Interview with Adam Bornstein
Adam is a New York Times bestselling author who has kind of done a little bit of everything both in and out of the fitness industry. He’s the founder of Born Fitness which specializes in online fitness and diet nutrition coaching. He’s been the editor for Men’s Health, a columnist for Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness along with an advisor for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He’s been seen everywhere from the New York Times to ESPN to GQ. Beyond the fitness industry he’s also considered one of the most 500 influential CEOs in the country. He’s the founder of Pen Name Consulting and works with everybody from Tim Ferriss to Dollar Shave Club to Equinox to Microsoft. Other credits include Livestrong, TV shows, you name it.
My evolution as an entrepreneur probably began when I was going to event after event and always wanting more. At some point I realized that I should just do it myself. I guess that’s probably the corollary to how everything started in my career. If we go way far back I was about as far away from being an entrepreneur as you can imagine. My background is in psychology and exercise physiology and my first job was working in a lab at the University of Colorado. I was a little research monkey putting together tests and studying data and probably the farthest thing you can imagine from being an entrepreneur.
So much of that was kind of shaped by what people told me I should be doing or could be doing. For the longest time I wanted to be a writer, but everyone told me that I would be poor and I was like, “I guess if everyone’s saying I’m poor I shouldn’t do this.” Or I wanted to be in fitness, but everyone would tell me the same thing. “You’ll be poor. It’s terrible hours.” I avoided things because I allowed people’s perceptions of the things that I enjoyed to influence what I did.
“I avoided things because I allowed people’s perceptions of the things that I enjoyed to influence what I did.”
I definitely had an “aha” moment, a light bulb moment, where I realized that I had to say “screw it” to that. I had a wonderful job very, very young. I was working at a university at 22 or 23 years old and we had a huge breakthrough in the lab that we were working in. It was a social psychology lab that focused in stereotyping and prejudice and interpersonal interaction. There was this huge breakthrough on this research we’d been doing for about a year and a half and all the guys in my lab were high-fiving and smiling and hugging people and I was sitting there like “do we get to go home yet”?
I wanted that type of enjoyment from my job and I had to look really hard at myself and ask myself what should I be doing so when the hard work pays off it feels that good. I realized that while I was good at psychology, being good at something isn’t necessarily the same as being the best at something or being fulfilled by something.
I began the very circuitous journey to where I am now which took me back to grad school and then eventually I applied for an internship at Men’s Health, trying to be the cliché “humble and hungry”. From Men’s Health, once I was there, I applied for an internship and then I got a job. I wanted to take every opportunity that I had to become better. That meant Men’s Health online didn’t even exist yet so I made sure I was very involved with it online.
“I just realized that…being good at something isn’t necessarily the same as being the best at something or being fulfilled by something.”
When social media was first starting, I’d taken over their Facebook and Twitter accounts. It wasn’t part of my job but I asked to be a part of it. With email newsletters I wanted to learn a lot. The first app that they ever built with Men’s Health I remember not sleeping for three straight days because of the editing and we had it featured in the Apple i-tunes store and just kind of busting on that. Then throwing myself into books and then eventually taking over at Livestrong and then learning much more in the digital area with viral traffic, with online marketing.
All of that led me to a point where the constructs or confines within a corporate society again of where people were telling me the rules that I had to play by rather than realizing there were a lot of different ways to do things. So I created Born Fitness. I created Pen Name and here I am today.
Business and Opportunities
Having started a business I know what it means to own a business and have that be your baby. So as a consultant, my job is to not make it about me. For a while I joked that I wanted to call my consulting business Ghost Consulting until I realized that Ghost Consulting has some very negative connotations and that wouldn’t be smart from a search perspective, but the idea is that we’re the ghost in the machine.
I don’t need to deserve or get credit for what I do. I just need to do really great work. At the end of the day, our model is if someone doesn’t get a very significant return on investment, whatever that might be, however they might measure that, from their investment with my consulting company, I won’t take on the business because that’s how our business has thrived. Every single company we work with thrives because we’re very selective and we won’t work with people just because they want to work with us. We work with people that we can help maximize their value, their output, their bottom line, whatever it might be.
