What’s it like to be the owner of a CrossFit gym? Interview with an Affiliate part 3


Here is the third installment in a 5 part series of interviews with current CrossFit Affiliate owners.  If you missed the first two be sure to check out my introduction and Part 1 as well as Part 2.  Enjoy!

How long have you been “open for business?”

3 years.

How many hours do you typically work per week in/on your business?

I work about 80 hours a week.  About 30 of this is training time, and about 50 is “business time”.  To get everything done I need to get done would take about 100 hours a week.

Did you leave another job to open your gym?  Are you making more or less money now?

I had a pretty cushy but frustrating day job.  I was making a little over $100k per year, but wasn’t challenged (except with bureaucracy) and wasn’t very happy.

I kept my day job for the first year we were in business, working five days a week at my day job and 6 days a week at the gym.

I’m not making nearly as much now.

Is owning and running a gym different than you imagined? How so?

Training is the easy part.  Getting to interact with folks that want to work hard is great.

It’s dealing with what Mr. Al Swearengen collectively would call: The Cocksuckers from Yankton that causes one to wonder why they started a business (Crossfit or no).  These include but are not limited to those that would collect sales and income tax, mandate recycling plans, institute health codes, create idiotic accounting standards, idiotic bankers, worthless city officials, 99% of commercial realtors, people that want to sell you stuff, and people that generally want to take advantage of you.

Knowing what you know now, would you choose to do it again? Why or why not?

Probably not.  I think back to the simplicity that was my early days training at a Crossfit affiliate, having a comfy day job, being able to spend time with friends and family.

For the past three years I’ve barely seen or talked to my family, I see my pre-Crossfit friends maybe once every two months, and it’s been all I can do to keep my relationships together.

I work day in and day out constantly and while many of my clients know this, I still get the occasional “What do you do all day?” that frustrates the fuck out of me. Have you looked at the schedule asshole?  When’s the last time you didn’t see me at the gym?  Is that water bottle you left on the ground going to magically float itself into the garbage can?  No, I’m going to pick up after you.

No matter how much you love training, you will burn out if you don’t rest and find some work/life balance (which doesn’t mean work/drink balance).  The only issue is that most folks can’t survive or thrive without tossing most of their life out for the business.

I don’t really think this is Crossfit-business specific.  Talking to restaurant owners, architects, lawyers, software techs, etc, if you go out on your own you are going to work your ass off and stress out WAY more than you did when you got a paycheck.

If so what would you do differently?

I have no clue what I would do differently as I am dug deep into this lifestyle and profession.

What about your business frustrates you the most?

Assholes.  This would include anyone that thinks they are entitled to your time, money or property, which is mainly people in government and sometimes schmucks who just feel entitled.

Not to be confused with Asshole Clients – those self select out quickly.  Those that stay we push out quickly.

What about your business brings you the most joy?

Being a part of the excitement that comes with getting stronger and fitter.  Make no mistake, that feeling loses it’s potency over the years.  The first time you help a woman deadlift her bodyweight you’re on cloud nine.  However, the 1000th time you do it, she’s really super excited, and you’re just like “Meh….”.

Crossfit still attracts (mostly) people that want to work hard though.  That’s a great filter to have for your business.  While douchebags will creep into the mix every now and then, most are really salt of the earth type folks.  This goes for coaches and athletes alike.

Reflecting back to when you opened would you consider yourself well-prepared for owning a business? What were your strengths and weaknesses?

No, and I’ve never met a gym owner that was.  Every single Crossfit gym owner I’ve talked to is fatter, stressed out, and more tired then they were before they opened.  Most still love it, but they are beat to shit.

Now there’s something to be said for being beat to shit and still doing it.  I certainly look at my life before opening a gym and say “If I could have been this productive at my old job, the shit that I could have accomplished would have been amazing!”

And that’s the rub: you put out this much when you have to put out this much.  In my comfy day job which included poking on facebook and sending funny YouTube videos, I didn’t have a big downside.  Once you take away the lifeline that is the paycheck, shit gets real.  So you will do whatever you have to to survive.

