How to Build an Audience

How to Build an Audience

“If you know how to build an audience, you’ll never go hungry.” —Todd Herman

There are really two parts to a gym business: operations and audience building.

The “operations” side is your service (CrossFit, personal training, nutrition coaching, bootcamp, whatever). It’s also how you deliver your service (your systems, your pricing, your location and setup). If we were selling a product, this side of the business would be the actual product.

The other side of the business is building an audience for your service. Building an audience is different from “lead generation”—though lead generation is part of it. Building an audience means attracting attention but also establishing long-term trust. It means leadership. It means keeping people attached and engaged. And it means willfully excluding people from the audience when necessary. That last one might make you a bit uncomfortable—but I’ll explain more later in this series.

Picture your business as a big wheel you keep pushing forward down the road. There are really six things you can do to turn that wheel, or six “handles” you can grab onto and push:

If you look at those handles, you’ll see that half of your time as a gym owner should be spent on delivery and improvement of your service, and the other half should be spent building an audience. 

It’s not a coincidence that our Incubator program is set up to do exactly that.

The brain is often described as two parts: the left hemisphere (responsible for analysis, sorting and math) and the right hemisphere (responsible for creativity, communications and relationships). That’s why we’re called Two-Brain Business.

Marketing is fun to talk about. Sales is fun—well, it’s fun to get paid. But those are merely chapters in a long story. In this series, I’ll tell you how to build an audience (including how I did it for my gyms and how I did it for Two-Brain).

In Part 2, I’ll talk about how to build an Audience of One and then how to duplicate that ideal client over and over.

In Part 3, I’ll tell you the story of how I built an audience for Catalyst (my gym) step by step. I didn’t use a single paid ad from Facebook or the Yellow Pages or newspapers.

For Part 4, Per Mattsson will be on Two-Brain Radio to tell us the story of how he built an audience of 280 for an event in Stockholm, Sweden, and how their trust got him out of a jam.

After that, I’m going to do something different: host a live webinar on How to Build an Audience. You can watch for a few minutes and then ask questions. Go ahead: I’m an open book. After 10.5 years of publishing every day, I have no secrets left—but you might have missed some of them along the way if you haven’t read every post.

As always, you can email me if you have questions or if you think I left something out!


Other Media in This Series

Building an Audience: Start With One
How I Built an Audience for My Gym
Stockholm Success: How to Build an Audience With Per Mattsson

How to Open a Profitable, Scalable Gym

How to Open a Profitable, Scalable Gym

The top reason most owners tell us they open gyms?

“I wanted to make this my career, and I couldn’t make enough coaching for someone else.”

The top reason most owners close their gyms?

“I loved the people and the community and the coaching—but I couldn’t figure out ‘the business side.'”

(Maybe they blame marketing or competition or other people, but it’s always “the business stuff.” You get it.)

In the previous article in this series, I gave you a few ways to make a great living as a fitness coach without opening a gym. In this post, I’m going to tell you how to bootstrap an open, get your first clients, get your next clients and scale up.

This isn’t just my opinion; it’s the proven method we’ve used with dozens of gym owners before they started.


Step 1: Build an Audience


It seems funny to say that you should get people’s attention before you decide what your service will be, but that’s really the best advice I can give you.

When I started Catalyst, I had an audience: my clients at the studio where I worked and local readers of online news sources. I also knew a ton of local teen athletes I’d met through my current clients. I simply went to track meets or hockey games, helped my trainees warm up and met their friends. So when I opened the first Catalyst (an appointment-only PT studio), I started with over 40 clients.

John Franklin ran bootcamps in local parks to build his audience before opening his gyms. He just posted on local event boards online. People showed up, signed a waiver and paid. When he reached enough people to sustain a space, he opened a small one.

And we did it before Facebook!

On Two-Brain Radio, you can hear Jonathan Goodman tell you how to build an audience before you launch an online coaching business (link to show coming Dec. 19).


Step 2: Build Your Service


Ask, “What are the common goals that my best clients share?”

This step is really avoiding the temptation to buy the space and equipment you want—for now. Focus on what your clients actually need to get to their goals instead of building CrossFit Wonderland.

What you’ll probably realize is that you can get people pretty fit on a budget of $2,000 or less.

Slowly accumulate equipment and build what you can. Many, many gyms built their pull-up racks themselves back in 2008, and I still have homemade plyo boxes in use after 10 years. If you catch yourself reading about bar spin or the different types of roll-out flooring at startup, you’re probably missing the mark.


