Episode 2 – Jason Ackerman
I met Jason Ackerman at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in 2013. Over the next several months, Jay and I shared a weekly call to discuss business, but regularly digressed into training clients, diet and programming.
After a few months, Jay accepted an offer for his affiliate (CrossFit Albany) that was the highest price I’ve ever seen paid for a gym of this type. Most “box”-style gyms really aren’t worth more than the value of their used equipment. But Jason managed to sell a BRAND, not a BOX. We go into great detail on that process in this interview.
Announcer: 00:00:00 – It’s Two-Brain Radio. Every week we’ll deliver top-shelf tactics to help you improve your fitness business and move you closer to wealth. And now here’s your host, the most interesting man in fitness, Chris Cooper.
Chris: 00:00:18 – This week’s guest is Jason Ackerman. When I met Jason in 2013 we were in Memphis, Tennessee, at Saint Jude’s children’s hospital. It was part of a tour for the CrossFit for Hope group. I was on the group as their media guide. Jason was there because he was one of the largest fundraisers for CrossFit for Hope. He owned Albany CrossFit, and he was about to open his second and over the next few weeks, Jay and I shared a phone call about an hour a week and he wasn’t expecting it, but an offer came in to buy his business. And to date, I believe that’s the highest sale price for any CrossFit box. And it’s a really interesting topic considering that the buyer still wouldn’t own the Albany CrossFit brand. HQ actually owns the brand. So what was he paying for? A solid foundation, training staff, solid system that Jay was putting into place. He bought a turnkey business, it’s still doing well over a year later. And Jay and I are going to talk about what that process meant. We’re also going to talk about his new ventures, the stuff that he’s doing online and what boxes are doing wrong by straying from the central path. I’m not going to belabor this intro any longer. He’s a great friend of mine. He’s a very popular guy at L1 staff, Jason Ackerman.
Chris: 00:01:37 – All right, Jason Ackerman, welcome to Two-Brain Radio. It’s my sincere pleasure to have you with us here tonight.
Jason: 00:01:44 – Well thanks for having me, Chris.
Chris: 00:01:45 – Sure. So Jay, a lot of people are going to be familiar with you, from the L1 seminars, from your own podcast, “Squat Therapy,” from the “if it fits your macros” lifestyle. But I’d love for people to hear your full story. So you know, Day 1 of CrossFit. How did you find it in the first place?
Jason: 00:02:04 – Oh, that could take a while, but I’ll give you the abbreviated version. I come from a wrestling background and to add my Jujitsu score. So after high school, after college, unless you’re a really, really top-level wrestler there’s not much to do beyond going to the Olympics. I wasn’t quite that caliber, so I got into Jujitsu and MMA a little bit and one day I specifically remember it, it was a Saturday, my good buddy looked at me, we were just kinda hanging out and he showed me this article in Muscle and Fitness about Chuck Liddell and it was spotlighting CrossFit because those that don’t know who Chuck Liddell was, former UFC champion, but his coach had a CrossFit called The Pit in California. And I looked at it and I knew I had seen it before, but that was the day that it really clicked. And like most people can attest to, at least back in the day when they find out about CrossFit, you immediately go home, Google it, get on crossfit.com and back then, there wasn’t as many videos, there wasn’t all these Games videos, there was no Rich Froning, at least from a competitive standpoint at the time.
Jason: 00:03:20 – So you’re watching videos of the likes of Greg Amundson and Nicole Carroll and Annie Sakamoto, and other famous CrossFitters, OG CrossFitters back in the day. The next day I remember looking at what the workout was. It was some sort of bench press and bar muscle-up workout. I was like, “That doesn’t seem too difficult. I can do that,” at the globo gym I was working out at, well figured out very quickly I didn’t have a bar muscle-up and barely moved the bench press weight that they were prescribing as Rx, but it was certainly love it first WOD and I started doing it every day myself. I remember having a handful of clients that I’d slowly coerce them from moving from a typical bodybuilding, globo gym-type workout, which—I already incorporated components of the CrossFit lifestyle, some more plyometric-type drills, certainly more free weights than machines, but one at a time brought my members over from the dark side to CrossFit and it was one day I just had the idea to say, “Hey, what if I made one of these myself, being an affiliate?” Talked to the owner of the building I was currently in because I was in this kind of dilapidated, old-schools racquetball facility. I said, “Can I just run one of those courts?” You know, they were never being used and he said yeah, we negotiated a price, which at the time was $850 for the court and he actually wanted to get a percentage of my business and what very little business acumen I had at the time, I realized, well, if I work hard and do well, I don’t want to be giving him some of my hard-earned money. So I actually negotiated to have a higher flat-rate rent than give up a percentage of what I was bringing in. And from there, Albany CrossFit was born.
Chris: 00:05:23 – And did participation in the L1 Seminar Staff happen after that then, Jay?
Jason: 00:05:28 – Oh yeah, that was years and years later. That was 2007, early 2007 was when I was talking to my friend Chad and he introduced me to CrossFit, and I opened my doors—I believe it was right around September 1, 2007 so I took the majority of the spring and summer training myself, I did my L1, My first one that I attended where Coach Glassman was in October, it was in Toronto, that was back in the day when they were very, very few on the East Coast. So I remember communicating with Nicole Carroll and she said we can squeeze you into Toronto or Pittsburgh. And I looked at the map and Toronto is a little bit closer to Albany than Pittsburgh was and said, I’d like to go to Toronto and she squeezed me in. And so that was—I had already been open before I had my Level 1, which was at the time accepted so long as I was signed up and going to do it and attended my first Level 1. Like I said, Coach Glassman was there, I believe it was one of the last few that he was at and gave all the lectures, there were people like Dave Castro, Eva T, Jon Gilson, EC Synkowski, some people that have certainly moved on and across the world. Pat Sherwood got me my first muscle-up. I remember that, and it was an incredible experience. But then I wound up being on the Level 1 staff years later, not for about four or five years.
Chris: 00:07:03 – OK. Your time with the L1 Staff, let’s segue into that, and you’ve got this gym going now, how do you take time off to start going to all these certs on the weekends?
