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Interview with Special Strong's Daniel Stein

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Matt: I really appreciate you sharing your time for this interview Daniel. I’ve been looking forward to this!. So I'm a big believer that the combination of gyms, community, and quality personal training can have an incredibly strong positive influence on people's lives. From my research before this interview it seems like this reflects your own experience. You’ve written about how you were diagnosed at an early age with a learning disability and credit getting a gym membership as an experience that changed your life. Can you share your story about the challenges you had when you were younger and then what it was like for you to be introduced to health and fitness in middle school?

Daniel: Yeah, absolutely. I had a lot of challenges when I was younger that started at the age of four. I was diagnosed with a learning disability and I had to see a lot of different doctors and counselors to eventually get the right medication and counseling for myself. When I started school I had all of these behavior outbursts. I didn’t really fit in with the other children and had trouble making friends because of my behavior. I felt very isolated. Eventually my parents got me involved in sports which helped a lot. This was the first exposure I had to the world of health and fitness. It was a huge gift for me because it helped me manage those outbursts and those behavior challenges that I was having at that early age. My parents eventually ended up getting me a gym membership in middle school and that's when my interest in health and fitness was taken to a whole new level.

Matt: So when you were first going to the gym in middle school were you working with a personal trainer or were you just kind of like going in and experimenting?

Daniel: No, I didn’t have a personal trainer. I was just experimenting and I really enjoyed that. When I went to the gym I felt really empowered and it helped me start to believe in myself in a way that I never had before. As a result I started learning how to be independent. This was big for me because as someone with a learning disability I had to get a lot of extra support in my life from my parents, my teachers, and from counselors. So for me to be able to go to the gym and not have anyone else there to support me was huge. I loved the freedom and the feeling that came with it.

Matt: That's awesome to hear. So to continue along the timeline there, you’re starting to build up your own confidence and falling in love with health and fitness in middle school. What was the next experience that pushed you further in your fitness journey?

Daniel: After middle school I started playing football as a freshman in high school and started to get real serious about weightlifting. With football you just have to lift weights and do barbell strength training. Previously I was doing machine-based workouts at the YMCA, so learning how to exercise with dumbbells and barbells was a fun new challenge. Eventually I started to do my own research and took a very big interest in bodybuilding. I loved the idea of looking big and strong because I had always been perceived as someone who was weak and different. I felt like if I had that look of a bodybuilder people would respect me and people would look up to me. That may not have been true, but that's what I thought at the time and that's ultimately what drove my obsession with fitness and bodybuilding through high school.

Matt: So your first job after school was working as a banker before you made the jump into starting your career as a personal trainer. I’d love to hear what led to you making the jump into the industry permanently.

Daniel: So after high school I was able to get a job as a personal banker which I did for about three years. I learned a lot of invaluable skills from being a banker, but the most important were how to build relationships with people and have confidence in the services that I was selling. In 2011 I decided to pursue my interest in fitness further and got my personal training certification. While I was still working at the bank full-time I was able to get a job at a local gym working part-time. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to give the career path a real go and left the bank to go manage a weight loss center. The salary was a cut for sure, but it was comparable to what I was making as a personal banker with the potential for more so I thought that'd be a good transition to start my career. Three months after I started working the whole business went under and it was 100% my fault. I did everything wrong. As far as operations go and running a business goes, I didn't have any business acumen at that time. I didn't really know what I was doing, I just had a lot of passion. Unfortunately passion wasn't enough to make a business successful. When the business went under in three months and I was out of a job I had to move in with my wife's parents. This was hard for us because now my income was zero just a few months after having a good banking job and we’re living off of just my wife’s income. It was very humbling for me because I had failed at something that was so important to me and we were newly married. So we were living in this very small town in Texas with around 3500 people. I found out that there was this small mom and pop gym and so I went over to visit one day. I walked in and there was a bible study happening. At the end of the study they ask, “What do all of you need prayer for today?” I spoke up and said that I had just lost my job, I had no money, and that I could really use some prayer. After the prayer the owner came up to me and said that if I wanted a job I could train out of their gym. The only condition was that they weren’t going to give me any clients, I had to do it myself. That’s when my true journey into entrepreneurship started.

Matt: So you’re at this mom and pop gym what helped you start building up your business there? Looking back, what lessons did you take away from that experience?

