Written by Dave Thomas
In my opinion, a membership of 300 represents a healthy business that is set-up to be successful in the long haul. It is usually indicative of quality practices, good treatment of members, and some awareness of the data.
In gyms that we speak to and work with, many want the magic list of how we’ve been able to grow our membership to 631, so that they can take it and run with it. While we love the enthusiasm, I am afraid it is not that simple, since how we got to over 600 is different than how we got to 300. While the culture and DNA of your gym must remain consistent throughout all phases of the business life cycle, the micro strategies to grow and keep your members are varied, and specific to the phase of growth in which your gym currently resides. Our culture is nearly the exact same as it’s always been, but we don’t operate in the same manner now as we did two, four, and six years ago. Not even close.
We opened in April of 2011. By May of 2013, precisely 25 months, we were at a membership of 313 members with our start-up debt paid and operating in the black. This week, we recorded Episode 32 of the BOLW Podcast and talked all about it in great detail, and there is no reason you cannot take these strategies and implement them to your own success.
Throw Your Hourly Out the Door
When we opened, we made ~$6.32 cents per hour for the first year, and just a few bucks more than that in year two. Did it suck? Yes. Were eggs my breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a year? Also yes. Is this why I don’t have sympathy for people who bitch about how much money they make? Hard yes. But personally, I didn’t care. I saw it as a minor inconvenience to where I wanted our gym to ultimately go, and I remember someone very smart giving us the advice to give, give, give. Your only focus as a gym owner is to provide as much value as you possibly can, especially when you’re trying to make your dream a lasting career. If Pritz and I were concerned with how much was written on our pathetic paychecks, we would have nickel and dimed the business and bled it dry. Coach your own classes. Assemble your own equipment. Mop your own floors. Answer your own emails. Pay your own bills. Write your own articles. You’re staring down the barrel of 100 hour weeks when you start, so if you see those hours as having to be assigned a specific wage, you’ll bankrupt the business.
While I totally understand the need to make money and the desire to place a premium on your time, you must be patient with that mindset. Do not look for ways to make money. Look for ways to give value.
Consistent revenue will follow.
Stay in Your Lane
Offering a menu of classes is a very important aspect of growing once you’ve established yourself, but it’s a death sentence if you do it too early. When you try to get the best of both worlds, you often get the worst of them.
Think of it like this.
Say you offer a weightlifting specific class and a spin class when you’re a gym trying to establish itself (I’ve seen this). You have Jenny in the weightlifting class and Greg in the spin class, both leave the gym and tell a totally different story about their experience. Greg’s only message will be about spin classes, and Jenny’s only message will be about clean and jerks, and the people they talk to will be absorbing two vastly different tales of fitness.
Remedy this by offering a single class. One. Rally your membership around that class, and absolutely murder that single, homogeneous experience for people. This will create clarity of message, define a clear-cut service you provide, and plant a flag firmly in the ground that proudly and un-apologetically states what you do.
Galvanize your membership. Don’t polarize it.
Most of our major screw ups our first few years occurred when we fell asleep at the wheel and drifted out of our lane to other ventures. It took being slapped across the face to wake us, and re-center us on the right side of the road.
We currently have a menu of seven different class types for our members, but we did not add our first promoted specialty class until we were well established at nearly 300 members. I cannot make this point more emphatically. If you offer many things, your message will be confusing and the market will have no idea what you are. When you’ve lost messaging clarity, you’ve lost your prospects.
Nobody purchases a confusing service.
Your members should know exactly what they are in for every time they come to the gym. Constant change and altering of process creates varying experiences, which creates confusion. Over the last few months, we have received a lot of new members coming from local competitors, who were fed up with how much their gym was constantly changing, so remember that everyone has a breaking point for all the changes and updates you make.
I know this first hand. We struggled very much in the 400-500 member phase because we were a bit lost in what to do. We felt the need to change things up a bit in order to accommodate the growth, and it ended up creating a lot of inconsistency. I always maintain that we were a worse gym at 450 members than we were at 100 members because our consistency was rock solid, and once we got back that level of consistency, got back in our lane and stopped changing things up all the time, we got back to our core competencies and the ship was righted once more.
