Starting a Successful Affiliate Gym: An Interview with the Morton Family

Starting a Successful Affiliate Gym

Maria and Phil Morton, owners of CrossFit 1864 in London, exemplify what it takes to start and operate a successful affiliate gym. Maria is a registered CrossFit® Level 1 and Level 2 Trainer, and she has her Level 1 Award in Coaching Weightlifting from the British Weightlifting Association. She has also attended the CrossFit® Mobility, CrossFit® Gymnastics, CrossFit® Endurance Running and BirthFit Coaches seminars. Phil, a Customer Advocate at Zen Planner, is a Level 1 and Level 2 CrossFit® Coach. Phil started coaching in 2010 and holds a BSc in Human Biology and a Diploma in Sports and Remedial Massage Therapy.

How do you run a successful affiliate gym? We asked Maria and Phil, two box owners who are doing it from over 4,000 miles away.

Why did you guys decide to start a business, specifically an affiliate gym?

Maria: “We had always thought about starting our own business, but we never thought we would have the opportunity. As it sometimes goes with life, a series of unfortunate events dropped the incredible opportunity in our lap to open our own box. We both wanted similar things from a box, things that we remembered from when we first started training, so we decided to open our own gym to re-create those same vibes.”

What was the most difficult part of launching a business?

Maria: “The hours! When we started CrossFit 1864, we had very little capital and only two members of staff (me and Phil!). We had to put in a lot of time, not just coaching the classes, but managing all of the other unseen aspects of running a gym like marketing, facilities and member relations. As we grew the gym, we focused on creating a great team of coaches that we could rely on to lead the classes to our high standards. We also embraced the idea of outsourcing, which so many box owners hesitate to do. If you don’t enjoy it or feel like you’re only getting it done to an average standard, give it to someone else who is better at it or will enjoy it more! Either outsource it completely to an external professional (as we did with our bookkeeping), find a member who has it as a hobby (as we did with our t-shirt design) or get to know your part-time staff and see if they would like to add those responsibilities to create more of a full-time role (as we did with our facilities management and photography).”

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How did you approach lead generation prior to the gym opening?

Phil: “We leveraged our Facebook community a lot. Engagement on Facebook was really effective for us because we already had followers who were interested in the grand opening. Beyond Facebook and some Google Ads, most of our leads have been generated by word of mouth.”

Based on your experience owning an affiliate gym and talking to thousands of affiliate owners, what elements make up a thriving box?

Phil: “One of the biggest things is having documented systems. Every process at our gym is recorded with video explanations and flowcharts. The idea is that anyone could join our team and immediately run the gym using this guide. A thriving box will typically have these documented systems that establish clear expectations. Another common element of successful affiliate gyms is staff development and trust. Many gym owners don’t feel comfortable giving others responsibilities, and we actually struggled with this too. You have to be able to trust other people to do certain tasks. All of these elements seem to mold together, but another similarity I have seen among thriving affiliate gyms is a focus on developing new coaches internally. In other words, those members who are passionate about the community often make the best coaches and undoubtedly fit the culture. Our General Manager is one of the best parts about our gym, and it’s because he was already a passionate member of the community.”

You guys live pretty far from the box – has this been difficult for you?

Maria: “It hasn’t always been easy! There are the obvious logistical challenges that remotely running a box presents, but we have been fortunate to have a strong team of dedicated staff members at the box that run the gym exactly how we would run it if we were in the space every day. The most difficult part has been being away from our community. Some of our best friends are also our longest serving members and we miss working with them on a daily basis!”

When you guys were on site at the gym, was it difficult to manage your time as owners, coaches, and athletes?

Maria: “When you are the owner of a small business, there’s always something that needs doing, always emails coming in to be answered, always a blog that needs to be written, a screw that needs to be tightened – you could easily spend every waking moment working and still have things to do! But that’s not realistic for the long term. We try to structure our day in the same way that anyone working in a standard office job would do. We have set working hours (which include our coaching hours), and when that time is over, it is our free time. We can train, run errands, whatever we need to do, but no gym-related work! For example, if we taught the morning and lunch classes, our day would run from 6 am – 2 pm. We would train from 2-4 pm and then head home for family time. Don’t get me wrong, there are some days when this is easier said than done, and some weeks where the gym was just too busy and work had to take priority over training time (which is the case in any job), but this is what we aimed to do.”

Success leaves its tracks. Ready to learn more about how successful affiliate gyms run their businesses? Check out our Affiliate Gym Benchmark Report.

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