So You Want to Own a Boutique Gym? The Good, Bad and the Ugly

By: Danny Leon

As I write this, I want to make sure everyone understands that this is solely my experience. I don’t do this to either encourage or dissuade anyone from following this path, especially if it’s your dream. I hope this actually serves to both educate and inspire everyone to make the right choices, if you decide to move forward with opening a specialized gym.

Let me start by telling you a little about my own story. My wife and I left what were very successful careers in journalism to open a small business. We had grown jaded working for an industry that had gone from being a great public service to one that seemed to only be interested in serving its corporate masters. My wife Amy in particular was very passionate about fitness, having competed in numerous marathons as well as two Iron Mans. We settled on buying into a kickboxing gym franchise and moving to Charlotte to open our store.


The Good

You often hear folks audibly dream about being their own bosses, well I’m here to tell you it’s kind of awesome. We’ve all had them, terrible bosses that left our stomachs feeling full of butterflies on Sunday afternoons. Kiss that terrible feeling goodbye. If you are a take charge kind of person who, like me, has problems taking orders from folks you don’t respect, welcome to the Promised Land! But this, like a lot of things in life, is a double edged sword which I will circle back to later.
The other wonderful aspect of being a small gym owner is getting to know the folks who become both your members and staff. There is a very intimate relationship that forms with these people, primarily because of the personal attention required to run a boutique gym. You feel exhilarated by their triumphs, both from physical improvements as well as from their accomplishments outside the gym. Amy and I have made lifelong friends we probably would not have otherwise met if it weren’t for the gym. We have also, and I say this bursting with pride, changed people’s lives. There are too many to recount in this post, but as an example, folks have been able to ditch their diabetes, high blood pressure and hypertension medications completely. We have helped folks get through divorces and deaths in their immediate families. Some of our older members now move like they did in their twenties. And a few of my instructors transformed from shy, very quiet people into absolute tigers.

Now there a lot of other good things about being a small gym owner but for the sake of brevity I will conclude this portion of the post by talking about free time. We run a classed based gym so we are not open when there are no classes. This afforded us with the incredible opportunity to spend a lot of time with our daughter, Maya. Amy and I had her as older parents after being convinced parenthood was an experience that was not in the cards for us. She is such a great kid and I can’t help but think, that having us around all the time has given her a great deal of confidence and sense of security.

The Bad

Remember when I mentioned circling back to being your own boss? Well, there’s the responsibility that all of your decisions have consequences that solely fall on you. For example, a mistake early in the process of building out your facility will have repercussions down the road. Here are some that have come back to haunt me.

My first, and perhaps biggest mistake, was not doing enough due diligence picking my location. There are three things I would definitely do over. Number 1, do research on your landlord. As it turns out, my first landlord was quite shady. Second, not hiring a building inspector to give our facility a once over. To that end, I highly suggest having a plumber and electrician inspect the building as well. Had I done the latter, I would have insisted the landlord replace both of my toilets and spring for new lightbulbs and ballasts.

Know how much it costs to change the bulbs in a 4,000 square foot gym that hang 20 feet off the ground? More than a 60 inch flat screen TV. Yes, I guess I could have changed them myself but the thought of falling off a ladder is very unappealing. Third and maybe most important was picking the physical location itself. Instead of finding a spot filled by young folks with lots of disposable income, I chose a suburb full of families. What’s the difference you ask? Well parents are more likely to spend their disposable income on their kids before themselves. And they are going to favor larger gyms with family plans at a price point I cannot compete with.

Other minor things I whiffed on, spending too much money on custom furniture pieces for customer seating and storage. I would have been better off just going to IKEA. I also spent too much on apparel to sell at the gym. After a while, despite numerous sales and giveaways, it just sat gathering dust and generating taxes for the county. I now put out forms for members and order every other month. I also marketed too heavily on costly and outdated radio ads, direct mailers and trade shows, when I should have concentrated only on digital platforms.

The Ugly

Four words – Attrition. Delinquencies. Competition. Injury. Attrition simply means more cancellations than sign ups. In the beginning this was not a problem. We were new. We were cool. We were unique. Every month, for the first few years, we had many more new members than old. That started trailing off when our large anchor store went under. Less eyeballs means less new folks walking through the door. What about marketing you ask? We kept that up, but the reason we chose a retail location was the exposure a large grocery store gave our business. When you are used to net positive gains and that suddenly changes due to circumstances beyond your control, buckle up, because you are in for a roller coaster ride of emotions. It will turn brown hair, gray, faster than being President of the United States.

Delinquencies or past dues are the bane of my existence as a gym owner. When folks get a new credit card or have it compromised and forget to update that information with the gym, bam, it generates a past due on my software. Then comes the uncomfortable part, calling, texting and emailing folks to update the information. Just thinking about it makes me ill.

Competition. It’s fierce. It’s relentless. It’s something you’d better embrace for the long haul. I will put my workout and instructors up against any of my competitor’s workouts but kickboxing is not for everyone. It’s hard. And it stays that way even as you get ridiculously fit doing it. There’s a reason professional fighters are among the fittest athletes in the world. Even though we never teach the same class twice and continually innovate our classes, after a while, folks want to try something new. I don’t blame them. And there’s a lot of new out there. Spin classes. Yoga. Bar Classes. Pole Dancing. Crossfit. Hell, now we even have mirrors that run you through a variety of work outs at home. What’s next? A robot that vacuums your home then takes you for a training run? Laugh now, but it’s on the way.

Injury. I’m not talking about members here, although it does occur. We have been very fortunate in this regard, mostly due to the dedication and diligence of our staff. I’m talking mainly about myself. Being the owner and chief substitute instructor when staff calls in sick or takes vacation, I’m on the hook for those classes. I estimate I’ve taught well over 1000 kickboxing classes over the past 6 years. I’m always hurt. I’ve had cortisone shots in both hands, both elbows and both shoulders. My current affliction? Strained metatarsal tendons in my right foot, yay. Thing is, you can’t show it. You just have to power through and deliver a great class with the same passion and intensity members are used to.

Please don’t take any of what I have written as a complaint. I love being between the bags, seeing folks break through to new fitness levels. I love kickboxing. Until my last breath I will punch and kick a bag to stay fit. No other exercise even comes close to being as fun. And as I like to say, I have nothing but 1st World problems. I just wanted to share my personal experiences and maybe help someone avoid the pitfalls that come with owning a boutique gym. I humbly thank you for your time in reading this.

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