Beast Reality: Considerations When Opening a Training Facility

TAGS: weight equipment, small business, Prowlers, furnishing a gym, expenses, Considerations When Opening a Training Facility, 5/3/1 for Football, Beast Reality, fear, opportunity, erik eggers, Joe Defranco, gym, risk, Jim Wendler, powerlifting

Beast Training LLC (Connecticut version—aka:Version 1.0)

Birth: January 1, 2010 - Death: April 30, 2013

Requiem for Beast Connecticut

I vividly recall Owen Smith at around 198 pounds, loading the bar (and loading and loading and loading) for a 700-pound rack pull from the knees. I have to admit, I was skeptical at first. However, for me, that pull helped expand the boundaries of feasible accomplishments. Freakish pulling!

The Beast will never die. The relationships forged within its Connecticut confines are too strong to be limited by walls, distance or circumstance.

Some of this discussion may be repetitive, presuming that you’ve read at least a few of my other pieces. Some of this is long overdue. All of it is good stuff, if I may be so bold to say, and it’s worth a few moments of your time—especially if you own or are considering starting your own facility.

It’s Wednesday, January 1, 2014, as I sit and attempt to write something prolific. Like many of you, I wonder where the time has gone, especially this last year which was largely a year of transition for myself and my family.

In August 2013, I accepted a career opportunity that required me to uproot my family from Connecticut, where I was born and raised, and move across the country to the vast state of Texas. It was a difficult decision. Unimaginably difficult, in fact—a real blood, sweat, and tears type of decision. (Heavy on the tears, as my entire family lives in Connecticut). Many aspects were surreal then, and they remain just as surreal now. I wake up some mornings and still can’t believe I had the determination to pull through.

We always told our young athletes that in order to be truly successful, they had to be willing to do and endure things others weren't willing to do. Well, it is somewhat ironic that, in the end, I was the one who was forced to practice what we preached. I had to go for it. I had to make the decision—a decision fraught with sacrifices others weren't willing to make—in order to have a shot at furthering my career and to better provide for my family. In the end, you go with your gut, take the shot, and hope you are correct.

How is my decision working out? To quote Tom Cruise’s character Maverick in Top Gun, “I don't know, but uh, it's looking good so far.”

In the Beginning

Ride or Die.

Have you ever done a really high dive? I’m talking high and literally a dive—not a jump. My highest dive ever was about 30 feet, and my knees weren’t even knocking. I was seventeen or eighteen years old and still indestructible. I was immortal. I can’t imagine attempting the same feat now in my mid-forties, although I know many men do. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen some crazy shit. My mind believes I can do it, but the risk isn’t palatable anymore.

Starting a small business presents a similar feeling. You first move to the edge of the cliff, probably hesitate for a bit, and then you grab your balls, bite the bullet (you choose the expression), and make the leap. If you believe you can do it, then you probably can.

Deciding What Type of Gym I Wanted to Own

I’m 44 years old...and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

I wish I could walk you through my thought process in this regard, but I honestly can’t remember exactly how it all went down. I was in a bit of a quandary. On one hand, I was heavily influenced by Joe DeFranco and what he was doing in New Jersey. I loved his facility. Walking into it was like walking out of the tunnel for a big football game: it literally gave me goose bumps. It’s hard to explain, but when I was in there, I just wanted to perform. I wanted to be the best I could be. I never had an audience, which is to say all the pressure to perform was of my own creation, except on the day I loudly crashed a 500-plus squat into his Collegiate Power Rack. I drifted too far forward with the Safety Squat Bar and had to dump it rather than risk injury. Joe looked at me from across the gym.

"Come back tomorrow," he said. “Like my father used to say, come back tomorrow.” He was grinning. It was all part of the game, and I was happy to be on the proverbial field.

On the other hand, I was a powerlifter who enjoyed training heavy with a good crew and good equipment. Unfortunately, I was only able to train at Southside in Connecticut a handful of times, but I was there enough to know that it had the environment I wanted in a facility of my own.

