I was living the personal trainer dream: 22 years old, full book of clients (a waiting list, even), charging upwards of $75-90/session, a hot website with a hot boyfriend.
And I was dissatisfied.
I often found myself running the 6.2-mile loop around Lake Union where I lived in Seattle thinking about the future. How can I make this a career for the long haul? I’m sick of split shifts, I’m sick of looking at my clients’ like they are my rent check (because they are), and the only reason I see my hot boyfriend is because he trains at the same gym!
I need a real business.
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The water glistened (or was that the rain in my eyes?) and I dreamed of owning a gym right there on the lake. It was said that because of some little company called Amazon, this area of town was about to blow up.
I decided to continue my fantasy and check online to see what sort of real estate was available.
And then…I found it. It sang to me. My dream location: 2,000 sq. feet of beauty literally sitting on the lake. I imagined transforming it into a posh studio- encouraging my clients to give me one more rep as the sun sparkled through the entire wall of windows facing the lake. I did some quick math and decided it was worth pursuing.
But, I’m young, living paycheck to paycheck, and the economy sucks. I thought. I can’t possibly do this on my own.
I quickly found a business partner from old big box days and we proceeded to borrow upwards of $100k to make it functional and pretty. We opened doors within six months and hosted a huge kickoff party to boot.
Pinch me. I was on cloud nine.
And then- reality set in. Now not only did I have to maintain the hustle of 8-12 sessions/day to keep the doors open, I had to interview potential trainers, deal with bills piling up, take a deep breath every time someone complained about the empty toilet paper rolls in the middle of a session, sneakily change the Pandora station to Rihanna instead of Metallica, and somehow find time to workout so I wouldn’t get fat – and to date because the hottie had broken up with me!
Every month we squeezed out the $5k required for overhead and barely had enough left over to live. My tolerance level is quite low so it wasn’t long before I made the decision to hire a business coach for $500/hour. Anything to be successful!
After two meetings, the coach called me privately and recommended I end the partnership and move on if I ever wanted to make a significant income. Our partnership did not have good chemistry, the business had no strategy to duplicate, and there was no real marketing differentiation. It was basically like owning a hair salon — except with even bigger egos involved.
Now, the last thing I am is a quitter. But when my gut — and my millionaire business coach — tells me something is off, I listen. My partner took over the gym and I walked away with my clients and $40,000 of debt.
My “master’s degree” in business, I say.
Now, four years later, I paid off that debt and have built a respectable residual income through other revenue streams. I’m still in the fitness industry where I witness many trainers capped on their earning potential and turning to the idea of opening a gym.
Below are seven questions I encourage you to ask yourself before opening a gym of your own. And if you like this story, please subscribe to the PTDC newsletter. It’s free, and you’ll get the best fitness industry advice—from training techniques to coaching skills to career guidance—delivered straight to your inbox every week.Your email will never be shared and you can unsubscribe anytime. Privacy and terms at the bottom of this page.
7 Questions to Ask Before Opening a Gym
1. Is it necessary to have a business partner?
I learned the hard way that partnerships are like a marriage, with lots of money involved. They say divorce rates are about 50% and I’d guess the rate for business partnerships is even higher.
Although my business partnership failed, I have an exceptional marriage and I believe it is because my husband and I have the same core values, the same vision for our future, and excellent communication. If you must have a partner, these characteristics should be number one priority.
2. How will I attract the top trainers in town?
Leasing space to other fitness professionals was going to be our largest stream of revenue. The going rate to rent space as an independent trainer in Seattle is $700-1,000/month; but, just as it does to build a personal training clientele, it takes time to attract trainers who have a full book of clients.
We were well networked with local trainers but most of them seemed comfortable at their current gyms (even though ours was prettier). We turned to Craigslist and found mostly a bunch of trainers who didn’t fit with our brand or vision.
But, we were broke, so we said yes. And faster than I could snap my fingers I was surrounded by the very type of people I was hoping to elude in the creation of my very own environment.
What will set you apart? Price? Location? Build out? Equipment? Marketing perks? Being awesome? Cool tee shirts? Community?
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3. Am I willing to sleep there?
Your gym will be your baby, and you must do whatever it takes to keep it operational. This could include cleaning the toilets, wiping down more sweat than you care to remember, taking home the dirty towels to wash, and being the first one there and the last one to leave. Maybe even crashing on the massage table.
I didn’t mind this part as much as I was single, no kids, and I left my keyboard there to play at night when everyone left.
But there’s no way I would be up for that now. I like my husband too much.
4. Do I have 6 months of living expenses saved?
Miraculously, I managed to get through this time without going further into personal debt. I decided when I open a business again I will always do it with cash. I will be the investor. And I will have plenty of money in the bank.
It’s a powerful position to be able to come from a place of abundance and grow a business by investing into it properly without stressing about putting food on your table.
5. What streams of revenue will I have?
I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure, more ways to get paid is better. I had already learned from being an independent trainer, one stream of unpredictable income was a rocky place to be — always saying a prayer that my client remembered their checkbook.
We made money through personal training packages, group training classes, leasing space to trainers and massage therapists, and retailing nutritional supplements. I chose a supplement line that allowed our clients to purchase online; it’s the only revenue stream that still pays me today.
Other popular options are retailing clothing/equipment, EFT memberships, and an online personal training program.
6. What is your long-term vision?
Are you going to be the most popular gym in town? Swankiest? Expand into a chain? Make it a franchise? What is the profitability with one location? How many people do you want to impact? Will you focus on the general population? Athletes? A certain training style?
Leaders must have vision. If I were considering training at your gym, I would be far more concerned with what you see for your business the next five years than your new shiny new glute-ham raise.
7. Who am I doing this for- and why?
Motivation for doing (or not doing) something always comes back to our purpose.
I realized early on I was not passionate about owning and operating a gym, but it did feed my ego knowing I had accomplished one of my dreams so quickly. Plus the title of “Gym Owner” next to my name felt so good.
I’ve met gym owners who, like me, opened a gym because it seemed like the sexiest next logical next step- and now they are even more exhausted with no end in sight.
But I’ve also met gym owners who, even after many years, are tickled to see their gym teaming with life and are talking of expansion.
The question is, what type of gym owner would you be in ten years?
Now read the most thorough case study of how one trainer opened a gym that made him $202,540 in 14 days