Daniel: So I had zero clients and had never sold my own personal training services to anyone before. To add to that, the area was very low income so personal training wasn’t a normal investment for the people that were coming into the gym. Despite all of that I was really passionate and refused to give up. I went to the owner and asked if I could have a list of every single member they had. He came back to me and handed me this huge unorganized stack of papers of names and signatures. I went through and called every single name on that list. I can’t even tell you how many no’s I got, but I ended up getting enough yes’s to build a full-time personal training business within three months. Everyone at the gym was looking at my like, “Who is this guy? What is he doing?” They’ve been at the gym for years and only had a few clients. The only difference between me and them was that I was really driven and had a lot at stake. I didn’t want to stay at my wife’s parents' house for the rest of my life. We wanted to have kids and I really wanted to raise my kids in my own home, so I was super motivated. After that first three month push I continued to grow my business and we decided to purchase our own house in McKinney, Texas. With the move I would have to find a new place to train out of and see if I could transfer my clients. I went to a new independent gym and set up an agreement similar to the one I had at the prior gym I worked out of. I just said that I wanted to lease space and train my clients. I didn’t expect their help with finding clients, but I did want their list of members. So I got started and transferred as many of my clients as I could, but I did end up losing about 70% of my book of business right from the beginning. Eventually I built my business back up to where it was with zero advertising. Unfortunately after a year the owner decided to sell the gym. It was a franchise and it was underperforming. At the time I was probably making more revenue from my personal training than the gym was to be honest. So when I lost access to the gym I decided that it was time to find something more reliable and that’s when I started working at Lifetime Fitness in Allen Texas. This really appealed to me because they had a huge membership base. I figured that I could just do the same thing that I always did there, except I could actually rely on having steady leads provided to me. I still didn’t know how to generate my own leads at this point.

Matt: What was it like building a new base of clients in a corporate big box gym chain for the first time?

Daniel: From the business side it went really well. I just followed my process and did the type of outreach calls I’d done before, nothing crazy. It’s just the type of work that most people don’t really want to do. I was blowing past the numbers of trainers who had been at this location for 5-10+ years. Through my hard work I ended up ranked as the top trainer at the gym.

Matt: Just through making calls and working hard. It’s incredible you were able to do that three different times at three different locations. When did you start to realize that you might want to start to specialize in working with clients specifically with special needs?

Daniel: So I already had found out that I was passionate about working with the special needs population. I’d had a few opportunities to work with kids that had special needs and it was incredibly fulfilling for me. After having so much success at several gyms with my own training I thought that maybe it was time to do something on my own that I was passionate about, so I quit Lifetime Fitness and started Special Strong. This was obviously a big step for me, but I had a really good business mentor that guided me probably for about six months before I started the company. He answered all the questions I had, set some great milestones for me to accomplish, and helped me put together the foundation to start my business. He even helped me with building my website and getting all the legal paperwork together. So once I had the business plan ready to go I just started executing the plan.

Matt: Can you elaborate on the mission behind Special Strong?

Daniel: Absolutely. So at Special Strong we provide affordable fitness for those with special needs. Our name really says it all. We really believe that if we can get our clients strong that their lives will completely transform. When we say strong we mean that we want to get them strong in their mind, their body, and in their own space. We believe that if we can do that, get our clients strong mentally, physically, and spiritually, then they’re going to be able to live independent and abundant lives. Through our strength training we’re going to build their confidence. As I was saying earlier, this is exactly what happened to me when I was younger. My confidence in myself grew from being able to do things on my own at the gym. With the special needs population they don’t have a lot of opportunities to do something they feel confident about. In many cases their parents are doing just about everything for them. We want to show our clientele that they can actually do a lot more than anybody realizes. Our goal is to tap into that potential that we see and let them realize how strong and independent they really are. To add some context to that, I believe that we only operate at about 40% of our true mental capacity and that's true for everybody. When our clients start seeing physical progress they didn’t know was possible their minds are actually being trained and getting stronger as well. We're just retraining their minds and they're taking that 40% capacity and they're taking it up to 50% and 60%, 70%. That’s when our clients start doing things that they never thought they could do before. We had a young man who was confined in a wheelchair for over eight years. He worked with physical therapists and doctors, but they couldn’t help him walk. Within three months of working with us he was walking on his own. We made a video about his journey and it went viral with over a 150 million views of this young man walking. I’d love to say that it was just our training, but what really happened was that he just took over his mind and did it on his own. We just assisted by starting to show him what he could do and he took over from there.

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Matt: What a great story. That’s what this industry is all about, you know? So I’d love to break down the business a bit so we have a clearer picture. How did you start to gain traction in your target customer base? Are you training Special Strong clients at a facility of your own or out of a studio?

Daniel: For Special Strong clients we rent space out of several studios in the Dallas Metroplex area. For our clients we started with just one client with me as the only trainer and it just started growing through my marketing and sales efforts. We did grassroots marketing, paid advertising, and really improved our own process with ads to landing pages and things like that. We were able to scale to the point where I was training full time again and the business part was getting to be too much for me, so my wife actually ended up quitting her full time job to come work with me. That was a huge help and allowed me to focus on the training even more. At some point we had to hire another trainer because I was at my capacity and we’ve been growing from there. We now have four training at our one location in North Dallas.

Matt: What type of training services are you offering today? Is it exclusively in-person 1on1 or is there any remote training aspect?

Daniel: Yes, we focused on the private 1on1 personal training and eventually added a group training service as well. One benefit to our line of work through the pandemic is that our services are considered essential business, so we’ve been able to continue working as normal throughout this challenging year in the industry. We have looked into doing virtual personal training, but it’s just not a good experience for our clients. It works well for many fitness consumers, but not ours.

