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April Fisk Talks About Building Culture and Community Within a Fitness Franchise

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This week we talk to April Fisk, the CEO of Rockbox Fitness, a boxing inspired boutique fitness franchise based in the US.

In this episode, April tells us about what the best franchises do at the highest level of operations, the key qualities of a successful franchisee and the importance of building strong communities within a franchise network.

Connect with April here.

Check out RockBox Fitness here.

Episode Link

This episode of The Fitness Founders Podcast can be found on SpotifyApple Podcasts, and anywhere you get your podcasts.


Kevin: How’s it going everyone? Welcome to the Fitness Founders Podcast. I’m Kevin Mannion, VP Marketing here at Glofox. This week we talk to April Fisk, the President of Rockbox Fitness, a boxing inspired boutique fitness franchise with locations all over the U.S. In this episode, April tells us about what the best franchises do at the highest level of operations, key qualities of a successful franchisee, and the importance of building a strong community within a franchise network. Let’s have a listen.

April Fisk, welcome to the show.

April: Thank you. Excited to be here. 

Kevin: Great to have you on. You’re currently President of Rockbox Fitness which is a boxing franchise, and I know you’ve got a ton of operational franchise and company building experience. Let’s hear from you and tell us a little bit about your background. 

April: Yeah, absolutely. I’m excited to be here. I’ve been with Rockbox since September. It has gone so fast. But my background is in franchising. I’ve been in it from for about 16.5 years now. I’ve responded to a newspaper ad to be a part-time data entry person at Snap Fitness back in the day and got hired. I was sixth employee of that company. We had 25 clubs when I started, and then 13 years later when opportunity took me elsewhere. We had over 1,500 Snap Fitnesses both in the U.S. and all over the world. We also had acquired quite a few other brands under the parent company of Lift Brands. That was an exciting adventure to be building something, and I got to work in all areas of the business which was a good experience for that to naturally happen. And then, my world took me over to Orangetheory Fitness down in Florida, became the VP of International Operations for them. That was an exciting journey to go to a company that had really just, they’re kind of the talk of how to really make boutique fitness grow fast. Instead of being a part of the building, I was able to come in on the backend to say, okay, how can we grow the international businesses quickly. 

And then COVID hit. Honestly a lot of changes happened. I found myself with an opportunity for moving on and Rockbox reached out to me and we had a good courting period of four months. I just found in that time how excited I was about the opportunity to build something again and realized that’s really my passion is to be a part of growth. I like getting in the weeds, and fixing, and solutioning, and building franchise based off of cultures. Everything I have learned over those years of time I think really prepared me for stepping into a really fun world with Rockbox where fight club and night club meets. It kinds of meet my personality of wanting to work hard, play hard. It’s been a good journey so far. 

Kevin: Awesome. Before we get into your philosophy and how you’re setting things up now in Rockbox. What is it that you think that… You’ve worked for two very successful outfits between Lift Brands and Orangetheory. What is that these brands do well at the highest level to enable fast growth?

April: That’s a very good question. I think it’s probably somewhat different based off of the brand. I think with that Snap Fitness we got in on the exact right time of the business and we had really great partners and really great suppliers that wanted to jump on board and be our partner to grow fast. Without that it’s very difficult. We opened I think it was 375 in one year, and to do that you have to have really good suppliers. And then on the second part of that, you have to have such great processes and procedures in place. We didn’t have that big of a staff honestly and that’s why it was so important to make sure we had everything in place. We knew exactly before we wanted. We knew the equipment. It was business in a box. That way the franchisees weren’t having to make decisions necessarily. It was this is what you need to open that store and here is the process you need to take and the steps. 

I think what Orangetheory did super well is understanding where the market was and what the consumer needed and what the consumer wanted. They a very robust process as well. You’ll notice they are very consistent in every studio that you go into across the world and that’s because they put those things in place at the very beginning when they are opening, and really focused on their brand and how they want their brand to be perceived, and what the consumer needed. I think it’s multifaceted but I’d really think having your processes and procedures and having an absolute rock star team that buys into the vision to help you get there in that growth.

Kevin: I guess it’s about probably about that and then just identifying the opportunity or just having the right thing for the right time.

April: That’s exactly right. Understanding markets, having really great people that are willing to just grind it out and support the franchisees in a way that’s going to help them be successful. It’s not just about opening a studio or a club. It’s about making sure you open them successfully because then people want to be a part of it. If you just open them and don’t support them then they don’t necessarily see that success then other people are not going to want to be a part of that. Franchising is all about the franchisee. If they are not successful, you’re not successful as a franchisor. Never losing sight of that I think is really important to success of a brand.  

