KX Pilates Aaron Smith Talks Business, Family, and the Future

Tony Zonato had the pleasure of pinning the founder of KX Pilates Aaron Smith down for a candid conversation about how he balances business, family, and his vision for the future. Check out the video below to see the interview in full, or you can scroll down to read the full transcript.

You recently released your book, "Define Yourself". Is this something you had burning for a while, or was it more of a sudden itch that needed to be scratched?

Define Yourself started when I moved to Sydney in 2014. My PR girl at the time was like, “You need to start writing about your journey of KX”, but I shelved it multiple times over the years, mainly because I hadn’t felt like I’d finished my journey that the book kind of needed for me to finish it. Selina came on board as CEO in 2018, so I thought, great – now I can talk about where I’m sidestepping to in the business. Covid came along in 2020, and the publishers said, “You need to write a whole other chapter on that and the experiences there” A lot of innovation came through in those years as well.

So, it started in 2014, was shelved probably ten or eleven times, and it wasn’t until I actually broke my ankle twelve months ago – almost to the day – and I was sitting obviously for a long time in recovery so that was like, right, now’s the time! Last December was the time to really finish it off and tick the box.

Did the process of writng the book make you reflect on any experiences and see them in a different light?

Reflect? 100%. The whole book is about the journey of KX… the highs and lows of business, the way I was brought up personally, how I got into business and founded the style of dynamic Pilates and started KX Pilates as well. The expensive lessons that I learned, the people – so important in my journey cos without the people who have been by my side from the early beginning, all the way to the franchise partners that joined our brand… we just wouldn’t be where we are today.

So, 100% reflection. I’m always reflecting though, so in terms of whether it highlighted anything that I might have done differently or whatever… I already knew. Doing interviews and podcasts and this sort of stuff, it’s a common questions – what would you do if you had your time over, so it didn’t really bring any light to it, but as certainly great t reflect.

What's something that felt like a failure at the time, that later turned out to be a success or for the best?

One of the key things I talk about is innovating either external to your core, or internal. When I first started franchising KX Pilates in 2013, I got my first couple of franchise fees in and instead of putting that money back into the brand to grow, the entrepreneurial spirit in my brain started light bulbs going off – this was pre kids for me, so I was travelling a lot in America and Europe, and I came back going “Right, lets start multiple brands under the KX banner.

We opened six ballet / barre studios under KX, a KX cycle brand similar to Soul Cycle in the US, we launched a retreats company out of Bali, taking clients there multiple times a year and an assisted yoga brand as well.  Many different things, which were all successful in their on right, but;
1 – I was never really passionate about any of them. My love was still for dynamic Pilates, and;
2 – It took me off the core of the business.

So, probably three years, over half a million dollars, and the energy and time spent on those… I always think back and go – They weren’t failures, but in terms if I had put the time and energy back into the KX Pilates brand… where would I be today?

It wasn’t until 2016, when I went to the International Franchise Conference over in America that I listened to the CEO of a barber shop over there – similar to Just Cuts, with about 2500 units in America. He got up and talked about  innovating within your own brand. All they do is cut hair, but they do it well and they innovate within it and that’s how they grow… that’s how they develop.

I came home from that trip, de-badged all the brands and sold them off, and then solely worked on KX Pilates ever since and it’s been an exponential lift since then.

With a young family, life can be a hamster wheel of activities. What measures do you take to keep balance between family time and focusing on business?

I have an 8 yr old, a 6 yr old and a 2 yr old and for me, I’m very grateful for the position that I’m in, because I did step out of that CEO role 5 years ago just to focus more on my family. I have more of a founder role, more about relationships, innovation, international, so the things I really, really love doing. Running a franchise was something I realised that I wasn’tb very good at, nor did I love doing.

It’s all about being present in the moment. I don’t work incredibly hard these days, like I did. I work incredibly hard on my family. We moved up to the Sunshine Coast two years ago and only six months in, my wife said “We need a KX Pilates up here because there’s not one” So, she’s now back in the thick of it running a studio with her best friend here. That throws a bit more responsibility of the family on me, which I absolutely love. Being present when with the family is huge. A big thing for me is I’ve turned all notifications off my phone. I don’t get notified for emails, for a WhatsApp message… it’s literally a phone call, or a normal message on my phone and apart from that, I check my phone when I have time and its not something that I’m a slave to. That was really big for me.

You really have to try hard to be present. It’s so easy to get distracted, especially with young kids. I also try to be a friend, not just a parent. it’s one thing to parent your children, but its another thing to actually play with your children as well. It’s really important to get down on our hands and knees and be a part of their world as well, which is great.

Your wife, Andy is also an owner of KX Pilates, how has working together impacted on your relationship and what advice to do you have for couples who want to go into business together?

