Many fitness professionals dream of designing a studio that reflects their unique perspective and approach to health and fitness—a place where they can grow their business, their brand and their client base (and, of course, their paycheck!) on their own terms.
There’s a huge appeal to running your own space, especially if you’ve been working long enough to imagine how you might design a space specifically suited to your clients’ needs and your vision.
If you find yourself frequently thinking about becoming an entrepreneur with your own facility, consider these pieces of advice from fitness pros and their advisers who have been through the process themselves.
QUESTION #1: WHAT ARE YOUR MOTIVATIONS?
When you imagine life as a studio owner, what comes to mind?
Are you feeling that you’ve learned what you can in your current position and are ready for a new challenge? Do you imagine developing a place where you have creative control and can deliver even more value to clients? Are you excited to try your hand at the other aspects of running a business, such as operations, accounting, maintenance, hiring and marketing?
There’s no quick fix to building a sustainable business, and it’s a lot of hard work—though of course the work is fulfilling. Knowing why you want to move into ownership will help you stick with your venture through the challenges you’ll encounter along the way.
QUESTION #2: WILL YOUR CLIENTS FOLLOW YOU TO YOUR NEW SPACE?
Opening a new facility is an exciting, and potentially nerve-wracking, experience. Knowing before you open that you have people to walk through your door is key to making your studio a success. The “build it and they will come” mentality isn’t a reality for most entrepreneurs. “By the time you open your studio, you have to have a brand that is enough of a draw to get people there,” says Shannon Colavecchio, owner of Badass Fitness in Tallahassee, Florida.
To guarantee a successful start, begin building your following immediately.
That means connecting with clients during and after training sessions and group classes. It means differentiating yourself from your colleagues so that your clients are likely to follow you when you move locations. It means putting yourself out there in the broader community by speaking at events, offering corporate services or volunteering your time at relevant organizations.
QUESTION #3: WHAT KIND OF SPACE WILL WORK BEST FOR YOUR CLIENTS?
As you scout locations, make sure the area and the space fit your brand and your clientele. When moving her business from her home to a studio space, Yvette Salva, creator of Yvette Salva Fitness in Spotswood, New Jersey, strove to keep the private, intimate feeling intact: “I could have made more money by cramming the studio full of five trainers at the same time, but that was never my model, and I wanted to stay true to that.”
Dana Katz, founder and coach at UltraU in Portland, Oregon, found the same was true of her studio. Her clientele “wouldn’t go to a gym,” she says, so when she converted the studio behind her house into space to train clients, the intimate size and location were a bonus. “I have to be careful in my marketing,” she says, “because it’s my home address, but other than that it’s worked out great.”
QUESTION #4: ARE YOU PREPARED TO WEAR MANY HATS?
As an entrepreneur, you aren’t just a trainer. You’re the maintenance person. You’re housekeeping. You’re the desk person. You’re the accountant. You’re the one who has to deal with a staff member getting locked out at 5:00 am. In short, you’re everything at your business, and that makes for few days off. Butler says that at a studio, the time it takes just for “daily operations is beyond what you could ever imagine. People don’t think about that. Then if you bring in [staff], you have to manage them. And the time required for each thing adds up fast.”
Knowing when to outsource is key: If marketing isn’t your strength, for example, it may make sense to hire someone to support you in that area. When it comes to the daily tasks, though, Butler says, “Wash your own towels. Clean your own space. Do it yourself until it hurts so much you have to pay someone else.”
Taking care of everything yourself helps you keep an eye on your budget. “At the beginning, be willing to do everything,” recommends Cori Lefkowith, owner of Redefining Strength in Costa Mesa, California. “Be aware of where your money is going. By being hands-on, you’re more in touch with what’s going on in your business.”
QUESTION #5: WHAT CAN YOUR CLIENTS HELP WITH?
When you’re looking for resources, the answer might be right in front of your nose, dripping with sweat, thanks to all the jump squats you’re making them do.
Seriously: Your clients can be your best resources, especially when you’re looking for professional services or connections. They may even be willing to barter their services—such as branding expertise in exchange for personal training, or legal advice for extra classes.
Bartering for some of your startup costs can help to keep your budget under control, especially before you open, when you’re not bringing in any revenue.
