Matt: Around the age of 30 you transitioned from your first career as a college baseball coach to working in the fitness industry as a fitness manager for a sports and performance center and then a big box gym. What attracted you to becoming a fitness professional?
Pat: While I was coaching at the university I was also the strength and conditioning and taught in the sport sciences department. I had actually gotten my first personal training certification the way back in like 1996 and had even moonlighted a little bit as a personal trainer along with private baseball skill instruction just to make some money. The only two things that I think I had any professional interest in were baseball and then fitness, strength, and conditioning. When I made the transition I think I wanted to explore opportunities on the fitness side of things because it seemed like there would be a lot more opportunity for me to do something entrepreneurial. In the baseball job market most of the opportunities I had felt like traditional employer-employee environments, whether it was at the level I was at all the way through trying to pursue a career in professional baseball. No matter what I would be working for someone else. The more I thought about it the more I felt drawn to the entrepreneurial path. The fitness industry was growing at this time and there were a variety of different potential paths to pursue. I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue a career focused on mainstream fitness or a blend of baseball skill development with strength and conditioning. I thought that working in the private sector of fitness was going to help me sort that out and could fill in some gaps for areas that I didn't really have a lot of knowledge.
Matt: Awesome, so it sounds like you pursued this path to gain more experience and learn from these other companies before you made the jump to starting a company of your own from scratch?
Pat: Well, I don’t know if it was as planned out as that. I felt like I needed to just gain some sort of practical knowledge of the business side. Prior to starting work as a fitness manager almost all of my experience was focused on fitness and sports performance in a university setting. Sure, I knew how to train athletes and knew how to coach players. I had dabbled in marketing, sales, and recruited athletes for our program. I had even run a few camps on the business side, but I knew that if I was going to make a real go of this that there was just so much that I didn't know. It seemed that working for another company was the fastest path to gaining this experience and almost being like an apprentice. I wanted to learn from people who were already doing this rather than going back and trying to get an MBA.
Matt: So in those first few years, when you're working as a fitness manager in a big box setting, what were the biggest lessons that you learned?
Pat: So the first job I had right after coaching college baseball was running a sports performance business, basically a baseball academy. The first thing that hit me was how seasonal that type of business was. The business really struggled and frankly that created an opportunity for me. The company had struggled during the summer and I was able to come in and kind of turn the tide in the summer by just being very proactive with going out and marketing. I wasn’t going to sit around and wait for business to come to me. So, that was probably the first lesson, that small businesses aren’t just victim of circumstance. Sure, baseball players were out playing games in the summer so they were probably a little less inclined to be doing lessons, but they still wanted to get better. Especially so if they weren't thriving during their season. Kids also still wanted to go to camps during that season. So I figured that if I went out and really was proactive with marketing, I could maybe eliminate some of the seasonality of the business. For my second job I had a really interesting fast track experience. I was managing the fitness department in one facility and within the matter of two months I was running all the personal training teams for Gold Gyms in the entire state of Kentucky. This was a big operation because at that time the organization that owned these locations was the biggest Gold's Gym franchise group in the world. That group eventually rebranded, started their own thing, and then sold it off to LA fitness (I think). During this experience the thing that I had to learn pretty quickly was to understand the basic numbers for what it took to create revenue. I had to understand the difference between top line revenue and actual profit. I learned, from a numbers standpoint, how many people we had to drive into the business and close with our sales to get the numbers we wanted as an organization. Sales as a skillset is still an area that's uncomfortable for a lot of people in our industry. It was difficult for me in the beginning as well. I’d grown up in an area that wasn’t very wealthy and hadn’t made a lot of money as a baseball coach prior to this. We were selling a service, personal training, that still wasn’t a normal service for people to pay for yet at this point in time. For me personally it took a little bit of time to get past the money hangups, but once I understood the value that the services could provide it helped me with my confidence in selling it. I would go out there, set daily targets, and focus on just producing each and every day. It really transformed my career andI would say really played a part in the business growth for every business that I've had since.
