How I Built an Audience for My Gym

In this series, I’ve been sharing the importance of building an audience. In the previous post, I gave you the step-by-step process of Affinity Marketing, which you must master before turning to paid lead generation.
This process has been tested and refined over the last two decades of gym ownership and proven by thousands of gym owners around the world.
Of course, when I started Catalyst, there was no guide. So my approach wasn’t optimized, but I still covered all the bases. Here’s how I did it.

“Need a Writer?”

Starting around 2000, I realized that the path to becoming a superstar trainer was to get published on websites like (it’s called T-Nation now). There were other models at the time (I wrote for and was actually offered the option to buy the site for $400—which I turned down. Sad trombone.).
I eventually realized that my training clients would come from our town—not the internet—so I emailed the three local newspapers and offered to write a column. Two actually took me up on it.
Because I wanted to train athletes, most of my posts were about athletic training. As crazy as it sounds, two online articles about linear periodization actually got me my first paying client—Nick, a soccer player. I was working in a treadmill store, and his dad marched him up to the desk to ask if I’d train him. Then he wrote me a check!
I trained Nick in the back parking lot of the treadmill store for a few months—using equipment that I stored in my truck and a “sled” that I’d built from a broken shopping cart. Nick got results, and soon a teenaged girl named Holly showed up in the treadmill store to ask about training.
What did they have in common? Both were multisport athletes, but both played soccer. And both were being shopped to NCAA schools by a local promoter. So I called him to ask how I could help his other athletes.
He showed up to make training videos, and he loved the unconventional training we were doing—sled pulls, barbell work and sprints instead of the bodybuilding and distance running most athletes were doing in town.
And I kept publishing. I was prompted to write about weight loss because the treadmill store was sandwiched between a Weight Watchers and a herbal weight-loss supplement store. I got pissed, wrote about it in one online newspaper, and soon had my first weight-loss client.

Slow but Steady Expansion

So my first clients came from publishing content, direct referral (one parent to another) and publishing different content.
My next half-dozen came from the college recruiter because I took the time to find the common link between my current clients.
Then it got cold. I couldn’t train people in a parking lot or city park anymore. I had to find a place to train them. So I asked the owner of the gym where I trained if I could use his space.
“Sure—just make sure they buy a membership!” he said.
Memberships were $30 per month. I stressed about telling parents they’d have to pay for a membership and pay me (I was probably charging around $35 per hour back then).
I printed two T-shirts that said “FOCUS Strength and Conditioning” and a dozen business cards on my printer at the treadmill store. I wore the shirts when I was training the kids. The gym was clean, but it was in a bad neighborhood and had a bit of a reputation for steroid use. Unfortunately, as my clientele grew, the gym declined and was locked up in the middle of the night.
I had to find a new home for my growing stable of athletes (now up to seven). Luckily, the owner of a small personal training studio walked into the treadmill store to buy a triceps pushdown bar. We made a deal: I could use his studio space when he wasn’t in it and he’d charge me rent.
The studio referred me a couple of clients, but they weren’t in my target demographic. In fact, the first referral—a lawyer’s wife—walked into the space I’d set up for her, saw chains hanging from the cage, said, “What the f— is that?” and never came back. I couldn’t rely on the studio’s typical clientele, so I had to build my own book of business.
Within a year, I had 34 clients: I kept publishing everywhere I could and asking my clients about their friends and families. I told them how to help their husbands lose weight, advised them on home exercise equipment, listened to their frustrations with their kids’ coaches. I eagerly sought out opportunities to say, “I think I can help.” When my teenaged athletes were competing, I went to their events. I set up a tent beside the track for my runners. I sat with their parents at hockey games. I was introduced to families and other future clients. I even got invited to their weddings!
It’s important to note that I’m naturally introverted. I wasn’t comfortable doing any of that. But I did it because I had to eat.
It’s also really important to note that the other trainers at the studio did none of these things, and they grew their clientele much more slowly. Same location, same equipment, same pricing, same Yellow Pages ads, and most of them copied my training plans. But after two years, I had a waiting list and they were going hungry.

