10 Things I've Learned in 10 Years of Owning a CrossFit Gym

CrossFit South Brooklyn’s 10-year anniversary is this month and as it approaches, I've been thinking about many things I've learned in my 10 years of owning an affiliate. 10 of them are below...

1. Treat your employees the way you would want to be treated.

I started my career at a globo-gym in Manhattan, where I learned that the fitness industry has a high turnover rate. When I hired my first coach at CFSBK, I was determined to reverse that trend. 10 years in, we are fortunate to have had very little turnover. I believe this is largely because we've tried to create a work environment and compensation structure that enables coaches to plant their roots and view being a CrossFit coach as a career and not a side job. It is important to have an open dialogue with your employees about their financial needs and what the gym can realistically do for them, and to help them think through steps to creating additional revenue streams if they are interested and motivated.

I am pleased to say I would want to work at CFSBK, knowing I would be able to pay my bills and live a comfortable life. It should be obvious, but this is important on so many levels, not least because it's near impossible to cultivate a community when employees are constantly jumping ship after one year. People rarely up and quit any job suddenly; it's a process of degradation. If you don’t treat your employees well, why should they go the extra mile in any situation? They’ll feel put out and taken advantage of—which, trust me, will be felt by gym members.

2. Remember that you're in the customer service industry.

CrossFit gyms are often known for being a bit informal, rough around the edges, and scrappy. These qualities are great and drew me to CrossFit in the first place, but it's important to remember that if you want to do what you love and keep your doors open, you must pay attention to customer service. Cultivate the mindset that you have the privilege of serving the people that walk through your doors—not the other way around.

It should be the standard that you and rest of staff go the extra mile regularly for the members. Treat people with respect, empathy, patience and professionalism. Make a service mindset your default and that will trickle down to every person, from long-time members to newbies and visitors. Ask yourself and your coaches: Do we work harder when there's “that guy” in class that we don’t like or that isn’t easily coached, or do we get frustrated and sort of ignore them? Did we follow up with that person who emailed us a question? A million small actions build up to have a big effect. Owners and coaches alike should always take the time to introduce themselves to visitors, stay a few minutes late to work with a member on their double-unders, and do all the little things that make the gym a happy place. Remember: a restaurant with the best food but shitty servers will still go out of business.

 3. Diversifying your offerings enables your gym to grow and increases member retention.

When you create multiple avenues for a wide array of people to join your gym, you will build a more dynamic and inclusive community. Diversity of offerings not only brings in new people, but also keeps your longtime members engaged and makes your gym a one-stop shop for everyone’s fitness needs. The beauty of CrossFit is its infinite scalability and the corollary physical disciplines associated with it. Start a Strongman class! Introduce a gymnastics class, or ask that person you know who teaches yoga to come teach for you. At CFSBK, we recently started two new programs: a Diapers & Dumbbells class for new parents, and a Fit 55+ class for CrossFitters over the age of 55. Both classes bring an exciting new population through our doors. (We will be writing more on ITA about these classes soon!)

I am also very much of the mindset that a successful community gym is a family-friendly gym. There are few things I love more than seeing multiple generations from kids to grandparents training together at the gym. I think a great test is: If your parents walked into your gym and wanted to sign up, would there be a place for them? If there's no one over 40 at your gym, I think that's a problem. In its best iteration, CrossFit provides fitness for everybody and every body. There's something innately enriching about having a diverse population at the gym, and it changes the culture for the better.

Personal training is another way to bring a wider range of people into the gym. People often think CrossFit is synonymous with the group class experience, and while that may be the classic CrossFit experience, it's just one experience and there are plenty of people who don't want to take group classes. We've found that people sign up for personal training for a variety of reasons—sometimes they are intimidated by group classes and need to get more comfortable before joining but most just aren't interested in the group dynamic, and that's okay.

It’s also useful to think about it from a business perspective: Personal training is a standard service in the fitness industry at large and having that option brings in people who can afford it and want it. It also helps your coaches supplement their salaries (see Lesson #1) and makes them better as coaches, because when you’re training one person for an hour over an extended period, you are wholly responsible for every element of their fitness, from writing their program and movement correction to helping them reach their specific goals.