Great question. Andy was by my side from the very beginning. We met about a month after I started KX Pilates in 2010. She was in corporate automotive and had a marketing, and systems / IT background. She was helping me a lot behind the scenes, but it wasn’t until 2013, she saw that the business was growing and probably needed her help because I’m so far away from processes and systems in my specialties. She came in and really systemised the whole business, which is so important in franchising. She was incredibly important in those years to get the business going in the franchise sense, and then she was marketing manager for years, as well.

We have had that many disagreements in business, especially in the early years, when we worked alongside of each other, because our relationship and our personal lives are extremely equal, and that’s very hard to replicate in the business world… especially when the founder is the husband Plus, back then it was still my business… obviously, it’s our business now, fourteen years later.

Knowing your own roles is extremely important. We started working really well when I stepped away from being her boss and we started looking at the business as, “This is now ours. What are your strengths and what are your weaknesses? What are your specialties? Great… You go handle that side of the business and I’ll 100% trust you to do that. Just come and tell me about it rather than asking for my advice or getting a sign off for it and I’ll go do my thing.”

The higher level strategy, such as what country we’re going into next – all those bigger decisions… we talk about it, but that’s my decision at the end of the day. In terms of marketing, systems and stuff she’s still involved in, including her studio – I completely stay away from it. It’s having that 100% trust and understanding of each other’s abilities and mutual respect for one another that’s really important.

KX have a custom reformer built by Balanced Body. What's so unique about these reformers?

The KXformer came about in 2016. I was at the Singapore Licensing & Franchise Expo a few times and we had multiple investors coming up – we had big posters in the background of our current equipment at the time – they said, “Are these yours? Do you have trademarks on them, patents, etc.?” We customised them slightly back then, but very, very small customisations that anyone could really do themselves too, or copy. I always knew that in order for us to grow in Asia, South East Asia, you need your own equipment or you’re going to get copied straight away.

At the same time, we had a lot of independent studios opening up – mostly our trainers – who couldn’t buy a franchise in the area’s that they wanted to in Melbourne or Sydney, so they would go and open up their own independents. Obviously, location’s key, when people want to work where they live, etc. We’ll call them KX copycat studios. Under a different brand name, they’d put the exact same thing, exact same campaigns, exact same intro offers, exact same price pack – everything was the same, except the name on the door, pretty much.

We do pride ourselves on our education at KX, and our specific education that trainers go through for their seven week, hundred hour academy, but I knew that the equipment was really special to get right in terms of they couldn’t go anywhere else to have it.

The journey started – I originally went to Balanced Body. Being the number one manufacturer in the world and we having thirty studios at the time, they kind of laughed and said, “The amount of time it would take for us to stop production, just to slot yours in, and then start up again – we’d be losing money, so it’s a hard no.”

So, I went down the Chinese manufacturing route for a few years and ended up having three models made. Ninety three were put in to my company studios in Mebourne. They were good, but they weren’t exceptional.

Balanced Body equipment is very, very good already, so I just knew that I didn’t want to continue down that path unless they were exceptional. We had a Mercedes – I wanted to pout a Porsche in our studios.

It wasn’t until my joint venture with China came about and the growth targets that China wanted to hit before Covid came along meant my Chinese manufacturer actually couldn’t meet the demand that they were asking for.

So, we went back to Balanced Body, and they were like “Ah, you’re probably going outside of Australia. You’re soon getting to be a international brand… Ok, we can start talking to you now because it’s going to be more than a couple of machines.”

That as the great thing about Covid. Obviously, it stopped the studios day-to-day. My wife, Andy was very involved in the systems and the IT stuff we had to do for online. Apart from looking after my kids, I had a lot of time on my hands, so then that went to developing the Balanced Body KXformer, which is a hybrid model of one of their machines, the A2, but it has handles and a top end platform that just enabled us to bring more variety to the KX repertoire so more exercises can be performed.

Because KX is a very intense workout with limited rest, it enables the intensity to be lifted. We can keep the same spring tension, but then go up to the top end of the platform and do multiple other exercises straight off the back of how we normally would use the machine.

Lastly, exclusivity – we’re really proud because Balanced Body is a seventy year old brand, and we’re the first company in it’s existence to do an exclusive deal with them. They’re very, very litigious in the world in terms of people copying their stuff as well, so we have them as our backer. You can’t buy a KXformer off them – it’s specifically in KX Pilates studios. We hold security in our studios, so if a studio ever shut down or closed, then they’ve got to sell back to Head Office, so it holds the exclusivity and the IP in the company now, which is fantastic.

And it looks incredible. It was the world of Instagram as well, and we had these dark, black, old Balanced Body machines now light, bright, white – it’s really nice. It worked out really well.

We’re about 95% full in studios. Obviously, we’ve had a transition period over a couple of years, so we’re almost there, which is fantastic.

What's the biggest misconceptions you see about Pilates?

