Interview with Luka Hocevar
Luka is the owner of Vigor Ground Fitness and Performance. He is also the Co-Owner of The Pack and they do quite a bit of business coaching, creating a lot of impact throughout the fitness industry and if you’re online at all, you’ve seen Luka. If you’re at events, you’ve seen Luka speak, you’ve connected with him. He is literally everywhere and he may very well be the hardest working man in fitness.
Luka’s Background – In the Beginning
I was born and raised in Yugoslavia, later Slovenia after the war, and basketball was a humongous part of my life. I can track back to where I really started being in love with fitness at about 14 or 15 years old. My mom opened up a gym, it was her second job. She’d come home from the bank and work at the gym. She had a friend who was her partner. This gym wasn’t really profitable at all but it had created an environment for me where I was a skinny little kid and I started lifting weights and got stronger, which actually works to getting better at basketball. It was like a little hidden gem. Long story short, I ended up going to the States on a basketball scholarship. I was a bit of a knucklehead through my teenage years, got in a lot of trouble and decided to go play ball in the States.
I played four years, two in an upstate New York junior college and two in Southern Virginia. Then I played pro for about three years in Europe. Now in that time, what also happened is from the age of 14, I had spent hours just lifting weights. I trained under some amazing track coaches. I was basically reading training and studying training just to be a better athlete. I was really into that. Then after college and when I was playing pro there was a lot of people asking me what I did. “Hey, dude, you’re like 205 pounds and you can dunk on people and you can run. You’ve got crazy conditioning. Who does your stuff?” I was like, “I do my stuff. I study this stuff.” From there, I actually started to do strength and conditioning programs for the team I played for, a soccer team, and a lot of other people just started coming to us, to me and my brother.
My last two years in pro-basketball, which I loved, was like one of the best experiences in my life. When you play pro sports, it’s not always the flashiest where you just make millions and millions. It doesn’t necessarily always go like that. For about the last two seasons there were chunks of time where I didn’t get paid. In Europe, they have budgets and the company might cut the sponsorship of a team and then they’re like, “Oh…we can’t pay you,” and there you are doing two-a-days for two and a half hours not getting paid. In the meantime I was training people at the local gym and then outside with kettlebells and ropes and kegs in this place called Tivoli.
It started creating this little mini-cult. I started getting known. I wrote for a couple of magazines, some articles that really blew up and there was this momentum. At that point in time in Slovenia there was not one trainer in the personal training industry that was actually just training. There was no superstar that you could follow and be, “Hey, I want to be like him, where they make a lot of money.” So I was reading everything and I was buying books out the wazoo. I mean I was just devouring absolutely everything in sight, got into Trainers Inner Circle, I remember that. I really started getting into the fitness and the strength and conditioning side of things.
That last year, when I was playing ball, I started making some decisions. I’d get offers from Portugal and I was just tired from traveling and the experiences that I had. I decided, “I don’t want to be good or very good at anything. I want to be the best in the world at something.” I was doing a lot of this for free. I was training people in strength and conditioning for peanuts and just loving it, seeing the changes in people and the feedback. I went to my brother and said, “Dude, I’m telling you, there’s something… We’ve got to open a gym.” I even paid this consultant that was a high level fitness/business consultant in the country to sit down with me and gave him my idea of using kettlebells, barbells, body weight and all this functional stuff, what we call it nowadays. He said, “Ah, there’s no market for this. You’re really passionate, but there’s no market for this.”
“I mean I literally woke up with anxiety knowing this is what I need to do…”
I was really let down but I decided, “This is stupid. We’ve got to do this.” I convinced my brother somehow to put in about three grand in kettlebells. We rented this 470 square foot room, started doing the classes and training and and it took off.
I moved to the States when I got married because my wife is from Renton, WA. I had to make a decision. My brother’s like, “Man, I don’t know if we should keep going. You’re going to go.” But I just had this good feeling about it. Long story short, we started that gym about 10 years ago and it’s now one of the most known, if not the most known functional training gym in Slovenia.
