4 Things We Did Before Worrying About Brand Development

Guess who thought it would be a good idea to book a 20-hour trip to present at a seminar 1,500+ miles away on the same day that we lose an hour overnight to daylight savings?  This guy.

Despite my current sleep-deprived status, the first annual Cressey Sports Performance - FL Spring Seminar was a great success.  I’d like to extend a huge thank you to the Cresseys for (briefly) hosting me, and to all of the fitness professionals who set aside an entire Sunday in sunny Florida to focus on their own professional development.

I made my way south to deliver a presentation entitled “Business Before Branding,” which highlighted some of the most important lessons we learned nearly a decade ago while getting CSP up off the ground and running.  I was initially inspired to prepare this material following a conversation with a young strength coach at the The Fitness Summit this past spring.

Just moments after concluding my presentation, this gentleman approached me for feedback on his logo.  My first impression was that he’d created a really nice design, though my tune quickly changed when he informed me that he didn’t have a gym, clients, or a business model; he just knew that he wanted to own a facility some day. 

My message to him was fairly simple: any time, energy, or resources you have right now should be directed toward creating something tangible.  Logo modifications can wait until there is a business behind the artwork.  I wish I had delivered the feedback Gary Vaynerchuck shared following a similar question in his book, #AskGaryVee:

STOP it. You cannot properly market something if you don’t even know whether it’s any good. You’ve got to develop it, feel it, taste it, put it out in the wild, and reverse-engineer it so you know it’s serviceable and valuable to consumers.

That should have been my response.

Some CSP statistics that may surprise you

Believe it or not, we were open for business for 293 days before our Cressey Sports Performance website went live.  In fact, we strung together more than 1,200 days of operation before realizing we needed to get CSP up on Twitter

Can a new strength & conditioning facility expect to survive (and grow rapidly) for ten months without anything other than a Gmail account?  Yes!  As a matter of fact, it is possible.

Over a ten-month span, we managed to execute initial assessments with 239 new clients, coach 5,300+ individualized strength training sessions, and build brand awareness purely through word of mouth.  Most importantly, we did it all with a small team that featured “a business guy” and a pair of strength coaches. 

By the time our website went live, we’d outgrown our first space and opened a 6,600 square foot facility we were proud to showcase.  We’d also created the systems necessary to really begin scaling our business.  We were ready to start worrying about branding.

Here’s a look at four things that took priority over branding during our first 293 days of operation:

1. Solidifying Our Training Model

From the very beginning, Eric had a firm rule: under no circumstance would our business model dictate our training model.  By this, he meant that we weren’t going to pack the gym with as many athletes as possible if it meant that we were going to be delivering generic training materials.  In our eyes, semi-private group training was the optimal service model, and we continue to implement this today. 

Our ultimate success has always been driven by client results, and the key to this component of our model is individualized program design based on the findings of a thorough initial assessment.

We spent close to ten months getting the kinks out of our systems.  We worked to identify the perfect client-to-coach ratio, appropriate training session durations, and other components of actually delivering a memorable training experience.

2. Standardizing Assessment & Programming Strategy

No amount of “talking shop” is going to prepare multiple coaches to design training materials that share the same look, feel, and intent.  While Eric and Tony possessed the same basic philosophy of strength and conditioning, they still needed to spend the better part of the first year of CSP getting on the same page as it relates to assessment strategy, program design, and exercise terminology.

We knew we wanted to build our business aggressively, and the key to being able to do so was in locking down a standardized training methodology before adding additional coaches to the team.  Employing a 5:1 client-to-coach ratio is borderline impossible when multiple staff members are responsible for program design and every one of them has a different way of labeling a lunge variation.

3. Syncing of Coaching Styles

Much like exercise terminology leaves plenty of room for interpretation, coaching instruction can be delivered in a wide variety of ways.  You can get away with six different ways of cueing proper technique for a trap bar deadlift if your gym staffs a collection of independent contractors who “own” their clients and coach in an entirely one-on-one format.  You can’t, however, do so if you count on multiple coaches to deliver the same message and training experience to 100% of the athletes who come through the door.

Our semi-private group training model now allows for clients to engage with up to 10 or 12 coaches during a given training session at CSP, so delivery of effective coaching instruction is contingent upon standardization of cues.  I encourage every staff member to let their freak flag fly high during conversation between sets, but the message needs to be consistent when it comes time to supervise a coaching-intensive movement.  Eric and Tony spent much of those first 293 days deciding on exactly what that message would be and we can continue to scale the model today because of their efforts.

4. Creation & Standardization of the Selling Process

Whenever possible, I give the pitch for CSP training services.  Leads are directed to my attention and it is up to me to turn them into paying customers.  My job is to bring people through the door with cash in hand and an interest in our training model.  I leave it up to my coaches to deliver an experience that will result in us enjoying the lifetime value of a dedicated client.

In order to put my staff in the best position to create the type of experience I’ve mentioned, it is important to standardize client expectations from day one.  This starts with my articulation of the training model during the selling process.  If I fail to clearly explain the collaborative coaching strategy we employ, the nature of our training environment, or even appropriate training attire, we run the risk of clients feeling misled or confused by the experience.  The best way to avoid all of these issues is to ensure that whomever is selling your service has perfected your pitch, and more importantly, the value proposition behind it.

With zero fitness industry experience as of the day we opened CSP, I felt less than prepared to fly solo during the initial selling process.  Eric allowed me to shadow him while explaining the services and training model for about two days before throwing me in to the fire.  “You’ve got an MBA…you’ll figure it out” was essentially the extent of his motivational selling instruction from there.

Instead of spending my time and energy worrying about creating a catchy hash tag or viral marketing effort, I was more worried about making sure I knew how to sell what we would eventually be promoting the crap out of.  It probably took about 293 days to polish up my approach, but I figured it out. 

Before worrying about the nuances of each social networking platform…

Make sure you’ve established the systems and services that you’re going to be publicizing before really diving in to your branding efforts.  The beautiful thing (and arguably worst thing) about the fitness industry and gym ownership in general is the low barrier to entry.  If you can afford a power rack and some weights, you can proclaim yourself a gym owner.  With this in mind, there is no need to chase investors during your early stages, and therefore no need to lose sleep over brand management right off the bat.

Feel free to shoot me an email if you’d like to discuss the growth and development of your own fitness business. I’d love to help!