Interview with Alwyn Cosgrove
He is the co-owner with his wife Rachel of one of the most successful gyms in the country, Results Fitness, and they’ve got one of the most well-known, successful, prominent business coaching solutions for fitness professionals in the industry, Results Fitness University. Alwyn’s also written a number of books, a regular contributor to Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness. Pretty much everything in the industry that somebody could do, he’s done and done extraordinarily well.
I grew up in Livingston, which is a little town in Scotland, where I was a typical kid. I got into sports, I got into martial arts, particularly Tae Kwon Do. Through that, I met a coach who really changed the direction of my life, a guy named Derrick Campbell. He was a mentor for me when I was younger and I always wanted to have that kind of impact on someone else.
I competed at quite a high level in martial arts and it led me to go to college willing to learn sports and how to become a better athlete. When I was at college, a couple other students asked me to help with their training programs because I was the geeky guy who didn’t always stop and that sort of set the wheels in motion. At the time there was really no professional martial arts, there was no UFC, or anything like that, so there wasn’t a way to make a living at it. I worked when I was going through college as a martial arts instructor at a summer camp in the U.S. That was a long time ago.
I’ve been in the U.S. for 21 years now, and back then it was way before 9/11, so getting a visa to come and work here was probably a little easier than it is now. My last year, I finished college and I said I’ll do one more summer job and then come back and get a real job. As I was leaving for the summer job, I had a visa for three years to work in the U.S., and my dad said to me “You don’t owe Scotland anything, if you get an opportunity you take it…”
It was one of those weird turning points where I look back now and knew that I couldn’t go back and look my dad in the eye and say “Oh I tried and nothing happened.” I had to really try. So I actually worked at a summer camp near the hotel that was the inspiration for the film Dirty Dancing, it was this Jewish resort hotel in the Catskills. And when I was there, a professional boxer named Alex Shearer came in. He had just come off a decision loss to Evander Holyfield and was training for a fight, and his strength and conditioning coach had gotten fired, so I got the job. Plus I was working at the hotel too. Then I applied for a job in New York City at a gym, and I got it. Shortly after that I met Rachel, my wife.
Then I moved to California, there was no real idea of what we were going to do. I was working at a gym and I was getting frustrated with where we were at. I was getting frustrated with my career, I just felt like it wasn’t going to go anywhere. So in the early 2000’s, I made the decision that all of our frustrations could be solved by opening up our own place. So, I opened a gym. At the time it was going to be a one-on-one training studio, and in the beginning it was going to be just me working at it. Rachel was going to have to support us, but very quickly we got busy, and she started working at the gym full-time, the first or second week after we opened.
“It’s also important to divide the roles with your organization, so there’s not a lot of re-work getting done.”
The business evolved from there, we now run, what we call a hybrid facility. Most gyms you join to get access to the equipment, and in most personal training studios you can only get in when you have an appointment with the trainer. We run a model between those two. Everybody who joins the gym gets unlimited coaching sessions with our coaches, and if they don’t want a coaching session they can train on their own; but it’s something between those two. We do what we call Semi-Private training, which originally we did it as one trainer with three clients all on individualized programs. We now run a model we call Semi-Private 2.0, where we have two coaches working with eight people on individual programs. There are some things where a client may need extra input. This allows us to leverage our time and give the clients more coaching in the session. It’s something that has evolved over time.
Back in 2004, I was full-time at the gym doing all the program design and a lot of the training and I started feeling really tired, and I was getting sick, so I started cutting back on the schedule, and I never felt any better. To cut a long story short, turns out I had Stage 4 Cancer. I had 6-7 months of intensive chemo, that took me out of the gym. Unfortunately, a year later I relapsed back to Stage 4 and I had to have really intensive chemo this time, and a bone marrow stem cell transplant which saved my life. But it forced me to step out of the gym and really work on our systems. So the cool part is that I survived, but also the business survived.
At that point, Rachel and I made a decision that I would never go back full-time at the gym. I’d been doing some consulting and speaking through companies like Perform Better. I started doing more and more of that, to this point I divided all that work into separate companies which we call Results Fitness University, which is our speaking educational consulting arm of Results Fitness. My job now, I bring everything down to like three primary objectives. My three objectives right now are number one, to provide great support for what we call our Results Fitness University Coaching Group, which is ongoing—that’s my primary job—to support anything they need.