I came to the States and I had to start from scratch. I went from LA Fitness to another big box gym that ended up growing and selling actually for $40 million to LA Fitness called Vision Quest and I helped develop a lot of their programs and stuff. Then about eight and a half years ago, I got this little garage in Renton. It was a couple of weeks after the recession. I remember this, because the garage came up in my area and was about 1,000 square feet, a hole in the wall. It was about a 1,000 bucks plus a month and I thought, “I’ve just got to get this. I just have this gut feeling.”
Everybody else was telling me, “But, man, this is the worst time in the last four years for the economy, this makes no sense. Wait. No, wait for a better time. Wait for people to have more money, whatever it may be.” I literally woke up with anxiety knowing this is what I needed to do. So I started by running a couple of classes in the morning, then I’d go to Vision Quest and train 12 to 14 hour days, come back, and train some athletes, study, write a blog, go to sleep at 2:00 am, wake up at 5:00 am and do it all over again. I did that for years and it’s basically as the gym got busier and bigger, I started chopping down the time I spent at the big box gym, until I completely eliminated it.
I think that a lot of people have this mindset of, “Hey, just leave everything and go, just like go all in. Take a $200,000 loan. Jump in.” You’d be surprised at how many entrepreneurs do not do that. Actually the ones that do, fail. If you read the book Originals, it talks about that. The majority of people that do that, actually fail.
You’ve got to do educated guesses and really figure it out and I had bread to put on the table. I was married. I had to take care of family. I had to take care of a lot of things and you can’t just go like, “Okay, one way, go a 100 grand in.” I started in the first garage with $7,000. I put three grand down for three months, four grand for equipment. I had some stuff from before and we built that place up to around 90 members. We had a pretty gnarly process, before we moved to where we’ve been now for five years, which is the 4600 square foot space. Vigor’s grown significantly where it’s about five months away from moving again.
“Vigor Ground is the heart, it’s my vision, my foundation, and then everything else has been arteries.”
This time it’s quite a bit different because about five months ago I bought an 11,000 plus square foot building which we’re going to start construction on in about two weeks, rip everything out. I have tenants paying rent. We’re going to bring in physical therapy massage, chiro, cryo-chambers, and a smoothie bar. It’s going to be one of its kind, a symbiotic gym and where also there’s equity and I own it.
That’s the really, really short, sped up, fast forward, TV version of everything and kind of in between then and now. Everything’s developed out of that. There’s a lot of things I do. I run a business division for training as well, but all of those things, the way I look at it is, they are arteries to Vigor Ground. Vigor Ground is the heart, it’s my vision, my foundation, and then everything else has been arteries. It’s been symptoms of the passion and purpose I have with Vigor, that’s like my North Star.
I think the foundation was my pops always taught me that I’d get smacked if I owed money. Like I said, I was a pretty troublesome kid, so I learned a lot of lessons from when I was younger. I came from socialism essentially so when I came to the States I had this thing where I was really freaked out, I was scared to go into debt. I didn’t want to be that guy who’s got just thousands and thousands on his credit cards. Now I’m more than willing to risk and bet on myself but there’s a big difference between betting on yourself and just doing crazy things without thought and without a process. I think right now in business, in general, you see that a lot. You see these inspirational stories and so people latch on to the inspirational story but then they don’t dig into what’s below the water and the iceberg.
I don’t think enough people ask, how did you get there? What did you do? Why did you do that? How did you do that? What was the process? How hard did they work? It’s like Eric Thomas said, “Don’t be the guy that gets a book and flips to the last page to see how many pages there are to see if you’re going to read it.” Submerge yourself into the process.
