This week we talk to Stephen Weinmann, the founder, and owner of BikeRowSki, a boutique fitness concept that has franchised out to 5 locations in the space of a year and a half.
Stephen lifts the lid on creating and establishing a unique fitness concept and the challenges of scaling a franchise from scratch.
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 Stephen Weinmann, the founder and owner of BikeRowSki, a boutique fitness concept that has franchised out to 5 locations in a space of a year and half. Stephen lifts the lid on creating and establishing a unique fitness concept and the challenges of scaling a franchise from scratch. Let’s get started.
Stephen Weinmann, welcome to the show.
Stephen: How are you? Thanks for having me.
Kevin: Thank you for coming along here. So Steve, yeah, maybe let’s get started by just telling us a little bit around the BikeRowSki concept and how are you getting on so far.
Stephen: I guess it’s been a very interesting last 18 months. I think August 2018 when we launched. We’ve been working on it since the start of 2018, kind of late 2017 early 2018. It’s grown a lot faster than we anticipated which is great. We are definitely not complaining and the attention that we got online and in the media has been fantastic as well. We’re really please with that both. It all came about I supposed in that I’ve had my gym Performance Therapy Ireland for 9 years now. So the end of 2010 start of 2011, I opened the gym, and we grew steadily as a small to medium sized group training functional fitness gym. Had growth success and it was growing nice and steady.
I guess we kind of hit the same speed bumps that every small to medium sized gym hits which is people finding that, you know, lack of time starts to kick in because of work or because they got married, or they are having a baby, and different commitments come and get in the way. So we work off these tricks, membership model with PTI. I just kind of had quite a lot of people coming to me who are long terms members who had to either pause membership and take a break from the gym, and they just kept saying, “Look, can I just drop in and do a quick sweat here or there because I still love the culture that you have. The group of people that are there. I love the coaching. I love everything that you do.” We have to keep all the class spots because we were limited to 16 people in the gym at a time because of the size. So we kept to having to keep spots for members only. We couldn’t have people kind of drop in and out.
We end up thinking of myself and my business partner. We said, look, let’s try and put something together that will help these people get into training. The more that we kind of thought about it the more we said, look, this can be a separate business. This can be something different. And we both had different ideas as to what and people were kind of lacking in their training, and making it as accessible with as little barriers as possible. I guess the kind of barriers thing came down, I supposed it was something that I notice because I’d be quite a technique perfectionist I supposed for one off of a better term. And that you know in terms of squatting, and deadlifting, and pressing, and pulling and core work and so. I made sure that there was always kind of procedures and fundamentals, and one-to-ones before people could join Performance Therapy Ireland. It was a barrier that I intentionally put in place, but it was also a barrier that I noticed that probably scared off a few people over time because they were like, “Look I haven’t got the time. Can I just jump in and get some training in?” So we end up saying, how can we remove these barriers but keep things safe, and keep it accessible, and keep it as a good experience. The BikeRowSki concept was born that way because we saw that was way of getting people in for really good training for a full body workout without having to get them to basically commit to a ton of one-to-one sessions before they could use a rower or a skier. We put together a system where we could coach it very effectively and very efficiently, very quickly in a group setting. We trialed it, and we trialed it, and we trialed it, and we tried different combinations and variations, different programs, different stresses, different heart rates, and we come up with what we have now. We kind of thought let’s give it a go and see if it works and it did kind of very much so.
Kevin: Tell us a little bit about the concept. Just paint the picture for people who might have heard it already.
Stephen: BikeRowSki is actually what it says on the team I guess. It’s biking, and rowing and skiing all in a 45-minute class in a heated environment for a greater core temperature and greater sweat, and we have it ventilated with fresh air being blown in and CO2 being pulled out. Everybody works depending on where they start. Where if they’ve started on a bike they will be coached by the coach through in the three different phases of our workout. So they’ll go on the bike for a certain amount of time, at the same time people are on the rowers, and at the same time people are on the skiers, and we’ll coached them through our own unique way of bringing them through our program. Bikers, rowers, and skier all moving at the same time getting the similar cardiovascular stress, or getting a different muscular skeletal stress and based upon on bike, rower, or skier. And then after certain amount of time we’ll change phases, everybody moves, from bike to row or to ski.
