A CrossFit Perspective

I was recently contacted by an individual who travels frequently in the CrossFit community and has seen and interacted with numerous affiliates first hand. This person offered to be anonymously interviewed in the hopes that what is shared would be helpful for trainers and affiliate owners in their quest to run great businesses and continually improve the services they provide.

Without giving too many details that might reveal your identity, let’s just say you are somewhat of a CF affiliate connoisseur.  When did you start traveling and visiting affiliates?  Approximately how many affiliates have you stepped foot in to date? Anything else about yourself that you can share?

I have been in the fitness industry as a trainer and coach in some capacity since 2005. I began to focus primarily on CrossFit as an athlete in 2007.  In 2010, I began traveling and have visited a little over 30 affiliates. Through attending seminars, the CrossFit Games, and other community events, I have had the opportunity to talk “shop” with another 20-30 affiliate owners.  So in total, it is somewhere in the range of 50 to 70.

You don’t own a microgym or an affiliate.  Do you have experience running or owning any other business?

I have been my “own” business as a sole proprietor since early 2009 and also own a performance-based LLC that you could say is a “micro” microgym primarily focused on one-on-one training. Prior to becoming involved in CrossFit, I worked as a trainer in big box commercial health and fitness centers, which included some business development and planning as well.

When I began to seriously travel, I was surprised to learn that affiliate owners and coaches were just as interested in discussing business development as they were in improving their skills as trainers. So in some capacity I’ve been providing business consulting for microgyms and affiliates since I first started traveling.

Based on the broad cross-section of boxes you’ve seen, where do you see folks collectively succeeding?  And alternatively where do you see them failing?

With the explosive growth of CrossFit in just the past two years alone, many markets have become flooded with affiliates, particularly in metropolitan areas. In my experience, the most successful affiliates are creating their own “brand” of CrossFit. In addition to CrossFit classes, many offer sport-specific training for weightlifters (sport), endurance athletes, and high school athletes. They are offering more in general to attract a broader mainstream client base that may not necessarily be drinking the CrossFit “kool aid.” Many are still using CrossFit-based training as the foundation for these programs, but have found more success in marketing to a specific clientele than using a one-size-fits-all-approach.

Now don’t get me wrong; many affiliates are very successful and offer only CrossFit classes or group training. However, as many markets become more saturated I think the need for owners to distinguish themselves and create separation from other affiliates will become more important (especially if two affiliates are located across the street from one another). I also think with the growth of the CrossFit Games and CrossFit as a sport, appealing to the mainstream will also become increasingly important.

Joe the Banker or Jane the Soccer Mom want to be able to join a microgym that offers CrossFit without necessarily being competitive CrossFit athletes. There will be a market for firebreathers and Games competitors, but in my experience these athletes are a very small percentage of a microgym’s clientele. As a business, keep your primary clientele in mind, which ties back in to the importance of knowing your niche and developing your own brand. I have seen several affiliates struggle with this exact issue, and their clients have suffered as a result – due to programming that was suited for competitors but not for the mainstream client.

Most successful affiliates I have visited also have thoughtful and organized class structures. They rely heavily on the point of entry model by utilizing introductory sessions, an elements curriculum, a foundations curriculum, or an On Ramp, etc. In doing so, they are not only providing a less intense or intimidating barrier to entry, but are also distinguishing themselves from other nearby microgyms or affiliates. Interestingly, these gyms tend to also have the strongest communities. I would argue their reliance on open points of entry creates more inclusive microgym communities. New clients are not as intimidated and are welcomed into the fold by their microgym peers. These microgyms are also not plagued by the “ego” or “elitism” I have seen at some affiliates. In addition, organized class structures allow you to maximize your time, which is an invaluable commodity when you are being pulled in a million directions as a microgym owner.

And strong microgyms usually have a model for improving the quality of their training staff, which I argue is a huge opportunity to create brand distinction and separation. Regardless of whether they treat coaches and trainers as independent contractors or employees, the most successful boxes are providing continuing education opportunities and business opportunities that benefit the individual coach/trainer, enhance trainer-owner relationships, and generate more revenue for the box.

What advice would you give to the boxes you’ve seen who in your estimation need the most help?

If you are an affiliate owner or microgym owner, you need to ensure you have a complete business plan. We love training clients and helping people reach their goals and reach their athletic potential. But, we cannot focus on that if we do not have the business backend in order.