I crunched the numbers. I was working at the Big Box place, which was my foundation, so it was everything going to pay rent and to eat. Then I started crunching numbers like how many people do we need in the boot camps for me to break even, for me to be able to step away two or three days, for me to completely leave? I knew those numbers. Now, were they completely precise? Probably not, but they gave me a framework, a target to work towards. I worked at the Big Box for three years and for one and a half to two of those years, I was actually working while I was still running my place. I think it was one of the best things that could have happened. On one end I was learning a lot because I was also a weekend manager, I had a ton of positions, I was doing a ton of different things. I was listening my balls off and at the same time I was also learning what not to do. What not to do on a customer service end, on programming ends, on all these different things.
“If there’s no path and no plan, the default is going to be struggle…”
I think that’s a huge lesson because I get people talking to me, saying, “Hey, I’m just going to quit what I’m doing and I’m taking out this huge loan and we’re going in.” Once I start asking questions, you see that there’s no path and no plan, the default is going to be struggle. The same goes for when we talk to people about changing their body or nutrition. If they have no path and plan, the default is struggle. They’re going to go back to what they’ve been doing. It’s the same thing with business. If you have no path and plan the default is going to be struggle, you’re going to go back to doing things the way you were that got you to where you are.
Now we are coming into this era of social media, which we can talk about and it’s powerful, but the foundation is what? At that point in time, I didn’t really get margining. There were no Facebook ads. You weren’t getting people from Youtube into your gym so there was really only one thing for me to do. My mentality is that every session is a show. Every session is an experience and people that are coming to the garage, they’re not caring about the machines or only fitness. If you get a 100 grand worth of equipment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s going to be more people staying with you. I mean that’s a really important point, and the garage became like a cult place because people were walking out going, “Man, there’s this crazy Eastern European guy and he’s off the wall, but it’s amazing.” It was word of mouth and what I think is people need to remember that your training session is marketing.
Your training session is marketing because as anybody who’s ever been at a Martin Rooney session knows what I’m talking about. If anybody was here on this Saturday, we had a charity boot camp, we videoed the whole thing for a Vigor Life episode. It is marketing in itself because there were a hundred people here and a hundred people left and said, “What just happened?” There was a DJ, there were people getting coached up, it wasn’t just whatever.
“You don’t need to make a ton of money or have a beautiful facility to have a great customer service.”
It was nuts, we raised $3500 in one hour to build a climbing wall for kids with cerebral palsy. That is marketing. People leave and they can’t not talk about it. Just as if you go to an incredible restaurant, nobody has to ask you about it you just go, “Oh, my god, I went to this restaurant, the food was unbelievable. The dessert was to die…” You just talk about it and that’s what I think is missing a lot right now, because people think if they put up a great ad, then people will just come in. The foundation has to be the excellence of your craft, which is coaching, the connection you have to people and customer service. You don’t need to make a ton of money or have a beautiful facility to have great customer service. These are all things that are the foundation of anything that then allows more people to come in and more profits and then you can do the cooler, bigger stuff.
Reaching for a Bigger Audience
I think everybody has their strengths. Being on every platform is difficult, but you can repurpose a lot of stuff. What I’ve noticed is not a fluke. I think now I’ve shot over a thousand videos on Youtube and at the beginning they were just me training and stuff, but hundreds of seminars and thousands of videos later, you get good at that stuff. I think people just never start. Also, what I started doing, probably about a year and a half ago, was improving the quality, putting it together to deliver value to the marketplace and find out what people are loving about what we’re putting out and doing more of it.
My friend, Kaisa has hundreds and thousands of followers on Instagram and I spend a lot of time with her talking about her stuff and what’s going on. All the people that do well spend time researching what their audience wants and loves. I don’t think people do that enough and JB spends 50% of the time researching what they’re going to put out in content. 50% of his time, think about it. 50% of his time is spent thinking and researching what is going to be put out.
