Episode 294

The 4 Stages of Gym Ownership with Ben Pickard

In this episode, Ben Pickard talks about the 4 stages of gym ownership.

[00:00:00] Hello, my friends on today’s episode. I’m speaking with fellow business unicorns, coach Ben Pickard. And we’re talking about the four stages of gym ownership and how we think you can get from stage one all the way through stage four, most effectively. So it’s a great episode. Keep on listening, but before we dive in, I’ve really special announcement.

We don’t do this very often, but we’re giving you all one last chance to join unicorn society in the beginning of 2024. And when you do, you’ll lock in the best. Pricing you’ll ever get. Um, the reason we’re doing this is because we closed our enrollment, uh, a couple of weeks ago, but we still have more and more people who want to join, so we’re opening back up just five more spots, but you have to apply before December 24th at 8 PM.

So if you’re listening to this podcast in time and it’s before December 24th at 8 PM, and you still want to learn more about Unicorn Society and potentially join, we’ve got five more spots open for you. So click the link in the description down below and let’s talk. Enjoy this episode.[00:01:00]

Welcome to the business for unicorns podcast, where we help gym owners unleash the full potential of their business. I’m your host, Michael Keeler. Join me each week for actionable advice, expert insights, and the inside scoop on what it really takes to level up your gym, get ready to unlock your potential.

I’ve become a real unicorn in the fitness industry. Let’s begin.

Hello, fitness, business nerds. What’s up? Welcome to another episode of the business unicorns podcast. And I’m here with the one and only Ben Pickard. What’s up, my friend? Hello. Thanks for having me. Thanks. Thanks for being here. I’m always so excited when we get to do the podcast together because on the whole B4U team, you and I work together.

The most every day, the most closely. And I love sharing a little bits of our conversation or ideas we’re having. And today’s a fun one, ’cause day one is we’re talking about basically the life cycle of a gym owner . [00:02:00] And this is gonna be represented in a playbook we’re developing for our Unicorn society members about how they think about their own growth and development as a gym owner.

But it’s a fun topic for us to bring to the podcast because I think a lot of our listeners are gonna resonate with the ideas that you’re throwing around. Do you wanna give everyone a little bit of a, a preview of what we’re gonna be talking about today? Yeah, the four stages of a JibOuter that I see when either looking at the industry at large or working with our clientele are this.

Stage one is being a trainer at a big box gym. Your responsibilities are essentially follow their play and get more clients. Phase two is when you decide, for whatever reason, Hey, I can do this better or I want to do my own thing. And you become an independent trainer. Whether you’re training people at the park or renting space or you got your own lease or training them in your basement.

It’s now like a one human show. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s a really nice garage gym. Um, [00:03:00] phase three is now you start to hire a team and usually the first hire would be a trainer because you need to not go to 45 sessions a week anymore, but maybe even a part time office assistant. And then the final stage is really in my head, I think of this as true business, fitness business ownership.

And that’s where you start to systematically replace yourself in the organization. And what I’m hoping we can talk about today are some of the. The necessary skills and snake bits, so to speak, that are going to come up at each stage and the transition to the next stage. I think it’s a great framework, Ben.

And it’s, I’m so glad that we’re sharing this with podcast listeners because this is a perfect example of the kind of tools that we share for our Unicorn Society members. And we have a whole section of our content library for Unicorn Society members. It’s about leadership and ownership of a gym. And this kind of framework is so crucial because if you don’t know where you are in this cycle, it’s hard to know what to do next.

If you don’t know where you are in your development as a gym owner or as a leader, it’s hard to know where to invest [00:04:00] your time, energy, money, resources in your own development. So I think it’s great that we’re going to go through each of these phases and say, if you’re in this phase, here’s what you should be focusing on.

So let’s start with the very first phase of you’re working for somebody else’s gym, often a big box gym, you’re following their plays. You’re just, you’re an employee. Essentially, if you’re at this stage, where do they focus on to get to the next stage? Yeah. When I was thinking about this, I was thinking if I had a time machine, what would I do differently?

Um, cause that was me for a year and a half, two years. And what I would do differently is probably spend about 50 percent of my time on developing my skill set as a trainer, whether that’s like courses like CFSC or attending perform better local, other awesome trainers in the area, but let’s become world class at training or at least.

world class in my neighborhood and the other 50 percent of my time I would spend on interpersonal skills. And I think that’s a piece that is getting a little more attention [00:05:00] nowadays in the fitness world, but probably not enough, which I imagine you’d agree since you made coaching conversations and that’s the course to take.

