Broke Gym Owners: Breaking the Cycle and Building Wealth

A picture of a broke gym owner pulling a pocket inside out to show a lack of money.

Mike Warkentin (00:02):
Millionaire gym owners—they weren’t a thing a decade ago. Here’s a more likely path: passionate personal trainer, frustrated gym owner, broke gym owner, former gym owner and firefighter. That usually happened, and it happened way too often, but it’s changing. Two-Brain has certified 43 millionaire gym owners so far, and there are more approaching seven-figure net worth as we record this. Chris Cooper’s eighth book is called “Millionaire Gym Owner,” and it lays out the exact paths 15 of our gym owners took to get to their net worth. It’s an incredible story, and we’re going to dig into it today. This is “Run a Profitable Gym.” I am your host, Mike Warkentin. Hit “subscribe.” You’ll not regret it. Now onto the dollar signs with Two-Brain founder and CEO Chris Cooper. Welcome, Chris. How are you?

Chris Cooper (00:42):
Thanks, man. What an intro.

Mike Warkentin (00:45):
Yeah, it’s cool. 43 gym owners? Millionaires?

Chris Cooper (00:48):
Yeah, I know. That’s amazing. I couldn’t find a single model when I was trying to figure this out 10, 20 years ago. And honestly, just like most gym owners, I didn’t really want to be a millionaire because I wasn’t trying to be rich. I just wanted to see: How am I ever going to pay for my kids’ college, and how am I ever going to retire from this when I get burned out? So, I’m really fired up to talk to you about this because, like you said, my path was following the one that you laid out. And when you see gyms close, you know, on Facebook, it always looks like, “Hey, mission accomplished. We’ve been at this for 10 years. Thank you, everyone. You know, a successful exit.” And then you go on LinkedIn, and you look at the same person’s profile, and it’s like, “Anybody got any real estate listings I can sell? Like, we’ll work for food.” So.

Mike Warkentin (01:34):
And all those clients suffer because they don’t have their great coach.

Chris Cooper (01:37):
That’s right. Yeah. So that’s what we’re really trying to prevent here. But ultimately, if you’re not thinking about the future, you’re just going to run out of time. And that’s going to force you into a career in real estate, selling hamburgers or whatever else.

Mike Warkentin (01:52):
So I’m going to, I’m going to put you on the spot. I’ve had a lot of coffee. I’m going to get right in your face first thing here.

Chris Cooper (1:56):
I love it.

Mike Warkentin (1:57):
When I had my arm down the toilet in 2011 trying to unclog something, I would’ve wanted to just be a ten-thousand-aire. So, why should a struggling gym owner now care about being a millionaire? What is the point of this book? Why should they read it?

Chris Cooper (02:10):
Well, the book is really about time. And what I figured, when I finally hit rock bottom, 2008, early 2009, I realized like, “Okay, maybe if I can keep this thing going for another five years, maybe I’ll figure it out.” But I wasn’t sure I could do it. And I was burned out. You know, my relationships were all suffering. I was missing my daughter growing up. We were barely paying the bills. We were still going down. And I said, like, “Okay, even if I knew the answer today to fix this gym, it’s still not ever going to provide me with the things that it needs to long-term, like my mortgage payment. My kids are going to need more clothes as they grow. Eventually they’re going to want to go to college. I need to really think at a different level than just survival, or I’m going to run out of time.” And so, the book is really about: You got into entrepreneurship to give you wealth, basically, which is the freedom of finances and time. And you have to start thinking about that, or it’s never just going to happen. Like, you’re never just going to wake up one day and say, “Oh, I’m wealthy enough to retire.” You have to have a plan.

Mike Warkentin (03:16):
Okay, so the first step then is obviously you’ve got to make your primary business profitable and stable enough to actually pay you, which mine wasn’t for a very long time. What’s the shortcut there? Like a gym owner—again, think about it’s me again, trying to unclog the toilet, and I’m just like, “Wow, I can’t even pay myself a salary.” What’s the shortcut to even start to get in the right direction before we get even to millionaire-approaching?

