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The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
Like a lot of other young men, Eddie Zhang wanted to get buff but didn't know how to go about it, so the Ohio State graduate student and roommate Austen Tanner decided to try working with a trainer. But the trainer didn't own a gym, so they met here and there -- in the trainer's basement or a park, for example.
A few years later, Zhang and his roommate had not only achieved their fitness goals but also created a business that addresses his mentor's need: Training Grounds, a gym that gives trainers rental space where they can ply their trade.
"I do believe this is the next big franchise opportunity," said Zhang, 29.
The journey began in late 2010. While working with the trainer at the changing venues, Zhang was studying entrepreneurship at Ohio State and saw a nugget of a business idea in the relationship. But it took a while to develop.
"Originally we thought that the biggest factor was cost, that trainers have to buy their own equipment. So we thought we could be a normal gym and make it very affordable for trainers."
Then, two of Zhang's Ohio State instructors -- former Max and Erma's CEO Todd Barnum and former Skybus CEO Bill Diffenderffer -- looked at his business plan and "absolutely tore that concept apart," Zhang said.
But Barnum said that Zhang was "an excellent student."
"The first important thing that Eddie did was differentiate his sports facility from the others in a crowded field," Barnum said.
"We spent most of our time talking about changes he needed to make to improve his chance for financing."
Zhang went back to the drawing board. After talking to "every trainer we could find who would answer their phone," he found one common desire: They all wanted their own gym, but without the hassles of ownership.
So Zhang took a page from the beauty-salon business, in which independent stylists lease fully furnished suites as workspaces. The term "salon" wouldn't work in the fitness industry, so Zhang dubbed the spaces "training pods."
He also consulted with numerous trainers on how to equip the pods. Each of the six 15-by-25-foot spaces has a set of workout equipment, so there's no competition for such necessities; that's a real problem for trainers at peak times in a typical gym.
To set up the operation, Zhang and Tanner invested $12,500 each and raised $115,000 from eight other investors.
In September 2015, Training Grounds opened in Dublin with its first customers: two trainers.
The first to sign up, Sarah Manns, has been so satisfied that she continues to work at the facility.
"When Eddie told me the concept, it was almost too good to be true," she said. "I can do exactly what I want. I don't have to worry about waiting to use equipment."
"We now have 17 independent trainers," Zhang said. "Until we expand a little bit, we're not taking on any more trainers."
Trainers don't sign a contract, but they do buy time in advance; the more hours they buy, the better the deal. So, for up to 45 hours, it's $20 an hour. For 45 hours to 90 hours, it's $17.50 an hour. For 90 hours or more, it's $15 an hour.
In addition to the six training pods, the facility has a larger room for Zoomba, yoga or dance classes.
"At the end of the day, we wanted to provide all the benefits of gym ownership so they wouldn't be fighting over equipment, but they don't have to invest. They can have their own gyms, but not take the downside. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but we're getting close to other locations in Columbus. Then we'll probably franchise it out."
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