/ Interviews

Kala Duncan of The Omni Fit

After working as a personal trainer for ten years Kala had to start an online business from scratch after her husband, and herself, moved for his job. Five years later she’s built an incredible online coaching company called The Omni Fit. Kala aims to help female athletes improve their strength, performance and mindset by using a scientific approach to their training and nutrition. 
Note from Matt: This interview was recorded from a phone call and then transcribed by me. Some parts may be edited slightly for an easier read.

Matt: When did you first become interested in health and fitness and how did that led to you choosing career in this industry?

Kala: I was always involved in sports when I was younger. I played soccer and was a ballerina for 15 years. In high school it was time to get a job and start paying for gas money. I went to every small business in town and the first place to hire me was the local personal training studio, even though I had never done any weight training. I was hired to work at the front desk and was lucky enough to be asked by the owner to do a whole lot more. I would answer phones to set up appointments, run the daycare program, close deals for trainers, and even clean toilets  (laughing). I did everything. I was 15 when I started working there and before my 16th birthday the owner asked me if I wanted to shadow and train clients. In Georgia it wasn’t against the law to train people without a certification (most people know that you have to be at least 18 now). So, I started to shadow the trainers and give stretch sessions when the clients were done with their workout. That’s when I became interested in personal training.

In the beginning I was extremely insecure about everything we were doing I started to read whatever I could get my hands on. One of my friends at the gym gave me his college Anatomy books and would guide me on the job. It helped me, for example, to explain to the clients what muscle I was stretching while working with them. Even after doing this for a few years I didn’t want to pursue it further when I went to college. I chose Criminal Science to start and initially wanted to be a medical examiner. After I started classes I realized how much I hated Law (laughing). I was totally confused and unsure of what to do with my life. I was still working at the gym full-time as a trainer during this period. At this time it was my fourth year of working at the gym. I was very successful in terms of training, but I knew that I had no desire to own the place or open up a space of my own. I didn’t want that responsibility. I started to study business and then a mentor of mine at the studio suggested that I study nutrition. It seemed interesting so that’s what I did. Several years later I ended up getting a degree in human biology instead of nutrition. After doing research about the industry I found that a nutrition degree tended to lead to more clinical work and I wanted to be on the prevention side instead of the treatment side.

Matt: Going back to when you were first working at the studio, it’s very unique that you were able to get exposed to the business of fitness at such a young age. Even though you had some gaps on the technical side of training, how do you think this experience helped you be effective when you started working with clients?

Kala: I guess the most important thing that I learned that helped translate into success as a trainer was scheduling. Seeing how efficient the trainers I was shadowing were was very helpful to be exposed to. The trainers would show up at five in the morning and be off by ten. Most of them were in college and could work whatever shifts they wanted around their classes. It seemed like a great gig to me. That’s really what kept me in personal training throughout college and beyond. It was more of a pay by the minute job when the majority of other gigs were pay by the hour. The exposure to trainers and the business side of the studio at a young age really helped me when I started to set my own prices and balance my schedule with work and school.

Matt: After you graduated from college what were you goals as a trainer and what were the next steps you took with your career?

Kala: So while I was training during college the experience really showed me that the missing aspect of it all was nutrition. If my clients came to the gym five days a week their progress would still be limited if their nutrition was poor. The clients that were making the best progress were the one’s following my advice on diet and lifestyle. I wanted to continue going down this route, but I wasn’t sure how to do that right away. I knew I didn’t want to continue living the life of a personal trainer getting up at five every morning and working til eight each night. You always had to work around the schedules of your clients workday. Around that time my husband and I moved for his job. I had never thought about doing an online business before that, but I was in a situation where I had to figure something out. It was the perfect time to dedicate the time necessary to start a business online so I that’s what I did.

Matt: When you made that realization what were the first steps you took to get started? What helped you become successful with your online business?

