What’s it like to be the owner of a CrossFit gym? Interview with an Affiliate Part 5

Here is the 5th interview in my series of interviews with CrossFit Affiliate owners.  If you missed the first four you can find them here:  Interview 1, Interview 2, Interview3, Interview 4.  I have also been contacted privately by some additional affiliates wanting to share their experiences as well.  I will by synthesizing those together for a future post.

Enjoy Interview 5!

How long have you been “open for business?”

Just shy of 3 years now.

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

Define “work.”  This is a really tough question to answer because I am not sure where I would draw the lines between “work” and “play.”  I have nothing that would resemble a “balanced” life.  I would say that I am probably tinkering with something related to the gym, training (myself), coaching, communicating with employees, designing programs, etc…between 12 and 14 hours a day.  Even an ideal Sunday (when the gym is closed) typically starts with a workout with my girlfriend and several of my close friends – who also happen to coach at the gym. Then it’s off to a coffee shop where we’re kicking around ideas or playing with new programming concepts.  But this is fun for me.  I kind of discarded the theory of balance when I decided to open a gym.  I am a typical Type-A personality, so balance was never my style.  This allows me to be “unbalanced” and still doing what I love.

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

I did.  I now make a fraction (well below 50%) of my previous income.

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

Yes.  When I conceptualized owning a gym, and even when I was just getting started, I emphasized and put my time into all of the amazing reasons I started a gym – interacting with members, developing a culture, coaching folks to become the best versions of themselves, etc….  As time has gone on, I have also had to realize that in addition to owning an AMAZING place for folks to become happier and healthier, I also have to run a business.  When I set out on this journey, I cannot say I dreamed about submitting payroll, how I was going to figure out how to pay health benefits for employees, tax liabilities, etc….  The actual running of the business was lost in the dreamy ether of the fun of working with individuals that I genuinely enjoy being around.

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

Absolutely!  This is my calling.  The trials that come from learning in any career or endeavor worth doing are just part of the territory.  I love what I do and the coaches, staff and members that have made this dream a reality.  I walk into my little slice of the happiest place on earth every day.

What about your business frustrates you the most?

My lack of preparation in creating business systems to make life easier on my coaches and staff.  I am not a systems-driven personality.  I operate from principles and intuition.  Unfortunately, as you expand a business you have to have ways to effectively communicate and empower others to exercise the decisions that you would want made.  That means codifying these ideas and creating consistent systems and protocols.  This is really hard for me.  Luckily I have a couple of amazing friends/family/coaches that help to compensate for this weakness.

What about your business brings you the most joy?

The people.  Easiest question on here by far.  The coaches, staff and members that I get to interact with on a daily basis are inspiring.  Their improvements and happiness drive me to become even better. That feeds into the second best thing about the business, which is the constant opportunity to learn and grow.  The fitness industry is an amazing, constantly changing organism.  There are so many phenomenally smart coaches and ideas out there as to how to best help athletes and individuals that want to improve their health and fitness.  I can easily get lost in books and seminars discussing ideas, commonalities and differences in training approaches.  This intellectual stimulus keeps me from stagnating and getting bored.

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

No.  I knew enough about coaching, and I knew a lot about hard work, but I didn’t have a clue as to how to run a business.  My willingness to work hard, to develop relationships with great people (members and coaches) and to help people achieve results were the strengths that pulled us through, but my weaknesses were myriad and extreme.  I had really never delegated anything in my life, I avoided financial analysis like the plague, and I was (and still am not) not tech savvy at all when it came to maintaining an online presence.

Did you have experience coaching prior to opening?

Yes.  I had two years of CrossFit-specific coaching, and a lot of years coaching other sports and martial arts.  I have always enjoyed teaching others and sharing knowledge, and martial arts gave me an opportunity to start doing so at a young age.

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

Yes.  If you look at it from a dollars per hour perspective, I am probably violating even third-world country standards of labor laws.  But I didn’t make this career change with an eye toward maximizing my monetary health.  The intangible rewards far outweigh the financial rewards.  And luckily, the business is now at a place where I can be a bit more generous to myself financially.

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

Yes.

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?

