Interview with Wil Fleming
Wil Fleming’s gym started out with a dirt floor and he’s progressed all the way to the point where he’s got one of the premier gyms in the Midwest. He’s positioned himself as an authority when it comes to Olympic lifting. And he’s just released a new certification that went over with rave reviews.
Like a lot of coaches and trainers, I had an athletic background. I knew I wanted to coach in some way, shape or form, but didn’t know if it was going to be in the collegiate or high school setting or private sector. As soon as I was in college I was always helping out the local track and weightlifting clubs nearby that I had started out in. I always kept my hands in coaching, knowing that’s what I wanted to do. For a long time, I thought the collegiate sector was where I wanted to be.
Ultimately I decided to work with high school athletes since college athletes have already had lots of training and are pretty well formed. I decided the private sector was the best way to go after wrapping up my track and field career after competing at the 2008 Olympic trials, along with my former business partner. Leading up to the Olympic trials I had been working on a business plan. We went over to the bank and got a big old loan to pay for everything we could possibly want. Probably not how I’d do it now.
We opened up in 2008 with about 4,000 square feet in a 6,000 square foot building, and then a year later, took over the remaining space. I was working in that gym and on that gym with my business partner for a number of years, and it grew really, really well, to the point where we started to hire a team. Ultimately, my business partner started seeing differently on things, and decided to leave the business a couple years ago.
“My attention got distracted towards this outside stuff, and I think that’s just one of the most critical mistakes any person in a gym can make, is if they let themselves get distracted and start focusing on the outside and not the inside.”
Then it was back to square one. Repairing the business and making it into my own vision, and not the vision of my former business partner. In the last two years, I really doubled down, made sure to have the right people and moved into a brand new facility that was built from the ground up which is perfect for what we need. Now we are growing and hitting all-time best numbers again.
Holes in the Bucket
When I first started out, business was really good. We opened doors and 45 or 50 people signed up in the first two days because my former business partner brought personal training clients, and I brought a bunch of athletes I had been working with. We were almost profitable from day one. By month two, we were taking a paycheck every month, paying all of the bills, paying the loan back, paying the lease, and thinking this is pretty easy.
We grew and grew, and hired our first employees six months in, and started pumping more and more people in. We were completely one of a kind at the time. This was 2008 and there wasn’t a Crossfit gym in town or anybody doing personal training and group training in the same place. There was only rent equipment gym kind of thing, like a normal box gym, and you might hire a personal trainer, but there was no training facility located in town. For a period of time, if somebody wanted training, they just knew, “This is where we’re going to come.”
It was fairly easy at the very start. My former business partner was very good at getting new people in. He was the king of running specials, very cheap transformation contests at the time that would get people in for like $79, $99, and we would get 100 people in. We’d get a ton of cash in, and then sign up 10 or so. There was a bunch of people in the facility, but we weren’t really taking care of them. There was kind of that little hole in that we weren’t seeing people stick around, but we could keep getting people in because we were one of a kind.
Then, within three or four years, Crossfit started to pop up, offering athletic-based training. People were having a hard time differentiating what we were doing and what they might get at Crossfit. Then two or three other gyms doing very similar things opened up so we started struggling to get as many people in, and we made some really critical mistakes. My business partner suggested to raise prices and I agreed.
“When you run into these lean times, you can kind of slash or you can grow.”
We raised prices, and lost a ton of people. People were really upset because when they first came in, we made a commitment to raise prices only on new people, not current people. Throughout this time, my relationship with my former business partner became really icy, to the point where i would coach the hours I wanted to coach, but avoid contact with him at all costs. That’s when I started focusing online releasing my first products and writing a lot.
My attention got distracted towards the outside stuff, and that’s just one of the most critical mistakes any person in a gym can make, letting themselves get distracted and focusing on the outside and not the inside. We started seeing some more issues pop up, and that was kind of what led my former business partner to say, “Hey, I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to coach people.” He quit coaching people at that point. He’s like, “You know, it’s pointless for me to own a gym if I don’t want to coach people. If I don’t want to train people, then why would I be here?”
