17 Lessons That Got Me Where I Am Today

by / ⠀Blog Entrepreneurship / February 25, 2015


A few years ago I was on track to become the CEO of what I envisioned would be a revolutionary company (some would argue it still is). A CEO before 30, how cool is that? It seemed like everything I’d done in my life to that point had led me to exactly the place I needed to be to make it happen. But it didn’t.

If you’d asked me 10 years ago how I predicted the next ten years would go, there’s not a chance in the world I could’ve come close to how they played out. Lessons learned, incredible experiences, becoming a “grown up”.  As 2015 begins and I’m staring down the barrel of the big 3-0, I thought I’d share some of those lessons and an experience or two. I’ve gotten a lot of help over the years from learning about others’ experiences, so I thought I’d give back. Here’s the story of my journey.

James, a former US Marine SGT who still had the same build and haircut as he did when he was serving, sat across his desk from me in the office of his 7,000 sq foot personal training and group fitness facility as I interviewed for the position of Cardio Kickboxing Instructor. I found myself there because I’d grown up in the martial arts world and went through a weight loss transformation in the months leading up to this interview. As a classroom teacher looking for something to do to stay busy in the evenings, I found an ad for this job on craigslist. I thought to myself “I can do that”. And so I did.

I grew up in a great martial arts school with very good business sense. I was cleaning the toilets and selling memberships before becoming a senior instructor. And for that I will always consider myself lucky. For everything leading up to where I am sitting here writing this today has added to the toolbox which allows me to consider myself a success.

1. Never forget where you came from…

and take as many lessons as you can from everything you can remember that “made” you. As a kid, then young adult and even just the version of me with less experience, I didn’t understand everything happening around me and I even disagreed with or spited the decisions some influencers made at times. Having a look at them again suddenly made a few more applicable now with a bit more experience. A lot of the time the best experience is learning what not to do.

So I got the job. Run a cardio kickboxing class three times a week. Got it.

I’d been teaching some killer kickboxing classes for around two months and along the way had noticed some processes within the gym that could use a bit of an efficiency lift. Some “rookie mistakes” if you will. Being careful not to step on anyone’s toes, I made a few suggestions here and there about how to possibly improve the closing of membership sales along with a few clever marketing tricks.

A month later, on my summer vacation from my day job, I asked James if he wouldn’t mind training me on the personal training side of things. I had nothing to do during the day and despised the idea of going back in the fall to the classroom I’d just left. I wondered if this training thing was for me. So I trained with James as he trained his clients every day for a month. I learned how to develop programs, assess goals, track progress and foundational knowledge on physiology and kinesiology. I didn’t return to teaching in the fall.

2. Don’t be afraid to spend some time trying new things.

I try to never let a “random” or a-ha! idea fizzle out before giving it a fair shot. Some of my best ideas have come from totally ridiculous and random thoughts that turned out to work pretty well and some of my biggest flops were ideas that I was so sure was going to blow up from too much awesome.

James had decided he’d like to retire from training clients on the floor to focus on making his business profitable. I’d never been involved in the administrative side of things at his gym but I later came to learn that he sunk so much into his startup costs that he couldn’t figure out how to get in the black. He made rookie mistakes from day one. He was a trainer who was good at training, but had little to no real business experience.

3. Don’t sink all the cash you own into startup costs.

My wife allowed me (1) set of dumbbells when we bought our gym, even though we could afford to outfit the place with anything I could want. But she was absolutely right in making sure that we didn’t blow the pot right out the gate because there have been times when the unexpected has happened and having the safety net may have saved us!  James could have used this bit of advice, which will become ever more apparent as we move along in our story.

He’d asked me if I wanted to inherit his clients which was pretty convenient. Right off the bat I had a handful of personal training clients to work with.

It wasn’t long before I grew into a role of operating manager of the facility and James and I were best friends. We’d reached a place where before he’d make any decisions, he’d ask me what I thought and vice-versa. We jived really well- who would’ve thought- a lesbian in her early 20’s and a former Marine who radiated life experience and patriotism. We quickly got to a point where I could go to him with my ideas for client retention, referral programs, marketing ideas and the like and we would come up with something cohesive and creative to launch almost immediately.