Matt: Wow, I didn’t even think of the essential business aspect to this. That makes your business so resilient compared to the industry at large, interesting. Regarding the in-person training, that makes a lot of sense as well. Your in-person training experience is just too impactful to recreate in a virtual way. Moving over to the growth side of this, what have you learned from scaling up the business and building out a team?

Daniel: So I would say one of the biggest challenges that I've had, and this is still something that I'm struggling with as I transitioned into franchising, is delegation. This is a very common challenge for many entrepreneurs. I’ve always taken a lot on from a business standpoint, but learning how to hire to fill different roles has been huge for me. Along with the training team growing we hired an office manager and she grew into the role of training manager. We actually just promoted her and gave her a raise during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. We did that because she's incredible and just a perfect fit for the position. With this promotion I’ve been able to delegate even more to her and the team. Looking back I think that my initial tendency to try to hold on to as much of the responsibilities really stifled our growth and impacted the quality of the relationships I had with the team. I still think we did a good job, but we potentially could have done even better. I realized that you simply can’t take on everything yourself or else you’ll burnout.

Another challenge I’ve had when running my business is getting too caught up in the numbers. You’re going to have good months and bad months. You’ll have moments where you think you’re not going to make it and think you’re going to lose everything. I think every business owner has felt that at some point, thinking that they will have to start all over from scratch. There have been many times I’ve thought that and then we’ll get a big breakthrough. It’s just a rollercoaster and I’m sure fitness business owners are feeling that right now all over the country. I don’t think you ever fully get used to it, but you do learn to adapt to the swings. I’ve learned how to adapt to that stress over time because I know that those swings are always temporary.

Matt: I can definitely emphasize with that as a business owner in the industry myself (laughing). So to continue off of that, you’ve obviously nailed Special Strong and will continue to grow through an incredibly powerful in-person training experience. When doing my research I read that you offer a personal training certification and a franchising model as well which are really going to help this mission scale. I’d love to hear more about that from you.

Daniel: Absolutely. So we launched the certification program last year in August 2019. We’ve been using that program to certify our own trainers for several years now and it’s worked really well, so we decided that we could open up this offering to more trainers in the industry to add a new revenue stream for their own businesses. To do this we started a new sister company to Special Strong called Certify Strong. We took all of our content into videos and made an online certification program and we’ve gotten a really good response so far. To add to that, we wanted to open up the opportunity for people looking to start their own business with our model by offering the Special Strong franchise opportunity. When you break it down, it’s a really good investment. It’s one thing to get a certification and to add that service to your available offerings, but it’s a very different challenge to start a business from scratch. When you look at our franchise model and starting price point it’s very cost-effective compared to the other fitness franchise options out there. It took us about $100,000 with our own money and loans to start Special Strong in 2016 and now we’re sharing everything we’ve learned to successfully scale our business with our franchise model. The potential returns are incredible for our franchisees. It qualifies as essential business, you can keep your overhead very low, and you can even scale up further to have your own location with our Level 2 concept. The Level 2 concept is really exciting for me because you have the potential to create a really powerful and inclusive community at your own facility.

Matt: I really like what you’ve put together here because it’s so different then the normal training services we see in the industry. The industry is flooded with weight loss, bodybuilding, and strength training, but right here you have an incredible opportunity to build a profitable business that has a real tangible impact on your community. On the franchise side, there’s a lot of room for growth. For individual trainers looking it’s smart to diversify your offerings and specialize in different niches. When my partner was a personal trainer she focused on pre/post natal training, for example. To add a valuable certification like Certify Strong seems like a no brainer, especially considering what we’ve all gone through in 2020.

Daniel: That’s exactly right and that’s the driving force being most of our trainers that get certified. Not everyone wants to start a business on their own, but adding the ability to serve another market with the special needs population can really benefit most personal trainers. To explain that further, we want to work with people who really care about working with this type of clientele and that takes a special type of person. If you take a hundred personal trainers I’d bet only five would be really excited about this type of opportunity. It’s very hard to find those types of people. You have to have a lot of patience, a lot of empathy, and if you don’t you’re just not going to be a great fit for the clients. Having said that, we really believe that there is a great opportunity for growth for personal trainers and potential business owners who want to pursue this.

Matt: Well I think you’ve done an incredible job putting this all together. So to recap, you have your own growing personal training business, a growing certification business, and this new franchising offering. What do the next five years look like for you? What are your goals for growth?

Daniel: Our goal within the next five years is to build the first fully inclusive facility for our clients in the North Dallas area, so an actual physical brick and mortar gym for Special Strong. I’m really excited about that next step because we’ve been renting space out of multiple studios for a while now. Beyond that my big goal is to have at least 150 franchisees in five years. We want to be able to help as many business owners and personal trainers grow the Special Strong community as possible.

Matt: That’s a big and very exciting goal. That’s going to be a super fun journey to take, I’m really looking forward to watching! Really appreciate you sharing your time and story Daniel. We wish you nothing but the best.

If you’d like to connect and learn more about Daniel and Special Strong please check out the links below:

Matt McGunagle

Matt McGunagle

CEO & Founder of StrengthPortal. Working hard to help you in between deadlifts and jiu-jitsu!

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