Yeah. I think that’s a great place to start Ben, right? Honestly, because a lot of trainers who are working for other owners and other gyms, they spend all of their continuing education time on just being a great trainer, which is useful. It’s often why people got into this business as they really are love the art and science of training.

And I love the idea of if you have Dreams one day of opening up your own space and make building a team and being an actual gym owner. You have to start early developing the other skills you need. And a lot of those are people skills, interpersonal skills, giving feedback, presenting information, going to take some Toastmasters courses, get up in front of a room and confidently share your ideas.

So yeah, so say a little bit more if you’re, if those kind of folks are listening, what kinds of people skills would. Would you say they should invest in first? What kinds of people skills? Again, I might be the unpopular opinion, but I believe that [00:06:00] really good sales skills and really good customer service skills and really good communication skills, right?

Whether that’s with your partner or parents or whatever, are in the same bucket as good sales skills. It’s asking powerful questions, actually listening and understanding what the person needs to be able to give. Our reasonable next step, sometimes that next step is, Hey, I don’t think I’m the gym for you.

Yes, I get that in sales, there’s funnels and things that can also be focused on, but at this phase, I don’t think it’s worth building out a big funnel. It’s if you just get really good with people, your sales will be, they will feel easy. And to be honest, they will be easy because. Most of your leads are going to be referrals or people in the big box gym anyways.

So it’s like, how do you be everybody’s best friend? How do you ask good questions? How do you actually learn how to listen? How do you be, I had a guy coach Steve O ages ago had a line I really love, which is it’s more important to be interested than interesting. Are you truly interested in the [00:07:00] people that you’re hanging out with?

Are you talking to them? Are you asking them questions? If you work mostly one on one at a big box gym, I just don’t think it’s that hard to get 15 to 20 clients who train. Two ish times a week with you, if you’re developing your interpersonal skills. Yeah. I think it’s a great way to think about it, Ben Christ.

So it’s really the art of putting other people at the center of your conversations, whether it’s for sales purposes, customer service purposes, client getting client results purposes, that, and it’s also going to be super useful when you have a team managing people and really understanding what their needs are and how to meet those needs.

So I love that. So if you’re, if you’re a listener, if you’re the person who’s working at someone else’s gym right now. The thing to focus on your continuing education to get to the next level is to start to learn more than to learn more than just training. Be a great trainer, be a world class trainer, but start to develop some of those other leadership and interpersonal skills that you’re going to need if you’re running a gym business.

Awesome. Let’s move to stage two. Remind us what stage two is. So stage two is now you’ve [00:08:00] decided to go out on your own and you’re an independent trainer, but it’s a one human show, whether it’s you in your garage, basement, renting space, the park. You are the entire business from admin to billing, to training, to complaints.

Great. So if they’re at this stage, I imagine this is the first time they’re wearing all the hats. This is the first time you’re like, oh, I am the marketing department. I am the HR department. I am the maintenance crew. I am the facilities person, right? Whatever it is. They’re wearing almost all the hats depending on their rental situation.

And so what should I be focusing on? In this stage, what does their development need to look like to get to the next stage from here? The funny part about this stage is, at least for me, this is when I don’t like my boss or whatever. I think I can do it better, and you’re like, oh shit, there’s a lot of things that I took for granted at that place.

So we see that all the time, this is, yeah, exactly. It can’t be that hard. Yeah. It’s a lot more work. Yes. So this is [00:09:00] where I think it’s important to start spending more time and energy on marketing and sales specifically, learning how to craft compelling offers. They don’t have to be complicated, but like this would be the time to have an LBO of a four week trial to bring people through the door.

This is the time where you’re going to be joining some local networking groups. If you haven’t already hosting some in person seminars, like marketing and sales does not mean. Just getting a better Instagram account. Yep. Like you should be able to get really good in a brick and mortar location through people within a five kilometer slash mile radius.

I also think it’s the time where you should probably start investing in some people to join your team, but not like your first trainer. I would be hiring a bookkeeper. I would be an accountant. I would maybe be hiring a lawyer to have my first draft of a membership agreement created. I’d probably be investing in some software for booking and billing and scheduling and admin.

Because the snake pit, in my opinion, at this stage is you don’t have enough time to do all this stuff. You might not [00:10:00] have enough money to outsource half of your training sessions, but you need to really protect that time. So it doesn’t have to be an admin rescheduling, but it’s not a lot of money to get.