Jason: 00:07:14 – Well, by the time that happened, I had already opened my second facility in 2011, so what I tell people all the time about owning your own boxes, you know, you’re no longer just a trainer no longer just a coach, it was a crash course in becoming a businessperson, an entrepreneur, and made a ton of mistakes along the way. You know, way more than I can sit here and tell you about. But a few things that I did well in time was set the business up to basically run itself. So by the time I was hired on the Level 1 Staff, the gym was running itself, weekends were not a problem. And I know for a lot of box owners out there that sounds amazing and they’ll never get there. Just takes time and practice and patience and most importantly, you know, grooming good, quality coaches that you can trust and that provide the same product you would expect from yourself.
Chris: 00:08:19 – OK. So we’re definitely going to loop back around to these big mistakes. But from there, eventually the time came to sell Albany CrossFit and move, right?
Jason: 00:08:29 – Well, yes. So you’re flash forwarding quite a bit, but so I opened in 2007 and then 2014 so just over a year ago I sold my first CrossFit. It was actually the second CrossFit I sold, I can explain that, but I had sold the first CrossFit I had opened and that was in August of 2014 and a lot of people were like, “Well, how’d you do that? Why’d that happen?” And funny story was the initiation of selling Albany CrossFit actually started from me approaching the owner of my building. So I was still in that same racquetball facility, I went from one court to now I had expanded to five racquetball courts, knocked down walls, expanded outdoors where I paved, and I was at a point where I was getting frustrated being kind of landlocked to these courts and I had to deal with his members not always liking our loud music and dropping of the weights, etc. And I approached him and said, “Can I buy your building?” So I was looking to expand Albany CrossFit. And he said to me, “Well, I’m not interested in selling this building, but I’m interested in buying your gym.” And to that moment, that had never crossed my mind. Selling my facility, my baby, was never something I had envisioned. It wasn’t an end goal when I first opened. I assumed this would just be my life. I owned a box. I enjoyed it, changed people’s lives, trained people, but he approached me with that and it took aback a bit and from there we negotiated for quite some time. So we settled on a number we both agreed with and I sold Albany CrossFit.
Chris: 00:10:26 – OK. And what happened next? You open up a new box, Soulshine, right, with Keith?
Jason: 00:10:31 – It wasn’t with Keith. So just to give everyone that’s listening the chronological order, 2007 I opened Albany CrossFit, 2011 I opened a facility called CrossFit Clifton Park, which is a suburb of Albany County. I had done that with a partner and right around the time Albany CrossFit was being sold I actually sold my percentage in CrossFit Clifton Park to my partner, which was a very easy sale, it was written in our contract to begin with. You know, we were buddies when we opened and we just were clashing, not getting along. And long story short, it was easier for one of us to buy the other out. He was basically the face of the facility, running the facility, so we both read through our contracts, figured out what that number was and he bought me out. They’re still up and running. I believe they changed the affiliate, but that was in 2014 as well. And then I sold Albany CrossFit and it wasn’t as if I said I’d sell one and then I would open another. You know how often in life one thing happens, one door closes, another opens. I had a distance in which I had to be outside of, but one of my coaches was looking to open and we kind of met up and were like, “Hey, do you want to open a box together in Saratoga?” Which was about 45 minutes from Albany and we opened that in October of 2014 and that was CrossFit Soulshine.
Chris: 00:12:08 – OK.
Jason: 00:12:10 – So, at this point most people are saying—those that know me, at least, they’re like, “Why’d you open CrossFit Soulshine and then move to Florida?” Well, long story short, I had no intention of moving to Florida at the time. You know, I had full intention of potentially even moving closer to the new box, but came down to Florida with my girlfriend in February and we were like, “Why are we going back to Albany to this cold weather?” We decided to move. So, sold part of my percentage of CrossFit Soulshine, I still own some of it and packed our two dogs and cars and drove to Florida.
Chris: 00:12:50 – And what are you doing these days in Florida, Jay?
Jason: 00:12:54 – Other than enjoying this— mean it’s still feels foreign to me, as it is to you living in Canada, but, it’s you know, middle October and it’s beautiful out. So other than working out outdoors, taking my dog for walks, spending time at the pool, I’m primarily working with people virtually on their nutrition. So I spend a majority of my day on these headsets that I’m talking to you on and help people set their nutrition up because as you know in the CrossFit world, like Coach Glassman said in the Hierarchy of Fitness, nutrition is that foundation.
Chris: 00:13:33 – And I think that’s a missing piece. So we’ll definitely be coming back to that too. So let’s go right back to Albany CrossFit and you mentioned that there were some big mistakes that you made, and like me, luckily, they weren’t they weren’t fatal. What are some that stick out in your mind, Jay?
Chris: 00:13:52 – It’s funny, I had a conversation this morning with someone opening a new facility, and the first thing I told her was get a good accountant. So the first very quick mistake I made was just merging my personal and business assets too much. And I think for someone that’s just opening, you’re kind of spending money and where else is it going to come from, out of your pocket, out of your bank account. So for probably a year to two years, it was very, very blended. You know, my membership was via check or cash or PayPal. And I didn’t have any distinction between what was personal and what was business, and finally I had an accountant at the time, but he just wasn’t doing me right as far as that. And not that he was a bad accountant by any means, he just wasn’t clarifying that. So I got a new account who became a member. We started talking, hired him. He’s still my accountant to this day. He just really had to revamp, I wound up having to pay this and that and different methods to just make sure, you know, through the IRS, everything was done properly. And it took me a couple of years to get all my ducks in a row with that.
Chris: 00:15:13 – I think one of the greatest things that people can learn from CrossFit and the greatest gifts that we’ve been given by Greg Glassman is entrepreneurship. It’s amazing that you can go around the world and teach people to squat all the time, but the opportunity to own your own business with such a minimal investment, that’s priceless because now you can be an entrepreneur for life. Right?
