Interview with Mike Robertson
Industry icon, Mike Robertson has grown IFast from it being just a concept to over a decade of success. They’re one of the most highly regarded training facilities in the country. Mike has been a contributor to pretty much every relevant media outlet on the planet, an incredible presenter, and he trains a list of highly successful professional athletes.
In the Beginning
Robertson Training Systems (RTS) came about around 2005-2006. I had been working at a small facility in Fort Wayne. I wasn’t really happy with the position. I knew I wanted to make a change. I was doing a lot of writing for T-Nation and various other online & offline outlets at the time. While I was okay going to work for somebody else, ultimately I knew I wanted to work for myself.
I was doing in-home training for a great little company called Custom Fitness, where we worked with very high end & elite or affluent people here in Indianapolis. I was also slowly kind of growing RTS. Believe it or not, that’s when blogs were just becoming a thing. I had my type pad, or whatever it was, blog going and just started putting out content. Eric Cressey and had this idea since we’ve been putting out a lot of content, maybe we should create a product, which was a big step for us.
We created Magnificent Mobility and we both realized this was a viable way to help us make a living. From that day forward I knew my livelihood was going to live in two worlds. I have this online piece where I influence and educate people from across the globe, which is really the allure for me. I love the fact that whether it’s people here locally in Indianapolis or in California or even in a country like Slovenia or the UK or Australia, they can go to my website and learn from me and hopefully I can make them a better trainer or coach.
I had that thing going and, as I was still doing training, Bill Hartman and myself started hanging out and discovered we had a lot of similar interests. We’re both into sports; we’re both into lifting weights; we’re both into music. In January 2008, we sat down together and we’re like, I was driving all over God’s creation to train people and he was going into a PT training job that he wasn’t really thrilled with. We decided we’re pretty competent guys and we need to get serious about opening a gym. In August of 2008, Bill and I joined forces and we opened IFast.
“People are willing to not only travel but they’re willing to pay if they perceive you to be the best solution.”
The last eight years has been a whirlwind, but we’ve gone from that point where we’re this small start-up gym, it was actually in the back of an underground casino which was the space that we took over once the cops ran them out. Now we’re at about 5,000 square feet closing in on, I think, 200 members total and slowly growing the kind of business that we want. We’re growing the business that everybody here is not only proud of but that they’re excited to come to work in every day.
What the Business Looks Like Now
First, there is not one business, that is something of a myth. There’s always been two businesses. It’s odd because I really feel like there are days where I live a double life. There’s RTS which is very focused on the education piece, the consulting. That’s any kind of writing, continuing education products for trainers, speaking. All of that falls under the RTS umbrella. There’s that and then there’s IFast. At IFast there’s two roles that I play.
Number one, I play a coach to the athletes that I work with, but then I’m also very much the entrepreneur and trying to come up with strategy for the business. Trying to come up with an overall vision which I think is really important as an entrepreneur because you can have the best people working for you, but they will never have your vision for the business.
I’m trying to do a better job now of constantly trying to think what is the vision of the business, who are we trying to pull in, who do we want to market to, cater to and, ultimately, what kind of business do we want to build? When you’re starting out it’s whoever is going to give you money you’re going to train. I was there myself. I worked with a client at 9:00 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday when we opened. She would cry every single workout, literally leaving in tears. It wasn’t because of me. She had all these emotional issues, self-worth issues.
We needed money and we had to keep our gym open. You take those clients when you’re opening up. I think as you grow and evolve as a business it becomes more about wanting to create your ideal business. Those are some of the questions we’re coming up with now. What is our ideal business? What is our ideal customer? How do we put all the pieces in place so that we can develop that?
Again, for RTS it’s very much all the roles and that’s more for the consulting piece. For IFast, it’s kind of that dual role of coach to my athletes and then a visionary—and I hate that term. That makes me sound way more important than I am. The visionary is the person that has the vision for the business and then sort of the integrator as well, trying to put all my people in the right place so that they can be as successful as possible.
One thing that has always been important for me is that if I’m going to talk to other coaches and trainers, I need to be coaching and training people myself. When you look at my day-to-day schedule it’s very much seasonal. I’m trying to fix that. But right now, you look at my schedule from say October through the end of February, I am very much in coach and trainer role.
I’m coaching 20-30 hours a week. Again, when I started and it was just Bill and me on the floor, we’re working 50-60 hours a week. I really tried and condense it down. I love working my guys in groups. If I did everybody as a private, could I work 40 or 50 hours a week? Sure, but I very much prefer, especially with athletes to have them in small groups. I think the energy is better. I think the coaching is better because there is less down time, there’s more energy. Everybody is feeling good about themselves. The best part is when you’ve got athletes I love the competition, I love them working against each other.