Be consistent. Don’t change for the sake of changing and never fix what isn’t broken.
Being recognized for our efforts is a very primitive, basic human need. There are studies that show that certain employees value recognition for their work more than money. Recognition is powerful stuff, and we are all so lucky to be in this industry based on physical effort where recognition is so easy to provide, so always be on the lookout for ways to do it.
At our gym, we have a series of clubs that have four levels to them, a cape that we give out bi-weekly (yes a cape), a bell that is rung for PRs and new athletes completing goals, a section of our newsletter where coaches provide shout outs, member of the month interviews, Under the Barbell video interviews, and Member Spotlight guest articles by our members.
We believe in and hustle very hard to provide recognition, and we do so for all levels. If your only form of recognition is what weight was lifted or what time was recorded, you might hit a certain type of athlete, but you’re ignoring the silent majority. It’s easy to recognize your top athletes, but the average, everyday person is the guy or gal who pays your bills.
Find ways to include and praise their commitment and effort. After all, is this not why we are all in business? To improve lives?
Fun Community Events
“Fun” being the operative word, here. Few people want to come to a Paleo BBQ. A “throwdown” of high level athletes isn’t fun for most people to watch. Putting together genuinely fun community events is an easy and very effective way to build camaraderie and community, and a huge part of our initial phase of growth. The average person is in the gym to get great results, self improve, be social and make friends. Basic social belonging is something that all of us seek, so why not make your place of business a beacon for that?
When we opened, we did a lot of social events and they were um, aggressive. In hindsight, a little over the top. But, that was our market and we owned it. Our gym is located in Pacific Beach which is a very younger demographic, and at the time it was even statistically younger. The average age of our member the first two years was 27 years old (it’s older now, another reason why growth strategies evolve), so we created events that 27 year olds who live in Southern California would attend. Every time we did an event, we would have roughly half our membership show up and the very next week in the gym we could see just how much hanging together outside the gym broke down walls, put everyone on an even playing field, and created a level of comfort with people. It let our athletes see that our coaches are normal people who like to have fun, and it created a sense of real community.
When all of this occurs, your gym becomes a truly fun place to be a part of and referrals explode.
Know your demographic and find ways to get them together outside the gym. Camping trips, wine tastings, baseball games, happy hours, potlucks. Get creative. Get people together.
Find Ways to Say Yes
The easiest way for me to make this point is to illustrate the scene when you are a new gym, or one trying to grow. You are likely coaching the majority of classes and in your gym just about every hour of the day. This means that you likely have an in-person interaction with everyone who comes in the door, and if you coach them, a hands-on experience as well. Over time, this creates a level of closeness and comfort between you, the owner of the gym, and the members. With this comes member comfort and confidence with making suggestions.
“Hey, have you ever thought about a 10 am class?”
“Have you ever considered offering X, Y and Z?”
Some are great. Most are not. If you say yes to everything then you quickly lose your DNA and you turn into a yes man. Gross. If all you do is say no, then people stop bringing stuff to you, and you lose the vital aspect of suggestions and feedback that are how you improve as a business. Not good.
At this point in our life cycle, there isn’t much we haven’t tried or tested so when newer members come to us with suggestions, it’s easy for us to point that we’ve tried it to little success and won’t be repeating it. However, when we were starting out, we took suggestions much more seriously and answered each and every one of them in our newsletter. If we said no, we explained why with logic and respect (even the request to re-pave our entire parking lot). If we said yes, we recognized the person who made it and promoted it with genuine excitement. This helped to create a sense that everyone was in it together and everyone had a voice. And let’s be honest here for a second. When we started out, it wasn’t posturing. We really didn’t know what we were making it up as we went so the help was very important in letting us know if we were on the right track with folks.
This represents six of the ten strategies we recommend for that initial phase of growth and The Road to 300. For the complete list of strategies that we used and a more in-depth look into all of them, check out Episode 32 of our Podcast which is all about getting to 300 members, and let us know what you think.