Mike: Today we’re going to be talking about what it’s like to own a gym. Matt you already mentioned having the doors open at your place, it sounds like SSPT is a no-AC kind of place.
Matt: We joke that we provide a free sauna in july and august. It can be hot but we find that most people like to be warm while they train. We try to keep the door open when people train. It lets the sunshine in and gives people the opportunity to walk in and out. Since we are only 2000 square feet, it makes the gym feel bigger.
Mike: Both of you own gyms. Matt you own SSPT, and Paulie you own South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club. Matt when did you start SSPT?
Matt: We opened our doors in January 2009, so we’ve been in business for around 6 years now. The idea was born prior to that and it took us almost an entire calendar year to
Mike: Paulie what about you, when did SBWC become a real thing.
Paulie: Becca and I had a screen-printing business and it started out of my own personal need to find a place where I could train the way I wanted to train. It’s very similar to SSPT in that we’re only about 3000 square feet. It’s kind of funny, we keep the garage doors open and in the winter, we’ve had the problem of people learning how to actually get in the gym when it gets cold out.
Mike: So it kind of evolved from your need to find space to train. Matt do you have a similar story?
Matt: Souix-z and I were training out of another facility and the owner allowed us to commandeer a corner of the gym where we did train. We started growing out of that space and we desparately wanted to start doing our own thing. We thought, we can do this better on our own and we can set our own expectations with our equipment and just do it our way. Out of that corner we wanted to expand a little bit.
Mike: Although we’ve been saying gyms, they aren’t really gyms in the traditional sense, but rather they are more like barbell clubs.
Paulie: Yes absolutely. We have to take time to differentiate by saying that we’re more of a training facility participating in two primary sports: Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting. It’s worked for us to be able to explain in that way. People generally understand.
Matt: I agree with Paulie completely here. I use the analogy that there are 9 other fitness facilities and we really aren’t competing with them because we are the only niche market game in town for what we do. People are completely polarized one way or another. We are exclusive with what we offer and what we don’t offer. People are attracted by our attention to detail, coaching, and equipment. And that either exactly what they want or they are completely blown out of the water and they want the sauna and the juice bar and that’s not what we are about, so we send them on their merry way down the road.
Mike: I think that is a really good point and important for any business is to have a good idea who your clientele really are. If you are in a spot where you can’t appreciate that we have Eleiko plates and you want to play squash then this just isn’t for you.
Paulie: It’s much easier for us as well. We’ve clearly defined ourselves for what we are and what we are not. We’re surrounded by CrossFit gyms and rock climbing gyms, an archery center, a fencing center, two chain gyms in addition to all the gyms in this area. We really don’t work really hard to sell people on joining this place. People do their homework and if they want a place to powerlift and to get strong then this is a great option for them.
Mike: I think that’s really cool. You mention that there are two chain gyms opening. You don’t seem to be concerned about it. That has to do with how you differentiated your product. It’s something that you aren’t going to get at a 24 Hour Fitness. Any gym owner isn’t going to be concerned if a Burger King opens down the street, it’s not even the same thing. And I think you are getting that same feeling.
Paulie: Absolutely. As a gym owner we stick to our game and it gives us confidence as we’re going forward. Things have changed a lot in the last 5 and a-half years, and we’ve created our own voice. SBWC is its own organism unique to gyms.
Mike: When you first started was it that way or did you need to evolve?
Paulie: I think so. It’s kind of like sourdough. It doesn’t automatically come with the flavor. It takes time. We always end up talking about food here in Brooklyn. Anyways, it took time to develop the gym culture and time for that to proliferate. Our gym is growing up and as people move they are taking that culture with them out to the rest of the world.
Matt: I would say that SSBC also has a similar tenor. It’s taken some time for us to evolve. Our voice and the way that we do things has come around. Our focus was narrow and we hit the nail on the head and now we are living and breathing the way that we want to be. Both of our training facilities are Platinum status in USAPL and both are known nationally. Paulie and Becca do a great job with their members and they have an extended family that is around the country now.
Mike: Shifting gears a little bit. Seeing as you both have facilities, what sort of advice would you give to somebody who is just starting out?
Paulie: There’s a lot of advice, but it’s up to them if they want to listen. (laughs) My kneejerk answer is “Don’t do it”. And I say that because I want to temper people’s expectations because people automatically assume they’ll have all the time in the world to train and it’s going to be awesome. And for the first few months it is. But then you get tired and you realize that you have to make money and you have responsibility for people’s lives and make decisions about peoples lifting careers. And then you have to keep the lights on.