Even in my busiest months I’m probably only coaching 20 to 30 hours out of a week. When it gets slow during the summer it’s as little as 8-10. A lot of that is the soccer teams are in season so I don’t have them quite as much, but I still have a small group of distance clients that come in and work with me either weekly or monthly. Those people are fun, too, because they’re like projects. A lot of them are power lifters or adults that just want to get into really awesome shape. It’s nice because it gives me a blend and it keeps me engaged. I always say athletes are like cheating—they’re so good at what they do, their nervous system is so good, they move so well, they’re very easy to coach. Athletes are almost too easy. Sometimes when you go back and you work with general population people it reminds you of what it’s like to train a normal human being and not some super elite freak-a-zoids.
Other than the athletes that I work with, pretty much everybody is a distance client. These people typically have come to me because they’ve had some sort of injury or issue and it’s been more of a tandem approach where they will see Bill, maybe initially for some physical therapy or for his assessment piece and then they transition into working with me. That is the bulk of who I work with. It’s like 100%.
As far as day-to-day local people that work in Indianapolis, that’s not really my thing at this point because I’ve got really good coaches on the floor here at IFast whether it’s Jay, Lance, Brandon, Ty, or Tony. We’ve got really, really good guys. If they need training every day, unless they’re a pro athlete or need the services that I offer, I am more than comfortable giving my guys those people because they are very, very qualified coaches in their own right.
“I think seeking out people smarter than you and at this point in time there’s no reason not to outsource things that you’re not good at.”
Distance coaching is something that we have always offered at IFast. It started off as just a once a month program that we offered for people that were local but maybe the funds were an issue or they didn’t know how much coaching they really wanted or needed. What that evolved into was people that found out about myself or they found out about Bill but they lived in St. Louis or they lived in Lexington or Cleveland or Columbus. They lived in these remote areas from Indianapolis, and they said, we think you’re the best solution for us and we want to work with you personally.
It was a natural evolution to our business. It’s not something that I ever chased, per se. It’s really not something that we market, but it’s something where people are willing to not only travel but they’re willing to pay if they perceive you to be the best solution. Kind of the end result to that or a side piece of that is just pure online coaching. Thinking about that, I’ve trained people from the UK, from Asia, from Australia, literally across the globe via online training. That’s not something we could have ever fathomed 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago when I started doing it, video was not a big deal. It’s literally assessing somebody by static pictures that take forever to upload and download. This is where the evolution, I think, of our businesses are. If you’re an expert or somebody that caters to a specific niche, people are willing to pay more if they’re willing to travel or to work with you remotely if you can help them achieve the result that they want.
How to Evolve and Grow
The best thing that Eric Cressey did when he opened Cressey Performance was bring on Pete Dupuis as a business person. Because he’s got somebody to outsource that to. The worst thing Bill and I did was going into business together in that regard because neither of us are pure business people. We are very much technicians. I think the best thing that we did was we knew that early on and we sought out people better than us. Early in my career I remember the day that Alan Cosgrove and I sat in some random bar. We had lunch together, had a beer and he said, “Okay. This is the date you’re going to open IFast.” I just said, “Okay.” Alan, early on, was a very influential piece of our business because he gave us the foundation and some structures and rules to build from. And having Pat Rigsby as somebody that I can constantly reach out to and have access to has been huge. The evolution of our business, the training piece, is easy for us.
Bill and I, our staff, we are passionate and we are dedicated about learning more about training, about the best ways to train the human body, the best ways to evaluate the human body. That part has always been easy for us. That gives us a natural leg up because it’s easy to say you’re the best when you really firmly believe that. From a business side, we have always tried to seek out people better than us. Having you tell us, “Okay. Look, this is what you need to do with your trial or this is what you need to do to close people better.”
“If you can step back and realize, hey, maybe I’m the problem here, what do I need to do, what can I delegate, those things will ultimately make you a more effective business in the long run.”
When we were doing our trial and Pat had us, instead of trying to sell on day 30, we introduced the gift card and now we’re selling in the first week versus day 30. Immediately we saw our conversions go up by at least 50%. That subtle change in our business allowed us to legitimately grow our business almost twice as fast. It’s been little things like that that have allowed us to tweak and refine things because, yes I do think of myself to a degree as a business person, but for me I’ve always struggled like there’s this internal pull from me as an entrepreneur, as a human being, because I’m passionate about coaching.
That’s what I really, really love but at the same time, if I’m going to own a business then I need to honor that and reflect that and I need to put the time in there as well. I think seeking out people smarter than you and at this point in time there’s no reason not to outsource things that you’re not good at. You can’t outsource your entire business but you can at least get people around you that can help you grow and evolve your business that are better at some things than you are.
