For 51-year-old Gary Siegel, being laid off after spending 25 years on a career path he never liked led to a rewarding and lucrative mid-life career change: in-home personal training.
But make no mistake. Building a successful in-home personal training business means long work days and learning the fine craft of self-promotion, says Siegel, owner of the 700-square-foot Fitness Matters Gym in his Bowie, Md.-based basement and a new 1,500-square-foot commercial health club under the same name.
“I typically work 14- to 16-hour days, six days a week, or 70-plus hours on average a week,” Siegel says. But he has no regrets. “I had a horrible job for 25 years (working as a software engineer) and I love what I am doing now.”
Siegel’s decision to start training clients in his home in 2001 preceded part-time work as a personal trainer at the local YMCA. His prior experience training clients, a newly earned ACE Personal Trainer certification, and decades spent in the workforce likely made up for his lack of entrepreneurism.
Today, Siegel trains 85 clients, up from six in 2001. Most of his clients are middle-aged and prefer working with a trainer who can relate to their concerns. One-on-one training makes up about 50% of his overall sessions and costs $55 an hour; coupled sessions make up the other half and cost $75 an hour. He deliberately keeps his fees on the lower end so that existing and new clients can afford them.
Siegel has also found great success randomly pairing up clients for small group training sessions.
“I pair up people who don’t know each other and it’s worked out fantastic,” he says. “It keeps people accountable and has led to some great friendships.”
Don’t Rest on Your Laurels
Although Siegel has a loyal customer base, he wants to be ready to weather unforeseen economic pressures or changing life circumstances. Hence, the software engineer turned fitness entrepreneur spends a significant amount of time identifying target markets and networking opportunities.
Sometimes it takes courage to be a self-promoter. But Siegel says being shy and sitting back waiting for clients to fall out of the sky isn’t the path to a successful business. The old-fashioned meet-and-greet approach still works best. Networking with other business owners in the neighborhood and handing them business cards adds that personal touch. He also speaks at events, colleges and mingles with professionals at breakfast gatherings—you name it, Siegel is there to seize the opportunity.
What it Takes
This article outlines key considerations for ACE Certified Personal Trainers who contemplate starting their in-home personal training business as well as for others looking to take their in-home business to the next level.
First: Check your Zone
Before you start cleaning out your basement, however, you may want to check your community zoning laws to see if you’re even allowed to run an in-home business.
Siegel consulted his city ordinance and received the green light for opening his home for business as long as the number of clients does not exceed five at one time.
Translation: “I couldn’t run a group exercise class,” Siegel asserts. This would violate the ordinance. Not all residential homes are allowed to function as a commercial entity. Contact your community office of zoning and planning to learn more.
Know your Liability
As a homeowner, it is also your responsibility to keep the designated workout area safe and to make sure additional coverage is added to your homeowners insurance if required under the terms of your policy. In addition, it is your responsibility to secure professional liability insurance based on the unique needs and structure of your business Taking these steps, in addition to following appropriate preparticipation health screening processes and having clients sign legal forms can’t protect trainers from being sued. But it can provide peace of mind.
For many trainers, buying equipment can be a costly initial investment. However, Jonathan Ross, 2006 ACE Personal Trainer of the Year, owner of the in-home personal training business Aion Fitness, LLC and personal training director at Sport Fit-Total Fitness Club in Bowie, Md., feels that more equipment does not necessarily equal a better workout.
His advice: Decide on the type of training and exercise programming you want to provide before spending money on equipment.
“For $200 to $500, you can get a pretty decent setup,” Ross says. “I’m a big fan of body-weight training, but you need to have clients buy into that type of training.”
Siegel spent about $5,000 on buying equipment. Among his equipment are a lat pull-down, leg curl and leg extension machine, another for squats and seated rows. He also bought several benches, dumbbells (1 to 65 pounds) and free weights.
Revamping Your Home for Personal Training—Pros and Cons
Other considerations included parking, a bathroom and keeping the living space separate. Siegel made a significant, unnamed investment to build out his driveway for client parking, which required moving a retaining wall. After feeling the strain on his family, Siegel also built a separate entrance for clients, which helped keep the peace. A client bathroom is a good idea for privacy and legal reasons. Attorneys advise trainers to communicate clearly to clients the areas in the home that are private and the ones that are designated workout areas, which would play a significant role in a court case.
For Siegel, there is plenty of upside working from home. Here is arguably the biggest one:
“Even though I start my day at 5 a.m., I wake up, brush my teeth, put on my clothes and walk down to the basement,” he says. Flexibility is another plus. When a client cancels, Siegel takes advantage of that free hour, catching up on paperwork, pursuing his marketing efforts or doing other chores.
“There are at least 10 other things I can accomplish during that time,” he says.
Training for Personal Marketing
Getting the word out about his business remains a priority for Siegel. Perhaps it is Siegel’s first-hand knowledge of shaky job security and the pains of job loss that drive his tireless efforts. Here are some of the tools Siegel has applied with varied success:
- Client referrals: These are the gold standard for drumming up new business.
- Joining networking groups: Explore breakfast meetings at your local Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce if you want to attract professionals. Siegel pays an annual fee to join Business Networking International, a large business organization (www.bni.com). The small-group meetings have one representative from each profession. Many businesspeople appreciate personal trainers for their know-how in paving the way to a healthier lifestyle. These meetings are great ways to establish rapport and trust. “Usually, you get the people in your group first, which leads to referrals,” Siegel says. The Internet is a great place to explore regional business networking groups.
- Advertising on bulletin boards, via direct mailing, newspapers and magazines is likely to provide mixed results. In Siegel’s words, “Each attempt is an adventure.”
- Consider offering discount package deals. Siegel’s package deal—buy six sessions, get one free—has worked well for him.
- Explore your area for prospective clients, and then go after that market. Siegel walked the neighborhood businesses to extend a personal invitation for a mixer at his gym. He feels the money he spent on buying foods and drinks for each of the three mixers was a small price to pay for meeting nearly 100 prospects.
- Create a website. Hiring a web designer to create a professional product with free educational content, such as motivational strategies, exercise tips and fitness articles from reputable sources, can be a nice way for trainers to get the word out. Besides stirring up interest, it can help keep existing clients accountable. Costs for web design vary widely, depending on the complexity, and monthly maintenance cost is $20 and up.
Even the best marketing campaigns can’t make up for a lack of experience. Siegel recommends that newly ACE Certified Professionals spend at least one year in apprenticeship before diving into self-employment.
“That’s because you want to learn what the business is all about and be sure this is what you want to do,” says Siegel. “Once you make that commitment you have to work your tail off and you will be successful.”
Before Siegel got laid off, his annual salary was $90,000. Now his salary is substantially higher. He wouldn’t give an exact figure, but says trainers can make a six-figure income, provided they are willing to work hard and go the extra mile.
“I work harder than I ever have before, but I am also enjoying it more than I ever have before,” Siegel says.