opening a gym

“We Had No Idea”: A Lesson from Turning a Hobby into Opening a Gym

Opening a gym is an adventure! It should be fun but not taken lightly. Here's one gym owner's tale of how he turned a hobby into a legit business.

Emily Beers
March 12, 2024
“We Had No Idea”: A Lesson from Turning a Hobby into Opening a Gym
Opening a gym is an adventure! It should be fun but not taken lightly. Here's one gym owner's tale of how he turned a hobby into a legit business.

It’s March Madness once again 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 turning a hobby into opening a gym, so sit back, relax and enjoy the shenanigans!

Like many gym owners, Randy Lauer thought opening a gym would just be a lot of fun. As he looks back in hindsight, he admits, “Our only concern was having fun and hanging out with friends.”

Lauer, and his wife Chausse, are the owners of 3-46 GRIT CrossFit in Gresham, OR.

Opening a gym 346 GRIT CrossFit
Members of the 3-46 GRIT CrossFit gym community. (Photo credit: 3-46 GRIT CrossFit)

In the early days, the couple considered every member to be a close friend. And so, like many other CrossFit affiliates, they offered discounted membership rates to everyone.

“We were just excited to start a gym centered around this new thing called CrossFit,” he said.

But after a while, the reality set in. Lauer realized that what he initially looked at as a hobby was actually a legit business. That meant he was a business owner, which came with a list of responsibilities. Most of which he had been neglecting.

Changing Priorities after Opening a Gym.

It became obvious to Lauer that he needed to shift his focus. Because if he didn’t, he might not be able to afford to keep the gym open. Ultimately, this meant he had to start treating his gym like a business.

“Our rates were significantly too low to sustain the level of growth,” he said. “And to be able to offer a gym environment for everyone who walked through our doors. We realized in order to keep the doors open, and keep equipment new and fresh, and to have the ability to invest in our coaching staff, we needed to treat this like a business.”

There was just one problem.

“We had no idea what it meant to be business owners,” Lauer admitted. But like most gym owners, when faced with no alternative, he quickly started to figure it out.

Tough Conversations with Gym Members.

After opening a gym and realizing he had to treat it like a business, Lauer needed to make a few immediate changes. First, he had to stop bartering memberships that weren’t serving the business. Second, he needed to increase gym membership prices. (This meant eliminating grandfathered rates and stop allowing members to pay different rates). And finally, he had to start having difficult conversations.

Creating a strong gym culture
Creating a strong gym culture means encouraging support and connection. (Photo credit: 3-46 GRIT CrossFit)

Lauer admits that fear is what initially made him avoid having these conversations.

“We were so afraid of operating a business, and scaring all our members and friends out of the gym that we held off, for years, having difficult conversations,” he said.

But overcoming the fear was his first step in building a stronger gym community. Even if that meant having to fire a member or two.

“I would say our first real tough conversation came with an existing member,” said Lauer. “We found out through comments of their own, that they had personal viewpoints that were not aligning with our mission, vision and values as a community.”

He continued, “We pride ourselves on creating an inclusive gym where all walks of life are welcome and hopefully feel comfortable. This member was making it very uncomfortable for certain demographics of our member base.”

Ultimately, they decided that firing this member was the best route.

“Because protecting our culture from harmful personal views was imperative in creating an inclusive space for all to enjoy.”

The End of Bartering for Gym Services.

It’s always been a common practice for gym owners to barter for the services they need to outsource. From cleaning to social media, bartering can be a money-saving option.

However, Lauer found it to be a consistent source of friction. Almost every time he bartered for another service in the early years of opening a gym, it rarely measured up to his standards.

“I believe there’s one glaring reason as to why bartering doesn’t work in most scenarios,” he said. “And that reason is no one will give a shit as much as you give a shit about your business. And that’s okay. They aren’t supposed to.”

Therefore, Lauer recommends avoiding barters altogether. Instead, he would tell other gym owners to just pay a fair price for the service. And in return, charge a fair price for yours.

Setting gym membership prices
Charge appropriately for the expertise in services your gym provides to members. (Photo credit: 3-46 GRIT CrossFit)

Making Gym Community Align with the Vision.

Looking back, Lauer thinks that shortly after opening a gym, the culture may have actually been the biggest issue.

“Once we honed in on what type of community, what type of culture, what type of business we wanted to run, all those conversations fell into line,” he said.

So in 2019, after shifting his focus and priorities, his business began to thrive.

“And a lot of that growth was due to us finally taking our hobby business and turning it into an actual business,” he said.

In Summary: Treat Opening a Gym Like a Legit Business from the Start.

If Randy Lauer was to give gym owners one piece of advice based on his own experience, it’s to treat your gym like a real business. And that means prioritizing things like increasing gym revenue and creating a culture that aligns with your vision.

“Be business-focused first and relationship-focused second,” he said. “The good thing about this model is, if done right, members don’t see the business focus. They only feel the relationship focus that we are putting into the gym every day.”

Lauer likes to use this phrase that his grandma used to say: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free!”

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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