How to Start a Gym from Scratch

A woman in workout wear stands with her hands on her hips and looks up at a concrete staircase rising in front of her.

At almost every seminar I give, I’m asked a question:

If you were starting from scratch today, what would you do differently?

My answer: almost everything.

Work Smart From Scratch

Like most gym owners, I started with lots of enthusiasm. But I also started with no idea how to build a business, set my rates, hire and pay staff or get new clients.

So, like most gym owners, I worked 14 hours every day for 10 years before I realized that working harder wasn’t the answer.

There’s no excuse for that behavior anymore.

Many gyms in Two-Brain achieve financial success in three years. Some owners achieve financial independence in less than four years. It took me 14!

You can listen to Kaleda Connell’s story here. And if you want to download free resources that will help you open a gym, you can get them here for free. On that page, you can also pick up a copy of my new book “Start a Gym,” which is a step-by-step playbook.

If I could go back to 2005 and start from scratch, here’s what I’d do.

Time Machine to 2005: Start-Up

1. Start with the minimum viable space and equipment.

I spent $16,000 on equipment in 2005 and only really used a barbell, plates and pull-up bars. You can buy that stuff for under $1,000. And I’d look for a small space that was easy for my clients to reach. I’d sign the shortest lease I could (month to month if possible) because I’d plan to grow in the next year—but not yet.

2. I’d start by doing personal training and nutrition coaching.

In the Founder Phase, my job is to deliver and refine my service. But it’s also to raise the capital to take the next step, so I’d want to focus on high-value use of my time instead of running classes with two people in them for $20 per hour.

3. I’d build my training schedule around my clients’ schedules (probably 5 a.m. and 7 p.m.).

But I’d plan to remove myself from those hours within the first year by training other coaches.

4. I’d keep the No-Sweat Intro, automatic billing and Prescriptive Model that we teach in the Incubator—things I didn’t have in 2005.

5. I’d pay myself every week.

Luckily, I got this right. I didn’t have a choice. That was an advantage.

6. Finally, I’d pay for mentorship instead of equipment.

As a good coach, I can get people results without Assault bikes and GHDs. But as a business owner and dad, I couldn’t afford a decade of poverty and trial and error.

Next Steps

After the first 9-12 months:

1. I’d start training a second coach and rotating him or her in with my 1:1 clients.

Alternately, I could train someone to handle the exercise or nutrition part of my program. I’d also replace myself in the lowest-value role (like cleaner) and reinvest the time into marketing.

2. I would start my Affinity Marketing plan (which we teach clients).

Working from my best clients outward into the community, I’d start with referrals. Then I’d ramp up my email list. And then I’d move to Facebook ads. The process would take around a year because I’d want to do a thorough job with each opportunity in front of me.

3. I’d start scaling my client hours by pairing people with similar goals and levels of progress.

This was Greg Glassman’s first step, and it was the one I skipped. When I found CrossFit, I thought, “I’ll just sell group classes now!” It was fun, and it almost bankrupted me. Luckily, enough of my 1:1 clients said “no thanks!” to group training, and they really supported the gym for three years.

But gyms who do well at this step sometimes just stay there, keeping classes to six people or less and charging for small-group coaching. Here’s one example. After pairing my clients, I’d add third people to the groups—but only rarely. And I’d usually do so only with referrals.

4. To create opportunities for new staff, I’d employ the 4/9ths Model (which I learned in 2001 and used successfully in 2005).

The first trainer I hired on the 4/9ths platform is still with me at Catalyst, by the way. But I’d do Career Growth ToolKit meetings (which we teach in the Incubator) right from the start to make sure my staff know how to reach their goals with my support.

5. I’d expand only when clients complained.

I remember a night when we had five trainers working in three small training rooms: Tim (a DPT) actually did his sessions in a stairwell, and his clients loved it! He learned how to “sell” them on the value by explaining the precise purpose of each exercise.

Working with limited space and equipment made us really good at selling our clients on our service. We didn’t have a choice.

But meanwhile, across town, you could hear the wind whistle through our nearly empty CrossFit gym.

Around the 2-Year Mark

1. I’d work myself out of direct coaching and focus on sales and marketing.

I was really bad at both sales and marketing but didn’t take the time to get better. Instead, I filled my days with coaching hours and my head with stupid slogans about working harder than anyone else.

To improve, I’d follow the Value Ladder plan that we now teach in the Incubator. I’d start looking to expand—maybe even to buy my own building.

2. I’d focus HEAVILY on retention ahead of everything else.

3. I’d start taking days off.

Because that’s a habit, too. If you wait too long to take breaks, you’ll really struggle to do so when it becomes possible (the same as paying yourself).

4. At the three-year mark, I’d measure my opportunities: open a second location? Expand? Open a different business?

Skip to the Good Part

Now here’s the thing: If you had asked me on Oct. 24, 2005, to map out my next three years—I would have predicted the same result as I did above.

But I wouldn’t have been able to describe the path to get there.

And that meant it actually took me a full decade, cost me hundreds of thousands of wasted dollars, and impaired my health and my relationships.

It didn’t have to.

We’ve mapped this path now. We know it works. There’s no excuse to throw away seven years (or more) making the same mistakes others have already made for you.

That’s the biggest thing I’d change: I’d get rid of the stupid ego that kept telling me: “You’re smart. You’re just going to figure it out on your own. Put your head down and grind until the money appears. Your family will respect you for it.”

I’d skip the whole martyrdom part.

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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.