I’m Not a Businessman. I’m a Business, Man.

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Any hip-hop junkie will recognize the title of today’s post.

It’s a quote from Jay-Z.

I’m in no way putting myself in the same company as one of rap’s biggest historic moguls, but I felt the title was appropriate given the context of what I wanted to write about today.

It’s something I rarely broach on this website, yet it’s an integral component to just about every fitness professional’s day to day life.

Surprisingly, I’m not referring to energy drinks. Or protein.

Let’s Talk a Little Fitness Business Mmmkay?

It’s been a little over two months since I left Cressey Sports Performance to pursue other opportunities and my own “thing” in Boston.

NOTE: I put quotations around “thing” not as some ubiquitous attempt to insinuate I have no plan. I do! But, well, just keep reading……

Since leaving CSP things have been great. Life has had a nice pace to it.

I’ve been able to keep up with writing and running this website while also building whatever it is I’m building here in Boston. I.e., a small army of deadlifting psychopaths…;o)

As it happened, maybe a week or two ago, Pete and I were texting back and forth and he mentioned that it would be interesting if I spoke to what it’s been like for me during this transitional phase in my life. What have been some of the hardships (if any?) and lessons I’ve learned in starting my own “thing.”

Sorry, there’s that word again.

The “Thing”

At the CSP staff Christmas Party this past weekend, Mike Reinold and I were chatting about how hard and impossible it must feel for upcoming fitness professionals to make a name for themselves.

On one side of the fence the internet has made everything – and everyone – more accessible. Fitness celebrities and can be constructed in a matter of months.

On the other side, however, the market is so saturated with Instagram feeds, Facebook likes, websites, blogs, and hashtags that everything – and everyone – is seemingly invisible.

There’s too much noise.

When we opened CSP back in the summer of 2007, I had already been working as a trainer for five years and writing on my own website and sites like T-Nation for a little over a year (my first article on T-Nation was published in 2006).

I joined Facebook not long after with little comprehension of A) knowing what the hell it was and B) definitely not knowing what it would become. Nonetheless I crushed LOLCats on it.

Likewise, I joined Twitter in 2010. Again, not really understanding what the point was. All I knew was that all the cool kids were doing it.

The important thing to consider, though – and this is where many upcoming fitness pros miss the boat – is that I didn’t initially use any of those platforms to build my brand or market myself or use them to build some semblance of “fake experience.”

I spent years training and coaching people before any of that shit entered the equation or even mattered.

Too, I spent over a year writing to the 10 people who read my blog – for free – before I got my first break on T-Nation.

Long story short: I did the work. I worked the long hours, I trained hundreds and hundreds of people, got up early/stayed up late, and I paid my dues. The work is what helped to mold me as a professional. Not the race to accumulate friends and arbitrary “likes” and “shares”

But I also recognize I lucked out to a degree.

I was an early adopter of all those social media thingamabobbers (particularly blogging). Today I’d feel super intimidated if I were to start a blog.

Another thing I lucked out with was having Eric and Pete in my corner….and I feel they would corroborate the sentiment: me being in their corner as well.

Eric: There is only one Eric Cressey. The man is a machine and has the work ethic of a rabid rhinoceros. I don’t even know that means, but suffice it to say that it’s hard to know someone for a decade, live with them for two years, start a business, and not have some of their traits and habits rub off on you.

Pete: Part of what I feel made CSP so successful to begin with was because Pete assumed the role of “business guy” from the start. He was the one responsible for scheduling, invoicing, taking phone calls, ordering equipment, negotiating the lease, and all the other dirty work many people can’t fathom or appreciate.

This allowed Eric and I to do what we do best…..coach!

And argue over the music.

All of This To Say….

I have NO interest in opening or owning my own facility.1

I’ve spent over a decade building my own brand and a “business,” but I am in no way, shape, or form a businessman.

I think one of the biggest fallacies in fitness is thinking that the end-all-be-all destination is to be a gym owner.

Ask ten young trainers/coaches what their end-goal is and I’m willing to bet 80-90% of them will raise their hand and say “to watch Tony Gentilcore train shirtless to own my own facility someday.”

It’s a respectable goal to have; albeit a lofty one.

Strength coach, Clifton Harski, has this to say on the matter (and I tend to agree):

“I would wager that over half of gym owners did it due to their own EGO and an initial goal they had when they started – which they never really thought to reevaluate over time. It seems like the next logical step for someone. However, it’s not – quite often.”