Kilo or mind, body or whoever, and have clients book their own sessions. I think this phase is the trickiest for me in terms of what I hear from unicorns, any members and folks who’ve been at the stage are still stuck at this stage, let’s be real, is that they get so good at having a full roster of clients, they’re renting a space somewhere and they’re so invested in serving those clients.

And sometimes there’s. They’re training 30, 40 hours a week, that book of clients, and they can’t really afford to take any time off because that’s how all their money comes from. They have no time spent on the business. They’re only working in the business and there’s a real identity shift that needs to happen where they have to let go of some clients at some point and start to see themselves as the owner who.

Not just serves clients, but works on the actual project of the business. [00:11:00] And I see a lot of folks who just don’t make that leap, but with all love and respect, we have people in university right now who have been stuck in that place for a while, and we’re working to help them get unstuck from that place by getting more time off the floor.

So they can be the ones building the marketing and sales systems, building the people hiring systems to grow the business to the next level. So this one’s a really tough level. Absolutely. I think it’s. It’s one of the more challenging levels because for a while you don’t really have an option but to do all the things, but if you can’t guard your time and keep some on the business time, I don’t honestly know how you get to that next stage.

Yes, you can just wing it and hire somebody and hope it works out, but that often shows it’s rears its ugly teeth. One to three to twelve months afterwards when everything’s fucked or your margin is destroyed Yeah, if you jump from stage two to stage three, which we’ll do discuss too soon. You have to undo all your mistakes Yeah First if you can really guard that time run a small group training model Outsource bookkeeping and all the [00:12:00] little stuff to anybody that you can that’s where you’ll That gives you the potential to move to that next stage at a profitable and happy place.

Yeah. I think that outsourcing part is really huge because it also is often your first lesson in managing other people. These are contractors and vendors in many cases, right? Maybe it’s a cleaning service. Maybe it’s a bookkeeper. Maybe it’s that lawyer you mentioned. Right. But it starts to help you in your development process as a leader, learn to lead other people and manage other people, which I think is critical.

All right. So let’s just say that they did that. They protected some of their time to work on the business. They’ve continued to get better at marketing and sales. They’re getting more and more clients than they can even handle. So they, so they want to move on to level three. What’s that? So level three is now you started to bring on a team and what I see most is you usually bring on a trainer first and you become a pseudo manager slash office manager, but maybe you also brought on an admin, an administrative help.

But in this stage you’ve gone from a one human show to a three human show with various hours. [00:13:00] And this is the stage where I think it’s got to be the beginning of your real leadership journey. Yeah. And it’s learning how to give and receive feedback, how to lean into those hard conversations. And I know we see this a lot with members of this team member did this thing and it’s driving me nuts.

What do I do about it? Have you asked them about it? Yeah. I think it’s also, sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. I was like, this is also the stage where you have to learn how to build systems. Or you’re going right back to stage one, right? Because the minute That’s going to be my next point. Yeah, right?

The minute you have someone else trying to do the things that you’ve already been doing and are good at and you haven’t found a way to codify that and write down your expectations and create instructions for them to follow and have good meetings to hold them accountable to doing that shit. If you don’t build in that structure, then you’re scaling yourself, your ass right back to level two again, right?

Scaling your ass back down to level two. What’s the reverse of scaling? You’re deflating yourself. I don’t know what that you’re going 100 percent backwards. If you don’t put in the systems. Yeah. So say more about what the kinds of [00:14:00] systems you see them having to build first. Oh, an easy one would be how you deliver programming and coaching.

Cause in most fitness businesses, unless you want to become. Unless you’re, unless your journey in your business is to be like a head coach and you’re going to hire somebody else to be the GM, which I don’t see a lot, but it’s definitely not a bad move. You need to have, you need to outsource, or sorry, you need to make it crystal clear to all of the people servicing the paying customers in your organization.

How exactly everything is done. What are the expectations for testimonials? How do they get referrals? How did they design programs? What exercises are a go and no go? How is the equipment put away? But anything servicing your customers should be. Pretty much outsourced and that includes how do you handle booking and billing questions from an administrative role?

If you have an admin how to handle complaints, how do you get customer feedback? But this is the I see a lot of members and non members who like the system They have for running their gym is they’re just [00:15:00] around a lot. Yeah Yeah. And I’d argue it’s not, that’s still a system in my mind. It’s just not a system that’s ever going to get you out of that state.

It’s just a not scalable a shitty one where you’re working harder instead of smarter. Yeah. And you see this in lots of industries, landscaping, accounting, construction, that the person who started the construction company is on site 10 hours a day. Yeah. And now if you fucking love construction and that’s your dream, you don’t have to go to the next stage.

