for over a decade.

I knew the right people. Things came into my lap better than they ever could have. I learned the right business skills that my community was lacking. I earned a spot on elitefts that has given me more than I can ever repay. I met an amazing woman that supports all my crazy acts and business ideas. I've got a reputation in my area of being the best.

I'm not saying you can't do it. I'm just saying that I'm the outlier.

But I do feel that my wife and I are proof that if you want to open a facility badly enough and impact your community for the better, you CAN do it. But be ready to bust your ass to a new extreme.

When I was planning this out from undergrad on, I already was building systems to help with how we would make programs, what the name was going to be (which I kept in hiding for nearly eight years), what I wanted the logo to look like (thank you, Dustin), what kind of equipment we would have, services we'd offer, etc.

After internships and working with other people, I knew what point of sales system I wanted, how it ran, and how we could improve from other business models to create what is unique in our area.

I did research on income and economics of our area compared to similar services around the country, especially the Indy area. I built my own personal website, knowing that one day I was going to flip it into the gym and making my online services a sub-option.

Everything I did was meticulous. It was calculated. And it was all planned: how I could either become a better coach, athlete, business guy (and I still suck at it), and mentor to others.

If you're serious about getting this done, find a personal mentor whom you can bounce ideas off of and has been through what you want to do.

Don't go find a guy who owns a chain in town. Go find the gym that is owned by the ex-strength coach, the couple that has been working with parents for a decade, etc.

  1. Sit down and write down EVERYTHING you do have. Look at the trends and gaps. What do you need so you can offer the services you want/need? Start chipping away at those for your own garage gym.
  2. Figure out all your systems NOW. When you're ready to pull the trigger, it will be easy.
  3. Build a website NOW. Even if you don't publicly use it, build it and practice writing blog posts, how you update stuff, etc. It's not as hard as you would think. If anything, produce content and work on your SEO to help your rankings improve.
  4. Do your research on insurance policies, loans, and how you're going to afford everything. When I did ours, I planned and saved like I wouldn't have a single person show up in my gym for six months so I could still afford it.
  5. Do your research on the businesses around you that will be your competitors. What will you offer they don't? What will you do better? Do a SWOT analysis and see what you can do to be the best in your area.
  6. Price yourself so you're the best. We screwed this up and undershot our prices on our training. We're now higher (not as high as I'd like, but we did increase prices this year) and not seeing any issues still. But our membership is the most expensive by far. But we still sell memberships because we are the ONLY facility of our kind.
  7. Figure out your staffing. We don't have any, so it was easy. But we had to decide that we didn't want to be 24-hour access. It was a hard decision, but it has been for the best for us.
  8. Do all of your legal paperwork, contracts, etc. Have them ready to go so all you have to do is fill in blanks with business name, info, etc. This will save you headaches!
  9. Then just sit back and do your research to find that perfect space.

How It's Worked

In one year, THIRST has already been recognized as the best gym in our town. People rave about what we can do, what THEY can do in our walls, the atmosphere, and the family we've created, and ultimately, the way we treat our members.

We've worked with athletes in a variety of sports, trained wide ranges of personal training clients, helped powerlifters achieve elite status, given strong people a place to call home, and we have a culture that strength training is for everyone.

While my wife and I are still working full-time jobs, we're on the cusp of getting my wife away from her job, which will make my job easier. We've invested the majority of our profits back into the business to continue to grow it and give back to our members and provide more of the best for them.

In summary, we're doing well. We are not where we want to be; however, we managed to start turning profit in less than four months. We've grown. And we're hoping my wife doesn't have to work again by the end of the year (fingers crossed).

I'm sure there is stuff that I have left out, but this is a good place for many of you to start your journey to gym ownership.

Please feel free to ask questions and email me at thirst.training@gmail.com or anything in between.

And if you're ever in the Terre Haute, Indiana, area, please swing in! We'd love to have you in to train at our facility and see how we can help you and show you what's worked for us.

Header image credit: Dimitar Sotirov © 123rf.com

THIRST: Bringing Quality, Service, and Integrity to Terre Haute

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