Jason: 00:15:37 – Absolutely. And I don’t know specifically, but my guesstimate would be under $5,000. Now, at the time, that was every last dollar I had. So, I was willing to give it 110% because there was no failure option. If I failed, I had nothing. I never moved back home with my parents after school, but that was basically my only option or figuring out how I’m gonna pay my bills. And over the years from each new facility and I’ve seen other new boxes open, you probably can’t open a CrossFit for that minimal price anymore, but there’s certainly a range of a price you can open with. And I was very, very lucky at the time that that happened. And I wasn’t, like you said, an entrepreneur, at least I didn’t envision myself to be. I suppose I actually was in the fact that I didn’t have a normal job, I was a personal trainer, I was teaching yoga, Pilates, fitness classes for kids, etc.
Jason: 00:16:52 – So now I’ve learned that that is being an entrepreneur, kind of accepting that no one’s responsible for you but you. You know, not working for someone else’s business. But I do think that’s probably the greatest thing that Coach Glassman gave to the world. Obviously making human beings move better and getting people to stave off decrepitude and being able to live unassisted for the rest of their life is tremendous. But if you’re living a miserable existence until then because you’re unhappy with your job and you hate what you’re doing, what’s the point? And I can speak from experience on this, and I’m sure other box owners can empathize. When I first had a coach of mine that wanted to leave and open their own box in 2008, so less than a year later, it was one of my very first members, and I remember she approached me, she said, “I want to open my own CrossFit.”
Jason: 00:17:56 – And it wasn’t even that close. It was like not in a competitive radius. And you know, all this time later, I don’t really believe in CrossFits are competition to one another, but at the time it was like—I don’t know how PG your podcast is, but it was like somebody kicked me right in the sweet spot of my body. That’s what it felt like. I was like, “Oh my God, I never would have expected this,” and felt like I was stabbed in the back, etc. But now, you know, and then also as the years go by, I probably had 20 people open up CrossFits that were either my coaches or athletes and now I can look back on that as an achievement versus being stabbed in the back. Because what greater achievement is there to give someone else the opportunity to live a happy and productive and satisfying life and allowing them to do the same thing you’ve done. So at first I think I was very, very selfish about it, and you know, you’re protecting your baby. That’s what it feels like, like someone’s attacking your baby. And it’s not as if this person was doing it maliciously. She didn’t do behind my back. She was very upfront about it and we’ve spoken about it since, I became the best man in her wedding to her husband that she met at my gym. She has two awesome children. I still work with her on nutrition to this day, but I think a lot of CrossFit box owners need to take that approach and you’re going to help your community in the long run if you do that. And look at the CrossFit community not as a battle for the few hundred people in your town that already CrossFit, it’s a matter of well, sure, these 500 people CrossFit or we could all fight over them and drop our prices and see who they go to. Or, we can educate the entire rest of the population and get them to understand the magic of CrossFit and why they need to do it.
Chris: 00:20:06 – So first with that original box, Jay, and the other ones that broke off, too, any regrets there? Do you wish that you had offered to buy a share of their business or do you wish you’d tried harder to keep them as clients instead of other box owners now?
Jason: 00:20:21 – I remember at one point they did offer a percentage in the business and I don’t remember perfectly if it fell through or if I decided no, and I think certainly there are box owners out there that are able to do that. You know, have a percentage of all these boxes that open. And I think you have to understand if you’re a box owner where you own 100% is a very different relationship with it. Now, if you own 80% or 50% or 10%—so A, being able to accept that you’re no longer the only decision-maker, if a decision maker at all. So in retrospect, would I have liked to be a part of it? Yes. But I don’t regret that decision that it didn’t happen. I think seeing the boxes that wound up opening from underneath me, none of them have gone on the success that Albany CrossFit has. I think they’re all living good lives and very happy with the number of members and all of that that they’re having. But I don’t think to have a little percentage of each one would have been worth it financially for the time, effort and stress they would’ve taken.
Chris: 00:21:41 – Yeah. You know, Dale Saran told me that the box, the affiliate model wasn’t set up to be, you know, an investment-grade asset, that people who are buying a percentage and hoping just for a passive dividend, we’re really not catering to them, right?
Jason: 00:22:00 – Right. And when you look at a really, really top-level box, you know, you couldn’t gross a few hundred thousand, I’d say. Albany CrossFit at its absolute peak I’d say we’ve probably grossed 700,000 maybe, maybe a little more, I’d have to look back at it. But that was also back in the day when there weren’t as many CrossFits around and with more and more CrossFits coming up, it’s a little harder to generate that income. So say you’re at 200,000, that’s gross, but you start to get the expenses out, you’re paying coaches, etc. I think a box owner can make a very lucrative living for having such a rewarding job. The six- figure salary. But if that’s 100% now all of a sudden somebody owns 10, somebody owns 20, it’s not this great model. And it’s funny, since I’ve moved to Florida, a lot of people have been like, “Oh, I’ll open a box, I’ll help you open a box,” these, you know, wealthy people that I’ve come into contact with, and I tell them, “I don’t need your money.” Not that I’m this you know, billionaire, but the point is, if I’m going to open a box, it’s not about the money, it’s about the sweat and the work that it’s going to take to grow it. And so while that’s very great, if you help me fund a new facility, I need coaches and I need people that are passionate about CrossFit and that care about CrossFit. And I think in time any good box will develop those. But when you first open, that’s a 5:00 a.m. To 11:00 p.m. job, and if it’s not, you’re not going to be successful.
Chris: 00:23:48 – So if you were to take a partner right now, Jay, and you know me, I am averse to partnerships, but if you were going to take a partner to open a box, what would you be looking for as far as their contribution?
Jason: 00:24:02 – Top-notch coaching. You know the only way I would do a partnership with someone strictly based on money is if they’re going to just open up this beautiful facility with top-of-the-line equipment and all this fancy stuff and then not expect that they own the same amount of equity as money they put in. You know, if they’re doing it simply as an investment and they’re going to get 10% of whatever profits I come up with, and not many smart businesspeople are doing that. So if I were going to partner up with someone it’d be someone that I know is going to work as hard as me and realistically going to be a very, very good coach and passionate about CrossFit and for the right reasons, not someone that’s going to come up with this crazy programming or watered down CrossFit, I want classic CrossFit and I want someone that’s willing to coach, and coaches because they care about people and helping people move better and change their lives. And if you get those people, your box will be successful.
