Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Fitness Business Journey

What It Takes – A Fitness Business Journey
BY: Justin Levine,

When I first decided that I wanted to have a gym of my own, I didn’t really know what to expect. I wasn’t a business man. I was a great trainer. I had the connections, I had the clientele and I had the support. So I jumped on the tight rope. Unfortunately in business, there is no net below. Stepping into the fire, I quickly got familiar with the business ins and outs. Operating expenses, payroll, training employees, QuickBooks, profit margins, receivables, cash flow, marketing, working really long hours, etc.. The list can go on and on. Getting clients into shape was the easy part. The business side was the hard part. The one piece of advice that I was given from another business owner I knew was, “Just make more money than you spend.” Pretty simple concept right? Yes, there is some truth to that comment but it just isn’t that simple. In 3 years of being open, my business knowledge has expanded so much but I still have a long way to go.

Here is my story:

How it began
The first thing you need to do if you want to open a fitness facility is get really good at training. Don’t think you are ready if you have only been training clients for a couple of years. You need at least 5 years of training 30-40 hours a week. There is nothing better than being in the trenches. If you just know the business side of things but have no knowledge of the training, it will be very hard for you to make it. You have to have a passion for helping people change their lives! A fitness business will fail if you are not producing results. I first started training my friends in college. I would invite them to the gym to workout with me and I would devise “old school bodybuilding” routines for us to complete. I loved it! I went on to get my degree in Human Performance and Sport. When that was completed I was given an opportunity to work at Notre Dame University as a fitness facility intern. This is where I learned how to manage a fitness facility. I worked long hours and got paid very little. One of my job duties was to run students and staff through equipment orientations. I would teach them how to use the various machines around the gym. I took this job a bit further. I would sit down with them and discuss their goals and their current lifestyle habits. I then started designing individualized programs for these individuals. All of a sudden these people were getting results. Wow, it worked! Soon before you knew it, I had walk-on athletes coming to me and wanting to train with me. I began designing sport specific programs for these top level athletes. It was all done for free but I didn’t care because I loved doing it. Fitness became my life and my passion. I moved back to California (my home state) and lived in Los Angeles for 8 months. I worked at a mainstream-big box facility where I trained between 35-45 hours a week (training 35-45 hours a week is very demanding). And no it didn’t start that way. It took about 4 weeks, unpaid, of hanging out in the gym to start building my reputation. With a college degree and right out of an internship from Notre Dame, I was getting paid $9.00 a session. I would get to the gym at 5:30 am, then would take a short lunch break and then back at 3:00 and was there till 7:00 pm. Those were long days. I left that gym to come back to my hometown of Visalia. I quickly got a job at a private fitness facility. It was more my style. The atmosphere was family oriented and I had already known quite a few people there. I started with 1 client. That is right….1 CLIENT! This 13 year old kid was my prized client. I trained him like he was a professional athlete. Next thing you knew I had 2 clients, 4 clients, then a full schedule. It took about 2 months for me to build my reputation and schedule. It did not happen overnight.

Taking the Leap
I had reinvented the personal training department at this facility. Soon before you knew it my schedule was so packed that I had to give clients to other trainers. But again, it did not just happen. I was working my ass off. I remember some nights around 7:00 pm; I would be on my 12th session of the day, leaning on a piece of equipment because I was so tired. Once I had worked at this private fitness facility for 3 years, it was time to make a change. I needed more of a challenge. I was training nothing but 1 on 1 sessions, working 9-12 hour days/6 days a week and my pay had pretty much topped off. It was grueling, draining and financially tough. I had built a very solid relationship with a father of two kids I had been training for 2 years. He told me that I had “changed his kids’ lives”. He wanted to help me out. He told me that whenever I was ready to start my own gym to let him know and he would be my private investor. I was in awe. I could not believe someone would do this for me. I thought it over for sometime and continued to train. I waited about another 6 months and then decided to take him up on his offer. Again, I made a connection with another client who happened to know a commercial real estate agent. This agent had a facility he wanted me to check out. It was the one! By the way this real estate agent is now a client of mine. Another lesson to be learned, Make Connections!
I didn’t do anything right at the start. I created an unorganized budget, I had no clue about start-up costs and I did not have a business plan. Again, I knew how to train, I knew how to work with people, and I had a passion towards fitness. About 1 year into it, I finally took the time to create these things, which has helped the business tremendously. I believe in what Brian Tracy says, “Just get it done 80% and then go back and tweak. But just start!” I had about 10 clients to start out with. Before you knew it I was hiring 2 trainers to work for me because those 10 clients doubled to 20. Next thing you know a junior college softball team was training at our facility. Now we have over 70 clients and athletes and 4 trainers that are apart of California Fitness Academy.

