Before we get started, let me begin by saying that I think the world of Emily Beers, she is an outstanding human being, athlete and writer.  It doesn’t mean we always agree.  Case in point, her recent article “5 Ways that CrossFit May Never Get Fixed” published in Breaking Muscle.

It’s amazing to me how two people can share the same experience and come away with profoundly different interpretations.  CrossFit’s Russ Greene has already written a very good response to Emily in but to my surprise both he and Emily neglect to comment on the two big elephants looming in Emily’s article: Number one, Emily, though a key part of the MadLab team is not an affiliate owner and two, MadLab’s main business, indeed, one of their reasons for attending the Whistler 10+ Year Affiliate conference, is offering business consulting systems and services to CrossFit gym owners.  Her article reads a bit differently when you are aware of these two facts.

Emily begins by expressing concern for CrossFit’s tarnished brand.  I tend to agree with Russ Greene on this point.  As an affiliate owner I felt most of Greg Glassman’s keynote was directed at addressing what HQ is doing to defend and strengthen the brand name.  As an owner, I left feeling many of my concerns had been adequately addressed, satisfied that Glassman was competently steering the ship in the right direction.  I’m not sure what else Emily was expecting.

Emily sounded surprised that affiliates didn’t use the nearly 2-hour question period to ask questions regarding the business challenges facing gym owners.  But as she explained herself, CrossFit has never offered this.  CrossFit is not a franchise.  The US $500-$1000 per year we 10+ year affiliates pay is to license the name, nothing more.  Franchises offer business systems, advertising and more and franchise fees range from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.  CrossFit has always been upfront about not offering this sort of support for affiliates.  This is why I didn’t affiliate in 2005 when I first fell in love with CrossFit, it didn’t make any business sense, I couldn’t figure out what I would be paying for.  It took a full 3 years for my passion to overwhelm my business sense.  By then there were already 500+ affiliates worldwide and the rates had doubled from US $500 to $1000 per year.

Emily cited 5 challenges CrossFit businesses face:

5.  Client Retention
This was actually addressed at the conference, albeit briefly.  Greene details it in his article too.  Retention challenges largely stem from chasing sport and intensity before developing good solid fundamentals.  As service providers, we’re all anxious to please prospective clients and speed and load are sexy and fun.  Fighting the temptation to give clients what they want, rather than what they need is a daily struggle especially when you know another affiliate down the street will happily give your clients what they’re asking for if you don’t.  That’s an experience we shared around our tables in Whistler, the learning that not everyone is your best customer.  Those who value your commitment to excellence will stay with you for the long term, those who don’t, you need to let go.  The sooner the better.  They were just going to break themselves anyway.  It’s difficult because in our hearts we want to help everyone.  But if you focus on those who really value quality instead of chasing the easy sale, your retention rate will soar.  We moved to our current neighbourhood on Vancouver’s West Side six year’s ago in 2013.  30% of our current membership has been with us 5 years or more.  50% have been with us for more than 4 years.  We’ve built out Empower brand so that we get referrals from local physio and chiropractic offices based on word-of-mouth (without even meeting or dealing with these rehab professionals) and even from other CrossFit gyms!

4. How Do We Compete Against Discount Fitness?
Many prospective clients ask about price first.  We operate in a small neighbourhood with 2 other younger CrossFit affiliates only a few short blocks away.  Both offer discounted student rates and unbelievable discounts like first month free which we do not even try to compete with.  In fact, we intentionally set our membership rates above theirs and let them have the bargain hunters while we chase the high value members.  You may be surprised to learn that a significant percentage of our members started CrossFit with our discount neighbours before changing to our gym.  All are grateful to pay more now that they can compare the difference in service quality.

3. Are We Really Professionals?
My partner and I are both full time CrossFit coaches.  We do not have any other jobs.  Are we getting rich?  No.  And we’re also not starving.  We both reside blocks away from our gym situated in one of this countries most expensive neighbourhoods.  We’re not driving expensive cars, we don’t own homes and we don’t take lavish vacations but, in 2018 we were able to expand into a much larger, nicer gym including a $30,000 equipment upgrade, so I’d say we’re doing okay.  We currently have a team of part time coaches and our biggest struggle is getting enough coaches to handle demand.  Our goal is to eventually add a third full time coach to help clear the bottleneck.  This didn’t happen overnight.  I learned the business the hard way and burned through a lot of money to do so.  I leveraged heavily to get into business and again to expand.  So far the gambles look like they will pay off.  I know affiliate owners like Freddy Camancho who have other careers because they love them, not because they have to.  And others who have other careers because they are afraid to take the risk to fully commit.  But no one I spoke to in Whistler was moonlighting elsewhere because their gym was struggling.