Step 3: Build Your Space


Find a small space. You need:

  • A friendly neighbor who understands what you plan to do.
  • Somewhere people can pee and change in peace.
  • A small office with a door that closes.
  • Enough room to train four to six people at one time.
  • A short lease (because you’ll grow out of it).

The temptation you’ll have to resist at this stage is “going big” to accommodate the huge crowds of people who are sure to bust down your doors on opening day. But if you can start with a small space, you’ll avoid all kinds of massive problems later.

Gym owners who open with a huge space feel panicked, and they try to fill the space at any cost. So they run class times instead of appointments, then they offer discounts to get people in the door, then they take anyone who will sign a waiver. You won’t have to dig yourself out of those holes if you start with what you need and plan to grow.



Step 4: Build Your Client List


Set up your booking calendar and payment method.

Tell your clients they can get into your “Founder’s Club” if they sign up before opening day.


Launch a grand opening. Tell your clients to bring their friends. Commence Affinity Marketing. (Get our free 76-page guide here.)

Turn each client into two, then four. Partner them up. Don’t try to get 10 new people; try to get Mary and Alice, and then try to get John and Frank.


Step 5: Build Your Team


Begin replacing yourself in lower-value roles. Hire a cleaner.


Step 6: Build Your Business


Forgive yourself. For the next few months, your fitness will suffer. Your sleep will suffer. You’ll drink too much coffee and eat too little fruit.

But that’s a small price to pay for freedom later. And with our help, you can get out of Founder Phase really fast.


Need More Info? Read These Articles!


How to Start a Gym

Starting a Gym: Location, Space and Equipment

Scaling up From Scratch

Marketing Your New Gym

Adding Staff (the Value Ladder)

Do You Need a Partner?

And if you want more than information—if you want real helpbook a call with our team here.


Other Articles in This Series

How to Coach Forever
How to Make a Living as a Personal Trainer
How to Start and Online Training Business, With Jonathan Goodman
Turning Pro

How to Make a Living as a Personal Trainer

How to Make a Living as a Personal Trainer

Whether you work in a big gym, a little gym or own your own private studio, here’s how to make a great living as a personal trainer in 2020.

I started as a personal trainer in 1998. In 2005, I opened my own studio because I needed to make more money. In 2008, I added a CrossFit gym as a second location. That gym wasn’t always profitable, but my personal-training practice always was. My problem was time: I could literally fill as many hours as I wanted to work, so I worked a ton. I had other trainers working at my studio, and they also worked a ton because I didn’t understand how to scale up my time.

In this article, I’ll tell you:

  • How to get your first clients.
  • How to get more clients who can afford you.
  • How to scale up your coaching without spending more time.
  • What tools you can use to make your life easier.

In the next article, I’ll tell you how to start your own gym—if you want to.

After that, I’ll tell you how to do online training (with help from Jonathan Goodman, who’s been doing it successfully since 2013).


How to become a Personal Trainer


First things first: To start training people, you’ll need insurance. And to be insurable, you’ll need a certification of some type.

If you work for a chain gym, they might offer you an in-house certification course. They might also cover your insurance. Both are huge gifts you shouldn’t take for granted.

If you don’t work for a big chain, you can become certified and insured elsewhere. We built our First Degree Coaching program to serve this need on


How to Get Your First Clients


If you work for a big chain, part of your training in fitness will include training in sales.

You’ll be taught how to cold-call the gym’s client list and how to approach people in the gym to sell personal training.

Learning to sell might feel uncomfortable, but the training is actually a huge gift. You’re going to need to sell yourself, so you might as well get trained to do it well. And access to the gym’s client list is priceless; gym owners routinely pay up to $1,000 every month to build lists of potential clients.

If you want to own your own studio, the best way to get your first clients is to make yourself famous.

We call this the Founder Phase of entrepreneurship, and I write about it at length in my book “Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief.”

To get your first clients, you must act as your own PR firm. You must publish videos or blog posts every day. And you must get them in front of people: Post them in your gym or in a members’ Facebook group or send them to local newspapers. You must make content and get it in front of potential clients.

For example, when I was trying to get clients, I wrote editorials for three local online news sites. The sites were eager to get them because they sold ads on each page. And I got my first few clients really quickly: I wanted to train athletes, so my articles were about athletic training. If I had wanted to get weight-loss clients, I would have written about that topic but used the same process.