At the end of the session, the whole thing is tracked by heart rate monitors. And again, with the light show, we’ve got music that goes with each class and that’s designed and they are mixed by 2 DJs that we use. We have our SoundCloud account, and we use that in all of our studios. Franchises use the same playlist as well so it’s all set to a similar theme and the exact same program that’s written by me. And then by the end of the class, everybody gets their stats, and everybody is shown the calories they have burned, and the percentage heart rates that they’ve worked at. It shows who is basically the quickest at cooling down, who is the most efficient throughout a certain energy system during the session, who hit the highest heart rate and the lowest heart rate in comparison to a high heart rate, and we can match up different people based upon their heart rates, like the two most similar people in the room who had the two most similar stresses throughout the class. So we can give quite a lot of data at the end of the session, but we also can show people on the graphs as to how efficient they were on a bike versus a rower versus skier. And then we could make recommendations as, you know, you might need to do a bit more work on the rower, you might need to do a bit more work on the skier, your bike is pretty efficient, try and finish on that next time. And we can make different recommendations so they get different stresses and they don’t always choose the same route each time. Yeah, we get quite a lot of information across to everybody.
Kevin: Yeah. You know, the first kind of area that we want to dig in on is just building this I supposed boutique fitness concept. And it sounds like, I love to pull that apart a bit more. It sounds like getting started you optimized for something anybody could walk in and start doing. It wasn’t going to be I supposed a learning curve in terms of technique. What else would you say are the key things that wasn’t in that initial design phase that you took into consideration?
Stephen: Well, I think, in saying what you said there and that there’s not too much learner. I mean, if you talk to a rower, they will say, “Listen, it takes years going to row under. They are right. I mean, technically it’s a tow of movement but it’s the full body work and that anybody can row. It’s just not everybody can row really, really well and really efficiently. So that’s the kind of beauty of one of the elements in there and that’s we can have somebody… I mean, we people since day one, and they are getting better and better and better and better -rowing numbers and rowing efficiency, and skiing numbers and skiing efficiency. But we know that in terms of programming every day is different. We don’t repeat programs. We know that we can give them a new stress every single time. So that was a big thing for us, making sure that it wasn’t going to get boring for people. It was going to be constantly engaging. And, yes, we want to make it accessible and have barrier free fitness I supposed and that anybody could come in get involved. I mean, we’ve had international or rugby players sit alongside to my front desk manager, his mom is fanatical about it and she sits beside like an international rugby player and he is getting the stress that he wants and she is having the fun and the experience that she wants. It was about having barrier free fitness but also fitness for everybody regardless of who you are. If you are a professional athlete, or if you are a mom with three and you are just getting back into fitness after years of not getting fit at all. But they are in the same session, getting the stress that they need, and they are shoulder to shoulder basically getting the fitness that they want. Like she wants fun, she wants community, and she wants to sweat and she wants to high five, and he wants to come in and chase numbers. It’s fantastic that we can offer those two different things literally beside or side by side.
Kevin: Yeah. And obviously, with the lights and with the music it’s multi-sensory experience. How much work did you put into designing that whole setup?
Stephen: Yeah, that was something that we thought quite a lot about as well because I’ve run the gym for 9 years, and yes we use music to motivate people. I constantly talk to our coaches in PTI and say, you know, are you choosing good playlist and make sure it is always a party, make sure it’s fun, no one ever comes to the gym to not have fun like it should be a fun part of your day. So we know that that definitely has an impact on people’s mood, and people’s experience. With this we knew that it has to be a new experience because I’ve seen everything in Ireland at this stage. I’ve been in terms of boot camp classes, weightlifting classes, cross fit classes, and different functional fitness gyms. Lots of struggling. No one is re-inventing squatting, and no one is re-inventing push-ups, and no one is re-inventing sit ups. It’s all been done and it’s the experience of where you’re doing this and the environment that’s around you while you’re doing it. And that’s what people are looking for. They are looking for that new concept and motivator that makes them want to go to a place and go, “You know what? I did this, this, and this. And I couldn’t do it at home before, I could now do it in this gym.” But it was more of an experience there. We just kind of found that the experience in a lot of fitness classes was just lacking, like there was actually no experience. It was just you went in and you sweated, and you did this and you did that. When you kind of get on your way you’re kind of like, “Oh, will I go again? I don’t know, maybe.” Whereas, I’ve been to other places over the years, over the last 15-16 years of being in the fitness industry, and the actual offering wasn’t that good. I was like, do you know what, it was okay but the experience and how it was treated was fantastic. Like people genuinely cared and the environment have cleaner walls, and how well looked after you were from the front door into when you are leaving. That’s what actually had an impression on me. Someone show me someone snatching a 100 kilos, or deadlifting 200 kilos, or bench-pressing 150 kilos. It’s not that it doesn’t impress me anymore. It’s all very impressive. But I have seen it all at this stage. You see a lot of crazy stuff online and people put to be noticed. But it’s no one is re-inventing, you know, a kilo is a kilo at the end of the day but the experience of how fitness is presented to people. And people want to have fun, and people want to switch off their day. Everybody’s got stress, and everybody’s got stuff going on in their lives. People need to go in, put down their phone and work, have fun, at the end of a gauge that was 45 minutes of my day that was just really good and then I can just get on it.
