By Drew Cooper
The business of coaching in the private sector, especially as an independent individual (versus a facility with a staff) is interesting and complicated. I will discuss the path I took, including buying equipment, tailoring marketing to my business needs, making mistakes, and my hopes moving forward. I’ve added some shared stories of the fun, successes, failures, pains, and difficulties of doing a “great job” as a private coach. My aim is to help anyone thinking about starting their own journey to a private coaching career.
*Disclaimer: You can’t buy experience
My Story and Path
Things began with me wanting to pursue kinesiology in college, getting scared, changing majors, then coming full circle to change back and finish with a B.S. in kinesiology from San Diego State. In college I held a job in the café of a VERY affluent gym. The typical client was a millionaire working in some tech or biotech company (Qualcomm headquarters was a bike ride away).
I was fortunate to meet my first mentor in Steve Laubenberg, a coach with experience working with speed/power athletes and loving what he did. Meeting Steve was the beginning of my networking efforts. I bought some training sessions with him, which started a great relationship that still exists. He opened a business out of his garage, and I followed him there. He directed me to websites, authors, and general training info to further my knowledge. I attribute much of my successful beginnings to Steve.
When he notified me of his impending move across the country, I saw this as an opportunity to purchase his equipment. I took a huge risk as a college senior by draining my savings. I bought his GHR, dumbbells, weight plates, barbells, chest supported row, lat pulldown/low row, and various accessories at a price that was unreal, and moved everything into my parents’ garage. I soon acquired my first client. He generated four referrals within the first month. Without the cheaply priced equipment and that first client to get me started, I doubt I’d be where I am today.
I started getting young athletes who happened to be exceptional at their given sports, which of course attracted their peers also to train with me. In about a year, I went from one client in a two-car garage to about 25 clients in a three-car garage. I also added new equipment after selling my old stuff. With word circulating that I had athletes being recruited by schools, two high school coaches called me. That resulted in talks to their respective parents in group meetings. One meeting led to a ton of referrals. The other was essentially a dead end since I couldn’t house the entire team at one time in my garage.
After realizing the shortcomings of a small space, I started looking into larger options. My initial plan was developing an “actual” business. Prices in the area were terrifying, so I attended my first business seminar. It slammed home the point that opening a gym on my own was nothing I wanted to get into. By this point, I had met my now-wife. She was planning on attending PT school.
Change of focus
This convinced me that opening a gym wasn’t a viable goal. I went back to the garage with a new focus: offering a more personalized, high-end, private experience to my clients while reducing the financial risk by keeping overhead to a minimum.
I felt like all I needed to do was be the best possible coach with the tools to provide a high-quality experience. I wasn’t pursuing your typical person who pays $20 a month for a gym; I couldn’t compete with the big gyms in that respect. With a consistent group of clients, I started to upgrade everything from basic to high-end: adding turf out back, a bigger rack with a platform, competition bumper plates, Omegawave Team, GymAware, Globus, FreeLap timing, Oly bar, kBox3, and more. At the same time, I got rid of enough things to make the garage feel more open and a bit nicer. This process allowed me to provide a service that very few could match.
While this updating continued, I did more networking and hired Landon Evans to coach my brother and me to compete in powerlifting. I joke about “networking” because I had nothing to offer Landon for his time other than money. As with Steve, working with Landon opened up a relationship that has benefited me tenfold. I bugged him endlessly about his programming, what he was reading, what seminars he was going to, what websites to read, equipment he liked and how he used it. I still bug him. I can’t emphasize enough hiring people you respect if you can so you can pick their brains—it beats out every seminar I have ever attended.
Taking advantage of good fortune
To recap, I was fortunate to have met Steve, and I took advantage of the situation and bought his time to learn and form a relationship. That led to the start of my business. Steve was just the first of numerous instances of good fortune.
- I was fortunate that my parents let me start in their house as it was low overhead (read: zero at the start) and allowed me to charge low prices to get rolling.
- I was fortunate to have a great client at the beginning who referred more clients, and some talented athletes were within those referrals, and I took advantage and worked hard to provide good coaching that made them better and spurred, even more, referrals.
- I was fortunate to be in an affluent area where people could afford private coaching, and I took advantage and treated intelligent, wealthy people so well that they enjoyed coming in and I was always timely and professional.
- I was fortunate that Landon took us on as clients, and again I took advantage and learned everything I could and helped him in any way I could so our relationship was mutually beneficial and led to significant growth for me.