Some of it’s by design, just like a person’s company should be about them. It’s their child, it’s their baby, it’s their passion so we don’t need the focus. But when you do that so well sometimes people don’t know what you do. Most people didn’t even know that I had this consulting company for six years.
“I just need to do really great work where, at the end of the day…if someone doesn’t get a very significant return on investment…I won’t take on the business because that’s how our business has thrived.”
We’ve done everything from building business models for Microsoft and Dollar Shave Club to going in and redoing the entire online presence for Equinox’s fitness site to building an entire micro-site for H-Body to people. One of our greatest successes is running the business side for Tim Ferriss. Everything from his TV show to his podcasts and different elements of that. With all of those situations I’m very cognizant that this success is a byproduct of who we work with. Ultimately your success isn’t a byproduct of me, it’s your unique skillset, it’s your abilities and my job is to go in and help people where they have weaknesses or maybe where they’re not even aware.
Consulting the first month for us is almost always just doing an assessment of the situation. Really finding out where people are weak, what are they blind to and then what things are worth fixing and what things are not. Sometimes something is broken and just because it’s broken doesn’t mean it needs fixing whereas other stuff there might be a glaring issue that can manifest in a variety of different ways. We try and meet people where they are and then we like to pour gasoline on things.
“My job is to go in and help people where they have weaknesses or maybe where they’re not even aware.”
We make the big things big and audacious and bold because I’ve invested a lot of time and money in learning from a lot of very smart people, much smarter than me about what makes a business work and then surrounding myself with very talented people. The success of my consulting company is without a doubt more of a byproduct of me being able to learn and meet a lot of very talented people, have them become part of the team and then almost build a super team that can go into any situation and help someone grow their audience, help them build a product, help market or grow an email list or make more money or improve acquisition. Or, for a lot of times, it’s improve retention.
A lot of people get so focused on new customers that they miss out on the value of their existing customers and how that can be actually the core of an entire business. My job is being able to almost see things as they are and then enable the people that I work with, the team that I’ve assembled to do what they do best and help people out.
I like what I do and I don’t think that good information or my time should be something laced with ego or I’m better than that. I know where I came from. It’s really the best thing. When I wanted to be a writer, I reached out to every writer under the sun to tell me about the industry and not one writer took the time except for one.
There was a writer by the name of Neil Woelk. He was a sports writer for my beloved Colorado Buffaloes and he took the time to meet with me at a coffee shop and gave me 30 minutes of his time. For him it was probably nothing, but I’ll never forget it because it gave me all that I needed to know to move forward to talk with people. That information should be free.
“A lot of people get so focused on new customers that they miss out on the value of their existing customers and how that can be actually the core of an entire business.”
It comes from that entrepreneurial spirit that you want to see businesses succeed. In the fitness industry there is so much infighting, but there’s more than enough bread for everyone because there are so many different people that need help. When it comes to fitness, nutrition help and advice, there isn’t going to be a one size fits all type approach. Every different business can attract a different clientele in a different way so you want to see all these people succeed and sometimes they just need a little bit of push.
Or sometimes they need some information and if I’m sitting here being like “I work with all these big clients but I’m not willing to talk with people or get back to the core of what I do”, that’s ridiculous. Every single week I get tons of emails. Every single week I take two calls, just random calls. They could be paid if I wanted, but it’s not. I call people, they reach out to me, I talk to them, I help them and I do think that having genuine values and, as I always say, be a person first and a business person second. People want to talk, I love talking shop.
“Every different business can attract a different clientele in a different way so you want to see all these people succeed and sometimes they just need a little bit of push.”
My hope is that someone could read this and get some value out of it whether it’s what direction to take something or nugget of truth that will get them going in the right direction. To me it’s a way more effective use of their time than having to pay me a bunch of money to do something. This is the best way to help people jumpstart stuff without spending a cent.
My Mistakes and What Holds People Back
A lot of people get obsessed with the idea that they don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It’s true there are proven ways to make money, help people, especially in health and fitness, but we almost get obsessed with that and it becomes a copycat industry. That is people observe and replicate models of making money or of getting clients when you should always be playing to your strength of what you do best.