The important thing: You can’t wait for other people to “find” you and then tell their friends. Neither will happen quickly enough.


How to Get Your Next Clients


You need your first good clients to refer their friends, family and coworkers.

I know: You don’t like selling. Neither do I. So I created the Affinity Marketing strategy to help.

You can follow the process step by step if you read this blog post (and there’s even a free 76-page guide to download here).

The other top strategy I used was assigning homework. All my clients needed to exercise more than just inside the one or two sessions per week they did with me. They would usually do this homework at home or at a local chain gym.

I made sure to give them printed homework sheets with my logo at the top (a big green arrow that said “Catalyst” on it). These sheets attracted attention: They were carried around the gym or pinned to the fridge at home. Other people would ask what my clients were doing or look at their homework plans surreptitiously. And they’d see my logo and website first.


How to Scale


This is where I almost bankrupted my PT business (and myself).

I knew I had to make more money in the same amount of time (or, preferably, less). So I opened a second location where I could sell group training.

And that was the near-fatal move: I jumped from training one person to training 12 people. It was nearly fatal because:

A. It takes a completely different skill set to train 12 people than to train one person (and that’s what our Second Degree Course focuses on in Two-Brain Coaching).

B. The equipment and space necessary to train 12 people required a massive financial risk that I didn’t really have to take.

C. I needed at least six or seven clients in each group to earn more than I was earning 1:1. And that didn’t happen fast enough; I was losing money on every class with two or three people in it.

Instead, I should have gone from 1:1 training to 1:2 training, and then to 1:3 or 1:4 training. I could have earned a lot more money without any extra expenses at all.

We teach that process in our Incubator program, and I’ll write more about it in my next post, but here’s a preview.

The other option for scaling is to add a secondary service or revenue stream, like nutrition coaching. You can charge separately for nutrition coaching, and—let’s face it—that’s what most people need. Your program should center around accountability instead of a specific “diet.”

You can also sell supplements. We like Driven Nutrition if you do.


The Tools You Need



I firmly believe that the best trainers don’t need a ton of equipment. When I started Catalyst in 2005, I had $16,000 to spend (so I spent all of it). I bought lat-pulldown and cable-crossover and leg-extension machines … and one barbell. Guess what I used? The barbell. The rest has been in storage for a decade.

If you had to train a client and you owned a plyo box, a medicine ball, a kettlebell and a soft mat, I bet you could train him or her for a full year, get great results and never need more equipment.



You need a general prescription that will get results for the average person but which you can personalize for each client. “Personal training” doesn’t just mean coaching people one at a time; it means customizing workouts and diets to match goals. You should have a firm philosophy and flexible delivery. And unlike group programming, you can’t buy an individual program from someone else and deliver it to your clients.

The more people you’re training at once, the broader and more general your method must be. I use CrossFit for larger groups, but you can choose anything that produces results for your clients. Combine kettlebells with a spin class, push-ups with a pool, or calisthenics with a set of rings and you can cover a lot of bases. But you should be certified in your method of choice.



You need a system that will help your clients pay online and book their own appointments. Those two things will save you time and awkward conversations about overdue bills.

Secondarily, you might want some software that will allow you to deliver “homework” to your clients. I’ve always liked because you can build an app that looks like your own, start sending out homework with how-to videos, and upsell nutrition coaching very easily. You can literally set it up in less than two hours, and it looks great. I don’t make anything for recommending Trainerize, by the way.


Many Paths to Success


The cost to start as a personal trainer is pretty minimal. Almost every gym in Two-Brain (over 800 of them!) is looking for someone to deliver 1:1 or small-group training (here’s the map of Two-Brain gyms). Start there.

Imagine being provided all the tools you need, a roof over your head, access to a big client base, built-in marketing and sales systems, insurance coverage, and pay that’s usually around double what you’d get at a big chain gym. Amazing!

Alternately, you could work for a big chain, get trained on sales and slowly develop a client list before leaving to open your own studio.

A third option is to open in your garage, slowly build up clients with no time pressure and pay for studio space when you’re ready.

Fourth, you could open a gym. That’s what I did. I didn’t do it the right way. I’ll tell you the right way to do it in the next article.


Other Articles in This Series

How to Coach Forever
How to Open a Profitable, Scalable Gym
How to Start and Online Training Business, With Jonathan Goodman
Turning Pro

State of the Fitness Industry: The Disappearing Middle

State of the Fitness Industry: The Disappearing Middle

Think about the gym industry as a spectrum of coaching.