“Is it like yoga?” is the first one!

Let’s look at the last fourteen years of KX. We started in 2010, when there was a Pilates studio bolted on to every physiotherapy clinic in Australia. That’s what Pilates was. It was clinical Pilates, and they did one-on-one or small groups up to six people, and that was really because they found that to elongate their clients’ lifespan by another ten weeks minimum, they had a Pilates studio. Then, they could go from physiotherapy to Pilates, which is fantastic for rehabilitation purposes.

Exercise Pilates was just not there. Athletic Pilates, high intensity Pilates, dynamic Pilates – whatever you want to call it… it just wasn’t there. Reformer Pilates wasn’t there. Traditionalists thought of the reformer as an intermediate to advanced apparatus to use, so you always started on the floor, which is why in every big box gym, there was floor Pilates. Floor Pilates is quite boring. You walk out after a couple of weeks going, “I didn’t really feel like I had a workout then”, because it’s still that generic sort of level. There were a couple of brands like our competitors, Studio Pilates – that’s a more generic reformer. They’d been around for a couple of years prior to us, but again – they taught generic reformer. It was for anyone coming in, the intensity like KX wasn’t there, the sequencing in our repertoire wasn’t there, they teach off screens – again, very different to us. You’ll never see a screen in KX Pilates – it’s an instructor led class.

There’s many different things about the world of Pilates, which we live in at the moment, but the awareness is the big thing. The Pilates world is very black and white for the classical traditionalists, so you’re either doing it right, or you’re doing it wrong and there’s nothing in the middle, which is probably why we gained popularity when I was in London, teaching dynamic Pilates there. It started in America and London was there with Joseph Pilates back in the day, and it was very elite, very illustrious world and if you were doing it wrong, then ‘how dare you’, sort of thing!

We were the rebellious ones that were grabbing an apparatus and putting into a fitness environment, and people loved it. I used to laugh at that –  it probably worked really with my personality too, because I was always doing things outside of the norm. I challenged the box all the time, thinking outside of it. So, that’s why it really worked for us. I awareness is still number one though. Our marketing team last year did some research and I think it’s only 17% of the population know what reformer Pilates is, which is just crazy. I mean, it’s the world that I live in. I think it’s slowly getting in there –  it’s never been as popular as it is today.

The whole deal with low impact, but high intensity is huge. I mean, look at the F45’s of the world and the CrossFits – that sort of stuff… don’t get me wrong – I’m a big CrossFitter myself – but, it’s very easy to get it wrong, get injured, or as we age as well, its just not the right thing for our body. Or to obsessed with the sport and do it six days a week when your body should only be doing it three days a week… there’s a lot of different things there.

Pilates is definitely still on the up and it’s for all different levels, which is incredible… all different age groups, which is incredible… but, yeah, that low impact and high intensity is what’s important.

Another misconception is that it’s for women only. KX is still sitting at 75% – 80% female clientele, but it’s so good for guys. It’s incredible for mobility especially in our hips, which is terrible because of all the  fast and quick sports we play and plus just because also guys are so bad at flexibility compared to our lady friends. In saying that, it does attract the right guys as well. So, the big giants in the gyms that are grunting – they’re not really welcome in our studios, but it is fantastic for everyone. That’s what’s so good about it.

It’s so good that there are so many other brands coming now in Pilates that are male focused. Strong is very much both sex focused – they’ve thrown the rower in there. One of my franchise partners who sold out has opened Platform in Adelaide. Again, very much male focused and has heavier weights in his reformer classes. It’s great that there are so many more options for people.

You recently opened up applications for a $20,000 travel grant to support one lucky entrepreneur. What was the response like?

It was incredible. As part of the book launch, my incredible PR company had the idea of a travel grant – Australia’s first ever entrepreneurial travel grant, which really touched me because I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to travel when I was younger. Travel changed my life and shaped me into the person who I was, and I found the style of dynamic Pilates over in London, which is why KX Pilates exists. 

But, not everyone has that opportunity, so for us to now be in a position… I looked at the book, which talked about;
 – The journey;
 – The highs and lows;
 – It was hitting the young entrepreneur, the start-up, and;
 – There’s a chapter on franchising in there – is your business franchisable?
 – What to look for if you want to join a franchise;
 – All the things to look for if you want to become a franchisor as well… a lot of things I’ve learned along the way, because I get a lot of questions about franchising.

But I couldn’t really target people with just an idea who wanted to bring it to life and get it off the ground, so I thought this was an incredible opportunity to give a savvy, up-and-coming entrepreneur in Australia $20,000 to travel, go and see the world, go and look at how else people are doing things on the other side of the world, or even close by in Asia. It was great – we had just under a hundred applications and it was really good looking through them as well. I had such an incredible couple of weeks going through the applications, and oh my God, there are so many incredible humans who are upcoming in the next generations.