It was my marketing and business sense combined with his experience in the industry and exercise knowledge that lead to us being a power team. I learned from him and he from me.

4. Surround yourself with people who you can learn from regularly.

Bonus points if they can learn a thing or two from you. Ying and yang and lifting one another up and all that.

I liked the job. I enjoyed being active all day and helping individuals reach their goals. I always enjoyed teaching and getting feedback and results from the work I put into helping others. My favorite part was always having a great idea, putting it into practice and seeing it become a “thing”.

I wasn’t sure if I could live on the low income long-term, but I was smart enough to know that if the gym was thriving, I would thrive (and also pay my bills), too. I was the only trainer in the building selling memberships. I even convinced James to offer signing bonuses to trainers to help get them on board with selling. I was the only trainer of six who received bonus checks. That was fine. Keep the gym doors open- that was my goal. Not because I was the owner of this gym, but because I wanted to keep working there.

5. The best employees think like the business owner.

Knowing this and being able to claim it as your philosophy will land you 99.9% of the jobs you interview for. If you can actually adopt it as a way of thinking, it will make your time as an employee pretty smooth. Some days, yes it is hard to get fired up over what feels mundane, but I know at the end of the day that this is someone’s passion and something they are really great at- and I am here to support them in that.

We followed (and paid) the top consultants in the industry to listen to them talk about how to grow James’ business. One theme appeared over and over again- and that was the idea that one can only grow an income so high in a brick and mortar fitness facility. The idea is that in order to achieve independent wealth in the fitness industry, an informational product/program must be developed, marketed and spread like wildfire. They didn’t just tell us we wanted independent wealth, they used gimmicky anecdotes to help us convince OURSELVES we wanted independent wealth.

“I wrote down 57 different high-intensity ways to finish a boot camp workout and sold it at $19 to around 7500 people online and made $150,000 in three months! Now it keeps selling, I drive a Ferrari and work 3 hours every other day.”

Seems legit. Make something good. Get it out there.

Come up with a great idea that no one has come up with yet. Pick a moderate price point and sell sell sell.

“I can do that” I thought to myself. And so I did.

6. If you think you can do it, and think you’d enjoy it, try it!

This seems pretty obvious but I have to stop and remind myself to Just Do It ™ sometimes.

Well. We did. James and I. I had the tools to make it all happen- a background in graphics design (necessary to market your product, hundreds of dollars in savings if you don’t have to pay someone else to do this), video production skills, writing skills, super creative thinking, the ability to throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks, and the tenacity and drive to push whatever I came up with as far as it could realistically go. James had exercise knowledge- necessary to build the actual product.

I won’t go into specifics about how we came up with the general idea of what we would develop- I don’t want to give anything away or throw anyone under the bus. However, just know that we spent days and nights brainstorming and pulling from our prior knowledge and experience, just like it happens in the movies, something clicked and we had our idea. I toyed with names as if our brand was out there and I just had to keep playing with a cryptex to find it. And that’s exactly what happened. It clicked- and we had a brand. I designed our logo (still in use now) that very day.

7. Try a bunch of different things until something feels right…. aka don’t settle.

You’ll know when it’s right. Like really know. It took my wife and I four days of saying different combinations of the words “Huntington” “Beach” “Surf” “City” “Fitness” “Gym” and anything and everything in between until I was falling asleep one night and kicked Janelle to tell her that “Surf City Fit Club” just jolted me awake and that was going to be our business name. It has yet to feel like the wrong decision and in fact has been a huge asset in our marketability/community outreach.

At first we thought we’d developed an idea for a kick-ass, fun fitness program that we could sell to trainers who were looking to change things up a bit in their gyms- to help them bring new life to their programs and give them something unique to market. But as it started coming together I’d pointed out that we were actually developing the first and only out-of-the-box comprehensive client retention system for trainers and gyms. This shit was gold.