Matt: So after a few years you did open a personal training business of your own and then a health club as well. These businesses were your testing ground to learn how to really succeed in the industry on your own. This eventually led you to growing a franchising business and then your fitness business consulting which you've been doing for quite some time now. Looking back to the very beginning, when you switched from managing and working for a big company to being an owner, what were the biggest challenges you had?
Pat: The first challenge was simply not having a safety net, right? I had always had some degree of security and I think that's the biggest difference between being an employee and an entrepreneur. As an employee you've got a base salary or an hourly wage. Fortunately, I had always sort of felt like I was kind of the square peg in the round hole when I was coaching baseball. I just don't think I was that great of an employee. I wanted to control my own destiny more than I could in that sort of environment. So when I started my own business I was very comfortable with the lack of security. I've always been a planner. I plan my day and am very focused on setting monthly, weekly and daily goals. I mapped out how many appointments we needed to set, how many sales we needed to close, and how much recurring revenue we needed to have. I just became really focused on making these businesses work. I think that part of the drive for me was this fear of having to go back and say that I have to coach baseball again (laughing). Now coaching baseball had been a part of my life for 26 years at that point in time, but I didn't want to go back and say that I was going to go back to coaching baseball because I failed at this other thing. So I was pretty driven to succeed there. What I didn't realize was that all that time I had spent coaching had helped me develop the skills on how to write out plans, develop staff and players, and so on. I was really comfortable with coaching new staff members up and not just to help them be effective in delivering services to clients, but effective as salespeople. This allowed us to scale very quickly. I think I just was able to borrow a lot of my previous experiences as an employee in the fitness industry and as a college baseball coach. The beauty of being a startup at that point was that I had the ability to go in as early as I wanted and to stay as long as I wanted to make it work. I had enough experience that I was able to correlate with that business opportunity to make it go pretty quickly. There was never a day where we were comfortable with the status quo. We were constantly figuring out what we could do to sell more effectively. We were always trying to figure out how we could generate more leads. What systems could we build to provide as new services for our clients like nutritional coaching? It was just this wonderful little laboratory that, like you said, really kind of played a big part in everything that happened thereafter. Our first location grew to over 420 clients in about 18 months and it was in a town of around 23,000 people in the middle of Kentucky. So not exactly what I'd call like a hotbed for personal training (laughing).
Matt: When did you realize that there was a business opportunity to move into franchising and fitness business consulting? Looking at the timeline you made this move around 15 years ago. Who was your target customer at the time?
Pat: The sequence of events was that the first location went really well and grew quickly. Our second location was a blend of a health club, it was actually an Anytime Fitness Health Club. Along with a few business partners we were franchisee number 33. This was very early on when Anytime Fitness only had around three employees or something like that. We had a training business inside that club and it grew very rapidly as well. Around that time there were a few people regionally who heard about the success our businesses were having and asked if we could help them out. This was the first time that I thought about packaging up some expertise and sharing it. I took our team to attend a conference and watched the presenters share their content. These people were impacting others well out of their geographic market. The presenters were talking about marketing and sales and all I could think about was that we were doing better numbers than the people on the stage and we were in the middle of nowhere in Kentucky! We realized that maybe this was a better path to scaling compared to just opening up location after location. So, I came up with an idea for packaging up a product for that. What we had done that had worked so well, and I knew I didn't have an audience at the time, so I went and collaborated with another gentleman by the name of Eric Ruth. Together we launched this first product. After that launch I ended up putting together a couple other online programs and eventually built a subscription based coaching program. This move into doing business coaching created more opportunities to partner in other businesses for us as well. We worked with education companies, equipment companies, and others who offered us equity stakes to help grow their businesses. So that was kind of the next phase in that consulting role. We did coaching groups, masterminds, and then our first franchise. One of the companies that I was a partner with, a youth fitness and sports performance certification organization, had a big opportunity in terms of offering business education. We launched this initial franchise, Athletic Revolution, and it eventually grew to just over 70 locations. Around the time there were 20 locations it became obvious that we could take this same type of format, the same type of structure, and really focus on and improve business coaching. Our customers were already leaning on us for business advice, so we just moved that relationship to a franchise structure and it allowed for very rapid growth. In the first year with this new company, Fitness Revolution, I personally sold 116 franchises over the phone. I think 112 of them were people who had previously purchased our services and products. We had a very different offering than other franchise brokers at the time. We were really trying to upgrade the service, the experience, and the support that my company was already providing through business coaching.
