Our Best 30 Lessons in 30 Years

by Kathie Davis and Peter Davis on Jul 01, 2012

Three decades of wisdom from IDEA’s co-founders are distilled into essential nuggets about business, relationships, life and love.

If we had it to do all over again, there wouldn’t be much we would change, if anything. We, and IDEA, have come to this exact moment in time as a sum of all the parts, moments, people and happenings—both amazing and sometimes not so great—that have happened on our journey since we founded IDEA.

We see it like this: If we were able to change something along that path—maybe a turn we considered bad luck or a setback—things today might be different. Frankly, we are very happy about the way it’s all going and don’t see the value in tampering with history. For such good fortune, we feel incredibly grateful.

Thirty years is a long time—for anything! We were both 25 years old and 2 years out of college when we saw the need for continuing education and safety standards in the fitness industry. Kathie was training aerobics instructors for a local company and was an aerobics instructor herself; Peter was a university tennis coach and had his real estate license. We launched the business literally out of our house in the Pacific Beach neighborhood of San Diego.

Here we share our best takeaways from the past three decades in the hope that these lessons will make you smile or even help you on your own entrepreneurial path. This would have been a good handbook to have at the starting line back in 1982. But as many of you in business for yourselves have probably already discovered, there is no playbook for this industry or for the unique path you’ve taken. To a great degree, we all simply take our knocks, hold tight to the lucky breaks and make up the rest as it unfolds.

It’s been a whirlwind, and you’ve all been such a big part of the fun.

Our best lesson of all is our first one:

1. Recognize and thank others for IDEA’s success.

This includes our families, friends, past and present employees, contractors, IDEA presenters, authors, advisory board, advertisers, exhibitors, event assistants, industry colleagues and everyone who cared enough to give us their enthusiasm, encouragement and support along the way. Thank you all from the depths of our hearts.

2. You never know what you don’t know . . . until you know it.

Our first newsletter, the IDEALetter, was a 16-pager produced on a typewriter. We were so excited about it! But now after 30 years of magazine publishing experience, we realize just how unsophisticated it was.

When we sent out the first issue, we made the huge mistake of opting for “postage guaranteed” on any returned newsletter. We didn’t realize you should do that only with a “clean” list; ours was rented from a list broker. Not so clean!

Every day, we’d wait for the postal carrier, René, to come to our house. He would deliver five or six subscriptions or memberships. One day he came and, like Santa, unloaded a huge sack of mail for us. We thought we had hit the mother lode!

As it turned out, he was returning all the newsletters that didn’t have the right addresses. Instead of bringing us checks, René told us we owed 25 cents for every returned newsletter! Ouch!

3. There is a time and place for experts, but mostly, trust your gut.

For the first IDEA conference, in 1984 at the Holiday Inn in San Diego, we were told we would get 200 people to come, if we were lucky. We ended up getting 600 attendees and had to turn away an additional 600 because we hadn’t reserved enough convention space or enough hotel rooms.

4. Try to anticipate everything (even though you won’t be able to).

At our first conference, all attendees had to sign up for their classes on-site. Many waited for 4 hours in a line that wound completely around the hotel pool and beyond. As you can imagine, most didn’t find this a very pleasant experience, and many wanted a refund on the spot. We did some damage control and convinced everyone to stay and experience the conference. Fortunately, the rest of the event went beautifully and resulted in high overall satisfaction.

5. Understand your role and do what’s best for your organization.

We had to decide whether Kathie would be a featured presenter at the first conference or fly under the radar to ensure that IDEA wouldn’t be associated just with her presentation style. We chose for her not to teach and to instead maintain her objectivity and be seen as our executive director. This philosophy of focusing on the industry experts and not having our own dogma has paid many dividends over the years.

6. “Crisis” in Chinese translates as both danger and opportunity.