Moreover, I feel there’s an “expectation management” gap that exists when it comes to gym ownership. The expectation is that someone decides to open a gym, they buy a bunch of fancy equipment, and they think that by turning on the lights that a drove of people are just going to show up and hand over their money.

Realistically, someone will come up with the idea of opening up their own facility, buy a bunch of fancy equipment, make sure the electricity is turned on (always an important step), and then are quick to realize it’s not as much of a cake walk as they had originally planned.

(NOTE: there’s nothing I can say with regards to fitness business that Pete hasn’t discussed over on his website. I’d highly encourage you to check it out (linked to above) and thank me later)

This is what I like to call the “Commercial Gym Trainer Conundrum.”

Typically what happens is that someone who’s been working at a commercial gym for all of two weeks thinks they’re getting screwed by the man. I mean, they’re the one doing all the work, right? Yet, they’re only getting 1/3 of the cost of a training session, and the gym is just pocketing the rest. Like a bunch of a-holes.

Um, no.

The “man” is paying your health insurance, taking care of utilities, equipment upkeep and replacement, and ensuring the rent/lease is paid each month. And this doesn’t even take into account paying the salaries of any support staff – janitorial, front desk, etc – in addition to any CAM (Common Area Maintenance) charges that may exist (snow removal, landscaping, building upkeep).

ALL of these will be YOUR problem the second you open up your own facility. In addition to things like lead generation, scheduling, invoicing, bookkeeping, to add on top of your coaching and programming responsibilities (which can vary depending your business model).

Oh, and the case of phantom explosive diarrhea in the bathroom…guess who’s cleaning that up?

Dean Somerset wrote an excellent article on why being a commercial gym trainer isn’t such a bad thing.

I don’t know about you, but none of that sounds fun to me. I’d rather jump into a shark’s mouth. Which is why I had to sit down and figure out what it is I wanted to do for the next 5-10 years of my life and what was going to be right fit.

I had to have a hard conversation with myself and come to the realization that I AM NOT A BUSINESSMAN.

Don’t get me wrong, I run a business – coaching, writing, this website, speaking engagements – but I don’t consider myself a businessman in the sense of having the desire to own and run a facility.

So, To Conclude My Rambling

1.  I’m sub-leasing in Boston at a space called Run Strong Studio. I have no overhead other than paying “rent” for the time I use, and paying for my own liability insurance (via the NSCA).

It’s the right fit for ME.

2. I did purchase around $5000 of my own equipment to get started (which I can write off for tax purposes), but I made sure to give myself a HARD AUDIT as to what I’d really need.

This is a mistake many fitness professionals make. Their eyes are often bigger than their wallets and they end up purchasing equipment that’s 1) cool and only they’ll use or 2) takes up too much space.

Think of if this way: Power rack = something everyone will use. Big, fancy leg press = not so much.

3. And speaking of taxes: GET A GOOD ACCOUNTANT!!! I’ve had the same one for five years and he’s more of less my BFF.

4. My goals at this stage in my career is to coach 20 or so hours per week, which still allows me plenty of time to keep up my writing responsibilities and allow for windows of travel for workshops.

[It’s funny: many trainers/coaches want the same scenario that I am doing right now, but fail to understand I spent 13 years coaching people and writing 1,800 blog posts and countless articles to get there.]

Could I coach more if I wanted? Yes, and, honestly, I could make more money if I did so. However, I love the freedom and autonomy I have now.

I mean, if I want to go to an afternoon matinee or, I don’t know, practice my nunchuck skills, I can.

Autonomy is sweet.

I remember reading something somewhere (<— how’s that for a citation) that many people feel happier and more fulfilled being their own boss….despite making less money.

I have to say, I concur.

5. You’re only as good as your systems.

Knowing my limitations, and after asking several colleagues, I signed up for a service called Front Desk, and it’s been spectacular.

Any peace of mind I can give myself in terms of management of money and “systemizing” things is all good in my book.

My eight years at CSP helped to prepare me (and dampen) the inevitable failures I’ll come across on my own. However, I’m a firm believer that you learn more in failure than you ever do in success.

And in the end, that’s some solid business advice.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.
  1. Unless it’s to train ninjas.

