A successful gym is a wonderful thing, especially if you're the owner. If you can crack the code in your particular location that allows you to pay the bills, put money in reserves for the unexpected, maintain the building and equipment, pay your employees well, and actually make a profit, you're doing a good job – a really good job.
Getting to that point might not seem ambitious for a business, but in the gym biz, it is. Opening a gym always seems like a good idea. You can think of a ton of good reasons to do it. But, having lived the dream, there's a number of things I've come to believe are reasons not to open a gym.
These are things that will plague every gym owner, no matter the size, location, or type of gym... from hardcore bodybuilding gyms, to franchise health clubs, to CrossFit boxes. My opinion comes from experience with a large, multi-amenity gym in Mexico, one that caters to a diverse community of almost 3,000 members.
Yes, gyms come in all shapes and sizes with their own sets of hurdles. But these are the ones all gym owners will face.
This is the biggest reason not to open one. For the most part, it's overdone. Today the gym business is a highly competitive, dominated by giant health club chains that are to local gyms what Home Depot is to local hardware stores.
The price of starting a gym is an enormous cash investment that you've got to be willing to risk, along with your good credit if things go south. To keep that from happening you have to put in a ton of time, energy, and attention for very little profit. If you're looking to turn five bucks into ten, there are much, much better investments out there.
Of course there are exceptions. There are some amazing gyms that have broken every rule, some for decades, and thrive to this day. Similarly, there comes along, every now and then, a guy with enough money to support his concept, who works smart, then hits it out of the park.
So if you're looking for a labor of love, then the gym business is a homerun. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Many communities have an ideal gym that seems to exist for us. A place where you know the owner isn't making a killing, but he's there every day, he trains there himself, he's everyone's buddy, and he keeps the gym open and in good order, with periodic equipment updates, despite the fact that the place just pays the bills and maybe buys him a nice car.
It's a place where even the most serious lifter can train for the same membership as the giant big-box health club down the street. Any gym owner like that deserves applause because he does it for the love of it and not for the money. Because, usually, there isn't any.
Today, in any average-sized town, there's more than one gym. And as the population grows, so does the number of gyms. They're as ubiquitous as dry cleaners. The best gym is no longer the one with the best equipment, the coolest cardio theater room, the most Olympic lifting platforms, or the heaviest dumbbells. The best gym is the one closest to your house or your work.
I have a good friend who tolerates Planet Fitness. His reason? The equipment is barely used and it's less than a block from his office.
Through geography alone you're going to lose some of your potential members to the competition. The trick is outlasting the other gyms that pop up. But, in the meantime, if there's a gym literally a couple minutes walking distance from ten of your members' houses, and it's cheaper, they're going to go there, unless they're really hardcore lifters.
If you lose 10 members to one gym, 15 to another, 7 here, 12 there, the next thing you know you can watch your membership whittle down to half, while somehow the bills you owe stay pretty much the same.
To be in the best location of a community – where you have houses or businesses all around you – you're going to pay top dollar for your space. And you'll need a lot of space, thousands of square feet.
Unless you own the building outright, paying rent is like a knife in the heart. If you've ever had to stroke a five digit check to a landlord every month, you know the feeling. And that's just what you'll be doing if you plan on opening any decent-sized gym in the center of a city.
Be it a prime in-town location, or a metal building out near the airport, owning the building is the best way to go. Even if you're making a mortgage payment, that at least makes it a developing asset – not just shoveling money out the window.
And while you force your hand to sign that rent check, you'll be doing more of it when the other bills come – gas, electric, internet, cable, payroll, payroll taxes, accounting, service contracts, promotion, advertising, franchise fees, cleaning supplies, maintenance, repairs, permits, municipal fees, licenses, insurance, breakage. You'll be paying bills you never knew existed and there's always unexpected shit you can count on happening that costs money.
Then you walk into the locker room and see the steam and the sauna going full tilt and no one in them, guys taking 45-minute hot showers and leaving the water running, or drying their laundry on the hand drier, or worse. To them, all that shit is free. To you, its another knife in the heart, followed by the sight of the bathrooms right after the peak hours. It's enough to make Shrek cringe.
The first qualification in owning a gym, other than a 790 FICA score and seven or eight-hundred grand in disposable cash, is you have to be a real people person. If your idea of paradise is solitude at the top of a mountain, then this business isn't for you. Owning a gym is retail. That means you deal with hundreds of people every day.
If nothing else, it will force you to accept some rather repugnant aspects of human nature and do it with a smile – probably one of the hardest things in the world to do. But it's absolutely paramount that you manage, cajole, interact with, lead, delegate and garner the respect of everyone who walks through your door. You have to be that type of person because you'll quickly realize that, for the most part, people suck.