In the late 1980s, a major financial error put us in a huge cash flow crunch. This forced us to think creatively and find a way to generate cash ASAP. Because of this “crisis,” we decided to launch the first IDEA Personal Trainer Convention. We planned, sold and executed this event in 4 months. Previously, we had believed it would take at least a year to build a conference like this. The event sold out, and it saved IDEA. Today this event continues as the IDEA Personal Trainer Institute™; it has sold out each of the last 4 years and carries an average 97% attendee satisfaction rating.

7. Being Switzerland in the certification world is a good thing.

In 1985 we created a not-for-profit organization called the IDEA Foundation (which is now the American Council on Exercise). At the time there was a need to create one certification standard to ensure the long-term safety and credibility of the (then) aerobics industry. Over the ensuing years, many people have asked us why we created a separate not-for-profit instead of rolling it into IDEA Health & Fitness Association.

History has borne out our instincts, as our choice has allowed IDEA to serve all certification and training organizations rather than compete with them.

8. Deliver inspired service.

In 1991, in Pittsburg, we produced a conference that presented us with nothing but problems from the start.

First, Game 7 of the National League Championship Series was happening in town simultaneously with our event. The baseball fans wouldn’t leave the host hotel, which prevented IDEA attendees from getting their promised rooms. Hotel staff had to walk many of our attendees to lesser hotels.

Unions were not providing service during our Welcome Party, which meant IDEA staff had to jump in to serve the food. The old IDEA guard still laughs at the memory of all of us serving salad. There were so many other issues with the hotel and unions that we ended up sending many dozens of roses to attendees to apologize for the poor service, which, while out of our control, reflected badly on us. We didn’t want people to feel negatively about the IDEA brand.

9. Allocate your human and capital resources wisely.

Over the years, we have come to understand that it takes almost as much effort to produce an event for 300 attendees as it does to deliver one for 3,000. This has convinced us of the utility in offering a few larger, more powerful events instead of many small “local” events.

10. Saying no to “opportunity” is often the best way to maintain your credibility.

Over the past 30 years, multilevel marketing companies promising fame and fortune for IDEA and its members have approached us too many times to mention. We have always said, “No, thank you.”

11. Hire people who will enhance your company culture. Part ways with those who don’t.

Make sure you have the right people on the bus to begin with; don’t be afraid to let someone go if that person doesn’t fit into your culture. We put a lot of effort into improving IDEA’s culture over the past year. The effort would not have been such a success if we hadn’t first made sure we had the right people on board.

12. Stick with your core competencies.

In 1987 we started a clothing line/catalog after seeing what Jazzercise® had done with their Jazzertogs. We had little knowledge or expertise in the apparel business and, needless to say, it was a financial loss. We recognized it as a bad idea and moved on.

13. Keep up with the times.

In 2006 we knew that the Internet and technology were going to be pivotal for continuing to serve our members well and maintaining a leadership role in the industry. At the time our Web development department was our weakest area. Today it is among our most robust.

14. Follow your passion.

The Inner IDEA® brand and conference were created in 2006, when we felt there needed to be a more “whole” approach to fitness than simply focusing on the traditional physical aspects of the equation. Our mind-body-spirit philosophy resonated well with fitness and wellness professionals looking for something more. This year, we celebrate 7 years of Inner IDEA.

15. Harness the power of partnerships. Collaborate.

About 5 years ago we began working more diligently toward helping all of the training and certification agencies through IDEA’s core competencies: technology, content development/publications and events. This has opened up fantastic opportunities for the industry to grow and excel.

16. Sincere blue eyes and free shoes are good resources.

At the 1986 IDEA World Convention in Anaheim, the general manager of the hotel was going to shut us down because the high-impact aerobics classes were making the building sway and the chandeliers shake. Peter (blue eyes) convinced the manager to let us continue if we made the classes low impact instead of high impact. He also gave the manager a pair of AVIA shoes for his wife. Whew! The show (and the shoes) went on.