Comments for This Entry

  • Kyle Schuant

    I didn't want to open my own business. But since we don't have the same college sports system, we just don't have many serious big gyms in Australia, it's all globogyms. So to get the environment I wanted for my lifters, I had to create it.

    December 21, 2015 at 5:01 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Yeah, I can see how it would be a little different down there. Having been down there myself, I know there aren't many NON globo-like gyms. Very cool to know you've been able to do what you love doing Kyle and be successful too.

      December 22, 2015 at 5:57 am | Reply to this comment

  • John J Brooks

    This is where I fell down. To fly in the face of humility, but I'm a damn good coach, but I'm a shit business man.. worse.. I'm worse than shit.. I'm awful.. just awful.. I hate it. So I had to make a choice. Sometimes doing what you love for a living involves doing what you absolutely hate as well. Do you love the love more than you hate the hate. I didn't. Maybe some day I'll figure out a way to coach full time, pay the bills, and not have to do all the sales and marketing that I'm horrible at.. maybe not. In the meantime, I do a thing for a living that is fine. I work at a good place with good people, and I don't do the thing that I absolutely love, but I don't have to do the things that I hated. Sometimes the middle ground is where its at. Those people who say "follow your passion" are giving you incomplete advice. Follow your passion and talent, but also figure out what are deal breakers for you. Maybe you can weave them together into a career, maybe you can partner with someone who completes you like Dorothy Boyd completes Jerry Maguire.. or maybe you have to do a thing that isn't your absolute passion, but is pretty ok.

    December 21, 2015 at 6:58 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Rachel

    I'm not skilled at (nor do I have much interest in) the business side of things. I've been somewhat anxious about that since I know there is a lot of business involved in fitness. So it's good to hear that you've been as successful as you are without embodying a "businessman." Reading this post definitely lets me breathe easier. On the topic of autonomy, did you ever consider becoming a physical therapist? I've been frustrated that I can't help those with pain/injury as much as I could if I were a PT. Especially in terms of not being legally allowed to diagnose or provide therapeutic touch (passive stretching, joint manipulation, etc.). Did you ever struggle with that? I feel like your knowledge far surpasses a lot of PTs!

    December 21, 2015 at 9:40 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      I tell pretty much ALL upcoming trainers that they should spend a good 2-3 years working in a commercial gym setting if for nothing else....to develop their skills as a coach and trainer. It's not such a bad gig once you take emotion out of the equation, pull back the curtain, and understand what REALLY happens. But, then again, some commercial gym settings are absolute NIGHTMARES. I guess it's the luck of the draw. As far Physical Therapy is concerned, it never interested me. I DO NOT feel my knowledge surpasses that of a PT (thank you, though), but I understand movement and I have some comprehension of anatomy. Plus I've been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some pretty smart PTs (Mike Reinold, Eric Schoenberg, Bill Hartman, etc). That sorta helps.....;o)

      December 22, 2015 at 6:01 am | Reply to this comment

      • Rachel

        I work at a commercial gym now and though I wish we had better equipment (power rack to elliptical ratio is way off), I love it. It's a sweet gig while I'm in school. As with trainers, it seems that PTs range from fair to excellent. You've definitely kept some great company. :)

        December 22, 2015 at 10:01 am | Reply to this comment

  • Bryan Watson

    Fantastic article Tony. I have recently gone from a globogym, to renting out space and building my own brand. Just like you said, there is no price on autonomy. Thanks for putting words and transparency to how your operating. It's helpful and most importantly nice to know there's others thriving in a situation where there doing what they love. Makes me feel more confident in what I'm doing. Thanks again.

    December 22, 2015 at 10:11 am | Reply to this comment

  • Jenn Pilotti

    Great post. I read it yesterday, on my 25 minute break between training 9 clients at my studio. Which, because it's my studio, is both wonderful and stressful, because there is always rent to pay. I worked at a club for 5 1/2 years, rented space in a training studio for 5 years, and opened my own space 2 1/2 years ago after I felt like I had outgrown the space I was renting (850 square feet for 3 trainers is tricky, especially if you want to do any dynamic work). During the time I was there, I built up my brand locally, began exploring benefits of social media, and slowly developed a presence in the community. Your advice is spot on, and while having my own space suits my personality well, the reality of working 5 days a week training 7-9 people and spending weekends teaching and taking workshops, classes, blogging, social media, and bookkeeping, and the careful budgeting that has to go into vacations isn't for everyone. There are benefits to not worrying about whether the windows get washed, or whether you should cut back on training so you can work on other things. Conversely, being able to make the decision you want Stall bars, and if you are going to purchase Stall bars, you might as well buy the pretty wood ones is pretty awesome, too. You and Dean Somerset are both doing an excellent job demonstrating success isn't necessarily owning a space; rather, it's honing your craft and embracing the adage be "so good they can't ignore you."

