Last week, I was invited to speak at St. Joseph’s College about fitness entrepreneurship and how my co-founder and I started Throwback Fitness.
I was nervous, but not because I had 45 minutes to fill (I knew I’d have plenty to talk about), but about how to organize our path in a linear, cohesive way, while providing something tangible that each audience member could take away and apply to their own endeavors.
The talk ended up as something more. I hope something that the students found helpful, not only because these lessons helped me gain comfort leaving the safety and security of a corporate job, but because the lessons represent the idea of charting my own path, living independently, controlling my own time, and doing something that is meaningful to me.
As I began writing out what I wanted to say, it felt foolish of me to jump right into the business without providing context, starting my story from a place to which everyone in the audience could connect. So I started with my college days – the time you’re expected to basically choose your life’s path by declaring a major, and ultimately your career.
Lesson 1: Do The Things YOU Want to Do, and Do Them with Intent
Heading into college, I had no idea what I wanted to be. In fact, my major didn’t capture what I wanted to do either. How do I know this now? Because I didn’t even choose it. My father suggested finance to me, and since I didn’t really know what I wanted to do anyway, I went with it.
I had a love for fitness then, but I had no idea that I could make a career out of it. I didn’t do enough of my own homework. My mind was already filled with the notion that I was to do well in college, get a solid job at a large company, and keep it forever. Everyone else I knew did it this way. I really didn’t know there was another way.
Find what you want to do, and do it. Study it. Live it. Learn it. I would never say I “wasted” years in finance, but who knows what I could have been doing now had I followed what I enjoyed, and had an extra 10-12 years of experience in it. Find what it is YOU want to do, and do it.
Lesson 2: Plan a Little, Do a Lot – Never the Opposite
If I had to choose the lesson that helped us the most, it’s this one. When conceptualizing our business, we spent months planning and updating iterations of our business plan, seeking validation from industry professionals, consultants, and friends. Nothing helped us figure out the best path to take than actually getting started. We didn’t begin with the exact perfect version of our product, but we had enough of it ready that we could share with customers and start learning what worked and what didn’t. We learned more in six hours of hosting classes than we did in six months of editing our plan. It was great to have a plan, but what we learned by doing was invaluable.
Lesson 3: Take BIG Risks, But Live a SMALL Life
Leaving the comfort of a well-paying corporate job was a big risk. Signing a commercial lease for our own studio – also a giant risk. But living a small life, one not dependent on consumerism and materialistic things for happiness, helped me build a savings cushion. It provided the comfort necessary to take on the financial risk of not having my employer dump money in my bank account every two weeks.
Living small also applied to the business. We preferred to take the scrappy, bootstrapped approach, funding our venture with our own capital, and a small round from friends and family. This forced us to remain incredibly disciplined managing expenses and afforded us complete control of the business.
One risk I was not willing to take: the regret of wondering what could have been had we started our own business. I’m glad we took the big risks. I felt I’d regret more the things I chose not to try.
Lesson 4. Always Be Testing
Experimenting allowed us to see what worked, and more importantly what didn’t work. We tested all different types of marketing, from printed flyers to targeted Facebook ads, to mailing press kits to any publication we could think of. We shifted focus on the ones that worked, quickly forgot about the ones that didn’t, saving time, effort, and money along the way.
Testing also led us to new sources of revenue. By making slight tweaks to our offering and testing it with different audiences, we were able to sample new lines of business, one of which we view as having far greater potential for large-scale expansion than our original concept, influencing us to change our business entirely.
Lesson 5. Be Open to Change
Change is hard. But change can be great. We left our first studio in July to focus on content licensing. I can point to very few sadder days than the day we packed it up and moved out. But an unwillingness to accept change would have kept us in a situation that distracted us from new opportunities and exciting ways to grow our product offering.
Focusing on things that provide the best opportunities for growth, and cutting everything else, required significant change. But viewing the situation objectively, and not emotionally (very difficult when it’s your creation), provided the hard evidence we needed to know we were making the right decision.
Whether or not our shift will work remains to be seen, but we made the best decision we could with the information available to us at the time.
This story doesn’t yet have an ending. These are lessons that have helped me up to this point. There will be many more – some we’ll learn the easy way, and some the hard way. I’ll be grateful if each student was able to leave my talk with even one small nugget of information they could apply to their situation.
I’m always happy to share any and all that I’ve learned that could help someone pursue something outside the corporate world, so feel free to reach out!
For those of you free from the corporate world: What are some important lessons that you’ve learned while starting and running a business?