On the left side, we have gyms selling access. No coaching, just a monthly membership.

On the right side, we have coaches selling only coaching: no access without appointment, everything done one-on-one. In some cases, there’s no equipment at all; clients have to join a gym to do their homework.

In the middle, we have group fitness classes.

That’s where things get murky.

Big globo-gyms offer group fitness classes for free with membership or for a tiny rate. These classes are usually minimalist in terms of equipment—like spin bikes or yoga mats or “pump” classes with PVC weights or Zumba. Coaches are mostly following preset choreography (playlists and moves).

Slightly to the right are the group-class-coaching gyms, like Orangetheory or Barry’s Bootcamp. Coaches still follow preset choreography, but the equipment is more varied and the atmosphere is more exclusive. They can be more intense because the clients accept that intensity coming in.

This is where most owner-operator HIIT gyms sit. Unfortunately, it’s also the same chair that Orangetheory and F45 and the others want to occupy. When the music stops, I think it will be the single-gym owner who’s lost his or her seat.

A portrait head shot of blond author Allison Schrager against a cream background.

Allison Schrager, author of “An Economist Walks Into a Brothel” (Courtesy of Allison Schrager)

This is “the middle” of the industry: Gym owners charging more for group fitness classes and slowly being pushed out because they can’t move to the right (toward individualization).

On Two-Brain Radio, I talked with Allison Schrager, an economist and author of “An Economist Walks Into a Brothel.” Allison has a personal trainer she’s never met. She details her experience, then we zoom out to talk about the meta view of the entire industry and the very real threat to the microgyms in “the middle.”

Click here to listen to the interview and share it with a friend.

In the next article in this series, I’ll tell you how Two-Brain gyms are shifting toward the right edge of the spectrum to separate themselves from downward price pressure, low quality control and high competition.


Other Articles in This Series

State of the Fitness Industry: 2019
State of the Fitness Industry: Your Brand
State of the Fitness Industry: New Tools
State of the Fitness Industry: Rebirth

State of the Fitness Industry: New Tools

State of the Fitness Industry: New Tools

I recently bought a treadmill.

I took the advice of other people like me online. I don’t know them, but they do the same sports I do, so their recommendations were worth a $3,000 purchase.

On Tuesday, I received a shipping notification from the treadmill company.

On Wednesday, I got a little email showing me how to unbox the treadmill, how to set it up and how to start out.

On Thursday, I got one more email: some tips to start (and stick with) a walking program—because most treadmill buyers are first-time exercisers.

I used to sell treadmills for a living. I know that most treadmills turn into clothes racks within a month and garage-sale items within a year. I know that the industry was front-loaded: People bought one treadmill in their life, and the transaction ended there.

But home fitness equipment companies have new opportunities. They can sell ongoing subscriptions to training plans or online classes or games like Zwift, Aaptiv, Mirror, Tonal, Hydrow … and they can call it “coaching.”

But we can turn it around on them.


First: The Tools You Need


When I found online scheduling software in 2005, it was a huge epiphany: We could throw out our messy day planners and let clients choose their own appointments. No more no-shows or last-minute cancellations. And then, in 2006, we found MindBody, which tied payments to bookings! Hallelujah: no more awkward “you owe money” talks with clients!

But since then, software tools in the fitness industry have morphed into slow “scoreboards” with appointment tracking and payments tacked on as an afterthought. (There are a few good ones bucking the trend—read our detailed report here.) But what do gym owners really need to run a business?

I think it’s:

  • A client relationship management (CRM) platform to track clients and leads (we like UpLaunch).
  • An appointment scheduler that integrates with payment processing.
  • Something to track client results and show their progress.

By the end of next year, you’ll need:

  • A way to deliver programming to clients who aren’t in the gym and have them track their progress.
  • A better camera and microphone.
  • A nutrition program for everyone you coach.
  • A fluency in tools available to you outside your gym.

In our report on coaching software, we found that Trainerize has a lot of this covered. It’s not perfect, but it’s probably the best option for personal trainers, and maybe the best choice for gym owners, too. At least for now: Several others were close.

But the tools don’t make the coach. Tools should extend and scale your care, not replace it. In the end, your success will be determined by the personal care you extend, not the emails you automate.

And new tools give you the opportunity to extend that care into new markets. Below, I’ll tell you how to see these tools as opportunities instead of competition.


Second: The Tools You Don’t Need


Many gyms sign up for things they don’t need and then fail to use them.