Matt: What led to you moving on from Fitness Revolution and starting your own business?
Pat: Well I had a handful of business partners across our various companies. The two franchise organizations, Athletic Revolution and Fitness Revolution, were essentially sister organizations. I had one primary business partner who handled a lot of the operations side of things and I spent my time working on the sales, marketing, coaching, and vision. I didn't have to go and seek out a buyer. It was interesting, once we started to gain some traction and get recognition from media, such as Entrepreneur magazine, we’d have private equity companies reach out to do due diligence and try to learn a little bit more about us. That never really went anywhere. Eventually I wanted to move on and the people who were already involved just wanted to buy out my stake in the business. I had gotten to a place where I knew that I wanted to maybe craft a business from scratch. Prior to this all of my work had involved partnering and acquiring a stake into businesses. I just wanted to build something the way that I wanted to build it. There was some thought into the lifestyle aspect of this as well. I've got a family with two kids that are growing up quickly and I didn’t want to miss out on any of that. I didn’t want to spend as much time as I had flying across the country to host events and train new franchisees. I wanted to create what I coined “My Ideal Business”. I had mixed feelings about it because I'm definitely a coach, first and foremost. There was a large group of people that I was responsible for bringing into the organization, so that was tough. But I felt very confident in saying that this was the right step in my journey. It was the best thing for my family and it was the right way for me to move forward to make an impact. So, the partners and I negotiated and completed the transaction at the end of 2014. I launched my next endeavor in early 2015 and have kind of been moving forward with that ever since.
Matt: So to summarize what you’ve been doing over the last five years since you’ve been building your brand for offering fitness business consulting, writing books, and have worked with a ton of businesses over the last five years. Can you summarize your current business offerings and day-to-day role?
Pat: For the most part I focus on coaching people to build their business through The Ideal Business coaching programs. The programs cover everything from helping a business owner build the type of business they want to specific areas such as driving revenue, lead generation, and system implementation. These specialty programs are intended to help those who feel they have an area that can be improved with their business. I have a small team that coaches alongside me. We spend most of our time coaching our clients and connecting with new people through our emails and podcasts. It’s definitely been a win across the board. What was probably the most fulfilling part of all this is that so many of the people that I worked with previously through other businesses have come over and worked with us through these coaching programs from the very beginning. I had a pre-existing relationship with almost every client we have. So, I've kind of had the best of both worlds. I've been able to work with the right people in the right format and still do it in a way that is very family and lifestyle friendly.
Matt: Can you define your ideal customer a bit further? Single location gym owners? Sports and performance facilities? Multi-location? Who is the best fit for your services?
Pat: A small facility owner with up to a few locations. It doesn’t really matter if they are one-on-one private training, semi-private training, or group training. Frankly I like working with a variety of training environments. I like being able to solve different problems. The owners we work with are driven, they want to be better. They take pride in their craft. As a coach at heart I'm very attracted to working with people who really want to be market leaders in delivering results and providing a high quality service, not just the market leader in transactions. Our customers have typically been doing business for a while and have a feeling for where they are strong and where they aren’t. That’s who we gravitate towards working with. On the other end, I think our customers gravitate towards the Ideal Business philosophy that I talk about. They don't want to be operating a business like a startup 10 years, 15 years, 20 years in.
Matt: As the son of a small business owner I definitely feel the same type of connection whenever I talk to a gym or studio owner. So let’s transition over to where we are today. It’s 2020 and Covid-19 has shaken the fitness industry to its core. You’ve just released a book, The Hybrid Gym Handbook, that discusses a training service that I think is more important than ever before. At StrengthPortal we’re a big fan of this training service, we’ve designed our entire platform to support the combination of in-person and online personal training. We’re seeing a giant shift as we speak with gyms adding software so they can extend their services beyond the gym and offer online remote personal training. Can you talk about where your inspiration for the Hybrid Gym Handbook came from?