My partner decided to leave, and that was 2014. We had hit these really high peaks with little opposition and profiting quite a bit for a small gym with around 350 clients, which is a good amount, making good money, and things were really good. Then when we started getting opposed by other gyms and made a couple critical mistakes, the numbers started dwindling to a low point of around 200 members. We lost 150 members in a couple years.
Version 2.0 of Force Fitness and Performance
There were months when it was like, “How am I going to keep doing this?”, but I felt a really big commitment to the people that work with me, the people I hired and brought onto the team who trusted me, and I wanted to take care of them. I was like, “Hey, I’m not going to go for the let’s slash everything and just leave it all on my shoulders. We’re going to have to keep building, and we’re going to have to grow.” When you run into these lean times, you can kind of slash or you can grow. I just felt much more comfortable being able to take care of my people. There were months I took like half a salary, so I could make sure that all of the employees were taken care of.
“We wanted to be really positive coaches, we wanted to affect as many people as possible.”
I had made a commitment to my full time people and wanted to make sure they’re taken care of. I decided to buckle down and grow by taking care of my team, so I focused on coaches’ education, making sure when they requested time off that they got the time off, and made sure they knew they were taken care of. I was also open, like, “Hey, we need to get people in here. We need to sign them up, keep them, and take care of them really, really well.”
I felt when the coaches were taken care of, they had no problem taking care of the clients. The growth thing was where I wanted to go, and I knew the numbers we needed to hit to make it profitable and make it so that we would be clear every month and be okay. I communicated that, and it was kind of a rallying cry for a period of time which helped us get back on track and the ship righted at the old facility. I had an opportunity to come in and create a new facility. I wanted to continue to grow. So my big commitment was to offer people coaching, because all of us in the gym had been affected positively by some coach at some point. We wanted to be really positive coaches and to affect as many people as possible.
I said, “Hey, we’re going to go into this new, state of the art facility that is big and open and inviting,” as opposed to like really pinching it down and getting into a tiny space. It was a really good decision, because the location we ended up with is really, really ideal in our local town. The building is beautiful, we’ve got tons of space and open space outside. Through a nice series of events, I am now a part of the group that owns the land, which makes the business even more important.
Where He is Today
Today the personal training side, like the semi-private personal training and the sports performance side are as big as they have ever been. Actually, they are at the highest levels ever. Looking internally I realized that for the last two years, we were running a version of group training that we weren’t enthusiastic about. Within the business, the coaches were still enthusiastic when they coach it, but is this the best option possible for our clients?
“You have to be something in particular, something that you believe in.”
My GM does almost every single one of the sales to new clients, where they come in for a success session and sit down and really dig in. He was finding more and more people said they were a perfect fit for personal training over and over and over and they weren’t selling a ton of people into their group training stuff. It was a weak point in our business right now, with a ton of potential for growth. We decided to redo group training and develop it into something completely different we really believe in. We put together a group strength and conditioning program where during the conditioning parts we monitor people’s heart rate.
By doing more strength and conditioning with barbell lifts and other things, the program became something we believe in more internally, which allows us to sell it to more people since we believe it is the absolute best option for that person who’s sitting in front of us. We continue to look internally at what we’re doing to make sure that it’s what they think is ideal. You have to be something in particular, something that you believe in. That’s what we focus on, making sure that everything we do we believe in and are actually being something, not avoiding being something.
Work Life Balance
During a conversation with my brother-in-law, who’s a very successful business person, worked in a number of different sectors and has done a bunch of really cool stuff. He was talking about how he doesn’t really feel like he has a bunch of time with his family, and he asked me, “How do you do it?” Honestly, it’s like at some point there is a choice where you choose. Obviously, ideally, you’re going to have both, but I think that takes some serious amount of time. I think that at any given point, you’re choosing time, in particular if you’re an entrepreneur, you’re choosing, “Do I want this time with my family, or to myself, or vacation or whatever, or do I want to stay at work and make more money right now?”
