If you’re like me, you’ve wanted to start your own gym for as long as you’ve been a personal trainer.
And why not? Think of the benefits:
- Be your own boss
- Make your own rules
- Design your own facility
- Train the clients you want
- Set your own hours
- Keep your hard-earned money
You’d be living the dream, right?
I hear it all the time from fitness professionals at every level, from interns to the most experienced personal trainers. They all fantasize about starting their own fitness facility.
But there’s a big difference between the fantasy and the reality of owning and operating a gym.
Here are six ways to know if you have a realistic chance to succeed as a fitness business owner.
1. Do you have a business plan?
Your business plan is the backbone of your operation. Here’s what it should include:
Before I opened my gym in 2014 in Dubuque, Iowa, I spent two years working with my target clientele—high school and college athletes—at another local facility.
Before that, I was a record-setting football player at the University of Dubuque.
And before that, I was a gym rat who was training my teammates back in high school.
I wanted to open the kind of facility I wish I would’ve had access to when I was a young athlete.
I had three advantages going for me before I opened my doors:
- I knew that kind of facility didn’t yet exist in my market.
- I knew there was demand for it because I was already training my target clients.
- I knew my name recognition in the local market would be a major asset. It gave me credibility. Parents wanted the same kind of success for their own kids.
Here’s what you should know before you begin:
- What is your fitness niche? Is it large enough to sustain a brick-and-mortar business in your market?
- Do you have credibility? Have you succeeded in your specialty, or trained clients who succeeded?
- Who is your competition? What advantages do you have over them?
- How much space do you need, and how much will it cost to rent that space?
- What equipment will you need, and how much will it cost?
- How much can you charge your clients?
- How many clients will you need to sustain your business, and how will you find them?
Timeline and goals
What do you ultimately want your business to become, and how long will it take to get there?
Break that long-term goal down into small, attainable steps. My original plan included annual goals for my first three years in business, and I revisited the plan every month to see if I was on track to reach my annual targets.
Today I review my business plan once a year to see what’s working and what isn’t.
People don’t buy what you do. They buy because of why you do it.
Your mission statement explains the reasons you want to open this business, and how you want to operate it. You’ll want to refer back to it when you have a tough decision to make.
Startup and operational costs
Now we get to your bottom line:
How much will it cost to open your gym?
What do you have to pay up front for your lease, construction, equipment, and fees?
The more information you have up front, the fewer surprises you’ll have before and after you open your fitness facility.
Talk to gym owners. What startup costs did they not anticipate? For example, it never occurred to me how much printer ink I'd go through, or how expensive it is. Or how much I'd spend on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, facial tissue, garbage bags, pens …
And be prepared for sticker shock when you learn the price of flooring.
How much can you save by buying used equipment? A lot of gyms went out of business during the COVID-19 pandemic, which means there should be a lot of it for sale.
Same with your office furniture and supplies. What will you need (desk, chairs, refrigerator, printer, garbage bins, picture frames, flyers and business cards …), and how cheaply can you acquire it?
Whatever number you come up with, I recommend adding another $500 for unanticipated expenses like toilet paper roll dispensers.
How much will it cost to operate your gym?
Here’s what you should include among your monthly expenses:
- Utilities (electricity, gas, water, sewer, internet, cable, trash pickup)
- Insurance (you’ll need multiple types of liability insurance for you and your business, coverage for your equipment and property, and if you have employees, you’ll have to pay for workers’ comp)
- Taxes and fees
Again, I recommend adding an extra $100 to your monthly estimate.
2. How will you come up with the money?
It took me about 18 months to save the $8,000 I needed to open my fitness facility without borrowing or taking on a business partner, plus another $2,000 for operational costs my first two months.
There were three major benefits to waiting before I opened my gym:
- I built my clientele.
- I started accumulating the equipment I’d need.
- I refined my market research.
It may be unrealistic for you to wait that long, or to save up all the money you need to launch your business and cover your expenses for the first few months.
If you decide to borrow from a bank or take on a partner, make sure you include legal fees in your startup costs and loan payments in your monthly expenses.
Don’t forget to separate your personal and business finances!
