My goal in this article is to ensure you live up to your epic potential.
I want you to have the business of your dreams. I want you to swim around in a giant vat of dollar bills like Scrooge McDuck. I want you to have the lifestyle of your dreams, whether you work four hours a week or crush it 24/7. But most importantly, I want you to honor the reason you got into this business. I want you to make a difference in people’s lives.
I co-own a boutique gym in midtown Manhattan called Mark Fisher Fitness. We may very well be the weirdest gym in the world. We don’t even use the word “gym.”
In fact, we hate gyms. This is why we have a Clubhouse. An Enchanted Ninja Clubhouse of Glory and Dreams. We call our clients Ninjas. We have a book club, we do a lot of fundraising for charities (like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS), and we are as crass and vulgar as we are relentlessly positive and nurturing.
At MFF, we train a lot of people who never have (and never would) work out anywhere else. We’ve been called the “Broadway fitness cult” because we train so many theater professionals, from directors, composers, and stars to agents, stage managers, and the singers and dancers in the chorus.
Our clientele is shockingly diverse in age, gender, size, ethnicity, and nationality. We’re ridiculous humans who’re serious about fitness. We’re as well known for our consistent and dramatic results as we are for our outrageous antics.
And, in case you’re wondering, we’re also serious about business.
In 15 months, MFF has expanded three times, and may have to expand yet again because we’re bursting at the seams. In this same timespan, we went from three full-time employees and a part-time office manager to 11 full-time trainers, five full-time office staff, and about 20 work-study Ninjas who run the front desk in exchange for bartering. We also went from zero clients to nearly 400.
If you’re running a brick-and-mortar facility, I hope to expand your ideas about what’s possible. For those running boutique gyms, I believe we’re in an age of artisanal fitness. If you currently own or plan on owning a gym, this Bud’s for you.
Your team is everything
Seriously. They’re everything.
The rest of this article is worthless if you don’t have the right people working with you. Particularly if you’re going to grow. Your biggest logistical bottleneck will always be attracting the right talent. And if you don’t know how to take care of people and be a leader, you won’t have the right people working with you.
At the end of the day, the most important marketing you can do is having world-class customer service. This means finding amazing humans beings who are passionate about your vision.
It’s a cliche, but it’s true: You can train people on skillz, but you can’t make them burn with the light of a thousand suns to change people’s lives. And if you’re in the fitness industry, I hope that’s your endgame.
One of our very first hires is a close friend who had never done any training before. My business partner came into town for the night, and after an evening of partying and hanging out, we decided he was the perfect person to come onboard.
(As an aside, I also know people say you shouldn’t work with friends. I disagree. I actually recommend it. Not all friends are ideal for business ventures, but if you have no friends you’d do business with, I think you need better friends.)
Hire for awesomeness. Hire for reliability, hustle, and passion. And hire people who care. If they really, truly care about your business and your clients, you can train for everything else.
Once they’re on board, pay them, empower them, and train them to kick ass.
As Daniel Pink notes in Drive, you need to first pay them enough to get money off the table as an issue. Does this mean our payroll is higher than it could be? Yes. Does this mean we could be more profitable? In the short term, sure.
But we’re playing the long game. This means more ownership from everyone on the team. It means less turnover. It means affording a certain quality of life to the very people who are building our business.
That said, if you’re creating a world-class working environment, you don’t need to bribe people to get them to show up and work hard.
I’m all for systems. We create protocols and systems for everything—training the trainers, designing programs, nutrition recommendations, customer service, marketing, sales, prospect funnels.
But while systems are necessary, I don’t want people who refer to a manual for every part of their job, including the most delicate human encounters.
I need people who know how to handle a Ninja when they burst into tears because their boyfriend broke up with them. I need people who can intuit when a Ninja is stressed about work and shouldn’t attempt a deadlift PR. I need people who can feel when the energy is lagging in a class and make everyone stop what they’re doing and have a spontaneous dance party.
An automaton can’t do that. Find people you can trust to make good game-time decisions based on your core values, then let them have at it.
While I want them to be artists and honor what is intrinsically unique about them, our culture is built on kaizen—continual, incremental improvement. We have two weekly team meetings. We relentlessly drill not only the nuances of exercise coaching but also life coaching.
If you want the best team possible, you have to help them pay for education, get them books to read, and encourage them to follow their particular fitness passions. You also need to understand they’ll burn out if they don’t have any work-life balance. They can’t blow your clients’ minds if they work the typical personal trainer’s triple-split shift—early morning, lunchtime, evening.
And while I “manage” by providing guidelines, checklists, and accountability, I think the more important position is “servant leader.”
I give them feedback when I see something that can be improved, but I also try to catch them doing something right. I check in with them as often as I can to see how else I can improve their life here. I want their perspective in case I’m inadvertently being an obstacle. I celebrate them and cherish them every chance I get because without our team, there is no MFF.
Leadership is different from management. To paraphrase a quote: If you want to build a rocket ship, you need people who have the knowledge and skills. But it’s more important to light them on fire with a longing for the stars.
At MFF, Ninjas come for the six pack, but they stick around to cope with the anxieties of modernity. Humans will always need a sense of community.
Not only is social support a well-known factor for fitness results and sustainability, I believe a sense of community is going to be key in the age of artisanal fitness. For years, most gym members had two choices: They rented equipment and slogged away on their own, or they paid someone to give them one-on-one attention.
At MFF, we prefer group classes and semiprivate training. It’s not only a great business model, the sense of community dramatically improves results and member retention.
We spend a lot of our time, energy, and money trying to create the best customer service possible. We throw parties. We have theme days where we decorate and everyone gets dressed up. We send handwritten cards to celebrate their fitness victories, send condolences about deaths in their families, and wish them well in their new jobs.