Kevin: Yeah. Can you talk about that experience? Everything from the data, to the community, to how you’re looked after coming through the door. When did you know that you had that nailed? When did you know that you the whole experienced defined and ready for the public?
Stephen: I don’t think we had it nailed down really in the first few weeks. We were trialing everything. We run a few complimentary class to get people and talk, people see what they are taught. And as class went on, went on, went on… I mean, we’ve always put across the experience element in my gym downstairs. In PTI, we’ve always made sure that’s it being client focused it’s not being. Sorry, we’ve always put across at this individually focused in the group setting. We’ve never programmed for the herd, for one of a better term. We’ve always said, the individual is the individual because I come from a one-to-one personal training on physical therapy background. I’ve always worked with the individual within the group and then move, to the next person, next person. And not said, everybody let’s all do deadlift, because some people don’t ever need to deadlift. I know, lots of people are going to say, “Oh my god, what he is talking about?” But it’s true, people need different stresses, different version of stresses when you are looking at weighted movements and essentially load and movements lots of people don’t need I do certain things. You need to have to step in and make change for the individual all the time. We know that with BikeRowSki there is no eccentrics involved. It’s not loaded. Effectively, it’s the cyclical cardiovascular experience so it’s a lot safer than picking up a barbell, a kettlebell, or dumbbell. Not taking away from the benefits of barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells. I love all that training. But we know that there’s barriers to that because you have to make sure people move well if you want to enroll them. So from the fitness side of things, we knew that from an experience point of view, we started booking our class very, very fast and people started getting unto waiting list. And we said, okay, this is kind of accumulated quicker than we thought. And then when all the interest started coming in, are they franchise. They are going to ask me, why do we ever franchise. That’s when things started to register for us saying, “Okay. Well, this is a bit more popular than we kind of expected.” And people are writing about just the fun side of it like, yeah, they love bikes, they love rowing, they love skiing, but they also love the fact that the programs we’ve written, the light show, the heat, the heart rate feedback and just the overall closeness of the 15 people in the room. And at the end of that big accumulation of calories at the end to see everybody haven’t done back together in a close environment was just… It just pushed it over the edge. Everybody just couldn’t get enough of it, you know.
Kevin: Yeah. And you obviously growing very fast, and full classes, and growing franchise. But I supposed something that’s easy… like something that has relatively low barriers to enter also maybe has low barriers to leave. How do you think about that and kind of retention in the long term? What have you built in to keep people coming back?
Stephen: Two different things that we do each month is at the end of each month we do a challenge Sunday. So we always like to basically say to people that they are not training aimlessly. If they are very much so they want, you know, at the end of the month to feel like I want to test myself, I want to push myself. Every Sunday at the end of the month there is a BikeRowSki Sunday challenge. And that’s a named workout so it could be something like endure or sustain. And basically, that’s an open rate session we call it, and they will come in and that will be for meters. So we want to see the strongest guy and girl in all studios or the top three guys and girls in all studios and show us their meters and see you can do the biggest distance on that said test. So that’s one way that at the end of the month people find that that’s a great thing to work towards and aim for, and then book in for and try and see can they be the winner of that challenge. And then the other thing we do is every single month we run some sort of a monthly challenge and that could be anything from we do stamp card challenge for different things right the month like they might win certain amount of awards at the end of the class or they might attend certain amount of classes. Or they might, you know, it’s a simple task where we’ll say on the stamp card challenge if you stand over the end of the class and you high five everybody in the room you get a stamp on your card. So it just gets people involved and it becomes more of a community fun element. You know, every single month we got different challenges. So this month in February our February Bikers key challenge is the greatest average calorie class burned for the whole of our five studios so the first two weeks Balbriggan won both of the average calorie burned so Kinsealy, Fairview, Glasnevin, and our Douglas studio whereas try to beat them this week so. It brings that nice fun side of competitiveness out where anybody who attends a class can be to it, can give it a push, and can give it a run. No one is under a specific individual pressure to do anything. It’s more just to come in, have a goal, push and let’s see at the end of the class what people can do as a team.