How could I effectively balance the two in a smaller space? Such a great question. In the end, this was exactly the approach we decided to take. We trained groups of athletes, mostly by day, and hosted the power crews in the evening.

The athletes were trained during specified times, either two or three sessions per week. We trained them in very small groups, always maintaining the ratio of five or fewer athletes to a single trainer. The powerlifting and strongman crews trained in the evenings or on Sundays during scheduled Open Gym sessions. It was an extremely challenging balance. I don’t think I was ever able to get it exactly the way I wanted it, but we came close.

Initially, we needed the young athletes to keep the place running (rent, utilities, etc.). However, in the end, we loved working with them, and some of my fondest memories are from working with those kids and watching them excel on their respective fields of play.

Lastly, and this was much to my surprise, we were able to host morning boot camp sessions for women who came to love the gym both for the privacy we were able to offer and the challenging and variable programming we provided. The female clientele were as responsible for keeping us running during our operation as any of our high school or collegiate athletes.

The bottom line is that you can’t be all things to all people, and trying to compete with the mega-chains of the world is a recipe for failure. For all the critics of CrossFit, their boxes have done a tremendous amount for the small gym industry by helping to ascribe a value to the services we provide (via programming and the teaching of free-weight exercise technique).

Size Does Matter (but not in the way you’re thinking)—Start as Small as Possible

Turn that fucking heat down.

Unless you are working with an unlimited budget, it will behoove you to keep the costs down as much as possible. Starting small is paramount to keeping costs manageable (i.e. rent, heat, insurance, and electricity). Keeping those costs as low as possible will help to ensure that you at least have the opportunity to be successful. You will be surprised at how much you can accomplish in minimal square footage.

I recall one of the first calls I made to a former gym owner in an effort to find out what type of capital expenditure I should expect. He suggested that I would need two million dollars because of all of the cardio “pieces” I would need in order to compete with the big guys. However, I quickly realized that we were talking two different languages. Our visions of what a gym should be were so different that I wasn’t able to harvest any information I considered valuable from the call, and I quickly dismissed everything he suggested.

During the first two years, we ran Beast in less than 1,000 square feet. We performed all of our agility and strongman work on the asphalt driveway behind the facility. You would be surprised at how much you can accomplish in a relatively small amount of space. We were crowded at times, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not sure I would have started it any differently.

In our third year, we doubled the size of the facility by knocking through a wall and assuming the adjacent space. We outfitted the “second room” with some industrial grade carpet (I tried to get turf, but in the end I couldn’t justify the additional cost. The turf was slated for the legendary Phase 2 which never materialized), and we primarily used it as open space for warming-up, Prowler® pushes, agility work, and some strongman training.

You know what unexpectedly came back to bite me with the second room? It wasn’t the rent. It was the heat. The second room was not as well insulated as the first, and the gas heater was kicking on all the time, no matter how low we would set the thermostat. We tried to turn the whole thing off one time, and we almost caused all of the building's pipes to freeze. Sometimes it's the unforeseen costs that can come back to get you.

Here is Beast’s actual heat cost for illustrative purposes:

  • 2010 - $697 for the year (Beast’s first year of operation)
  • 2011 - $674 for the year
  • 2012 - $1,308 for the year (Beast’s first year with the expanded facility)
  • 2013 - $1,226 for two months and one week. I don’t have the final number, but you can see the escalation. I mean, holy shit!

Determining the Costs—For Want of a Monolift

Our biggest costs were rent, equipment (nonrecurring—presuming you purchase versus rent), insurance, heat, training certifications (and continuing education), and the telephone bill. Water and electricity were included in my monthly rental payment. We really only had one toilet and no showers, so there wouldn’t have been much of a water bill anyway. (We never hosed the vomit off of the back asphalt. We let nature handle that responsibility).

Some of the costs I didn't really consider initially were permits (operational/fire), property taxes, and accounting expenses.