Here are some questions that come to mind based on what I have seen at struggling affiliates: What is your plan for improving client retention? Do you have any metric for client attendance and class size? How are you controlling the quality of your coaching staff? Are you creating your own niche or subject matter expertise that sets you apart from your competitors? Did you require your trainers/coaches to sign Independent Contractor agreements? What are you going to do if your trainers leave and open up a competing affiliate down the street from you and take many of your clients with them?*

*I have seen this happen several times. This is one reason (out of many) why enlisting the services of attorney for all business matters is so important.

Another question I like to ask affiliate owners just to assist in creating a business plan is: What are you going to do if CrossFit no longer existed tomorrow? How would you market your business and your services in that situation? I have seen a lot of affiliate owners fail to consider how they may operate if they were not a part of the CrossFit community or wanted to separate and be a non-affiliated microgym. This usually helps get the wheels turning and allows the owner to better conceptualize his or her ultimate vision for the gym (which can be a daunting task when first starting or when struggling).

If you are currently struggling, evaluate why you are struggling. Ask yourself difficult questions. Talk to other affiliate owners and microgym owners and ask for advice.  If possible, have someone neutral take a look at your business model or your books. Study the business models of successful microgyms and businesses. I think improving a struggling affiliate can be similar to the progression one follows in improving their abilities and skills as a coach/trainer. It starts small and continues to develop overtime as the coach/trainer improves through continuing education, seminars, experience, etc. Start by looking at the basics – your class schedule, your clientele, your rates, etc. – and then expand from there.

What can affiliate owners do to continually elevate the quality of service they are offering their clients?

Improving quality of service starts with continuing education. However, do not simply “chase paper.” Attending seminars to simply say you “attended” is not an effective use of your time or your microgym’s resources. Look at continuing education as an investment; you want to get the highest return on investment for the microgym’s long-term success and growth. For example, do you have a strong endurance community in your area? Then spend time investing in endurance education that will make you more marketable to that particular niche.

If you have a basic foundation upon which all of your training/programming is built, then you can more easily market to sport-specific groups with a little tweaking/focus. World-class coaches like Louie Simmons are subject matter experts, but are able to leverage their expertise to serve a wide variety of clients. Microgym owners can do the same thing.

From a staff standpoint, implement or develop a strong metric for evaluating your training staff and for training and recruiting new coaches. For example, some of the successful affiliates that are continuously improving have very methodical, progressive internship programs that allow interns and coaches-in-training to grow from the day they start to the day they actually become full-fledged members of the gym’s staff (as contractors or as employees). This does three things: (1) it ensures you are actively involved in the coach’s improvement/development, (2) you are developing a strong, competent and professional staff from the ground up, and (3) you are creating loyalty and setting up your staff for success. Regardless of your approach, have an approach! I have seen numerous trainers leave affiliates due to the owner’s lack of concern for instructor quality.

Emphasize overall quality, always. Successful microgyms, in my experience, are built on being more intimate with an emphasis on quality of instruction and service (even if they have hundreds of members or only a few dozen). Other affiliates can undercut you, offer bells and whistles – and yes, you may lose some clients – but ultimately, I have seen those affiliates falter due to a lack of overall quality, service and a plan.

As CrossFit continues to grow, I think this emphasis on quality is what will continue to separate successful microgyms from “big box” commercial gyms that may elect to capitalize on the growth through their large amounts of capital and resources. And quality need not be focused only on quality of instruction. The points of entry, the community, your microgym’s attitude/atmosphere, and the inclusiveness, in addition to great instruction, all paint a positive picture for new clients.

Finally, document everything. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Hire an attorney. This is especially important when dealing with friends and family that may be your clients and/or trainers/coaches. I have seen relationships and businesses damaged due to disagreements that could have been solved by being proactive with legal protection and paperwork. And even in a community that is as open and welcoming as CrossFit, there are unfortunately situations where you will wish you had developed some strong CYA.

And although we are discussing ways to improve the quality of service for microgym owners and affiliate owners, I should mention that many of these principles and ideas apply to trainers as well. As a trainer working as an independent contractor, you may have a great deal of flexibility, but you also may not have a great deal of protection, especially if your affiliate owner elects to not have you sign any sort of contractual agreement that spells out pay, duties, etc. For your own protection as a fitness professional, always make sure you are covering yourself.

Any thoughts on the relationship between CrossFit and Reebok?  What does the future hold for the affiliate owner?

To be perfectly honest, I was skeptical when the relationship between CrossFit and Reebok was first announced. After attending the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games, I am more optimistic. While I know there are numerous people out there that may argue CrossFit HQ is “selling out” or is “in it for the money,” I think the community, microgym owners and affiliate owners can benefit. It is simply a matter of channeling the exposure and growth that the relationship provides to benefit your microgym or affiliate. The exposure and subsequent growth gives microgym owners more marketability. More people are going to be interested in CrossFit, which is good for business.

