5 things I learned during lockdown as a business owner

Lockdown was a shit time for pretty much everyone when it came to business or work.  Some people were lucky enough to have a job they could do from home, other people were less lucky, much less lucky.  When it came to being a gym owner in Scotland we got held in a holding pattern for a bit longer than the rest of the country for what I can still ascertain as to be for no good reason what so ever. 

As a small gym we were in a pretty good position for lockdown a lot of our business is done online and location independent, our members are pretty invested in us and are awesome. As a gym, we also run a subscription model meaning we have money coming in month to month unless it is frozen or canceled. The gym took a sizable hit during the lockdown but we were still pretty comfortable in terms of survival. 

Here are my 5 main learning points from owning a business I had to shut for 24 weeks during the coronavirus.

1 – Tend your flock

I’m not going to say we looked after our gym members better than anyone else I’m sure some gyms did a better job and other did a worse job. We weren’t blazing a trail through the lockdown (more on that later).  But where feasible and where I could try and effect change I gave it a shot.  Here are some of the measure we took during the lockdown

  • We loaned out equipment to the best of our ability to people who wanted it.  We, unfortunately, didn’t get to loan out as much as we could have done mainly due to circumstances. I was hoping to divvy out equipment on Tuesday but the floppy-haired one shut the country down on Monday night and I needed to get my ass across the M8 to Glasgow.
  • We ran 2 zoom classes per week (and only really because one of our members was very keen to get them going and I am thankful they were as it was one of the best measures we took during the lockdown) some gyms did more, other trainers pivoted completely online.  I am glad we did the sessions we did for the members who used and enjoyed them, we could have done more but we didn’t.  We could have pivoted and served lots of powerlifters stuck with nothing specific to do during lockdown but we didn’t we did what we did and I am glad we did.
  • I tried to put out as much useful information as I could during the lockdown I could have done way more but I put out what I could.  I wrote an 80-page book for our members and put it online at elitefts.com and on here.  I finally completed the programs for www.yourstrongestyear.com and caught up on some of the videos.  We put out some podcasts more of which need to be edited and published and that project needs picked up.  
  • We tried where possible to best serve our clients who had various amounts of kit, some had no kit others had a full set up.  We created some watts app groups targeted towards different kinds of goals and we had a few socials which we could definitely have done more with but I was trying not to become an alcoholic.

We did pick up some new business right before the lockdown and we did lose some business because of the lockdown.  However, what I didn’t do was try to pivot and go after new clients. I tried to prioritize looking after the ones we already had and servicing them as best as we could.  It’s something I try to do when possible but not in a systematic way is to try and serve those I work with as best as I can and I am going to make it a focus of what we try to do going forward.  In reality, if it wasn’t for the generosity of the clients we had and still have we would have been fucked. 

2 – The grass isn’t greener stop looking

I’ve been thinking this morning while out for a long walk, how much less I used to look at what other people did when I worked full time, and also ran the business on the side. I simply never had the time or wanted to waste any of that time looking at what others were doing or achieving.  Somewhere between leaving employment and starting to work full time from home running a pretty much full-time online business, I started to pay attention to those around me.  You could say it was part of the environment I was training in or the circles I was moving in but in reality, it was me that allowed me to look at what others were doing be it with either envy, spite, or admiration.

I have really been making an effort to just cut this out of my life entirely as it has to be one of the most insidious and useless habits you can have in the modern-day.  Whereas before when you could maybe share a bit of a natter behind someone’s back or maybe have an envious look at them in the gym or out and about. In this day and age, everyone’s highlight reel or lack of thereof is there for anyone to see online.  You can spend hours and days trawling through posts and pictures, videos just getting yourself into a state over something you can’t control, and something that doesn’t fucking matter.

Ironically this is something in my lifting I have pretty much squashed out I don’t really care what other lifters are doing in their training or what they are achieving.  I have some people who I aspire to beat in competition but when I look at their training or videos it isn’t in spite it’s normally for motivation and I can be happy if they do well and really happy if I do better.  For some reason, in business, I seem to have developed less of an abundance mindset around this sort of thing and it can be really crippling and it can also be hugely annoying in your day-to-day life.

During the lockdown, I got a lot of time to spend looking at myself in the mirror since I wasn’t busy from 6 am – 8 pm Monday to Friday just trying to tread water and it allowed me to see some of the stupid and even self-destructive habits I had developed.  Now I just curate my feed and if people are annoying me or if I find myself getting a bit too involved worrying about what they are doing and why they are doing it in a way that isn’t constructive or helpful I just slide on the block button or unfollow.  Life is too short and comparison is the thief of joy so just slide on the block button and stop worrying about that bullshit.  Head down, blinkers on.  

3 – You can’t control everything ever so stop trying

We aren’t the biggest business in the world but we are in my opinion a pretty tightly run one (we have our issues who doesn’t) with a minimal if non-existent risk profile outside of me doing something incredibly fucking stupid we are as solid as houses for most intents and purposes.  We have more than a few years of expenses in savings, our overheads are minimal and our business model is pretty well-diversified.

Yet still on the 20th of March 2020 big ole Boris of the clan Johnston hit us with the first punch of a one-two combination by telling us we needed to shut our doors for business effective from the moment of that speech.  That caused me to slide into a bit of a huff, to put it mildly, and I polished off a crate of corona (ironically the beer that Laura’s folks had left in the house) and delved into the hearts of the coronavirus meme literature.  The next Monday I headed through to Edinburgh resolved to sort out the gym as best I could, to make sure the members that wanted to had access to kit and to make sure the new equipment I had just spend 3000 pounds on got delivered.  Well on Monday night after a full day of unboxing and building some new equipment Big Boris had the second punch waiting for my ass.