17. Aim to make your customers more successful.

We do our best to ensure every project IDEA commits to is primarily focused on helping IDEA members to be more successful. If we can’t honestly say that a project will do this, we usually drop it. Your success is our success. We feel that using this purpose as a driver naturally flows to the bottom line without our having to constantly worry about the numbers.

18. Stay on message. Be consistent.

Inspire the World to Fitness® is the most meaningful and consistent campaign we’ve had in all our years of operation. Launched in 2003, it has given us a strong platform from which to tackle the obesity epidemic and draw members together in a common cause.

19. Follow your heart and enjoy the journey.

If you are doing what you love and feel you are making a difference in the world, there is hardly more you can hope for. We feel gratitude for the opportunity to have helped others while doing what we love!

20. You can order too many pencils!

Eventually we hope to use them all, but we still have boxes and boxes of IDEA pencils from events long since past. The logos are so dated many of you might not recognize them. The erasers have petrified into useless stubs. It’s kind of like buying the giant box of drinking straws at Costco®—it’s challenging to get through them all in a lifetime.

21. Listen to your customers.

From day one, great ideas—such as holding our first convention and offering liability insurance—have come from listening to our members. We still use this decision-making approach every year. Our committees and our advisory boards are two groups we rely on.

22a. Don’t let sponsors dictate your actions.

One year a sponsor convinced us to put on a 2-day consumer-focused show directly after the World Fitness IDEA Convention.

22b. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

This almost killed our staff, and we lost a lot of money with this failed attempt.

23. Take care of your team, and your team will take care of you.

Your first and best conduit to your customers is your staff. Taking care of your team members by making their health and happiness your number-one priority helps ensure that they will take care of your customers’ needs—and cheerfully, at that.

24. Walk your talk . . . and get your staff onboard to do the same.

We recently realized that unless we and the IDEA Tribe were all embracing what it means to live a balanced lifestyle, with wellness as the central theme, we would be unable to deliver authentic service to our customer-members. Our team has created a thriving wellness culture that they are clearly proud of owning. We have simply stepped out of the way to let them do their thing. The result? Amazing productivity and what appears to be the happiest team we’ve ever seen at IDEA.

25. Hire people who are smarter than you, but maintain control.

Don’t give away too much control over the financial forecasting or strategic aspect of your business. Apart from having financial consequences, this mistake can be a huge time and emotional drain for you and your business as you rebuild post-fallout.

26. Learn and thrive.

Peter reads one to two books every week, covering many different genres. This helps ensure that IDEA’s vision is modern, relevant and well-considered in the context of what is happening in the wider world. Our whole “Exercise Your Happiness” wellness initiative sprang from his extensive reading on the topic of happiness.

27. Don’t settle for anything but Gold Standard.

Our publications team established this standard early on as a measure of quality. Our quest for excellence in everything we do helps set IDEA apart and keeps us motivated to reach beyond the status quo.

28. Look to young employees for fresh ideas.

We have a young crop of talented women and men in the IDEA Tribe. They bring energy, youthful optimism and fresh perspective to what otherwise could be considered an old organization. Many of them weren’t even around when IDEA was founded. They keep us, and IDEA in general, from getting stodgy, comfortable and boring.

29. Look to veteran staff for wisdom. Share the burden of decision.

We salute our senior team. They are big-league professionals and leaders who serve as great role models and mentors to our younger people. Look to your veterans for perspective when weighing big decisions. They have a lot to offer and want to help.

30. We will remain at IDEA until we can't do it any longer!

We have two strong passions in our life: our family and fitness/wellness. Having our son and daughter work in the business with us helps to complete the picture, but we still feel there is much to be done in the industry. We are looking forward to the next 30 years!

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 9, Issue 7

© 2012 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Authors

Kathie Davis

Kathie Davis IDEA Author/Presenter

Kathie Davis is executive director of IDEA Health & Fitness Association in San Diego. She frequently reports to the media on fitness industry trends.

Peter Davis

Peter Davis IDEA Author/Presenter

Peter Davis is the chief executive officer of IDEA Health & Fitness Association.