However, all relationships have potential drawbacks. I am interested to see how CrossFit HQ manages to balance growth and quality. Exponential growth is going to be a strain on CrossFit, but all business relationships have growing pains. My concern is the amount of effort and time that will go into preparing for each year’s Games may detract from an emphasis on the community – on the individual box owners.

Will there be higher barriers to entry to become affiliate owners as more individuals (and possibly more big box commercial entities) try to capitalize on the CrossFit success bandwagon? Given the number of boxes in some markets already, it is not an outrageous question. And while it is true successful affiliates may continue to be successful, the volatility and rapid growth could lead to a big drop in brand quality and/or reputation. This is why I think building your own brand or own microgym niche is so important.

Ultimately, I see the relationship between CrossFit and Reebok as a good business opportunity. Just think of the relationship, for now, as opportunistic marketing that complements a sound microgym business plan.






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7 Responses to A CrossFit Perspective

  1. Clay Weldon says:

    Great article and insight. Would you mind if we link to your article? Can never get enough good info to help affiliates succeed.

  2. Nicki says:

    Hi Clay,

    No problem! Thanks!

  3. Amber says:

    Thanks for the insights, Nicki. Great article, very helpful.

  4. Mark - Indy says:

    An interesting dichotomy reveals itself when trying to take advantage of the increased popularity of CF, and balancing this approach with separation as well. Let’s face it, the Bell Curve applies to CF gyms, as it does in any industry; there are good ones, average ones and poor ones. Distancing oneself from the “poor” ones is just as important as emulating the good ones. While we’d like to think that it’s simply a matter of time before the poor ones wither away, damage to the brand name is incredibly difficult to overcome.

    Second, as we can all attest to, novelty typically supplants staying power. We’ve seen it a hundred times — what’s popular today is blase tomorrow. Keeping the approach fresh is incredibly important, and it largely depends on satisfying the varying motivations of the clientele, which can range from fitness, competition, weight-loss, sense of belonging, socialization, etc. Balancing these over the long-term among the varying groups, and sometimes within a group, can be very challenging. I’ve often wondered if CF gyms track the migration rates and reasons for departure of their clients.

    Third, it appears we’re on the cusp of the largest growth segment ever — aging Boomers. Are CF gyms gearing their approach toward this huge market, and getting the morning mall walkers motivated to visit their facilities? Is overcoming their intimidation of visiting a “box” the largest obstacle?

    Finally, is there a mobile CF affiliate out there? In other words, is there an affiliate that travels to a group of people (ie large company, senior’s home, etc) and provides training, coaching, etc?

    Great article Nicki! It spawns more questions, thoughts and what-ifs.

  5. Nicki says:

    Thanks for the comment Mark!

    I suspect only a small percentage of affiliates are tracking attrition and reasons for leaving. We started doing this at NorCal 2 years ago. It provides some great data that allows an owner to see trends if any and adjust as necessary.

    As for CF gyms targeting boomers….again probably a smaller %. If an affiliate isn’t offering private training (and many still are not) their ability to accomodate orthopedic issues is diminished. 65-75 year olds aren’t going to feel well supported in a general class…and likely wouldn’t start the program in the first place for fear of injury. PT first and then maybe a small group setting can be a great option here.

    Pierre Auge used to have a mobile affiiate, but now he’s got a physical location in Ottawa. I know some trainers who will travel to companies and homes for coaching…it can be a good situation if the pay is right. There’s a lot of time spent on the road traveling between clients, loading and unloading gear out of the car, etc…in the right population I think it could be great.

  6. Rob Resnik says:

    Great article!! Thanks for the insight. As Robb says, I need to chop wood and carry water.

  7. Sean Murray says:

    FAO Mark and Nicki,

    Some guys from my old affiliate have set up an outdoor affiliate in Manchester, England. A tough proposition in a less than perfect climate. It rains a lot in Manchester and we’re having one of our worst summers ever. Think their inspiration was Blair Morrison’s anywhere CrossFit ethos. We all watch closely as to how they will succeed. Think training camps are something they are looking at and have forged links with The Cross affiliate in Portugal where they get 10% as a UK booking agent for anyone they send the way of the The Cross.

    Mobile PTing is something I am interested in at people’s homes where they may have a garage or large drive. The problem is the English weather though on the main. Erratic and often wet.

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