Pat: The experience that led to this book came from starting a fitness business, but not growing up in the traditional personal training world. When we initially opened our first training business the area wasn’t one that we felt like it was going to invest into the traditional one-on-one private training service offering. It just wasn’t a wealthy town. We spent time thinking about how we could give these people a service that would help them achieve their results without meeting in-person three days a week. So from day one our training business offered training service options where you could come in twice a month to meet with a personal trainer and receive a workout program with up to three sessions a week provided. Within the first couple of months we even added a once a month in-person option. This wasn’t foreign to me because I came from a small budget university. I had designed training programs, but I couldn't supervise every individual athletes training session. It may have been unique in the fitness industry at the time, but we didn’t know that. So our business from day one was designed to supervise some in-person sessions, but also to write a program for you to do on your own. Our clients had access to email, phone, or just come up to in the gym and ask a trainer if they had any questions. The second piece to this is that we were very close to the Fort Knox military base. They had four gyms on post and some of our clients there would say that they wanted to do their workouts at their own gyms. Another complication was that people would be transferred to other bases and we wanted to try to keep them as a client. So we just trained people virtually if it fit their needs and would send them a program for the next month. This was back in 2004. When I released my first information product with Eric Ruth in 2006 we actually wrote about this hybrid personal training model. This isn’t really new. The big difference now is that software like StrengthPortal is available and the hardware we use is so much better than before. Things are so much easier to work with a client remotely, it’s much more convenient than before. Our clients had to print out pages and pages of programs and exercise descriptions in the early days to bring into the gym (laughing). Another piece of the puzzle that helped me was my wife started training people online and delivering workouts through eBooks, membership sites, DVDs, streaming workouts, and all of that stuff back in 2007. So she’s got 13 years of experience with this stuff. The industry has gradually been moving towards this blended approach, this fusion between offline and online, which we had a lot of experience with. It’s not theory, it’s not a book that was put out in desperation of trying to make things work. We’ve been doing this for as long as I’ve been in the commercial fitness industry. My wife has probably had around 35,000 customers go through her programs, so we’ve spent a lot of time seeing what worked and what didn’t. So the idea of the Hybrid Gym Handbook was basically just to give somebody a simplistic blueprint for how to put a plan in place that allows you to deliver hybrid personal training. Whether you’re meeting with a client once a month, once a quarter, three times a week, it doesn’t really matter. Our job as personal trainers and coaches is to take our clients from where they are to where they aspire to be. We can do that whether we’re meeting face-to-face, or if we’re relegated to Zoom, or whatever other software platform you choose to work with. Fortunately I know that the clients we work with adapted pretty well to the Covid-19 challenges. Their clients just see hybrid and online training as normal services. It’s where things are going. The consumer just views you as their coach and knows that you are going to help them get the result that they want to get.
Matt: That’s super interesting to me because one of the things I’m always trying to learn from these interviews is the history of the fitness industry. I started following strength coaches online in high school around 2006-2008 and then we founded StrengthPortal in 2013, so there’s all of this rich knowledge and history that I’m not familiar with. So with that in mind, since hybrid personal training has been around for so long what do you think has been holding gym owners and personal trainers back from offering this? Why isn’t it more common than it is today? The benefits seem so obvious for all parties involved.
Pat: Well the first thing that I think of is that people just don't like change, right? Most of us aren’t likely to change unless there's something driving them to change. The Covid pandemic has really forced a lot of gym owners and trainers' hands. When your livelihood has relied on people walking through the front door of your facility it’s scary for a lot of people to try a new format. So that’s the first part of this, the second is that trainers were probably hesitant to change because they didn’t want to get push back from their clients. If clients were unwilling to change or adapt then it’s easy to think that you’re at risk for losing that client. Now clients have been forced to get through these learning curves with how to use the technology and access online training from their coaches. Just getting past those simple friction points has been the biggest thing slowing this movement down. One more important aspect to this is that it’s taken until just these last few years for small fitness business owners to get comfortable with marketing. In today’s world you’re now competing with your marketing across the entire globe and not just targeting the individuals that live within a ten minute drive of your gym. This can feel overwhelming for gym owners and trainers who previously relied on in-person referrals. Co-workers, neighbors, and close friends, that sort of thing. It just changes the rules for small business owners. Looking back, that's why I was able to make the move to hybrid training without any reservations, I didn’t have anything I was changing from. It was all new to me. I was just looking for what I perceived to be the optimal solution.
