My friend, I know the bottom all too well.

I remember staring down the barrel of a new year and wondering, “Is this it?”

December is always a low month in the fitness industry. But I used to wonder, “Will January be better enough?”

I remember Christmases where I mentally calculated the cost of every gift and thought about how many weeks it would take to pay off my Visa bill. I stressed so much that Christmas wasn’t a happy time for me. I thought hard about getting a “real job,” making the same money, leaving it all on my desk when I left for the night and getting a week off every year. I fantasized about a day where I wouldn’t have to open the gym in the dark and miss my kids while they were on holidays.

If you’re there, look around: You’ll see my initials carved in the bedrock. But you won’t see me. I’m long gone.

 

When You Don’t Have a Choice

 

I hit bottom in late 2008. I had missed two consecutive paychecks. The rent was due, and I didn’t have the money to cover it. My kids were growing up and I was never home to see them. And that’s when the Fourth Fear of Entrepreneurship hit me: that things were never going to change. That I wasn’t going to just “figure it out” one day. That being smart and being hardworking weren’t enough.

That realization saved my business—and probably my life.

Here’s what most people don’t realize about hitting rock bottom: It’s pretty liberating.

Many gym owners face tough choices in our Incubator program. If they don’t absolutely have to raise their rates, they won’t want to. They’ll have so much mental wiggle room that they’ll bruise themselves up, bouncing between “should I or shouldn’t I?” But when you need the money to pay rent, there’s no choice necessary. You just do it.

The most fatiguing thing about being in charge isn’t the long hours: It’s the burden of choice. Microgym owners start with a blank slate: Everything we do requires choice. Rates, equipment purchases, staff pay—these are huge decisions. But even the little ones are draining, and they can all add up to cause exhaustion. That’s exactly why Steve Jobs wore the same turtleneck every day and why most of the leaders in our space stick to the same breakfast routine: They eliminate the burden of choice.

Dan Ariely wrote about decision fatigue in “Understanding Ego Depletion,” but here’s the summary: Too much choice is a bad thing. When you reach your business’s low point, a lot of those decisions are made for you.

Raise rates or close down.

Fire the coach or starve.

Downsize or stop saving lives.

Admit some mistakes or let them become fatal.

 

Nowhere to Go but Up

 

When I found my first mentor, I thought I was looking for more choice: new marketing ideas or some other magic bullets. What I really needed was for him to say, “Do this one thing today. Then I’ll give you Step 2 tomorrow.”

Action was easy because I didn’t have a choice. Some of the greatest Two-Brain love stories of all time come from gym owners who have really hit bottom and are staring at a “last chance.” I remember Jennifer, a gym owner out west, saying, “I got through the hard parts because there really wasn’t an option. If this didn’t work, I would have to close. So I just did exactly what you told me to do.”

Other stories have started with the decision to close. I remember an owner named Jess telling me, “We’re too tired. We’ve been trying for too long. We just want to maximize the sale value of this thing.” So she went through the Incubator with her husband, made the business turnkey, and, hey—it wasn’t so bad anymore.

“You saved our business, and probably our marriage” she wrote me last month.

In both cases, success didn’t come from a new idea: Success came from the removal of choice.

The opportunity to “make it up as I go” carries the shadow of guilt: “If this doesn’t work, there’s no one else to blame.” That’s why, in the Incubator, we keep it black and white: Do this, then this. Make sure the foundation is solid, and then tweak things later—if you want to. Most people don’t. They don’t look back anymore. They just keep moving forward.

The beauty of the bottom is that there’s only one direction left.

I hope you aren’t there, but if you are, look up.

I built the Two-Brain Roadmap to keep you moving forward.

 

Other Media in This Series

The Four Fears of Entrepreneurship
Stoic Philosophy for Entrepreneurs