Mike: It’s like that coaching relationship. You can be friends and have that relationship but there is a bit of professionalism that goes with it.
Paulie: Absolutely, these are all people but we are face to face three to four times per week and you have to sometimes be tough with people because you are their coach and you have to be impartial at times. I have a reputation for being the grumpy one, but it’s the agenda of the lifter that drives it. I’ll look after everybody and push them toward their goals as much as they are able to be pushed.
Mike: Ok Matt, what’s your take on opening a gym.
Matt: Ditto to everything Paulie said. But three main pieces of advice. One, start small. Everybody has these delusions of grandeur but you have to pay the bills and keep the lights on and additional square footage means more cleaning and higher rent etc. If you open and you start out too big then you are going to be in trouble. Secondly, be almost singularly focused. Much like SBWC, SSPT focuses on powerlifting and weightlifting. We consider ourselves some of the best in those disciplines. You’ve got to realize that in the first 3-5 years you’re going to be losing money.
Mike: Did that come as a surprise?
Matt: I don’t want to say we were surprised. But we opened in 2009 when the economy was bad but we did our due diligence and had a solid business plan and we were able to retain 99.9% of our clients and we were able to make realistic projections. We came in with flawless credit and zero debt. We didn’t need a loan, but we took one anyway as a cushion and paid it off really quickly. That’s fine, we’re not saying you need to be like us, but you have to be ready to take a few steps back before you take a few steps forward.
Paulie: In addition to that, you cannot make decisions based on any emotions. Before you do anything you need to sit down and look at the numbers. Same with coaching. Do your homework, do your homework some more and make rational decisions going forward.
Mike: Was there anything surprising when you first opened?
Matt: We didn’t realize the hours would be as crazy as they were. For a long time we put in a ton of work for the first 6-8 months before we could find another employee to cover some shifts and perhaps close the gym in the evening for us.
Paulie: Just realizing you have responsibilities is pretty sobering. I’d say 95% of our sessions are run by Becca or me. We’re pretty much working 12-hour days. The surprise is being able to replicate our culture in other staff members. A lot of people that we’ve hired in the past, it seems like they want to start their own gym inside of our gym. There’s a lot more to it than just opening the doors and turning on the lights.
Mike: What is the training atmosphere like at peak hours for SSPT?
Matt: Our facility is different than SBWC, but we operate like pretty much any other gym. They can purchase a membership and train whenever they need. If they want one-on-one coaching it’s by appointment only. Depending on the day, during prime time for us is the late afternoon to early evening. If we happen to be on the floor training with the other members they are either training themselves or working with a training partner or one of our other five coaches. Our sessions aren’t done in groups, different from SBWC, but rather clusters that train together.
Mike: Paulie your sessions are more coached?
Paulie: It’s different from other gyms but not necessarily from SSPT. Just in the sense of the quality of the training that goes on. We are on the floor coaching all the time. Our evening sessions run from 4:30-9PM and peak is from 6-8 when people are getting off work. People that show up at the same time tend to become each other’s training partners. We’re always giving oversight and answering questions depending on what the training works out. We assign members to one another based on a few different variables (ability, height, experience) so that everybody can learn from each other. We don’t have music and we don’t have mirrors. I don’t allow people to wear baseball caps or headsets with music. If you come to our gym you want to be coached.
Mike: That’s a very specific coaching atmosphere that you’ve made and a lot of people appreciate that sort of mentality. That goes toward making a really sustainable atmosphere. Matt you guys have music but it’s nothing crazy.
Matt: Yeah it’s more of a background music type thing for the most part.
Mike: Both of your gyms have produced super high quality top shelf athletes and that leaves a ton of clues for sure.
Paulie: It’s definitely not for everybody and we’re happy with that. We’re not a huge gym and we wouldn’t be able to accommodate everybody. We want people who want to work and people who want to get strong.
Mike: That’s not just a gym owning thing. That’s a business thing. It’s about knowing your target audience. I’d rather have 1000 raving fans than 10000 who are just lukewarm. How can people get in touch with you guys.
Matt: We’ve got www.supremesportspt.com and we’re listed as a platinum level training center with USAPL. We’re on Facebook, etc.
Paulie: You can find us on the web at www.southbrooklynwc.com or just google us. We’re also a platinum regional training center. If people want to powerlift in our region, they’ll definitely find us.
Mike: Thanks a ton for your time.