Jason: 00:25:10 – I know that it’s kind of like cliche advice, but I tell people, get a good accountant and do things for the right reasons because if you open a box and you’re doing it for the right reason and you are passionate about it, people can tell and people will tell their friends to come. Like Coach Glassman said he doesn’t market, but he has an army of marketers out there that won’t shut the F up about CrossFit. And it’s the same thing. It’s no different than something, you know, you go to a good restaurant, you want to tell your friends; if you have a good experience somewhere, you want to tell your friends and family about it. And what better experience is there then feeling better, looking better and living a better life.
Chris: 00:25:57 – So, you know, on your Facebook page, Jay, your title is “entrepreneur,” and one of the things that’s always impressed me most about you is your ability to look at the long view and think about how will this scale over time. What’s another lesson that you picked up from your first gym that you still use today in different business ventures?
Jason: 00:26:22 – Well obviously all that we just discussed as far as let passion lead you and strive for excellence and the money will follow. But one of the biggest lessons I learned at Albany, it took me a long time, was developing others and helping them improve, which also, like I said, led to them opening other boxes. But had I learned that quicker, I think it would’ve changed the landscape of Albany CrossFit and beyond just developing them, making sure they have incentive and that they feel like they matter. You know, treating your people right.
Chris: 00:27:11 – OK. What kind of incentives are we talking about to keep staff around, then?
Jason: 00:27:17 – Things like giving them a percentage of what they bring in. Or allowing them to run their own programs or you know, just making them feel valued. I mean this is all stuff, a lot of it is what I learned from you. You know, we get somebody that wants to run a program. Yes. By all means run this program. You’re going to set it up. I’m here for you. You’re going to get a percentage of what you bring in, but you can have people that make a good income at your box if you to do it the right way, which then is less of a reason to want you or have to leave. I think a lot of CrossFit trainers wind up breaking off partly because the appeal of owning their own box, it’s theirs, etc. But part of it is it’s very hard to provide a good living for a CrossFit trainer at your normal box. Most people have other full-time jobs or have to supplement their income in other ways. At Albany CrossFit’s peak, in addition to me, I had six full-time employees all getting decent salaries with health benefits.
Chris: 00:28:33 – Yeah. And I think that’s really remarkable and that’s one of the reasons that a lot of other gyms kind of look to you as an example. So let’s talk about the sale process. You know, you told us how that whole thing started. How did you determine a price? How did you know what Albany was worth?
Jason: 00:28:52 – I didn’t know what it was worth as far as what a value is. I get probably a phone call or an email a week asking me that question. And the quick answer to that is it’s worth what someone’s willing to pay for it. And it was worth what I was willing to give up. So in other words, I knew what I made on average yearly. In order for me not to make that salary anymore, I needed to receive a certain amount. And that was really the number that mattered the most. You know, I knew if I received that amount I would least be good for a few years based on that, and I decided at that point I wanted to open a new facility or whatever, wherever my life took me, at least that would be comfortable for a couple of years, which was enough time to get me back on my feet and into the real world.
Chris: 00:29:48 – But you weren’t retiring. I mean, you had other ideas to pursue, too.
Jason: 00:29:53 – Right, I mean, I knew that my life would still be in fitness. I love fitness. You know, I put myself through a horrendous work out of my garage earlier because I love this. This is what I want to do. But, and I didn’t envision retiring. People think when you sell your box, oh, you’ve made enough money to retire, you don’t have to work anymore. And I’m sure with the right investments and whatnot, I could, I have a good financial guy who was taking good care of me. But I’m 37 years old, I love doing this. I’m not going to retire. And I didn’t think I would sell Albany CrossFit in August and be opening a new affiliate in October. I wasn’t planning on doing that, that’s for sure. But I knew I’d somehow still be involved in the CrossFit world. I knew I was still working for CrossFit and I wasn’t sure where life was going to take me, but I wasn’t retired by any means.
Chris: 00:30:55 – So let’s say that somebody wanted to build a saleable asset of their box and they needed $3 million to carry them through old age and that was it. They’re going to sit on the beach and watch People’s Court. Do you think that’s possible?
Jason: 00:31:14 – Do I think it’s possible to build a CrossFit that tells for $3 million?
Chris: 00:31:20 – Yeah. One single box that will let you retire off one sale.
Jason: 00:31:28 – I do think it’s possible. I know of CrossFits that are probably valued at at least a million dollars if not more, and again, it’s worth what someone’s willing to buy, but based on their membership and their rates, etc. There’s a lot to take into account. CrossFit’s a unique business where typically the owner is the face of the facility and I had kind of pulled myself away from that, but I definitely also created a culture there. So maybe I wasn’t the main coach anymore, I honestly rarely coached anymore, but the culture that I had created in 2007 was still very strong. So when somebody else came in and owned it and they were trying to change that culture or not necessarily live with the same exact attitude and mentality, I did and evolved at Albany CrossFit, it was very, very hard for them. So while I do believe there are boxes that are worth probably a million, maybe a little bit more, it’s a matter of, “OK, well if they’re worth that now, will they still be worth that if someone else were to purchase that.”
Chris: 00:32:47 – What do you think the key to making a salable box is then, Jay, now that you’ve gone through it?
Jason: 00:32:54 – Hmm. Just thinking. The key that would be, obviously—here would be actually the key. To put systems into place. So you want that to be turnkey and you also don’t want it to feel like, “OK, well now there’s a new owner, things are different here.” So, whether it’s the type of programming you do—obviously if I program classic CrossFit, I don’t want somebody coming in on Day One putting in three, four, five-part workouts. If you have an elements, an onramp or whatever that is, maintain it, keep the same schedule. Ideally keep as many of your coaches on as possible. And for the person selling it, they to offer to the buyer some sort of help. So I was there for two months after the sale of Albany CrossFit. While I wasn’t really asked to do much—I should have been utilized better, in my opinion—it was part of our negotiation.
Chris: 00:34:09 – OK. So, at L1s now I’m sure you see a few guys every weekend who are very, you know, overtly preparing to open their own box.
Jason: 00:34:21 – Absolutely.
Chris: 00:34:21 – And what kind of questions are they asking you? You know, what do new people want to know about getting their box off on the right foot?