I would say two things stood out; Starting businesses that are going to save our planet, and starting businesses to change people’s lives. They were the two main focus points. There were none really that were going “Hey, I’ve got this product, and I’m going to make a million bucks from it. Can you please help me?” The purpose behind these ideas were really, really good.

It also came with a twelve month mentorship from myself and my team, so I had to pick one where I could also give back as much as possible, not only myself and my background, but my connections in my business groups and how I could really pull in. It was fantastic, but unfortunately I can’t tell you the idea that we did select, but Brianna Dalgleish – she’s from NSW and she’s a great woman. She’s a physiotherapist by trade, as is her husband, so there’s some really cool ideas coming out and yeah, we’ll see where it takes us. It was a really, really good campaign… it was great.

Does your business look different now to how you imagined it when you first started?

One hundred percent. I always knew I was going to go down the franchise path. I remember in 2013 – my lawyer at the time doing my documentation we were trying to map out – I sold territories back then because we just didn’t think there would be many studios around. We mapped out I think nine or eleven in Melbourne. We’ve got thirty eight now so the growth has been incredible.

I never thought boutique fitness would be as popular, but the way that F45, BFT… those sort of brands really lifted. They started in 2013, a couple of years after us, but they paved the way for people to spend money on their fitness. I was dealing with people in the 24/7 gym world going, “Why am I going to spend thirty dollars with you for one class when for twelve bucks I can go and join the local Snap or Jetts?”

So, that was my problem for three years, but when these big guys came in… again, completely different to us. It worked well for us because people overtrained themselves and then came to KX which was good, but it was also great because sixty or seventy dollars a week on fitness… that’s three classes, four classes on a certain type of pack at KX, which is fantastic. Also it’s great because unlike those brands which are membership based, you’ve got to do that and nothing else. We were never membership based, so it was always about; you can do Pilates once a week to benefit you if you’re an athlete or you want something else to add to your normal exercise regime; or you can be a solid KX-er six days a week, which we have as well, so there’s something for everyone and it improves everyone’s life. And that’s our purpose at KX – to change lives for the better – and it works really well.

Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?

Five years time? We are currently, as we speak, in six countries. We’re still dominant in Australia – we just opened our 100th and 101st studios two weeks ago, which was a huge milestone, and we’ve got about twelve studios across New Zealand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, and China. They’re all in their infancy / concept stages, just getting their brands before they start franchising as well. Covid affected their growth substantially, so they’re all just coming out which is great.

So, I think in five years time, we would be expected to then be hitting the other Western speaking countries like America, Canada, UK, Ireland – those sort of places. We’ve done our hard work in southeast Asia, which a lot of brands try and stay away from. It’s very, very hard hitting the different cultures, different laws… obviously the language barrier has been difficult too. Luckily, we’ve got some amazing trainers who speak Mandarin and a few others, which is really good, but we’ve found some really good partners there, so that’s where we’ll be internationally.

I see education coming in to play a really big part. At the moment, we train our trainers up, but – just say if you wanted to become a Pilates instructor – we would then handball you to a third party who we work closely with to get you to the stage where we can then teach you the KX method. But, there is an end-to-end opportunity there, where we can really mould someone from the start and teach them. Obviously that’s a completely different business, but one which we will either acquire or work really closely with to move that up… so I see that happening as well.

Our apparel range is going really well. Our client apparel range was always something we wanted just to tick the box with… so, that’s where we are. We’re 112 studios… our goal is 500 globally, but in terms of time frames… we might hit that in three to five years, but if it takes longer, it takes longer. That’s the beautiful thing about being independent and family run. Selina has her numbers to hit, but in saying that, there’s no pressure that she’s going to get fired if she doesn’t because we live a very, very comfortable life… we pay her good money to run the business, but we’re very, very happy with where we are. We moved up to the Sunshine Coast from Melbourne two years ago, so I’m just enjoying family life. I’ve got my daughter for the next three years before she goes to school… it’s a nice place to be.

What's the best investment you've made in your business or in yourself?

I joined an entrepreneurs organisation in 2014, so I’ve been a member for nearly ten years and it has been by far the best investment for me personally because we look at all areas of your life – relationships, personal, business. The business learnings that I’ve got out of it, the mentorship I’ve got out of it – hands down worth every cent I’ve spent with that organisation.

Can you share the best piece of advice you've ever received?

I was lucky enough to go to Las Vegas when I was eighteen with a failed nutrition company. Well, the company wasn’t failed – I failed at it because I hated selling products… but I saw the late Jim Rohn speak, and he told me; “Care more about your customers than you do about the money that you make from them and you will be successful”. I’ve thought about that quote almost every day of my life since.

Name a business milestone that has made you proud:

One hundred studios internationally was it with my wife opening KX Noosa in February this year, which was pretty special.

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