“I’ve always said if you can get $400 an hour, for one-on-one training…then you could still reach more people charging $200 an hour and get four in a group.”
My second task is to present and speak and do things to build that coaching group, to grow our mission. And my third task is to talk to other professionals, read the research, consume information in order to pass it on to those guys. I narrowed my tasks, and I’m more into the business/coach/consultant role. I see my staff at the gym regularly and I do meet with them, but my role there is now limited.
What I do for a living now is more of a consultant role, I suppose. I don’t feel like it’s a separate job, it’s a way of having tunnel vision and laser beam focus on doing what could be most important. I have a great team of people that handle the gym, and Rachel is more at the gym than I am. It’s also important to divide the roles with your organization, so there’s not a lot of re-work getting done, people doing the same things.
Staying One Step Ahead
I like to think I have something my wife once described as “intellectual restlessness”. Meaning that I’m never completely satisfied. Everything that we’ve done at Results Fitness, and probably everything that we teach at Results Fitness University has been a solution to a problem. One-on-one training, of course it works, it appeals to a small amount of people at a high price and it’s very labor intensive for the trainer. It’s hard to add more income to the trainer, or help more people, by just doing a one-on-one model. So the solution to that was a semi-private training model where we could see more people at a time.
Anything has limitations, huge group camps are a fantastic way to reach a lot of people, but the individual attention isn’t there, and due to access to equipment your program becomes a little generic. So, everything has its limitation. Our idea of Semi-Private 2.0 was to evolve the semi-private training so that we could reach more people and leverage our team without just making it an exclusive membership. I’ve always said if you can get $400 an hour, for one-on-one training in Hollywood or New York City, then you could still reach more people charging $200 an hour and get four in a group, that’s the sweet spot.
A lot of the stuff we looked at was how to evolve our business. I like the phrase “disruptive innovation”. In my lifetime, I remember when CDs came out, it was so much better than having the cassette tape that you had before that. And now we’re at iTunes and downloads and it is just an absolute disruptive innovation. I’m sure you can still get CDs, but those days are gone because you can just get the song, and download it immediately from the sky. You don’t even have to plug it in anymore, you download it. So iTunes sort of single handedly changed how we consume music to the point where it didn’t matter how good you were at CDs and distribution.
I feel like a classic example was Netflix with Blockbuster. Netflix originally, I don’t know if people know this, was about sending you the DVD in the mail, so that you just got the next movie you wanted when you sent the last one back, automatically. So it was this continuity, as opposed to you having to take it back and pick out a new one. Now it’s become streaming and it’s changed it again.
But Blockbuster made most of their money from late fees. A significant amount of their profits came from late fees, and Netflix eliminated that, and just completely changed the game. Blockbuster tried to catch up and tried to adapt and do no late fees which just killed their profits. And then they tried doing the Blockbuster delivery system, but they were too late. Netflix changed the game. Someone’s going to come along and change that again.
“A lot of the stuff we looked at was how to evolve our business. I like the phrase ‘disruptive innovation’.”
My thought all the time with Results Fitness is what’s the next thing? What’s the thing? We switched from billing 50 bucks per session, or whatever the fee was for one-on-one, and switched to a monthly membership that included X number of sessions. Then we switched to semi-private X number of sessions. Now we have unlimited sessions for a monthly fee. Now every time I’ve done that, I don’t want to say it disrupted the industry, but it definitely disrupted my area. No one can charge per session anymore when we’re doing unlimited training. You can’t get in the game because we really changed that.
To stay with the iTunes example, 2000 was the tipping point for the smart phone. Everyone had a smartphone, or mostly had a smart phone, and most people had a desktop computer, and a laptop. What nobody had because it wasn’t released yet, was a tablet, an iPad. And when you think about it, really what an iPad was, was a big phone that you couldn’t make a phone call on, and was not as good as a laptop.