Then, when they do an expense audit, they add up what they’ve spent and regret the purchases.

Here’s what you shouldn’t spend your money on in 2020:

  • Marketing agencies that will “do it for you.” Every marketing agency is incentivized to increase ad spend. They’re a lot like mutual fund salespeople: As the market gets worse, they tell you to spend more. It has a ratchet effect that costs you more and more for fewer results. And without skin in the game, marketing agencies really never have to get creative with their own money. Learn to do it yourself, teach a staff person, and continually track and improve your funnel instead.
  • Coaching courses that teach something beyond the scope of fitness. Partner with local health-care professionals instead. Read “Scope of Practice” here.
  • Equipment or education you can’t tie directly to more revenue. Too many box owners are over-educated and poor. Plan to upgrade your coaching education in 2021 and your business education in 2020.


Third: The New Opportunities


Online spin classes, Zwift, remote trainers—they aren’t your competition. They’re a breeding ground for your next clients.

Every time a spin bike company sells a monthly “coaching” subscription, it’s doing you a favour. The company is teaching its clients the value of coaching.

You don’t have to do that part anymore. All you have to do is reach those people and tell them that you’re the next step.

Now, I’ve screwed this up. When I brought CrossFit to our city, I thought I was competing with P90X. Remember that? A bunch of DVDs that people followed for eight weeks.

A couple of firefighters told me “I don’t need to do CrossFit. I can do P90X at home!” so I thought I was in a life-or-death battle with the program.

What I should have said was, “That’s great! I hear good things. When you get bored, give me a call.” And then I should have called them eight weeks later—because everyone got bored with P90X. They would have been ready for CrossFit. I could have said, “You’ve taken Step 1! Here’s Step 2.”

People sign up for at-home coaching programs for many reasons. One is that they’re scared to exercise in front of other people. They think, “I’ll get started at home and then join a gym.” But if you tell them that’s dumb (like I did), they’ll just stay in their basement. If you pit yourself against the treadmill company, you’re also pitting yourself against its user.


Not-so-Obvious On-Ramps

Here’s another story: I used to publicly denounce laparoscopic surgery. I thought our government was crazy to subsidize “the easy way out.” I thought people were wasting their time having their stomachs cinched off with rubber bands. I thought they should exercise instead.

One day, as I was working up a good rant about it to a couple of clients, one of them touched me on the arm to interrupt.

“Chris,” she said kindly, “I’ve had the surgery.”

I was shocked: “You, Cathy? I don’t believe it!”

Cathy was one of our most hardcore CrossFitters at the time. She followed every blog, watched every video. She’d usually be the one to fill me in on the CrossFit Games gossip.

But she’d had stomach-reduction surgery. And she changed my viewpoint with what she said next:

“I needed to feel good about myself before I could join a gym.”

Laparoscopic surgery wasn’t my enemy. It was my on-ramp!

Peloton isn’t your enemy. It’s your on-ramp!

Bowflex isn’t your enemy. Strava and Zwift aren’t your enemies. Orangetheory isn’t your enemy. They’re all on-ramps to your service!

Instead of “us, not them,” we should be saying, “Would you like a bit more?”


Leveraging the New Tools


Think about online coaching the way you’d think about a library.

“Here is all of the information you’ll ever need organized in one place.”

But nobody learns how to do open-heart surgery at the library. No one quits smoking after reading a book about it. And no one reads the same book every day. Eventually, people need a teacher. And then they need a coach.

If I wanted to attract local cyclists to my gym (and I do, because I am one of them!), I would start by posting my own rides on Strava.

In my Strava profile, I’d post a link to a local group ride. I’d create the ride if none existed.

At the group ride, I’d mention how much my climbing speed had improved since adding front squats.

Then I’d say, “Hey, all of you guys keep asking me about front squats. Tell you what: Let’s just start the ride from my gym next week, and I’ll show you what I mean.”

And then I’d book 1:1 appointments with each person who showed up.

People seek out groups of others like them. The key to marketing is “finding the others.” The key to sales is showing “the others” how you can help them.

I searched for “Peloton” on Facebook and found dozens of open groups and forums. Here were a few categories:

What if I told you that the next 20 clients for your gym were waiting in those groups? Would you dive in and grab those gold coins?


How to Take Action in 2020


Forget about ads: Start 20 new conversations next year. (Actually, run your ads, too—and retarget the new audiences you create through these conversations. Your ad spend will go down and your conversions will increase.)

Write love letters to the people in these groups.