I've heard some people in the business suggest that you should have enough in reserves to continue operating for six months without revenue, and that sounds like a good rule of thumb to me. However, I looked at it a bit differently. I considered what would be my total cost to “nuke” the place. In other words, what would it cost me to completely get out if things went south in a hurry? Probably not the most prudent way to run and manage a business, but it helped me sleep better at night.

I know I have said this somewhere on this site before, but in regards to equipment, I relied heavily on the advice of Jim Wendler. I agree with the slogan I’ve come to attribute to him: Buy nice. Don’t buy twice.

Although I wasn’t aware of this particular manual before I set up my gym, Wendler’s 5/3/1 for Football has a chapter that discusses setting up a facility for training athletes, and it contains a tremendous amount of valuable information. It’s on point. One of his main tenets is that good power racks have tremendous utility and are essentially indispensable. I completely concur.

Two EFS Collegiate Power Racks were the centerpieces of our gym. We used them for squats, benching, chinning, dips, rack pulls, military pressing, and a myriad of other exercises.

A random individual intending to open his own facility recently reached out to me on Facebook to solicit my opinion on the Collegiates. I responded with the following:

"I absolutely love the racks. I'm a super frugal guy, but when I want something, I want the brand I want. They are great racks and honestly, I couldn't imagine having a different set in the gym. I've dropped 315 from shoulder height into a  free fall into the pins and the thing didn't move. We've done 700+ rack pull off the pins. Long story, but I've been away from my gym for a while and I miss the hell out of those racks. We've been banging away at [the Collegiate Racks] for 3 years and they are still like new. The dip bars attachments are very sturdy as well. You are correct, though. They are not cheap, but you will never have to replace one."

Beast had two EFS heavy duty dumbbell benches and one adjustable dumbbell bench. We used them for everything.

Don't skimp on bars either. I can't emphasize that enough. The bars are going to be the main implements in your training (presuming you are training correctly). If you skimp on them in order to save a few dollars, then you are going to be sorry in the long run. Cheap bars bend and they feel like shit. I want to repeat this one more time for emphasis: cheap bars bend and they feel like shit. Additionally, if you want some serious trainees to frequent your facility, it all starts and stops with the bars. Grab several Texas Power Bars and you will not regret it. I’ve had some of my bars for over twenty years, and they are still as good as new. Some are even better than new because over the years I’ve tamed that cheese-grader knurling to a manageable leve). One caveat is that you will most likely need one or two beater bars for rack pulls or other general abuse situations where a high-quality bar isn’t necessarily required (i.e. curls, rows, use in a grappler, etc.).

We initially started with one Prowler® and a dragging sled, but we eventually added the second Prowler®. The ability to set up relay races or sprint races with the  Prowlers® was extremely valuable to our training.

Lastly, make sure you protect yourself with insurance. It is probably less expensive than you think, and it may save your skin. When you’re working with athletes and pushing them to the edge of their limits, it’s inevitable that someone is going to get hurt. I would say we were pretty fortunate during our years of operation (most of the injuries were my own), but we did have some chipped teeth and at least one athlete made a trip to the hospital post training. It happens. Somehow everyone survived.

Determining the Estimated Revenue—Build It and They Will Come

While this is important, it can be incredibly challenging to do when you are starting a small facility. I state this being an individual who works with complex financial models on a daily basis. When trying to predict revenue for your new facility, it’s tough because your customer in-flow may be extremely lumpy.

In retrospect, I think some of the biggest changes I would have made were the following:

  1. First, I would have set up an automated credit card billing system—an automatic withdraw. We were set up to accept credit card payments, which actually made life a lot easier, but not automatic withdraw. I know the companies that set up the withdraw charge a healthy premium, but it may be worth it to negate all of the monthly tracking of payments (which I can tell you is a real pain in the ass). If you ultimately decide to not do an automatic withdraw, then I would recommend establishing hard rules when it comes to the timing of monthly payments (e.g. payments are due by the fifth day of the month at the very latest). Otherwise, things will slip and you will have to deal with what I call the eventual disappear.
  2. I would have made sure the athletes' parents were more involved in all cases. There were too many instances where we ended up chasing athletes for monthly fees, and although their parents executed our waiver, there were instances where we weren’t too sure the parents were fully in the loop with exactly what was transpiring, the level of services we were providing, and the value we were adding.

