Dreaming of going off on your own? Learn how to open a gym from a top personal trainer and successful gym owner. His advice will help you avoid the pitfalls...
Many personal trainers have a dream to open a gym. Maybe you’re sick of letting your boss or club owner drain your profits. Maybe you are in an unfair partnership with another trainer that isn’t pulling his or her weight. Or maybe something has changed in your life that you need more than what your current position provides.
To make your dream come true, use these tips to accumulate a position of strength, then go get it!
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Tip 1. Do Your Research and Put a Realistic Plan Together
I hear personal trainers bitch about their current situation, saying the classic line, “Wait until I have my own gym, then I’m going to . . .”
Further discussions reveal they’re stuck in fantasyland.
When I first broke off from the box gym I was working at, one of my personal trainer friends told me he was looking to move on, too. I asked him his plans and all he said was that he was going to buy the open lot down the road and start his own gym. The open lot down the road was listed at $650,000.
All I could think was: did he just rob a bank or did he get a very large inheritance from a relative?
In reality, it takes a huge amount of planning just to see if it’s possible to start your own gym. Do your research, get all the numbers together, and then put it down in a fitness center business plan. Make sure you have someone who knows business and has had experience operating a business to go through the numbers and your plans with you.
If you’re going to be borrowing money from the bank, they’ll insist on a written business plan and projections. You need to have thick skin during this process and be prepared for some tough questions. Basically, close your eyes and pretend you’re on the show Shark Tank. It’s all about money and return on investments to the bank–they care very little about your dreams!
Spend four to six months talking with other gym owners across the country. Most gym owners are very open to helping others and recounting the struggles they met from starting their businesses. Make at least three calls a week. Arrange a time to contact the owner and put it on your schedule. Do not reschedule; they’re giving you their time and some excellent information. This is a listening session, so have a list of questions ready. Fight the urge to tell them all about your plans, and just ask good questions and take notes during these calls.
Focus your questions on three areas:
- Style of gym along with the number of clients and all sources of revenue generated.
- Expenses and operating costs, including employees and the management of those employees.
- Hurdles in starting your own gym, or unforeseen problems that arose.
Over time your questions can be more targeted to specific questions that relate to your plans. After the first two months, you should only be talking to gym owners of the same style gym you’re planning to open.
Your research and planning should include a complete budget. Your business will need the obvious things: equipment, marketing, and a location, but make sure to include items that most people don’t think about. Things such as insurance, accounting, attorney and cleaning services, and utilities can add up to be major costs.
Use professional rates when doing your budget. When starting a gym, don’t fall into the trap of cutting costs and getting amateur or mediocre-level services. For example, someone thinks that just because his mom is an accountant and can do the books, the cost is zero. This is a big mistake. Budget in a professional to do your services because you want to rely on the unbiased advice of utmost professionals when making critical business decisions.
Tip 2. Accumulate Wealth Before Making the Jump
One of the biggest hurdles for most personal trainers who dream of opening their own gym is finances. The best way to save for your dream gym is to live on a budget and spend far less than your current income level. If that means no new clothes or shoes this month, then don’t buy anything. Bring in extra income from a different source if need be.
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Are you willing to mow lawns on Sunday afternoons to make your dream come true? Save at least 20 percent of your paycheck every month to accumulate the capital needed to open a gym. I suggest accumulating at least six months at your current salary amount before making a move. That’s besides the initial startup costs of opening your own facility. I personally lived in my parent’s basement for a year to save enough to make the jump.
As far as gym start up costs are concerned, that will be determined by what your plans are. What style of training or style of gym you going to open? Starting up a small group fitness training location will be much cheaper than opening a 24-hour equipment based franchised gym. We’re talking tens of thousands versus hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The larger the facility and the more equipment needed, the more you need to accumulate before starting. The better location will cost you more, too. And if you’re planning to hire other trainers–guess what–that costs money, too.
Avoid borrowing large amounts of money. The interest rates might seem cheap now, but could you afford the payments if interest rates doubled? Many businesses fail shortly after an interest rate increase because they’re too heavily in debt. You should always be planning for the unexpected and have a fair amount of cushion cash available to you–that is, money in a separate account that you don’t use for month-to-month operating cash.
Hopefully, you’ll be successful in opening your own gym and can pay yourself a salary from week one. That savings account can now become your cushion cash in case of an unexpected event. And no, using it to buy the latest and greatest pieces of equipment does not qualify as an unexpected event.