Chris Cooper (03:37):
Well, you’ve got to standardize your business. And this is what I went through, and what I’ve tried to summarize best in “Gym Owners Handbook.” This side right here. And that’s basically like you’re getting your gym from wherever it is, losing money, breaking even, to paying you to giving you a good income. And then once you’ve got a good income, the next step is investment. So, the goal is that you can make about 10% more than you actually need to live the life that you want, and you take that 10%, and you put it somewhere else where it’s going to give you a compounding return, and you forget about it. Or some people in our program, they love being active investors, so they’re going to buy an Airbnb or they’re going to buy crypto or whatever—like they love to learn, and that’s what they’re doing. But the point is that you get to an income that’s a little bit more than you need first, and then you start to think about investment for the future.

Mike Warkentin (04:28):
So, you’ve got to standardize your business, right? And that’s the thing that we didn’t do because I was cleaning my toilet, which I should have hired a cleaner. And then I should have gone through the whole value ladder exercise that’s laid out in your books—which, if you’re listening guys, is just hire someone to do a low value job, then do something yourself that makes more money and keep doing that. And all of a sudden, you’ve got that 10% surplus. So, Chris, you said there wasn’t a path for this. What’s the path now?

Chris Cooper (04:51):
Well, the path now is: Get your business stabilized so that it can effectively run without you. And there’s a lot there. I mean, I’m breezing through this, but even with the high speed, low drag of working with a mentor, this generally takes people on average two years, one month, nine days to get to the point where the gym is solid: They could take a vacation, it can run with or without them, and it’s still making them a good income. But after you’ve got that good income, now you have to start thinking about how does my money make me money? And again, not because you want to be a millionaire, so you can buy a top hat and put your Lambo on Instagram. It’s—you want to be a millionaire so that you’ve got enough money to pay for you to not work yourself to death, to pay for the things that are coming up in the future, like rising healthcare costs and your kids’ university tuition. And to spread it around. I mean, gym owners are super generous. Why not give them more money to share?

Mike Warkentin (05:46):
Right. So, in our archives, listeners, we have all kinds of things to help you formalize and systemize your business. We’re not going to hammer that down today. We’re going to talk a little bit more about millionaire stuff. Chris, give me some examples about scaling and investing, and I’m really pumped to look at this book because you’ve got real stories of people who have done this. And again, back when you started as a gym owner and mentor, this stuff didn’t exist. So, tell me a couple of things that some clever people who you’ve worked with have done to actually reach millionaire status.

Chris Cooper (06:09):
Yeah, there’s a few examples there. And just quickly to preface this, when your parents got a job working for somebody, like they were set up on some kind of retirement path, right? With the company or maybe the government. You as an entrepreneur, you’re not going to have that. Like, you have to create your own retirement plan. And so, there’s a few resources that I looked at. My first investment was real estate, and luckily, I read “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki. And what it taught me was buy and hold. So, I bought the building my gym was in, and I said, “Okay, well now I’m paying myself rent. I’m paying off this mortgage, but when the mortgage is paid off, I can just keep paying myself that rent forever. And whenever I want to retire, I can rent out this building for $3,500 or $4,000 a month, and somebody will keep paying me that for the rest of my life and then keep paying my kids out after I’m gone.”

Chris Cooper (07:03):
And this was kind of like the first building block for me, and it was for many people in this book, but I didn’t just want to share my path. So, what I did was I went to our Tinker program, and I asked 15 or 18 of the Tinkers if we could interview them and if they would share their exact path from broke gym owner to income to investment to millionaire status. And every single one of them said yes because they all want to help other gym owners do this. And so, this is what the book is about. So, a few of them invested in real estate. They followed the same path that I did. They really liked the appeal of owning their own building and having that passive income source. Others went out and started different businesses, which is fine. It’s just, you kind of split your attention that way.

