Building an online business can improve your bottom line.
Jason is a busy fitness professional. He generally leads 35 one-on-one sessions and five group training hours per week, splitting his time between two fitness facilities. Jason also runs a Sunday boot camp at the local park. In his spare time he develops client and group fitness programs, answers emails, returns phone calls and tries to keep up with a weekly blog. Jason is married and has a young son, but time with his family is limited owing to his busy schedule. Despite his efforts, he struggles to pay his bills each month. But he is certain that all his “hustling” and hard work will pay off.
Fast-forward 2 years. Jason is tired, stressed and burned-out. He routinely misses his son’s soccer games, and he and his wife haven’t enjoyed a romantic dinner in over a year. He hasn’t worked out in several months. Burning the candle at both ends—for very little advancement—has taken its toll on Jason. So much so that he’s ready to give up his fitness career altogether.
Does this sound familiar?
Jason has fallen victim to a scenario that plagues many fitness professionals: the time-for-money trap. The only way he can make money is to physically show up and be present. If he falls ill and has to miss a day of work, he doesn’t get paid. The only way he can make more money is by working more or raising his prices. This might create a bump in pay, but his income potential will eventually top out.
“The time-for-dollars [format] is always a tough model to employ to ever ‘get ahead,’” says Danny-J (Johnson), MS, certified personal trainer, lifestyle and weight management consultant, and creator of The Sweaty Betties online fitness community, from Dallas. “If you go on vacation, you don’t get paid; if you want to earn more, you have to work more. I see fitness professionals getting burned-out quite often—to the point where they don’t even enjoy fitness anymore. They often leave their careers and stay broke because of this, or they are workaholics and don’t ever get to enjoy life.”
Fortunately, there is a third way—a way to break free of the time-for-money trap and achieve success.
To boost revenue, many fitness professionals are opting to enter the online marketplace by creating, marketing and selling virtual products and services. Such items require an initial investment of time and money, but once completed, they can increase income potential without much residual effort.
“By building a product—online or otherwise—that you can sell outside of your training, you’ve just added an opportunity to change your life circumstances without having to quit your job,” says Raymond Lee Hinish, PharmD, certified personal trainer, owner of The Expert Nutrition Center and creator of a host of Internet-based products and services in Owings Mills, Maryland.
“Online programs allow you to reach more people in less time,” adds Danny-J. “They also allow you to work on your schedule and still earn money when you leave town, visit family, etc.”
“Online products work with or without you being there,” explains Asheville, North Carolina–based Jill Coleman, MS, owner of JillFit Physiques, an Internet-based figure competitor training business and co-founder of Metabolic Effect. “You are there in a virtual capacity and using your expertise and experience to coach your client(s) without needing to be in front of them.”
Coleman adds that the online format allows greater autonomy and flexibility for the trainer or coach, who can create and market the programs on his or her own schedule.
Derek Halpern, founder of Social Triggers—a destination for entrepreneurs and executives who want to learn more about generating leads, making sales and “persuading people to do stuff”—explains that another benefit of online programs is total output.
“When you’re trading time for money, there’s always a limit on how much revenue your business can generate,” he says. “The reason? There’s only so much time in a day. However, when you ‘productize’ your knowledge (and information), you create a scenario where you can benefit multiple times for what’s known as one-time input. That’s the core model I follow at Social Triggers.”
One-time input simply means a trainer has to create the product only once. It then sits on his or her website—a virtual 24-hour marketplace—ready to be snatched up and bought while the trainer is at rest.
All of this sounds great. Making money while you sleep is an entrepreneur’s dream, but Danny-J cautions that self-assessment is essential to understanding whether or not you will succeed with this format.
“If you don’t like to write programs on paper or [send] email, then forget it,” she says. “Online training is a different animal [than working in person]. You have to be good at explaining steps and saying the ‘right things’ and motivating clients from afar.”
Coleman, however, thinks that online program development is within every fitness professional’s grasp. “I would recommend that all fitness professionals develop an online program, even if it is just a simple DIY [do-it-yourself] training plan for clients. It offers a lower-priced item for clients, and it takes no extra time from the trainer.” Those who currently offer these products can give you the lowdown on what’s really involved, suggests Danny-J.
“Ask them what the pros and cons are, what they like about it, and maybe ask for tips on what they tried that didn’t work so you can avoid the same mistakes. Finding a model that works and copying it is always better than reinventing the wheel.”
There is no limit to the types of products you can sell. They can range from a simple instructional e-book to an ongoing subscription. Your choice will largely depend on how much time and effort you’re willing to spend. Above all, Halpern believes, it’s important to understand what potential customers want and need.
“It’s about your customers,” he says. “How can you best serve them? Does what you’re sharing require ongoing support? In that case, a subscription model works great. Does what you share require time to implement? Then a longer-term program fits. Either way, you must decide based on what result you’re promising your ideal customer and how you can best deliver that result.”