Kevin: Yeah, got it. Okay, cool. I guess it’s really interesting some of the key elements and coming up a concept that’s obviously started to take off. So let’s maybe switch up a gear now and obviously you’ve got to 5 locations. Really interested in what that has been like and what you’ve learned along the way going from your first attempt to essentially being a franchise?
Stephen: Yeah. It’s been really, really interesting process to be involved in. Again, franchising, when you hear the word everybody has got all these different kind of ideas and perception as to what it is. I guess a way to look at it from a really simple point of view is just being able to scale quite quickly. And to build the brand out and heed other locations that we’d like to be in very, very fast. That happened quite quickly with Glasnevin initially, and then Balbriggan followed, and then Fairview, and then Douglas in Cork, and then we just announced last week or a week and a half ago we just announced Bray as our number six location. Yeah, it’s been really fun, you know, getting people coming in, applying, interviewing, finding out what they’ve done before and what they can bring to the BikeRowSki brand, the location that they have, or that they would like. We go and we view with them and then we basically go back and forth with them in terms of how we’d like, we give them that set plan, or that set of blueprint for the studio and all the spec that goes with it. And then we have this timeline that we work with them to help them build it out, and work with their staff, train up their staff, their management, work with the owners and then get a plan and place for the launch, and then once we get the launch again they are on their way, then we start building at their timetable. We keep working with their coach in terms of ongoing education and helping them bring the exact same experience that we have cultivated in Kinsealy, in our original location. So that’s being the big, big driver for us in that. You know, we’ve gone and every time we open the place we’ve gone and doing a class there and then walk out and said, “That’s just like being in Kinsealy.” It’s fantastic to see that this idea that we had has now become a thing and it has moved location. But when you walk in it’s the same program, the same heat, the same light, the same heart rate feedback, the same machines, the same cultures. And I guess that’s been the big thing for us is to make sure that the culture has transferred over from location to location to location because that’s what BikeRowSki is to us. It’s a culture, it’s an accessible barrier free fitness experience, and that culture to us is paramount. It’s walking into each location and getting that same smile, and that same welcome at the desk, and the same briefing as to what’s going to happen in the class, and the same high five at the end, and the same feeling of well that was a great workout.
Kevin: What would you say is the key to that? Is it how you pick the franchisees, is it how much effort you put in yourself to help them get set up? What’s the secret to that?
Stephen: Well, you know, at the end of the day bikes are bikes and rowers are rowers and skiers are skiers. And there are most gyms in the world at this stage and it’s like I’m looking at the SoulCycle model in the States. I’d have someone say to me there a while ago they were like it’s just spinning and I said, “It might be just spinning but the experience is different.” You know, a different spin brand or a different spin studio. If they go down the country somewhere, or Douglas somewhere, or London, or Madrid, or Paris, whatever. If you go to a SoulCycle class you’ll know that you’d be in SoulCycle because the culture that they have engrained into every location, and the people that they have there, and experience that is put across. It’s very similar to what we want and that’s it’s the same culture, the same experience, the same branding. And it’s making sure that that remains strong throughout because eventually a bike breaks for someone or a chain needs replacing on a row. You know, that can be done. That’s easy. But people are hugely important and its people treating other people well and giving other people the 45 minutes of their day that they have set aside from their busy family life or from their busy work life. They’ve come in specifically to us and they’ve booked in for 45 minutes. They didn’t have to come in but they have gone their way to come in to us, and we owe them a really good experience. And that’s people and that’s culture. It’s huge in work.
Kevin: What would you say are some of the day to day issues you never could have imagined you’d have to deal with when you just got started?
Stephen: It’s everything. It’s pair of coats, it’s WiFi issues, it’s everything you know. Someone might have thought they booked into a class, they come in it’s a full class. And there’s chatting to that person to say, look you know what we’re going to sort and try to get you into different class again. You’re like, you literally you could write a list as long as your leg of the things that just pop up every error on the error. And that’s not even taking into account staff meetings, and staff training sessions. You know, we’re constantly innovating and trying working with new tech, and constantly trying to be forward moving while making sure that we’re not leaving the basics behind. Like it’s always work the basics. It’s always get the basics right and don’t get carried away with new ideas or with our eyes wandering to new piece of tech and going, “Wow! Maybe we could do this.” But at the end of the day the basics work and the basics work really well when they’re done really well. And like I said, at the end of the day, if you treat people well that’s a huge chunk of the work because I can tell you over the years I’ve been to lots and lots of gyms with shiny equipments, and great air-conditioning, and nice branding and when you go in and if people don’t treat you well that’s a lasting kind of taste that you’re left with is, “Well, you now it just didn’t really feel well.” It’s a hugely important part of the service industry and the fitness industry.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s makes a lot of sense. I think maybe just to wrap up on this line of questioning. What advice would you have for other fitness, say, someone has their own fitness studio out there. How do they know they are ready to maybe move to the next level in terms of multi-location or franchise? What questions should you ask yourself?