2. Overworked Coaches
I do work long hours.  Just like every entrepreneur.  As Shark Tank’s Lori Greiner observed: “Entrepreneurs are the only people willing to work 80 hours per week to avoid working 40 hours a week.”  Business is tough, that’s why most businesses – gyms or otherwise – don’t make it.  Many people open a business expecting it will just start earning them money but it just doesn’t work that way.  For the first 5-10 years you wake each morning like Sisyphus and start rolling that boulder up the hill again.  But look, one of my members who I have coached for nearly a decade owns a large and successful dental practice.  And his hours are just as long as mine.  And he’s a professional.  Another 5+ year member is an orthopedic surgeon and her hours are grueling!  When I see the bags under her eyes after a weekend on-call at the hospital, I am thankful for my 12-hour work day.  Sure, she has a vacation home and drives a nicer car than me but she invested 12+ years in post-secondary education and incurred the student debt concomitant with that.  Opening a CrossFit gym does not entitle you to the status of professional nor the lifestyle or income of a professional.  These are things you work for.  My 10+ years of affiliation and gym ownership is my post-graduate work and my business loans are my student debt.  A few years more and I’ll begin to reap the reward for my investments of time, money and labour and when I do, it will be earned.  And to me, this is what our Whistler weekend was about.  It wasn’t an awkward vow-renewal.  Rather it was acknowledgement of we few who have made it this far.  We have worked hard and succeeded by luck, skill, grit or wiles, where many others haven’t.  This was CrossFit HQ saying “You earned this weekend.”  It brought tears to my eyes.  I felt humbled and grateful for the recognition.  And proud too as I sat across the table from others just like me who had overcome all the same challenges.  In their eyes was acknowledgement and respect and understanding – dear God, someone else in the world who understands exactly what I’ve had to overcome to be sitting here today.  Oh, Em, if only you could know that feeling.  You and I walked into MadLab long after Craig Patterson had built it into a thriving business.  But only in building my own can I truly appreciate what he has accomplished!

1. What Can We Do for You?
Really?  CrossFit HQ spent in excess of $1500 per person ($3000 or more for my wife and I) to treat us to this wonderful weekend and you want to ask what they are going to do for us?  Keep in mind, my affiliate fees are $1000 per year so my wife and I enjoyed a weekend that required roughly 3 years of my dues to cover.  I assure you that no one I hung out with – and we mixed with a lot of affiliate owners from around the world while Emily and crew chose not to join in the team events Saturday or Sunday – and no one was asking what more CrossFit could do for us.  We were humbled and grateful.  Emily and the MadLab team did attend the parties (and yes, CrossFit threw a great party) but they did not participate with other affiliate owners during the Lost Lake event or Sunday’s scavenger hunt during which the real connections were made, friendships formed and contacts exchanged.  What has CrossFit done for me?  It has given me the inspiration to pursue my dream!  And I had the opportunity once again to thank Glassman himself for this incredible gift.

One other weekend highlight: I got to thank Craig “Patty” Patterson for providing me the tools to make that dream a reality.  Because, as Emily accurately, observed, CrossFit HQ has never offered, and never will offer support in how to run a successful CrossFit business.  The business model ain’t broke, it doesn’t exist.  That’s why businesses like MadLab and Two-Brain Business service our industry.  They offer guidance to CrossFit owners who may not have the business skills to make a go of it.  Indeed, I learned all the tools I needed to thrive and survive during my 3-year apprenticeship at CrossFit Vancouver (now MadLab).  It is an investment I wish more affiliate owners and prospective CrossFit coaches would make.  I receive resumes aplenty from inexperienced CrossFit Coaches who want to be paid to coach but none from coaches who want to learn how to coach.

I fear many new CrossFit owners look at the success of affiliates that have survived 10+ years and mistakenly believe it is easy.  When they’re confronted with the realities of business ownership, they panic.  Nothing worth doing in life is easy and quick success is either dumb luck or a tall tale.  If you’re starting out, invest in yourself, get mentoring with an expert in the field.  Because Emily is correct that just affiliating does not make you a fitness professional!