I always advise people, “Man, put out content. Put out great stuff.” Then I see people throwing stuff out there, not caring about the quality, not even thinking about what it is that they put out there. You’re hurting yourself more than you’re helping yourself if you don’t spend time preparing. So the night before, I might spend two hours putting together what video I’m going to shoot the next day then I’ll come in and we’d shoot two or three videos with Jim and piece it together nice and start putting it out there. Things started getting tens of shares and then hundreds and then some of the stuff has thousands of shares and hundreds of thousands of views.
“The thing about being an entrepreneur is that there’s coaching and then there’s the business coaching and each one of them require time, process, work.”
Now I’m getting the feel for what people want so then I started researching what works on Instagram. It’s just like anything else. It’s like the coaching side of things. You’ve got to study it. There’s a process behind it. My thought process is I want to get really good at this in the next year and a half.
People ask, “Hey, how can I do this in six weeks?” “Um, you can’t.” You’ve got to start. You can get better, but it’s when people start thinking about how can I get really great at this in the next year or year and a half, now they’re committed to it. Every day, I study 20 to 30 minutes and I see a tip and trick here and I go deep into a strategy or I study somebody else, I might hire a mentor or I go for a two-hour call and ask, “Hey, what are you doing? What’s working here? What’s going on?”
It’s the mastery of the process. The thing about being an entrepreneur is that there’s coaching and then there’s the business coaching. Each one of them requires time, process and work. You want to be an excellent coach on the floor, the way you communicate with people, external, internal coaching, understanding prioritization, understanding social intelligence. All of this different stuff, that’s one pocket. Then on the other end, understanding sales, marketing, fulfillment and systems, I mean that’s a whole other thing. That’s why being a coach and entrepreneur, is difficult but it’s very fulfilling. That’s another conversation – Which route do you want to go? Do you want to partner? Do you want to stay small or do you want to go bigger and have a team?”
Those are all different questions that you’ve got to answer. I was actually just doing this interview for Entrepreneur Magazine that should be coming out in a couple of months where they’re asking, “What’s the best way to open a gym if you’re an entrepreneur or if you’re a coach, if you’re this?” There’s a lot of different ways to do it, but you have to be really, really honest with yourself as far as what is your zone of genius, what are your unique abilities, what are you willing to put career and capital in and get really good at. It’s not sexy. I mean this whole thing that I just said, I’m sure that there isn’t anybody going, “Oh, man, that’s…so… Let me buy that product,” but it’s the truth.
What to Focus On
Number one, you’ve got to start with being able to be very objective. It doesn’t matter if you’re independent and in another gym, you’ve got your own space, whatever you do, number one, try to separate yourself from being subjective. Walk into your facility and think about every part of the experience that happens. From when somebody reaches out to you, how do you contact them? Is it consistently within 24 hours or is it all over the place? When you come in, how do you get greeted? What is the training session like? Does it have structure? Is it a show? Do you follow up with people? Do you high five every single person in the gym? If you come to Vigor Ground, you will see me high five every single human being every day, at least once, this is guaranteed.
What is your experience? Then ask yourself, if you were spending that type of money with yourself, would it be good enough? I’ve actually done this in the last three months and my answer was no and it’s harsh. I don’t want to talk about just the fruitful stuff and pretend like I’ve got it all together and I know everything because when you grow a team and it’s not just you anymore, it’s a lot tougher. I was comparing us to the best in the world and right now as I walk in, it’s not that, so what do we need to improve?” Then I started writing stuff down. That’s number one, but the thing is you’ve got to be objective. I guess if you’re not objective, then you’re not going to hear what I’m saying.
You’ve got to be able to be ruthlessly honest with yourself and ask, what does excellence look like? What does excellent look like when somebody walks in at the front desk? You could have a great program and have a person that’s sour at the front desk and you’re going to lose 20-30% of the people. That’s how it works. If you’re not going to get back to somebody in three days, you’re going to lose people. If you’re going to make somebody feel unimportant and not listen to them in a training session, you’re going to lose people. It’s more than just knowing the exact prioritization schemes for the best fat loss programs or you know what FMS is and everything, but guess what, if that person doesn’t feel taken care of, you’re going to lose them.