A great example is when I was at kind of a pivotal stage with my own company. Sometimes it’s best to look at myself so anyone can see that it’s not like I’ve got this down pat. The first couple years of Born Fitness I lost money because one, I didn’t follow my own practices and two, I just didn’t know how. I think that’s part of the entrepreneurial journey is being a little bit vulnerable and maybe you don’t know. It was less about the amount of money that I made and honestly it was more about the money that I wasted, but it was also that the models were broken.
“That is people observe and replicate models of making money or of getting clients when you should always be playing to your strength of what you do best.”
My big flaw was that I was obsessed with the idea that I had to have multiple revenue streams. I’m not saying that’s a bad concept, but I was obsessed with this idea in my online business specifically, that I had to have the trick player product, that low level product, I had to have the upsell and I had to have e-books and digital training and online coaching.
I was talking to Noah Kagan, founder AB Sumo and SumoMe, another mentor I had. Noah was asking me at the time what my goals were and we broke it down from who I wanted to help, what I wanted to do and then one of the ones that I finally hit was when he talked about revenue goals. It’s like here’s where I’m at and I want to hit a million dollars. He started really digging in and looking at the numbers of what I was making from each area and he got stuck on my whole online coaching thing. He was like, “Why don’t you just pour gasoline on this?” Pointing at my online coaching, which was the biggest share of revenue and what I had listed as my goal of what I wanted to grow the most, where people got the most value, what I enjoyed the most.
For me the most important metric is LTV, lifetime value, so I don’t want someone that would just come in and buy once. I want them to stay with me for a long time. People who come to my online coaching stay in my business the longest. They stay about 10 months which is really good. I ask for a three-month minimum. The first month is risk free so if they don’t like it I give them their money back and I wish them well because I don’t want them to be stuck in a bad situation.
Noah was like, “Why don’t you just create a model where you figure out how many clients you need per year to go ahead and hit a million dollars in revenue and then just focus on that. Simplify because this is where the highest LTV is. This is where your best value is. This is where people are the happiest and if this is what you enjoy the most, why don’t you just do that?” I’m like, “Yeah, but I like revenue streams.” He’s like, “What do you mean? All of your goals all point in this one direction. Why don’t you just focus on that?”
It changed everything. I stopped creating online products. It doesn’t mean other people have to do it this way, but for my business model it made sense. I did do online products but I gave more stuff for free, spent more time building the relationship with people so that their LTV, once they would join coaching, would be longer. It changed everything for my business because it simplified the approach, allowed me to focus, it allowed me to improve. This is what I see with a lot of people. They try and follow the business models of others without being able to see under the hood and understand why they follow those practices.
“I think not being tied to a particular business model or mentality and instead focusing on what you do well and what you think your customers would enjoy the most is some of the best advice I could give anyone.”
In consulting, so much of it is finding where the flaws are but also, part of the flaw is not focusing on what you do best, where your greatest value is and what you enjoy the most. If you focus your business around those three pillars, it seems very simple on the surface level, but it can make a world of difference. That might mean having a couple different products but it also means that you put yourself in a position of power that you can create almost any equation to make your business function. But borrowing someone else’s model will likely have you wasting time on stuff that maybe is not going to be as good or as profitable or as good of a reflection of your business as you want it to be. I think not being tied to a particular business model or mentality and instead focusing on what you do well and what you think your customers would enjoy the most is some of the best advice I could give anyone.
I’d take a lot of time to build the business plan. If you’ve got a long standing business right now make sure that you go back, you review this business plan, and then you have someone else who is really good at business look at it and poke holes in it. To me, this is akin to writing a book. The biggest mistake I made even in some of my later books is that I didn’t have people who were farthest away from the project, as in, they weren’t like personally committed to it, read my book and it led to some big, glaring errors.
It’s funny but my New York Times bestseller, Engineering the Alpha, I’m very proud of that book—a lot of stuff has changed in my opinions and thoughts on it but if I look back at who I was when I wrote it then it was very reflective of how I felt and I’m proud of it. But, unlike other books, I didn’t give the book to people that are outside the project. So my editor’s working on it, my co-author, they worked on it but I didn’t allow people on the outside to look at it. We focused so much on the narrative and the problems that we forgot some very core fundamental basics that are representative of everything that I do.