But that’s more or less an aside.  The biggest things that you can do as a gym owner, and what I did passably well, was:

Keep the main thing the main thing: Training athletes.  Go ahead and fuck up the other stuff, because nothing is more important.

Never let them see you sweat.  This goes for athletes, coaches, realtors, bankers, etc.  For athletes, they pay you to train them and to have a good time doing it.  Nobody wants to train with a Jewish Mother, “Ohhhh, my job is so hard.”  You wear board shorts all day, stop complaining.

The plan never survives first enemy contact.  Everything you plan on doing will not work as planned.  Figure out when to push through and figure out when to change the plan.

Keep your place extremely clean and extremely organized.  This will make everything run smoother, attract clientele who will appreciate and pay for that, and dissuade slobs who can’t follow directions from training with you.

Delegate.  Everything that you don’t want to do, pay somebody else to do it.  Ideally this is a professional who does it for a living (Accounting, Bookkeeping, Real Estate, Legal, etc).  You will probably get fucked half the time you barter with clients.

Get a lawyer, do everything in writing, avoid partners if at all possible.  If you don’t, you will get fucked.

Don’t think that just because you’re successful you’re good or you have a clue what you’re talking about.  You might just be lucky.

Don’t use Mindbody Online (sorry Nicki….).

Did you have experience coaching prior to opening?

Very little.  I had a background in teaching, which helped a little, and I’m a giant extrovert, which helps a lot.  Introverts will get eaten alive in this job.

Do you feel you are sufficiently financially rewarded for the amount of time you’ve invested in your business?

No chance.  If you calculated my hourly wage (which I’ve done) I make less than minimum wage.

Do you see yourself doing this (owning/operating a microgym) 10 years from now?

Maybe, but if so it’ll be as someone that manages coaches and a facility, not athletes. Coaching athletes is great, but at some point you’ve got to shift focus if you want to continue to grow.

On the other hand, I have a “Grass is Always Greener” fantasy where I sell my big gym and open a garage gym.  I just train a few athletes a couple times a week and work out when I feel like it.

I call this my “Crossfit Avalon” business plan, because the same shit will happen as my big gym, but in my the fantasy land I created, everybody gets fitter, they pay on time, nobody gets tendonitis in their elbow, and nobody that wants to sell tshirts or protein powder knows my email address.

As a current CrossFit affiliate, what are the benefits of affiliation as you see them? In your estimation and in your particular circumstance are they worth the price?

Yes, absolutely.  Regardless of your opinion of which direction Crossfit is going, the info out there that was available when I started Crossfitting was unparallelled for the synergy (If you haven’t broken out your “Business Buzzword Bingo” sheet, now’s the time) of sophistication and digestibilty to a layman.

I could wrap my head around simple concepts like “Word-Class Fitness in 100 Words.” The early Crossfit Journal articles and early input on business practices from guys like Skip Chase blew my mind.

While I don’t program anything like Crossfit mainsite WODs, there’s still value in being affiliated.  I do a combination of Olympic lifting and gymnastics (very similar to what Robb talks about all the time) and have found my injury level and overall health have increased dramatically.  We do the same thing for our clients, but still give them the conditioning piece because that’s what attracts them at the outset.

I don’t know many people at the three, four, or five year mark in Crossfit that are still hitting it hard 3 on – 1 off and doing Hero WODs every few days.  I don’t know anybody that can do that.

Now maybe I’ll turn out to be wrong, maybe that’s what we need to do to get fitter.  But I look and feel pretty fit and still have some respectable benchmark WOD times, but I don’t need or want a 30 round Cindy.  The level of pain, suffering, and agony to get that isn’t worth it to me.

Maybe that means I’m a pussy, but I can live with that.

How close is the nearest affiliate to your place of business.  How has this affected your business?  


What if any trends do you see among new affiliates?

Around here, it’s pretty much the same hit or miss type stuff. Folks make the same mistakes that we made (and I don’t know how to not make many of them).  There’s a mixture of technicians, yellers, doctrine thumpers, anti-doctrine thumpers, Slipknot fans, Ke$ha fans, etc.

The biggest trend I see is that inputs and outputs are very linear. The big things that will help/hinder you are:

Have your shit together.  Are you organized, punctual, and a hard worker?

