Making a leap of faith to start your own fitness business can be daunting. We spoke to personal trainers who are at different stages of their business lifecycle, to find out the challenges, the rewards and their secrets to success
“Be prepared to work hard, be committed to all aspects of your job, want to make a difference to people’s lives and always exude positivity!”
The rewards: Our panel of trainers said their greatest reward as a personal trainer included:
- Being a master of your own destiny – Dave.
- Seeing results in your clients. – Di Lehman
- Knowing that you, literally, helped someone change their life. – Bel
- In addition to facilitating valuable change to people’s health, the bond you can end up having with your clients, where you enjoy their company as much as you would a friend’s is the greatest reward. – Jonno
- Doing what you love to do. – Paul.
Our panel of trainers:
Dave Welch (0434 027 566) is 37, began his personal training business six years ago. Catering to the general population, but specialising in increased muscle mass, strength, aerobic fitness and weight/body/fat loss, Dave established Dave Welch Personal Training because he wanted to find a way to provide a better life for him and his family. ‘I wanted to find a job that I can call my passion, so I decided to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself to chase my dream. I am also very lucky that I have a hugely supportive wife. She has just gone back to work after three years of being a full time mum to my two children.’
Jonno Hook (0431 315 395) is 31, has been running his PT business for four years. He says, ‘While working as the club administrator at Fitness First, I saw a number of trainers come and go. It allowed me to see what did and didn’t work and confidently formulate a plan to run my own business. I studied my Cert III and IV part time while still working full time and then started as a franchised trainer at Fitness First. I viewed the franchise arrangement as a comfortable and structured way to transition from employment to being self-employed. I used the 12-month franchise period to gain much-needed experience and training through their development sessions, training seminars and the mentor arrangement; and used it much like an apprenticeship for working on my own.’
Di Lehman (0409 675 829) is 60, runs her PT and Zumba business as a hobby. ‘I’ve been in the industry since 1999. About four years ago I realised I wanted to stay in the industry, but because I’m not getting any younger I knew couldn’t keep delivering group fitness classes, so I completed my Certificate IV with Australian Fitness Network as a way to enable me to keep helping people. Working for myself outside the gym environment has really exceeded my expectations. It’s hard work, but extremely rewarding and an amazing sense of satisfaction when your clients achieve their goals.
Belinda Fong (0412 801 401) is 32, has been running outdoor bootcamp-style training sessions for around seven years, as a side-gig to holding down two other fitness-based employment positions. ‘I started in a gym to get some experience writing programs, eventually moved my way up to gym manager and group fitness manager, then decided I wanted to train people outdoors. After about five years, I took a job in the UK to run bootcamps for one of the most successful female-only fitness companies in London (Fit For A Princess). The owner/manager Janey Holliday was always inspiring the trainers to learn, and she was constantly teaching us new ways of thinking about nutrition and exercise. You get stuck in a rut sometimes, doing the same thing over and over, and she really opened up my eyes to the importance of what works best when working with women.’
Paul Walton (02 9939 0314) is 31, is the co-owner (with Chrisian d’Astoli) of CrossFit Athletic, which is a three-year-old business specialising in CrossFit training, personal training and sports programming. ‘My best friend and now business partner were lucky to be working at one of Sydney’s best gyms. We had amazing trainers around us, so we learned from some of the industry’s best. We knew for the longevity of our careers we would need to go it alone, and after implementing CrossFit in so much of our own training, we decided to open a business specialising in CrossFit.’
“High retention, web-leads and referrals make up the lion’s share of my business.”
The challenges: The biggest challenges faced by our panel of trainers were:
- ‘Rain was my biggest one originally!’ says Jonno. ‘But now I have an undercover alternative for 95% of my sessions.’
- Dave says, ‘It took me years to find that balance between working the hours I do and making sure I allow enough time to be a husband/father.’
- Paul believes time management is his greatest challenge; ‘weeks pass by too quickly!’ he explains.
- Di says an ongoing challenge for her is ‘Developing monthly individual programs for clients that are challenging, effective and interesting for them.’
- ‘The most challenging part about being a trainer,’ explains Bel, ‘is working with people who want to achieve a goal but who aren’t prepared to do the work, yet still expect the results to be delivered. For example, a client wants to lose 5kgs in 5 weeks but they aren’t prepared to change their diet or do any extra training outside of seeing me.’
Successfully telling the world about your business can be a challenge. Here are some of our trainers’ most successful marketing strategies.
‘One of the most memorable and effective marketing efforts,’ says Jonno, ‘was during my first year out on my own. Back then, my demographic for the business was mums, so I went to the flower markets at 6am on Mother’s Day and bought over 100 long stemmed white roses. I then walked the full stretch of the main road in my local area – where there were lots of families out celebrating with their mums – handing out roses (each of which had a business card attached). The cost of the roses was recouped within two days! I even helped out a few sons and husbands who were en route to meeting their mums/wives, by giving them roses and suggesting they remove the business card!
Dave says his most effective marketing strategy stemmed from winning an award. ‘In 2010 I was awarded National PT of the year for Fitness First. I used this award as a platform to help elevate my business profile.’
Paul says, ‘There have been a few really successful marketing campaigns for us. We are lucky to have so many great members who want friends to be involved, so I would say referral campaigns have always worked the best for us.’
Similarly, Di says ‘Facebook, but mostly word of mouth because people in the region already know me.’
Managing Cash Flow
In any business, when you go it alone, regular cash flow can be a concern. As a PT, relying on the commitment of your clients can be a nervous exercise. Here’s what our panel of trainers advised in terms of managing that cash flow.
