Starting a Gym: Scaling Up

A rocket ship with a Two-Brain Business logo blasts off over top of increasing bar graph lines on a bright blue background.

Bad choices at startup can be fatal.

Yesterday, I told you how to choose a location, determine the rental space you need and figure out what equipment to buy. These are all hard-won lessons from me and over 2,000 gym owners.

But they’re not the only important moves at startup.

Getting the first clients in the door is a huge stressor (and I’ll tell you about that here). But it matters how you go from 0 to 1, from 1 to 4, from 4 to 20, from 20 to 100, and from 100 to 150.

In a coaching business, you’re never trying to attract 150 members at a time. You’re trying to coach 150 individual people.

Two Big Mistakes

When I opened my first CrossFit Box, I already owned a 1:1 personal training studio across town. We found CrossFit in 2007 and ran a little experiment with some of our clients.

We invited them to participate in a group training class once per week. A dozen of them did. They loved it. We said, “Great! We love it, too! Let’s open a gym and just coach groups all the time!”

Luckily, we were committed to a five-year lease on the PT space, so we had to keep that business running at the same time. And it’s a good thing we did, because its revenue kept the “box” out of bankruptcy for the next two years.
I made two mistakes:

1. I jumped straight from training people 1:1 to training people 12:1.
I should have started pairing people up instead. I could have seen a higher income per hour, cut my clients’ rates back a bit and shared the burden of entertaining people while they worked out. This is what CrossFit founder Greg Glassman did. But instead I zoomed out to 12 people and lost the focus on each client while trying to gain scope.

2. I tested the “group” on the wrong clients.
My best clients—who paid their bills on time, trained 1:1 with me at least three times per week and didn’t cause any drama—weren’t in the group test. Instead, it attracted the people who paid sporadically or said “we can’t afford personal training.” I thought a lower-value offer would keep them around.
And it did—until I realized the low rate was killing me and tried to raise it.

Sound Scaling Up 

Here’s what Glassman did:
1. Filled his schedule with 1:1 clients first.
2. Paired some up to fit more people in.
3. Noticed the benefits of partners in training.
4. Added a third or fourth member to the group.
Other personal trainers were doing the same thing around 2001, but there wasn’t much communication between us. The Internet was in its infancy; I was on discussion boards talking about periodization, but no coaches were talking about money.
Greg might have come up with the idea on his own or he might have learned it from another trainer. But I didn’t find the idea until had already been online for five years. All the articles and pictures were about big groups of people doing thrusters together.
If I’d scaled up properly, I could have nearly doubled my income without adding a cent to my expenses. The other coaches at Catalyst could have done the same. I wouldn’t have taken the jump to a second location as quickly. And I would have had a bigger base of “group” clients to draw from when I did.
In our Growth Stage of mentorship, we teach gym owners how to price their 1:1, 2:1, 3:1, 4:1 and small-group options. But here’s how to progress upward in your client headcount, revenue per hour and business profit:

1. Get 10 personal training clients.

This is actually not hard, especially if you’re starting from scratch (learn how here). I opened with nearly 30 PT clients in 2005, when no one really knew what “personal training” meant.

2. Of those 10, identify two with the same goal.

If their fitness level is different, that’s OK: Make sure they know the fundamentals so you’re not teaching one while the other watches. Then have this conversation with each:
“Hey, Henry! I have an idea for you. We’ve been working on your endurance, and I know the hardest part for you has been the mental one. It’s the same for me. Frankly, I need to have a partner, and I think you could also benefit from one. What if I found you the perfect partner and brought him into our sessions? I think you’d have an easier time staying motivated even if he’s not at your level.”
The key points:
A. “Here’s how this will benefit you.”
B. “I’m doing this for your benefit, not mine.”
C. “I will find the perfect partner for you.”
D. “You’re probably more fit than the partner will be.”
I could also say something about the price—but honestly that’s not the top selling point for people who pay for 1:1 training.

3. Test out the partnership for a month.

Then ask each one discreetly, “How did that work for you?” Because it’s more important to keep the client than to force your new idea onto him or her.
If one client says, “I didn’t really like it as much as training privately,” you say, “No problem! I’m glad we tested it. Now we know that you do best 1:1 with me.” And you reinforce the value of your personal service.
You talk to the other client and say, “Hey, that was a fantastic experiment! High five. Want to try it again another time?” and just go on with personal training.
But if both say, “That was amazing!” then you set up a recurring plan for both of them. The real benefit is greater results, not a discount, but many gyms will cut their rate by 20 percent for each client and still make more money in the same time.

4. Introduce a third member.

To your new pair, you say, “Hey, guys, you’re both doing really well as a team. I have a third person at your level who could really add to your experience. Can I invite her to work out with you next Thursday?”
The key to success here is always to maintain your 1:1 relationship with each client. Make sure you ask each one how he or she likes having partners, how progress has improved and whether a return to 1:1 is preferred.

5. Measure the value of your time.

How much are you making per hour? How much would it cost to replace you?
Begin adding staff to make your enterprise a real business instead of a coaching job. (I tell you how to do that here.)

The Personal Touch

The problem with jumping straight to group classes is that you lose focus as you gain scope.
At Two-Brain, we teach the Prescriptive Model, which means that you have to maintain a 1:1 relationship with every client in your gym. That’s a lot more than giving a cue here and there or finding “faults” in movement patterns.
Those things are almost irrelevant.
Train 150 individuals, not a group of 150.
Sometimes train them together.

Other Articles in This Series

How to Start a Gym
Starting a Gym: Location, Space and Equipment
Starting a Gym: Adding Staff
Starting a Gym Marketing
Starting a Gym: Do You Need a Partner?
You can talk with a certified Two-Brain mentor for free. Click here to book a call.


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.