Jason: 00:34:30 – I think most people are looking for some sort of quick, easy answer. And that’s where my answer, like I said, is typically pursue excellence, be the best, there’s no “do this programming, these are your class times, these are the colors on your wall, this is the equipment to buy.” That is different at every box you go to, and that’s the beauty of the affiliate model versus franchise. The one underlying theme for every successful CrossFit box is the owners of that box are living by their own values and pursuing excellence. If you pursue excellence, the money will be there. You cannot open a CrossFit and truly care about helping others and give it 100% and fail. And if you do, something was going wrong along the way or your rent was—certainly there are ways to fail that if you open this massive facility and your rent is $20,000, etc. But that’d be the other piece of advice I would give is start as small as possible. The last thing you want to be doing is feeling like you’re chasing after your bills so you’re more stressed out about money coming in than concerned with helping others. So like I said, I was lucky. $850, really that was my only reoccurring bill because I didn’t have to worry about electricity because I was at another facility. There was no MindBody or Wodify being used at the time, the equipment was all handmade or bought on Craigslist. I don’t think I had any other reoccurring payments. So other than that $850 which I recouped probably that first week when I brought my clients in to be members, which at the time I believe was $80 or $100 a month, I was good. I didn’t really have to worry about bills. So if your rent’s four or 5,000, and you have Wodify and electricity and you’re paying off your equipment and etc., you’re just trying to chase after money to get bills paid and there’s nothing more stressful than that.
Chris: 00:36:46 – Yeah. The other last thing I would add is, and I’m going to ask you if you’ve seen this, too, there are folks out there who really have no business coaching other people, right? Maybe their background means that they’re not prepared for the empathetic side of coaching. Have you seen this before?
Jason: 00:37:08 – Oh yeah. I mean, I see it every weekend and I’ve seen it with people I’ve watched coach and tried to help develop coach and one hundred percent, I think that is such an overlooked aspect of coaching. You know, people give the L1—”Oh two days and you have your L1,” but guess what? My first personal-training certificate, I passed some written tests that I mailed in and had a credential and the next one, you know, I went to take another test. I didn’t have any hands-on experience. So while I still think the Level 1 is the best training out there, perfect human movement, that’s what it’s all about. We’re trying to get people to A, move themselves better, but understand mechanics and part of what we consider makes a good coach is it’s a six-part process. The ability to teach movement, see movement, correct movement, demonstrate the movement, which is often overlooked. I don’t think you have to be a Games champion to be a coach, but you should be trying to move better. I don’t care if you have a muscle-up or not. You can coach the muscle-up, but you better be trying to get your first muscle-up. You don’t have to have the best air squat in the world, but you best be doing squat therapy if you don’t. Then there’s group management. Just being able to control a classroom. As you know, sometimes controlling a bunch of CrossFitters is like herding cats and they’re just going all over the place. So how well do you control that? And then in my opinion, what may or may not be the most important component of that is presence and attitude. And that can mean a lot of things. But the first thing it means to me is like, do people actually want to be around you?
Jason: 00:38:53 – You know, you can fix my air squat but you’re a complete a-hole, no one’s going to want to be around you. You know, and then along with that presence and attitude is, are you making people feel good? I tell my coaches, when you first start coaching for me or anywhere, you’re going to be a really, really crappy coach. You’re going to forget the progression for the push press. You’re going to forget the points of performance for the overhead squat. Your job is to help people enjoy that one hour of their day. They need to leave here saying to themselves, “I cannot wait to come back.” ‘Cause it doesn’t matter how fit you plan on making them, if they don’t want to come back, they’re not going to get very fit. They’re going to stop showing up. So part of that is like you said, it’s empathy. I know when I first started, I would yell at my athletes about movement and I would go crazy about nutrition. If you weren’t doing Paleo or you weren’t doing Zone, you shouldn’t be here. And that’s a huge lesson I learned too. You have to remember these people have real jobs and real lives and sometimes they just need you to ask how you doing or what’s going on? You seem off today, what can I do to help? And that goes a long way. And not everybody’s there to go to the Games. Some people are just there to get a little exercise and because it’s more fun than going to a globo gym. And until you understand that and you leave the L1 and it’s like drinking from a fire hose and you’re all revved up and all you want to do is cheerlead and yell at people, etc. And that’s great, there’s a time and a place for it. But you need to know when that time and place is.
Chris: 00:40:39 – Do you think it ever happens that technical expertise is so strong that it can overwhelm, let’s call it emotional expertise?
Jason: 00:40:49 – Oh yeah, all the time. I’ll give you an example of someone who’s a good friend of mine and he’s a very well-respected CrossFit coach. He’s part of a couple of boxes and his name’s Austin Malleolo, Games athlete. And he was a coach for me at Albany CrossFit before moving onto to Reebok, really awesome thing. And I remember watching his first class that he was coaching the thruster, I don’t know if he remembers this, but I remember watching him coach the thruster and he was trying to teach people to pull the bar to their shoulders faster so they can go faster. You know, he had just come back from his very first Games where he got sixth place and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, this dude doesn’t get it.” No one here is going to the Games. You know? And we spoke for—every class, I would watch him, and now, I mean, he gets it better than anyone else I know. He’s one of the most empathetic coaches I’ve come across. You know, he was a young kid at the time and now he may be 30 years old, but he totally changed. But that’s how he was, just because he didn’t know any better. It was his first coaching opportunity. He just thought that’s what CrossFit was all about. And I remember the people were in awe that they had this amazing athlete coaching them, but they were also like, “What is he talking about?” And the same people that felt that way over the short period of time that he was with me just grew to love him because they saw that change in him. And to be quite honest, I was the same way. I can’t tell you the number of people I made cry over the years ’cause I would yell at them to do things that—I don’t think it was ever physical, of course they can do it physically and that’s what I’m there for. But in that given moment, mentally and emotionally, they weren’t ready for it. And that took a long time. Even to the point where now I think CrossFit is the best way to get fit. It is the best and fastest way to get fit. But you know what, it’s not for anybody—I’m sorry, it’s not for everybody. And I tell people at this point, it’s like, you need to do what gets you to the gym and what makes you happy. And if that’s Zumba or yoga or just brisk walking, that’s what you need to be doing. And ultimately I want to get them to be doing CrossFit, but that took years to understand.