The biggest, most glaring thing is that we didn’t include a warm-up in the entire book. And we’ve got like 16 to 24 weeks of programming, depending if you go on four different phases, four different meso-cycles that are in there. There’s no warm-up in the entire book and there’s no way that I would ever design a workout for anyone ever within the last 10 years and not give them some sort of warm-up. We got so focused on every single thing that some of the most obvious really important elements somehow somebody missed that. We had so many people read it. I read that book probably 100 times before it went to publish and that’s what happened and the same thing happens with your business.
“I think anticipation is such a beautiful and powerful skill but a lot of business plans are just like here’s what we do, here’s how we’re going to do it. I think they lack the level of detail that they deserve.”
You might create a business plan, you might have spent a ton of time on it, but you didn’t have enough people basically vet and assess it. I’d give it to one, who my ideal client would be and two, to business mentors that I know and respect. That was the biggest mistake I made with my company. When I go in and ask for information I find that a lot of people can be a little too hasty with their business plan.
It’s so important because the business plan understands your core competencies. It understands your pillars. It understands your strengths. It understands your weaknesses. Understands where you want to be today as well as where you want to be in five years. Where you want to be in five years might change but it should show an evolution of the business, some insight in terms of how you might grow. How you might grow with potential failures that might come along the way. I think anticipation is such a beautiful and powerful skill, but a lot of business plans are just like here’s what we do and here’s how we’re going to do it. I think they lack the level of detail that they deserve.
Again, because my two areas of strength are business and writing, I relate it back to writing. A lot of people if they ask questions, they never ask enough questions and you should always be asking more questions, so you get to the point that you don’t have more. If you cut off the questions and if your business plan is that surface level you’re ultimately not asking yourself certain questions that are going to pop up and you end up facing them. You might have really wished you would have anticipated them and a lot of times I think you can to a certain level if you just take the time. So number one is to create a business plan.
Number two is to listen. Get really, really good at listening. My success as a business person, if you want to say that, is not a byproduct of me being smarter than anyone or I work harder than anyone or it’s not any particular talent. What I think I’m very good at is listening and being patient and I don’t want to guess what people want. I want to know. I will go to all lengths, whether it’s my own business or the business of others to find out what people want and then deliver it to them. The sales pages that I will create are always a byproduct of me surveying, doing focus groups, getting people on the phone and finding out what they love and what they hate and addressing those concerns so that it’s almost like—I meet people at the point of intent.
“What I think I’m very good at is listening and being patient and I don’t want to guess what people want. I want to know.”
You know the best copywriting in the world doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t speak to people and you can only speak to people if you know the way they think, you know the way they feel and you actually understand them. If you find yourself writing stuff that you don’t actually understand, it either means that you haven’t taken the time to do it or that maybe you’re targeting the wrong audience.
It’s so important to listen because it’s very easy to assume. It’s easy to assume knowledge and this was something that I learned when I made the jump from Men’s Health to Livestrong where at Men’s Health I cut my teeth with writing. I would not be the writer or anything that I am today without what I learned there and it was really tough. I got schooled. I came in there and I thought of new stuff and they destroyed me, but in a good way. They built me back up. Brilliant editors that were a lot smarter than me, but it was also a traditional editing style where they would sit in a room and have these editorial meetings and try to discuss what people want to read or learn about. We’d have some consumer insights but when I got to Livestrong, I had all the data in the world in front of me and I’m like let’s just use this information for good. Let’s figure out exactly what people are enjoying, what they’re not enjoying, how to target them, how to speak to the them and it blew up. I took a site that had eight million monthly unique clicks and 18 months later we had 42 million monthly unique clicks and it wasn’t magic. It wasn’t because I was super smart. I obviously had great writers and great editors working for me but it was because I was delivering the content that people were telling me, begging me, showing me that they wanted. It was my willingness to take the time to listen and build that out. I think in any avenue of business, learning to listen is so important. It’s invaluable.
