Starting Strength Gyms – The Plan for 2020

by Ray Gillenwater, SSC | January 07, 2020

coaching an older man in the deadlift

2019 was an incredible year for Starting Strength Gyms. Rip, Stef, Nick, the franchise team, and I put in a significant amount of work to bring this idea to life. We spent half of 2018 and the first few months of 2019 designing every aspect of the business model, the gym aesthetic, the equipment, the furniture, the software, and the gym operations. In April 2019, the first franchise gym opened: Starting Strength Austin. Starting Strength Dallas followed in July, Houston in August, and Denver in January, 2020. 

We spent 2019 testing our hypotheses about the gym model, namely: Is owning a Starting Strength Gym compelling enough (emotionally and financially) to motivate entrepreneurs to risk their time and money to open a gym? Is the Head Coach position enticing enough for a Starting Strength Coach to quit their day job? Is getting coaching in a facility designed for Starting Strength valuable enough for trainees to spend over $300/month? Do the gyms perform well enough financially to incentivize franchise owners to open multiple locations? Do we have the patience to deal with the Federal Trade Commission, state regulators, landlords, and city governments? 

Yes, yes, yes, and yes, but just barely. We now have seven franchise owners that are growing the Starting Strength brand in their local markets – a talented group of people that includes a surgeon, an engineer, a real estate investor, two Seminar Staff Coaches, an IT systems expert, an investment banker, and a serial entrepreneur. Skills and accomplishments aside, the franchise owners we’ve selected are admirable people: hard-working, bright, a pleasure to work with, and passionate about bringing Starting Strength to the general public. 

The coaching situation has been pleasantly surprising, too. Most gyms have had at least one Starting Strength Coach relocate to fill their Head Coach position – reinforcing how desirable these jobs are. We’ve been able to create a coaching role in the fitness industry that more closely resembles the pay and authority of a professional engineer as opposed to a hot-yoga instructor. Starting Strength Coaches now have the ability to work full-time in a business that recognizes the value that they bring, with commensurate pay. 

Most importantly, the market’s response to our service offering has been strong and consistent. Each gym has been adding around three members per week at either $315 or $365 per month, depending on the city (I wrote an article about this The First Three Starting Strength Gyms – An Analysis if you’re interested in the details). Membership growth has been strong enough to prompt Austin, Dallas, and Houston to start planning their second locations, with Dallas and Houston already hunting for real estate. Denver just opened, and the pre-sale was strong enough to encourage the owner, Jay, to start evaluating locations for gym number two as well. 

Austin, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago have been spoken for. Eleven gyms have been committed to, four are open, and at least seven more are planned for 2020 – provided the real estate and regulatory gods cooperate – with more city announcements coming soon. 

Now that the early startup days are out of the way, it’s time to have some fun. Ever since Rip and I signed on the dotted line to get this venture started, the question at the back of my mind has been: how in the hell do we communicate the value of Starting Strength to the general public? This question was much less important than the “are there enough Starting Strength trainees in each major city to justify opening a gym” question – but now that we’ve proven that indeed there are, it’s time to see if we can appeal to a new audience: those that are unaware of Starting Strength. 

This is a serious marketing/communications challenge. The general public isn’t aware that a tall skinny guy can gain 80+lbs (like I did) and not “get fat,” for example. They’re also unaware that lifting heavy weights is not only good for you, but for most people it’s the best use of time in the gym. What the general public does understand are things like weight-loss, cardio, machines, dumbbells, HIIT classes, and yoga. Squatting 300 pounds isn't a goal that the average fitness enthusiast is striving for, much less one they believe is possible or advisable. 

The question: What value can we communicate that would prompt the average fitness enthusiast to invest a few hundred dollars per month for strength coaching? Here’s what we had in mind:

gain ten pounds at a starting strength gym

I don’t have the data on this, but you and I both know that the majority of male gym-goers (and an increasing number of women) want to build muscle. The reality is that there isn’t a national gym chain in existence (other than us) that can help them accomplish this, much less guarantee the outcome. Which is why our message should cut through the clutter: Gain ten pounds of lean mass in ten weeks, guaranteed. A compelling outcome that can be achieved in a short amount of time, with no financial risk. We have the offer, the fulfillment mechanism, and the creative. And to run the campaign, we’ve brought on the gal that grew The Dollar Beard Club (yes “beard,” not “shave”) from market entrant to market dominance to help us with audience targeting and ad placement. – quite the contrarian message to separate us from the rest of the industry. 

Also coming in 2020: We have officially launched the small-format gym model (4-6 platforms) that is suited for markets that are too small for a 7+ platform gym, or for Area Developers that want to fill in lower density areas of their markets. These gyms will have a start-up cost as low as $89k which includes the build-out, rent deposit, first three months of operating expenses, and the franchise fee. Our first small format gym should be open in the Summer of 2020. 

As the message has spread about Starting Strength entering the gym business, we’ve been approached with several interesting opportunities. A filmmaker that you may know of wants to do a documentary on Rip and Starting Strength. A national gym brand that you are certainly aware of is interested in having Starting Strength Gyms inside their facilities – a gym within a gym? We've even had a casual eight-figure acquisition inquiry. We have zero interest in selling the company, because this project is about more than money to us, but we are encouraged to see that the rest of the industry has noticed our potential. 

Lastly, we will continue to publish quarterly case studies from each of the gyms. The results that we produce for our trainees are so drastic that they sound like bullshit. But what’s better than making claims? Demonstrating results. We’ve shown in previous case studies how reliably we can make people stronger – whether it’s a man in his 30s or a woman in her 60s. Next up is showing how we can change people’s lives – by reducing or eliminating their back pain or by reversing bone-mineral density loss, for example. Or by showing what happens to a pro golfer’s driving distance when he gets his deadlift to 405 lbs or how a BJJ player’s game changes when he gets his squat to 365 lbs. 

2019 was about proving that there is an unmet need for in-person Starting Strength coaching in major cities across the country. 2020 is going to be about growth: for trainees that lift with us, for gym owners that have invested in us, and in new markets that we are expanding in and to. Special thanks to Rip, Stef, Nick, Jen, Ben, and David for bringing this idea to life – it would be impossible to find a more qualified group of people to help make this vision a reality. Thanks to the Founders’ Club franchise owners and their first group of Head Coaches for believing in this concept. And extra special thanks to the trainees that have trusted us with their health and fitness – you are the reason why we are in business. Here’s to another exceptional year.

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