Know your shit.  Do you have a steeping in both Crossfit and Strength & Conditioning?

Your shit does stink.  Do you think you know it all or do you think there’s probably another better way to do things?

Don’t be a shithead.  Be nice, be professional, charge what you’re worth.

Would you consider yourself an introvert (you gain energy from having time alone) or extrovert (you gain energy from being around others)?

See above.  Extrovert.  I will coach all day every day.  The only reason I don’t is because my wife would kill me.

What advice or words of wisdom would you give to someone considering opening a microgym or similar fitness studio?

Look at the area you are thinking about opening in.  In the military, this is called terrain analysis and this will affect everything.  You don’t fight a tank battle in the Hindu Kush – you also don’t open a large/expensive retail Crossfit in Bumfuck.

Figure out if there’s some small shred of demand and income – otherwise you’re going to spend a lot of time working out by yourself in a really nice facility.  You can’t change the terrain, so you have to change the plan.

What is the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?

Get everything in writing via a lawyer.  90% of rules are made for 10% of the people. Most folks know what’s right and what’s wrong and have a basic level of etiquette.  Those 10% suck.

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29 Responses to What’s it like to be the owner of a CrossFit gym? Interview with an Affiliate part 3

  1. Roland says:

    Hi Robb,

    always cool to read your opinion and I agree. Just for S&G, what’s your issue with MBO?

    Warm regards

  2. Tyler Smith says:

    Awesome article… I get the feeling that most cf box owners feel the exact same.

  3. OMFG…I hope those who decide to open a box doesn’t think this guy who runs his will be the same…
    I have met many Crossfit gyms where they party, still fit as hell, still see family, travel and have been growing to bigger boxes than what they already have and 6-8 classes a day monday through friday with one super saturday and one funday sunday…

    and no background in running a business and yet they balanced it all…

    wow reading this made me feel exhuasted and surprised he still is running his business given he seems to be miserable at how much he spends in it. WOW!

  4. Nicki says:

    Hi Roland,

    The individual I interviewed has an issue with MBO…not Robb.

  5. Nicki says:

    Hi Joy,
    I’ll just add one thing:
    If you met this individual you would think he had things balanced as well. He’s extremely gregarious, looks quite fit, and goes out drinking and partying with his friends and clients. Sometimes what’s going on under the hood is different than what the outside observer perceives.

  6. Xi Xia says:

    Nicki, is Robb a jealous guy? If so, I say with the utmost respect that I love you :) This series is so amazing and cathartic. Please keep going with it!!!

  7. Nicki says:

    Hi Xi Xia!

    LOL! Glad you’re enjoying them :)

  8. Roland says:

    yeah, I saw that after I posted … sorry about that. We are still waiting for you guys to hit our shores!

  9. Jay says:

    The best quote I’ve read so far was from this one…

    “I don’t really think this is Crossfit-business specific. Talking to restaurant owners, architects, lawyers, software techs, etc, if you go out on your own you are going to work your ass off and stress out WAY more than you did when you got a paycheck.”

    Owning a business of any kind is hard! I don’t think a lot of prospective CrossFit affiliates realize this.

    Also, re: territorial rights that seems to be an underpinning of all these interviews…is it reasonable to expect CrossFit to map out and protect territories when you’re only paying $3k/year? When CrossFit starts charging $250k cash to open an affiliate like McDonalds does, it makes sense to start asking for territorial rights.

  10. Steve says:

    Also curious what his issues might be with MB Online, and what alternative he prefers. Niki, maybe you could follow up and cut/paste an answer?

    Great series…I am thinking of opening a box and this is giving me plenty to think about.

  11. Nicki says:

    HI Steve,

    I’ll follow up and let you know what I find out.