The system is comprehensive. That means it can apply to anyone, from any walk of life and any fitness level while completely minimizing the amount of work the trainer has to do to apply the system. I basically wrote a curriculum for every single gender, age bracket and fitness ability based on push-pull-hinge-squat-swing and conditioning concepts. And by “wrote” I mean I completely dedicated my body and brain every waking hour (and some days in my sleep) for 14 hours a day for over 4 months to develop this program and make sure every inch of it was water tight.

8. Passion is something that will sometimes keep you awake at night.

If you can turn it off and stop thinking about it, it’s just a hobby.

It helped that I was developing it in a literal lab. I had clients whose workouts I’d develop around the program (which later I used to market the program to trainers- “You don’t even have to develop programs anymore, it’s all here for you!”). I used clients as guinea pigs and they didn’t mind- they were getting their workouts in and I was getting my data. I learned things necessary to grow the program such as “What is a realistic box jump height to ask of a 65 year old woman?” “How many kettlebell snatches and at what weight can a 25 year old man complete in 10 minutes?” “What’s the best way to scaffold someone to a 70lb single leg deadlift?”.

When I wasn’t in the lab, I was in front of the computer generating graphics, products and price points. What would someone get at the basic introductory price? What upgrades could we offer? How do we get a trainer to pay a recurring and automated fee? I saw my wealth at the end of this tunnel and I was chasing it with everything I had in me. I developed lists of deliverables at every price point. The highest price point involved naming rights from the program to apply to one’s facility- an almost franchisee relationship. I created marketing materials which were customizable for each partner gym, a franchisee manual and every single piece of literature one could ever need in such a relationship. I made the relationships to launch some pilot programs around the country.

I was taking my dream of “take over the world and make a shit ton of money” and truly making it a reality. There was nothing in my way stopping me!

9. There is a fine line between passion and obsession.

Obsession is the one that screws with your mental/emotional/physical health. Because of the way I pushed myself during this time period physically, and autoimmune disease presented itself in the form of swollen lymph nodes throughout my body. It was a hard illness to work through and resulted in a year hiatus from the fitness industry to help my recovery. I am, however, skeptical of business owners who don’t average around 1-3 sleepovers in their business per year. That falls under “passion”. But don’t make it a regular thing.

James was involved in the development to an extent. I’d be thinking of adding an element to the program and ask him “How much weight do you think Mike could stationary lunge for 20 reps per side?” and he’d give me a starting point. I’d put the ideas together, James would consult using what he knew. I was clearly driving the project.

I went through a divorce in the middle of developing our program and moved into a carpeted loft in the gym. I was now living, breathing and sleeping this program. And conveniently for James, he now had a trainer at the gym 24/7. He knew everything was getting taken care of any minute he wasn’t there.

I trained clients from 430am to 7pm and developed our program during my breaks and after hours. James answered questions as they arose.

We made a verbal agreement to be 50/50 partners on this project. Please God if you do not take anything else from this story take this- get absolutely everything in writing. Signed. Notarized. Be excessive. Don’t be afraid to hurt your friends’ feelings. I can only pray that this helps a few readers NOT have to learn this lesson the hard way.

10. If you invest time and/or money in something professionally, get something in writing!

This one was so important I included it twice.

I knew I needed his “on paper” experience in the military and fitness world to make this legit. I knew his image had more of a wide reach than mine and we decided he’d be the face of the company. I take that back. He decided he’d be the face of the company. “Why don’t you stay on the B2B side and I’ll be out in front on the clients’ side? I’m just a little concerned that your image is too alternative for the mass amounts of people we are trying to reach here- but the fitness people, they’ll get you”.

11. If you own your own business and people think your image is “too alternative”- you probably don’t want to do business with them anyway.

Or, as Coach Steveo says, “worst case scenario, a bunch of assholes won’t like you.”

I went downtown and filed our DBA with both our names on it.