Under Promise and Over Deliver—So Cliché, But So True

That kid looked like a squirrel caught in headlights.

I think of all the take-aways here, and this is perhaps the most important in terms of the viability of your business. I’ve provided this general advice to a few different individuals in the past. You may not agree with this, and some of it may be counter-intuitive when it comes to running a successful business—perhaps downright blasphemy, but I will stand on it.

When working with athletes, our focus was to get them stronger and faster. There was absolutely no focus on how Beast was going to be compensated. We did very little, if any, clock-watching. This is to say that if we'd gone an hour and fifteen minutes and the athletes still had not accomplished what we required of them, then we kept going. My firm belief was that the more athletes we could get in our doors, and the faster and stronger they became, then the more the word would spread about the services we were providing.

When we worked with a group of athletes, I would attempt to keep their coaches as involved as possible. I would send them updates on their players, and let them know who was coming and putting in the effort and who had been "no shows." The coach definitely has to buy into the program. If he does and the facility is doing a good job (i.e. the athlete’s work in the gym is translating into better on-field performance), then the coach will sell the program to both the athletes and their parents and, if you're really lucky, to other coaches.

So, the gist here is to focus on the training. The results and business success will follow.

I was less successful when I tried to make in-roads with athletic directors (ADs). That was just my personal experience. At the high school level, I think the ADs keep themselves busy scheduling fields and worrying about the school’s athletic budget. While I am sure most want to put high quality athletes on the field, I think their role requires a lot of juggling and some may be spread quite thin. I would not dissuade you from working with ADs. In fact, it’s probably very beneficial that they are aware of your existence and your service, but I wanted to relay my personal experience.

Finally, we found that word of mouth worked best. Mass advertising was akin to burning money. We spent big money on advertising one time and literally got zero in return. We never made that same mistake again.

It’s Not Easy but It’s Possible to Make Money

After reflecting, I've discovered most of the incredibly fulfilling things I've done have involved no monetary compensation.

The Beast is a business. It’s a limited liability company (LLC), but a lot of the time it felt like a non-profit—and that was okay for me. Having other full-time employment provided me with a great degree of flexibility, but a horrific schedule. Additionally, we were able to help a lot of athletes, reducing their financial burdens when we were able in certain circumstances.

It is possible to earn a living doing this, especially if it’s something you love doing. You just need to have the ability to be patient and intelligent, and you have to provide an excellent service. I would not expect to have much profit during your first two to three years of operation, if any. I personally think three years is the sweet spot, but obviously there are a ton of additional factors.

Due to my hectic schedule, Beast was forced to contract with several trainers. This was the largest hurdle to our profitability. While I loved many of our trainers and was happy to provide a lucrative experience for them, being unable to perform the lion’s share of the work myself substantively impacted our ability to be profitable. For example, $30,000 of annual trainer expenses really puts a dent in the net profitability of the operation.

Conclusion

Hopefully, I have provided some food for thought. Please feel free to hit me up with questions in the comments section. I will do my best to offer any guidance I can, fully understanding that my own situation may be very different from what you will experience. Additionally, this article probably requires a follow-up, perhaps some additional color on equipment, layout, or generally how we ran the place.

It’s true, at times I felt that we were held together by duct-tape and a prayer, but in the end we made it work. Running your own facility is an incredible experience. It’s not only about helping others become more fit, faster, and stronger, but it’s also about helping them achieve their full potential. It’s about helping individuals navigate through life.

It was certainly hard work, but for me I can honestly tell you that not a day passes without a brief flash of nostalgia and appreciation for what we were able to accomplish in such a short period of time, including the relationships we forged—stronger than steel.

Live, learn, and pass on!

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