Yeah. But if you ever aspire to not work 40 to 60 hours a week. And you don’t make those systems and SOPs and train people on them, get feedback, hold people accountable. You never grow. Here’s the, I think the stickiest part I see when people try to make this transition is that someone who is a wonderful world class trainer is not always a wonderful world class training manager.

We see this time 10 again, and we had this issue at MFF over and over again, we would try and take our best trainer, which if you’re listening is probably you, right? It’s as [00:16:00] you as the owner or the person who started as being your best trainer, and then trying to get that person to create other best trainers.

Sometimes it’s a hard leap, and sometimes it’s a leap that can’t be made. And because they don’t want to do the work of getting good at those other things, explicitly managing people, which a whole different skillset than being good. And we see this all the time. This is the classic example. And in other industries of sales, your best possible sales person is almost rarely the person who’s going to manage you.

All your good salespeople, it’s just a different task. I think if we’re training, this is the place where I see people get stuck. So what’s your advice there? I think the first step is just recognize that you’re not probably the best manager. Yeah. Speaking, I can speak from my experience. It took me. An embarrassingly long time to figure out that I need a rockstar GM to make sure the trains run on time.

I can create the train schedule, but I had a very hard time enforcing them because at the time I’d be like, fucking like, why don’t you just do the thing? It’s written down. We talked [00:17:00] about it. That’s terrible management and leadership. So I think step one is, as with most things, admitting you have a problem.

And then the next step is coming to a place like Business for Unicorns to learn how to do it better. And I promise this isn’t just a plug. Management, correct me if I’m wrong here, but like management and leadership is a skill that can be developed. If you recognize you’re not bad at it, not good at it.

Which makes sense, because you haven’t done shit for this for a while, develop that skill and know that it’s going to take a little bit of time to move that needle. Yeah, 100%. I think that’s it. You have to have the desire, right? If you recognize that maybe you’re not the best manager because you don’t have a lot of great experience, but you want to be, great.

It is available to you, my friends. Management and leadership are processes that you learn, right? They’re not characteristics imbued upon us. Uh, at birth, these are things that you learn over time. And certainly that’s one of the things we teach. One of the, maybe the most important things we teach at Bits of Unicorns is we teach Unicorn Society members how to be great managers and leaders.

But I also want to make room for the people [00:18:00] on this call who are like, you know what? I never want to be that. I actually don’t like managing people. I don’t want to get better at it. I just want to keep training people. Great. And then to Ben’s earlier point, your job is to go find somebody who does. If it’s not going to be you, if you’re not going to take the deep dive into management and leadership that Ben did, that brought him to a much better place, then go find somebody who’s already good at it or wants to be.

But you can’t have a gym, a successful, scalable gym, that doesn’t have anyone in it. Who doesn’t like managing and leading? That’s a recipe for, for chaos. And so someone’s got to like the job of managing others or else you’re in the wrong business. 100%. I want to be clear too. I don’t think one of those paths is actually objectively a better path than the other.

No, I think everyone’s journey is going to vary. Like think of. Cressy sports performance. Cressy is a world class trainer from everything I know about him. He wants to continue to be a world class trainer. That’s why he has Pete, but you can’t be in the [00:19:00] manager role, not wanting to get better at it. You’re not doing a good job and then complain that it’s not working.

Yeah. You’ve got to pick one of those two paths. Right. Let’s imagine that our listeners have done that. Either they themselves have leveled up as a manager and leader and they’re ready to start crushing it and growing their team, or they’ve hired someone who is. What’s stage four? So stage four is moving to what I’m just loosely calling true business ownership.

Where you now have a business, not a job, which means if you go on vacation for a couple weeks, your gym’s revenue doesn’t change. In fact, hopefully it goes up while you weren’t there. Yep. And this is where you can free up time for other things, whether it’s hanging out with your family or starting another business or getting involved in the community, wherever your journey takes you.

But you’ve got to the stage where you’ve built a true business. So when I’m thinking about this stage, this is the one that has the most like possibility because there’s some key things you need to work on. It’s Not just how do you hire and manage the right people, but how do you build the [00:20:00] tools to develop them long term because you don’t want to bring on an awesome team and have turnover every year.

Um, it’s also the piece where you’re going to learn more about how to manage your own financial future. It’s probably the time where you need to spend more time doing things like visioning and goal setting for the rest of your life, because up until this point, your life, at least my life was work. And once you give yourself some space to breathe, it’s the question of what do I want?