The primary benefit of affiliation is the community of individuals and their shared enthusiasm for fitness.  It’s rare to have so many folks rally around good nutrition and pushing themselves to their physical limits.  It means that folks from across the country or overseas can come to my town and know they have a place that will understand and accept their passion for fitness.  Affiliation creates a common word and concept that indicates we understand that passion and pursuit of an individual’s own personal fitness excellence.  The methods we use to get there may differ from other gyms around the world, but we still “get it” and stand prepared to help folks achieve their best results.

It’s too soon to know the exact impact yet, but the airing of the CrossFit Games on ESPN2 and some great commercials by Reebok and CrossFit encouraging folks to find their local affiliate – coupled with a map tool that now shows how far each affiliate is from your location – could be a huge benefit.  This could provide not only exposure for the sport and CrossFit.com, but also a push to link prospective members with qualified coaches in their area.  I am excited about the prospects of what this could do for affiliate gyms.

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

There are three within 2 miles of us.  I don’t believe it has impacted our business greatly.  We all have slightly different cultures and methodologies.  I think our clients select the gym that works best for their needs and personality, and I think that translates into a happy community here and at the other gyms.  That said, I would be remiss if I did not say that it disappoints me when other gyms/coaches undervalue their services.  I think this is a real problem.  Nobody wins when the costs of membership drop, it just means you have to work so much harder servicing more clients in order to be profitable.  If you look around at what personal trainers and boot camps charge, it is often much more than CrossFit affiliates and they provide a fraction of the coaching.  So, my two-part plea to all affiliate owners is: (1) raise your rates to properly value your services; and (2) commit yourself to becoming the best coach you can be (seminars, certifications, reading, etc…) and be the best deal in town even with the most expensive membership dues.

What if any trends do you see among new affiliates?

Two things come to mind.  First, it seems like folks are coming in with a lot more money to invest in their gym at the outset.  In general, this means they are able to provide a much more professional-looking environment.  That is a great thing . . . as long as it is also backed up with professional coaching and business management.  If not, it just tends to result in a larger loss of personally invested capital.  Second, I see way too many people opening gyms without adequate coaching experience.  I would strongly encourage any prospective gym owner to spend at least a year (and preferably more) coaching and learning from others.  You should never take on the risks associated with owning a business if you haven’t put in the time to know exactly what coaching 6-8 hours per day is like.  In my mind, this is the most common mistake I see affiliate owners make – learning on the fly.  There are good coaches and gyms out there.  Reach out to them, be clear about your intentions (to open your own space), and see if you can reach an agreement to work for and learn from them for a period of time before exploring the option of opening your own.  Oh yeah, and you might also be prepared to do that for free . . . because that’s probably what you will be doing in the initial stages of owning your own gym anyway. :)

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

Ok, maybe this is the easiest question on here.  I am an extrovert.

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

We all have passions and dreams.  You should chase yours . . . BUT ONLY (1) after you have put in the time to hone your skills and gain and intimate understanding of the profession; (2) if you are willing to sacrifice your time and financial security; and (3) if you are committed to moving heaven and earth to succeed.  If you get squeamish about the thought of losing it all, don’t do it.  I made the jump from making a lot of money to owning a gym only after two years of dedicating myself to learning how to coach and manage other coaches; I was fully prepared to lose everything I had in pursuit of my dream, and equally committed to ensuring my success.  I can only hope that others will go in with a similar approach.  It’s not a decision that should be taken lightly.

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

That I cannot do everything.  Learning to delegate and clearly and effectively communicate projects and tasks to others has been tough.  We grew faster than we expected, and I am definitely behind the curve on learning some lessons that will be essential to ensuring continued smooth growth.  My focus is on learning to better leverage the amazing talent I have around me, and I have been blessed that these are good friends who have been more patient than I might have deserved at times.


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4 Responses to What’s it like to be the owner of a CrossFit gym? Interview with an Affiliate Part 5

  1. Joanna says:

    This one is so positive! My favorite nugget: “Be the best deal in town even with the most expensive membership dues.”

  2. Laurie K says:

    Thank you Nicki for putting these together. I love your blog, can’t begin to tell you how it has helped our affiliate, and truly appreciate all the info you share. Thanks for all you do!

  3. AJ says:

    This is a great article. It gives the real truth of what it’s like behind the scenes of a business.
    These answers are true for almost all businesses.
    Thanks for taking the time to interview part of our Crossfit community. We should all remember to make sure we support the people who make Crossfit possible, and treat them with respect.
    -AJ

  4. site says:

    A interesting post right there mate . Thanks for it !

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