Talk to them on video. Record a podcast—whatever. Show them you care and how you can help them.

If I had an Orangetheory franchise next door, I’d be happy. Orangetheory is great at taking average people who are scared of intense exercise and introducing them to our world.

Over time, the thing these people once considered “extreme” becomes normalized in their brains. And then it’s easier to introduce something that’s just a little … bit … harder. Instead of taking them from a zero to a 9 on the “things I’m willing to do to lose weight” scale, we can allow Orangetheory to take them from zero to six and then accept the baton.

Microgym owners who open next to globo gyms are also very smart: People can try to exercise on their own and then add coaching when the results slow down.

Turning these potential competitors into new opportunities doesn’t require a pivot in your business model. It doesn’t require a rebrand. It requires a new perspective. That’s really what a mentor is for.


Other Articles in This Series

State of the Fitness Industry: 2019
State of the Fitness Industry: Your Brand
State of the Fitness Industry: The Disappearing Middle
State of the Fitness Industry: Rebirth

State of the Fitness Industry: 2019

State of the Fitness Industry: 2019

Change is happening faster than ever before, bringing new challenges, new knowledge and new opportunities.

Online personal training, connected exercise devices and new microgym franchises are now in the market, and their popularity is growing rapidly.

Each brings new market awareness to the value of coached fitness. But each also competes with small owner-operator microgyms. Any of the three elements above could be a huge opportunity; or any could be the end.

In this series, I’ll share insights into industry data that matters to you. I’ll talk about what we know, what others know, and how it affects your business.

I’ll organize these recommendations by key topics:

1. What knowledge can you trust? (this article)

2. How you should position yourself for 2020 (should you affiliate?).

3. How can you leverage these new tools in the fitness world? (new tools)

4. The disappearing middle—why breakeven gyms are folding (my interview with economist Allison Schrager, author of “An Economist Walks Into a Brothel”—Thursday).

5. What should your gym evolve to be? (Saturday)

Some of these posts will be long. That’s because they’re important. As you’re building your annual plan for 2020, you’ll need to have a clear vision of what operational excellence will look like a year from now.

If you don’t write an annual plan—or don’t know how to write one—get to the Growth Phase of mentorship fast. Start with the Incubator.

Most gym owners won’t read this entire post. But the best ones will; you can be sure of it.

Before I get into it, let’s talk about where our information comes from.

First, I have the fortuitous viewpoint of someone who’s been commenting on the fitness industry for over 10 years. Starting with, I’ve written every single day about best practices, ideas and new technologies.

But I’ve also shared what doesn’t work. I hate the online experts who sell untested ideas to gym owners. In my book, that’s close to fraud. Similarly, I don’t like the trolls who attack data-based knowledge just to get a share of the spotlight. So it’s important to understand where our knowledge comes from.


Stories and Data


Over the years, we’ve taken close to 3,000 free calls with gym owners. These calls last an hour. I did the first 1,500 myself. They cost us tens of thousands of dollars in phone bills and far more in time. We’ve also spent tens of thousands of hours on calls mentoring gym owners (we average around 270 hours on the phone every week). We tracked every story and followed every gym. We know where the real problems are, and we know what gyms have done to overcome them. That’s where our qualitative data comes from: real live conversations with real live gym owners.

Second, we’ve spent years building a quantitative tracking dashboard. Just over two years ago, I told the story of the industry’s need for objective, measurable data to prove what’s working, what’s not working, what has potential to work and what has stopped working.

Three years ago, I was having breakfast with some higher-ups at CrossFit HQ. We were sitting outside a cafe in Santa Cruz, California. I asked how many CrossFit gyms were owned by women; I had an idea that the number was higher than the U.S. average for small businesses. The short answer was, “We don’t know.”

I asked how many members the average box had; I got the same answer. I asked what the average lifespan of a gym was, and the same thing happened. I said, “Someone should be measuring this stuff,” and I got agreement. Then—dead air. So I decided to do it myself.

After hundreds of thousands of dollars spent trying to get an accurate measurement of gym health, we’ve finally got a working system: the Two-Brain Dashboard. To be clear, I don’t sell our dashboard. But spending that money and time allows us to figure out what’s actually working for gym owners, who’s really doing well and, ultimately, what’s true. We get daily data from a large sample size. We get real numbers. We get the truth. And we get it every day.

We’ve done it: the Two-Brain Dashboard is running and collecting data from 800 gym owners every single day. We have bedrock data. Now we can build on it.