I think that rears its head with. People just being like, I don’t like this anymore. I want to shut it down. It could show up with now that you have time for hobbies and interests, you’re like actually doing them and wondering, Oh my God, is it okay that I like this other thing while I still have this first thing, but I think most importantly, it’s now that you’ve got that manager in place.

It’s your job has become gone from how do I grow a gym to how do I empower somebody else to grow a gym? Yeah, and that’s a very like almost the same question, but looks drastically different in practice. Yeah I think that’s a [00:21:00] great way to describe it Ben. I think at this final stage of gym ownership.

It’s really about scaling yourself Like you’ve, you’re really replacing yourself at the gym with ideally someone who gives almost as many as shits as you do as an owner. Maybe even someone who has a profit share or some equity or some bonus structure that makes them give as many shits as you do. And then you can decide at this point, okay, well, now that I have, I’ve created an adult business that can run with me away if needed.

What do I want with my life next? Is it more locations? Is it more time with family? Is it hobbies? Is it. Charity work is, is it expanding to an even bigger space and doubling down on my impact? Right. And we’ve seen people make all of those choices and more. This is the moment where the business can really run without you if needed.

And your job is to figure out what do you want with your life? What do you want your impact to be? And how do you keep developing the people in the gym? So they’re stoked to be there every day. And you’re right. That’s a very different job than just hiring them and getting them good at their [00:22:00] job, right?

That’s the first level of management leadership is able to like, you know, uh, get people into a role that they’re successful in. This is like developing them to the next role and the next role, and then having them really have a kind of ownership mentality for helping run the gym with or without your presence.

Absolutely. And I, and I’ll say as well that. Yeah. As someone who is in this role, it’s, I think it’s the place where the change feels like it happens the slowest. If I go from not good at marketing to, I put together my first offer, I probably got a couple of leads out of that in two weeks to put that together.

Instant gratification to tell you you’re like, you’re heading in the right direction. Yeah. Yeah. And this stage. The last stage here requires a lot of patience and introspection. And as someone who has identified for a long time with my work ethic is my identity, it’s a place where you’ve got to create space for questions and reflection [00:23:00] and going for walks.

Like it’s not a problem you can solve. In any short amount of time. Yeah, I think it’s, it’s a great way to think about it, right? As you want to, you’ve been working in the business for so long, you’ve gotten good at now working on the business. And now this is, this is really a kind of almost an existential question of like, how does the business fit into my life?

You’ve gotten your head above the clouds enough where you get to have the conversation with yourself and the rest of your team for what you want this, your role to be moving forward. And there’s a lot of great choices you can make. There’s a lot of directions one could go. So I think this is a great hopeful place to maybe end this podcast, which is for that level four, and you finally made it to that place where your business can run with or without you.

That’s a great place to, that’s another good time to join Unicorn Sighting and let us help you figure out how to scale your impact even further, or be your thought partners in figuring out how you make the best impact in your life in other ways, right? Great questions. Anything else about those four stages you want to share before we wrap things up?

Um, other than just as [00:24:00] someone who’s gone through all stages is now still in the fourth, like I feel, yeah. And I guess I’d encourage you to not ask the question, cause I get this sometimes of like, how do I make this easier? It’s the old proverb of don’t ask for an easier journey. Ask for a stronger back that these are all skills, as we mentioned before, that can be developed.

Yes. You are not the first person on the planet to get to this place. There is a way out there to do it. You are not as lost as you think. But I really just want to encourage you to lean into that because if your vision is to be somewhere in stage three or stage four you can absolutely do it, but the only way to guarantee that you don’t is to quit.

Yeah, I think that’s it. And I hope today’s podcast for you listeners helps identify what we think you should be spending your energy on. Right. Cause so often you’re just not making it to the next stage because you’re spending your time and energy and focus on the wrong shit. Right. Not that what we showed in this podcast is like the only path, but I think at this point between us, we’ve talked to thousands of gym owners and we’ve been [00:25:00] the Marcel.

We are one ourselves. And I think that the things we pointed out today, I think are the most common path for how you get from one level to the next and focus on the right shit. And then you will maybe get there faster, even though it may not be easier, still requires that work. Awesome. Thanks for a great podcast.

As always, my friend. Always great. to have you. And I hope to see you, your face more and more on this podcast in 2024, dear listeners. If you found this valuable, please leave us a five star review everywhere you listen and share it with all your fitness friends so we can find more followers just like you have a great rest of your day and we’ll talk soon.

Bye Ben. Talk soon.