  12. Robbie says:

    I run a private training only facility at my house. I have have a 500sqft garage with a full set up. No overhead beyond mortage which we pay anyway. I just have to be careful with the noise. I get asked EVERYDAY, when are you going to open a Crossfit Gym. I say “most likely never”. I have several friends that run VERY good boxes, and one that runs one very poorly who needs to read everything Nicki has written here. The time and effort to run a 1-1, 1-2 training facility my size is enough work to make me realize that something 3-5 times bigger would be pretty tough. It’s not the size of the gym in my opinion. It’s the cost of running which creates a daunting task of generating enough revenue to keep it open. Anybody thinking of opening a gym, try running your own small training business for a year. Use other peoples space, train people in home or at parks. Learn on the job in a small scale first, make sure you can handle having a variable income!!!! I know that freaked me out for about 8 months. Now when a client cancels, I charge them and thank the holy spirit for a spare hour to get caught up on paperwork, podcasts, ongoing development, etc. Remember I work in my garage and I’m that busy. Learn to walk before you try to sprint on your hands. Sorry for the novel.

  13. Troy says:

    Wow, it’s like I wrote this article myself. Every answer was spot on.
    In response to Joy, you are clearly one of the “what do you do all day?” people. Open a box and find out exactly what it is like. Don’t go by what you observe or are told by people who may not care to tell you the truth about the hard times. Not one of my clients knows how hard it is for me and I have only confided in 1 of my friends.

  14. Johnny Davis says:

    Maybe that guy should have planned better. Sometimes I end up working crazy amounts of hours, but mostly out of my own procrastination. This is my second (what I would consider successful) business. Owning a business has it’s quirks but you your attitude has everything to do with your outcome. This guys is disgruntled and it comes through, no matter what the outside shows. I suggest some counseling or self reflection. I’m high strung and grumpy and still have a blast doing this, And we make $.

  15. Ice Princess says:

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. I really enjoy training and watching people progress, but one thing I have observed is that good service and quality training DO NOT mean business success. I don’t know if its just me, but it seems as though folks want to be lied to anymore. Hell, look at all these fools spending their hard-earned money on balance bracelets and Progenex. I have a earnest desire to make people better. I don’t want to run a church; I don’t want to sell magic beans; AND I don’t want to lie to people and take their money.
    Maybe I should have planned better too…

  16. Alima says:

    Definitely an interesting read. I’m an affiliate owner and I feel differently, but maybe in a few more years I’ll feel the way he does too. Who knows? Running a business is definitely harder and more stressful than I thought, but we actually are able to spend more time with our family now then we could working in the corporate world and are making more money.
    I would love to know what his beef with MBO is too. And if he has an alternative reccomendation. We currently use MBO and I’m undecided about it.
    Thanks for the article Nickie – I found your site through the email you sent out to affiliates recently.
    P.S. Please tell Robb that “The Paleo Solution” is my favorite paleo book by far. I reccomend it to all my clients and anyone who asks me about paleo.

  17. Neal says:

    Glad to read all these interviews. I now know I am not the only one who has been running an affiliate 3+ years and sees what the new affiliates are doing to people, both their clients and the owners of other gyms. Met con to warm up, chipper to work out, everyday, are you kidding me, the overuse injuries are going to pile up, but hey you opened up a mile away from from me for $35 less a month so why not right? The name CrossFit is great for business, it gets people in, but the ability for anybody who has watched a crossfit video to open up a business and hurt people and discredit the names of good affiliates is tragic.

  18. Kristy Tohnson says:

    If it’s that bad why do it. This man is bitter and blaming everyone else for the supposed poor choices he has made. Harden up my friend, there are a lot of people in this world who are doing it harder than you. The questions asked were great. The responses made me ill, are you sure they weren’t answered by a 5 year old having a temper tantrum?

  19. fynn says:

    “This is the true joy of life: the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one;being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clot of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy”- George Bernard Shaw

    This author is obviously very disgruntled. I own and operate a box and love every second of it. Seriously that is one of the biggest downer articles one could read. To all potential affiliate owners, don’t listen to this guy, It seriously is the most rewarding thing one can do. If you truly love it, balance your time, have amazing client service, and good programming, you will do just fine. Prioritizing is also key. The main difference between boxes is what they offer the client. If you go above and beyond other facilities this means you can actually charge what your worth and keep your clients as well. Also my biggest piece of advice is go further into debt and hire someone to do admin work for a few hours a week. This literally saved me and has made my life a ton easier. I am truly living the dream with my gym and know that the future holds great and exciting things.