Chris Cooper (07:46):
And I’ve certainly made that mistake. I’ve started many businesses. Others just put their money in something really, really passive. You know, right now, for example, I’m just putting money straight into the bond market because I can get 5.4%, but the rate of return is less important than the attention that I have to give to that. I just put it in, and that’s it. I forget about it for five years. Other people wanted to learn about crypto, and there are a lot of people in our Tinker program who bought Airbnbs, and they’re making really good passive investments from that. What’s interesting is that a lot of the skills that you get from building a gym do translate into other businesses, so you can be successful at those things. You just have to really protect your attention and focus. So, I think we’re going to get into the Barbell Strategy maybe today. But for the most successful people who are growing past that million-dollar net worth, they’re generally staying focused on their gym. Like they’re not losing their passion for that, and they’re investing in other things that make money for them while they sleep.

Mike Warkentin (08:44):
So, it sounds like it’s not just like a “get rich quick,” crazy crypto investment. I mean, some people are obviously doing crypto, but it’s not that, “Wow, boom. Here I am two weeks later, got the Lambo.” Right? It’s not that kind of thing. It’s more you get a stable business that runs itself, pays you more than you need, and then you make calculated strategic advances that work for your personality and probably your geography, right? Real estate is cheap in some places, expensive in others, and then you slowly move forward, and it’s not just, “Oh, I doubled up and doubled up twice. Now I’m retired on a beach.” It’s slow, cautious, productive movement. Is that what I’m hearing?

Chris Cooper (09:19):
Yeah. I mean, you know, if you’re in Vegas, you’re not going to buy your building. And so, what most people in our program do is they’ll spend maybe the first nine months to a year looking at the options, dipping their toes in the water, and then saying, “Okay, I like this one the best.” And I learned that from Kenny Marquardt, who’s in our program, and he is also a coach in the Tinker program. And he said he spent his first year figuring out what he didn’t want to do. And then finally he’s like, “Well, I just want to—I love my gym more than anything else. I want to work there. I’m going to take my money out and put it in some passive investments.” So, they do—they have one or two Airbnbs, they have a couple of passive investments, and he spends most of his time and passion and focus and attention and energy on his gym.

Chris Cooper (10:00):
And that’s amazing, right? Others of us, we feel like we’ve got this entrepreneurial itch, and so we need to open up other businesses. Most of the time, often, that’s a mistake. Sometimes you find an even greater passion, but you do it with strategy and planning and careful forethought. And that’s what the Tinker program is really all about. Like, so many people have become millionaires in the Tinker program, but they didn’t do it the first day. There was no magic, “Invest in this REIT really quickly, and it’s going to flip for you in six months.” It was: I learned about buying a building. I learned how to buy a building. I started looking for a building. I got guidance on buying it. Maybe I saved 20,000 on it. I learned how to finance it, how to get financing, and then I bought this building, and suddenly I’ve got this asset worth about $4 million. Like, that’s generally the path.

Mike Warkentin (10:53):
Okay. And it’s interesting because time is really on your side with a path like that, right? Where if you start early and get your plan in place—you know, you and I spun our tires for about a decade as gym owners before we had a clue what we were doing—if you get that plan in place early as a new gym owner, get to stability and profitability faster, and then slowly start putting things in these safe 5% compound-return investments or real estate or whatever it is that works for you. But you do that when you’re like 24 instead of 54—it’s not that hard to reach million-dollar net worth if you actually break it down like that. Is it?

Chris Cooper (11:24):
No. I mean, there’s kind of a—investors refer to this Rule of 7, where it’s like your investment should double about every seven years. And you and I—it took me, I don’t know, five years to figure out that I needed this, three years to figure out how to do it, and then two more to actually buy the first building.

Mike Warkentin (11:39):
That’s one double.