So it’s a smaller, not as good version as a laptop, and a bigger version of a phone that couldn’t actually make a call, and was less portable because it was so much bigger. We never thought we needed that. No one ever said “that’s what we need, something not as good as a laptop or a phone when I have both of those and really don’t need this middle thing.” But Steve Jobs saw this and created another disruptive innovation which changed the game, because now everybody has iPads and tablets. He sold like 150 million that first year.
“I don’t want to just accept it, I want to really drive it. I want to think about how can we make this better?”
Part of my evolution, I think that’s one of my lessons for young fitness business professionals, is this ship is going to change, and you can either drive it, accept it, or fight it. Fighting it is usually a losing battle. So I don’t want to just accept it, I really want to drive it. I want to think about how can we make this better? How can we improve our members’ results, improve the environment that our members experience those results or change the delivery system so that we can help more people? That evolution is a strength of mine for sure, but it’s also a flaw because it makes me get fed up very easily.
Innovation and Success
We here at Results Fitness University have a rule that if you complain about something three times, you have to create a solution. Don’t assume someone else is going to fix this and you’re just waiting for it to happen. A great example off the top of my head, is that we did a charity 5K a couple of weeks ago. I’m not going to be fast, and those guys there, they take it seriously. So I always, sort of line up towards the back of the start line to not get in anybody’s way. But this particular race takes you over this narrow bridge at the start, so you end up with this jam in the system.
My ideas of setting a new personal record is out the window when we hit this bridge, and I’m stuck behind a lady jogging along with a stroller and two guys dressed as ninja turtles, I can’t get past them. They’re going slow, so before I finish the race, I’m thinking in my head, if I was running 5Ks here’s what I would do, because those people have every right to be there, the same as me. I would divide the start line so if you’re trying to set a personal record, here’s where you would start. And if you think you’re going to go 20 minutes, you’re in Zone 1, and if you think you’re 25 then you’re in Zone 2, etc…
“I think you have to start realizing it’s not about a resistance to change, perhaps, it’s just that you’re waiting for someone else to fix it for you.”
And I have this whole business for a 5K before I finish this race, because I’m like I could make this better for everybody. So the ninja turtle guy isn’t blocking anybody, but he has every right to do the race too, and have a good time, but his start length may be somewhere slightly different, just to make that.
And I think that’s the idea, if you experience something, make it work for you. Come up with a solution. If I keep having to wait for my client to bring in their check for the next ten sessions, and they forget or they miss their session. You need to create a system where that doesn’t happen anymore, because that’s one of your key frustrations. That system would be automatic billing, or contracts of agreement. I think you have to start realizing it’s not about a resistance to change, perhaps it’s just that you’re waiting for someone else to fix it for you. And that doesn’t make sense because often you’re the only person that can fix it. So look for opportunities.
Here’s where the problem is, how can I fix this? How can I make it better? If I could wave a magic wand, what would the success look like? And then, your evolution just becomes natural. It doesn’t make sense for me to be covering the 6 am group class. I don’t want to say I’m doing high-level stuff, but I’ve got great people who are great at that, so I’m going to do something else to continue to make them greater.
“You’re doing something you’re good at, something you enjoy doing, and something that pays well. When those three intersect, you’re right where you want to be.”
A lot of it is not about my willingness to change, as much as it is reluctance to stay the same. Although the result is the same, it’s a different feeling. That’s part of the ideal business is really finding your sweet spot. In Japanese they call it Ikigai, your life purpose, that’s your sweet spot. You’re doing something you’re good at, something you enjoy doing, and something that pays well. When those three intersect, you’re right where you want to be. Like I’m really good at watching soccer games, and I really enjoy it, but no one pays you any money for that. So, if that was an opportunity, I would like to do that also. I think that’s part of the ideal business, is finding that sweet spot between those three areas.
Tips for Your Ideal Business
To me the first part is a business has to be able to work without my presence. I learned this lesson when I was sick. You don’t have to get sick to get a lesson, right? It’s not about me being away on the beach relaxing. I was in the hospital fighting for my life and the business was able to run because we had systems. If you have to be there, then it’s not a business, it’s a job. Some of the speaking I do, I have to be there. That part is a job, it’s manual labor at the end of the day. So the business to me as a whole, most of it has to work without my presence. If it can’t do that, it’s not a business, it’s a job. There’s nothing wrong with that, but understand the difference.
