What I Learned Listening to Unicorns About the Business of Fitness

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Unicorns are real.


I hung out with two of them this past weekend. Except, these weren’t unicorns in the fantastical sense, you know, with horns sticking out of their foreheads and the proclivity to shoot rainbows out of their ass.

In fact, these unicorns didn’t even have four legs. Or a tail.1

No, these “unicorns” were none other than my good friends Mark Fisher and Michael Keeler of Mark Fisher Fitness, co-founders of one of the most successful gyms in NYC (or the world for that matter). A place where members are referred to as ninjas, the gym itself is referred to as The Ninja Clubhouse of of Glory and Dreams, and well, lets just say it’s not uncommon territory for spontaneous ABBA dance-offs to take place in between sets of KB swings.

Actually, it’s par for the course on a Wednesday night.

Their moniker is Serious Fitness For Ridiculous Humans. Oftentimes people see the glitterly website and think: “Huh, that’s odd/interesting/WTF, did I just see a pic of a trainer wearing buttless pants? I guess it’s a cool place/I think I need to go wash my eyes.”

And it is. It’s an amazing place. I’d make the case there’s no gym in the world that does what MFF does. It’s impossible to walk within their walls and not feel good about yourself. The incessant positive reinforcement and insatiable desire to make people happy (and to accept their unique weirdness) is impressive.

What gets lost in translation (and amongst the buttless pants) is that their staff are some of the best at what they do. Sure, they have fun (like, a lot of fun)…but they’ll also casually discuss PRI, Pavel, Strong First, RKC, Smolov squat cycles, neck alignment, McGill vs. Contreras/Schoenfeld, and the pros and cons of OLY lifting.

Further, this was the end of an email I received from Mark a few years ago when he and I were going back and forth on a job opening MFF had and what they look for in a possible hire:
“Don’t get me wrong, if they’re a drag queen, that’s HUGELY helpful, but they need to be a drag queen who knows who Ed Coan is.”

To say Mark and Michael have built a successful (fitness) business – a very unique and unconventional one at that – would be an understatement. They are the MASTERS at building community and hiring the right people who are the right fit. And, they’re also the masters at being anal as balls at implementing systems and having a spreadsheet and purpose for everything pertaining to MFF and their business.

They were in Boston this past weekend and I had the opportunity to attend Day #2 of their Inside the Unicorn business workshop. Below are some takeaways (written in list/bullet format because I know I’m going to be all over the place).

1) We’re programmed by the industry to not offer free shit, and I’ll admit I’m hot and cold on this topic. To get people into your “funnel,” however, why not host a free outdoor class and then offer some sort of one-time offer or flash sale to lure people in? $50 off one-time assessment, or some sort of reduced price-point on a initial package.

2) To that point, you can then add people to your mailing list and then, in Keeler’s words, “hunt them like an animal for 30-days to purchase or to sign-up for a service you offer.” After 30 days, pump the brakes. Keep them on your list, but stop hunting.

  • Some people may take a few months (if not years) before they’re ready to commit to anything. Staying on their radar – in a non-pushy, non-urgent way – is important.
  • Interestingly, Keeler noted how NO-ONE picks up their phones, but that leaving occasional voice messages is still relevant. They can still listen to your voice, which “humanizes” the interaction.

3) At MFF they’re huge advocates of yearly (staff) reviews. Coincidentally, they’ve found that staff members are often harder and score themselves much harsher than management. To that end, their go to source on this front is the Gallup Q12 Employee Engagement Survey.

  • Keeler readily admits that the questions are open-ended, abstract, and “wishy washy,” but the research on their effectiveness backs up the results.

4) Speaking of evaluations, on a more personal facility to facility level, both Mark and Michael implored the attendees to come up with their own evaluation questions based off THEIR core values.

For example, for me, some of the questions I came up with were:

  • “How do you demonstrate integrity?”
  • “Do you feel you’re in an environment where your needs are met and that you’re able to grow as an individual and professional?”
  • “A Tribe Called Quest is the greatest rap group of all time, right? RIGHT?”

5) In addition, during the evaluation process it’s important to hit on different categories (and to make them relevant to YOUR facility). Here are some things to consider and my questions:

  • Skill-Based Competence – “I feel comfortable coaching the big 3 – squat, bench press, deadlift?” Maybe you’re a KB-based facility, so a more appropriate question here is your employee’s ability to coach a swing or get-up.
  • Communication Expectations – “I am able to regress/progress exercises based off client’s ability level, injury history, and goals?
  • Unique to Culture – “I can articulate complex concepts – PRI, joint position, etc – simply?” If you work at a place like MFF, maybe a good question here would be “I’m okay with being silly.” or “I feel comfortable coaching a squat with a dildo glued to the squat rack.” Make these questions unique to YOUR gym culture.
  • Open-Ended Questions – “What can CORE do better to help you succeed?

NOTE: note the use of “I.” This makes the evaluation more personal and more apt for people to honest.

6) Piggy backing off of #5, Michael and Mark encouraged everyone to omit the abstractness of using a numbered only ranking system (1-5), and to add words. Have fun with it. Here’s what I did:

“I feel comfortable coaching the big 3 – squat, bench press, deadlift?

1 = I suck balls.

2 = Eh, I guess I’m okay.

3 = I’m Yoda with that shit.

SIDE NOTE: I think more numbers would be best. Say, 5, to give people a more diverse system to rank themselves. I used 3 for simplicity. Too, I almost feel as if it would be beneficial to add a “0” the ranking system. As in:

0 = I’d rather throw my face into a brick wall. I hate it.

This way you can better match services and skill-sets to the strengths of your employees. I don’t know, something to think about.

7) MFF take their team meetings VERY seriously. For starters it’s paid time for everyone to attend, and their meetings run 2-3 hours every week.

  • Have an agenda. In MFF’s case they’re expensive, make them count.
  • Time each activity. As in, 5 Minutes for general intro, 10 Minutes of announcements (upcoming workshops, new class offering, etc), 20 Minutes on coaching cues, 10 Minutes on interpretive dance, so on and so forth.
  • Plan long-term. MFF plans their meetings months in advance. That way they’re not spending an inordinate amount of time per meeting on any one topic. If program design needs to be covered, they may allot 30-60 minutes for four straight meetings down the road so they know they have digestible chunks.
  • They’ve set the expectation that everyone needs to attend, and they’ve more or less made them important and informative enough that staff would attend them even if they weren’t getting paid for them.
  • Hold staff meetings in the middle of the week – Wednesday/Thur – so you have less likelihood of people missing due to extended weekends or Holidays.

8) And finally, one of Mark’s greatest pet-peeves is lack of communication amongst staff, to the point where people talk shit and air their grievances with other staff members or management except for the person they really should be speaking to. Just, stop it.

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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.

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