It doesn’t cost anything to get a bank account and credit card for your business. But if you don’t separate your business income and expenses from your personal funds, it could cost you a lot in taxes, penalties, and potential liabilities.
You also want to create new email and social media accounts. Again, they don’t cost anything for most new fitness businesses, and it’s important to have platforms to engage your clients and customers separate from your personal accounts.
Down the road, you may want to use those platforms for paid promotion.
3. How many jobs are you willing to do?
I spend about 35 hours a week coaching my clients, which is the reason I wanted my own gym in the first place.
But here’s a list of the other things I do:
- Custodial work. You’ll be astonished by how much time you spend vacuuming, cleaning toilets, doing laundry, wiping down equipment, taking out the garbage, and shoveling snow or maintaining green spaces.
- Maintenance and repair. Even high-quality equipment needs constant attention.
- Accounting and bookkeeping. Because my business is a sole proprietorship, I use a free software program to track everything and prepare reports for tax season. It’s less expensive than paying an accountant, but it’s also more time consuming. If you have partners, employees, or additional revenue streams, you’ll definitely need professional guidance.
- Advertising, marketing, and sales. Getting people in the door and selling them on your services are everyday jobs when you have your own gym. It takes a combination of social networking, media outreach, content generation (writing articles and posts and shooting videos), hosting public events, email marketing, public speaking, and perhaps paid advertising.
- Administration. You’ll answer the phone, schedule meetings and sessions, and take care of all the mundane paperwork that commercial gyms hire someone else to do.
4. How much time are you willing to spend?
The jobs I just described will take about 16 to 24 hours a week—all of it unrelated to training clients.
Fortunately, these things get easier over time as you figure out the most efficient ways to do them. You can also delegate a lot of it to any employees you take on.
As you build out your social media, your potential clients can learn a lot about your business before they contact you. On my gym’s Facebook page, for example, a popup asks visitors if they have any questions we can answer, with the promise that we’ll get back to them within a day.
That’s why the conversations we have today are a lot shorter and more specific than when we opened.
But no matter how efficient you make your non-training duties, it’s hard for a gym owner to avoid long hours. You’ll probably open the gym early in the morning and close it late at night. And don’t forget about weekends.
Your family time and social life will be severely truncated when you start your own fitness facility. You have to be prepared for that.
5. How can you maximize your revenue per square foot?
As a general rule, the more space you have, the more rent you’ll pay, and the more you’ll pay in utilities and maintenance.
For example, my gym was 2,900 square feet when I opened it. (I later added another 1,000 square feet in the same building when it became available.) I knew I could afford it, based on the number of clients I expected to have.
My challenge was to make the best use of the space so I could maximize the number of athletes I could train during the times they’re available.
This was especially important for me because most of the high school and college athletes I train are only available for a few hours a day in the afternoon and evening.
Most gyms have a similar problem: They’re packed early in the morning and evening but sit empty for all those hours in between.
Can you find ways to monetize some of these hours? Can you rent the space to other coaches to train their own teams or clients? Or maybe offer open gym hours?
In my case, the problem took care of itself during the pandemic, when school hours changed and my athletes were available to work out in small groups throughout the day.
6. What revenue streams can you add?
If we learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that almost every fitness pro today needs to offer online training. That’s especially true for gym owners who now know their facility can close at any moment, for any number of reasons.
I don’t, for two reasons:
First, two local gyms now offer athlete training. Since they opened, I’ve doubled down on my emphasis with the goal of differentiating my business from theirs. I stand out because I train athletes exclusively, while they merely dabble in it among a half-dozen other services.
There are any number of options. What’s not an option for most gym owners today is depending on your fitness facility for 100 percent of your income.
Final question: Is this really your passion?
If running a fitness facility is not your passion, the process will wear you down. You’ll realize there are faster and easier ways to make money.
But if it is, you’ll enjoy the journey, hard as it can be.
You’ll make it through the early mornings and late nights, the sacrifices and compromises, the clogged toilets and flooded showers.
You’ll find ways to carve out time for your family and friends.
You’ll build a network of like-minded gym owners, whose advice and guidance will help you avoid mistakes and make the best possible decisions.
Most of all, you’ll have the very special satisfaction of creating a facility that reflects your unique mission and attracts clients who make it all worthwhile.