4. Clean your fucking gym.

I don't care who your hot-shot coaches are, if your gym is dirty, your gym sucks. As many of you know, Greg Glassman has a simple way of determining the quality of intent behind your gym—the cleanliness of your bathrooms. When I walk into a gym and see crusty rowers with dust on them, equipment haphazardly organized or that's out of order, my first thought is, “These people don’t care.” If you want to have a professional, mature gym, that people enjoy being at, you have to keep it clean. Even when I was renting space hourly at the Brooklyn Lyceum and had to bring out our equipment from storage before each class, I made sure to arrive early to line everything up perfectly and clean up the area we were using before class. Everyone notices attention to detail.

One of the most common things I hear from CFSBK members who drop in at other gyms is how grateful they are that we keep the gym spotless, use labeling systems for all the equipment, and keep our bathrooms and showers shiny and tidy. This is really, really, really important—especially if you're charging more than the cheap globo-gym down the street with a full-time cleaning crew. 

5. Stay true to your roots.

I've been hearing cynics talk about the "End of CrossFit" too many years now, and the importance of rebranding to separate yourself from the CrossFit brand. While everyone should do what they believe in, I often find this approach to be based in cynicism, which is cheap and easy. 10 years in, most people walk through our doors due to a combination of their curiosity about CrossFit and the reputation we've created for our affiliate. 

CrossFit South Brooklyn is a CrossFit gym first and foremost. The beauty of CrossFit affiliation is that it gives you complete freedom to express your vision however you wish. In response to people who tell me to rebrand, I say that without CrossFit, I wouldn't have made it anywhere near this far. As affiliates, we should all make our gyms the best version of CrossFit that we can and lead by example. Don't bite the hand that feeds you and give credit where credit is due.

6. Don't be afraid to get weird.

If the staff feels enabled to have fun and be weird—not inappropriate—it enables your members to be themselves, too. If you walk into a stuffy, chic gym, and no one is being themselves or interacting with each other, you probably won't have a great time. Or at least, I wouldn’t. It’s important to remember that much of what we do puts our members in a vulnerable state of trying new things and pushing themselves out of their comfort zone both physically and emotionally, and they should feel safe in that vulnerability.

CFSBK’s Question of the Day goes a long way toward achieving this in our classes. In an ideal world, people want to be at your gym as much of their week as possible, but they're only going to want to do that if they can be themselves. And let's be honest, we’re all a little weirder than we let on. If you create an environment where people feel free to let their guard down and have fun with their training, you inevitably strengthen their loyalty and connection to your gym.

7. Constantly engage your community.

Being alive in 2017 means you have more options than ever for ways to engage your members. At CFSBK, we do this daily in classes by fostering communication between coaches and members, and members with each other, and outside of classes at community events. But we also try to engage members throughout their days online via our daily blogInstagram, and Facebook. Engaging your members regularly shows that you care about them and that they have a voice at your affiliate. This dialogue is the difference between a "customer" and a "member" of your community. 

There are certain customer service businesses that are transactional in nature. You go to Starbucks in the morning to get your coffee, forget about it when you leave, and don’t think about it until the next morning. But by engaging your members throughout their days and in deeper ways throughout their lives, you create a community that people want to be part of whether they’re working out or just hanging out. 

8. Take your own classes. 

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of taking classes regularly at your gym. It's easy to distance yourself from the real workings of your gym as it gets bigger. But if you own a restaurant, you should want to eat your own food, right? Taking your own classes shows that you believe in what you offer and stand behind your product. If you think your CrossFit group classes are somehow inadequate for you, figure out why and change that.

9. Make the world a better place.

As gym owners and coaches, we are so lucky to work in an environment that has the profound ability to make life-changing positive adaptations for people every single day. Take a moment and realize how fortunate you are to be helping people feel better about themselves. This is a great honor and responsibility. It should be an imperative to be the best you can be to your members—whether you're in a garage with three regulars or a huge facility with over 1,000. Ask yourself: Is my gym or coaching practice bringing happiness to people's lives and making their lives better? If the answer is no, you’re doing something wrong.

On top of that, a community of motivated people can create powerful leverage towards meaningful causes. Start fundraisers and charity events, or organize some kind of service work through your gym. The possibilities are endless. Pick 2-4 annual events in which to bring people together for something bigger than the gym. In whatever way you can, leave the world a better place than how you found it.

