10 Lessons From 10 Years of Gym Ownership

In February 2010 we started training people out of a 700sf office space for free until our initial space was ready to open in April 2010. This business has taken me places, introduced me to people, taught me lessons and given opportunities that I would never have had if I never started this business. Here’s the top 10 lessons I’ve learned in the last decade of owning a gym;

1. Who, then what?

-The whole is greater than the sum of our parts. I didn’t do this alone. I’ve learned a lot about leadership over the last 10 years; still learning. I have come to this conclusion. If you assemble a team of the right people, you can accomplish anything. The right people are caring and compassionate. They are educated in the field they need and are willing to continually learn. They have a passion for the mission of the business. We’re in the relationship business. You need to care for your people, so your people can care for those that want your services.

2. Work/Life balance is a myth.

-Don’t fight it. If you want to start a business, you are going to have to make sacrifices somewhere to start. Family, friends, health or work. The theory of the “Four Burners” says something is going to have to suffer. Not forever, but you won’t be able to give your all to all 4 at the same time. If you’re looking for the perfect time, there isn’t one.

3. People come here for more than just exercise?

-I was really short-sighted here. When I opened, I thought we’d be giving people a place to exercise. Period. The first time someone cried because they were moving and needed to cancel, I didn’t understand it. Then when someone moved 20 minutes to the other side of town, switched gyms, then 2 months later decided they would make the drive past 10+ other similar places and return? It took years for me to realize this. You’d hear people talking about being the “3rd place” for a person. It’s home, work and church (at least when you’re in the Bible Belt, it seems).
I started to learn about “tribes” and “stickiness”. And then it started to make sense. People seek our services for exercise, “something different” or “to get in shape”. While our services need to provide results, there are many options for that in fitness. What keeps people coming back, is the people. All of them.

4. Have fun. Be playful.

-This one goes hand in hand with # 3. People come to us to reach their health and fitness goals. The majority of our members are everyday folks that make their health a priority. This place must be fun. If we want people to stay for a long time, they need to have fun. They need to, “want to” come to our facility. People that never exercised a day in their life start “missing the gym” and looking forward to exercise! It needs to be fun, the atmosphere needs to be playful. Not just for your members, but staff too! Mistakes happen.
Owning a business is not for everyone. I think it’s especially hard in a service industry, a gym setting specifically, given the social circles that it creates. Fun helps.

5. Profit is not a bad word.

-Many gym owners started their business because they had an interest in fitness and enjoyed helping others. Me too! There are all sorts of statistics about the percentages of small businesses that fail. Most fail because they run out of money! If you’re in business and you feel bad for making money, stop. You need money to pay your staff, pay the rent, update your space, purchase new equipment as you grow, and for much more! You also deserve to enjoy the fruits of your labor for the risks you took to start your business.

6. You can’t please everyone.

-I recently read that Horst Schulze, co-founder of the Ritz-Carlton has a 2% “Jerk Rule”. He tells staff that there will be 2% of your clients that you just won’t be able to please. When most people complain, they really just want to be acknowledged and heard. Ignoring them or laughing won’t make the matters any better, and often worse. Let that 2% go. They are not good for your business. Especially early on, you may want to try everything to please this 2% because you don’t want to lose revenue; don’t. Your staff and your sanity will thank you. Often times, after this 2% is gone, many of your clients will “thank you” too.

7. Rule # 1- Be nice to your customers.

-People want 3 things from a business. They want to pay for a quality product or service that meets or exceeds their expectations. They want to be tended to in a timely manner. And they want to be treated nicely. Think about a past experience. If you eat at a restaurant and the quality of food exceeds expectations, you were seated quickly, but the staff was not nice to you; it’s unlikely you will return.
However, if the food didn’t come out exactly how you wanted, you needed to wait longer than expected, but if everyone from the owner to the busboy treated you nicely and made every effort to make your experience a little better; most people would leave and consider giving them a second chance.
Being nice to the customer is twice as important as the quality and timeliness of the product or service. As the business owner, you need to realize that you and your staff work for the customers. Without them, you don’t have a business. Being nice will help. A lot.

8. Consistency and discipline trumps methodology.

-There are a lot of options out there to improve your health and fitness. Find the ones that work best for your people and stick with that. CrossFit, boot camp, running, Orange Theory, Burn Boot Camp, personal training, Zumba, Pilates, etc. The reason for the obesity problems in America isn’t due to our lack of exercise options. It’s because most people lack the discipline to stick to a program consistently.
Recall # 6. Don’t keep adding different products/services in attempt to please everyone. Teach people the importance of consistency and discipline and results will follow.
No program will work if those traits are lacking. Sometimes you have to say, “It’s not me, it’s you.”

9. It’s going to get lonely.

-Owning a business is hard. Most people will not understand it. Sometimes this will include staff, many times this will include your clients. It’ll be lonely when you start. It’ll be lonely when you have to make a difficult decision. It’ll be lonely when you have to fire a beloved staff person. It’ll be lonely when you have to fire a customer. It’ll be lonely at the top too. The greater the heights you take your business, the easier target you become for others.
Surround yourself with other business owners that will understand you best. Surround yourself with people that’ll provide honest feedback for you to improve. Surround yourself with people that want you to be a success.
It’ll still get lonely, even if it’s just between your ears.

10. Walk towards the pain.

Comfort and complacency kills. This is true if you own a business, practicing for a sport, or work for a company. It’s easy to get comfortable where you are. However, if you want to grow as a person, employee, athlete or leader; you’re going to have to put on a smile and walk into the discomfort. Think back to some of your greatest successes and lessons of the past. They didn’t come easy, most don’t. “Pain” doesn’t mean physical pain, necessarily. It’ could be a difficult conversation, long hours creating something great, training when you’d rather be hanging with your friends. Throughout history, you’ll find that there wasn’t much difference between the leaders and everyone else; except they did the difficult stuff when no one else would.