Kala: When I first started building a business online I really focused on networking. I wanted to know what it meant to be an online coach and learn from those who were doing it well. I would email coaches directly and ask questions. Some people were very kind and thoughtful while others blew me off because they didn’t want to share their secrets (laughing). So, through that effort of networking I built a group of friends who were all doing online online coaching together. I asked them to train me and was very upfront in letting them know that I was going to ask questions about how they did online coaching, in addition to fitness questions, since I was running my own online business. The group was very receptive to this and after a few months of working with them I saw a gap in their business that I could fill. I just approached them and asked if I could join the team to do this all together as a team. We did and along the way we collected a few additional coaches. We grew to about seven coaches overall that each had different niches. It was really cool for me, as a coach, to be exposed to and to learn how they approached their clients particular interests in fitness. Something I forget to mention before is that I was really most successful in personal training in 2010 I chose to only work with women. I’ve kept that up to this day and it’s something that really helped me stand apart in our coaching team by developing that niche. I would say that most of our success came from working together as a group. When one coach on our team was successful it would attract attention to our coaching group as a whole. The group really gave me a lot of credibility and allowed me to grow my business further.

Matt: Where there any challenges in switching from in-person personal training to online coaching?

Kala: There is a huge difference between online and in-person coaching. For in-person, I never had to educate my clients in-person on what it was like to be trained. They just came in and I would coach them through a workout. Most of my clients would never get long, drawn-out periodization plans. It was very week to week. They were sitting at a desk all day and came in for exercise, not for training. In the online space I think a lot of people forget that the people who will be successful with an online coach aren’t the same people that will be successful with in-person trainers. You can’t just make the switch from in-person to online without taking this into account and preparing for it. It’s very different and it took me a long time to switch from the mindset of a personal trainer to an online coach.

Matt: So eventually you decided to go back to working on your own coaching brand and started The Omni Fit. What was it like to get this off the ground? Who did you target with your company?

Kala: So at the end of last year the coaches I was working with, and I, decided that there was enough differentiation between us that we could each be successful on our own. I broke off and was initially going to brand my own name, Kala Duncan, for the company. However, I knew that I wanted to work with other coaches down the road and if I used my own name it would be as if I was superior to the other coaches. I didn’t want that because there is so much to gain from working with other great coaches working together on a single team. So, I hunkered down and came up with The Omni Fit. I chose this because I didn’t want to limit the type of fitness coaching that we could offer in the future. It’s definitely a brand that I plan to grow into other areas as the company matures. As of right now I have one other coach on staff that works with me and that’s Jodie Vee. She’s amazing. Our main coaching service offering has always been one on one coaching for women who tend to be on the more advanced side of fitness. We do take on beginners that are willing to learn through the online space as well. The medium for coaching beginners has to be very different than our more experienced clients. We try to help these clients become more self-aware and realize where their gaps are. Sometimes they need an in-person trainer so we will make sure to recommend that if we think it will help. As of right now we are moving into the online course space where we will be working with groups of people who can start at the ground level and eventually grow to a more advanced athlete. Online training has become very popular over the last few years and one gap that I’ve seen in coaches is the ability to walk along with and educate each client equally. The ability for the coach to scale their service as their business grows. I would definitely say that scaling that high-level of service is the most difficult part in the early stages of starting an online business. There have been times when my roster has been so full that I’ll lose sleep and can’t even make it to the gym (laughing). It’s more important to me to ensure my clients are getting the service they deserve. I knew Omni Fit would be successful when I started, but I wanted to make sure that as this business continued to grow that each client was still going to get the same benefit as the clients before them.

Matt: Over the past few years we’ve seen a good number of online coaching teams and individual coaches nail down their messaging and meet clients where they are, especially for women who haven’t lifted consistently before. What’s the message you want to get across to your clients with The Omni Fit? How can this movement and positive messaging continue to grow?

Kala: The foundation that I started with was that I wanted to empower women through educating them. The more that our market can see and visualize how to be healthy the more they will desire it. Innately that’s what we all desire, but our market may not know it just yet. There are a lot of trainers and coaching groups who are focusing on the level of service they are giving which really helps this movement grow. The more coaches who are focused on providing long-term service for their clients instead of just a one-off contest prep coaching service the better it will be for the industry as a whole. I want to extend Omni Fit from contest prep all the way down to women looking to get started and take their health and fitness seriously. If online coaches do this we can educate our clients and ensure they avoid the fad or crash diets we see so often in the fitness industry. We can educate them to think about their health and fitness as a long-term investment instead of looking for short-term returns. When our clients self-awareness increases so does their self-control. I’m very excited to watch this movement to continue to grow and to see coaches who are doing it the right way to get more exposure.

