Dave Thomas Owner The Business of Lifting WeightsWritten by Dave Thomas

This week, we are fortunate enough to celebrate Performance360’s 6th birthday (7th if you count my personal training business prior to opening the gym). I don’t have an agenda for today’s article, and I didn’t have the chance to sit down and plan notes prior to writing. The way I wanted to approach this post was for it to be real time, and top of mind. The way that I see it, if something isn’t important enough to immediately pop into my mind as a contributing factor for six years of successful operations in the highly competitive landscape of San Diego gyms, then it probably isn’t vital to your success as a gym owner, either.

We’ve been through a lot over the course of the last six years. Multiple locations, hirings, firings, a meth drug bust, gym floodings, you name and it and we have likely experienced it, been the culprit in causing it, or cleaned it up first hand. A few things jump out as I reflect.

Culture

No shit, right? This is something that everyone talks about, but we all have different definitions for what it means to us. For me, I can tell you flat out that culture is the subconscious of your gym. It is the behaviors and attitudes of your staff and members that occur without their conscious decision, because it is engrained into their traits as human being and what they are drawn to naturally. This isn’t brainwashing and it isn’t indoctrination. In fact, if your culture is a point of training for people then you’re doing it wrong. Culture is clearly and succinctly defining who you are, and whom you want to attract to your business. Once that is in place, the beacon is lit and great people will show up and stay.

If you don’t know who you are as a business, then you don’t know whom to attract and you become a place that changes with the direction of the wind. You’ll be trying to appease ten different crowds within your gym and you will end up disappointing all of them.

Takeaway: Establish culture early, and never abandon it.

People

I list culture and people separately because they are different. Culture is the ingredient list and the people on your team are the chefs who prepare them daily. Without amazing chefs who believe in the menu, the food won’t be made with passion and the business is destined to be misaligned. I am going to assume you are not a moron and know that you have to hire good, honest, hardworking people of high character and integrity, but having those traits is not enough. They must believe not just in fitness, but in the gym’s version of how fitness is presented, and to whom.

We’re fortunate enough to get resumes all the time from very high qualified individuals. Weightlifting state champions and national qualifiers, Level 3 CrossFit certified, even Masters in Exercise Physiology.

They don’t get hired. It’s not because we don’t find them exceptional coaches with a ton of knowledge to offer, but if they don’t fit or deeply understand our culture then there is nothing to discuss. Is that cultish behavior? Probably. Don’t care. I’ve never backed down from that term or been afraid to be labeled that. If you don’t have a crystal clear belief of who you are as a business, you will be without a compass trying to navigate hiring and behaviors of your team.

When we hired Julianne Russell, she had never coached strength and conditioning in her life. We took a chance because culturally she was a major match and now, she is our Head Coach, extremely knowledgable, and a hugely important part of our business.

Takeaway: Having a great team of people around you who are smart, talented and passionate about your culture is a non-negotiable trait for a successful gym. I would say we are lucky at our gym to be surrounded by the excellent individuals that we have, but it’s not luck and I won’t stand here and fake the, “Aw shucks”. It’s well established, calculated, consistent culture.

Keeping Things Net Positive

Look, I am not one of these Instagram “coaches” who posts an image of a mountain with a thoughtful quote about positivity. I believe that life throws you both negatives and positives at an equal ratio, and it’s how you react to both that ultimately determine your success. As a gym owner, you will go through negativity. You will have customers who don’t like your decisions, people who constantly break rules and stand out as thorns, members and coaches who leave in a bad away, and obstacles behind the scenes that your customers, even your staff, have no idea about it.

It is your job to keep your culture positive in spite of it all. There are days where you will get crushed by negativity in your business operations, but to be able to keep the overall vibe of your gym as a place of positivity, progress, and accomplishment is paramount. It has to be consistent and it cannot be an unpredictable environment when members show up to train. You cannot wear the struggles of the day on your sleeve when coaching or leading. I have been incredibly guilty of this, everyone has and everyone will, but it’s critical you recognize when this is happening and cut the head off of it before it infects others.

Takeaway: Swallow your losses privately, celebrate your successes publicly. And remember that social media is not your diary.

Ability to Pivot

We have corrected more mistakes and shortcomings than we can count. You have to stay flexible and mobile. Big companies talk all the time about how they miss the days they were small because of how easy it was to pivot, change direction, and adapt. As small business gyms, we are all lucky enough to have that be a permanent trait of ours, but the key is actually putting it to use.