Here is a brief rundown of some of the more common types of online products:
E-books. E-books can be easy, cost-effective offerings, says Coleman. “[Creating] an online product is as simple as pulling up a Word document, writing an e-book and saving it as a PDF to be sold over the Internet. Voilà, you’ve got your first virtual product!” You might offer a fat-loss solutions handbook; a workout plan with images of exercise demonstrations; or a healthy-eating recipe book. Or all three combined into one. For example, Coleman created a 12-Week DIY Comprehensive Pre-Contest Nutrition Plan + Recipe Handbook for aspiring figure competitors. This downloadable handbook covers topics ranging from mindset to sample diets to how to handle postcompetition blues.
One-off downloads. Another option is to offer single-serve downloads. For example, for $10 you can download a full-body, intermediate-level 20-minute workout from the Metabolic Effect website. One-off products sit on a Web page, requiring no maintenance once they’ve been edited and uploaded. Customers from all over the world pay to download the program to a computer desktop or to gain access to a hosted site online.
Specified-term programs. Specified-term programs tend to be more involved and can include any combination of video and written content. They’re called “specified-term” because they usually have an end date in mind and because content is released strategically throughout the program. For instance, you might create an 8-week stress reduction program for busy male CEOs. After purchase, the material is not unlocked all at once; instead, a new “module” or lesson is released each week.
Specified-term products often require a significant amount of work up-front. You want to be sure you can provide enough useful content to leave customers feeling fulfilled. But as with one-off options, once the initial work is put in you’ve got an end product that requires very little—if any—attention.
Membership/Continuity programs. These days, many fitness businesses are jumping on the online membership bandwagon. For a monthly fee, purchasers gain access to consistently updated lectures, workouts or other offerings.
Coleman cautions that membership-based programs are much more involved.
“Memberships and continuity programs are a full-time job,” she says. “Content needs to be added and updated regularly, and there has to be a community aspect to it, like a forum or closed Facebook group.”
Once clients have signed up for a program, the focus switches to keeping them as members.
“It can be extremely lucrative, but it requires daily attention and weekly watering to grow and maintain,” Coleman says.
In addition to offering any of these products, Danny-J suggests upselling one-on-one time with online coaching. It will not only enrich the customer’s experience but also allow you to charge a bit more.
The online fitness world can be quite crowded, with many professionals sending the same, broad message. Google “online weight loss program” and you’ll find a seemingly never-ending list of options. Coleman believes that casting such a wide net narrows your chances of securing a lucrative bounty.
“Pick a micro niche,” she says. “Anyone can write a weight loss or muscle-building plan. These are vague and don’t stand out in the marketplace. If you want to go outside your immediate online circle, you’ll need to get more specific. Put together a ‘30-Minute Home Workouts for Busy Moms’ program or a ‘12-Week No-Equipment Dorm Workout for College Kids.’”
Coleman’s highly successful micro niche is figure competition preparation. While it might seem that such a narrow focus could reduce sales potential, Coleman—whose business is now 100% online—has seen otherwise.
Let’s say you’ve decided to move forward with your 8-week stress reduction program for CEOs. The next step is to hone in on your framework, or the actual content you plan to provide. Hinish, who has developed several successful online education products, suggests you follow these steps:
- Develop and write your framework. Your framework is the formula you use to effect change, which is something you already do in person with your clients. Think about the steps you follow to help them. Then write down those steps in a logical order.
- Test your framework. Inform the appropriate clients that you have completed a write-up on stress reduction for male CEOs and would like to give it to them. Two things happen here: You add value to your services, and you ask for real-life feedback so you can refine your framework before launch. Once the clients have gone through your write-up, ask them for questions. Use their questions to improve and refine your work. When they have no more questions, your program is ready.
- Deliver your framework to the world. When your product is ready, send an email to your contacts list, post it on Facebook, tell your colleagues and friends, and see what happens. You may not sell a lot in the beginning, but if you work up to the point where you sell six products a day at $47 each (a low-end product), you’ll be making over $100,000 in a year.
Creating the product is only part of the process. You’ll need to develop a database of individuals—known as leads—to market to before your product launches.
“If you don’t have leads (in most cases when you’re selling products and programs, leads are email addresses), you have no one to sell to,” says Halpern.
“[Someone with] a list of emails has a virtual ATM at [his or her] fingertips,” adds Hinish. “People buy from people they know, like and trust.”
It might be tempting to tap into your current email address book, but that will get you only so far. All the experts interviewed for this article emphasized generating lists based on people who have a vested interest in the material you produce. You might get a pity sale from mom, but that’s not going to fill your coffers.
What you need to do is generate attractive, high-quality, free content so that your target audience learns to trust you. Once people trust you, they will be more likely to trade an email address for a free e-book or give permission to be put on your mailing list.