Chris Cooper (11:40):
Exactly. I mean, right? So, if you are at millionaire status, and you can add another double, I mean, that takes your money to 2 million just by getting there faster. And you know, our average to get to a 100K net owner benefit income is two years, one month, nine days right now. But then the average to get from there to millionaire is less than two more years. And it’s just because people are making these really smart investments. I just, I want to qualify something real quick, Mike, because I know a lot of people who listen, they’ll see these influencers on Instagram who are like, “I’m a millionaire.” Yeah, and years ago, the Facebook ads agency would say, “That guy’s a millionaire because he had one good month,” and that was all, I mean, it was bullshit. There’s no other way to say it.

Chris Cooper (12:26):
So, what we actually do is we audit our millionaires, and we say, “Okay, let’s take everything that you own, including a very conservative valuation of your gym, all of your assets. Let’s subtract all your debts. And if you’re left with a million dollars in net worth, you are a millionaire. That’s when we send you the plaque.” Right? So basically, if you sold everything that you had for cash, you held the cash in your hands, and then you paid all your debts, you’d still have a million dollars left sitting in your hands. Only if that’s the case, will we actually certify you as a millionaire. And it’s not just one of these fluffy, you know, “I sold a six-week challenge. We made 80 grand one month. That will probably continue forever, so I guess I’m a millionaire.” Like that’s—we all know that’s BS.

Mike Warkentin (13:10):
So, we actually have to see your Lamborghini before we send the plaque.

Chris Cooper (13:13):
I need to ride in it at least three blocks.

Mike Warkentin (13:16):

Chris Cooper (13:17):
By the way, I mean, if you become a millionaire and you want to buy a Lamborghini, more power to you. Like, I don’t care. I just want gym owners to be successful. And you know, these millionaire gym owners, the one thing that I haven’t talked about is their gyms are not going bankrupt. They have resources, and if they go through a tough time, they can keep their gym going, which means they’re employing their coaches, they’re serving their clients. Like these aren’t the wealthy Scrooge McDuck characters who are like hoarding money somehow. They’ve evolved this mindset of wealth where they’re growing the pie for everybody. And that’s what’s creating the millionaire net worth.

Mike Warkentin (13:53):
I’ve spoken to a bunch of these guys on other episodes of this podcast. The thing that I hear often from them is that they’re proud of creating careers. And they’ll tell me, “I’m paying three staff members $85,000 each. They’ve got 401(k)s, and they’ve got health plans, and it’s amazing.” I’m like, wow, that’s one of their—they list that as like a major accomplishment because they’re not only paying themselves money, but they’re creating careers for these people. And that trickles down into the coaching, right? These happy coaches do great jobs, produce fitter clients, the clients are happier, healthier, and it’s this whole trickle-down effect that you’ve talked about a lot. You mentioned something that I want to get into—the Barbell Strategy. That sounds like a great thing for a gym owner when it comes to investing. What is that?

Chris Cooper (14:30):
So, that comes from Nassim Taleb, who is—he was a very successful stock options trader. He wrote some really important books, for me, like “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile.” And even if you’re not an investor, they’re great books to read. But what he describes as like the optimal investment strategy, it looks like a barbell. So, what he says you want is like one or two very active passion-project investments. So, these are the things that like really get you excited. So, if that’s crypto, then you invest in crypto, and you’re a crypto nerd. But that might also be entrepreneurship, right? Like my gym is my passion project. And then at the other end of the barbell, what you’ve got are like boring, conservative, completely passive investments: stocks, maybe bonds, guaranteed investment certificates, stuff like that, right? And you don’t have a bunch of things in the middle because you want to protect your attention to focus on your passion project. So, the mistake that I made was, “Oh, I’m good at owning a gym. I’m going to own this business, that business, I’m going to own a rehab company, I’m going to own a brain rehab company, I’m going to own Concussion Pro. I’m going to own self-storage businesses.”

Mike Warkentin (15:40):
Some of these sound familiar, Chris.

