gym startup

Can’t Make This Up: When Starting A Gym Doesn’t Go As Planned

Starting a gym can be chaotic and exciting all at once. Here's one gym owner's story about overcoming unexpected challenges, and the lessons she learned!

Emily Beers
March 21, 2023
Can’t Make This Up: When Starting A Gym Doesn’t Go As Planned
Starting a gym can be chaotic and exciting all at once. Here's one gym owner's story about overcoming unexpected challenges, and the lessons she learned!

It’s March Madness at PushPress! We’ve asked our community of fitness business owners to share their craziest stories. With every story comes a lesson that the gym owner learned the hard way so that you don’t have to. Today, we’re talking about starting a gym, so sit back, relax and enjoy the shenanigans!

What do a global pandemic, a tornado and contractor issues all have in common? If you answered, “they’re all things that happened to one gym owner in Tennessee,” you’d be correct.

Starting a gym

Marissa Reese owned Praxis Strength (now Music City Muscle in Nashville, TN) for three years. After the story you’re about to hear, no one would’ve blamed her for throwing in the towel from the start. Instead, she stuck it out for three tumultuous years before selling her gym in December 2022.

Instead of taking a victim mentality though, Reese recognizes that much of it was out of her control. She also admits there were areas she could’ve done things differently, resulting in a different outcome. Now, she’s eager to share the lessons she learned to help other gym owners who are thinking of starting a gym.

How It Started.

Like most gym owners, Reese was careful about saving as much money as possible as she prepared to open her new gym’s doors.

She hired a contractor friend to help with the buildout and as she recalls, she was “paying pennies” for his services. Because of this and his busy schedule, her project just wasn’t a priority.

The timeline consistently got delayed. As a result, she opened nine months later than intended. In terms of the potential growth, the specific dates of that timeline would end up being catastrophic.

Reese’s dream of finally starting a gym happened on March 2, 2020.

That evening, Nashville was hit with a devastating tornado. It left her gym without electricity, and destroyed many homes and businesses around the city. So instead of hosting classes on March 3rd, Reese turned her space into a hub for volunteers and a donation center.

Pretty soon, 150 volunteers were in and out of the gym. Some of them ended up joining the gym, which she explained was one small, silver lining.

How It Was Going.

One week later, Reese opened the gym “for real.” She had just 15 members and it was smooth sailing for the first week. But the turmoil was just beginning.

On March 16, 2020 - Reece’s birthday - COVID shut the world down.

Despite being given rent relief for the first month, she was required to pay in full for the following months. With very little revenue coming in, the next few months were a struggle.

Marissa Reese former owner of Praxis Strength
Marissa Reese, former owner of Praxis Strength in Nashville, TN

In June, Reese reopened her doors. But by then, she had racked up quite a bit of debt. As a result, she was terrified to spend money on things like marketing, a necessary component of starting a gym. So she relied on word-of-mouth and a referral program, but memberships weren’t growing as quickly as planned.

It took nearly three years to reach 45 members.

“It was always a struggle, to be honest,” Reese said of the whole experience. She felt she was at her wit’s end, both financially and emotionally. In the end, she sold her gym to one of her long-time coaches, Blake Harris. Today, he has rebranded and she says he’s doing great.

Three Tips For Starting A Gym.

Reese knows she had absolutely no control over the tornado or worldwide pandemic. But she admits there are plenty of things she would have done differently. She offered the following three tips to gym owners:

1. Don’t Cut Corners.

Hiring contractors and subcontractors is not the area to save money, Reese says. In her case, she said doing a “buddy deal” is what led to the project getting less priority.

“Me and my husband also did a lot of the build out, which prolonged it even more,” she added.

Her attempts to save money continued throughout her time as a gym owner.

“[Saving money] was the biggest thing,” Reese said. “But we were just so terrified to spend money after the pandemic.”

So she advises owners to pay full price instead of cutting corners to save a penny when starting a gym. She added that entrepreneurs don’t like when people ask them for deals, so the same goes for asking others.

“Do it the right way instead of looking for hookups,” she said.

2. Treat Staff Like Employees, Not Buddies.

Unrelated to the chaos of opening her gym, Reese is adamant about being careful with how you develop relationships with coaches.

She admitted that when it came to her team, she had her “friend blinders on.” This led her to treat staff like friends and ultimately, negatively affected the business. She recalls that it times, it felt like it wasn’t an actual business because of the relationship dynamic.

So Reece offers this advice: “Take care of the business first, and don’t treat your staff like a bunch of friends who workout together.”

Praxis Strength gym community

3. Invest In Marketing.

Reece says that marketing is an imperative part of growth when starting a gym. Because she was afraid to spend money, she initially avoided the investment because she didn’t think she could afford it. She now knows that she couldn’t afford not to do it. As a result, there just wasn’t enough gym revenue to pay the bills.

She tells other gym owners to “invest in marketing and platforms from the beginning, instead of trying to wing it yourself.”

She reflected a bit more and said, “In the long run, we spent much more on bills because we didn’t focus on marketing.”

This lesson became apparent in the summer of 2022 when she finally took the plunge and added PushPress Grow. She got an influx of clients and it was “such an eye opener.”

She added, “This is the kind of thing we should have done a year prior.”

Pro Tip: Looking for help with lead generation and follow-up? Book a demo with the PushPress Grow team today to find out how we can help!

In Summary: The Unexpected Challenges Of Starting A Gym

Reese is no longer a gym owner. But she’s thankful for the lessons learned and experienced gained from starting a gym. She’s also proud of the community she built, which still prides itself on being welcoming and inclusive. Especially to people who often don’t feel welcome in gyms.

“Our gym was built to not be intimidating,” said Reese. “You walked in and we had the LGBTQ flag right there. And that made a huge impact on a lot of people who didn’t feel comfortable going into gyms because of what they identify as, their sexual orientation, the color of their skin. Offering that to people was huge. I’m really proud of what we created.”

Emily Beers

Emily Beers is a health, fitness and nutrition writer. She has also been coaching fitness at MadLab School of Fitness in Vancouver, B.C. since 2009.

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