Gym Story from PushPress

Ditching Our Desk Jobs To Start A Gym

Another Gym Story From PushPress PushPress, the makers of your favorite gym management software, is working on a new series, Gym Stories. We’d like to feature gyms in the community (PushPress client or not). We would like to tell your story to the world. If you’re a gym who’d like to tell your story, let us know here! We recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with gym entrepreneur Tony Barnes, the owner of Graft Häus, an impressive warehouse gym in Leeds, UK. In today’s interview we’ll chat with Tony about how he went about launching his gym and what strategies he’s using to grow.

Sq. Ft.
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Leeds, UK

The Interview

Hello and thank you for taking the time to chat with us today about your gym Graft Häus. Can you help us kick off the interview by telling us a little bit more about the journey of Graft Häus so far? Where did it begin for you and what were some of your major milestones as you’ve quested to get to where you are today?

Graft Häus was the (quicker than expected) outcome of Charlene and I deciding to ditch our desk jobs and get into the fitness industry! We were holidaying in Thailand, and whilst training in a gorgeous little open air gym, questioned how do we make that our life? We both loved fitness – I had done several bodybuilding shows, and Charlene had been a life long gym goer, and our day jobs were marketing Health Food products – so after some thought we decided to become personal trainers so we could enter the fitness arena, and then move into gym ownership in 5 years or so. So we quit our day jobs, and used our savings to become personal trainers. Having established ourselves in a large chain gym, we became incredibly aware of how much power they held over us despite being self employed, and that shaped our acceleration of plans of gym ownership massively. Having qualified as PTs in November 2015, we were opening the doors to Graft Häus in November 2017…

What were some of your major obstacles early on and how did you overcome those obstacles?

The biggest obstacle was partly of our own making – we deliberately chose a location surrounded by commercial gyms to be in the competitive mix – but whilst people would happily see a new chain gym and join up sight unseen, we were an unknown entity, and had a lot more to prove. This made early member acquisition slower than hoped, but we have continued to grow steadily through members recommendations – turning this obstacle and apparent weakness into a strength with a very tight community in it.

Did you make any mistakes early on, that looking back you can now see were avoidable? What were those mistakes and why did you make them?

Early on we over staffed, not massively, but enough to leak cash at a higher rate than projected. As our growth wasn’t as strong as initially forecast, cash stockpiles were harder to keep on top of than planned, and things got too tight for comfort on a few occasions. We also had issues with our VAT status with HMRC that we were completely blind to until it was too late. A huge chunk of our initial cash flow was tied up in a tax return that wasn’t coming back to us as quickly as it should – all because a letter was sent to an empty unit and returned. Fortunately we got past the shortfall period, but it caused a lot of anguish!

How did you go about onboarding your earliest customers? How has your customer onboarding strategy / process changed over time?

We’ve used almost exclusively social media strategies for growth – making sure that we offered something unique was key to this working and driving us forward, and still is today. Our location is a bit off the beaten track, and general visibility is poor, so we rely on spreading our name via these channels. Our pre-launch offer included fixed price for life and a few other perks, which proved sufficiently popular.

Today, what are your three most successful new customer onboarding strategies?

Friend referral is our favourite strategy as it yields very loyal members, who are already filtered – this has meant we have basically no ‘idiot’ members in the building, which was hugely important to us. It is also a compounding system, with more friends spreading, and expanding their friend groups. This ties in with our social media strategy which is based solely on awareness. We do not discount our brand, and do not shout ‘offers’ every other week. Why should someone new get a better deal than a loyal member? That isn’t right in our eyes.

What are your internal systems for keeping members coming back and keeping churn low? How would you like to make improvements in this part of your business in the near future?

We have a very personal approach – we chat to a large majority of our members (some, as you’d expect do not want conversation!) and know them all by name. We genuinely get on with them, and consider them friends. Our ‘churn’ is rarely above a couple of percent, and typically that is people moving away from the area. Monthly challenges, competitions, and such add to the experience – so by providing a stellar experience, we have excellent retention.

You have a large roster of trainers who have impressive athletic credentials. Can you tell us a little bit more about what your approach and processes look like when it comes to finding trainers? What are you looking for and how do you filter applicants?

We opened the gym with a lot of our colleagues from our previous commercial gym location, which certainly got the ball rolling. Since then we expanded in line with the gym traffic – we didn’t want to create a ‘PT gym’, but we did want to create an excellent gym to PT from. We currently have 13 PTs, and that is as many as we will go to. We are routinely approached by PTs who are looking for a new location, and our process has been simple from he start – as we are a small independent gym, rather than vast a commercial gym. Therefore, we have less members for them to attack as a client base, so we would only really consider PTs with an existing base and good external marketing. Beyond that we wanted to ensure that every trainer we brought in came with something unique to set them apart from the others in our facility. This has led us to a great array of skills internally, and despite our relatively low member base, they are extremely switched on to education and improving their lifting skill set, as such we have a far higher percentage who are either being directly trained or following a plan than you would expect in a normal gym.

The culture around a gym is so important, not just for the people who work there, but the customers who come there each day to train. What do you do to ensure that your team is on the same page in terms of supporting this culture? How do you deal with team members who don’t take the rules around your culture seriously enough?

Our team is pretty tight and we operate a fairly relaxed outlook – the gym is somewhere that should be fun and engaging, and whilst there are boundaries, a huge part of culture is simply having a  good laugh with everyone. With our PTs their clients feel like they are part of a wider community, and our members are just the same.

How big of a role does the internet play in Graft Häus’s growth? What are your three biggest digital growth channels and why do you think that is?

The internet has been essential to our growth, but frankly that is simply a sign of the times. It is the fastest, cheapest, and furthest spreading point of access to the marketplace, so we use it the most heavily. Were we to have been in an era before social media and the like, then print advertising, signage, and other ‘old media’ would have been the route we would have yielded results from. We get large volume of traffic to our website, and Google Maps is a godsend for us given our location. Overall for net customer gain it’s pretty hard to split our website, Instagram, and Facebook – people are ‘hit’ from all 3, so the definitive cause of membership is typically blurred.

Now in terms of non-digital growth channels (physical flyers, ads, word of mouth etc) which have proven to be your most successful channels?

Word of mouth wins out entirely.

Lastly, if you could go back in time and give a younger version of yourself three pieces of advice about what it takes to run a successful health and fitness company, what would those three pieces of advice be?

Learn how to run on very little sleep

Learn how to prioritise your own health and fitness

Learn how to wear a lot of hats at work

Thank you for taking the time to chat with PushPress readers today about your experience as a gym owner. We truly appreciate it Tony. To our blog readers, if you’d like to learn more about Tony and his Gym Graft Häus, we suggest you head over to their website here or follow them on Instagram.

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