Paul lives with his girlfriend, who also works. He says ‘The fluctuating income was an issue for the first 12 months of our business. We realised when starting that getting paid regularly and consistently would be a factor so both my business partner and myself made sure we had sufficient savings to get by in the first year. We currently pay ourselves a monthly salary in order to avoid having to deal with inconsistent income.’
Dave’s business supports his family of two children and a wife. The secret to managing fluctuating income, says Dave is to ‘budget for the business, which means weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly. Six years in, I have learned when the quiet times are (e.g., school holidays) and to budget accordingly. Planning is the key.’
‘I’ve found that having a combination of groups and one-on-one sessions reduces the number of missed sessions due to client illness/holidays/injury, etc,’ explains Jonno, whose business provides for his wife and two young children. ‘I have an undercover, shaded or lit option for 95 per cent of my outdoor sessions which means that I don’t have to drop sessions due to bad weather or during the shorter days in winter. I also minimise the number of upfront payments that I take, so that I have regular cash flow and the majority of my expenses are monthly or quarterly, which helps with budgeting. I also have a weekly deduction from my earnings that I set aside so I can take one month off during the Christmas / new year period. It’s rare that I actually take a full month off over that time though, which means we end up with a little extra income at that time of the year.’
The Benefits of Having a Mentor
Seeking guidance from someone who’s ‘been there and done that’ before you, can be beneficial for your business’ success, as our panel revealed.
Dave Welch began his business with assistance from a mentor, David Driscoll. ‘He is a good friend,’ explains Dave, ‘in fact, he was the one that convinced me to give it a go. I owe a lot to him. My arrangement with him was simple: get out there and BUILD the business. I lived in the gym for the first three months; for seven days a week, from open to close to build my business and establish a reputation. David helped me with my programming and business development. It also helped that David and I share very similar training philosophies. The whole mentor thing was hugely successful for me. By the end of my first three months I had built a business of 40 to 45 paid sessions per week.’
“The key to a successful PT business is being upfront and totally honest with your clients.”
Belinda Fong’s tips for PT business success:
- Network with others and make as many contacts in the industry as possible.
- Suss out your competition and always research new ways to get business.
- Charge what you’re worth; if you’re good at what you do, people will pay the money.
- Take into account that you won’t be paid superannuation, holiday pay and sick pay.
- Advertise on social media; it’s free and probably one of the most effective ways to get the word out about what you offer.
- Invest time into your professional development. Do courses, workshops, read books, look online. Variety, variety, variety!
Jonno Hook found his mentor arrangement ‘a mixed experience’, but overall believes it set him up well in terms of administration and business systems because he stepped into an established method of managing a fitness business. He adds, ‘I am also very fortunate to know a number of exceptional trainers, physio’s and exercise physiologists and have regularly drawn on their expertise along the way. Building a group of peers and a referral network is very important.
Paul Walton has used four mentors since starting the business in 2010. ‘Our business mentors – Joel Norton from Boost Marketing and Ric Isaac from Fit For Profit – have both been instrumental in our success to date. Like many PTs our passion was health and fitness, but we had little interest in how to develop and run a business successfully. Through both of these mentors we received business systems and marketing strategies, which have allowed us to grow a solid membership base but also develop a fantastic team of trainers and managers.’
He adds, ‘We’ve also worked with two coaching mentors. One was James Fitzgerald, who is an industry leader in the USA for health and wellness, as well as CrossFit specifically. From James we learned so much regarding assessment, programming and individual prescription for clients. It’s great to keep on learning from someone and consistently upskill, which can be a challenge when you’re running a business. We also work with coaching mentors Ross and Joelle from B32 Athletics, again for the same reasons. To anyone who is considering going it alone – get a mentor.’
Advice for Newbies
If you’re thinking of starting up your own PT business, here are some final words of wisdom from those in the know.
Jonno says, ‘It may sound dull but planning the details of your ultimate business structure from day one is key. Set yourself limits and stick to them. Start out in the way that you would like to continue and although your progress may be slower, you will be working your way towards a far more sustainable and rewarding business. Also, give yourself sufficient time in the industry to naturally find a niche that you enjoy, which also matches the way you want to work.’
He believes the biggest lesson he learned along the way was to find his niche and stop striving to cater to everyone. ‘Once I started refining down my target audience, my business grew faster and marketing became cheaper and simpler. Once it reached a critical mass, marketing became somewhat redundant and I now regularly have a waiting list on at least a dozen timeslots each week.
Jonno attributes long term success to setting the business up the way you want it to work and running it that way from day one. ‘This is important because it means you won’t burn out. I set the hours I wanted to work from day one and if a new client couldn’t train within my set hours I would refer them on to another trainer. Applying strict rules like this meant that I protected myself from burn out, and I also never had to ‘cull’ clients or sessions to shape the business after it grew.’
Dave recommends building a good support team around your business. ‘I have a great accountant, bookkeeper, physio, osteo and masseuse, which meant I was able to refer my clients to additional support, where necessary. This made my business appear far more professional.’ He adds, ‘Also, don’t make it all about money. Make it about your client and the money will follow.’
Paul agrees. ‘Build a great team of likeminded employees around you. This will allow you to spend time on the business rather than in the business. It’s allowed us to spend time developing our business so it can continue to grow. Having great staff and developing them has allowed a great coaching standard to be maintained, as well as allowing us to be the business owners.’
He adds, ‘you have to keep on top of all aspects of your business. You can’t afford to have slack months. Also, having a like-minded business partner and knowing the direction you want for your business (so you can head there from the start) will help you achieve success.’
Bel says, ‘I’m always researching new ways of doing things. Clients want variety. They don’t want to be doing push ups, squats and lunges all the time. They can do that at home. Also, I make the workouts challenging but fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.’
Article written by Analee Matthews for What’s New In Fitness Magazine – Autumn 2013 edition.