10. You're never done, and you never will be.

Never stop working on your business. 10 years in, and I'm still learning. On a weekly basis, there continue to be things I'm trying to make better. At CFSBK, we are fortunate to have a fantastic staff and are mature enough as a business that our operations run smoothly and I can go on vacation and things don't fall apart. But beyond operations, some affiliate owners are stunned that I still coach. I still coach because I love it, but also because I think it's important to continue being an employee in your business. It keeps me grounded and I think that contact with our members maintains an important empathy not only with them but with our staff. 

You must fall in love with the process if you want to be successful and have longevity in this industry. A gym is not something you build and walk away from. In its best iteration, a gym is a dynamic, vibrant, and inclusive community that improves peoples' lives and the world around it. 

What lessons would you add? Post in the comments below. 

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Reader Comments (10)

This is amazing. I feel like this is the start of a book.

September 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMoe Naqvi

Another incredible text! Congratulations David and CFSBK for 10 years. since I became the owner of my own box, 5 years ago, I read and follow many tips from ITA. I have much to thank, even from a distance, of Brazil, for the tips and information on how to be a Box of quality and promising. I will still fulfill the dream of meeting CFSBK personally. Congratulations and lots of success!

September 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDiego Righetto

This is a great articulation of why this gym and the experience of going regularly stands out from all my past experiences. Very well put.

September 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGene

Thanks SO much for the kind words, everyone!! Glad you enjoyed the article.

September 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Osorio

1. If I were fortunate enough to live in Brooklyn, CFSBK would be my second home. This article compellingly articulates what it takes to build a gym that people can be passionate about.
2. Re Staying True To Your Roots: for me Crossfit stands for a conception of a broad-based fitness that I completely buy into, and famously demanding programming. So long as CFSBK remains a place for people who are passionate about becoming truly fit, which I hope will be as long as it lasts, it simply makes sense to identify with the Crossfit movement.

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Mark

Wow man, as a young box owner it’s super motivating to see all that you’ve done to make CFSBK a real community. Congrats on building such a great business David, I’m making plans to drop in in the spring time to check it out!

December 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJason Daniel

Would love to have you drop by, Jason!!

December 29, 2017 | Registered CommenterDavid Osorio

Excellent Article. My former Box had an owner who loved working out, loved creating excellent WODS, and was great at coaching and being enthusiastic when you were at class. Unfortunately, the owner was awful at scheduling, msking sure classes started and ended on time, rarely replied to emails, and inconsistently followed up on members whose attendrnce began slipping. The owner never adked "what is my responsibility" in member attrition, but frequently posted slogans about members should "just do it!"

Even more unfortunate is that many, if not most, Box owners "love working at a gym" but "hate all the customer service and administrative responsibilities of business ownership"! I have contacted many owners in my search to find a good Box (when I started CrossFit over a year ago, and the past month since I quit my original Box). My business gas me working in several locations throughput the year.

As such, I cannot see my experience as a 'fluke', but a sad trend. Without any exageration, I have emailed or FB messages to quite a few Boxes. During the past six weeks: Five in SF Bay, Five in Tampa/St. Pete, and Nine in Metro Detroit. I have received only two replies. Three, if you count one reply that took 10 days to respond, and the response answered zero questions, but just said I should come in for a free workout. Four, if you count the one that never replied, but has since been sending me their frequent newsletter posts.

The same thing happened in 2016, ehen I first started looking into joining CrossFit. I sent emails and messages saying I was interested in joining but had a few questions. I only received one teply, and that obly afyer I sent a follow-up email a week after the first. The one located just a few blocks from my homebase apartment never replied (they're the ones that necer replied the year later, but added me to their newsletter list)!

The Box I attended, many times staryed class late because the one(s) preceding ended late. They goood-heartedly 'joked' when a 'missing' member commented on the groups social FB page, but rarely, if ever, called or asked them the real readons why they'd been missing classes. For five months I went five mornings a week, until the OPEN arrived (A.K.A.: the last-straw that annually breaks the back of every missmanaged Box in existence). Then I started missing a class here and there. Then more than a few. Even after missing for a full month, I never received one question, scolding, or admonition as to what and why. Certainly, I never was asked by the oener or coaches what responsibility they had, or steps they could take to at least try to resolve any real or perceived issues.