Aside from giving away an e-book, some of the most common avenues for content distribution are blogs and videos. “Writing blog posts on laser-focused topics helps you build the perspective that leads to expertise,” says Hinish. “If I could go back to my early days, the thing I would change would be to write a blog post every day.”
Chris Savage, founder and CEO of Wistia, a video hosting tool for marketers, believes video is vital to online success. “When it’s used effectively, video can be an incredible driver of business. I think it’s particularly important for fitness professionals because so much of what’s being taught involves movement and visuals that can only be captured on video.”
First and foremost, you want to make sure your blog or video content stays true to the theme of your product. If you veer away from that, you’ll send mixed messages to readers, which can confuse them. It’s not advisable to write a post for your busy male CEO audience on the benefits of Kegel exercises, for example.
Hinish adds that it’s important to create content for which people are searching. “People aren’t searching for ‘how to lose weight on the chicken liver diet,’ so it would be a waste of time to write about it,” he says. “People may be searching for ‘How do I add more protein to my diet?’ Then you can tell them about chicken liver as a great source of protein and how you lost 100 pounds by eating it.”
The three-step formula. To deliver his messages in an entertaining, informative and concise manner, Halpern uses a three-step formula:
- Open with an information gap. Immediately lock in audience interest by presenting something people might not know. This could take the form of a question, such as, “Did you know that you can instantly decrease stress levels by changing the way you breathe?”
- Deliver the content. You’ve asked the question; now it’s time to provide the solution. Show how a new technique can achieve the desired outcome. Perhaps cite research or personal experience to support what you’re saying.
- Ask people to do something. Further engage your audience by giving people homework or asking them to do something. For example, say, “Try it now. Take five deep, purposeful breaths, filling your entire torso and making sure you exhale fully. Then write down how you feel, either on a notepad or in the comments section below.”
With this formula, you’ve generated interest, provided solid insights and given away a tool—in this case, a breathing technique—that your readers can use any time. You’ve gained their trust and placed yourself top of mind whenever their stress levels rise.
A reformed perfectionist, Coleman learned firsthand that letting readers and viewers in on her personal struggles boosted JillFit’s popularity. “Offer ways your readers can relate to you,” she says. “Be real and transparent with your struggles and solutions. Readers have a BS filter, so anyone pretending to have it all together and be perfect will be called out quickly, or just won’t have many readers.”
Savage suggests playing around with your personality—especially when it comes to video. “Try being goofy, funny, serious or curious,” he says. “Push yourself until your fallback is who you really are. Then you can make content that really resonates with your audience.”
Blogs, video hosting services, email opt-in features, websites, graphic design, brand identity—it’s enough to make your head spin. The big question is: Do you choose to go it alone or get help?
“Many professionals might choose to hire someone to do all of this for them,” Coleman says. “I like to know how to do it myself so that if anything goes wrong I can take care of most of it.”
Here is a sample DIY tech list:
- A “.com” domain. You should choose this name with extreme care, making sure it reads well in the URL. Take holiday rental company Choose Spain. What do you see when looking at its URL, www.choosespain.com?
- Domain and hosting for your site. You can purchase a domain from sites like GoDaddy® (www.godaddy.com), Bluehost (www.bluehost.com) or domainhost (www.domainhost.com). WordPress (www.wordpress.com) offers hosting that is fairly easy to use.
- Simple and attractive theme with a blog. IDEA Fitness Connect offers a free blog platform (www.ideafit.com/fit nessconnect). ThemeForest (www.themeforest.net) offers theme ideas and templates for as little as $3. WordPress offers free or for-purchase themes.
- Email auto responder product like AWeber (www.aweber.com) or Constant Contact® (www.constantcontact.com). These products can capture emails and help you nurture your list with quality content.
- Content management systems for membership sites. Wish List Member (www.member.wishlistproducts.com) is recommended.
- Payment capture. Paypal works fine to start. Eventually you may want to graduate to a merchant account with a shopping cart. 1ShoppingCart (www.1shoppingcart.com) or ClickBank® (www.clickbank.com) are possibilities.
- Online forum. You can create a place for client interaction through a WordPress plug-in or a closed Facebook group.
If the thought of putting all this software together into a cohesive package gives you the chills, outsourcing may be a better choice for you. “If you’re not great at techy stuff (I’m not!),” says Danny-J, “go to Elance® (www.elance.com); you can write about your project, and people will send bids to do it. You can get most things done relatively cheaply with great quality and on time.”
Creating a product—whether it’s a simple e-book or a long-term membership–style site—can be daunting. But after a bit of effort, the rewards can be innumerable.
“You can’t be truly secure and free until you have a source of income that isn’t dependent on an exchange of time for money,” says Hinish. “I like to say, ‘My ultimate goal is to develop a lifestyle that doesn’t require my presence.’ That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to work; it means that my intention is to make work optional so that I can truly dedicate myself to the projects that will make the most impact on my world, which are the products that I’m dedicated to through my core.”