Chris Cooper (15:41):
These are all legit. And if you give me five minutes, I’ll name 10 more. But what happens there is you’ve got the money, and you’ve got the time to start these businesses. You don’t realize you don’t have the attention to run all these businesses. And finally, what I realized was I don’t need something else that’s going to wake me up at 4 a.m. every morning, get me out of bed excited. Like I have Two-Brain for that. I have my gym for that. Those two are enough. I’m better off, instead of opening a coffee shop and ruining that hobby, I’m actually better off just to put my money somewhere that I don’t have to think about it. And so that’s basically the Barbell Strategy: passion projects on one end, boring investments on the other, nothing in the middle that’s chopping up your time, energy, or attention.

Mike Warkentin (16:24):
There’s a huge learning curve in the middle, right? Yeah. Like on the one side you’ve got your—like you learned your gym—the risky gym thing. You’ve got that stabilized; you figured it out. And then if you’re investing in, like, Apple and GICs over there, that’s pretty stable. You don’t have to really do a lot other than just put the money in. In the middle, there’s this whole learning curve of like, coffee store: How do I get the cups, and what do I do when the person quits, and where does the stuff come from? And like, that’s a whole different thing. And a good entrepreneur can figure that out. But the question is: Why? You know, you might be better off, as you’ve written, to replicate that gym or just do something on the other side, completely easy, where it’s just like, put the money away at 5% and just sit back and go for a vacation.

Chris Cooper (17:02):
One of the key lessons that all these millionaires shared, and I made it really clear in the book, is: You have to learn to think like an investor. So, for example, a few years ago, maybe 10 years ago even, I was down in SoCal—I don’t want to be too specific here—and I was visiting this gym, and the gym was like a showroom for equipment. It was gorgeous. Again Faster used to bring their camera crew in there and take pictures of their rigs because the backdrop was so beautiful. And the gym owner was running good classes. He was doing okay. And then he decided, “I need to open up a coffee shop.” So, he put like 50 grand into this beautiful counter, and he started hiring staff to work at the counter. And he found the best beans. He’s passionate about coffee, but the part he didn’t realize was he had to go to the grocery store twice every single day, and there was all this crazy food waste. And the margin in a coffee shop, like at best is 10%, and you’ve got to pay these staff, and you’ve got to train these staff. And suddenly, he’s shackled to his business again. And this coffee shop business is just chewing up all the profits from the gym, and it eventually bankrupted the gym.

Mike Warkentin (18:09):
Oh, he killed the golden goose.

Chris Cooper (18:10):
Exactly, right? So, that was a great lesson for me because it’s like, “Well, I would rather make my money from the gym and then just go drink coffee at somebody else’s coffee shop.” Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should. And you have to weigh that as an investor would so that you’re getting a return on your time and money and attention.

Mike Warkentin (18:27):
Listeners, whatever appeals to you, you’re going to find in this book, 15 different paths that have worked for various gym owners. So, if you decide like, “No, I don’t like the Barbell Strategy; I’m going to try something else that works for me, you can try that. But these are 15 verified true stories that have steps people have actually taken from gym ownership to become millionaires. So, take a look in there when it comes out, 2024. We’ll make sure we tell you where to get it, and figure out exactly what works for you. But the thing—if you take away from what Chris has said already—start thinking about it now. Start thinking like an investor. Start thinking long-term because time is not on your side when you’re 55 or 60. Time is on your side when you’re a new entrepreneur. Get to profitability, get to stability, then start doing something productive with that extra money so that you can retire and keep your business going. Chris, give me two things as we close this out. Someone’s reading this book—both, there’s two people who are going to read it. They’re going to be the people who are very far away from millionaire status. And there’s the people who are in that range where they’re like, they see it, and they think they can get there maybe in a year or two. What do you want each person to take away from this book? The one thing.