Kevin: That makes sense. You’ve come into Rockbox, maybe tell us a little bit about how big the business is right now and [unclear]

April: Yeah, absolutely. We have 26 studios opened all around the United States. Obviously, our largest area is here in North Carolina because that’s where our home office is. But we are rapidly growing and opening new markets. We have some pretty lofty goals. We want to be obviously a nationwide recognized brand boutique fitness. I think that we have a very unique offering in the kickboxing space. We like to say we’re night club meets fight club. Like I said, that gives us the opportunity to create a community within our studios that’s really fun, but it’s also very effective. All around wellness you get that community and that excitement while you’re working out, but you also get results. We take each member and make sure we meet them where they’re at. Whatever they need when they come in that’s what we’re focused on. 

Kevin: Maybe you’ve answered some of it already but what are your thoughts on how the consumer demands are changing now say post pandemic? What do you think is different a consumer if anything and what are they looking for? 

April: I definitely see the industry changing a bit. But what’s interesting is I’m also seeing it kind of recur back a few years ago when the consumer changed dramatically and expected a higher touchpoint when they went to their gyms or their community. And that’s when boutique really came about because the consumer wanted more touchpoint. They wanted more connection. And now COVID has happened and locked us in our houses or made us workout by ourselves. Now what we’re seeing when they come back it’s like what it was 4 years ago or 5 years ago. They are craving that community and craving that connection again. Out staffs in our studios have to be really intentional about creating that community and making sure that every member feels accepted and is excited to come in.

And then obviously you have to talk about the digital space, right. I think there’s always going to be, now, there’s always going to be a need to offer something digitally. Although I don’t think it’s solely going to go to that. I definitely think that we’re seeing it in our studios now the amount of growth over the last 30 days and then just continued acceleration. I think people just want to get out of their house and want someone to help them enjoy their health and wellness journey. Not just workout but their entire wellness journey. 

Kevin: I think one thing you’re saying the trend is a kind of almost back to boutique trend as people are craving community. About the digital side seen as maybe the jury is a little bit out of where it’s going. How do you make decisions from where you’re sitting on where to invest and what to do? How do you know what to do?

April: That’s a good question, how do any of us know what to do. I think we have to watch the marketplace. We have to watch what’s happening and we do very much value what the member wants and what the consumer wants. We do talk to our members. I don’t think it’s in our best interest to completely lose our focus on the experience within the studio. But now we need a marrying of both. 

We have a project we’re working on now that’s going to catapult us into that digital space. And because we have that kickboxing uniqueness it allows us to probably touch people that maybe didn’t know they were interested in boxing or kickboxing. But it’s going to mimic and be very similar to what we do in our studio which I think is important for our brand consistency. But I don’t think we’ll ever go away from the need for our focus to be on what’s happening inside the studio. 

Kevin: How do you get that relationship right between the consumer’s relationship with the local studio versus like a centralized digital offering or what’s the thoughts on that?

April: Again, that’s an industry question today. But my opinion on that is the people who are going to come in to the studio and want to work out in the studio are not the same people who want the digital experience. I do think that we maybe are talking about two different clientele. Some of our members may want the option to also have the digital space in case they are travelling or in case they run into something with COVID and they want to work out at home. But I think most of our customers are going to choose one of the other. 

Kevin: Okay. That’s really interesting. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. Okay, so let’s go back. Let’s talk about pure franchising and maybe what you’ve been doing for a long time. I know you’re very passionate about building culture within the organization and among your franchise partners. But let’s start at the start and maybe tell me what are the benefits of owning a fitness franchise?

April: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think maybe just not fitness franchise but franchise in general. You get to come in and someone gets to give you business in a box to say this is how you can be successful. I often say to our team, our job is to make sure that our franchisees can focus on the members and focus on the experience. And to be successful personally, right, to drive their own revenue and personal revenue and maybe change their own lives. But to do that I would choose a franchise because then I don’t have to make all the decisions to see if it works. Like will this color of my model work? All the things that people don’t really think about how much time goes into deciding. You get to come in through a franchisor and you get to partner with people that you are excited about and you agree with the values of the company. And then you get to take this box, this business in a box. You just get to go to implement it and you don’t have to go through the headaches. The headaches that our founders went through at the beginning. The headaches of determining what equipment to use, what’s the class model, who much does it’s going to cost me to do this or not do this. 