“Step number one is how do you create an incredible experience from start to finish in whatever program you’re doing?”
Step number one is how do you create an incredible experience from start to finish in whatever program you’re doing? I don’t care if you work in LA Fitness, you work in a Big Box Gym, you work in a 24 hour. That doesn’t matter, you are your own business. No matter where you are, you’re your own business and you have to look at that objectively. That’s for sure number one.
Number two is kind of like more of an aha moment for me lately as we’ve grown after eight and a half years of owning a gym here in the States. We hit a couple of bottlenecks and figuring out, obviously, as you grow, you’ve got more coaches, you’ve got more stuff, but you’ve got to be able to maintain and improve the quality of your service. That’s difficult. This is out of my actual journal notebook that I had this aha moment. For entrepreneurs, the activity that requires the most creativity is innovation. All great entrepreneurs face the need to innovate. I think this is really important.
Innovation’s where the greatest breakthroughs live because we’re getting away from what already is and creating what will be. Now Gary Vaynerchuk talks about how innovation is not a method, it’s a mindset. Everybody’s looking for tactics but it’s more about religion. Like innovation’s a religion. They value the results that come from spending time researching and pondering and the debating and playing and all that stuff. They view it as a necessity. It’s a part of their life. It’s just like people don’t consciously value oxygen. You need it to stay alive. That’s how Gary V. looks at innovation and I agree with a bunch of that but here’s the thing… I have the same thought about connection. For me connection is a religion. How do I connect to people more deeply?
One of our core values at Vigor is it’s all about feeling. Maya Angelou has a quote that says, “People will forget what you said, people forget what you did but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” That to me is a guiding light every day for when that person comes in, forget their four-week program. That one session, how do we make that person feel amazing? How do we make them feel strong? How do we make them feel successful? How do we make them feel like they can overcome struggles in their life that they’re going through?
To me, connection is like oxygen, it’s like religion. I think about it all the time. How do we make people more connected to each other, to the coaches, to the community, to this brand, to themselves? If you stop thinking about it tactically, because that’s what people do, if that’s your religion, then all your thoughts are going to be about how can you bring people together more. I say this because I’ve dropped the ball here a lot. I’ve messed up so many things and every time I’m grateful I’ve become really self-aware and for the fact that I have coaches and mentors who would say, “Okay, we’ve got to change this, this is not good enough.” People are confident enough to come talk to me and say, “Hey, Luka, this is what I don’t like. This service is kind of…” My door is always open because I’m so motivated to improving that. There’s no ad that you can do to create that. I believe in Facebook ads and advertising funnels and all that stuff, but it’s laid on top of all this other stuff. Your religion should be relationships, experience and connections. That’s number two.
Number three, right now, is content, but when I say content, I mean content that allows you to connect with people. It allows you to build relationships without even seeing the person. That’s why I do a lot of video because video is winning right now and will continue to win for the next five years. If you’re not doing video, I would strongly recommend you rethink your tactics. It builds relational equity when people get value from you. There’s four ways to create equity: make people laugh, make them cry, make them feel, or give them value in advance. You can do that through video, podcasts, email newsletters, blog posts, and live seminars, workshops, and webinars. And don’t forget face to face, one on one. That’s still very important. If you can’t do a face to face then do what you can do through video or whatever. The point is you build this relational equity. You’re giving to people. It’s like a bank account.
You look at a bank account. You’re stacking money into the bank account and so anytime you ask for a sale, you’re taking out of that bank account. Anytime you put up a Facebook ad and it’s like, “Hey, eight-week challenge, sign up here,” you’re asking to take out of it. If you didn’t put anything in, but you keep taking out, what’s happening is you’re going bankrupt. Just like in your life, if you’ve got a 100 bucks in your account, you take out a thousand, you’re in debt. You’re about to go bankrupt.