Now that I am in the Fire
Read! Learn! Train! Read! Learn! Train! Apply! I spend most of my time training clients. That is what I love doing but when I am not doing that I am reading and learning. I have figured out that the older I get, the less I know and the more I have to learn. There is so much knowledge out there. And the crazy part is that this information is very accessible. Whether it is in a book, a video, a website or a blog, the education is out there. Here is what I am constantly reading and following on a daily basis:,, Thomas Plummer, Todd Durkin, Core Performance and Brian Tracy.
Owning your own business is a double edged sword. You can make your own hours but end up working all day anyways. You are your own boss but for me I am tougher on myself than any other person can be. You do not really get a set paycheck which is good and bad. Financially you can have a really good month and follow it up with a really bad month. You take responsibility for when everything is going great but you also take responsibility when something is not going right. I have so much to learn and have so much room for growth. Have I made it yet? Not to where I want to be. It is just a matter of time. This shit does not just happen overnight. I learn from the big dogs in the industry (Mike Boyle, Alwyn Cosgrove, Mark Verstegen, and Todd Durkin). These are the guys that keep me inspired and motivated to get better. I see what they have built and I want that. Would I do it again if I could? Hell Yes! To me, life would be boring without challenges.

Here is a little bit of advice for someone trying to start their own fitness business: work your ass off, do not settle for average, read everything and expect to be at your gym more than home. But GO FOR IT! If you have the determination and the want to make it happen, you will!

5 Things I would have changed if I could do it all over:
1. I should have looked for a more cost efficient building. The building I am in now is nice but too expensive. I am already trying to sub-lease it out so I can move to a more cost and space efficient building. I needed to be more patient with this process.
2. I would not get the real turf with the little black rubber pellets. This stuff is messy and annoying. My clients always complain about how it ends up everywhere at their homes. I even get some clients who accidentally swallow one or it slips into their ears. Not good! My next flooring will just be normal turf.
3. I paid too much for start-up equipment. I should of just started with necessities (dumbbells, med. Balls, bikes). I love the Keisers and power racks but I probably did not need those to start with.
4. Read more business related material. Especially Thomas Plummer, Pat Rigsby, and Ryan Lee. I should have started this right off the bat. Education is the path to a better business.
5. Meet with a business coach. Or even just a mentor who is willing to guide you along. A business coach will keep you accountable and on your toes. To me this is mandatory.

Here is a timeline of how it all happened for me:

May 2002: Graduated from New Mexico Highlands University with a degree in Human Performance and Sport

August 2002 – June 2003: Internship at Notre Dame University

June 2003 – January 2004: Los Angeles – trained at big box facility

January 2004 – April 2006: Trained at private fitness facility

January 2006: Made the decision to start looking for a possible building (I was still an independent trainer at private facility)

April 2006: Found a building; went through all the city permits and signed the lease.

June 2006: Started construction and started moving in within 3 weeks.

July 2006: Laid the flooring (turf) and began training athletes without any equipment.

Middle July 2006: Received equipment and officially opened doors August 2006.

For more information, please visit or you can email Justin
anytime at

Past writings