We’ve all done that already and so you don’t have to make those decisions so you get to just focused on, and from the fitness side, you get to impact people’s health and wellness. You get to experience that my opinion was nothing better. It was nothing better than watching a member go from here to here in a 6-week time period. And they will never leave you because of the growth that they’ve personally. Now they are part of a family and they love that. I think franchising is the cream of the crop when you want someone to tell you how to be successful.     

Kevin: What kind of person would you… I don’t know if it’s kind of a person, but when would you say, “No. Franchising is not for you. You’re on the wrong path here.” Well, I’m sure you’ve seen a few of these.

April: Yeah. I think that’s a really good question. I had very good friends that are professionals and we talk about my job and things all the time and there are people that I would never… I would say don’t get into franchising because they want so badly just to do their own thing and they believe in their heart that they can be successful on their own. And that’s okay. That’s okay too. But people who want to be really, really innovative and want to think on their own really and not have a guide and they want to try everything. They want to make those mistakes because they want to learn from them. I think franchising is probably not the right space for them. 

Kevin: No, that makes sense. Is there like a middle ground or maybe tell me what sort of independent decisions does a franchisee get to make? Because I know a lot is done but where are the areas where they might put their own spin on things or is that just never?

April: It’s interesting franchising, right? I think for me to describe that’s actually hard to answer. But for me I would say we want your personality inside the studio. What I want is when a member walks into the studio I want them to have the same experience if I’m in North California, or if I’m in North Carolina, or if I’m in Germany. No matter where the experience should be the same for the member. But inside you’re going to have your own culture based off of where you’re located, based off of the type of demographics. That’s what you should bring into the table. 

From a marketing perspective, from a digital, social media, you’ll see their own personalities coming out. It’s really fun to watch but what’s even more fun is when it’s representing a brand in the same way but it’s through their personality. I think our franchisees get excited about that. Most people that come into franchising, they do want a business in a box. That’s why they’re here. They want to be a part of something that they see someone else said you can be successful if you do this. And they want someone to give them the playbook. 

Kevin: How different? Because I can understand how there might be like regional or cultural nuances and slight differences in personality. I’m just curious in general, regardless of the brand, how different can the demographics be for a brand in different towns or regions? Do you know in advance what’s it’s going to be like? 

April: We try. We try hard. I would say that’s the goal is for us to understand that, but they can be so different. We have one in South and in Charlotte, and the demographics is much younger. You’re going to get a different experience there meaning the personality with inside the studio is different that let’s say the one here in Huntersville which is North of Charlotte which is a little more family based. Demographic is a little bit older so the culture inside the studio is different but the experience of the product is not. It’s very unique. We have one at Pacific Beach California and the culture inside that studio is different. It’s a different vibe. It’s a little bit more laid back but yet younger but cool where we go to other demographics then it’s not. The key point is that the experience is not different but the culture is different.    

Kevin: I guess that’s maybe then what sums to maybe the good franchisee is they are able to stick with the playbook and create the experience but they also are accessible for the demographics of the local culture that they want to get into their doors. 

April: Absolutely. And that’s where you go from good to great. I learned from Jeff Dudan, our CEO, this term of discretionary effort. It’s about you can be good in a studio, but if you want to be great in a studio it’s discretionary effort. And that’s the extra that it takes that nobody is asking you to do. You just know you have to do it. Our trainers who get that big, that’s when you get that crazy good culture within a studio. 

Kevin: Maybe you know the answer to this, but what is the key to get people to give the discretionary effort? This is the biggest question. 

April: That is a whole another podcast. I do believe it’s about empowering people. It’s about empowering them. They feel like they are a part of it and so they want to be great. If you want to be great, you will do that discretionary effort. We have a trainer that’s been with us for I think since the beginning. He’ll be teaching a class, and next people are coming in for that next class, and literally he is on a mic he runs over, he high fives the people coming in while he is teaching the class. I was seeing him. No one has told him to do that. That’s a discretionary effort to make sure those other members are getting excited about their classes coming up. And that’s just one little example. Sometimes it’s innate. Some people have it innately but I do think you can teach it. It’s all about empowering them and saying, “I want to empower you to be the best that you can be.” And to do that, determine what you need to do to get here.      

Kevin: Yeah, like you said, it’s a podcast of itself and it’s definitely the key to success of any business. I think that’s a great starting point. Before we dive in to the culture and community. You mentioned Jeff, I suppose I’d like to know coming in to an existing executive leadership team that are very passionate about their business, you are passionate about what you do well. How do you make that work well and match together? 