QUESTION #6: WHAT NEIGHBORHOOD IS BEST?
Many companies, especially large chains, do significant market research before opening a new location, to ensure there’s a healthy customer base before they break ground. As a solo entrepreneur, you probably can’t compete with their resources, but you can piggyback off their efforts. When you’re evaluating a location, look at the surrounding businesses to see if your brand would be a good fit.
Think about what companies align with your vision, and look for neighborhoods they’re in. Chances are, if a Whole Foods Market is thriving, there’s a health-conscious, affluent population nearby. Richard Butler, founder of the Pittsburgh Fitness Council, suggests, “Is there an REI in the area? Is there an Athleta? Is there a Lululemon? Where are those retail shops? Find them, and follow them!”
Even your location on the block can be a factor. Salva’s studio is “at a stop sign, so people driving by always notice me,” she says. Her high visibility has helped bring in foot traffic and new clients.
QUESTION #7: HAVE YOU BUILT LOCAL RELATIONSHIPS?
Those same retail outlets that help you evaluate a neighborhood’s demographics can also be sources of new clients. Leading up to your opening, start establishing relationships with the managers and owners of neighboring businesses. Offer to refer customers to them, and they’ll likely return the favor.
To save yourself permitting and licensing headaches, build a relationship with your local city planner. Al Painter, owner of Integrate Performance Fitness in Palo Alto, California, says, “It never hurts to have a relationship with your city planner. I would recommend talking
to them about where a fitness center would be allowed, and make sure
there aren’t any zoning issues.”
QUESTION #8: ARE YOUR FINANCES IN ORDER?
Planning your finances is a huge part of opening your own space. If you’re getting a loan, you’ll need to know how much startup capital you need, and how long it’ll take you to pay it back. (See “Key Costs for a Studio Start-Up” for more specific costs.)
Jessica Mishra, a CPA and registered yoga teacher in San Francisco, suggests talking to “entrepreneurs in your industry and [making] sure you have covered all of your bases. You want to reduce the . . . risks/surprises as much as you can. Be prepared with your financial tracking. Set up an accounting system early on, as well as separate bank accounts [for your business].”
Once you’ve finalized your budget, “double it,” says Butler. Leslie Kimerling, adviser at Isis Partners in Boulder, Colorado, concurs: She says “cash flow is the most significant challenge” she sees among the many fitness entrepreneurs she has advised.
There will always be unanticipated costs, and it’s better to have a cushion than not. Lefkowith found herself in an ideal position because “I always plan for the worst, so I ended up in a gazillion times better situation than I planned for. If you open this spot, and something happens, and you end up with no revenue coming in, how long can you stay afloat?”
QUESTION #9: DO YOU WANT PARTNERS?
Whether to bring a partner into your venture is a huge decision.
Before making up your mind, consider various angles: What does this person bring to the table? Does he have significant financial resources to contribute? Does she have a big local audience that will become your client base? Would this partner’s skills complement yours? Personal trainer and group exercise instructor Shane Barnard founded Studio360 in Oakland, California, with three partners. Before they decided to open the studio together, all four of them had “a clear discussion about what everyone’s vision [was], to see if there [would] be a harmonious relationship.” They also evaluated each others’ strengths and weaknesses to ensure “each partner [was bringing] something to the table that [would] benefit the collective.”
If you do work with one or more partners, sign a partnership agreement before doing anything else. That agreement should outline what is expected of each partner, as well as how much of the business each person owns. The agreement will protect your business and save you from more difficult conversations later on.
QUESTION #10: IS YOUR NETWORK READY TO SUPPORT YOU?
From knowing the best stretch for a sore muscle to understanding how to build functional strength, fitness professionals are accustomed to being experts. As you grow your business, though, remember that you may need support from your friends, as well as other experts, to be successful.
“It’s important to have a good support system, whether that is family, friends [or] other colleagues,” says Lucas Koeneke, owner of Inside Out Intelligent Training in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. “It’s key to have a small group of people who understand your vision and what you’re looking to accomplish.”
Your Own Studio?
Fitness pros who have done it agree that opening your own facility is more of an endurance challenge than a sprint. But the risk and hard work can result in outsize rewards that go beyond financial gain.