Stephen: I think; I could say you know the classic answer of like you got to be prepared to work hard. But that’s at the same time that is pretty modular part of the answer. It’s not easy but anything worth working at is never going to be easy. I mean, you need to put in extra hours and you need to realize that you are probably not going to get a lot of down time. And anybody who opens their own business anyway will know this and any gym owners sitting there listening to us talk should be now and saying, it has been a lot of work to get where I’ve gotten. It is on social errors but what you really figure out from owning a gym or from owning a studio is that on social errors are your social errors. These are the people that you spend time and these are the people that you become friends with, and these are the people that you actually see more than your wife and children, you know. It’s; time that you need to put in and if you don’t enjoy it then I would say if you get busier then you’re most definitely not going to enjoy it anymore. If you’re busier, or if you are working at your own business and you have to work a lot in the business and you haven’t been able to step back and work on it that’s going to be a problem. So you need to make sure that you got all your ducks in a row and that you got great staff. I’ve got a phenomenal group of guys and girls who coach for me in PTI and BikeRowSki and I’d be lost without that environment. Incredible people, and they are all constantly, constantly, standing there and saying whatever you need, and I’ll coach this, and I’ll do that and I can go here for you. I’ve been very lucky. I’d name every single one of them for you but they’d all be very embarrassed.
Kevin: Alright. I think that’s a great way to finish that up. Okay, so before we go we ask the same question and that is what’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business so far and what did you learn from it?
Stephen: This for me I think about 2, 3 maybe 4 years ago. It was a bit of a hard pill to swallow, but I was definitely more immersed in my own training and my own development in terms of weightlifting and cardiovascular training, and all that. I did when I sat back and I actually took stuck. I had just put too much time into my own training and working in the business. I wasn’t standing back and looking at the bigger picture and saying, okay, I’m actually missing quite a lot of things here. And I’ve got staff that actually need help on this. I need to actually stand over a lot of that and I can’t actually be involved in this anymore even though there are some members who might say, “You know, we’ve got a few coach, this and this.” But there are times that I would be spending coaching this, there are times that I would spending on my own training was actually taken away from the development and the growth of the actual business, so I was holding myself back. It was just too easy for me to get caught up in that day to day blur of coaching tons of classes and then following up with my own training, and then looking up the clock and saying, “Jeez, it’s 5 or 6 o’clock. I’ve got to get home. I’ve got dinner, and help my wife, and we’ve got young kids.” There are some days where I felt guilty, and I got home, that I actually hadn’t done any work, and yet I’ve been working all day. So for me it was definitely that. It was getting too caught up in my own training, and too caught up in being on the ground and coaching all the time and not sitting down and actually working on systems and processes of the business. That’s the big thing.
Kevin: Yeah. That’s a massive one. Alright. Okay, Stephen, it was absolute pleasure. I’ve learned so much in the last half an hour. Before we go, maybe just tell people how they can get in touch and how they can learn more about BikeRowSki.
Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. Our website is www.bikerowski.ie, and we are also on Instagram and Facebook under the BikeRowSki name. And we have a lot of great content coming out. We have a new location popping up in Bray is coming soon in the next few months. And then we have another two locations that we have agreed to pretty much. We’re not going to say where they are yet. We’ve had quite a lot of interest from our locations. We’ve had some interest from overseas as well. But again, we are taking our time with the Irish market first. But yeah, it’s a lot of exciting things coming up. We do have some incredible news coming soon in terms of new tech for the studio. That’s all I’m going to say on that because we are still beta testing. What it is is really exciting. And it’s going to be a real game changer for BikeRowSki. It’s pretty much BikeRowSki 2.0 is what we were kind of joking saying. But it’s the next level big time so it’s going to be really exciting.
Kevin: Nice, okay, looking forward to it. Well, listen, thanks very much for coming on the show.
Stephen: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Kevin: Thank you.
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