By popular demand, we’re trying something new: more comprehensive show notes, so you can do a deep dive, should you chose to do so. Enjoy!
This week, we met up with our friend Conner Moore at a box in Mission Viejo, California. To be clear, we said “a box,” not “his box.” That’s because Conner shut his box down. Ultimately, this is a story of Conner’s success, but we met with him today to talk about that particular phase of failure, what he learned, and how it can help the rest of us.
“I am really excited to be a part of this and share the story, because I think one thing that we missed is the idea that we can grow from critical failure, and we attached the idea that something is a success or failure when it’s really just another flow of experience that we can then leverage to create further experience down the road.”
“I Should Just Open My Own Gym”
When people get to the top of their coaching game, going into business for themselves is often the next step. Coaches start to think it, or clients are telling them how good they’d be at it. People go in thinking it will be more of the same. Conner was making almost a six-figure salary as a coach, and the next natural step looked like opening his own box. He was well-respected in the functional fitness community in Austin, Texas; he had a strong base of clients who would be with him from day one, and he had access to a bunch of successful people who were willing to share best practices.
He’d known (or thought he’d known) that he wanted to open his own gym since he was a 19-year-old Health and Fitness Management major at Texas State. Then he plowed right through the box Coaches Development Program. He spent a lot of time learning from Kelly Starrett’s Mobility|WOD. Conner quickly became both a great individual and group coach, and all his clients told him he should open up his own place. He knew he loved what he was doing, but as he would later learn, he was mistaken about why he loved it.
A Bad Lease
Conner knew he wanted to open a box within the city of Austin, as close to downtown as possible. He liked the idea of being close to the University of Texas campus because a lot of the students there have the kinds of “parents who will throw down $10,000 so their kid can be in a fraternity,” not aiming for the “starving college student” population that might come to mind. And he found the perfect space!…
Or so the landlords had him believe. But it turned out that they’d withheld information from him and fraudulently induced him into a two-year lease.
“There were things on the front end that they told me that just were just not true. He’s like, ‘You guys have a water line underneath your gym.’ Cool. Okay. There is a water line under my gym… No, there’s not. There’s not one. That cost me $40,000 up front. That wasn’t supposed to be the case.“
Because of Conner’s fundamental desire for things to fall into place with his gym, he just decided that things with this lease would be fine.
“What I was really naïve about was all the code and zoning issues I was going to face going into that. I had this thing like, ‘I’m opening a new business. I’m doing it for the right reasons. I love what I do.’” He thought the city should care, but they did not.
Besides the water line issue, one of the first unexpected costs Conner faced was the need for ADA-compliant bathrooms in his gym. “I’m like, ‘No one that’s handicap works out here right now.’” And, as so many of us have learned when opening our own gyms, that is just not how that law works.
Regarding the issues of getting physically set up in the building, Conner notes, “It’s a form of self-sabotage, really. You’re just purposefully staying naïve because you don’t want to be told that you’re wrong or that you could probably go in a different direction.”
It’s not just him. This happens to a ton of gym owners. We even got hit with similar (expensive) zoning surprises ourselves when we first started out.
And since we’d been through this process ourselves, couldn’t we have offered Conner guidance when he was first starting out? Well…
Asking the Right Questions
When Conner told us about his shady lease during this episode, Markus asked if he had any mentors or friends who were in the business who could have thrown up the “DANGER” sign for him and told him to look out.
Conner’s response: “They were there, but I didn’t seek them out, like as if they should read my mind and what I am going through, and come and find me, and let me know what’s up. Like Mike and I were close at the time, and Doug as well… I could have shot the lease over, and you guys would have had somebody look at it, no problem. I just didn’t do it. I didn’t want to inconvenience you. I thought I had it. That was my own ego being like, ‘I’ve got this. I’ve got this. Nothing can stand in my way. I will plow through whatever I need to, to make this thing work.’”