Those of our loyal members who have been with us for three, four and five years have seen our training evolve, pivot and progress on more than one occasion. If you lock yourself into a methodology and belief system, sure, you may have planted your flag, but you’ve planted it in concrete.

Plant it in sand.

Allow yourself the ability to introduce new training tools when science proves them effective. Be able to evolve and improve without abandoning your principles. We used to do some embarrassing shit. 45 minute classes that were rushed. Training that wasn’t super thoughtful for beginners. Correcting mistakes like that require miniature overhauls to which you’re asking people to adapt.

Takeaway: If your training has not changed or evolved since the day you have opened, you may want to yourself, why? If that answer is, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it”, then someone next to you who focuses on progress is likely ahead of you or taking the lead soon.

Strong Internal Compass

Growing is extremely challenging, and the term “growing pains” is very real. The easiest version of our gym we ever ran was when we had 400 members and one location. As your size and locations multiply, things get tough. Opinions become louder and shared at a higher rate, and the opportunities for distraction are easy and everywhere.

“Hey, you guys should try this…Hey, have you ever thought about implementing x, y and z?”

If your compass loses calibration as you grow, you can lose what, why, and how you founded the gym and before you know it your identity can be lost. When your identity is abandoned, the culture is cheapened, the staff loses interest, and you’re on the decline.

It happens that quickly.

As owner and decision maker, there exists a fine line between feedback-based decision making, and staying the course you know is right despite popular opinion. It’s very important to engage your customers and staff when you need help with a decision, but not for every little thing you are considering. Many of our very best ideas have come from our people, especially our coaches. If you’re not listening to the smart people you have in place, then why have them there? However, if we listened to our community’s every objection and new idea, many positive additions at our gym would not exist.

You have to believe in your principles and hold true to your compass. Even if it means on occasion you’re the only one in the room who thinks so. Back when we first started our Shred classes at the gym three years ago, it was weird for a lot of people. Why is a strength and conditioning gym introducing a boot camp style workout? “Where the fuck are the barbells?” Well, not everyone loves barbells. At least that was our thought and it was that simple. It was early introduction to what we believed people would want to incorporate into their training, and it’s one of the best business decisions we have ever made. Had we listened to strong objection, you can subtract roughly 50 members to our current membership that we have today, the revenue bonus that our coaches receive, and a class compliment that many of our stronger members turned out to love.

Takeaway: Popularity feels nice for your ego, but it’s bad for your business if that’s your primary focus of being a leader.

Multiple Lenses

I have talked about this in some fashion in my first three blogs, and I am ending with it here because I believe it’s what separates the winners from the losers.

If you are reading this, you are probably a gym owner or coach who loves fitness. It’s probably a huge part of your day and something that you think about quite often. You probably have precise goals and a borderline obsessive disorder for how you achieve them. You probably read training articles, watch YouTube videos, and love the nitty gritty of learning. The gym is likely your sanctuary and happy place.

Here’s the rub. Most of your members don’t share a single one of those qualities with you. Do some? Certainly. But that is the major mistake that is often made and point I want to address. Human psyche is such that because of our selective bias in interacting with people who share similar qualities of ours as a coach and owner, that we think that micro picture is representative of the macro population.

Remember…The term “silent majority” exists for a reason.

Most of your members are in there to feel good, enjoy a positive community, get a little better and push themselves to be a bit better than yesterday. Just because a big handful of people might interact with you on your level, does mean that everyone is on your level. If you take your mentality towards fitness and force everyone to choke down your brand of it, you will attract some passionate loyalists for sure, but you will alienate the many.

Be passionate. It’s what will draw people to you. But balance that passion with understanding and empathy to the average person who is responsible for supporting your business. Make sure you relate to them, and make sure your coaches relate to them.

Takeaway: The second you put your name on a lease you are business. Act like it. Get customers. Be well rounded. Know your shit in many different training disciplines, not just your favorite. Your goal is to support the jobs of your coaches, your livelihood and the health of your business long term. Quit thinking you’re the fitness Messiah and make it about others. 

That’s pretty much it, guys. I don’t believe the ultimate formula to be complicated or difficult. Take your time developing amazing culture, bring people on board who believe in that culture, keep things consistently positive and be passionate towards your audience, yet relatable to those not in your immediate wheelhouse.

I can’t speak for other gyms, but from my perspective, that’s what has taken us through six years of year-over-year growth.

What do you think? What has made you successful and what challenges do you face? Drop us a line.

Dave Thomas has lead Performance360 to one of the most successful gyms in Southern California. He is co-owner of The Business of Lifting Weights, gym business coaching that helps small gyms grow.