By Charlie Bausman
Following my first stint working at MTI, my family and I moved to Charleston, SC to open my own training facility. As any small business owner will tell you, it is a graduate-level business learning experience… Here are my biggest takeaways.
I had been on two combat deployments as an infantry officer and gone through hard military schooling that pushed my limits physically and mentally. Opening the gym was by far the most stressful endeavor I had ever experienced. My son was six months old, and the self-applied pressure to make it work was at times overwhelming. During the buildout and first year, I worked 12-14 hour days, six days a week, and spent the other hours of the day worrying about it.
Family and Friends
This is likely a common theme for most new small businesses, but my family and friends were so incredibly kind in lending their time and support in getting the gym off the ground. I have wonderful memories of wonderful people framing, painting, and moving equipment. There is a picture of my dad, my stepdad, my dog, and myself in a half-finished 1000 sq/ft commercial space. That’s pretty special.
I ran financial projections until my face was blue, and I still underestimated how much money I would need. I used a combination of savings and a bank loan (which are hard to acquire for a new small business) to finance the gym. I also took a signing bonus for the USMC Reserves to have some extra cash available, which was a horrible idea for a sole-operator business. The first year of the business was uncomfortably lean, and watching your hard-earned savings dwindle is brutal.
Periodized and Progression Based Programming
The gym utilized MTI’s Fluid Periodization model for the gym’s programming, adding my twists to make it applicable to the general population. The athlete results were fantastic, but you have to truly educate them on the ‘why’ of the programming.
Progressive overload relies on consistent training, and people have lives. While half of the athletes were very consistent, the other half’s attendance was sporadic. This meant to keep each individual on track with the progression, I was tracking where they were in the training cycle and coaching multiple sessions at the same time. So while five athletes were on a strength session, three athletes were concurrently knocking out a work capacity session. This pressed my coaching ability, which improved dramatically.
Ultimately, people truly appreciated the coach taking the time to explain what we were doing and what the next step was.
Personal training kept the lights on. I had a few very loyal personal training athletes who are wonderful friends, but I hated it. It’s possible I was doing it wrong, but personal training is half coaching, and half psychiatrist work (which is not my strong suit). Be prepared to commit to this.
About a year into the gym being open, I made my first coach hire. Well, technically a second hire as one guy just stopped showing up after a week. Kelly is a true badass from upstate New York, and dove into learning the programming style. When I was attending the Fire Academy, she covered and made it work. Kelly ultimately bought the gym and has created a very successful career for herself in online training. Hiring her was lucky.
From the start, it was obvious that to make some kind of living in the fitness space, I needed to create multiple streams of revenue. After some research, I found an affordable tech stack that would allow me to deliver programming via PDF. Similar to MTI, I tested the programming with our in-house athletes, made adjustments, and offered it online. It gained some traction and generated about $1000/month, which was sorely needed. Every penny counts.
Small business marketing is tough. You can’t effectively track the ROI of signs and flyers, so it feels like throwing money into the wind and hoping it sticks somewhere. Online advertising via social media and search can be tracked, but you better be decent at creating appealing media.
When times are slim, it’s very tempting to cut this cost first even though the right move is to double down. Ultimately, word of mouth is your best friend. Focusing on delivering the best service possible should always be primary.
Wearing multiple hats
Throughout my time as a gym owner I was in the USMC reserves, and about a year into it was also a full-time firefighter. Frankly, this was dumb. Your focus can only be in so many places, and prioritizing them was a juggling act. You do what you have to do to provide for your family, but your focus will suffer.
The gym was never particularly successful, but it was close. If my wife and I had planned on staying in South Carolina forever, I would have doubled down on it, but we missed the mountains and knew we’d be leaving sooner rather than later.
Ultimately, I sold the gym to my coach, Kelly. Then about a month later, COVID hit. Everything was shut down, and like many other businesses, it didn’t make it. Fortunately, the equipment was all modular and could be sold off at a premium (remember the Covid home gym craze?). She made her money back and found an awesome career in online training.
Ultimately, It was a painful process, but one that I cherish. Hard things generally work that way.