April: Well, I have to say and I’m not just saying this if they listen. I’m very fortunate to have three really, really fantastic partners in the business. Two of them as founders and a third one as an investment partner and he is as a CEO now. They all come with such a wealth of knowledge from different spaces. We have Steve Halloran who is the visionary of the brand from the beginning. He started his own boxing gym and he met Roger Martin, and they were talking and they said, we should do business together. And then they realized they needed franchising experience because they didn’t have any, so then they sought out Jeff Dudan who has a plethora of franchising experience, and they started building the foundation. And then they brought me in because I have the fitness franchising experience and it gives us the opportunity to really put our minds together on the things that are going to move the business the right way. So protecting our balance sheets, our PNL, understanding how to build great cultures within our home office as well as in our studios and within our franchise. 

And then also on the marketing side and sales side, Roger Martin comes with a wealth of experience on this consumer sales side. And bringing all of that knowledge together it’s not every discussion is easy. But because we have such a mutual respect for one another and the knowledge that we’re bringing to the table, we really do have the ability to navigate through the decisions that we have to make and end up in a place that we all are in agreement to. You don’t get that everywhere. I feel very, very fortunate. 

Kevin: Well, I guess part of that is group of people getting on and being able to work together and accepting each other’s perspectives. At 26 at it stands is a pretty decent number to scale up anything. But how do you think a business changes between that number and say 100 or 250? What are the things that change? 

April: Well, I think that you have to build the right foundation. Right now our focus is on that foundation with all of our processes and procedures, getting the right vendors, getting the right partnerships, suppliers. All of that impacts getting to 100 or getting to 300, or 500. If you don’t have the right partners early on it can really stunt your growth. And that includes at the franchise level, picking our franchisees, that includes who is providing our equipment, that includes who we’re hiring at the home office. We spend a lot of time hiring. I think you call us an emerging brand. I think most would not spend as much time as we do to make decisions on who we’re going to hire, and that is because we want to hire really, really well. Because it takes so much time to not hire well and it’s such a negative impact to the business. 

I think it’s about your foundational pieces when you’re young and then it makes it so much easier when you have 100, 200, and 300. I experienced that at Snap. We built a really great team and put the foundation of what you needed to build a brand. We’re actually able to bring other brands into that fold without having to change our infrastructure because we already had everything in place to be able to then just emulate what we had already done. 

Kevin: I guess that is the real test when it’s just not the same still fits. It is different things coming into an operating model or an operating system. That’s the real test of a system. That’s really interesting. Okay, I know you’re very passionate about creating cultures and community. Tell me what that means to you.

April: I think you have to build communities amongst communities when you’re building a brand. I think that starts at the home office level. I hope that the team would say, I like to have fun because I think if you’re not having fun why do we come to work every day. I think creating a really fun environment, work hard play hard, and creating that culture of empowerment of making sure everyone knows that they have a place in the business and that their voice matters. Building that culture is so important and then being able to pass that through on all levels of the business. 

From home office, the next step would be to franchisees and really building that community with franchisees that they can talk to each other. But also that they know that every day we wake up and we’ll work at the things that are going to help them be successful. If we’re doing something that’s not successful then we need to have an open forum with them. We need to make quick changes to make sure that happens. But having that community amongst each other, a little good healthy competition I think is always good and helps drive that excitement and fun. And then that task is to the studio level staff so we have head trainers and we have General Managers (GM). We’re creating on the forefront of creating community with those type trainers. We have a monthly webinar with just head trainers where franchisees are not on the call so they can speak openly about their challenges. They can kind of coordinate and talk with other people about what’s happening. We do the same thing with our General Managers and that gives them that opportunity to really get excited. And then when they see each other at the yearly summit, they already feel like they know people and build that. And then that passes all the way to our members and that’s really what makes brands successful is do you have communities in your studio that people want to be a part of. That’s really the core of our business. And to do that you have to be intentional. Really intentional. 

Kevin: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Could the owner be a General Manager, a head trainer? 

April: We typically don’t see owners being head trainers. But we do have quite a few situations where the owner is the GM. We typically do say you probably want to hire an assistant GM if that’s the case because ownership takes its own sort of toll and need. You need someone that could focus on some of those other everyday tasks that you may not want to. But we definitely have several who operate that way and do it quite successfully too. 

Kevin: I guess there’s an element that an owner or a GM might be very business focused but might not fully get the whole idea of creating the community. So maybe by you having a community that they are a part of, they learn a little bit about that, how to do that. 

