It's all rainbows and butterflies at first.
When you start from nothing, everything you do helps to set a record. One tough realization we all eventually come to in the weight room is that once the "newbie gains" conclude, you can't achieve a personal best every time you step up to the bar. Nonetheless, for a little while, we all believe we can.
It’s hard not to run your business with the same mentality when you’re the new guy on the block and people seem to keep finding their way through your doors to see what your gym is all about. Continuing double (or even triple) digit growth year after year? Sure, that's sustainable!
It probably isn’t. And that's okay.
We’ve all been told that starting a business is hard, but there doesn’t seem to be much discussion regarding the troubles that come with plugging forward in an established business. Things WILL go wrong, and you have the choice to react poorly, or learn a lesson and move forward. I've done both.
Here are ten difficult lessons you’ll eventually learn if you are fortunate enough to see your business transition from “new” to “established” status:
1. Long-time clients will leave
Much like your favorite local bar, every gym has its regulars. These are the clients that helped lay the foundation of both brand and culture within your service business.
As you get caught up in the whirlwind of growth within your operation, you may fail to realize that the circumstances of your client’s lives change over time. People move, jobs change, and expendable income fluctuates. Eventually, you’re going to lose a client for reasons other than your ability to deliver a quality experience or service. It’s not your fault, but it will sting.
Try not to take it personally. Change is a part of life.
2. Great employees will move on to new steps in their career
We made our first official hire at CSP back in the spring of 2008 when we brought Brian St. Pierre on board. Brian was fresh out of college and he had a passion for both strength training and performance nutrition. He was hard working, entrepreneurial-minded, and forthcoming about his goal of eventually pursuing a masters in nutrition.
We had the pleasure of employing Brian for three great years, and CSP became a special place in part because of him. He’s since chased his dream and managed to secure employment at the world-renowned Precision Nutrition, holding the title Director of Performance Nutrition. How cool is that?
It isn’t our job to monopolize the best talent in our industry for selfish reasons. Our job is to provide clients with life changing training opportunities while positively influencing our field as a whole. I’m proud that we had the chance to influence Brian and his career path.
3. You’ll have to fire a client or two
This is a problem that you’re unlikely to encounter while in the early stages of operation. After all, how many new gyms can afford to turn away business?
Business will get better with time, and you’ll eventually find yourself seeking operational efficiencies as you juggle tasks and responsibilities. Sooner or later a crummy customer is going to help you come to the conclusion that your time, energy, and resources are better spent focusing on clients who require less nurturing and bring a consistently positive attitude to the gym. Just because your high maintenance clients show up with cash in hand, doesn’t mean you have to accept it.
Your time is valuable. Firing the occasional client can make you more efficient.
4. A star client will get hurt
I realize that not every gym has the opportunity to work with athletes. Those that do, however, need to be aware of the reality that their star pupil is vulnerable to injury just like each of his or her peers. We can provide all of the arm-care resources under the sun to help a baseball player to minimize the damage that comes with throwing a baseball, but it is unlikely that CSP will ever entirely eliminate the risk that comes with the sport.
We’ve had players do everything right on and off the field with respect to preventative maintenance who still fall on some bad luck as it relates to injuries. You can’t beat yourself up over it. Focus on improving your training philosophies and protocols as you reflect on what you’ve learned from the experience.
5. The cost of doing business will increase
If you’re in the game long enough, you’re going to see the cost of doing business skyrocket. For example…
We provide health insurance for our coaches here at CSP. In nearly eight years of operation, I have seen our monthly per-person cost for insurance coverage move from $147.50, to $322.50. Our coverage package has not changed. Our employees schedule their annual physicals and fill the occasional prescription. Otherwise, we’re low-maintenance, inexpensive clients.
Think about those numbers for a second. The cost of health insurance for my team is now more than twice as expensive as it was back in 2007. With a team of 8 coaches, that can mean an increase of more than $15K in annual health insurance costs.
6. You’ll take a big risk all over again when signing a new lease
Every gym owner should aspire to survive the duration of his or her first gym lease. If you find yourself eye to eye at the negotiating table with a landlord looking to re-up at the conclusion of your term, you’re doing something right.
In most circumstances, you’re going to need to commit to an additional 3-to-5 years of rent. In our case, that means a commitment to nearly $1M in rent dollars over a 5-year span between our two facilities. Every time you sign a new lease you are taking a risk reminiscent of that which you took the day you signed your first one.
7. Someone will discuss your brand in a negative light
We all have competition, and competitors will not enjoy seeing you thrive. Someone will inevitably bad-mouth your business, and the best response is no response at all. Rise above the negativity. Exchanging public criticism of your competition will only make you look immature.
8. Those lacking integrity may “repurpose” your material
I recently had a consulting client bring it to my attention that a gym in his market had plagiarized a great deal of the copy from our CSP internship page. This prompted me to run a quick Google search of a very specific sentence from the Expectations of All Applicants portion of our program description. If you’d like to see a true demonstration of laziness, go ahead and drop this sentence into a search engine: “Present yourself in a manner that will reinforce your status as a role model for impressionable young athletes.”
I made it through the first ten or so examples of blatantly cut and pasted material from our site before I decided that heading on to page two of search results would only serve to make me more angry. Who would have thought that the copy I wrote back in 2008 would bring so much value to so many people’s businesses? I honestly don’t know what my recourse is in this scenario. All I can say is that plagiarism demonstrates a lack of integrity.
The lesson here is that if your intellectual property is the differentiator upon which you make your living, you need to copyright (and trademark) your material immediately. You should also think long and hard about reusing other people’s material and passing it off as your own because once you’ve been labeled a cheater, it is a hard label to remove.
9. You’ll “age-out” of your targeted demo
If you own a fitness business that works with a specific target market (like baseball players), you are eventually going to be much older than the athletes you are targeting. Eric and I had an easier time getting inside the minds of 18-22 year olds back when we were 25. We now find ourselves in our mid-30s, and growing rusty when it comes to trendy applications such as Snapchat and Periscope.
We can either change with the times and work to employ coaches closer in age to our ideal demographic, or declare that “the old way is better” and watch the industry pass us by. We’ll go with the former option, thank you very much.
10. Your personal priorities will change
When we started this business, we were young, unmarried, and far from being parents. At that time, my priority list looked like this:
- Turn CSP into a monster of a business and brand
- Repeat number one
Today, my list looks a little more like this:
- Be a good husband and father
- Maintain and develop a strong business and be a good employer
- Publish business-specific content and consult for other gym owners
There’s nothing wrong with seeing your priority list change over time. The problem comes when priorities begin to change and you realize that you’ve yet to create systems and assemble a team that can take on the responsibility of helping you advance the development of your business while you work to juggle new responsibilities.
If you’ve had one, two, or even ten of the problems outlined above, it means that you’ve been in the game long enough to have an established fitness facility. This is commendable in an industry featuring so much competition. I wish you luck, and hope that you continue to encounter some of these issues.
You’re obviously doing something right.