Chris: 00:43:26 – I think there’s a process that coaches go through that let’s than mellow into that perspective, too. I think it’s funny that you bring up Malleolo because a year ago he and I were shooting this segment, a good friend Chris Stoutenburg was becoming one of the first chaired athletes to earn their L1, and Malleolo sat and listened to us for a long time. Some of that I’m sure came from you as one of his first mentors. How, would you instruct your coaches to become better at the empathy, the right-hemisphere part of the job?
Jason: 00:44:06 – I would encourage listening and asking questions and that might be something they have to learn, too. But just listening and understanding people and asking more questions and a good buddy of mine, Chuck Carswell always likes to say, “Ask that one extra question, that one question that lets people know you’re not just asking for the sake of asking because you’re listening and you want to know more,” and it will come up. Listen to them without worrying about you, without thinking about what’s going on in your life. And you’ll hear these things. So they’ll say, “Well I didn’t sleep well last night,” “I’m fighting with my husband,” you know, “My kids are sick.” You’ll start those to learn those things and then approaching it where we want people to be healthier. We want people to move better and be fitter. But understanding that that doesn’t always need to happen in that particular moment. Sometimes health and fitness and well-being is the fact that they’re there that day cause the alternative could have been going home and eating a pint of ice cream or eight slices of pizza. So just the fact that they’re there, maybe their mental health today is more important than their physical health at the box. So just have them move and whether that’s hey, let’s just ratchet down that intensity. Don’t go as fast. Or whether that’s hey let’s use a little bit lighter weight today. And a lot of times you start doing that and by the time it’s three, two, one go, they’re already feeling better. And maybe they do throw 95 pounds on the bar as the Rx versus 75 or maybe during a 20-minute AMRAP those last 10 minutes, they start picking it up. But unless you are empathetic to get them there, they wouldn’t have been there.
Chris: 00:45:56 – How does that tie into the programming of your box? You know, people are following different streams of programming, I’ll call it now. And if our ultimate goal is to just make people happier and gradually keep them around long enough to make them fit, how do you approach your programming to that end?
Jason: 00:46:17 – Stop overdoing it. Stop over-programming; you have to remember the percentage of people that A, compete in CrossFit is very, very low. The percentage of those people that compete at the higher level of is like, 0.001% of all CrossFitters make Regionals and even lower than that obviously go to the Games. Remember that the goal of CrossFit is work capacity across broad time and modal domains and then the goal of that is to keep that as maximized as possible over the years of your life. You don’t need to do three, four or five parts to achieve that. In my opinion, you should be doing classic CrossFit. Look at crossfit.com, look what programming is out there and then the question’s like, “Well how do I fill the hour? It’s Fran, that’s a two to 10-minute workout.” Coach. Be there for your athletes, give them a group warm-up that gets their heart rate up, give them some skill work. Break down the thruster, coach the kipping pull-up, get those athletes that are close to butterfly pull-ups doing butterfly pull-ups. And then when Fran’s done and making sure every athlete cheered on their classmates and everyone puts their equipment away, do a cool-down and maybe you throw in a little quick after party with them. One minute of burpees or some sort of row, but talk about what’s going on at your box. Talk about the community and help build it. That’s what you need to do. Too many boxes these days are over-programming it with three, four parts at a time. Crazy rep schemes and crazy movements. Nothing trumps classic CrossFit.
Chris: 00:48:08 – Where’s the dividing line between classic CrossFit and you know, this mistake that people are making, because I think a lot of people would say, “Well, you know, I do my workout in three, four parts, but I’m not following competitive programming.” Where’s that line?
Jason: 00:48:27 – I think from a box owner’s perspective, it should be, “Are your athletes getting fitter, are they staying injury free?” and “are you coaching?” So if your athletes are coming in and you don’t have time to review any movements because you’re shuffling them from part A to B to C, maybe you’re overdoing it. If, you know, look at your log books, you know, we love CrossFit because it’s measurable, observable, repeatable. Put their scores on the board and if you’re not seeing times go down and weights go up, something’s wrong. And then ultimately, if your athletes are beat up and hurt all the time, it’s probably because A, they’re not getting coached enough and B, you’re expecting them to do too much. So while classic CrossFit, if you go to crossfit.com is one workout a day, I get it, sometimes you want to do a strength component or sometimes you want to have an additional metcon. I’m not saying you can never do that, but ultimately look at that data and see that it’s necessary. And then in addition to that, just make sure they’re moving around. I see a lot of people that are trying to do too much and they’re just letting their athletes dilly dally and talk and while they want to have a good time, get them moving. You don’t need to make your five-by-five back squat take an hour, you know, set up a clock and say your sets should be every two to three minutes and then that way you leave some time that you can coach and you don’t have them just sitting around. There’s opportunity to do other things during that time.
Chris: 00:50:05 – OK, so you’re coaching at my box, CrossFit Catalyst, today and I walk into the 7:00-a.m. group and it’s your class. I’ve handed over the deck. What’s the first thing that happens?
Jason: 00:50:18 – First thing that happens is I’m there, saying hi to everybody by first name, asking them about their life, referring back to things I know about them. “Hey, your hip was bothering you. How is that feeling? How’s your kid? How’s this?” Talking to them being social. That my favorite part of CrossFit. I would love to have a box where I just get to be the mayor. I remember things—people all the time, “How’d you remember that?” I don’t know how I remembered it. I don’t write it down. I remember PRs, I just remember things and I would be doing that. Class time starts, I bring them over to the whiteboard and I like to give a very detailed explanation of what’s ahead of them and what to expect, including how they should scale it. So again, same references, it’s Fran on the board. You know, we’re hitting Fran today, I might give him a little quick story about where Fran came from, how Coach Glassman created the thruster in his garage. How he threw up after his first Fran. What the girl workouts mean, and then talk about intensity. All right, I’m not a top-level CrossFitter but I have a three-minute Fran. What does that mean to you? Your goal should be to be under five minutes. Well, it’s gonna take me five minutes to do the 21, well then we need to scale. Let’s talk about scaling. You need to go unbroken on that 21, you need to pick a weight that allows you to pick that bar up and give me 21 thrusters. If you can’t do that for pull-ups, let’s talk about bringing the number of pull-ups down. Let’s talk about finding alternative movements and then go from there. Get them warmed up as a group. Put them through Fran. I tell people, you know when you’re done, sure you can do a little bacon sizzle on the ground. You can roll around. But as soon as you’re done rolling around, you need to find someone that’s still going and cheer them on. When every last person is done, we’ll put it away and we’ll talk about what happened.