Why is it that so many Boxes suffer from an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality. I believe it stems from having little experience with, or little desire to follow, mature customer service practices. They think as lonas they they are enthused about this Box they created, that all the other 'stuff' can be ignored without having any negative cconsequences

This mismanagement problem is not "just one Box"; this is not a unique scenario that can be easily remedied by "just go and join ine of the "many" Boxes that will meet your needs". Many CrossFits, like many Globo gyms, are run by gym lovers who hate being good managers -- otherwise, I guess, they would have gone for business-administration and customer-service degrees in addition to their gym-trainer certificates.

What makes this mass of mismanagement a bigger problem for CrossFit than Globos is ...

A. CrossFit is over-saturated with sometimes dozens of Boxes within driving distances of each other. More competition, coupled with fewer members per Box means scheduling and coaches AND owners attention and availability are spread thin.

B. CrossFit, unlike Globos, promises (as their foundational selling point) to be responsive, proactive, committed, and a supportive community that is dedicated to every members' success. That's why memvers are paying a premium price -- at least that's what every introductory handout and every Box's webpage says. Owners may ignore, minimize, or even fail to see that attrition will always be high unless they become shepherds instead of cheerleaders; good time managers and proactive communicators instead of self -assured gym enthusiasts. We need them to be both (all) these things; they need it too if they want to retain most of their memvers.

January 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLeo's Friend

Great post, Leo's friend. Unfortunately that seems to be the case with many gyms, and often small businesses in general. It's easy to let things fall through the cracks and answering emails and staying on top of all the oh so necessary things that are needed to run a professional business. I admit that I'm not great at staying on top of emails, which is why I eventually got an admin who's job it is to stay on top of all the emails and leads that come in.. so that its not reliant on my mood and motivation to answer important emails from potential and current members.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Osorio

It is super and professional of you to incorporate an admin. We all have different gifts and focuses on different priorities in our businesses. That's why a company (if they can afford it) has members with different responsibilities. Everyone in a shop can't be the mechanic, or at a gym being all coaches -- no one would receive the customers, pay the bills, file the taxes, etc. Even if they could, they might suck at certain tasks and be great at others (or at least enjoy their job and calling less if most of their job was doing things they didn't enjoy).

It's great that you hired someone who is good at focusing on customer emails, etc. It frees you to do what you're good at: fitness, coaching, and creating a visionary WOD environment and Box. This way, the indirect but important aspects of customer contact don't get lost.

Sometime after posting my comment, I got it in my head to try a bit of a "study" -- an exercise in seeing how CF Boxes might fare in at least one specific aspect of communication. I wanted to see a thin slice of the Member-Attrition pie.

On a Facebook page I opened to periodically note my love of CrossFit, but also how I saw needs for improvement. On that page, I just finished a tryout. To 125 CrossFit Affiliates (25 International, 100 USA) I sent questions (regarding how their owners dealt with members who started missing their usual classes). Specifically, whether or not they had an established policy and practice for contacting such members.

Unfortunately, the results were even worse that I feared. Of the 125, almost all never even replied, or replied with automated messages that they would reply when able (but never did). A couple replied, but with responses totally unrelated to my questions (did they even read, or did they chose to just talk about their own different agenda?).

Of the 125, only 2 answered that they did some form of follow-up with missing members. One of these was more passive (they only sought out missing members if those members had originally took it upon themselves to ask for such while they were active members). The other (the only 1 of the 125) was the only responder who said they had an active policy to notice and inquire regarding members who might be falling by the wayside.

To be EXTREMELY gracious, I'll say that most of these 125 may hate using and replying to FBook Messages. That's understandable, if they receive more than they can productively handle. Yet, if that's the case, they should remove the FB Message option from their FBook Pages, and list their desired form of communication. It's better to limit the options than make available [inadvertently promises] communication options they really don't use. Otherwise, the message they are sending is a "blow off" -- thus, potentially not only losing old or potential members, but risking their customer-service reputations as well.

If you're curious to see my Page postings regarding these 125 and the result details and breakdown, feel free to email me. I'll give you the Page address.

October 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLeo's Friend

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