The Rise of Roman Fitness Systems via Hustle, Grind, and Schmooze
As I discussed in my last post, when I began my fitness business, I made a lot of mistakes, but somehow managed to be successful anyway. But I still had a lot of work to do on my way to whatever definition of success I was using—and I still made a number of mistakes along the way.
Of course, I want to share those with you. In fact, I’m going to tell you about my top three mistakes, and then—given the benefit of hindsight—explain what I think I could have done differently. But first:
Well, I guess that’s actually backwards. In point of fact, I started out by working at the front desk of a gym, and from there I became a trainer. However, even after getting certified and making much more money as a trainer (roughly 50 per hour compared to 8 per hour), I still kept the front desk job and worked as many hours as I could. Obviously, part of this was because I figured if I had the free hours, I may as well make 8 bucks as opposed to 0.
But the greater part of this is that I figured out VERY early on that people don’t select trainers based on credentials (unfortunately). They select trainers for many reasons, ranging from references from a friend to simply the way the trainer looks.
If people are comfortable with you, they’re more likely to hire you as a trainer. The more often you interact with people, the faster they get comfortable and the more comfortable they will be.
And as the front desk guy, I interacted with you A LOT. I was the guy who rang up their water, the guy who gave them a towel, the guy who helped them with billing, the guy who answered if they called. More importantly, I was the first point of contact; When they walked in, I was there to greet them with a smile.
In short, I was “the face” they associated with the gym. I was “the gym guy.” Eventually, when they thought of the gym, they thought of me. Once they saw me training people, they then formed an immediate association with me as a trainer. When they think of training, they think of me.
If that client was interested in hiring a trainer, who do you think they’d approach? The random person they’d never spoken to before, or the guy they’d built rapport with?
This was mostly by accident, or at least circumstance—there were just none in the area. Instead, everything around me was a privately owned club. Instead of dealing with “a company” I was just dealing with an owner. Most commercial gyms will pay trainers like crap. In some cases, the gym pays the trainer an hourly wage—the client will be charged anywhere from 50-150 bucks, and the trainer will get 25 an hour. The other popular method of payment is a percentage of your hourly rate. In this case, a trainer can determine his own dates, and the gym takes a hefty chunk (usually 70%). You charge 100 and the gym takes 70. FUCK THAT.
Instead, I worked for a private gym that charged “rent” on a session to session basis—each session you conducted, you paid the gym 10 bucks. This held true no matter what your rates were. As an up an coming trainer, I started out at 50 per hour (this was also in 2002) and got to keep 40.
As an aside, this seems like a bad deal for the gym, at least relative to other models, but I think it works out better for all concerned. When I went on to gym management, this is the model I instituted in my club.
My theory was that if you allow trainers to make more money on their work, you’ll be considered “the best gym to work for/at” by all the trainers in the area. This means you can be incredibly selective with who you let train at your club, and you can (and should) opt to have only the best trainers work for you.
This means that now not only are trainers looking at you as “the best” because they make the most money, it also very quickly leads to the club developing a reputation for having the best trainers in the area. Your gym becomes a “destination,” you pick up more members, your trainers pick up more clients, and everyone makes more money.
Let me be clear: I didn’t give free trials or anything like that. I wasn’t intentionally making a “business move.” Keep in mind, like most trainers, my goal wasn’t to be a better businessperson, it was to be a better trainer. The way to do that, I thought, was to train as often as possible. To that end, I would train my friends, some family members, and other guys I met just working out at the gym; I was just trying to hone my craft, but this led to a booming business. In short order, this led to a number of people approaching me to train them.
Part of this, of course, was due to the results these people were getting. But I also realized that the more clients you have, the more clients you’ll get. Put another way, the more people see you training, the more likely they are to think of you as a trainer—and then, eventually, as their trainer.
If there’s one thing you take away from this post, let it be this: you MUST be seen to be training. This projects the image of success and makes you attractive to clients. The thought process is, “if he’s training that many people, he must be good.”
It’s often important to take on free clients at various times of day. Keep in mind, people are creatures of habit and will usually come to the gym at the same time. For instance, there’s always the “morning crew” who come in and workout at any time between 6am and 10am. If you want to pick any of them up as clients, train some people for free around those times. It’s the only way the clients who are ONLY there then will know you exist, let alone consider placing their body and their health in your hands and paying you for the privilege.
The point is, the more often you’re around, the more likely you are to pick up business. I mentioned in my first point that people began to associate me with training. Part of that was just training as often as possible, often for free.
The best in the gym, the best in the area, the best on Long Island. I went to seminars, read anything I could and asked questions constantly. I also surrounded myself with a group of trainers who felt similarly. Interestingly, when I first started training, I was pretty much the only guy working at my gym who cared about being the best or most knowledgeable. I was also the only one who’d been published in fitness magazines. Soon, trainers would ask ME for advice on their program design ask me for advice. This trickled into the gym members, and eventually, I was known as the go-to guy if you had a question.