- I was fortunate to work with young athletes who went on to great things. Right now I have guys playing lacrosse at Duke, Navy, Air Force, Middlebury, Drexel, Whittier, Boston, and Bryant. I have had guys at UCSB and SDSU club lacrosse. Two guys in England play English Premier Academy soccer at FC Fulham and Nottingham Forest, and a third with the LA Galaxy Academy. Then there was the one who was cut from his lacrosse team and played sparingly for his high school football team. He walked on at TCU—one of the country’s top NCAA football teams. He was named Scout Player of the Year, and earned a starting spot on special teams.
None of this is to brag, but guys like this are one reason I have done well in my business. The fact that they excelled generated more client referrals. I can say they were (and still are) my most valuable marketing assets. Their hard work and talent have grown my business for me, and I couldn’t appreciate that more. It allows me to maintain my focus on my job—which is to help people improve and stay healthy—rather than generating referrals via website optimization. For that I am thankful.
With all of this being said, here are ten principles I have focused on throughout the years. They have served me very well. I recommend them to you.
Be a Better Coach
This is one thing I can never get away from—even if you suck at business but still get positive results, you will probably be okay. This won’t assure you a financial fortune, but it should be the foundation of everything to follow.
I’ll never forget my first business seminar. I was just 22, sitting in the room nodding along and learning a lot of great information I still use today, then going to lunch with a group of attendees to talk shop. The first thing I wrote in my notes after lunch was “get better at coaching because you suck right now.” I underlined it and still have it today. The group of coaches was all much older (I’d say the average age was about 40) and more experienced, so it was a real eye-opener that the business side they were just learning came after years of experience in the trenches getting better as coaches. In my previous articles, I make the point that you can’t buy your way into being better. You need to sit down and work at it over a long period. The take-home is that if you are a great knockdown coach, business will be better, and people will find you.
Be a Decent Human Being
If you are going to charge people to spend time working with you (and hopefully learning), be a decent person. Don’t be condescending, egotistical, or belittling with less-than-gifted clients. Everyone starts somewhere. Either make their time enjoyable or decline to take them on. If you aren’t ready and willing to work with a middle-aged, less-than-motivated, fat-loss client, don’t do it. If you want to be in the world of performance, you need to be honest with clients, and yourself. Learn how to help, motivate, and encourage those who obviously need it. If you take on clients who get less than your best, they can potentially give you a bad reputation that can affect your ability to work with your ideal clients. Bottom line: Treat everyone like they matter. They do.
This is something I am just learning and paying attention to a lot more with private sector coaches I respect. They tend to have a strong recurring message with what they write and say. For example, I like Mark McLaughlin and Carl Valle. They both are well-educated and have a platform to speak from (NOTE: The following is my personal take on their messages). When I read Mark’s stuff, I typically expect something along the lines of monitoring what you can take action on, taking a long-term approach to development, examining the shambles of youth development—to which he will offer examples and fixes.
Carl seems to know the technology world better than most. My take-home from him typically boils down to
- Show me the data/proof before you hype some training method/technology
- Don’t get lost in the 1% when people are messing up the 90%
- Use technology to provide objective feedback (but don’t get lost in the hype).
While they aren’t limited to these topics, they do come up often, and both of them frequently answer questions on these topics. Essentially they are filling our coaching gaps with specialized knowledge. My point is that if you make a particular topic your area of expertise, you become sought out. Rather than you looking for work, work may start looking for you. But this will take serious effort.
I have failed in this respect by choosing to help everyone from 12-year-olds to 65-year-olds. So my mission now is to zone in on a topic and become better than anyone else. That is a little tongue-in-cheek, but hopefully you get my point. To drive it home, let’s list a few more coaches and play word association:
- Louie Simmons – Powerlifting/westside
- Mike Tuchscherer – Powerlifting/autoregulation
- Bryan Mann – VBT
- Eric Cressey – Baseball/arm care
I could continue, but the point is that most visibly successful coaches have an area of expertise, and branch out from there because people have learned to trust them.
A Budget and setup
If you plan on opening an actual brick and mortar facility, you need to figure out your setup, potential client population, training system, and expenses. This is an interesting topic with more and more people doing work online and more technology coming out every day. I recently visited Scot Morrison, a great PT in the Portland, Oregon area. We discussed what we would do if we opened up today. We came to the same conclusion: having simple equipment with better technology to monitor the process. If you have a healthy athlete, a barbell, bumper plates, squat stands, bench, med ball, and boxes, you are probably good to go, so starting a small facility doesn’t have to be a huge financial burden equipment-wise. The interesting stuff now (depending on who you work with) is new technology like Omegawave, Ithlete, GymAware, Freelap timing, sleep trackers, InsideTracker, TMG, Myoton, 3D motion capture, and more. The list goes on and on, and you could easily spend a fortune.