Chris Cooper (19:31):
I think clarity. So, it’s like, you know, pick something and do it. So, for the person who’s struggling to make 100K a year, what I want you to see is inspiration. Like, okay, as soon as I solve this problem, which is no longer complicated—the reason that fixing my gym took me a decade was because there was no roadmap for it. Now there’s roadmaps for it thanks to Two-Brain and mentorship, right? But what I want you to see is when you fix that, there’s always a next step to this. And I want to inspire people to enter the fitness business knowing that it doesn’t have to be a three-year job while you’re attending college and waiting for your real career to start. Like you can actually create a career as a fitness entrepreneur now for the first time in history.

Chris Cooper (20:17):
For the people who are close, what I want them to do is gain some focus. So, there’s some things to learn because even after I reached that status, I still made a ton of mistakes, right? I started all these companies, I put money in the wrong thing, I wasted a ton of time and energy and stuff. And it’s tough to undo all that. So, if you’re close to that level, what I want you to take away from this book is focus on one thing and help you choose. So instead of dabbling in 10 different things—I’m going to buy a laundromat, a self-storage, start a coffee shop, start surfboard waxing company—just pick the one thing that supports your lifestyle goals, that supports your income goals, that supports your family’s goals, and just do that. And of course, there’s mentorship for that too called the Tinker program.

Mike Warkentin (21:05):
The stats, one more time—you said to get to a hundred grand, what’s the average, how long does it take a gym owner?

Chris Cooper (21:09):
Two years, one month, nine days.

Mike Warkentin (21:11):
And that’s with mentorship obviously, guys. So, if you want to talk about that, click the link below because that is not something—it took me and Chris years, maybe 20 years combined, if not more. You guys can do that in two years with help because it’s all laid out. It’s just step by step. A mentor looks at your business, analyzes it, says, “This is where you can make the greatest returns on your time and money. Do this now, do this, now do this.” Now all of a sudden, you’re making a hundred grand, and you’re paying your staff, and you’ve got extra to invest. So, that’s a huge one. Chris, what is—you said getting to millionaire status, how long does that take on average? What have you seen?

Chris Cooper (21:43):
When people enter the Tinker program—it’s tougher to put a mean average to this because the pads are also different—but the average is just under two years. People are making some kind of big move, and that’s often, like, real estate. So, if they’re doing the more conservative thing, it takes a while for that to compound, but they’re also more secure. The people who are in the Tinker program, and they do more investing in big purchases, acquisitions, real estate, buying multiple locations—we didn’t talk about that—those people generally get there a little bit faster. It’s just they’re going to have to work harder. It’s not as passive. And that’s okay. You know, there is a case study in the book too that I love because it’s completely the opposite of what I did. And that’s Tommy Alfinito, and he opened up Wild Feather Distilling, which is—

Mike Warkentin (22:27):
I’ve got to get there sometime.

Chris Cooper (22:29):
I know. Let’s go man, and guess what? It’s super-duper successful. He used—he’s a skilled guy—and he used the skills that he refined, at least in gym ownership, to open up this distillery, and it’s doing amazing work. So, there’s so many examples there, guys. It’s not just like, “Hammer in what Chris did.” That’s why I wanted to have 15 or 18 other gym owners tell their stories in the book.

Mike Warkentin (22:53):
Someone listening to this show is probably going to use the next four years to get from wherever they’re at to a hundred thousand dollars in income and then become a millionaire in our Tinker program. I bet that person is listening, and I hope it is you, listener. Chris, where can people hang out with you and chat a little bit more if they want to talk about things, get some advice for free, learn what gym ownership is all about and how to get better at it? Where can they hang out?

Chris Cooper (23:14):
The best place is That’s our free group where gym owners just congregate, help each other, and we share resources in there for people until they’re ready to start accelerating their growth with mentorship.

Mike Warkentin (23:27):
Thanks for listening guys. This is “Run a Profitable Gym.” That has been Chris Cooper. “Millionaire Gym Owner” is coming out in 2024. We will tell you where you can get it and how. Thanks for listening. Please hit “subscribe” on your way out, and don’t forget to join Gym Owners United. Thanks.

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