“If you find yourself writing stuff that you don’t actually understand it either means that you haven’t taken the time to do it or that maybe you’re targeting the wrong audience.”
The third one would be learning how to assess your business the same way that you would assess your client. Don’t just create one simple metric like revenue earned or clients you have, and you should have multiple different levels of assessing those. Some of them might be quantitative and some of them might be qualitative goals. A lot of times our flaws or our faults in our bottom line, how profitable we are, how much money we make, are actually a byproduct of qualitative faults, such as the happiness of our staff or our daily quality of life. If we’re not happy ourselves it’s very naïve for us to think that we’re going to be as productive or effective as we can be.
We do biannual assessments for Born Fitness and for Pen Name and we look across everything. We look at the economics side. We look at the quality of living side and the we look at the internal happiness of employees and contractors. That means asking people the hard questions and really oftentimes focusing on the bad to bring out the good. I’m not someone who is afraid of failure but I don’t think that failure is necessary for success.
Learning is everything and you should never stop learning. That’s why I’ll never stop going to conferences, why I’ll never stop training clients. People ask me like why am I still involved with my online coaching program, creating programs or doing that stuff when I have a staff. I have coaches who help me and everyone knows this. My clients know it. The reason why I never want to stop working with clients is that if I get too far away from that one, I lose touch with my business, but two I lose touch with everything else. Like my ability to play a role in health and fitness, if I plan to write another book ever again it has to be real. If I’m just guessing again it gets back to that listening to what people want and I’d lose touch with that.
“I think in any avenue of business, learning to listen is so important. It’s invaluable.”
So I have to assess everything within my business so that I never get too high or too egotistical or too blind to what’s going on and it takes time. It’s boring. It’s boring doing an assessment. Let’s be honest, we’d rather be doing more things that on the surface level will make us a lot more money or what we think is a better use of our time, but there’s no better use for your time than getting a very hard look at reality and reality across the board.
I mean, I’m the first to admit I overwork myself sometimes and it’s led me to illness and struggles that were difficult for my team to deal with, it was difficult for me to deal with and worse of all it was difficult for my wife and son to deal with. That’s not fair and all these things play in together. We have to keep in mind that as a business owner, part of that component of being an entrepreneur or in this industry is you. You have to take stock of yourself and the type of life that you want to live.
It’s so important for me to be a dad and make time for my son and it’s so important for me to make time for my wife and then figuring out how that all fits in with my first baby, which was my business. John Berardi is someone I know and respect and he talks about how his goal right now is to work seven hours a day, four days a week and make that work when he’s running a company that’s making 40 plus million dollars a year. I think a lot of times it’s very easy to neglect that and you neglect it if you don’t assess it.
“You have to take stock of yourself and the type of life that you want to live.”
I think, for fitness professionals, it’s so beautiful because you can make so many corollaries between the fitness industry and business. Such as, think about how you would handle your ideal client and you should probably handle your business in the exact same way. The assessments, the check-ins, the making sure that they’re happy both inside the gym and outside the gym, checking out all the things that they might be missing. Maybe they’re training hard, maybe they’re eating great but are they stressed or are they sleeping poorly?
If you take that same approach to your business and apply it, you will have a much more honest look at it. Sometimes it will bring to life some very harsh realities, but bringing those to life will ultimately allow you to be a lot better at what you do. Whether that’s fixing it yourself or getting outside help. I’m the first one to admit that I hire consultants for myself. I need it in the areas that I’m strong. I just hired an editorial consultant and editorial’s my background. I just hired someone to look at my online coaching business and tell me other things I can do better. What can I change up? We should never be so egotistical that we don’t believe that getting an outside assessment can help us.
Fresh eyes can be a good thing, especially when we’re all going to be inherently protective of our business because it’s ours. And you should be! You should be protective of your business, but you shouldn’t be so stubborn to believe that outside help can’t give you an extra shot in the arm and it doesn’t mean that it’s a weakness on your behalf. It means that it’s a strength that you’re willing to say, “Hey, I want this thing to be as successful as possible. Who can I get to help me?”