There Are Four Big Takeaways Here:
- Always have someone take a look at your lease before you sign it, such as a good realtor who knows what’s up.
- It’s rarely a good idea to just take the broker’s word for it that everything’s gonna be awesome. In our experience, the broker often doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
- Ask questions. You might not always know the right ones to ask, but you’ll know which elements of your business you’d rather not talk about — and those are probably the ones you need to bring up.
- Plan for something to go horribly wrong. Just like when you’re building a house, budget for twice as much as you think it’s gonna cost.
Conner says that asking the right questions has been one of his best takeaways from this whole experience. This goes for his business as well as his personal life. Just ask. It’s okay not to know everything. (We’ve been there too, like that time we hired a business coach but didn’t give him anything but the business’s highlight reel for the first six months. Our bad.)
What Went Right
The whole time Conner’s gym was open, his members were getting results, having a great time, and had no idea that there were problems on the back-end. As Conner reflects on the things that went wrong, he’s proud that one thing consistently went right: He was giving his best to his members. “Throughout all of it, I brought the best version of myself to my classes and my clients every time.” When it was time to shut the gym down, Conner hand-picked the best new gym in town for each of his members (and worked with these gyms to get a small commission, too).
It turned out that Conner thought his “why” was that he wanted to open a gym, but it was really that he wanted to help people live their best lives. This is where he excelled, and this is what made him happy.
Sure, but What Else Went Wrong?
Well, he started with a business partner, but right as the gym opened, her dad was diagnosed with ALS. With Conner’s encouragement, she went home to help. It was just a bummer of a thing that happened that no one had any control over. But it meant that he was doing almost all of the coaching and running the day-to-day operations solo.
Yikes! Anything Else?
Well, parking was a mess. That neighborhood looked great on paper: high-income, inside city limits, close to campus. What didn’t show up on paper is that no one wants to drive to that neighborhood during the school year because it’s a mess and that the parking garage was a horror show. People would come in for an introductory session and then not be able to get their cars out of the garage after, and the parking attendants were zero help. Needless to say, it didn’t lead to an ideal client experience.
Deciding to Shut It Down
“I’m literally doing the best I can, and I’m not the director of results. All I can do is be the director of the effort I put into it.” The building got sold, and the new landlords gave Conner the option of getting out of his lease. So he took it.
Conner sold his gym equipment so that he’d have something to live off of for a little while. He spent some time in the woods, spent some time with his dog, and reflected on what had happened. He started writing, which lead to a job as a content creator for Onnit (working for Aubrey Marcus, who we interviewed on Barbell Shrugged a few weeks back). What he missed about the gym wasn’t the workouts and fitness coaching, it was the human interaction and customer service.
Conner’s Best Advice
For those wondering if they should start their gym or if they should continue running their gym, Conner offers this: “You can’t read the label when you’re inside the bottle.” It’s a quote that stuck with him from Steven Kotler’s and Jamie Wheal’s book, Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Work. We all need objective advice from people who aren’t necessarily invested in our success — someone who we can trust to give us unbiased real-talk that will make us better and help us see the things we’re blind to. They will ask you tough questions, and you need to have those answers.
Start With Why
If owning a gym isn’t making you feel fulfilled, Conner recommends digging deep and asking yourself why you really started it in the first place. A book he says changed his life is Simon Sinek’s Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Conner’s “why” wasn’t owning a gym, it was helping the people he happened to meet while in the gym.
Now living in San Diego, Conner’s three months into his new business. He runs the Pleasure Monkey Podcast and a lifestyle design program that helps clients identify what they actually care about and gives them the tools to make the most of their lives. The “why” behind Conner hasn’t changed, but the “how” and “what” have been refined.
- Don’t over-promise. You are the director of process, not results.
- Consult outside advisors.
- Find a quality realtor to assess your plan.
- Prior to signing a lease, understand contingencies.
- Understand your “why.”
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