Optimism Meets Reality When Opening a Health Club

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Rob Barry Feature

The adage, "Do what you love and you'll never work another day in your life," likely needs some updating. Maybe something like, "If you choose to start a business based on what you love, then be prepared to work really, really hard every day and know that 80 percent of what you have to do will have nothing to do with what you love. But that last 20 percent might be fun."

That's a nice way of saying, "Owning a business can really — here's that word again — suck."

We've been doing it for 20 years now, so the reality of that washed over us long ago, but we have been thinking about it recently in the context of the many gyms and studios that continue to pop up all around us. So many people want to do what they love — fitness — that they jump blindly into a new business venture without taking the time to understand what's beyond the cliff's edge.

Even experienced business people can fall into the trap of leaping before looking. They might have a successful fitness franchise and decide to open additional locations due to nothing more than space becoming available. And, because entrepreneurs and people with passion tend to be optimists by nature, they can't help but think, "This will be great, and everyone will come to my gym."

But will they?

And if you are new to running your own business, are you prepared for all of the other stuff that goes along with doing so, much of which starts from Day 1?

Let's start with that. It's actually hard to explain to people who haven't done it before how hard it can be to get a physical business location up and running. And we're not even talking about the act of constructing your space.

We're talking about dealing with third parties who really have no concern whatsoever about you. You'll be doing paperwork for federal, state and local agencies, sending in applications for everything from sales tax to occupancy to signage to water and sewage. Then you'll be waiting for responses and modifying your plans accordingly. You'll have to arrange for infrastructure to be put in place (phones, cable TV, music, etc.) and then pass inspections. There is more "hurry up and wait" than you can possibly imagine.

This process will drive you nuts, but what sustains you through this period is your excitement for the end goal, which is seeing your dream come to life. Your dream may be a full-service gym, a CrossFit box, a personal training studio, or a cycling, group fitness, yoga, Pilates or barre studio. Whatever it is, that vision will keep you going through all of the bureaucracy and early frustrations.

RELATED: Lessons in Club Design Learned After Years of Renovation

But then you might well find out that somebody is doing exactly the same thing as you, and they are doing it right in your backyard. In fact, preparing for this very likely scenario is now the number one thing we'd suggest would-be fitness facility owners think about before they take the leap. How will you respond if someone else is pursuing the same dream as you, and doing it virtually right next door?

It will likely be too late when you find out about such a thing, so you need to be a realist and build this into your business plan. The trend that you're riding, that of small fitness facilities opening "everywhere," is the same trend that would-be competitors are riding, and it makes it very difficult to be the new kid on the block for long.

Do you really think you are the only person in your area who loves yoga, or cycling, or TRX, or barre training? And if you wanted to build a business based on what you love, why wouldn't someone else? Have you done your research to understand what your market will support? Does a market with a 24-hour location like Anytime Fitness also need a Snap? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't, but do you know?

If your market doesn't have anything close to what you offer, does that mean you are forward-thinking and on the ground floor, or does it mean that the market doesn't exist? And will the trends you are trying to exploit translate to your market? For example, creating an experience similar to SoulCycle would be very difficult outside of a major metropolitan area, and we're not referring only to the daily fees that they famously charge. Think about the staffing, the training, the physical environment to be created, the branding, and on and on. Keep all that in mind when you think, "We need something like SoulCycle here."

If and when you do fulfill your dream, you must be prepared for something else that nobody tells you, which is that a business is a living, breathing thing that must be looked after every day.

Ask us how happy we were when one of us (Rob) was working in 20-below wind chills to protect one of our buildings from the effects of the frigid temperatures, while the other (Barry) was covering the front desk on Sunday afternoon because nobody else could (would) work.

So, when the sound system or the air conditioning breaks during a Saturday morning class, be ready for that call. Do you drive in? Do you call the HVAC guys and ask for the time-and-half weekend visit, or wait until Monday even though your Sunday and early-Monday class participants won't be happy with no air conditioning? When the burglar alarm goes off at 2 a.m. and you have to meet the police, wondering what you'll find, don't say we didn't warn you.

Finally, of course, there are your customers, all of whom will love you and heap nothing but praise on your facility and celebrate it on social media. That is, until that air conditioning breaks. Or until they can't get a bike. Or until you deny them access because they are three months behind in their payments, which you previously let slide because they are so nice all the time. You are going to make someone unhappy and they are going to be mean to you, and it's going to make you sad.

Nobody sees all the effort that goes into making a dream a reality, and you need to think about all of these things — and so many more, which we will discuss next month — before you take the leap. The 80 percent can be overwhelming. Hopefully, the other 20 percent will make up for that.

MORE ROB & BARRY: Looking at Your Club Business Through Fresh Eyes

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Labor of Love?"

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