Don’t Play their Game – How small group personal training studios are losing by copying franchises

Under the money-making lure of franchises, we have a tendency to get away from what got us here. The enchantment of expanding into a corporation makes us greedy and we go after too many things at once.

Rather than playing the franchise game, make your strengths stronger. Focus on what makes you different. Make sure everyone knows your expertise within your specific niche, and own that. A few things you might actually do BETTER than the big franchises:

  • Smaller group sizes
  • Safety
  • Individual attention
  • Sport, age, or niche-specific training

Offer higher-end services that allow you to provide more personal attention. You don’t want to become the McDonald’s of the fitness industry serving up everyone fast food. You’re the Michelin-starred chef, so act like it. You might not be able to beat these franchises on presentation from the start. As long as you keep up with the times, cover up any glaring weaknesses you may have, and focus on your strengths as you grow, you’ll be better off.

Staff up, but just enough to stay small

As a sole business owner, you’ll eventually grow to the point where you need help. Create a team around you that can lift you up, take some weight off of your shoulders, and allow you to focus on continuing to grow.

When hiring a small, close knit team, here are my top five recommendations:

  1. Hire for your weaknesses first. Pick someone who compliments you to run a business. That’s why I recommend the first hire be an admin.
  2. Don’t let them leave the nest too soon, and don’t fill up your nest with too many birds. Sure, they’ll eventually learn to fly on their own, but time and dedication from you (and room for growth and personal attention) helps them flourish. In other words, don’t move too fast in hiring so you really help your team grow.
  3. Be diverse! Yes, you want them to have a common value system, but diversity helps us all connect to each other on a deeper level and see different perspectives.
  4. Set up systems for each aspect of your business – group training, personal training, and all of the work that goes on behind the scenes
  5. Delegate a leader. At some point, your team may get large enough that you can’t do it all. By then, you should have already developed and identified a leader you trust to carry the weight. Like a captain of a great team, they should be the liaison between you and the rest of the players.

When you get to a point where running the day-to-day takes away from the personal touch, hire someone. Not a trainer. Your first hire should be an administrative assistant. Let them do what they’re good at – bookkeeping, new member sign-ins, funneling the flood of emails. That frees up to do what you do best – coach.

You will have to continue to grow and build a team within your budget. Building a team requires a gradual transition away from the training floor, if any at all. Set up systems for your team of trainers to align them with your core values. After all, it’s your company, your brand. Hire for your brand and build a team you can trust.

Create a Community by finding the gaps in the market

Every franchise targets women in the 25-40 range. These gyms target people who a) are independent and old enough to make their own decisions and b) have been inundated with social media ideas of the perfect body. Does every single person in the world fit into that category? Absolutely not.

What about kids? Youth training is a great niche. Or the senior population. Maybe it’s male powerlifters or people who like to climb or divorcees wanting to work out with their pets. Humans are incredibly diverse and there are always gaps in the market. A few tips on creating a community:

When they come to you, make them want to come back.

Most are coming to you because of a bad experience. Even if they don’t find you as their first gym, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that when they arrive, they stay.

Set your systems for consultations, questions, assessments, and the entire intake process. Make them feel at home, like they finally found “their” gym. Most undernourished markets value educates trainers, smaller group sizes, more personal attention, and an enjoyable atmosphere.

Don’t be afraid to turn people away

Not everyone is a good fit for your community. If you start taking on everyone who walks into the door, people will leave just as quickly as they arrived. Even your loyal members will notice a shift in the community atmosphere. Again, don’t play the franchise game of grabbing everyone. Stick to what you’re good at and provide value to those people.

Play the long game

Don’t worry if the first, fourth, or even fiftieth interaction you have with a customer doesn’t turn in to profit. You’re interested in keeping members for the long-term in your community.

Use education to your advantage

Small businesses competing against franchises can position themselves as experts in the industry. Providing valuable content for free may seem like a bad idea to the ill-advised. But trust me, if they’re not getting it from you, they’re getting it from the thousands of others handing out information. Use blogs, Social Media Posts, free e-books, and more to show your potential clientele that you know what you’re doing. Let them test it out on themselves first at their franchise gym, and when eventually disillusioned, they will come to you as the expert.

Get an email. Always.

If you’re going to offer something for free, send it to their inbox. That way, you have their email for future use. Use the follow-up period to offer some value. Whether it’s a free book, consult, or assessment, just do something memorable. You’re opening up a window for years, even after they have tried other places. You might not notice it right away, but emails with a free dining out guide might turn in to a member down the road.

But please, please. Don’t just spam people. Every follow-up has to be different to add value. Space them out over time. Saying, “Hey do you want to meet with me?!” 80 times is only going to annoy them.

Focus on retention

You can’t speak to everyone. If you’re attracting the wrong person, then it’s not good for you or your current members (see above)> When you DO get valued members, treat them as such. Do the basics incredibly well. Check on them when they miss a class or haven’t been around the gym in a while. Know about their family. Learn their passions outside of training. Treat them as family members, and they’ll stick around.

Get Creative with Marketing Strategies

You won’t have the same awareness off the bat as a franchise, but that can work to your advantage. Rather than beat your head in to a wall trying to copy the big box gyms, get creative with these tricks.

Know your numbers

You’ve created a community. You’re killing it by educating others about your expertise. Now where to focus your attention?

You won’t need as many members as a franchise to make a profit. On top of their overhead, paying out all their employees, and opening up multiple locations, they’re bleeding money left and right. A small business can shrink or swell with comfort as long as you know your numbers. If accounting and admin isn’t your strength, go back to step one and hire an expert. Get to know what exactly is coming in and out, and you can make informed decisions about what to do next.

Hit Singles every time rather than going for a home run

Advertising on TV, radio, or expensive websites might look like they’re putting points on the board. But if you get one home run out of 50 at-bats, is that a successful strategy? It’s not bad to shoot for the moon, but make sure you’re actually getting a return on them.

Instead, get out in to your local community. Systemize ways to build your network with joint venture and supporting local causes. Make your in-house methods of getting referrals solid. Basically, utilize guerilla marketing to your advantage.

Don’t Completely Ignore the Franchise

What? This entire time you’ve been telling us to not play their game, and now I’m supposed to pay attention.

Well, yes. Anyone can see that they’re obviously doing some things right by getting thousands of members in their doors.

Rather than try and copycat their strategy, learn from their business side. Those in the industry know that franchises (or anything that can put up a new place each week) is not going to beat you on “real coaching”. But they exist for a reason – they do a very good job of speaking to a particular person and making it easy for that person to find their services.

Get out in to your specific community and do the same. Find that particular person in your niche who is begging for tailored coaching. Make it easy for them to find you. Put your information and education in the places they’re looking, such as local clubs, small business partners, or their own inbox.