I Failed to Open My Dream Gym - Here's Why

Note from Pete: This week I have a guest post for you from my buddy Casey Lee, a Strength Coach living in Northern-Vermont. He’s a member of the rare club of “almost gym owners” who can say that they danced with the idea of opening their own space before putting their professional life and credit score entirely on the line in a risky manner. Listen closely, aspirational facility owners!

Like most Personal Trainers, I was invincible. I had an above average skill set in assessment. My program design systems were locked in. Client conversations were the highlight of my day, each and every day.

The decision to open up my own gym seemed like a no-brainer at the time. I had books by Thomas Plummer and Pat Rigsby, a network of business owners cheering me on, and a killer mindset that was sure to lead to a thriving business.

That’s how it works, right? Have the soft-skills, own the hard-skills, and have a kick-ass network. Right?

Not so fast.

Two years later, with no gym to speak of, I am at peace with the with the biggest professional mistake I have made to date. I tried to open a gym and failed. Luckily for me, this failure will not define my career. If anything, it’s helped springboard me forward, and has given me the tools necessary to help others avoid these mistakes.

Allow me to introduce you to some of my biggest mistakes along the way. Here are three things I did that kept my gym from ever seeing a day of operation:  

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1. Failure to delineate between start-up costs & operating costs

Are you hoping to open a business at any point in your life? Go grab a piece of paper and create two columns. On one side, write down everything you need to open your business. Now, on the other side, write down everything you need to keep your business running.

This exercise may feel simple, but the distinct difference between these two columns needs to be appreciated if your gym has any shot at surviving. You’re going to need two different pools of money — one to open the business, and another to keep the lights on.

That cash you have in your savings account might cover your start-up costs, but is it going to give you the liquid funds to keep you moving as you grind to establish a book of business?

2. Failure to understand ALL of your options

Opening a business, especially a gym, is like reading a “choose your own ending” book.

Depending on the route you take, you will end up with a different ending.

It is critical that you understand all your options so you can get moving towards the ending you desire. If you don’t have savings, are you aware of available financing options? Do you know the ins and outs of SBA loans? Maybe you’re building a small operation and a line of credit will cover it — do you understand the risks of defaulting on that payment? Are you a new-to-the industry 24 year old coach engaging in discussions with a venture capital firm? Yikes.

Like I said, you choose your aspirational ending, but understand that there are dozens of different paths you can take to finance the initial investment. Take your time and research each one, evaluate the short and long term risks, and make an educated decision for yourself. Speed to market is less important than reducing your risk.

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3. Failure to appreciate the order of operations

Just like in 5th grade math class, there is an order of operations when it comes to opening your gym. What is important to identify is that the first few tasks on this list will not cost you a single dollar to execute.

My recommended order of operations — some of these pieces can be done simultaneously, and this is how I would attack the process if I were taking another shot at this today:

  1. Write your business plan ($0)

  2. Explore potential locations ($0)

  3. Talk to the town zoning administration ($0 until your inspection)

  4. Quote your equipment ($0 until you order)

  5. Re-visit start-up expense projections

  6. Re-visit operational cost projections

  7. Explore funding options as needed (avoid options that involve an application fee)

  8. Edit business plan to account for different scenarios based on findings from points 2-7.

Planning a gym is just that — planning. There should be minimal cash going out during the planning process. If you’re spending cash on various funding, architectural plans, equipment layouts, or on your business plan, then you need to throw the metaphorical challenge flag and assess WHO is helping you.

I wish you luck.

I appreciate you taking the time to gut this one out with me. It’s been two years since my gym experience, and I was able to get out before it was too late. I learned a lot about myself and about the industry, all of which have helped me take steps forward with my career. Hopefully my story helps aspiring gym owners to take a closer look at their business plans and make sure they have the best road map to their dream job.

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About the Author

Casey Lee is a Strength and Conditioning Coach based in northern-Vermont. He currently works as the Program Director and Head Coach for The Parisi Speed School, located in Williston Vermont. Graduating from SUNY Plattsburgh (Plattsburgh, NY) with an honors degree in Business Administration in 2011, Casey handles all business operations and staff development for this facility. To learn more about Casey, check out www.CoachCaseyLee.com.