The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association is the fitness industry's only global trade association representing over 10,000 for profit health and fitness facilities and over 600 supplier companies in 75 countries.



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How to Survive Fitness ‘Start-up Hell’

This is an IHRSA featured post, brought to you by Jacobs Ladder.

Entrepreneurs are risk-takers by nature, but taking chances doesn’t mean winging it. When you launch a start-up business, you need a plan. You need to know what you’re getting into.

This is especially crucial in the health club industry. One of IHRSA’s core missions is providing resources to help new club owners get a foothold when opening a new facility, whether it’s an independent club or a franchise. Those first few years are make or break. You have to get it right. 

Of your early decisions, the most important are:  

  • Choosing a solid business plan. According to Barry Klein, owner of Elevations Health Club, while there are differences in operating an independent gym and a franchise club, each has similar demands in hard work, industry knowledge, and business acumen. “You are opening a business that happens to be a health club, not just a health club business,” he said.
  • Location, location, location. “This is the most important decision you’ll make; get it wrong, and you can’t recover,” said John Atwood, managing partner of Atwood Consulting Group. The key is to have the right concept in the right market. Do your research.
  • Your funding options. “The main sources are debt financing from conventional lenders, private investors, landlords and equipment suppliers, and private equity funds,” said John McCarthy, former executive director of IHRSA and writer of IHRSA’s Health Club Business Handbook. He cautions that whatever you go with, it’s important to know what ROI demands and debt terms are required of you.

That’s a good foundation for understanding the ground rules for a start-up. But what about the unwritten rules?

Surviving the 'Five Years of Hell'

Launching a business isn’t just about the nuts-and-bolts of achieving a healthy bottom line, it’s learning to manage the stress of the first few years.

“I have never met anyone who got through a business start-up unscathed,” says Bob Palka, owner of Jacobs Ladder LLC. “It’s not the work. It’s not the hours. It’s not the challenges or the problems. It’s the stress.”

Palka had frequently heard the line about start-ups, “The first five years are hell,” and was determined to avoid entrepreneurial meltdown. He survived, then flourished, but it wasn’t without its struggles.

To help others beginning their journey, Palka developed a few business start-up commandments to get through the early years. Here are some of them. 

  • Triple your initial estimates. “No first time entrepreneur ever budgets enough money to market their product or service,” he says. “Take whatever you think you will need and triple it.”
  • Invest in marketing. “Conserve on everything but marketing. Spend as much on marketing as you possible can, but don’t blow it all at once. It will take time before customers realize what and who you are.” 
  • Focus on the customer. “Customers will pay a premium for good customer service,” he says. “Even when cash is tight and stress is high, you have to find a way to take care of the customer better than any one of your competitors.”
  • Be good to your employees. “Your employees create value for your customers. I threw pizza parties for every 100 units that we shipped and brought donuts on random days. Think up different ways to make your employees enjoy coming to work.”
  • Create alliances in your industry even if they are your competitors. “You will find out things that you never knew,” says Palka. 

Finally, find a way to manage stress. “Do what you need to do to get sleep and keep your health,” says Palka. “I chose exercise, and I still lost sleep for over 18 months.”

The Rewards Are Worth It

Palka knows about bringing value to customers. In 2004, he bought Jacobs Ladder LLC after finding out that the low-impact treadmill climber with ladder-type rungs was no longer being manufactured. A former All-American athlete at Penn State, Palka had used a Jacobs Ladder to help him rehabilitate two herniated discs, and he realized the commercial potential of the non-motorized continuous treadmill.

“I knew we had a product that the world needed,” he says.

He and his team made improvements in design and function, and now Jacobs Ladder and the new Jacobs Ladder 2 machines are part of numerous universities and other institutions, including pro football teams, Army, Navy, and West Pointe facilities, and even the FBI.

“As I started up my business, I kept telling myself, ‘Every day that I am alive as a business, I grow stronger,’” Palka says.

It’s a concept that mirrors what users of Jacobs Ladder machines experience when using this novel and effective equipment for peak aerobic conditioning. 

To learn more about the line of Jacobs Ladder and Jacobs Ladder 2 machines, visit the company’s website, call them at 1-866-697-4100, or send an email.