    December 22, 2015 at 11:24 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Jenn, I am honored you read my post and that it resonated with you. 25 minutes in your world is kind of a big deal, and I am stoked I was able to keep your attention that long....;o) I TOTALLY get where you're coming from, and, without knowing you personally, I can tell you're passionate about what you do (and that you've taken the time to actually BUILD a brand). Thank you for chiming in and for giving a "real world" perspective in the fitness business.

      December 22, 2015 at 3:52 pm | Reply to this comment

      • Jenn Pilotti

        Thanks, Tony (your stuff almost always holds my attention. Unless it's about Star Wars, which makes me drift off into some sort of brain fog until you begin discussing something other than The Force). Part of the interesting conundrum you touch upon here is the definition of success in the fitness industry. So many young trainers I talk to want to make a name for themselves and own a studio. When I lectured at the local university in September, I tried to impart upon them success as a trainer should first come from making a positive impact on someone else's life. This comes from authenticity, knowing what you stand for, and ultimately, in the words of Gandhi, attempting to "be the change you want to inspire in the world." The abysmal attrition rate of new trainers staying in the profession is due to many factors, but I think losing site of the many ways success can be measured is one of them.

        December 23, 2015 at 9:51 am | Reply to this comment

        • TonyGentilcore

          That's an EXCELLENT message you gave to those students Jenn. I wish more people would send that message. I have a talk coming up at my alma mater this April and I'm contemplating speaking on a similar topic as yourself. I'm playing around with a loose title of "The Exacerbation of the Inefficient Fitness Professional."

          December 28, 2015 at 6:58 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Steve Roy

    Tony, Good for you for taking the time to self reflect and then go after what you really want. Very few do. With your writing and speaking skills, you'll no doubt do very well on those platforms. The only issue I see is that creepy, ominous shadowy photo you've got as your bio on the studio site. If I didn't know who you were, I'd think that photo was taken in John Wayne Gacy's basement...

    December 22, 2015 at 5:54 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Sam Hamid

    I feel like I could have written this article. We think so much a like. I opened my own successful business 8 years ago and often wonder how much further I could have scaled if I had gone the route in the article. Still able to help lots of people yet less problems.

    December 24, 2015 at 8:23 am | Reply to this comment

  • Sarah Duvall

    Thanks for another great article Tony! You hit an emotional point for me on this one. I sold my PT/training practice when we moved to Boston for my husband's work (follow the biotech). Bitter sweet but I'm currently trying my hand at this internet thing and it's intimidating as hell. (Even for someone with 15 years of experience who owned a successful private practice.) Thanks for putting your thoughts into words. Even though I loved my practice, I will never own another practice again. Renting "space/time" from someone else is definitely less stressful. Thanks again! Your posts are always the best. Thanks for being an inspiration!

    December 31, 2015 at 4:06 pm | Reply to this comment

  • How to Build a Home Gym or Studio

    […] Meaning, I didn’t have to find a space, negotiate a lease, build out the space, or worry about any of the other headaches that come with gym ownership. […]

    January 18, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Reply to this comment

  • American Heavyweight

    an honest reminder about all the work that goes in to making a site and business model like yours.

    January 21, 2016 at 11:25 pm | Reply to this comment

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    March 31, 2016 at 6:50 am | Reply to this comment

  • susan

    Thank you for this Tony! This resonates with me so much right now as I am at a crossroads with this very thing. So much food for thought. Diving into the business end of things when you are not a "business person" is overwhelming on a good day. I have recently thought about a similar road. I look forward to meeting you in person at the Fitness Summit!

    April 6, 2016 at 5:52 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Maybe I should change my topic at The Fitness Summit to this...haha. Glad it helped Susan, and that it reassured you that you don't HAVE to own a gym in order to be successful or to be validated in this industry. It's definitely not for everyone.

      April 12, 2016 at 11:24 am | Reply to this comment

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