That’s how you have to view that and I get people going, “Hey, Luka, man, can you check out my business. Look at this ad.” Then I go in their blog and there’s been nothing there for a year and a half. I look at the videos and maybe there’s been one in like three months. I sign up for their email newsletter, none of that’s going out. I look at their Facebook organic, nope, nothing there. Instagram, pictures that just don’t connect to anything that would attract me as a client to the business.
What you’re doing is you’re going to a coach and they’re teaching you how to run Facebook ads, great. You build a funnel, you create sales copy, and all you’re doing is asking. You’re just asking and you’re taking and extracting out of that bank account without putting anything in so there’s no trust. Then you’re like, “I don’t know what’s going on. Why is it not working when it’s working for Joe Schmoe over there?” Well, Joe Schmoe does a seminar every week and there’s a workshop every four weeks and then he puts up content and he does this, that and the other and he’s more authentic when he puts it out. That same ad won’t work the same. You can brand through content because essentially never in the history of the world could you be your own media publishing company and right now you can be.
“You’ve got to do the work. You’ve got to sit down. You’ve got to create the content. You’ve got to think it out. How are you going to say it in your own voice?”
I’ve got a video that got 200,000 views in a month, 200,000 views directly to people that want to see what I want them to see. I called the TV station, because I just wanted it for some giggles and asked, “Hey, guys, what would it be if I ran an ad every day at a local TV station for like eight weeks?” and it was like $20,000. Guess what, I spent $47 bucks and then that video went viral and 200,000 people saw it along with 4,000 shares. Basically, you can do a 100,000 times better than TV. You can put stuff right in front of the people that are interested in stuff that you’re putting out. I mean that’s never been able to happen, but guess what? You’ve got to do the work. You’ve got to sit down. You’ve got to create the content. You’ve got to think it out. How are you going to say it in your own voice?
That means you’ve got to get better at writing, which means you’ve got to write. You’ve got to shoot videos. I’m so humbled and grateful. I mean I go to local gyms sometimes and people come up to me and are like, “Oh, dude, I just wanted to shake your hand.” I’m like, “Oh, hey, what’s up, man? What’s going on?” “Oh, I just watch all your videos. Incredible, man.” I talk to them for 10 minutes and they’re like, “Oh, man, this dude talked to me for 10 minutes.” This is crazy. I used to talk to people all the time and I still do it. I love doing this, but now I go to the local restaurant and people know me and stuff like that.
What that means is that it works and whenever they’re ready and they’re like, “You know what, man, I’m tired of this body. I just can’t do this anymore. I just got out of a relationship.” They’re going to reach out to us because of top of mind awareness. We’ve delivered and we’ve put relational equity into that bank account so when they see that next ad or the trial or whatever it may be, they’re going to click on it and it’s going to take out of the account, but guess what, there’s a lot more money in the account than we’re taking out.
That’s how you’ve got to look at it. Number three is if you do emails or just do videos or two or three different things, but you really go deep into it, you’re going to be successful. If you have the mindset of in the next six weeks, I want to build an insane following, you’re out of your mind.
You know what Richard Branson told me? Richard Branson said, “You know what the goal of the first year of business is?” I was like, “I don’t know.” He’s said, “To survive. The goal of the first year is to survive.” Imagine if that guy is telling you the first year of business you just want to survive. How do you think that you’re going to turn around the whole world and your whole culture in six to eight weeks? That’s another mistake. You can’t change culture in six to eight weeks. It might take a year because you’ve got to live that. You’ve got to become it. You can’t just put up a post or an ad and think it changes people’s emotional connection to you and your business. It doesn’t work like that. That’s the long version of my three.
I’ve been over 10 years in this game and I feel like I’m just getting started. I think that you’ve got to have that feeling of curiosity. The feeling of, “Man, I know all this stuff, but I really don’t know anything and I’m so curious and thirsty to know more, learn more, apply more, connect more.” I think when you have that, almost like a kid, like curiosity and just a zest for learning and life, then you never really truly stuck.