Ali and I were in his car as we watched the live address on the 23rd of March as Boris told us he was shutting the whole show down.  It was official UK policy for you to stay in your house we had all been grounded without further notice for being very naughty boys and girls.  A series of events unfolded that night that left me huffing like a toddler and without equipment and in my defacto in-laws family home (who where nothing but gratuitous and good hosts the whole time) for what I thought realistically would be for a maximum of 6 weeks oh boy was I wrong.

The main learning from that chain of events, from me, trying to control what little I could and come out with the best outcome possible was that a series of events where things bigger than me and over of which I had no control told me to get fucked. And the best I could do was get fucked as instructed but with a petulant rage of a toddler who has been put to bed with no supper.  Each time I thought I had accepted the cards fate had dealt me and came up with another scheme of mice and men to try and make the most of the situation life came along and took a nice big shit on it.

The main thing I took away from those first few weeks was that I can’t control everything, I will never be able to control everything so I should stop fucking worrying about it.  Control the controllables and forget about the rest.   

4 – It’s okay to not crush it 

You have read through this far and you will have seen quite a few qualifying statements of things we could have done but ultimately didn’t.  That is because with even the best will in the world no human is some output producing android with the capacity to make the most out of every situation life puts in front of them.  Sometimes for reasons outwith of our control we just can’t put our best foot forward and during other times in life if we are being honest we just can’t be fucking arsed.

I managed to keep myself training during lockdown, getting some steps in, and managed to not become a raging alcoholic.  I also managed to keep my business duck taped together and didn’t slide into a manic bout of depression or have a mental breakdown.  Sometimes just getting by is enough.  I constantly put pressure on myself to try and do the best I can and to keep doing and being the best I can.  In short, I generally put immense pressure on myself.  That pressure is normally pretty good because it pushes me in good directions and I achieve and experience things I might not otherwise have achieved or experienced.

However, in some spots in life or in some situations, the pressure to always be on top of the situation and putting your best foot forward isn’t useful and it can be a fucking curse.

I don’t know at what point during lockdown I stopped getting up early or trying to get X, Y, and Z done during the day but I went with it.  As long as I got the workload that needed to be done during the week for the business to not burn to the ground done that was enough and as long as I got my steps in and did my training program for the week that was enough.

I tried to do extra things and on some days I was pretty good with it and achieved a fair bit and on other days I was fucking useless and achieved nothing.  I did beat myself up over it on a regular occasion (and still do, to be honest) and that is a complete and utter fucking waste of time.  I think as long as you can set up a bare minimum of things to do so you don’t end up going too far backward and you try to be honest with yourself then that’s okay.

You don’t have to be the best, shit you don’t even have to try your best all the time.  It’s okay to just be a vegetable sometimes and when you decide you’ve had enough of planting roots or you want to start making steps forward again take those steps as you are able.  Crawl, walk, maybe lie down for a nap then start crawling again.  Sometimes it’s okay to just convert oxygen into carbon dioxide and to just exist.  Not every waking moment needs to have a goal or a target and being lazy is sometimes the best thing you can be.

5 – You don’t have to tighten your belt if you never loosen it.

I am ultimately a simple man with pretty simple wants and needs as long as I have a barbell I can access, a bed to sleep in, some books to read and food/drink then I am pretty much golden.  I run a reasonably successful small business which keeps me in the way to which I have become accustomed. Which isn’t a lavish or expensive lifestyle not even close as I type this I am letting my feet reside in a wonderful pair of £14 shoes I purchased from the world-renowned fashion titan known as Sainsburys.

When it comes to business overhead is the damoclean sword hanging over the necks of most businesses.  It is pretty common for a lot of businesses to run with little to no cash in the bank and to rely on incoming invoices to help pay off the loans and finance they have acquired to expand and grow.  In some instances, it works tremendously and you get ridiculous success stories such as brew dog and in other instances, you get huge ticking time bombs like WeWork or uber.

I am by no means a guru or the next CEO or founder of a Fortune 500 company I lack the ambition or want to build a company to that size what is the fucking point of having so much money and wealth if all you do is spend your time at work anyway.  I personally don’t see the point and where I am planning on taking my business over the coming 10-20 years is to a more self-sustaining model and to diversify out into things that aren’t related to fitness in the slightest. 

You see a lot of people who run before they can even crawl and it might never catch up to them if they are lucky to not end up being one of the 60% of new businesses who fail in the first 3 years or if they are lucky enough to be one of the 25% of new businesses that are still around 15 years down the track.  The simple fact is the vast majority of businesses no matter how good or how dynamic they are don’t last for very long.

One of the main reasons that they drop off in such numbers is due to their reach exceeding their grasp.  It is very common for people to use credit and income they don’t have to expand or to grow their business.  Sometimes they do it to meet demand they can’t currently meet with their operation but for most cases it is down to a number of different reasons, build it and they will come, perceived demand where no real demand exists or they just get excited with the thought of having something or starting something but don’t take the time to see if it would be a good idea to do so.

We started out online and we used a very low-risk way to start offline renting out space in pre-existing gyms.  We then opened a small place that cost less than we were paying to rent out space in gyms.  When the lockdown hit we were in a very good position to weather the storm because we never really loosened our belt.  This is something I don’t really see training in our business and while it might ultimately cost us in growth (as in we might not end up as big as we maybe could have been otherwise) it is a compromise I am happy with.

We will expand the in-person side of our operations but it will be of limited size and it will be in a nature that preserves the spirit of the business and the values we try to uphold.  You can also bet your sweet ass our reach will be well within our grasp as well.


Leave a Reply