Growing a Business: Things You Won’t Learn in School

Sometimes it's important to ignore the popular advice and forge your own path toward business success.

By David Dellanave
Feb 2, 2016

When I opened my own gym, I knew it was going to be different out of necessity: I had a training philosophy that was unlike the one held by many of my peers—and unlike what was standard for the industry. What I didn’t expect was the profound effect my training philosophy would have on my business practices.

In the early years of operating my gym, I studied all the material from the best gym-oriented business minds, and I methodically tested each piece of their advice within my own walls. At first I didn’t have the conviction of experience, and I tried to force round pegs into square holes.

Every organization is different, and while there may be some common themes, it’s critical that you determine what works for your culture. Over time, I was able to separate what should work from what does work, with the result that my business breaks many of the traditional rules, and is better for it.

Since 2010, my business revenue has doubled every year.

I’ve learned the principles outlined in this article the hard way—through costly trial and error and liberal use of the most expensive resource of all: time. It’s my hope that if you apply these fundamentals (if not the specific actions I took), you will shorten the amount of time it takes you to build a business—one that grows by leaps and bounds and almost automatically.

Don’t Make Exceptions—Even for Your Own Mother

The gym I created is called The Movement Minneapolis. Joining involves participating in a very specific process: First, you complete an online form. Second, to get a proper introduction to the gym, you meet with one of my two employees, who are designated “intro session instructors.” Third, you join our ranks. Even if my own mother wanted to join the gym, she’d have to follow that process, and I wouldn’t skip a single step.

The reason for these three steps is that everyone benefits the most when I stick to this process. Early on, I would make the mistake of letting friends or people I knew closely take a shortcut through the standard joining process. Then I’d be disappointed if they decided not to join or if they didn’t stick around past the first month. I discovered that by skipping steps I wasn’t conveying everything I wanted these newcomers to know. The result was a disservice to them, because they didn’t get to join a great gym, and a disservice to the gym, because we lost the chance for a new customer.

When you have a fine-tuned process that has been created to serve a specific purpose, you need to stick to that process, even if it seems extraneous or unnecessary at a particular moment. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should be rigid or unyielding in your policies. But more often than not, following the plan leads to a better outcome. In many ways, it’s the same as teaching complex exercises: If you skip steps, eventually you’ll need to unlearn bad habits that could have been avoided early on.

Lesson: Once you’ve developed robust systems, stick to them.

Let Your Phone Calls Go to Voicemail

Several years ago I attended a gym business seminar that repeated all the usual advice. At one point, in a discussion on taking telephone calls, I asked if anyone used an answering service. Based on the presenter’s and attendees’ reactions, you’d think I had asked about how to hire child labor. No one could believe that I wouldn’t be thrilled to have the phone constantly ringing with prospective customers—or that I wouldn’t personally answer those calls.

I had already learned that a caller who was interrupting whatever I was doing was not likely to become a future customer. More often, that caller was a telemarketer, a window-shopper or someone who—after we spent time on the phone and in person—just wasn’t a good fit for the gym. On the other hand, I could deal with email in batches when it was convenient for me, and email had a much higher rate of conversion.

My point is not that, specifically, you should not answer the phone. Rather, I’m urging you to closely examine the aspects of your business that you feel you absolutely must do. In fact, these matters may not add to your bottom line—or worse, they even take away from it, especially if they consume valuable time and focus. It’s easy to get distracted by all the tasks you feel you have to do. But these things may make it impossible for you to get to the work you’re truly the best at.

Lesson: Focus on the unique “big rocks” that set you apart from others, and minimize the rest.

Don’t Ask for Referrals

One of the main tenets of traditional gym business advice is to drive referrals hard—almost to the exclusion of everything else. Many experts warn that if you don’t request referrals within new customers’ first 30 days, you’ll never get referrals from them.

This advice never sat well with me, for two reasons. First, people who have been members for only a month haven’t had much time to interact with your business; they have yet to enjoy all the benefits you offer, and their experience is cursory at best. Second, some people will never be a source of referrals, due to their circumstances, personalities or social networks; others will be fountains of new business referrals. It’s hard to predict who falls into which category. Plus, pushing the wrong person to refer can be off-putting, while encouraging the other type of person is redundant.

Instead, The Movement Minneapolis eschews traditional referral programs and membership drives in favor of a totally organic, hands-off referral system. This has resulted in more of the right people joining and staying for the long haul; it has also brought us happier customers who don’t feel pressured to become multilevel marketing participants.

Lesson: Above all else, do what works for you. Let the results you see in your own business—not an ideology that worked for someone else—drive your practices.

Your Business, Your Practices

By measuring the amount of difficulty required to fit various matters into the business, The Movement Minneapolis has learned to differentiate between the things that are worth pursuing and the things that don’t work. Without exception, the ideas and practices that have been met with resistance or that require a high degree of effort have eventually gone by the wayside—because the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Instead, we put our resources and our focus toward work that comes easily or naturally to us. This is not an excuse not to do the hard stuff. Be certain you’re working on what works for you and your business, instead of trying to force actions that don’t work because someone else said they should.

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David Dellanave

David Dellanave is a lifter, a coach and the owner of The Movement Minneapolis. He implements biofeedback techniques, teaching his clientsÔÇöwho range from athletes to the general populationÔÇöto truly understand what their bodies are telling them. At www.dellanave.com/, he writes articles to make people feel stronger, look better naked and definitely deadlift more.

David holds several world records, including one in the Jefferson deadlift. And his alter ego, Dellanavich from Dellanavia, has a penchant for coaching classes wearing a weightlifting singlet and speaking with a (terrible) Eastern European accent.

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