Part of development was creating a series of videos. I worked my ass off in orchestrating the production of the videos and directing them. James told me that I didn’t have a generic enough look to star in them myself and so we hired the trainers at our gym to be the talent. We paid them in cash- I contributed 50%, and James insisted that I give him the cash to pay the trainers with since in the gym I was “their equals, and they’ve been getting a little weird about a trainer being involved in business with me”. For some reason that seemed legit at the time. The trainers got paid, but none knew half of it was from me- the founder of the program.

12. Again, you can’t be afraid to step on anyone’s toes.

What you’re creating is intended to be your livelihood… you’re taking your hard earned money out of your own pocket and putting it into others’. Trust your gut and be sure to leave a paper trail.

After about six months of development, we were ready to launch. Both James and I each paid $1000 to Bedros Keulian, one of the top consultants in the commercial fitness and bootcamp industry to have him sit and listen to our pitch, learn about our product and give us some tips on how to make it solid enough to launch. Of course, the reason we paid the $1k was not because we thought our product needed brushing up on, but because we wanted to knock his socks off and have him support us by dropping our brand name once or twice in a Facebook post in the future.

13. It’s all about who you know.

Meet as many people as possible- all the time. Don’t pitch everyone you meet your product/business- just MEET them. Genuinely make as many friends as you possibly can. They will be generating products you can stand behind and that will help you grow as an individual and professional. If you can make something your network likes and stands behind, you’re about 1000% better off than if you were standing alone.  Some professionals are only as valuable as their network.

He came back after our Shark Tank-esque pitch and told us that he really didn’t have a lot to contribute– that our product was watertight and ready to launch sooner rather than later. That same day we met 5 other fitness professionals (who also paid $1k to be there and pitch their ideas) who were head over heels about our product- those professionals picked it up that day and became our nation-wide pilot program.

This next part happens pretty quickly- as it did in real time.

As word spread and our product was really beginning to make little waves nation-wide among trainers and gyms from almost every state, the gym I lived/worked in began to turn bottom-up. There was nothing else I myself could possibly do to turn the books around. Although James wasn’t exactly up front with me about his concerns in keeping the doors open, I could sense that something bad was about to happen. He became withdrawn and when I’d express my concerns casually and try to get an idea of what we were looking at exactly, he was completely unresponsive.

14. Be a transparent leader.

Keep your staff and anyone who works to help you toward your dream totally informed, 100% of the time. Bad or miscommunication can quickly escalate into fear, and fear can transform into resentment, bitterness and distrust.

I wrote him an email on a Thursday and asked him “Am I going to have a job as of next week? Because if not, I need to figure out what I’m going to do”. I prodded him to respond to me for the next three days.

I’m not the type to sit and wait for the world to crumble around me before deciding what my next move is. On Sunday, when I still didn’t receive a response… I went on craigslist, found a job, and told James I wouldn’t be back to work the next day. I moved my stuff out of the loft and into a friend’s house. A week later, the gym was closed.

James’ feelings were hurt because he’d felt that I’d just abandoned ship on him- I trained quite a few time slots that he’d have to figure out how to cover in a pinch. And maybe because of his militaristic mentality, he’d thought the more honorable thing for me to do would’ve been to go down with the ship.

15. It’s your business. Treat it that way.

Cover shifts without complaining- it’s your business. Mop the floors- it’s your business. Take phonecalls when you don’t feel like it- it’s your business. Work when you’re sick- it’s your business. Being a business owner isn’t glamorous for a very long time- if ever. The entrepreneurs who succeed are the ones who embrace this from day one. Ain’t no one else vacuuming my gym but me. Why? Because that $12/hr goes a lot further re-investing into more equipment, more services for my members and keeping the electricity running right now. And when you can look at it that way, you’re probably a real entrepreneur.

He’d spend the next 7 days packing up his stuff, badmouthing me and describing my exit as a flounce. The training staff didn’t know any better, in fact, they didn’t know until just a day before it closed that the gym wouldn’t be open any longer. But by the time that day came, he’d erased all evidence of my being a partner in our product together, took all the IP and deliverables and bounced to a new county.

My body and brain had had it with the fitness industry for awhile after that. I went into full time graphics design and gave everything else a break.