Why We Don’t Trust Surveys


Several companies in the fitness industry attempt to publish an annual survey. Most of them ask us for help or commentary. But we don’t believe survey data is trustworthy for a few reasons.

First, respondents are biased by definition, so you get over-reporting from the best and worst gyms. Second, most surveys are ill defined, so questions can’t possibly provide an accurate measurement. And third, a combination of confusing software and confusing language means that many gym owners can’t provide their real numbers.

Last year, an accountant friend told me that he couldn’t even figure out the numbers required by an industry-leading survey. And I don’t know anyone else who would spend hours trying; most of us just guess.

The value of an industry survey isn’t the data; it’s the analysis. Unfortunately, any analysis built on skewed data is automatically irrelevant.

This year, we published two specific and objective reports on gym management software and coaching software.


What Does the Real Data Show?


The best gyms are becoming very profitable faster than ever before. And the worst gyms are failing faster.

What makes a gym the “best” or “worst”? Well, it has very little to do with the quality of coaching. Not anymore. A decade ago, quality coaches stood out. But now social media has really leveled the playing field (and better instruction, like the CrossFit Level 1 Seminar, has raised the standard). There are still some mediocre coaches around but few dangerous ones.

The best gyms have the best systems, the most professional staff and a close, personal relationship with each client. I’ll talk more about this in the next article in this series.

The gyms in the middle are in trouble. If you’re selling group fitness—CrossFit, HIIT, bootcamp, whatever—you’re competing against commodity brands. Five years ago, this wasn’t a big threat. But now it is: You can’t run on low margins like Orangetheory or Barry’s. When prices drop, you can’t stay on the roller coaster; you just don’t have the reserves to do so.

But if your gym is really great at offering group training—and that’s all—then you’re facing downward price pressure and some very lean times in the next two years.


The 2019 Trends We Saw and What They Mean for Your Gym


Marketing: Six-week challenges remain popular, but retention sucks.

People are attracted to six-week challenges. They’re novel and exciting. There’s a clear end point. They align well with what clients see on TV. However, the things that make six-week challenges attractive also make them very poor for retaining clients.

Our solution was to use what works in ads (six-week challenges) in a way that improves long-term retention. We do personal six-week challenges, and the end of the first challenge leads to the start of the second personal challenge. This keeps the process exciting, keeps our clients ascending and keeps them around.

There are still the old bait-and-switch tactics out there: “Sign up for this free thing. Pay here. We’ll give you your money back at the end if you complete it and jump through many hoops—sorry, we’re keeping the money.” They’re crippling gyms.

Nearly 40 percent of the gym owners who booked a free call with our team in 2019 have had a horrible experience with this marketing tactic. Now they have a crazy churn rate, their best clients are gone, and they’re no further ahead.

Get our free Retention Guide with step-by-step instructions here. Money-back guarantee! Just kidding—it’s free.


You need to produce content now more than ever.

The spotlight is also swinging back toward long-term media production. Even Facebook now recommends producing long-form content to build trust (we’ve been calling this “authority” for over a decade).

It takes a while to gain momentum, but producing content regularly works. It’s worked for my gym for 14 years (and for me as a coach for three years before that). And authority compounds: I now publish less media for my gym than ever, but we still benefit from SEO, word of mouth and back linking.

Here’s how it shakes out: If you have a bunch of people who would like to try your bootcamp or HIIT class or CrossFit program but haven’t signed up yet, Facebook marketing will push them over the edge. They’ll come in. But if your systems aren’t excellent or you don’t have a plan to retain them after their first “challenge” ends, you’ll never see them again. But if you regularly produce videos and blog posts to help your community, you’ll retain people longer and have higher trust when they do come in. You need both.

If you’re a CrossFit affiliate, you lost your content engine when HQ essentially shut down its media department at the beginning of 2019. Many are just starting to notice the effects. But the effects compound. If you’re not telling your story, and your clients’ stories, and answering questions to serve your local community—no one is.


Retention is money—literally.

Great books like “Never Lose a Customer Again” and “Atomic Habits” were money in the bank for gym owners in 2019.

Our data shows that the average gym owner could make an extra $40,000 per year just by keeping the average client three months longer. That means learning how to keep people longer is a great use of your time.

There’s a ton of research money flowing into addiction now—specifically product addiction. We know how the brain becomes hooked. We can use that power for good instead of for evil.