Chris: 00:52:16 – And obviously, you know, you’ve learned over the years as part of the L1 seminar team and through experience coaching. New coaches, I think, tend to miss some of this stuff. Like, you know, explaining the why, why are we doing this? What can we do to train the coaches in our gyms better? Is it sending them to more certs? Is it attending more seminars? Is it, you know, teaching a continuing education program in our box. What’s best, Jay?
Jason: 00:52:49 – All the above. Obviously sending them to specialty seminars, or their Level 2 if they haven’t gone is great. But then leading by example; if you’re gonna expect this from your coaches, you better be doing it. And outside of that, definitely having a development program. At Albany CrossFit, when I had 20-plus coaches, you know, we had monthly meetings. I would supervise the coaches, I would watch them, I would give them feedback, I’d make them video themselves and put it out there so we could all offer feedback. They need to continuously be developing and they need to be hitting class. Your coaches need to hit class so they A see more coaching going on and B, they’re part of it, and they understand what they’re trying to create in their class. All too often you become a coach, you become a better athlete, you no longer do class. You lose sight of that, you lose touch of your members.
Chris: 00:53:48 – Yeah. Let’s go down that rabbit hole a tiny bit further. Should coaches and owners follow the same programming as clients?
Jason: 00:53:56 – Yes, to some extent. Now I understand there’s coaches and owners that are the 1% that do need more programming, but I believe a good box will have programming where your coaches and the owner can still hit it. And then if they need more, they can do more outside of that. And if they can’t get to class, you know, five out of five of their training days, they need to be doing it a couple times a week. Certainly. I know I was guilty of that. I wouldn’t hit class all the time and when I would show up, people loved it and I made a huge concerted effort to do that more often because of that. And it wasn’t just me, it was, “Oh man, I worked out next to, you know, Viv” or “I worked out next to Pat today” and people would talk about that. They would love it. And that goes such a long way to creating that culture and building a community and it shows your athletes what to strive for; how you do lead by example. And what that intensity piece does look like when done right. So 100% and again, if I were going to open a box, it would be, you know, programming in a way where even a Games athletes can hop into class, get what they need out of it and then if they need to do more outside of that, absolutely fine. Making sure that people understand if they think they need more, they probably don’t. I’m very, very on top of that. You know, most people think they need more and in reality they don’t. They need to be better. They need to be moving better and they need to maximize their time there.
Chris: 00:55:41 – OK. So speaking of maximizing their time, you know, you mentioned earlier that the foundation of everything is nutrition. So how do you bring nutrition coaching into a class model?
Jason: 00:55:59 – You’re hitting me with some tough questions. How do you bring that into a class model? Well, I think you offer seminars at your box. So I currently travel around offering nutrition seminars. So I think it starts there, explain to your athletes what nutrition is, no different than you have to teach them an air squat. Nutrition is harder because most people haven’t been taught how to air squat their entire life. So, OK, well here’s what I need you to do. OK, well I can do that. Well, we’ve all been taught different things about nutrition. So we all come into CrossFit with this preconceived notion of what good nutrition is. You know, typically it’s either, you know, the food pyramid or, or nowadays, well zero carbs is the way to go, or back in the day zero fat, etc. So you have to get people to unlearn a lot of what they’ve learned so far. So I would start with monthly nutrition meetings for all of your new members. Go over what your nutrition plan would call for and help them. Whether it’s creating accountability with other members or other coaches, at least setting them on the right path because you’re going to have an hour a day with these people, but they have 23 other hours to mess all that up. So we need to get them eating right because if they’re seeing results on the scale in the way their clothing fits in, of course in their performance, they’re going to stay happier and better members of your box.
Chris: 00:57:33 – I think that a lot of coaches are least comfortable talking about nutrition than any other element. So what are you doing right now to help people with that?
Jason: 00:57:46 – Right now I work with a lot of my people virtually. So I’ve worked with a lot of box owners. I have a lot of CrossFit athletes and a few high Level 1s as well. And I think the—people will ask me, you know, why are so many people working with you? And I think A, I really, really hold people accountable. So right now it’s my full-time job and this is what I do. I’m on my computer, I’m on my phone all day long. Checking in on people, getting texts, getting calls and making sure they’re accountable. Make them accountable, help them get accountable. From there, I just start to understand their life and their struggle. So I think connecting with people is the most important thing. Making sure you understand, just like with CrossFit, why they’re doing it, why they’re there. I always make my clients give me a goal that’s outside of the scale or the box; is it spend better quality time with your kids, is it improve your relationship, etc. So that way, because we all know the scales’s gonna plateau, your performance may plateau. They’re going to have their ups and downs with nutrition. Remind them of their bigger why.
Chris: 00:59:08 – That’s interesting. And I see a lot of coaches and box owners following your program and you’re helping them out. Is it that they need that accountability from an external source themselves or is it that they’re going to be taking what you teach them and teaching it to their clients? What’s your sense?
Jason: 00:59:29 – I think everyone needs accountability. I think, you know, I have a coach that I still talk to. I think we all need accountability. So it’s nice, you know, no matter who you are, a Games-level athlete, a box owner, a coach, it’s nice to know that other people are there to help you.
Chris: 00:59:51 – OK. And what is your basic philosophy on nutrition, Jay?
Jason: 00:59:57 – I mean right now as most people know, I follow flexible nutrition, flexible eating, very similar to the, “if it fits your macros” lifestyle, my opinion is they’re all basically the same. Typically the macro world is a little less concerned with quality of food where I still make sure my athletes understand quality is important, but the focus is on weighing and measuring, making sure you eat in a way that, just like Coach Glassman laid out there, you keep intake to levels that support exercise but not body fat.
