In late 2005, I opened my first gym. I made my first business mistake before I trained my first client.

 

I was painting my new gym space with one of my new partners. He asked my goals for Year One while we rolled a bright chartreuse over the wallpaper in our tiny second-floor space.

 

“I’m going to put these other guys out of business,” I said.

 

I’d been coaching for nearly a decade at that point. The last 2.5 years had been spent training people 1:1 in a tiny, windowless studio gym. I needed the money–and that’s why I opened my own gym–but I also needed acknowledgment: I was positive I was the best trainer in town, and I wanted people to know it.

 

In 2005–barely 14 years ago!–the sum of fitness business knowledge was: “Be the best coach and you’ll be the most successful.” I was eager to believe it, because I was the best coach.

 

My partner, Norm–you’ll meet him at Summit!–asked me, “Why?”

 

I said, “Well, I’m going to take all of their clients.” Not because I was confident in my business skills, but because I thought I would have to take their clients to survive.

 

I made the classic mistake of believing the market for personal training was limited. I thought, “Only a few dozen people in town can afford personal training, and they’re already doing it somewhere else!”

 

This is called “zero-sum thinking”: the belief that the number of potential opportunities for your business has a limit, and that every opportunity comes at the cost of someone else.

 

Here’s how it almost killed me:

 

When I opened my doors on October 25, 2005, I really did take clients from elsewhere. I had 25 sign up the first week. True, I was honoring packages they’d purchased elsewhere and making very little new money, but they came with me. I owned them! Right?

 

But my zero-sum thinking actually turned some of them off. I was already writing blog posts almost every day. I had fitness columns in two out of three local newspapers, and my website was live before my first barbell arrived. Even then, I knew the power of publication. But I didn’t know it was a double-edged sword.

 

Because I was broke; because I was scared; because I was thinking zero-sum, I wrote about how wrong other trainers were. I told readers to ask their trainer for their credentials; then to check their own results; and then to call me to get better results. I told them that if their trainer couldn’t tell them what workout they’d be doing in two weeks, the trainer was lazy. And on and on.

 

After two weeks of this, the newspapers both backed out on the same day. Then clients began giving me the “don’t call me, I’ll call you” brush-off. My bookings went down. And worst of all: some of my new clients went back to their old trainers!

 

Why? Because I’d shown them all the worst parts of me: my desperation, my willingness to blast the other guy just to get clients. Hell, the clients who left were embarrassed to do business with me. It didn’t matter that I was trying to feed my family or terrified of failure. All that mattered was how I handled myself.

 

I should have listened to Norm when he told me “You can’t build your business by tearing another down.”

 

Unfortunately, I thought building blocks were in limited supply, and I had to smash their tower to build my own.

 

Today, Catalyst is doing great. It survived my early mistakes (though it took years to correct them, even after finding my first mentor.) All of the other gyms in town are also doing great. More people are exercising in our city than ever. People who go to X gym wouldn’t be a great fit at Catalyst, and vise versa. It’s not an all-or-nothing, zero-sum game at all.

 

What’s holding you back?