Have Gym, Will Train (and Create Content)

In 2005, I realized that I couldn’t make enough money even with 10-12 hours of training per day. I decided to open my own gym to earn more.
Now, I had around 30 personal training clients by that point. But there was no guarantee that any would follow me to Catalyst. I was still writing for local news blogs (and occasionally got something in a print newspaper), but in 2005, most people just bought ads in the Yellow Pages.
So when the Yellow Pages rep visited my gym, I expected to buy an ad—until I saw the price. I didn’t have any money, and I needed to buy groceries, so committing thousands of dollars to marketing just wasn’t possible. It wasn’t a budget problem—I had no budget. I literally had zero dollars.
In the mail the next day, I received a local chamber of commerce guide. In the back cover, the guide printed the email address for every single chamber member. It was 2005. There was no spam. I copied and pasted every email address into the CC line in Yahoo Mail and sent my first “newsletter” to around 45 people.
Two weeks later, I had to hire a second trainer. Not only had all my clients from the PT studio followed me to Catalyst but I’d also signed up several from my first email.
All these clients were busy professionals—lawyers, dentists, entrepreneurs. They were tactful and discreet, but when I asked one, “Why did you come to Catalyst?” he said, “I know more about training than the other trainers at your previous gym.”
This was an epiphany that I’ve always followed to this day: “Teach my clients to know more than any other trainer in town.” I think that’s a necessary part of audience building. But it’s not sufficient.
I kept writing in local news blogs for another year until both fired me on the same day. Luckily, I still had my (growing) email list. I’d simply add every email I found to the CC line of my monthly newsletter. Even when I bumped into Yahoo’s send limits, I’d copy and paste 100 at a time. And it was already clear that every email I sent was worth hundreds of dollars.
When our scheduler books got full, we started to look for online scheduling software. In 2006, we found MindBody, and its integration with Constant Contact really ramped up my emails. I think it’s key to realize that I chose the software based on its ability to send content; that wasn’t an afterthought or “feature” or “automation.”
By that point, I was hiring other trainers and filling their schedules. I remember filling our four private training rooms, and one coach—Tim—was training his clients in the stairwell because we were jammed. But what I didn’t notice—and should have—was that all the clients were coming in from the work I did. Very, very few—maybe one in 20—were brought in by the other trainers.
Audience building was my job. I was the only one doing it for our business. And I didn’t even focus on it—I wrote blog posts at 4 a.m. before my clients got there, or on weekends.

A Few Mistakes—and a Mentor

In 2007, we found CrossFit. I was trying to find a way to earn more per hour than I could as a 1:1 trainer. So I emailed my list and asked, “Who wants to volunteer for this eight-week trial?” I had 13 people reply before I even thought to put a cap on the group.
By 2008, CrossFit was all I wanted to do. We opened a second location because we couldn’t get out of our PT studio lease and couldn’t drop barbells there. My first member was the father of a PT client; my second member was her brother. Both heard of me through the stuff I’d written, and their trust was reinforced by their peer group.
By late 2008, I was almost bankrupt. And I thought it was because I needed better marketing. But I was dead wrong: I needed a better product.
I had plenty of clients and plenty of future clients who were paying attention to anything I did. But my product sucked; it was underpriced and I was exhausted while delivering it. There was no joy in either of my gyms in 2008. The real failure was mine: I thought CrossFit would sell itself. I didn’t think I had to build an audience for CrossFit. But no one in my town had heard of it, and its obvious appeal to me didn’t work for anyone else.
I was still getting PT clients, and they were paying the bills. But, stupidly, I tried to push all my 1:1 clients into group training that they didn’t really want.
I kept publishing, and everything we introduced sold out right away: kids groups, running groups, barbell specialty programs. But I was still running out of money. Somehow, it never occurred to me to charge more, that my audience trusted me enough to pay what I needed to survive. And I was routinely killing the golden goose by pushing 1:1 clients into group training they didn’t really want.
I found a mentor. I saved my gyms. He fixed my service and freed me up to do what I do best (build an audience.) Using what he taught me, I launched and sold two other companies in the next five years.
But sticking with Catalyst, we just kept publishing. We sent out a monthly newsletter. We wrote blog posts almost daily. When we finally got on Facebook around 2012, I shared our stuff there, and the algorithm didn’t block it. My focus shifted to telling clients’ stories on the site instead of simply providing educational content. I put clients on a podium. They shared our blog posts with their friends (they were thrilled to be “on the internet”). I kept looking for opportunities to meet my clients’ spouses and friends.

Don’t Buy Ads?

Today, Catalyst has still never paid for a Facebook ad. We have thousands of people on our email list, and our specialty programs fill every time (usually in less than 48 hours). We’re the most expensive gym in town by a huge margin. But our audience trusts us enough to accept our guidance.
The difference now is that we have excellent operations, processes, programs and pricing.
But my real skill is building audiences. And I built them one person at a time, following the now-tested Affinity Marketing strategy I shared in the previous post, plus consistent publication of good content.
I’m going to run a free webinar on audience building on Jan. 10.

Other Media in This Series

How to Build an Audience
Building an Audience: Start With One
Stockholm Success: How to Build an Audience With Per Mattsson


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.