Despite having 400 clients, the entire team knows the name of almost every Ninja. We know their goals, we know their backgrounds, we know their needs.
We also rely on the Ninjas to help create the culture.
Two of MFF’s most notable images are Ninjas and unicorns. Both of these came from our Ninjas latching on to an off-the-cuff comment I made while teaching class. By listening to what sparks their imagination, it allows us to build a sense of ownership into our community. We also constantly look for feedback about what they like and don’t like, and immediately take action as soon as they make us aware of an opportunity to do something better.
Perhaps the greatest testament to this community is the fact we have several groups and programs run by Ninjas, for Ninjas.
Our most popular portal program is called Snatched in Six Weeks. The Ninjas have organized their own alumni organization called Snatched by Association, which functions within the broader MFF world. It includes a Facebook forum, a Gmail calendar to coordinate classes, nutrition accountability buddies, and daily inspirational emails.
With no official MFF effort (outside of love, emotional support, and a bit of donated space), the program has been wildly successful and further strengthened our community.
Culture is crucial to a successful artisanal fitness business. You achieve it with a relentless focus on customer service, empowering your clients to co-create the culture, and by listening closely to their kudos and jeers.
Let your freak flag fly
Authenticity is perhaps the most important element in building a kick-ass business. This requires courage. You have to own whatever is unique about you. Invariably, people will think you’re nuts.
The mid-2000s were what I call the Strength Coach Era. Strength coaches dominated the elite ranks of the fitness industry. The names of their businesses used words like “athlete,” “results,” “elite,” “performance,” and of course, “strength and conditioning.”
Most of them are still around, and for good reason. They’re super-smart, and they did a lot to move our young industry forward by providing a bridge from the bodybuilding world to more progressive training protocols. A generation of young men who loved sports got better and faster results.
In the past few years we’ve seen the rise of the Nerd Fitness Era.
Embodied by a generation of trainers a few years younger than the strength coaches, these people weren’t just into training. They were gamers. They played Dungeons and Dragons in high school. Their articles and social media posts are filled with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings quotes and pop culture references from childhoods spent in front of the TV.
They brought new ideas about training to a new demographic. Yes, many of them were strong and jacked, like the strength coaches they learned from, but they also spoke like the kids who got picked on in high school. And they convinced an audience of their follow nerds that they too can achieve their fitness goals.
At the same time, the brick-and-mortar wing of the industry experienced its own transition from big box clubs to boutique gyms. These smaller, more intimate fitness studios outmaneuvered larger, machine-filled franchise gyms by focusing less on getting people under contract and more on getting results for their clients.
It was the dawn of what I call artisanal fitness, and it brought a new mix of trainers with new voices into the conversation. Whereas most of the influential strength coaches were straight, white males, artisanal fitness includes trainers of all ethnicities and gender identities.
That’s not all bad news for traditional coaches and training facilities. If you want to differentiate yourself and build a superior business, you need something extra. Something special.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting finding a gimmick per se. Your extra-special “something” is the love child of whatever is unique about you and your team and whatever niche you’re looking to serve.
If it’s not authentic, it’s not gonna work.
At MFF, we pride ourselves on being the Island of Misfit Toys. Our clients spend as much time laughing as they do sweating, and it’s not uncommon to have a group singalong in the middle of a class.
As one of our members said, at the Ninja Clubhouse, we all sit at the “cool kids” table.
We know MFF is not for everyone, and that’s okay. Our credo can be summed up by this quote from legendary fashion designer Mary Quant: “Good taste is death, vulgarity is life.”
I don’t recommend copying us because I don’t think you can pull it off. We are legitimately not right in the head. Everything about our brand of fitness is completely authentic to who we are as ridiculous humans, and we speak in the voice that’s most effective and enjoyable to our target audience.
So I ask you:
What’s different about you? What’s your story? What do you and you alone have to offer the world? How are you going to incorporate the most progressive training strategies into something new?
Who is your audience? Who are the people with whom you long to create a community? Who do you love most in the whole world?
Too many folks stumble in this industry because they love sports or exercise science, but seem to lack a profound love of humanity.
Yes, being great at training is a must. Master your domain knowledge. But if you don’t genuinely love love love people, this probably isn’t the right business for you.
And if you think there’s nothing special about you, or you can’t think of what particular audience you hope to serve … think harder. You have a freak flag. You just misplaced it at some point in your life. Your audience is counting on you to find it. They’re waiting to hear your unique voice.
Figure out what makes you unique. Be specific about what type of person you love most. Then let this shine through in every piece of marketing, every training cue, and every design choice.
As Seth Godin has noted, the Industrial Age is over. We are all artists now.
I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning
I don’t want to pretend I have it all figured out. I don’t. I’m painfully aware I’m making it up as I go along. But I will say this: I’ve created a business that I love so much I literally can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning and start working.
I want this for you too.
If anything truly sets MFF apart from most of our competitors, it’s a willingness to lean into the discomfort and go our own way.
We don’t care about competing for money or fame. Yes, we love money, but that’s not why we exist.
We want to be an institution. We want to be around for 100 years. We want a modern art exhibit curated as part of our group fitness classroom. We want to one day have a nonprofit foundation that allows us to pursue charitable causes. We want to produce Broadway musicals, and we want to write books and produce TV shows.
We want the mayor of New York City to commission a statue of a unicorn to be placed on the corner of 39th Street and Ninth Avenue to commemorate the birthplace of our grand experiment.
I think business should be the most profoundly satisfying and creative art form imaginable. If you think business is lame or boring, I lovingly submit you’re doing it wrong. Dream bigger dreams.