During much of the year, or certain periods of the year I focus on my wife and raising our son in a very certain way, being very present for him. I wants to spend as much time with him as possible that’s reasonable. We choose that, so I stay home in the morning until 9:30 or so watching our son, who wakes up at 6:30 or seven, and I watch him ‘til 9:30. My wife goes to work, and then in the afternoon, she’ll come home, we’ll have somebody watch him in the middle of the day. That’s very important to me, so I’ve chosen that, in a lot of instances I’m going to choose that time with my son as being more important to me. As long as I’m doing what needs to get done to make the business continue to grow at a reasonable pace, then I’m okay with that.
“I think it’s so important that we do physically what we try to coach.”
Now, certain times of the year, I buckle down and goe really hard, and I may sacrifice some of that time with family because it has to get done for the business. I am not one to say, “Rise and grind, I slept three hours last night.” I get my sleep, spend time with my son, if at all possible, and spend time with my wife. Certain times of the year I do work all day long into the evening because it needs to get done. It’s something you choose at any given time. I am choosing quality time, or making a little bit more money, and for the most part, I’m going to choose time with my family more than choosing to make an extra how many X thousands of dollars.
When I’m working, I’m working and not distracted. I’m very productive when it’s time to work. I take three or four times a week to work out for about an hour, and get what I need to get done during that time to reach my goals in Olympic weightlifting. I feels it’s really important, as a person who is respected within weightlifting and Olympic lifting coaching, to continue to hone that. I believes it’s important to do physically what we try to coach. Lifting is important to me right now, so I make time for that, and I work really hard when it’s time to work, and then I play really hard with my son when he’s around.
Mistakes to Avoid
One thing is when we opened up, we went straight to taking on debt, and I think we could have done it with way less debt, or maybe even very little or no debt at all. It would have given us a little more leash at the very beginning. Obviously, it turned out really well and it was all okay ultimately, but looking back, we could have probably done without some pieces of equipment.
Another is work with people that share similar values to you. I have worked with people who are about different things than me. I think that we are in a business about really good relationships. We have to have relationships with our clients, and we have to have relationships with the people who work with us and you’ve got to care about those relationships. You can’t just think, “Well, they are a necessary thing, so I’m just going to keep doing it.” You have to care about those relationships and continue to nurture them. I’ve worked with people who, when it comes down to it, are just about making money and what you can do for them and put in their pocket.
You don’t want those influences in your ideal business, because your ideal business fills you up. It doesn’t make you upset that you have to take part in it. That’s what I was talking about earlier, I enjoy my business so much that I’m willing to work really hard when I’m here, not put up with my business, or put up with the people that I’m working with. I like the people that I work with, I like everybody on my team, and I should because I hired them. You need to work with people that share similar values to you. I’ve worked with people that don’t share similar values to me, and it’s just a waste of really valuable time. That would be kind of a more recent thing that I’ve come to the realization of.
3 Tips to Build an Ideal Business
Number one, believe in what you’re doing and meshing it with what your business does. If you believe the best way to work out is to use barbells then make sure your business reflects what you believe in. It’s not just doing what the other most popular gym in town does, or what you see a cool gym online doing. I think you need to believe in and think that what you’re doing is the right way to do things.
If you have team members, make sure to surround yourself with really good people you enjoy coming to work with every day. Sometimes the hardest thing for productivity at our gym is that in the office, we start talking about stuff and laughing and we have too much fun. That’s probably a good problem to have. You don’t want it to happen all the time, but it’s like a good thing to have, for the most part.
Finally is to have something you love and want to get so amazing at doing and teaching, that it just stokes your fires all the time, for me that’s my weightlifting stuff. I read Russian textbooks about weightlifting, I watch videos if I’m eating lunch at my desk, I’ll pull up a video of a good lifter and watch, and stuff like that. It kind of just stokes my fire. It doesn’t have a lot to do with everything we do, our athletes will do some Olympic lifting, we have like 20-25 weightlifters in the gym as part of our client base, but it’s not like the overarching thing that I have to do in my gym, but it just fires me up. I get filled up by coaching people in weightlifting.