Walking Before You Run - Managing Fitness Facility Growth

I just told a new fitness facility owner that he’s going to need to consider turning away clients if he wants to create something with real staying power.  Why in the world would I give this advice to someone who started his strength and conditioning business less than three months ago?

The Business

For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call this entrepreneur (and former CSP intern) and his business partner Bill & Ted, and their facility can be known as Excellent Fitness Adventure (EFA).  If all goes according to plan, Bill will be to EFA what Eric Cressey is to CSP, while Ted will hold down the Business Director role similar to that which I play in our business.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Fitness Adventure got off to a hot start after partnering with a local youth baseball development program.  In an experience similar to ours here at CSP, Bill was able to show a high school pitcher significant velocity gains and increased athleticism in just two months of solid training.  When a pitcher suddenly finds an additional 6-8 MPH in his fastball, his friends want to know his secret to success.  Word spread quickly, and Ted suddenly found himself giving the sales pitch to dozens of inquiring parents.

Suddenly, an additional opportunity presented itself for Bill to bring the EFA brand to a baseball skill instruction facility where he’d coach young athletes two days per week in an independent contracting format.  He jumped at the idea of having a “second location.”  After all, if some is good, more is better…right? 

At the same time, business was growing at the EFA flagship location so quickly that Bill & Ted had to make not one, but three new full-time coaching hires.  The guys found themselves in the black before wrapping up Q1 of their new entrepreneurial venture.  What could go wrong?

Growing Pains

“A parent I know and trust has informed me that the quality of the training diminishes noticeably on the days I’m coaching off-site.” – Bill

“Sometimes I ask our coaches to execute specific tasks and my request is treated as a casual suggestion as opposed to a formal directive.” – Ted

These guys have identified their issues early on and have decided to take action.  Unfortunately, the ready, shoot, aim approach to managing can lead to cultural incompatibility and mismatched training philosophies.  You can’t just hire on the fly and expect your employees to embrace your values without taking the time to teach them and evaluate them.  Here’s a look at why reactive hiring on a tight time table can compromise your company objectives and ultimately force you to temporarily cap growth in order to right the ship.

Reactive Hiring

We have a policy here at CSP that we will not hire from outside of our internship program.  I often say that I can accept the occasional “miss” on an intern selection, but I’ll never tolerate screwing up a full-time placement because I am selecting from more than 100 individuals who’ve worked 300+ hours of unpaid training shifts in our gyms.  They’ve already demonstrated a fit with our team and culture, and an appreciation for our unique training and business model.  Former interns result in can’t-miss hires. 

At any given moment in time, Eric and I have what we’d call our “short list,” containing the names of the first five former interns we’d like to hire if there was a need for additional coaching at either of our locations.  The problem that Bill & Ted have run into is that they’re making hugely important hiring decisions without having established a unique culture within their business.  In fact, our six fall interns here at CSP Mass have already accumulated more coaching hours since starting their internships than the total hours that EFA has been open for business.

How can you hire the “right” personality type, coaching philosophy, etc. if you haven’t been open for long enough to establish a description of the perfect employee and coach?

Proactive Prospecting is Key 

In thinking about the burden of accommodating demand at a rapidly growing fitness facility, I reached out to my good friend Mark Fisher.  Mark co-founded Mark Fisher Fitness with Michael Keeler back in 2012 and has seen his business thrive in uber-growth mode.  In fact, MFF was recently labeled the 312th fastest growing company in America by Inc. (1,487% growth over a three-year span counts as fast, right?). 

Mark was kind enough to share his best advice regarding hiring in conjunction with rapid growth:

"If someone is planning on growing their gym and hiring trainers, I believe you want to start looking yesterday for potential hires.  I routinely do at least a few interviews per month, even when we haven't been looking.  We've always tried to play the long game and develop relationships with people we love, because we anticipate we'll keep growing.

I am ALWAYS looking for star talent to make sure we don't find ourselves having to cap business because we don't have the proper team to handle demand.  At the end of the day, we're all in the service industry, and the subtle nuances of people skills, emotional management, and a genuine desire to serve can make or break a culture, particularly in the early stages."

The last sentence in Mark’s quote is of particular importance to businesses such as EFA and all service providers in general.  We can’t turn back time and meticulously handle the hiring process of EFA’s first three employees.  Instead, Bill & Ted will need to instill the business operating principles and values they live by in their colleagues. It might have been easier to hire folks who evidently embody those values, or who can at the very least understand what those values are and express a willingness to embody them during their interviews. 

3 Solutions for Managing Growth Without Making Hasty Hires

1. Pump The Breaks – There’s nothing wrong with telling people that you’re not currently accepting new clients.  Every new parent that approaches Matt Blake during the middle of the baseball off-season requesting a prime pitching instruction time slot is turned away due to lack of availability…guess who’s the first to sign up for an on-going slot in his calendar the following fall as the next off-season approaches?  You do not need to apologize for being at or close to capacity.  Nor do you need to compromise the quality of your services by stretching your resources or making shortsighted hires to accommodate demand. 

2. Be The Example – As the owner of a fitness business that has seen its fair share of quick growth, I can understand the need to be in multiple places at once.  I’ve seen Eric pulled in ten different directions with a to-do list stacked high with calls to return, emails to reply to, and business development opportunities to pursue.  During the first couple of years that we were in business, he pushed all of that aside during client training hours.  Regardless of other demands on his time, Eric made sure to be standing alongside Tony Gentilcore on the CSP training floor as clients executed their programming.  The two of them set an example for Brian St. Pierre when we made him our first hire by logging countless hours coaching foam rolling and preaching the importance of proper technique right alongside him.

As the owner of a young fitness facility, it is imperative that you are visible not just to your clients, but also to your employees.  In EFA’s case, the best advice I can give is to walk away from the satellite facility in order to be truly present in the day-to-day development of a business that is finding its identity.  You can’t just explain your coaching expectations to new employees; they need to see it in action.

3. Enjoy The Process – Roughly once each week I make a comment to my wife about how “I can’t wait until he’s old enough to throw a football around the yard with me” in discussing my 21-month old son.  She never hesitates to ask me what the rush is, and she’s right.  In fact, she selected the song You’re Gonna Miss This by Trace Adkins for her Father/Daughter Dance on our wedding day; she’s been consistent with the message since just about the day I met her. 

Building a business is very much like raising a child.  There are countless abbreviated nights of sleep.  There are ongoing challenging decisions.  There are extraordinarily high highs, and painfully low lows.  I’d give anything to return to that moment in time and experience a day or two of the exhilaration that comes with being a new business owner.  Growth should always be on your mind, but be smart about it. And don’t forget how to enjoy each and every stage of that growth while it’s happening.

I promise you this: if you are fortunate enough to build a thriving fitness business that stands the test of time, there will inevitably come a moment when running it stops being a hobby, and starts feeling like stressful work.  For me, this realization came right around 2012 as I was dealing with modifications to our employee health insurance offerings, negotiating a new lease for our “dream facility”, and realizing that a lot of people count on me to get my work done to ensure that they can make a living. 

What's the rush to get there?