Matt: Another reason I wanted to reach out to you was that you’re really connected to these small business gym owners in our industry. I’m not sure that the customer segment really understands how great of a position they are in right now. To give a bit of context, when we work with a large gym chain it takes years to implement a new training service. It’s just a massive undertaking from start to finish. Small business owners can make these moves in weeks or days. Almost every gym and studio I know added online Zoom training overnight. As they start to transition back to normal they can easily add a more sustainable and structured setup with in-person training, hybrid training, and online training. The gym member has more cost-effective and flexible training service options, the trainer has more flexibility and can increase their revenue, and the business as a whole is more resilient than before. It’s a win-win-win, which is incredibly rare. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this opportunity.
Pat: Personally I feel like there isn’t an alternative to structuring your fitness business like this. You’re either going to be adopting it now or you're going to be left in the wake of those who did. This doesn’t mean that you have to expand and try to market nationally or internationally. It just means that consumers want things when they want them. People are always going to want things in a more convenient way. If you look at a restaurant that didn’t embrace delivery or takeout they are facing the consequences of that decision right now. You have to remember that we live in a world where consumers can get basically anything delivered to their doors in two days from Amazon. You can get a virtual stylist to virtually deliver their services while sitting on your couch through Stitch Fix. No one stayed with the horse and the buggy, they adapted to driving cars. Convenience is always going to be the most important thing. The fitness industry has been fairly inflexible up to this point. If you had a dentist appointment at the same time as your training session then you wouldn’t get to do your training session. It shouldn’t be that way. If you remove everything from hybrid training and just focus on the fact that it will allow you to stay connected to your clients and be more convenient for them it’s a win. The beauty of it is that once you get started there are more benefits downstream as well, hybrid training allows you to cast a much wider net for people who may not be able to come in. I think about where I live in Louisville, Kentucky, for example, and if there was a gym that I was interested in that was downtown. It might take me an hour round trip, three days a week to go train there. That would probably prohibit me from going there because there are other options that would be closer and more convenient. However, if I felt this gym was the best fit for me I might be willing to go there once a week and get the rest of the training remotely. That to me is another massive opportunity because there are plenty of things that we'll do that aren't necessarily in our neighborhood, but we're not going to do them three or four days a week. There are just so many ways that somebody can take this kind of hybrid personal training model. You can make it where your business is primarily virtual. You could make it where their business is a blend of online and in-person. You could just use the online component as a way to better serve the people who are walking in the gym at least a couple days a week. If you're not acknowledging the fact that people are going to want access to coaching, support, and a community you’re missing out. The best thing you can do as a gym owner or trainer is to start now.
Matt: I couldn’t agree more. To wrap this up is, in the long-term we know we're going to be recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Gyms are just starting to open their doors across the country and as you said it’s the perfect opportunity to get started with hybrid training. What do you think the industry is going to look like in the next 3-5 years?
Pat: Some of the gyms that were kind of on life support, whether it's the bigger gym chains or the smaller independent ones. This is probably going to be that last nail in the coffin for them. There’s probably going to be some thinning of the herd, if you will. The gyms that connect clients outside of the training sessions on site are obviously going to be more resilient. Boutique franchises in particular that have been so reliant on volume and group training are probably going to have to figure out a way to do more direct coaching. From what I’ve seen it seems like they have had a really hard time during the shutdown compared to gyms that had a more client-centric approach. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. On the consumer side, more and more people will give more time and attention to doing something virtual whether it's hiring an online trainer or Peloton. The fear of learning new technology is largely gone. With this new focus on remote fitness from the consumer it could really provide a lot of opportunities for specialization by personal trainers. The specialist will probably outperform the generalist If we're not limited by geography, then I want the best option available. The consumer isn’t limited anymore and that’s a real opportunity for all of us.
Matt: It really will be interesting to watch. Thanks again Pat, I really appreciate your time and enjoyed hearing your story.
If you'd like to connect with Pat, please check out the links below:
Subscribe to StrengthPortal Blog
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox