Set Your Career on Fire!

by Joy Keller on Jun 20, 2016

Industry experts share their failures, successes and insights and give tips on how to excel as a personal trainer.

If you’ve ever felt stuck, frustrated or dubious about whether personal training was the right career choice, you’ve got good company. Imagine you could go back in time and counsel your younger self on the nuances of personal training. What would you say? What have you learned, and how have you applied it?

These were some of many thought-provoking questions answered by four influential fitness professionals­—Shannon Fable, Brent Gallagher, Brett Klika and Ashley Selman, MA—in the opening panel discussion, “Set Your Career on Fire,” at 2016 IDEA® Personal Trainer Institute East, in Alexandria, Virginia, February 25–28. The panel explored failures, “Aha!” moments, and curve balls that turned into winning pitches. The overarching message: Be authentic, and thrive at being a student of life first, and then a student of your craft. Here are excerpts from the panel discussion.

The Panel

Shannon Fable, director of exercise programming for the Anytime Fitness Franchise, is the 2013 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and 2006 ACE Group Fitness Instructor of the Year, founder of Sunshine Fitness Resources LLC, as well as the owner of Balletone® and GroupEx PRO®. The 17-year fitness veteran lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Brent Gallagher owns Avenu Fitness in Houston. He has created a 30-minute approach to training, nutrition and life. He coaches leaders and challenges fitness businesses to redefine what’s possible for the communities they serve.

Trina Gray (moderator) owns Bay Athletic Club in Alpena, Michigan, and specializes in corporate fitness, online training and all aspects of fitness entrepreneurism.

Brett Klika, 2013 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, is the CEO of SPIDERfit Kids in San Diego. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance. He is an author, a presenter, and an international consultant to professional athletes, youth and business leaders.

Ashley Selman, MA, owns and operates Evolution Trainers in Mountain View, California, a cutting-edge performance and training facility that focuses on personal training, semiprivate training, massage therapy, chiropractic and physical therapy.

Question: What Was Your Unique Career Progression?

Gallagher: In 2006, when my wife and I opened Avenu Fitness, we were $220,000 in debt. It took us 22 months from start to finish to pay it off. Before then, when I first decided to open my own facility, I was training somewhere else. I began learning the ropes and had lunch with business-savvy people to ask them questions.

Eventually, everything started to open up, and all of a sudden I was holding a lease for my own facility. The landlord said, “Great, you owe us $16,000 for your build-out.” I was in shock. I was 25 years old, I owned a bunch of thrift-store furniture, and I drove an old, beat-up truck. My belongings didn’t add up to $16,000! I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen. This was on a Monday, and I needed the money by Friday.

At the time, I only had one client to my name. I wasn’t really much of a trainer, and my career wasn’t very much on fire either. But this client believed in me a lot. He came in one day, and when we finished the session he said, “Hey what’s wrong? I can tell you’re a little down.” I said, “Well, you know, I owe $16,000 by the end of the week.” He said, “Well, I hope that all works out for you.”

We had another session on Thursday of that same week, and at the end he gave me an envelope. Inside was a check for $16,000! I told him I couldn’t accept it, and he said, “No, this is for you. It’s not a loan.” I told him I don’t take charity. He said, “No, this isn’t that either.” I said, “Well, what is it?” He said, “It’s an advancement for training. How much training can I get for $16,000?” His belief in me helped me move forward with my dreams.

Fable: I categorize my life as a purposeful accident—a series of random occurrences that have led me to the place where I was meant to be. Somebody else knew [where I was going] long before I did. I was a dancer from the age of 3. I danced with the Joffrey Ballet when I was 11 and 12. When they discovered that I was going to be 5 feet tall, they kicked me out. I became a gymnast because I was upset, and then I became a cheerleader at the University of Florida.

In the ’90s, I was that girl on the stair stepper in the gym, stepping for hours on end. I knew there had to be something better than this. I ended up in a group fitness class, and immediately my competitive side came out and I thought, “I can do this better than this girl,” so I worked my way from the back to the front. I always had a tape in my bag just in case the teacher didn’t show up.

Then I decided I would enjoy it a lot more if I was in charge. That was when my career really started taking shape. I didn’t even know management was a career or that you could make money doing it. Eventually, I left my full-time job and became a training coordinator. I led trainings on the weekends and then took over the trade-show coordinator position, which opened my eyes to how many different paths there are in the fitness industry—not just group fitness or personal training. There’s so much in between, with manufacturing, presenting, production and program management.

Selman: I was a two-time national champion in the javelin and had dreams of being on the Olympic team, which I didn’t make. It was very hard. That was the last track-meet I ever competed in. I didn’t have any vision at that point of where to go next. I was lost and didn’t have an identity. However, during that transition I happened to get an amazing opportunity to coach Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

That was the first moment I realized I could take something I was passionate about and turn it around and help somebody else. It was such a gratifying experience, and it taught me there’s more to life than worrying about how far you can get. It’s really more about how much you can help other people. To me, that’s the true purpose in life and where we get the most fulfillment. [Editor’s note: For more on this stage of Ashley Selman’s life, see the feature “The People Behind the Champions” by Ryan Halvorson, in this issue.]

Then I started coaching at Stanford. I was getting my master’s degree in sport psychology, making very little money being a coach, and trying to figure out how to make ends meet. One day I just walked into a personal training studio, never with the intention of actually being a personal trainer.

I got lucky because the company I worked for was cutting-edge. It was focused on education, team building and customer service, and they had a great culture. It opened my eyes to what personal training entailed, how much there was to learn and how much you could change someone’s life. I progressed with this company and became a full-time trainer. Then I got an opportunity to be a manager, and then I got a chance to open a new facility for them. It was an awesome learning experience because I got to open a facility on somebody else’s dollar. I learned what to do, what works and what doesn’t.

Klika: I was always an athlete, even as a child. I was overweight, but I still liked playing sports. By the time I was 14, I had succumbed to the idea that this was it: You’re going to be an overweight kid. You’re also going to be an overweight adult, and this is the way you’re going to live. Luckily for me, my uncle was Mr. Oregon (bodybuilder). He always talked about fitness, so I got into running a little bit. However, it was frustrating and I would cry. Puberty was brutal, but I didn’t give up. I decided to keep running, but I wanted a pair of expensive shoes.

My parents told me if I wanted a pair of Nikes, they’d give me a dollar for every lap I ran at the track. The first day, I got about a quarter of the way around it. Then I earned $5 in a day. All of a sudden, I had $45 and I got my shoes and started running more. This led to true athleticism, which opened my mind, as well as many doors.

At some point I decided I wanted to be the world’s most-famous athlete trainer. That was my path in life. I made more money as a soccer coach than I did doing crappy jobs. I said, “Wait a minute. I could love what I do and make money? Okay, for sure, I’m going into this sports performance thing.” Eventually I met Todd Durkin at Fitness Quest 10.

Fast-forward a few years of setup and success. I’d started off with this drive to show people they could have power over their lives. I got to help people, and I loved it. However, I reached the point of burnout. I was just about to leave the industry when I came to this epiphany: Something had to change, and that’s when I realized my weakness, and it was ego. I started to collaborate with people. I started to open up and share information. I wrote and read obsessively. I reached out to people and branched out. That’s when my career started to take off.

Question: What Are Some of Your Biggest Failures?

Gallagher: I think the biggest failure for me was that I made a string of six bad hires in a row. Even our clients were making fun of me. We had what I felt was a pretty rigorous hiring process, but I got blinded by the ego aspect of it. I wanted this big facility. I was like a little kid in the sandbox, and I didn’t want anyone else to come into it because it was mine. I kind of rushed candidates through the process. I ignored people’s advice.

Gray: How did you fix it?

