At 22, I was living the personal trainer dream. I had a full roster of clients paying me $75 to $90 per session. I had a waiting list, an impressive website, and a hot boyfriend.
And yet I wasn’t satisfied.
I often found myself thinking about the future as I ran the 6.2-mile loop around Lake Union in Seattle, where I lived. How could I sustain this career for the long haul? I was already sick of the split shifts. I was already sick of looking at clients as if they were my rent check (which they were). And I was really sick of watching my hot boyfriend work out because that was my only chance to see him.
I needed a real business.
So I did my research and learned the five most important steps to open a gym:
1. Establish a budget and write a business plan
2. Find a location to lease or purchase
3. Invest in quality gym equipment
4. Hire a skilled training staff
5. Market your new gym
I skipped right to step 2, checking online to see what sort of real estate was available.
That’s when I found my dream location: 2,000 square feet of beauty on the very lake that inspired the dream in the first place. I imagined the space as a posh studio. The owner (me) would encourage clients to give me one more rep as the sun sparkled through the floor-to-ceiling windows facing the lake.
I decided it was worth pursuing.
Because I had no savings and didn’t think I could open a business on my own, I found a business partner from my old big-box days. We borrowed more than $100,000 to make the space functional and pretty. We opened our doors within six months, and hosted a huge kickoff party.
Pinch me! I was on cloud nine … until reality set in.
Not only did I have to train clients full-time—it took 12 sessions a day just to keep the doors open—I also had to do all the things an owner does: interview trainers, pay the bills, and make sure the bathrooms didn’t run out of toilet paper. That’s because, as a rule, toilet paper-related complaints only come up when the owner is training someone.
On top of all that, I somehow had to find time to work out. And to date, since by now the hottie had broken up with me.
We scraped by for a while, coming up with $5,000 a month for overhead with little left over to live on. So of course my solution was to hire a business coach for $500 an hour. Anything to achieve success, right?
After two meetings, the coach called me privately and recommended I end the partnership and move on. My partner and I had poor chemistry, the business lacked clear strategy, and we had nothing to help us stand out in the market.
Now, the last thing I am is a quitter. But when my gut and my millionaire business coach are both telling me something is off, I listen. My partner took over the gym, and I walked away with my clients and $40,000 in debt.
I now refer to the experience as my master’s degree in business.
Four years later, I’d paid off that debt and built a respectable income with multiple streams. I’m still in the fitness industry, where I see a lot of trainers in the place I once found myself: maxed out on their earning potential, and wondering if gym ownership is the right move.
If that’s you, I encourage you to ask yourself these seven questions first.
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1. Is it necessary to have a business partner when opening a gym?
They used to say the divorce rate was about 50 percent. I’d guess it’s a lot higher for business partnerships. If anything, a partnership takes more work than a marriage because it involves such large sums of money.
Although my business partnership failed, I do have an exceptional marriage. And I believe it’s because my husband and I share the same core values and vision for our future, and we communicate exceptionally well. If you must team up, make sure your partnership is like that.
2. How will I attract the top trainers in town?
Leasing space to other fitness professionals was going to be our largest revenue stream. But just as it takes time to build a personal training clientele, it also takes time to attract quality trainers to your gym.
We were well-connected with local trainers, but most of them were comfortable at their current gyms (even though ours was prettier). We turned to Craigslist and found mostly trainers who didn’t fit our brand or vision.
But because we were broke, we took them in anyway. Just like that, I found myself surrounded by the very types of people I opened my own gym to avoid.
Decide what will set you apart (price? location? community? cool T-shirts?), and leverage that to attract the right trainers.
3. Am I willing to sleep there?
Once you open a gym, you must do whatever it takes to keep it open. That means scrubbing toilets, repairing equipment, laundering dirty towels, and being the first one in and the last one out. Some nights you may even have to crash on the massage table.
I didn’t mind this when I was single with no kids. But there’s no way I would inflict it on myself now. I like my husband too much.
4. Do I have six months of living expenses saved?
As deep in debt as I was back then, it’s a miracle I made it out without sinking deeper. The next time I open a business, I told myself, I would do it with cash. I would be the investor. And I would begin with plenty of money in the bank.
Coming from a place of abundance puts you in a powerful position. Conversely, forcing yourself to choose between smart business expenditures and food on your table makes it incredibly hard to grow your business.
5. What streams of revenue will I have?
Even before I opened my gym, I’d already learned the precariousness of relying on a single source of income. It’s no fun to hope your clients remember their checkbooks so you can keep the doors open and the lights on.
So when we opened the gym, we made sure we had multiple ways to get paid. We sold personal training packages, ran group training classes, leased space to trainers and massage therapists, and sold nutritional supplements. I chose a supplement line that allowed our clients to purchase online, a revenue stream that still pays me today.
Other popular options include online training and retail sales of clothing or equipment retail.
6. What is your long-term vision?
Are you going to be the most popular gym in town? Do you want to expand to multiple locations? How many people do you want your business to serve? Will you focus on the general population? Athletes? A certain training style?
Leaders must have a vision, and sometimes you’ll have to make short-term sacrifices to follow it. A five-year plan will take you much farther than that shiny new glute-ham developer.
7. Who am I doing this for, and why?
To figure out if you’re motivated enough, you first have to define your purpose.
I realized early on that I just wasn’t passionate about owning and operating a gym. Calling myself a gym owner fed my ego, and made me feel as if I’d accomplished something important. But those were extrinsic motivations (like flat abs), and as any fitness professional understands, they weren’t enough to sustain a long-term commitment.
I’ve met gym owners who, like me, were driven by status and money, only to become so exhausted they now fantasize about a good night’s sleep.
But I’ve also met gym owners who, even after many years, still get a thrill from seeing their gym buzzing with activity.
The question is, what type of gym owner would you be in 10 years?
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