Ben Robinson went from teaching sport in schools to running classes of 100+ people at his business Next Level Fitness. He told us how he got started, what he thinks the secret is, and how he manages large numbers.
Issy Striive: Hey Ben, let’s start by talking about how you became a PT and what that looked like.
Ben NLF: I’ve been a PT for just over five years now. Before that, I was working in schools as a sports coach. People kept telling me that I needed to do something by myself and get into the health and fitness business properly. It got to the point where I just thought I’d go for it! My Uni course had included a level 3 personal training qualification, which obviously helped.
Issy Striive: You started as a PT but moved into classes, which is where you’ve seen massive success. Was that a natural development?
Ben NLF: My PT was mobile – I had a van and some equipment. I never wanted the gym environment. I trained one-to-one, then small groups were created as people asked to bring their Mum, partner or friends. So it continued like that for a while, coaching groups of 3-5, and then I had a lightbulb moment. I realised I should run my sessions in a 'proper' group environment, or start formally calling it a class, so I set up two classes a week to start.
Issy Striive: How did you grow the new class offer?
Ben NLF: I advertised the hell out of it! The first class was almost all my family and friends, but then it grew quickly through word of mouth and people saying how much they loved it. The next thing I know people are bringing several friends, or extended family. It took off from there. The numbers were growing rapidly every week.
Issy Striive: So it was a combination of effort and natural growth?
Ben NLF: Yes, I’d say so. I really tried to make the classes happen, but it also grew organically. I do still offer PT, but the majority of my income is from classes.
There was probably about 16 people in those early sessions, which isn’t a bad number until you remember that about 11 of them were my friends and family.
Issy Striive: What does that growth look like in numbers?
Ben NLF: We’ve basically grown from 2 or 3 actual clients in a class to 100+. We started with just Monday night and Wednesday night sessions, and there were probably about 16 people in those early sessions, which isn’t a bad number until you remember that about 11 of them were my friends and family. Probably 3 or 4 were true clients.
Issy Striive: What are your thoughts about training friends and family to boost numbers?
Ben NLF: When you’re starting out, it can help build your confidence and get the ball rolling. When we opened our first morning session we had 2 people. I think everyone has a few weeks where you wonder ‘is this working?’ But you've got to stick with it and keep doing the best job you can because you still want those few people to have a great experience and sing your praises to others.
Issy Striive: How long did it take to scale to 100+ per class?
Ben NLF: In the first 12 months we went from classes of 16 to 50-60 people. The year after it suddenly went to 100+ in a session. Each session at least one person would bring a friend or a family number and so it just kept growing. I kept asking myself where they were coming from, and wondering if it would get out of control. Luckily we had the space to grow - we use large gym halls at local schools.
Issy Striive: Was it difficult to structure the classes as they grew?
Ben NLF: No, I wouldn't say it's been a problem. I would always plan classes using numbers from the week before. If I’d had 8 people on the Monday, I’d plan for 8-10 the next Monday. That worked up until the 30-40 people mark, but that’s when I had to get serious about systems. I got sorted with a booking plan – it would have been chaotic otherwise!
Issy Striive: I'm surprised you could manage 30-40, I'm sure that's a lot of messaging back and forth.
Ben NLF: Yeah it was time consuming, but worth it. In hindsight I probably should have systemised things earlier, but we live and learn.
In hindsight I probably should have systemised things earlier, but we live and learn.
Issy Striive: Your business has grown to include two other coaches. What would you say to anyone reading this who is thinking about bringing on new team members?
Ben NLF: Hiring depends on the type of fitness business you have. Qualifications are a given, so it’s about looking for the skills, values, and personality type you need. For example, I look for confidence with public speaking. The ability to communicate clearly to a huge group is important when you’ve got big classes like we do.
Apart from the specifics, think about staple qualities, like reliability, good commitment levels, and people who are pulling in the same direction to help grow your business. I also think it’s important to look for people who are willing to go the extra mile, like answering messages after class to keep people’s motivation high. As an employer, I remember that new coaches might find it a challenge at first, so you’ve got to give people grace whilst they get used to whatever you need.
Issy Striive: I think that’s solid advice. Can you tell us something you like about the fitness industry and something you wish was different?
Ben NLF: I love the fact that we can change lives, and be part of helping somebody get into a more positive position. I think exercise is one of the most important things in the world. And everybody should be doing some form of it. We are able to help people do that.
The one thing I don't like about this industry is that some people are irresponsible with their opinions. There’s a lot of advice (not fact) out there based on agendas that are nothing to do with making people healthier. Unfortunately people aren't taught enough about nutrition at school, so it's easy for fitness professionals to mislead. We have a real responsibility and should take that seriously.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into managing large scale fitness classes. You can see more of Next Level Fitness’s work at @nlf_pt