Gallagher: I just kept at it. I talked to a lot of my clients. They were part of that hiring process and they helped me make it through. Having wise counsel is important.

Fable: I’ve had many failures. I got fired a lot. Well, I look at them not as me being fired but more like, “This isn’t where you need to be.” Then when I went to Schwinn, I ended up behind the scenes a lot more, but I really liked being in front of the camera. Again, my supervisor said, “But I need you to do this. You are really good at the business side, developing talent and teaching people how to do this. You’re good at the other part too, but I need you here because not many people can do this.”

It was where I was meant to be; it just took a lot of people kicking me out of the nest and telling me what they thought I was better suited for. I wrestled with my ego. I thought that to be someone in the fitness industry you had to have the video or be the presenter or be in front of the largest group of people. I didn’t realize how impactful you can be in other ways.

Klika: The second you align your energy with your value system and your true beliefs, that’s rocket fuel. Everything that’s standing between you and that, you need to get rid of: bad self-beliefs, negative thoughts, people [who undermine you] and toxic situations.

Selman: Before opening my current facility I moved to Marin County, California, which was about an hour and a half away from where I was focusing. I thought that’s where I was going to open my facility. I worked with a contractor in five gyms to figure out which ones I liked, who was doing things I liked, and who wasn’t. I was trying to get my business plan down. After about 6 months, I realized my facility was not going to fly there. I thought, “I just changed my whole life to do this thing that I thought was going to work, and it’s not happening.”

Okay, plan B: I moved to San Francisco to open a facility. I liked the city. A lot of my roots were there. I researched for 2 years. I would find a place I liked, but then I’d have to get a conditional-use permit. The search did not go well. I remember crying many days and wondering what the hell was I going to do. I had already moved twice. I was working out of six different gyms and didn’t have much community. I felt super-lonely. I took a business course and partnered up with some women in the course, who said, “Why don’t you open up a facility where you used to work, where you have your network?” “Well, I’ve moved on,” I said.

In my mind I wanted the “next thing.” However, I was so stuck that I decided to look at that option, even though 2 years earlier I’d decided I was never going back. Low and behold, the third place I looked at in my old area was a charm. The price was great, it was a perfect location, and it took 30 days to get the permit. Three months later, the doors opened and it was so easy. It took 3 years of pounding the pavement and reassessing. It was a really, really hard time. There were days when I said to myself, “This is never going to work.”

Gray: I think it’s reassuring to know that someone who has a million-dollar, beautiful, state-of-the art facility outside of San Francisco was lonely and in the trenches for years, trying to find the right place. It didn’t just click and happen.

Klika: I think everyone has failure stories. That happens still, but there’s a bigger-picture plan that carries us through. We all still have tiny failures that happen, but you just keep going. You can’t dwell on them. You are not a failure because something doesn’t work.

Question: What Are Your Tips for Being a World-Class Trainer?

Selman: My goal is to hire trainers who are passionate about being a trainer and want to be in the trenches. Those are the players I look for [so that’s what I’d say if I was coaching a trainer]. Also, raise your rates if you haven’t in the last year or two. Most trainers undervalue themselves. Switch to monthly billing, where your clients commit to a set number of sessions per month. That keeps your clients more committed to their programs, creates more progress and gives you a more consistent paycheck.

Gray: Be so good that you have to raise your rates—that’s what I’m hearing. Be so good at your craft that you can command that; have a niche, where you own a certain part of the industry or a certain kind of client; do monthly billing, with consistent results for your clients, a consistent paycheck for you; and don’t blow up your business model overnight.

Gallagher: I think from a business aspect first, the most important thing that we did, from day one, was to get ourselves out of debt. I told you earlier, we paid off $220,000 in the first 22 months of our business, and that meant that I sold my truck and made a 6-mile bike ride to and from work every single day with a bag of towels over my shoulder because we didn’t have a washing machine at the facility. We got ourselves out of debt, and I say that first, because on the flip side of it all, that’s allowed us to do some really amazing things.