The questions become who are you working with, how will you use the technology, can you afford it (knowing better stuff is on the way and for a lot cheaper), and will it improve what you are doing or the results you are getting? It is far too easy to play “keeping up with the Joneses” when the Joneses may suck, not use the stuff they buy, be in serious debt, have pockets far deeper than yours, or maybe even get things for free (if they are attached to the company in some way or testing the product). Again, buying things won’t make you better, so be sure you can justify your purchases and that they fit your business and budget. Don’t climb into crazy debt just to get cool stuff. Start basic and grow slow as the technology available now may be obsolete in five years, whereas a barbell and knowledge last forever.
New marketing/public relations
My brother-in-law recommended a great book by Fraser P. Seitel and John Doorley called Rethinking Reputation: How PR Trumps Marketing and Advertising in the New Media World. I’m also reading CEO Strength Coach by Ron McKeefery. It’s great though Ron’s journey and my own are VASTLY different. Rethinking Reputation instills the idea of new media and public relations being cheap ways to spread the word about yourself or better yet have other people speaking positively about you. For us individual business owners/operators who can’t afford marketing campaigns, things like social media are wildly important. You’d be amazed at the amount of business driven through my garage based on athletes I have tagged squatting on Facebook. It can spread like wildfire since it shows up on their pages, leads to questions, and I get a phone call.
But in all honesty, I went to a couple of high schools to talk a while back. Other than that my entire business has been word of mouth. If I go out and tell you I’m good, you may scoff. If one of your friends tells you I’m good, you tend to believe it. This brings us back to being good at what you do and being a decent human. Otherwise, those leads disappear very fast and turn into people badmouthing you, which can kill business. So use social media to your advantage—not to brag to other coaches, but to complement existing clients and potentially drive their social world to ask about what you do as a coach. Remember, you want happy clients talking about you to their friends. I’ve found it to be the best way to build trust in new clients.
What is important to you? How do you define success?
Another story from the business seminar I attended years ago was the realization of what “owning a gym” actually entailed. There are a ton of new responsibilities, headaches, and expenses that come with the opening of a true facility. I wanted to coach more than own a gym. You need to decide for yourself what “success” is. Do you want to coach elite athletes? Make a mid-six- figure income? Be known nationally as a speaker and expert in a topic? Or some combination of those? Because I define success as being a great coach, having financial security but maybe not the biggest income, freedom to study and spend time with family, and the ability to work from home doesn’t make that definition right for you.
I find it important to have a purpose behind your work. Otherwise, you end up floating around and frustrated because things aren’t what you expected even though you never defined those expectations in the first place. To go back to the seminar, I learned several things:
- I want to be in the trenches
- I like learning more about training and performance
- I want to hold conversations with great coaches
- I want my clients to get better results with me than anywhere else
Sometimes I think I’m driven by the fear of not being a very good coach, so I end up investing more time to learn more. But I don’t get that same feeling from being a “business owner” (however, you can’t neglect this, as you’ll see in #10). I don’t get excited about thinking of marketing strategies, insurance payments, expansion, or hiring new people. To be quite honest that sounds awful TO ME but it may sound good to you, so figure that out. This process of figuring out what is important to you will help dictate decisions moving through your career and may change with time (it most likely will) but don’t put it off.
Be a professional
This piggybacks with point #2 of Being a Decent Human Being in that you need to treat people in a professional manner whenever money is being exchanged. This is a bigger deal than you would think. If you stay small and private as I have, you begin to forge relationships to the point that your “clients” become more like friends. This never gives you the right to show up late, eat on the job, dress inappropriately, or use language that would bother your grandma. If someone is paying you for a service, always deliver that service in a professional manner. I have often paid for coaching and PT. The one thing that immediately pisses me off is someone walking around eating, not taking notes, not testing/retesting, or anything else along those lines. So show up early, dress appropriately, eat during your breaks, and be present because clients notice these things and it goes a long ways toward keeping them satisfied—and coming back.
Pedal to the metal! Always!
This is one of the most painful lessons I have learned. It is FAR too easy to take your foot off the gas when things are going well. You’re busy, people are happy, checks are coming in, and you get comfortable. The problem with getting comfortable is that kids have a season for their sport, adults go on vacation, school gets busy, people move, athletes graduate and move away, etc. So don’t stop trying to spread the word. There were times I told kids not to tell anyone about me because I was “too busy,” only to have lacrosse season hit and my schedule get cut in half. Now guys are off in college, referrals slow down, business is tougher, and I have to go back out to talk to coaches at the high schools to offer my thoughts and try a drive a new crop of athletes through my doors.