Matt: Do you have any client stories you’d like to share that have experienced this mindset shift?

Kala: Sure, I have several clients who have really influenced how I want to approach coaching fitness and nutrition with The Omni Fit. These clients might contact us after seeing us post about one of our successful athletes and through the process of getting to know them I may realize that they aren’t ready for contest prep or even something like counting macros. So, if that’s the case you need to scale back and start with something that will is achievable for your client and allow them to move forward. I have one very long-term client Marcia who has made amazing progress. She’s lost about 50 pounds over the course of two years with me so far and we’ve started to transition into a building phase. It’s just been awesome to see her physical and mental progress that came along with not quitting when it started to become difficult. I don’t think that most people struggle with losing weight in the first place. It’s much harder to keep it off. You have to dig a little deeper and avoid falling back into your old habits. That’s something I say a lot during initial assessments with clients. “Well we’ve been here before, so let’s make sure we never go back here again.”

On the competitive side of things, my very first online client Jodee Vee came to me at the age of 44. Now she’s 49 and working as a coach for The Omni Fit. She’s made an incredible amount of progress. When you see where she started and what she’s done you realize that age really isn’t a limit. She was about 107 pounds when we started and now she’s around 120-122 in her off-season. She’s gained a lot of lean muscle and gotten much stronger, which is wonderful.

Another client who’s been incredible to work with is Taylor who’s now an ambassador for our company. She started training with me at the age of 17 as a junior in high school. She’s a nationally qualified figure so we’re going to be hitting the stage again next year. She’s definitely has the pro card in her sight so that’s what we’re going for. Her mentality has been about getting 1% better everyday and it’s been very inspiring to see someone so young so focused.

Matt: As you continue to move The Omni Fit forward what are you excited about for the next 3-6 months?

Kala: We have a new program we’re launching in Fall that I’m really excited about. It’s called our 365 Program because it’s an all-encompassing program (health, nutrition, and fitness) that meets our clients where they are and helps them reach their goals over the next year. It’s much different than the 4-8 week programs you see get thrown out there all the time. So, we’re really excited to get that started. For every graduate that comes from it I want them to have another step to go to, so we will make sure they have the right courses or coaching service available for them to move forward. We want to continue to focus on the clients we have now and collect feedback and data to see how we can improve their experience.

Matt: What do you think the potential is for online coaching over the next few years? How will this type of training change the industry?

Kala: I feel that online coaching is upping the standard for nutrition and personal training. Clients who use online training tend to be more self-educated so you have to deliver. Online training will never replace in-person training or gyms, but with all the content and quality information out there personal trainers have to continually offer a high-level of service. If someone can get better service online why would they chose an in-person trainer? It doesn’t mean that they don’t need or couldn’t benefit from an in-person trainer, but they have to match what online coaches are offering in terms of service or their clients will start looking at other options.

Matt: What are you excited about for where the fitness industry is headed as a whole over the next few years?

Kala: I’m feeling very positive about the empowerment movements happening right now. I’m inspired by other healthy people in the space producing content and sending out positive messages. A few years ago you may have thought about Victoria Secret models when you thought about women’s fitness. Now they are huge brands, such as Under Armour, focusing on health and empowerment in their marketing. Sex is always going to sell because we’re human and we all have some vanity, but hopefully it will be more on the respectful side of messaging and what we can all do with your physique if we work hard. I really feel like more coaches are demanding this from the industry as well. I feel really good about the industry as a whole. Self-education is becoming easier and easier with the quality content and updated science coming out. I see less people doing the starvation diets which were all over mainstream health and fitness just a few years ago. It’s a huge shift to go from speed dieting to thinking long-term about our health so it’s up to the professionals in the space to continue to work hard and get this message out there.

Matt: Really appreciate you sharing your story and insight! If anyone would like to connect with Kala check out the links below:

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Matt McGunagle

Matt McGunagle

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

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