Two years later, some friends who owned a small 1200sq ft fitness studio approached my wife and I and asked us if we’d wanted to take it over from them- to essentially bail them out. It was unexpected- but a small investment could mean that over time we might not have to work “real jobs” anymore. After reviewing the books and toying with a potential business plan, we realized it was an opportunity we couldn’t refuse. And so we took it.

Both Janelle and I work 40 hours a week at other full time jobs and keep our gym thriving during every other waking minute. We decided this would be a lot smarter than throwing all the money we own into the place only to find ourselves having to (literally) live in it.

16.  Keeping your day job is a smart choice if it makes sense for your particular situation.

You may end up disliking 40 hours of your life each week. You’ll be dying to work on your passions full time. But think about the security it would provide vs. quitting and hoping your new venture profits enough to sustain your life VERY quickly. Know that the odds are against your success in the first place, and from there decide the level of risk you’re willing to take. Keeping my day job has taught me patience, moderation, and how to hustle on a very limited amount of hours each day. Also- I’m not hungry and I’m not living in a loft in a gym!

I decided I’d throw out everything I knew about getting rich quick (didn’t work out so hot for me the first time) and focus on what was important in the first place- helping others and their health, creating a sense of community where people from all walks of life feel comfortable getting in shape and staying active, and gradually making the wisest decisions possible to grow our little business into something that could be around for awhile. And since my wife wouldn’t let me quit my day job “for at least two years”, it set a really great slow-and-steady mentality for our growth. And we all know who wins the race, right?

We’ve grown the gym from 12 to 47 members with zero contracts over the past 10 months. Things are looking pretty good for our steady growth over the next few years.

There’s no way I could’ve provided the level of quality in programming that I offer now 3-4 years ago. In that sense, I’m glad it took me until this moment in my life to become a CEO. The decline of my health and sanity over the course of developing my product and having it ripped out from under me taught me the valuable lessons I’ve stated here today. Without them, I would’ve never made it. I can say that now my head and my heart are in the right place- and I can’t even imagine what I will learn in the next 3-4 years, and the 3-4 years after that.

My focus is on every single individual who walks in the doors of Surf City Fit Club. I want to know what their goals are, their abilities and where they’d like to improve their health and fitness. I respect that they work hard to earn the money which they choose to turn around and pay us in exchange for our services and I am dead set on giving them every cent worth of an amazing program getting them the results they are looking for.

And you know what? It’s refreshing. It’s real honest work and through offering a quality program from quality trainers, the gym somewhat sells itself. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have a solid sales and marketing background if you choose to go into business for yourself- because you need that. But there are very genuine ways to approach sales and marketing- and if that’s what you want to do, you will find your balance.

17. You can be good at what you do. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be good at creating a business out of what you’re good at.  

Did you know that there are commercial landlords who will not lease space to fitness businesses because of the inconvenience of the high turnover rate? That’s a bad rap to have but it’s very indicative of how many decent trainers are convinced they’d be great at business. If you feel like you’re a great trainer, house cleaner, taxman, pool guy or otherwise… do not automatically assume you will succeed in going into business for yourself. If you’re great at what you do- learn how to run the business. Run someone else’s business. Shadow a successful business owner. Get a mentor. Buy books on JUST business. Know your business as well as you know your deadlift form. And when you feel you’d make an excellent business owner in almost any field, then give it a shot. But— learn and know the other 16 points in this list before you do.

Before I hit the age of 30, I DID become a CEO. All it took was a shift in thinking:

You don’t have to conquer the world. You just have to conquer YOUR world.

Michele Burmaster is the owner and CEO of Surf City Fit Club in Huntington Beach, California and the founder of Disrupt Your Diet – a science-based movement designed to spread the truth to the masses about how weight loss actually works. She is consistently pursuing partnerships in health and fitness to further the movement of moderation and evidence-based science keys to health. Her strengths are graphics design, media production and being a general idea factory. 

Image Credit: photobucket.com

About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on Under30CEO.com, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.