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How I started my own fitness business from scratch

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By Genevieve van der Vyver

Everyone wants to live the dream… to work for themselves to enjoy flexible working hours and benefit from the autonomy offered by choice.

I dreamt of the day that I could step out to create my own brand in the fitness industry and finally make money for myself, instead of slaving for somebody else.

When I finally took the leap, my first foray into self-employment was through a reputable franchise. This approach worked for a while, but eventually the limitations of the franchise system got on my nerves. Although I owned two of the most successful franchises in the country, I decided to sell-out and take a break. It took me four years to revive my passion for the fitness industry.

Take two at creating my own fitness-focused business

By the time I was ready to try again, the leap seemed almost insurmountable. I was plagued by indecision. Should I leave my safe, desk job and regular income for the dream?

I eventually realised that by remaining behind that desk, I would never pursue what I was really good at or passionate about, and that was killing me inside.

Going out on my own again was a huge step. It requires taking significant but calculated risks and making a few mistakes along the way. Based on my experience, I want to let you in on how I managed to go from being micro-managed to being the manager of my own destiny.

Research your business prospects

Take time to scout the area in which you would like to set up your business. The fitness industry is competitive and certain niches are quite saturated. I recommend at least a 5km radius between your business and any other that providing similar services. Two aerial yoga studios on the same block is not ideal.

This is the reason many gyms negotiate competitor clauses with their centre management as it prevents other conflicting businesses from moving in on their turf and ensures that they can remain as competitive as possible. If you’re considering a mall or office park, be sure to check this first.

Secondly, consider the nature of your offering and speak to people in the area. Find out about the traffic patterns as this will help you to identify the best times for sessions. Ask them if they would be interested in your service. Network as much as possible as this may help you get new contacts that can assist you with a cheaper location or provide new ideas.

Location, location, location!

Will the community in the neighbourhood that you are considering be interested in what you are selling? There’s no point in opening a ladies-focused rebounding gym in an industrial park since most ladies probably won’t travel to get to you.

What about things like parking and security? Again, consider the traffic pattern and points of access. Will your business be visible and can you advertise on the outside of the building or on the street? Drive-by or walk-in traffic will definitely help with your future marketing efforts.

Create a financial business buffer

Consider how long it will take to get established. Do you already have a client base or do you need to build one up from scratch? If so, ensure that you can cover your bills (both personal and new business expenses) for at least 6-12 months. Another option is to begin part-time and slowly move your business over. Try to be patient.

Put in the groundwork and do the planning

Take time to document the vision you have for your business. From this, create a step-by-step action plan to achieve it. List what needs to be done, by when and what resources are required. Make sure that you put together a realistic budget and try to stick with it. Get a business savvy friend or family member to review it with you. We often miss things in our excitement and a fresh perspective can help.

Another reason that a proposal is important is if you need to approach the banks for a loan, or when applying for a location. It’s important to have a business plan that plots where you’re going and how you plan to get there, otherwise nobody will take you seriously.

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Formulate a good marketing strategy

Once you’ve covered your bases and have a plan and structure in place (think venue, class times, prices, etc.), then it’s time to start marketing. Do as much marketing and advertising as you can possibly afford.

The key to marketing success is consistency. Most fit pros preach this to clients every day, but very few are prepared to do this with their own business. For instance, effective social media marketing and engagement requires a daily commitment, at the very least.

I recommend that you prepare a marketing plan with specific actions allocated for each day and week. Stick it up on your wall and don’t deviate from it. People are fickle and will forget about you as quickly as you forget about your to-do list.

Branding is another important element. It may require a few thousand rand to get banners and posters printed, but once that outlay has been covered, you can put these up outside your venue.

If you are strapped for cash, research other ways that you can market in your area that cost little to nothing. Investigate which noticeboards you can use at local supermarkets or churches, or tap business or friend networks to spread word of mouth.

Get organised to run a tight business operation

While the start-up phase is often the most difficult, many fit pros crash and burn once they reach the operational stage. You simply cannot run a business without being meticulously organised.

You need systems to receive, process and follow-up on payments. You need to have a basic filing system. Keep all receipts for tax purposes. Plan your marketing. Plan your sessions. Follow-up with clients. Update your registers. Keep track of maintenance schedules if applicable. Keep abreast of your human resources if you have people working for you. If you can afford it, enlist the correctly qualified people to perform the roles and duties in the areas where you lack the capacity or competence.

A few final lessons

Never be afraid to ask for help. Remember, nobody knows everything. Leverage your network and then return the favour. Going on your own is not for the faint-hearted and not a decision to be taken lightly, but it does come with extensive rewards if undertaken with a proper action plan.

Finally, remember, there is enough sun to go around. Competition is positive and healthy, so supporting and encouraging people in the same industry as yours is good for everyone.

Make no mistake, working for yourself is also a demanding full-time job, but if you stick with it, you will build your own empire and will no longer slave in somebody else’s.

Genevieve (Gen) van der Vyver (catch her on Instagram here) is a personal trainer, coach and founder of FabFitSlay. She also has her MBA and many years of experience in both the corporate and fitness backgrounds. Feel free to email her on info@fabfitslay.co.za if you need assistance with your proposal or business plans. Gen is happy to coach you towards success.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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