So in order to create a business that works without you, you have to have systems. The joke is SYSTEM is an acronym for Save Yourself Stress Time Energy and Money. Everything that I do at Results Fitness, if I do it more than once, I write down how I did it, and then that becomes a training manual for my staff. Think about if you do a tour of your gym, that tour should be the same regardless of who gives the tour. When the phone gets answered, that should be the same. If it’s different based on who does the tour, who does the workout, who answers the phone, what you’re doing is you’re running improv, you make it up as you go along, it’s not a system. And the clients deserve better than that. They deserve a consistent experience.
Part of the model for this is McDonald’s. McDonald’s is a multinational huge business, but it started off as a small business with the ability to execute a system. If you get a Big Mac in Scotland or you get a Big Mac in New York, it’s the same because the system is the same. So the first lesson is everything you do has to be written down in manuals. It might not even be a lot, but we have to figure out what it is you do. You can’t do this as an art form it has to be a system. So my first thing is that everything has to be replicable without your presence.
“If you make it up as you go along, it’s not a system. And the clients deserve better than that. They deserve a consistent experience.”
The other one, which is a little deeper, stems off a book by Simon Sinek called Start with Why. Simon’s theory is that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. So if I said that I believe that at the heart of every family, every business, every sports team, every government and every town, country in the world, there lies people. And if I can reach those people, and I can give them something, that enhances everything they do in their life, helps them feel better, move better, perform better, more energy, better sleep, better health, so they’re more productive, then I can change every family, every sports team, every business, and every government in the world. And the way I do that is by reaching people, and the tools that I use are smart exercise and nutrition programs, and we call that Results Fitness, would you like to be part of that? So much better than saying “hey I own a gym, come work out with me”. My real why is I want to impact the world by making everybody better.
And on the consulting side, my theory part is that if I told you that my best friend from Scotland is going to come and visit, and he’s the number one plastic surgeon in Europe, you’d picture him a successful guy. He’s the number one cancer specialist in the United Kingdom, you’re picturing a successful guy. If I tell you that he’s the number one personal trainer in Edinburgh, you don’t know if he’s that successful, how financially successful he is. Here he stands. Because we don’t have that kind of a reputation. But, I feel that we can change the world as fitness professionals, we can really impact everybody, if we really understand why we’re doing it.
I feel that most trainers are so good at training, and so prude at business, that’s where I come in, to help them get the lifestyles and income they want, and to feed on their desire.
“I feel that we can change the world as fitness professionals, we can really impact everybody, if we really understand why we’re doing it.”
The first part is make sure everything is systemized so you can replicate and go. The next part is to understand, start with why, why are you doing this? What’s your why? What gets you up in the middle of the night and makes you write down ideas because it’s going to get you closer to making a difference in what you do?
And the third one could be an absolute laser beam focus and the ability to say no. People would be surprised how many opportunities that seemingly are good opportunities, that you should say no to because it doesn’t fit in with their vision. It’s not getting me closer to where I am. There are certain things that you have to turn down, you have to have an absolute laser beam focus and tunnel vision of where you want to go. And any opportunity that doesn’t get you closer to that has to be eliminated because you’ve got to focus on that.
Rachel gives an analogy that if I gave you directions in the center of New York, to go from Times Square to the Empire State Building and you walked with your head down just looking at your next step, eventually, you’ll go off track and get hit by a car, you’ll never get to your destination. You’ve got to keep your head up and look at where you want to go, which is the Empire State Building, and not get distracted by anything else, and keep your eyes on where you want to go.
So tunnel vision and laser beam focus is good. I’ve seen a lot of trainers that are doing everything, from group training to semi-private to one-on-one, and boot camps in the park, piano lessons, karate—they’ll do anything. Their only why is that they make money, so having a laser beam focus is, what opportunities will you say no to? And do you have the strength and fortitude to say no to them because you’re own why and your mission is so much bigger than any of these opportunities.