I don't know what it is about a gym that turns some otherwise normal, conscientious people into inconsiderate, slovenly, self-absorbed, whiney, destructive assholes, but it does. And these particular people will carve a path of woe through your business that seems like unjust punishment for the myriad of other crap that has to be dealt with every day. You can always throw these members out. But, alas, the practice is not sustainable.
By the way, let me dispel any preconceived notions you may have over hygiene habits of the opposite sex: men and women are no more or less slovenly when it comes to their bathroom discourtesies. Humans, in a gym, are pigs.
The thought of it was unfathomable when your gym was but a gleam in your eye. But when reality breaks, you'll quickly realize that your members expect a fully functioning complaint department. And they will complain about EVERYTHING.
The lights in the locker room are too bright, the lights in the locker room are too dim, close the windows, there's no airflow from outside, it's too cold, it's too hot, the trainer keeps looking at my tits, the kind of palm tree we have outside the window causes cancer... Oh, and a chick with 57 bangles clanking around her wrists says "her" treadmill is making a noise.
I don't like to complain about anything. You know why? No one gives a shit. But open a gym and all of a sudden you have to give a shit. Your members are your bread and butter. You need them. Without them you go out of business. So that means the owner (or the manager) must be accessible. You have to talk to them, shake their hands, listen to them and assuage their grievance, even if a wet naked guy corners you in the locker room to tell you how much better the door to the steam room would look if it had a row of decorative tile around it.
As a gym owner, you're going to have to listen to bullshit that would make Marylyn Manson's fingernails scraping across a chalkboard sound like Vivaldi. It can drive you right out of your own gym. I actually know gym owners who train at their competition just to avoid their own members.
It pains me to say it, but the last people you want in your gym are bodybuilders. First of all, if you plan on selling any memberships, you better concentrate on the "normal" people. You do this mainly because they outnumber bodybuilders a few thousand to one.
And a lot of bodybuilders are 99 cents short of a buck. They're not going to buy your shirts. They're not going to buy bottled water – they carry a gallon jug and fill it up from your water fountain while 16 people wait in line behind them. They're not buying workout drinks or anything else you have for sale – they buy all that online and bring it with them in their obnoxious, chalk-covered gym bags that they throw around like a dead body when they arrive at the station they'll occupy for the next 45 minutes.
Bodybuilders are loud, obnoxious, sweaty, they don't clean up after themselves, and they break shit. In general, two meatheads training together can sour the gym experience for 25 membership-paying soccer moms (your bread and butter), and give them good reason to find another gym.
The days of Gold's Gym Venice, Muscle Beach, and the original World Gym that cater only to hardcore bodybuilders are long gone. There are a few great hardcore gyms out there that have survived and are still amazing places to train, but these are the exceptions.
Today, gym owners must concentrate on paying the bills and turning a profit. In order to do that they must satisfy the needs of the many, not the few. The only complaints we ever get about members are about the bodybuilders. The more hardcore the more the complaints. The reality is, as much as you want to look out over your gym space and see nothing but a sea of jacked bodybuilders getting ready for shows, it's not going to happen.
The lifting community is far too spread out. For the most part, a bodybuilding gym is going to struggle. The more bodybuilders who join your gym the sharper the pain every month when you write that $16,500 rent check.
I'm not trying to piss on anyone's dream here. There are definitely fitness entrepreneurs out there with the right mindset, business acumen, connections, money, experience, people skills, coping abilities, and passion for the iron game.
They sleep in the gym, work day and night, watch every penny, fix and service their own equipment, pay attention to trends and how they're perceived, listen to members, pay for promotions, man the front desk, know every member, keep the gym spotless and in order, and make it a place people want to go. These are the guys who believe in a good concept enough to make a gigantic cash investment and ride it like it had two wheels.
To see your gym cranking at capacity is humbling. Watching people get their work done creates a buzz of sounds – grunting, yelling, laughing, talking, weights clanking, and the music blasting. The gym atmosphere creates its own pulse, and the whole thing seems to breathe under your feet. It's the monster you create. For a musclehead who spent his life training in someone else's gym, the feeling is beyond what I could ever describe.
Then I look closely and see people leaving weights out, bars on the floor, mountains of abandoned dumbbells next to benches, a broken window, some knucklehead pulling 16 plates off one side of the leg press and it falling over (it was bolted down!), empty water bottles, and some douchebag trying to covertly film a girl with his cell phone. Then I see my manager walking toward me with two guys in suits I don't recognize, his cell phone in one hand, a bunch of papers in the other, and a look on his face that could freeze brandy. Just another day.
The number one reason new businesses fail is because they're undercapitalized. Owning a gym is a gigantic commitment and risk. To operate a new, decent-sized gym, you need a lot of money. If you put a good product out there, have the marketing and the time to let it catch on, then, if the population can support you, you'll probably succeed.
But make sure you quantify "a lot" before you go making any serious plans. And make sure you have it in your hands first. Every cent of it is at risk. And so is the dream you're building.