April: Yes. I would say across the board not just with Rockbox. The most successful studios are the ones that you walk in and you can feel the vibe. We all say the vibe creates the tribe. But you could feel that vibe. The owners that understand that are almost instantly successful because they have this family environment. The owners that maybe struggle a little bit are the ones that maybe keep an employee around for too long that maybe isn’t a good fit for the business. Or maybe that owner isn’t great at building that community and they haven’t found somebody to help them with that. 

We all have areas that we’re not great at. I’ve been taught to hire around your weaknesses and make sure that you surround yourself with people that are better at you than in areas that you need improvement on. I think when the owners understand that, understand the excitement of having fun, and working hard, and setting expectations and goals, that’s where you see studios successful or really any business in my opinion.

Kevin: I definitely agree. That’s really interesting. Will you talk about the vibe from where you’re sitting? How do you measure that vibe or know if the vibe is good down in the location 200 miles away? Is it in the revenue numbers or how do you know?

April: I don’t think it can all be based off of revenue but I will say that it’s a really good measurement of it. It’s not often that you have a studio that’s really successful that has a bad vibe within their studio. It just hardly happens. But I believe you can tell. It’s the way the franchisee interacts with us. It’s the way that we interact with our teams. It’s how involved they are. It’s social media nowadays. You can tell a lot on social media from a studio level if members are posting a ton about their experiences within the studio. You see it and you feel it. We also use Listen360 which is the member NPS score measurement. Ours is really high for the industry. We are at 92 as of this week. 

Kevin: Worldwide on.

April: And industry standards I think last time I really researched it was 77. We’re feeling pretty good about that. Our focus is to keep it there. 

Kevin: Okay, that’s good. Well done on the NPS. 

April: Thank you.

Kevin: Also I think that’s a great insight into what their relationship between the revenue and the vibe. That makes a lot of sense. Okay. We’re coming to the end here now but maybe, April, tell me what you think from people in your position, not just you, but in similar positions in other fitness businesses. What do you think the challenges are going to be for the next 12 months? 

April: I think the residual effect of COVID with regards to finding locations with regards to cost of supplies to build a location. I think ensuring that we’re making members comfortable and people comfortable about getting back in the studios. I think that we’re going to see this sort of residual effect for a bit. Although I think we’re going to see insurmountable more interest in getting back in the studios because people want that. I think it is finding locations, again, build up cost a little bit higher than what they’ve been in the past based off of supply and demand. And then just ensuring that everybody doesn’t operate out of fear or scarcity because of what’s happening but operates out of focus and determination to be successful. I really think that’s kind of where it lies. And the brands that really don’t lose sight of putting franchisees first I think are the ones that are going to see continued success over the next 12 months.      

Kevin: You don’t see like huge challenges on the demand side?

April: I don’t. I don’t think so. We have more leads coming into the business right now both on the franchise side as well as on the member side. More than we’ve seen it in quite a long time. We opened I believe 8 studios during COVID which is a pretty good number.

Kevin: Not bad. Yeah. 

April: We had 83% retention rate on our memberships, so that’s a really good number. I don’t see a demand issue. I really see fear. If people are operating I fear they don’t want to buy into a franchise because they’re like, “What if COVID spikes up again?” So I really talk a lot about when you’re trying to run businesses, or run a franchise, or if you’re someone deciding to buy a franchise try not to operate out of scarcity and fear but operate out of what the future could hold. We’ve shown that we can do it right in the midst of the worst part of COVID. I’m excited about being able to continue to do that as we move forward.

Kevin: Cool. We’ll leave it there on an optimistic note.

April: I like it.

Kevin: My last question is what’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned in the past 12 months? 

April: Be resilient and remember it’s all about relationships. Members don’t quit relationships. They quit gym memberships. I think franchisees are the same way. Relationships are the key to the success of our business. We have to focus on it and be resilient with it no matter how hard it gets.  

Kevin: Okay. April, just tell us before you go how do they get in touch with you or find out more about Rockbox.

April: Yeah, definitely. With me find me on LinkedIn. I’m active on that. I love talking about the business and franchising. And Rockbox you can find us almost anywhere now, but You can find all about us. Again, I’m happy to answer any questions if anybody ever has them. If you haven’t been to try our workout you should definitely find one near you and check it out. 

Kevin: April Fisk, thank you very for coming on the show. 

April: Thank you so much. It was so much fun. 

Kevin: Thank you. 

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