On the leadership side, I think it starts with yourself. It starts with developing self-awareness about how you lead and what your strengths are.

Fable: First, there’s no such thing as being just a group fitness instructor or just a personal trainer. The best thing you can do to diversify is find your passion and your skills, even if they’re from outside the industry, and figure out how to put those together. I think the best way to diversify is to create your own job.

You can take what you know and understand to a lot of different people if you have confidence. There were a lot of times when I wondered, why would this person pay me this much money? I always felt like I was kind of faking it, and then I leaned into it, because I was the only one really bold enough to say, “I can make your business better, and here’s how you do it.” I think the business side of fitness is really untapped. There aren’t a lot of people helping other people make money. I think being a consultant in this market is a neat niche.

Klika: The simplest thing to do is find something that you do better than the average bear, something you’ve had success with, and then tell everybody else how to do it and charge money for it. Maybe it’s that client nobody else succeeds with, and you do. I guarantee there are 10,000 other people who want to know how you succeeded with that client. If you like to write, write about it. If you like to speak, speak about it. If you like to make videos, make videos about it. But whatever medium you choose, just share your expertise with the world. You’re ready right now.

Question: What Would You Do Differently If You Were Starting Over Again?

Selman: I would still focus on team building; that’s what works out for me.

Gallagher: I would focus on creating the experience. Stay consistent from sunup to sundown—you know, just the same at 5:00 am as at 10:00 pm. Offer a consistent experience of meeting people’s basic needs, because sometimes we want these bigger things but we can’t deliver on the basic experience, day in and day out.

Fable: Start with the end in mind. You’ve got to have an exit strategy (retirement). Have you thought about when you actually want to be done? Will you be able to do [what you do] just for fun, when you want to or in a less big way? How much money would you need to do that? Have you ever thought about how much money you want to make each year to be able to do that?

We need to be unapologetic about asking for money. I think we dumb down and devalue what we do. We are changing people’s lives on a daily basis and we walk around saying, “I don’t make much, but I sure do love it.” There are lots of things that I love to do, but I’m going to get paid for my expertise.

Klika: I would focus on becoming a professional student instead of a professional expert at anything. I’d be a student of human behavior, I’d be a student of exercise and the history of movement, and I’d be a student of business. I would focus firmly on becoming a true student of everything versus just thinking I needed to be an expert at everything. Once you become a student of life, things change.

Want more from Joy Keller?

Fitness Journal, Volume 13, Issue 7

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About the Author

Joy Keller

Joy Keller IDEA Author/Presenter

Joy Keller is executive editor of IDEA Fitness Journal and IDEA Fit Business Success, and is also a certified personal trainer, indoor cycling instructor, yoga teacher (RYT 200) and Reiki Master. Joy joined IDEA Health & Fitness Association in 2002, and brought with her a wealth of information about how to fine-tune communication channels, after having spent her formative career years specializing in business-to-business journalism. Before she even graduated with honors from the respected University of Georgia journalism school, Joy was offered a job at one of the most successful trade publishing companies in the southeast, Shore Varrone, Inc. She made her mark in the automotive aftermarket industry as a creative thinker and journalist with an intuitive knack for researching and understanding niche audiences. Joy has worked on several titles, including Auto Trim & Restyling News, Truck Accessory News, Digital Output Magazine, Retail & Construction News, Miata magazine, Ford Racing, and many more. Her passion, however, lies with health and fitness. She was the associate editor of ACE Certified News while working at the American Council on Exercise, and transitioned that publication from a newsletter to a magazine. She has enjoyed 16 years at IDEA, where she has launched several publications, including the award-winning Inner IDEA Body-Mind Spirit Review, IDEA Pilates Today and IDEA Fit Business Success. Joy is a content creator and media 2.0 advocate who takes pride in discovering the unique information needs of qualified audiences, and she is dedicated to serving those needs while following the highest available standards.