If I had just continued pushing the word out, I wouldn’t have to be out talking again. I’d be in the garage doing what I love. If you’re not growing, or people don’t hear about you, at some point business will slow down. If you get so busy you can’t handle it, keep pushing and raise your fees, offer different options like online coaching, or start doing large group conditioning work to continue to stay in touch with the newer, younger athletes to prevent all your athletes from picking up and graduating at the same time.
Open doors and don’t burn bridges
If I were to go back to my college self, I’d try to convince myself to go further in school and get a Masters, Ph.D., or DPT degree. That would result in more opportunities beyond training people in a gym. Higher education opens the door to teaching at the university level or gaining specific knowledge in a field where you can possibly consult/work for a tech company like Omegawave or Catapult. The DPT route allows you to accept insurance, teach, or have a salaried job higher than a personal trainer. Typically potential clients trust you more.
Do you need higher education? Absolutely not. We can all point to a ton of examples of successful people with just an undergrad degree. On the whole, however, higher education opens more doors. Then it’s up to you to take advantage and monetize the opportunity.
When I say don’t burn bridges, I mean that every relationship you build is a source of potential referrals and further business. If you have problems with someone, try to end on good terms even if that means swallowing your pride a little. In the long run, it will typically be in your best interest to have happy clients, past or current.
Once you decide to be a private coach, you become a businessperson
One thing I hear all the time is “I don’t want to worry about the business side, I just want to coach.” There is nothing wrong with that; just don’t go into business for yourself unless you are already established, have a following, and are a great coach. If you plan on starting out fresh with no real experience, you better learn how to network, sell, market, and “do business,” otherwise you will get crushed. There are tons of examples of great coaches failing and awful coaches thriving in our industry (as well as others). Typically it comes down to smart business decisions, a good demeanor or personality, and the ability to sell without sounding like a salesman.
Think of it this way: If you are good at what you do, and you want to help people, it’s only right to sell so people don’t end up getting hurt down the street at some abomination of a program. I think it’s a good gut check to ask yourself that if you truly are as good as you think, why aren’t people knocking on your door? I ask myself that sometimes and it usually comes down to the fact that I haven’t done a good enough job keeping the pedal down and reaching out to more people. Business isn’t easy, and none of your competitors are out to help you. At some point you have to put the stubbornness aside and be a business person, or find a job as a coach and work as an employee.
When all is said and done, being a private coach is far more than writing a good program. As important as being a great coach is, it is more important upfront to be a fantastic salesperson and a genuinely nice person. When I say “salesperson,” I mean a combination of communicator, educator, and actual seller. It is important in our field—rife with utter bullshit spewed out of every media outlet, infomercial, supplement ad, TV show, and layperson—that we know how to communicate concrete science efficiently and effectively so that we can foster trust in our abilities.
To tell someone that carbs aren’t the devil, sleep is important, heavy weights won’t make you bulky and slow, or whatever other misinformation you come across in the world of exercise is a matter of educating. The word “selling” refers to the delivery, not the material. You are educating in a non-threatening, easy-to-understand—maybe even humorous—way. Building trust with strangers can be rather difficult so don’t lecture and call people names. Most likely the “idiots on TV” already have the person’s trust so calling them names won’t help.
Last, this business isn’t as unique as we like to think and make it out to be. Like any business or industry, some people suck, some are okay, and others excel. If you truly want to excel as a coach and business owner, it takes time and effort. It’s not always rainbows and unicorns, and even your ideal clients will drive you nuts at times. My recommendation is to become a flat-out knockdown coach, be willing to take a calculated risk on yourself, and don’t feel like guys like me have everything figured out because I’m writing an article. I make mistakes and get frustrated with myself constantly and question whether or not I should continue working on my own, so we are all human.
*A final note. Before I completed this article, my wife and I moved to Northern California and left my business to my brother in San Diego. We have had serious talks about what I’m going to do now. Is it worth the risk to build a new gym and business here? Should I go back to school? Maybe even a complete change of business? At the end of the day, I don’t think there is anything else I’d rather do; however, that choice does not come easy. I question the risk versus passion. Just because I love the field and really can’t see doing anything else with as much drive, the risk can be so high working alone that sometimes plain old security sounds like a fairytale dream. All in all, after 7+ years of working alone in a field I love, I don’t think there is anything else I could do. I have knots in my stomach but look forward to what comes next.
Please share so others may benefit.