There are a few ways to accumulate or secure the capital needed to start your own gym. You could save everything yourself–highly unlikely. You could partner with someone who could bring capital into the business. It might be another trainer or an investor who believes in you. Keep at least 51 percent of the ownership; never give away control of your destiny. A 50/50 partnership is a terrible idea. I made this mistake starting out. If you take on an investor, make sure everything is documented in a legal contract.
The most likely scenario will be a combination of your personal accumulated capital and a loan from a bank. Get ready to sign your life away to the bank and you might as well bend over right now. Although it will be a very scary situation for you, provided your research and planning were done correctly, it should be based on accurate numbers and assumptions. Be sure to take the least amount of money as wages each month and put any extra money toward paying back the bank loan ASAP. One of the greatest feelings in business is when you’re debt-free.
Tip 3. Accumulate Clients Before Stepping Out on Your Own
This is a huge topic on its own. Accumulating dedicated clients comes down to two things: relationships and branding. These have to be clients that are willing to move with you regardless of the costs. In other words, if the client is locked into a contract at the box gym, then they’d be willing to pay that amount, in addition to following you and paying you.
Timing is a big concern when dealing with your clients who are locked into contracts. Maybe you have a core group of clients that is coming up for renewal at about the same time. In you’re planning, make sure you have considered this in your startup timing.
Your entire operating budget (your projected numbers) should be based on the smallest amount of dedicated clients that you feel will follow you out the door. This isn’t the time for dreaming. Be very conservative with your estimates and make your plans based on a limited number of clients.
In other words, estimate high on the cost side of the equation and low on the income side. You can always rent a larger space if more clients sign up than expected, but you’ll be out of business quickly if you end up short on clients and income. It’s much easier to predict what your expenses are going to be than what your client numbers and income will be.
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The number of clients are really the most important aspect of you making a move. A big part of client numbers is going to be location. Very dedicated clients will travel a good distance to train with you. The majority of your clients will want to stay relatively close to where you’re currently training. Not to mention, all your past branding and marketing efforts were likely focused on a small circle of influence that were tied to your current location. Take advantage of this and find a location that will work for you within a 15-minute driving distance of your current location, if possible.
Leasing a location will be one of your biggest decisions. Use a professional to negotiate the lease terms. Look for a location that gives you the best value for your money. This decision will be based on the style of gym you plan to open and should be one of the questions you discuss with owners during your research calls.
Tip 4. Accumulate Favors from Friends and Family
No one cares more about you and your success than your close family and friends. Ask them beforehand whether they’d help you out as far as marketing was concerned, if you were to go out on your own. This is the time to call in favors and get other people to do your marketing for you.
There’s nothing better than personal word-of-mouth advertising. Plan on how you’re going to use your social networks to bring in new clients (check this for more on personal trainer marketing). Build in plans to spend a percentage of your time in your local community for “meet and greets.” The fitness industry is basically a location-based industry. You better know how to maximize your local community to build your business. You should already be doing this now in your current position and strengthening your brand.
A few of the things that helped us the most when we started was holding free seminars about different topics that potential clients were interested in. We still hold a free monthly “Weight loss information meeting and combine it with our weight loss challenge” for the local community.
We approached all the local youth sports programs and offered a short training session for free to their teams. This was great exposure for our bootcamps because the parents got to meet us. This also works for Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops.
Use your imagination, but keep this one very important rule in mind: Use your free promotions for large crowds. You need to get a lot of exposure for every free hour you provide. Avoid free one-hour consultations where you train one person at a time.
Referrals are your lifeblood in this business. If your client numbers are growing in your current training position, you should have a good feel for what it takes to build via referrals. But referrals won’t be the only thing you focus on. Your marketing plans should be included in your overall budget, with a special amount included for your grand opening event.
Include the first six months of marketing efforts in your plans. Don’t plan on spending a bunch of money for this, as you can get a quick boost for your new gym with smart, targeted marketing efforts that create the buzz within the local community.
Opening something on your own is a thrilling adventure, but at the same time, it’s the scariest move you’ll ever make. Accumulate, accumulate, and then accumulate some more before you think about starting something on your own.
If you do these things correctly, then you will benefit from your future endeavor. Do them wrong and it will be the death of you.
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