Chris: 01:00:32 – OK. That’s excellent. OK. I’ve got a few quick questions for you here, then. When you think of CrossFit gym owners in particular and businesspeople in general, when I say name somebody successful, who comes into your mind first?
Jason: 01:00:51 – Ben Bergeron, Jason Khalipa. Those are two that I think are doing it right.
Chris: 01:00:58 – And what definition of success do you ascribe to these guys?
Jason: 01:01:03 – Well, I’ll just speak about Jason Khalipa first. I don’t know him very well. We’ve interacted, but he’s opened multiple boxes in multiple countries. I think success for him, my definition would be he’s just doing it right and he’s obviously—I don’t want to say obviously, but it appears to be financially doing very well. He seems to have a good balance of that business, as busy as he is, with a family. I know, I’ve seen pictures of, you know, having a kid and still being a high-level athlete. Ben Bergeron, he’s just in so many different aspects that is impressive. You know, whether he’s running his CrossFit New England that’s been to the Games and been on top of the podium numerous times or running a huge competition, The East Coast Championships. I know he’s got his hands in quite a few business ventures as well from No Bull to Fuel for Fire, etc. I think he’s someone who impresses me as far as balance, also. Again, you know, Ben, someone I’ve known for years, but man, like when I see that he’s spending time with his wife, his kids, doing all these other things, well I’m just like, when does dude sleep? So, you know, and in addition, he’s got some of the greatest programming out there. I know I’ve been pushing CrossFit, but his programming for the Open-level athlete, I think it’s top notch. It’s a little more than I think most people need. But I think it’s less than most people are doing, which is good.
Chris: 01:02:41 – OK, great. And if you were going to give a coach a gift of a book or a video or a seminar to make them a better coach, what would you give them?
Jason: 01:02:53 – Well obviously your book and you didn’t have to tell me to say that, but your book is great, it’s “Two-Brain Business.” A book that I believe it was you that turned me on to was “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” And my favorite book is “Start With Why” By Simon Sinek.
Chris: 01:03:14 – Fantastic book. What’s the overriding principle that that you would want a new business owner to take away from “Start With Why”?
Jason: 01:03:24 – People buy what you do, not what you’re selling, and if you’re doing it for the right reasons people will realize that people will see that and they will want to be a part of what you’re doing. And that’s regardless of what programming you have out there, regardless of what equipment you’ve bought, if people can tell that you genuinely care about them, they will want to be a part of you.
Chris: 01:03:56 – I think that loops around and covers so much of what you’ve already said, Jay. So I’m gonna leave it there. I think that’s a great ending, “Start With Why.” Thank you so much. Where can people reach you to talk to you about nutrition or anything else?
Jason: 01:04:12 – My website squattherapy.com one word, squattherapy, or they can reach out to me via email. It’s my name, JasonAckerman36at gmail.com; and then you know everywhere. Social media, Facebook, Instagram, even Snapchat. Any way they want to find me. But those two are probably the quickest ways to get ahold of me.
Announcer: 01:04:38 – Next, it’s coaches confessional where Chris shares his biggest mistakes in the fitness business. Learn from his sins. Here’s Chris again with another costly error.
Chris: 01:04:50 – This week’s sin the icon problem. When I was a new coach, I wanted all my clients to be loyal to me. I wanted to be their hero, you know? And that was really my ego talking. I wanted everything that my gym did to be what Chris did. I wanted everybody to come to Chris’ gym. The problem is that’s not sustainable. So a lot of gyms are in this situation right now, especially because we’re dealing with an owner-operator business. But I also do mentoring for people outside the gym industry. Professionals in the service industry. And if you’ve read “Help First,” you’ve actually read some of their stories. Even though I might not have called them by name. What these guys are trying to do is get over the icon problem. So, for example, for a dentist, there’s a period where in your career you want to work really hard and take a lot of clients.
Chris: 01:05:39 – There’s a period where you kind of want to settle into a routine and enjoy more time off and then there’s a period where you want to just consolidate and slow down and work very, very little. The problem is it was hard for a long time for dentists to do this because it was their name on the front door. So if I was going in to see Dr. Smith and Dr. Alan saw me instead, I felt kind of jilted, like I was getting an assistant. What you’re starting to see with most service professionals now, doctors, lawyers, dentists, is that they’re branding their business with something other than their name. Back to your CrossFit gym. You want people to go to CrossFit Catalyst like my gym instead of going to Chris’ gym, because if you want to take a day off or you want to stop coaching at the 5:00-a.m. class or you want to not coach on Thursdays anymore, you want to coach your kid’s hockey team, your clients have to be willing to accept that they’ll sometimes have different trainers, but they need to know that the consistency is really high, that one trainer is as good as another and in short, trainers are replaceable. If a coach wants to go on vacation or worse if they want to leave, you want your clients to be more tightly associated with your brand than with the coach. I’m going to put a longer post on twobrainbusiness.com about the icon problem this week, but for right now, think about the way that you refer to your gym. Do you say, “Hey, are you coming to Steve’s class” or “Hey, are you coming to a Catalyst class”? Do you say “you will be training with Steve” or do you say “you will be training with an elite Catalyst trainer”? Are you preparing to replace yourself? Are you preparing to remove yourself as an icon?
Chris: 01:07:23 – I’ll give you an example of how well this works now. I had been traveling around a lot the last couple of months and I’ve been missing my noon group quite a bit. And I happened to stop in on a Monday, make it back to my new group and all the regulars were like, “Hey, how’s it going?” And this new girl came up to me, introduced herself and said, “Hi, my name is Anne, you must be new here.” And my wife who comes to new groups with me cracked up because this person had no idea who I was. She didn’t know that I was the owner, she didn’t even know that I was a coach there. It’s funny, but this is the kind of autonomy that you really want to have in this business unless your ego is in the way. And maybe there’s a balance point for you where it’s partially ego and partially not. But I’ll tell you, when people associate with the Catalyst brand, with or without me, I know I’ve got a sustainable business. And in this episode when Jay’s talking about creating a saleable asset, that’s what you need. If the business depends on your personality or you as the icon to be there all the time, you’re never going to sell it because it’s not worth anything.