    As far as the author, I hope things work out for you dude. I’m sure they will :)

  20. Neal says:

    The previous comment I made was to the 3 interviews that have been put up as a whole. This 3rd one does come across as pretty bitter, which I can understand in pieces but not as a whole. I have been an affiliate for just over 3 years, and while it is a lot of work it is very rewarding it is important to make the business work for you as well. If you have been in business and successful for 3 years you should have streamlined some things down to where you are not working 80 hours a week. I am sure there have been weeks during the early 2 years where I did 80 or so, but not every week and certainly not during the 3rd year. If you do a good job training others to help you and be part of your business and take work off of yourself you will ease a lot of the stress that is mentioned above from yourself. I currently work about 40 hours a week, excluding phone calls and emails randomly throughout the day. Making your business work for you and your life is just as important as improving the lives of those who come through your doors.

  21. Cori says:

    I found him to be refreshingly honest in his answers and I think we need a bit more of this type of “gut check” info out there for newer (and mostly potential) affiliates to read. If you own a box and are in your first 2 years and DON’T feel a little like this guy you probably aren’t doing all you need to do to give your clients CrossFit experience they should be having. I have owned an affiliate for 18 months and before that I was doing bootcamp training in parks, houses, coached youth teams, obtained 6 fitness and nutrition related certifications, had contracts with local gyms, etc, . I am expanding again to another, larger location (this is our 3rd expansion in 18 months and if all goes well we’ll have a 4th add-on space in 18 more months) and I am operating in the black and have been for the past 8 months. I picked a space in a building where the landlord told me I could continue to trade up in spaces as I needed to (you’d be surprised at how easy this negotiation is if you do it going in and get it in writing). Before I became an official affiliate I also worked in the corporate world so had this income to support me through the park training days and save for the start-up of a physical location. I thank my lucky stars everyday that I started small- kudos to the garage gym owner Robbie above for mentioning this. Everyone I know that started out this way, paid their dues by really training folks, having or getting additional certifications like the CSCS or USAW certs, learning what equipment lasts, establishing vendor relationships along the way, and practicing the business aspect when the stakes were smaller runs a better box than those that came from the corporate world, trained in someone else’s box and then decided to open their own without coming up the ranks so to speak. I’ve seen way way too many affiliates open with grand plans in a grander space, outsource everything (because they either don’t have or don’t want to put in the time) by maxing out their credit cards and not have the first clue on what to do with a class of more than 4 people let alone holding a class with all different fitness levels, types of people, and medical histories thrown in the mix. They or their trainers don’t know how or even what to modify because it is all brand new . The crossfit cert does NOT prepare anyone for this and in the real world most of us that run profitable boxes have a much broader spectrum of athletes in our classes. There are huge and often hidden, behind the scenes differences (excellent point Nikki) between what you see as a client/friend of the box owner and what it really takes to get the business done correctly. Great article and great advice from Robbie above.

  22. Nicki says:

    Hey Steve,

    Here is his response:

    The reasons are legion, but my favorites are:
    Kluge, noun: Something that works for the wrong reason. MBO is the exact opposite of the iPod. Only people with the greatest level of patience, perseverance, and a perverse delight in reading instructions/FAQs can enjoy MBO. The rest of us must approach it like working on our taxes. Use Zen Planner.
    MBO Customer Service Conversation:
    Gym: Hello, I’m on my MBO and ______________ doesn’t seem to work properly.
    MBO: Yes it does.
    Gym: Uhhhh, I just tried it and it’s not working.
    MBO: You’re an idiot, it works, goodbye.
    Gym: !*$*#%@!#)!#*$!#)$!#)#%*#@!*!)@!*%!#$!)*

  23. I personally have had ZERO issues with MBO tech support/merchant account support/customer service.

    When are we going to see the part 4 of this series????

  24. Nicki says:

    Hi Stuart!
    I have had great tech support etc from MBO as well. No complaints on my end.

    Next installment later this week :)

  25. Miguel says:

    Damn that was some funny shit. Sorry to hear about the high level of suck, though.