If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re kind of a go-getter, you’re willing to learn things, you’re willing to do whatever it takes. It’s hard to step back and realize that a lot of times as an entrepreneur you are also the biggest bottleneck in your business. If you can look at that, if you can be okay with that, and then start to let go of some of those things, which is something I’m working on with IFast right now. It’s one of those things where I have this mentality of if I don’t do it, it won’t get done right. Then, ultimately, I’ve got so many things on my plate that it doesn’t get done at all. If you can step back and realize, hey, maybe I’m the problem here, what do I need to do, what can I delegate? Those things will ultimately make you a more effective business in the long run.
Owning and operating a business is hard enough and I’m trying to do two. Both RTS and IFast have grown to a point now where I had to step back and realize where these businesses are at. Creating the ideal business is always evolving. What is ideal to you now may not be ideal in five years. You’ve got different priorities or you want to chase something else. I think that’s important, too. To constantly step back and not only evaluate yourself but your business and kind of get an idea of where you’re at and what you need to do to get to that next level.
Mike’s Ideal Business
I’m not sure RTS changes all that much for me because for me RTS is just a way to constantly educate and give back to the industry. I love the blogging, the videos, the podcasts. All the content I create that’s just a passion I have. Luckily, it allows me to drive some product sales and that sort of thing that help RTS grow and thrive. I’m not sure that changes all that much.
A big change for me was going from pure written content to more of a multi-media approach. Going from only written articles to an article one day, a video another day, and a podcast another. That’s kind of the content strategy that I’m using now. That was a big shift for me. I’m not sure how much I want to change there, but with regards to IFast, I think the big thing that we’re looking at is continuing to tweak and evolve the programs that we offer.
“I think you can be very busy being busy and not moving in the direction that you want.”
For instance, right now we’re very well known for our semi-private program. We’ve done incredibly well with that. Understanding the semi-private setting and the way that we run semi-private where anybody can sign up for a 4:00 o’clock time slot, it may not be the best way to integrate if your 4:00 o’clock involves a 50-year-old woman who just wants to look and feel better and a 14-year-old kid that wants to be better at baseball.
What we’re going to try and do is to slowly evolve and put people in the right places by making our semi-private more adult focused. Then making, what we’re going to call our elite athlete development program or body development program, geared solely towards kids. Kind of separating those two pieces out and cranking up the team training and making sure that’s where we want it to be, too. That’s something that we always offer and we’ve had momentum with it in the past. As a business owner, it’s a very profitable piece of your business. If you’re just looking at dollars and cents, you’re paying your coach x-amount of dollars per hour whether he’s got one person or 15.
I think trying to niche those three pieces out, target our marketing in a specific way so that we’re generating or pulling in the type of people that we want for those sections of the business. Again, having a clearer idea of what we want IFast to be, the clients we want to train and then filling up those specific classes by offering to the people that we want.
Ideal Business Advice
The first piece of advice I would give is very simply to step back and breathe. What I think happens too often is we get caught up, especially in this day and age, of it’s go, go, go. You hear people talking about the grind and whatever. I think you can be very busy being busy and not moving in the direction that you want. Now if you haven’t done it in a while, do it today or tomorrow or as soon as you can. Ideally, set up a date quarterly where you evaluate your business, take a step back, what’s working well, what’s not working well. Look at the people that you’re training. Look at the people you work with. Look at all the aspects of your business. Do your best to be really open and honest about it. Sometimes it’s really easy to sweep things under the rug or not look in the corners. I think if you’re open and honest with things then you have a much clearer idea of what’s really going on, and it will help you get a better idea of where you want to go.
The second step beyond taking that step back is give yourself some sort of framework to build from. What are the big things that you need to do to get that done? Set up an action plan or something of that nature. In the third step, because one and two still are kind of easy, but number three is the hardest. Go out and do something. Too often we think of procrastination as doing nothing. Procrastination, for a lot of people, is oh, I’ve got these important things to do but I’m going to clean up my office or I’m going to do email. Something of that nature. Sometimes it’s really hard to just do something that is focused on the big picture because you don’t get that instant reward, that instant gratification.
Step back, evaluate where you’re at. Number two, come up with an action plan or a strategy to put the pieces in play. What are the big things you need to be working on? Number three, do something that’s actually relevant to your action plan. If you can do those three things, and do a little bit of number three every day. Whether you get up 30 minutes early, an hour early or you stay up 30 minutes late at night, constantly do something that’s going to help you grow and build your ideal business. If you’re doing that every day, then chances are in six months, 12 months down the line, your business is going to look considerably different than it does now.