What Nobody Told You About Rapid Facility Growth

None of us gym owners opened our doors with the intention of just getting by.  Sure, we got into the game of fitness to help people, but we’re also here to make a living. Here at Cressey Sports Performance (CSP), we’re very fortunate to have seen our business scale larger than any of us three co-founders initially imagined it would, or could.

This past September we introduced our 4,000th client to the CSP system. In order to accommodate the introduction of this amount of athletes in a 9+ year span, we’ve added space, added staff, and reassessed (on many occassions) our primary goals and objectives for this business.  While improving the bottom line and the visibility of our brand within the world of fitness has been fantastic, there are a handful of “deal with the devil” realities that came with rapidly scaling our business.

Here are three cold hard truths of accelerated facility growth that caught me by surprise:

1. Not all clients are dying to see you expand

Who wouldn’t want a bigger space to train in? Would any of our clients actually say no to a building with immaculate restrooms and amenities such as a cafeteria? How about more parking? They’d want that too, right?

These are some of the assumptions we made as we moved out of a grungy 2,000 square foot space, and into a shiny new “showcase” facility during the spring of 2008. We were upping our game dramatically with the intention of improving the client experience. After all, you need to spend money to make money, so that is what we decided to do.

Instead of thanking us profusely, more than one of our most dedicated clients expressed extreme disappointment in the decision. Despite the fact that we’d upgraded the training space and also positioned our business in what we determined to be a more convenient location, some people were unhappy.

We’d failed to realize that the cozy little garage gym environment we’d pulled together in our first location was one of the idiosyncrasies that some clients truly appreciated. In fact, some clients loved the authenticity of the space. They also appreciated our perceived accessibility, which they were convinced was sure to disappear as soon as we upsized our business and “went corporate.”

Moving to a larger, more professional space was 100% the right move, but dropping it on our dedicated clients as a surprise might not have been the best approach. Thankfully, we eventually proved to all of them that our values and accessibility would not change, and that you can still get strong in a gym that does not require a tetanus shot to set foot in.

2. You’ve just become the Vice President of Human Relations

Imagine you’re standing at a podium waiting to slap the big red button while Steve Harvey guides you through a live recording of Family Feud…

“Name the number one reason people choose to open their own gym.”

I’ll venture a guess that you could list the top fifty responses before coming across an individual who answered: “Because I’m excited to manage employees!”

However, just because this answer didn’t show up in any of the responses, doesn’t mean it is a component of gym ownership that can be ignored. If you want to increase your foot traffic with the intention of driving profits, adding employees is a harsh but necessary reality. Increased staff size means increased management and leadership responsibilities for every business owner.

Start wrapping your head around annual reviews focused on both performance and negotiating wage increases. Understand that you will be the disciplinarian expected to lay down the law with interns who can’t seem to show up on time for their coaching shifts. Get ready to be the bad guy when an employee asks if he can take a day off for the seminar that you’ve already granted permission for two other staff members to attend.

You show me a gym owner who claims to be excited about these responsibilities and I’ll show you a liar.

3. Your definition of an “ideal client” will change dramatically

When CSP was in its infancy we were just three guys trying to blur the lines between making a living and loving what we did. We had the freedom to hand out freebies and discounted training left and right. The goal was to increase visibility for our business, so we compensated training for athletes who were projectable, minor league baseball players willing to align themselves with our brand, and just about any friend of a friend who wanted to drop in on staff lifts.

As time passed, and business began booming, we traded a shortage of brand awareness for a shortage of training capacity. The gym was suddenly full and our limited staff could only handle so much program and coaching responsibility. The only solution was to add employees, and the increased overhead associated with suddenly having a payroll. My focus on perceived busy-ness faded into the background as I began paying far more attention to operational efficiencies and revenue-driving components of my job.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that we needed to downsize the hand-outs. Gone were the days of helping out the local high school soccer phenom who aspired to play professionally but had no money in his wallet. It was time to turn our attention to the pre-teen athlete that looked like a baby giraffe taking his first steps each time we introduced him to a new movement. After all, his parents had dollars they were looking to spend, and we needed cash flow more than we needed another body taking up resources but generating zero revenue.

Be careful what you wish for…

Building the big business of your dreams will feature far more pros than cons, but there will undoubtedly be occasional bumps in the road. These three lessons we learned by doing should stay top of mind as you make the jump from lean startup to “going all corporate.”