We now teach the “100-day journey” in the Incubator (yes, it ties into personal six-week challenges). That’s a great start. Long term, you need more than pub crawls and the Open to keep people around. Download our Retention Guide for free here.


Competition you might not know about.

While many gym owners are eyeballing the big chains or other local HIIT gyms, they should really be looking at the fastest-growing sector of “coaching”: online workouts tied to equipment.

Peloton is the most popular example, but if you haven’t heard of Zwift, TrainerRoad, The Sufferfest, Strava—I’ll spare you the whole list—then you’re missing the elephant in the room. Most treadmill manufacturers are positioning their equipment as part of the program instead of as a mere product for one-time purchase. Most blood-testing companies realize they can sell a coaching program or diet on the back end (and make more money). Many supplement companies are now gating their workout plans and unlocking them with purchase.

In a subsequent post, I’ll write about how to literally turn all of this around and get these ideas working for you. But if you want to read more about why these technologies are so addictive (and see some screen shots), you can read “Don’t Fear the Cyber” from last year.


Coaching is about “soft skills.”

The industry has always been dominated by tactical coaching: “Here’s how to teach the snatch better” or “Here’s how to apply the Zone Diet.” But education on the “soft skills”—how to greet people, how to keep them around, how to tailor a group workout to the individual—has always been sorely lacking. In 2019, the most remarkable shift in business thought leadership is that the soft skills are the real skills.

That means coaches should be excellent at speaking in public. They should be warm and encouraging and focus on getting the client to come back. The old coaches who loudly shout “I ain’t here to be no cheerleader!” are mostly gone. Most of the great cheerleaders are still around.

Josh Martin, one of our gifted Two-Brain Mentors, has built an amazing program for developing coaches. He starts with the skills they’ll need to deliver a program (any program) 1:1. Then he teaches them how to deliver a program to a group. Then he teaches them how to program 1:1, and then how to program for a group—using data instead of novelty.

It’s brilliant, it’s simple and it’s backed by an insurance underwriter. I’ve put all my coaches through the first two degrees. Josh is method agnostic (you can use CrossFit or bootcamp or any other tool to train people). I think every coach should start here.


Gyms need to be better at selling.

If you’ve followed our blog, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in posts and videos about “selling.”

This is where most gym owners fail.

I wrote “Help First” to provide the philosophy and strategy of selling as helping. But after going through a mountain of data, we realized that we needed to publish tactics, scripts and support. So here’s our YouTube Channel, and here’s my blog series on Building a Sales Engine.

In short, the data went like this: Gym owner closes warm leads well. Friends of clients always want to sign up when they visit for the first time. But their visits are too infrequent. And the referral rate is too passive (most of us just wait instead of taking control of referrals).

Gym owner starts marketing. New leads start coming in. First leads are warm. Gym owner doesn’t sign up everyone, but he or she signs up a ton of people.

Gym owner continues marketing. Leads get colder. Fewer leads sign up. Gym owner starts noticing a lot of no-shows and cancellations. And because the gym owner is not good at sales, the conversion rate is very low (usually 10-30 percent).

We can help best by boosting conversion rates, then by improving “show rates” for appointments, then by improving “set” rates for leads coming from ads. Basically, we walk up the funnel from the bottom and fix everything. We actually rebuilt the Incubator in 2019 to accomplish this better.


The flywheel must be round.

Out of the massive pile of data, we’ve identified six areas where gyms must improve. When a gym owner fixes one of these areas, that’s awesome: His or her business flywheel turns a couple of degrees. But if one area is lacking, the wheel is flat. The owner can push and push, but the wheel won’t turn.

Here’s my series on Building an Unstoppable Business (and here it is on YouTube).

We round out the flywheel in the Incubator with proven systems and tactics. Then, in Growth Phase, we push the six “handles” so your wheel turns faster and faster and your business grows. These are the six levers you can push to grow, and data supports the theory. Any coaching program, any book, any strategy that doesn’t take all six handles into account will just create a flat.


The Future Is Bright


As 2019 ends, I’m more excited than ever. I think first-time entrepreneurs can make an amazing living. I don’t think fitness entrepreneurs have to become slimy bait-and-switch marketers. I don’t think they have to sell shady supplements to make a decent income.

I think they can do all the right things for all the right people for all the right reasons and still become wealthy.


Other Articles in This Series

State of the Fitness Industry: Your Brand
State of the Fitness Industry: New Tools
State of the Fitness Industry: The Disappearing Middle
State of the Fitness Industry: Rebirth