  26. @Jay – Crossfit HQ can’t map-out territories for boxes, or it would cease to be an affiliation and become a franchise, which it doesn’t want, for one reason or another.

  27. Sam says:

    Thank you again. I use these as sanity checks. I think those of us with this type of feeling “under the hood!”, have high volume boxes…if I had a small box with less than 100 athletes, I might feel differently , but success in this business breeds high levels of stress, commitment, time and demand. Period. I was not prepared for it, nor is anyone I’ve talked to who has a high volume box. I love these interviews! Thank you. Keep them coming!

  28. TJ says:

    I think in the CrossFit community we have developed the mentality that there can be no weakness. I think this blog is awesome at admiting the humility and defeat that shadows the success of running a CrossFit affiliate. If I can add one fundamental piece of advice. To attract and hopefully keep excellence in my coaching team – I paid my coaches and extended a lot of access to my gym. This is a critical strategic error, once started it is almost impossible to take back. I pay 40% of my income out to my independent contractors – coaches. So no I don’t work 80 hour weeks, and I am in the process of rebuilding my marriage after two years of me living in the gym but I am broke. Hey Robbie – I profited 50K my first year running a garage gym. Working just over 40hours and being an awesome at home Dad. I have over 80K invested in a CrossFit facility that has paid me nothing for two years and is tracking towards a 25K profit this year. A competitive CrossFit called in my garage gym otherwise I would have closed the doors on the gym and returned to the garage years ago.

  29. Box Owner says:

    Wow… I literally felt as though I was reading an interview of myself answering these questions. I have a very successful box. I trained out of my garage for two and a half years, amassing a clientele of approximately 40 people in that time. I was making right at $10,000 per month with zero overhead. Due to the high demand and my running out of time slots to put new clients, I moved into a facility with a rent of $2,000 per month, got a small business loan in the amount of $50,000 (not really that high considering most business loan amounts), and moved in. I affiliated 3 months into the new building, and am now nearing completion of my 3rd month of being an affiliate. My income is now roughly $14,000 per month. However, the cost to run my gym comes out to roughly $4,300 per month. I work more hours, now have to worry about things like paying my three other coaches, paying the mortgage, auto-debit payment collections, keeping track of clientele, going to every competition that my competitors want to enter, all the way down to ensuring I pay the pest control folks to come spray, the security camera folks to keep my shit safe, and the city I live in their outrageous ordinance prices and safety inspection checks.

    I work more hours, train more people, but bring home less money. If I had it to do over again, I would have never left my garage. But like all small business owners, especially those in the fitness industry who are sincere in their passion for their clients, I wanted bigger and better for my clients and was tired of being stuck in a 25 x 25 box 14 hours per day. I now see my children and wife much less, spend many lonely nights at the gym working on the administration side of things until 1am in the morning, spend many weekends gone to competitions or coaching or hosting UFC nights, birthday parties, etc., at the gym, and have gained 30-35 pounds of pure fat in the past 6 months since moving into the building. Oh, and did I mention my hair is falling out as well suddenly? I sleep less, make poor eating choices, rarely have time to squeeze in my own workout during the day, am more stressed, less healthy, etc.

    But… if you ask any single person who knows me outside of my wife, they will tell you I’m the hardest working, happiest, most upbeat person they’ve ever known. They’d tell you I’m an amazing father and a loving husband, I am an amazing business entrepeneur in going from a garage with one client to a CrossFit facility the likes of which my city (which has 7-8 boxes) has never seen, and am hands down the most passionate, knowledgable coach in my city. And all of that for the most part is true. But behind closed doors, opening a box was the worst decision I ever made in my entire adult life.

    Sorry to rain on anyone’s parade if they have the same aspirations, but understand what you’re getting yourself into. If I were single and had no children, this would be an amusement park ride. But I go to bed every night at midnight to 1am and wake every day at 4am for classes. It is one hell of a tough job. One that I admitedly and insanely love beyond words. But I have had to sacrifice more of myself, my time, my health, my money, and my family than I ever knew possible.

    Great interview. Glad to see someone finally cut the bullshit and be honest about what it’s really like to own a CrossFit box. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, boys and girls.

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