This has an obvious benefit, of course, because credibility really does go a long way, and all other things being equal, people would prefer to work with the best. This is particularly true when that person is also known to them.
Those are all things I did completely naturally, all by instinct.
To me, none of that was “good business,” it was just “being a good trainer.” And, in some cases, you’ll get lucky enough that you’re doing both.
To put things in perspective, there’s a quote I really like: Eric Cressey has said that he’s worked with athletes who are successful “not because of what they do, but in spite of what they do.” Essentially, even though they do tons of things “wrong” from a technical standpoint, they just naturally have certain qualities that allow them to be great at what they do.
As I said earlier, I had no great head for business, nor had I had any training in how to run one.
When it comes to marketing, they’ll tell you direct mail campaigns and complicated referral systems. You’d learn about highly targeted local Facebook ads, and Groupon specials.
Now, notwithstanding the fact that Groupon didn’t yet exist, the entire idea of digital advertising wasn’t even a thought in my mind. I certainly never would have considered sending out mailers. I never did any trials or contests.
However, in spite of all that, I managed not only to survive, but also to thrive.
So, now that I’ve thoroughly convinced you I had no clue what I was doing, let’s go a bit further into how I made money.
To begin with, I had two very distinct advantages working for me when it came to training and both of these led to a successful business.
The first one, and probably the most important, is that I am not afraid to work hard, or for long hours. I simply have no problem with the grind. (This can be a benefit and a curse).
Since I had no fear of working hard, or of working long hours, I got into the habit of “working when I wasn’t working.” Which means that even when I wasn’t scheduled at the desk or when I wasn’t training, I was simply there—I hung out at the gym pretty much all day.
Even after I stopped working the front desk (it became impossible to schedule hours), I still stayed at the gym pretty much all day between 8am and 8pm. Even if I didn’t have clients, I knew that by being visible, and just being present to answer questions or help out with anything that was needed, I’d stay in people’s minds.
Being so present and willing to help also made me an indispensable member of the staff, and the owner of the gym (who ran in some high-end circles) sent a lot of clients my way. Moreover, he came to realize that he could trust and rely on me, and that led to other opportunities.
So, the fact that I was completely willing to be a workhorse worked in my favor.
Please forgive me for tooting my own horn, but people at the gym loved me.
I helped people with form, gave nutrition advice, listened to people talk about their day. I fixed equipment if it was broken and made sure the members were happy. Heck, I helped shovel out their cars in the winter.
And I wasn’t doing it in a cheesy, smarmy way. I was just being nice, friendly, sometimes flirtatious, gabbing it up. Gym members would come In during football season JUST to talk sports with me.
As I said, I became the person whose face you thought of when you thought about my gym. In much the same way, I truly hope that for many of you, when you think about fitness online, you think of me and this blog.
In the Internet Marketing world, people try to achieve this. Ryan Lee calls it being a “rock star.” Frank Kern talks about this all the time, and his take on it is playing a surfer and being a “cool dude.”
If you try to do this on purpose, you may come off a bit fake—and I don’t recommend that, and certainly wasn’t doing that. Instead, I was just being me. I just happen to be really focused on self-improvement, and trying to be as awesome as possible, while treating people well. That came out. And I recommend that—just be the most authentic and awesome version of yourself.
It worked for me, anyway.
The gym members loved me and my clients loved me more. Husbands wanted me to train their wives. Parents wanted me to train their children. Half of my clients had a niece or a daughter or a sister they wanted to set me up with.
As you can imagine, this led to epic referrals and client retention, which led to a waitlist 15 people deep at any given point.
The lessons here:
1. Work your tail off.
To quote Gary Vaynerchuk, this is really #hustle.
If you hustle, if you grind, and you actively WANT to be the best trainer in your gym, you’ll eventually be the busiest, whether or not you know anything about running a business.
2. Go the extra mile.
If you go out of your way to deliver value in whatever you do, people will like you and be drawn to you. And, all other things being equal, people would rather train with someone they like.
3. Play your strengths.
One of the things I noticed when training high level athletes was that many of them are successful not just because of what they do, but in equal measure because of what they ARE.
In other words, they learn early to play their strengths—and, more to the point, they play them without even realizing it.
Whether it was in life, or school, or with women, or in business, I had always operated with an intimate understanding of how to play my strengths, and this has ALWAYS ensured that I’d have an above average level of success.
Play your strengths first; from there, learning about business will help shore up your weaknesses.
Don’t miss the final installment of this series: The 3 Biggest Mistakes I Made Building My Business