Life as a Gym Owner: What I Learned in Year Two

TAGS: reopen gym, THIRST, gym owner, Brandon Smitley

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I’ve written a couple of different articles about my gym, Terre Haute Intensity Resistance and Sports Training (THIRST), and how to start a garage gym. Not only have I received great feedback and input, but I also feel that I’ve helped steer some people in the right direction. Now that my wife and I have been in business for two years, I figured it was time to give a progress report, especially after COVID-19.

Year One Summary

To backtrack a little bit, year one was undoubtedly a challenging year for us as a business. Starting our gym while we were tying the knot, purchasing a house, and both working full-time jobs was trying enough. During year one, my wife and I kept our full-time jobs while running the gym. Year one already had us hitting profit margins and getting in the black while seeing quick, healthy growth. From everything we could tell, year two was going to be a great year of advancement, and what we had hoped to be a start to an end of our full-time jobs. But then, life happened.

Cancer

Shortly after our one year wedding anniversary and one year anniversary of the gym, my wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She was 24 years old at the time, and by no means did we think she had cancer. After all, we’re young, healthy, and have no family history of cancer. But after my wife’s first powerlifting meet in April of 2019, she noticed she had some lumps on the left side of her neck, and she continually told me that she felt like her lifts were getting worse and worse while she was growing more tired by the week. She went to the doctor and was prescribed antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. These helped for a short period, but then she was just back to feeling the same. She then went to see a family doctor, where they ordered imaging, and that’s when we got the bad news—it was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

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After meeting with multiple doctors and discovering what would need to be done, we knew that chemotherapy was going to be the best route of treatment. As a young female, we opted to avoid radiation to prevent any risk of breast cancer in the future. This part of our lives was the most challenging thing I’ve had to deal with, and I can’t imagine how she felt week after week: no appetite, constantly sick, no energy, and having to miss work at times with bills coming what seemed like every week. Not to mention the strain it put on a young, newly wedded couple that thought they had their whole lives ahead of them.


RECENT: How to Start a Gym with Less Than $20K


Fortunately, we have some amazing friends and family that raised funds, donated money, and did everything they could to support us to ease the transition of missed work, bills, and decreased gym hours. We even got to a point where our family members had to open the gym in the morning so that members could get their workouts done. In the meantime, I was swamped with my full-time job plus overtime and running the gym in the evening and weekends. I thought many times that either the gym or our lives would never recover, even though we were ensured that she would make a full recovery and beat cancer.

Once in remission (September 2019), we started to figure out how I could somehow work at the gym full-time. I’m not sure what it was, but even with my wife out with cancer most days (she continued to work at the gym and her full-time job as much as she could) and my hours at the gym only in the evenings, our athlete and client numbers continued to climb week after week, month after month. When we knew treatments would stop in December, something would have to change to slow us down a little bit. We couldn’t do this forever, and the numbers began to line up. I knew that if I left my full-time job, I would be taking a nearly 50 percent pay cut to be at the gym full-time. The thought was that with my all-out dedication to the gym, I could put my time and energy into marketing, training, open hours, and overall, give the gym a better chance to see that money come back through the doors.

I used my last couple weeks at my full-time job to get a hernia surgery performed, ran out my PTO and FMLA, and then left on a huge risk that we would see increased business in three months or less.

Full-Time Gym Owner and Our First Hire

Essentially starting after Christmas, I opted to move to the gym full-time and see what I could make happen. Fortunately for us, we had an amazing intern, Andrew, that stepped up during our trying time of cancer to help us run and coach at the gym. Without Andrew, there is no way I would have been able to take the leap of faith to leave my full-time job. We were preparing for our annual RPS powerlifting meet in January of 2020, when Adrian and I decided we needed to bring Andrew on as a part of the staff. While the short two months of being away from my full-time job, we had seen revenue increase nearly fifty percent. I knew that with my wife still coming back from cancer, getting back to her full-time job (and now desperately needing healthcare for the next five years or more), I needed a coach that I could trust and knew our systems in and out. Andrew stepped up when we needed him the most, and we decided to offer him a part-time coaching position beginning in February 2020.

That alone brought its own learning curves. I have never had to fill out employment paperwork, taxes, and do all the little behind the scenes tasks, so that took time to learn and get into a rhythm itself. I had managed multiple college students in the past with other jobs and positions, but this was different because now someone was relying on my business to do well enough to continue to pay him. Needless to say, having Andrew on staff has been one of the best things we’ve done to grow our business and provide an even better training experience for our athletes and clients.

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COVID-19

After a couple of months of Andrew working for us, we got the dreaded COVID shutdown thrown on us. Regardless of your stance with this (I’m going to keep politics out of this article). It was a huge swift kick to the nuts for us. I couldn’t believe that the government could just shut us down. What were we supposed to do for our income? Sure, my wife still had her full-time job (she works with high functioning special needs population), but the first thing I started to worry about was being able to pay rent, utilities, my mortgage, and just feeding my family. How long would this last? And how long could we make it?

Fortunately for us, we’ve got a great family at THIRST. As hard as it was, we asked all our members, parents, clients, and athletes to keep their regular billing going, and we would honor all training. We had a couple of people that needed to stop payments for their financial reasons, which was completely understandable. But for the most part, everyone agreed to stay on board and support us.

In Indiana, we were able to open back up around Memorial Weekend. This would be amazing for some communities, and luckily we happened to live in the right state. We provided all of our athletes at-home workouts, made training videos, gave them bands from elitefts, and rented out some fundamental equipment. We also called each family, hand wrote them cards with a THIRST logo sticker, and now that we’re open, we’ve given each person a free limited edition shirt. That’s the least we could do so that we could keep our business and our lives in check. And I still feel like we owe them so much more.

What Did I Learn?

If year two taught me anything about business, it’s ALWAYS to give more than you take. Provide value in any and all ways that you can. This could look like: giving free apparel, giving a little bit of wiggle room for long-term clients, being flexible with your commitments, showing up at games and family events to the best of your ability, getting to know people on a personal level outside of just the gym, and to continue to educate them for free.


RELATED: How To Reopen Your Gym


We dumped hours and hours into continuing education, whether that be articles, YouTube videos, phone calls, text messages, DM’s, starting a podcast, etc. While I felt like I was taking on more (and I certainly did), it’s come back to boost us further than we were before the closure.

I also learned the value of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). I spent about 10-20 hours a week on just improving this while we were closed, so that when we were given the green light to open, we were the business at the top of Google with free resources and information.

We also discovered that we have indeed built a family in our four walls. I know it’s talked about all the time with business, but I genuinely believe that gyms like ours that are a close-knit family, will support and aid each other in times of struggle. We have been blessed to call all the people that are in our gym family, and it’s motivated us to continue to push that level of unity even higher.

Takeaways

While we certainly did not have an optimal year two of business, I do feel that the foundation we laid during year one is why we still have a gym to go to every day and “Build Better People Through Strength.” We took a couple of swift hits, but each time we came back stronger. Create the foundation, community, and truly follow your core values, and your gym or business will come out on top of hardships at the front of the pack.

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