Jake from CrossFit Rep: How to grow your box from 35 to 115 members in 18 months

I recently had the pleasure of talking to my friend and long-time FringeSport customer Jake Hill, owner of CrossFit Rep in Austin Texas.

We talked a bit about his box, which he purchased from another CrossFit trainer a few years ago. Among other interesting things, he grew his box from about 35 members to about 115 in 18 months. Read on to find out how.

Peter: How would you describe your title at the box? Would you call yourself an owner or a head coach?

Jake: Yes, I use both of those terms. I pretty much do everything right now from financial stuff, I designed our website, I do graphic design for t-shirts, I write all the programming, hiring, I haven't fired anyone yet. Basically I am wearing all the hats. I would like to get away from handling the financial stuff because that is not my forte. I am not great with doing taxes, if I can afford to pay someone else to do them that would be ideal, but right now I am doing it all.

Peter: How many years have you been affiliated?

Jake: CrossFit Rep affiliated in 2012. Which is when I got my level one when I was in Philadelphia. I took over the gym in 2014.

Peter: How would you describe the training you offer at CrossFit Rep?

Jake: I don't believe in the one size fits all fitness prescription that a lot of crossfit gyms are pushing. So we try and have a good deal of options, we currently have 3 separate programs. We have a program that is called Starting Strength that we do 3 days a week, which focuses on single arm and single leg dumbbell movements. To address imbalances in the body, right to left. We do the basic lifts in that program as well. We do squats and presses. We don't really focus on Olympic lifting at all in that program. The meat and potatoes of crossfit, kettlebell swings, rowing and running. Kind of shorter WODs. We found that many people were coming into fitness with a very low baseline and getting very discouraged even if we were scaling the WOD for them and trying to make it easy for them. There were still people who weren't able to hack it. So we wanted to give them an option so they wouldn't feel like salmon swimming upstream, fighting for dear life. That is one program.

The program people are doing most at our gym is the Performance Program, I hesitate to call it the standard CrossFit program but it's pretty typical of what you would get if you went to most places. A couple of things that we focus on that a lot of people don't do are we do strength certain days of the week, like Monday is always squat day. It's not like one week you do squats, next Monday you do a press, next week you're doing a 6 mile run. We keep specific days for specific lifts to make sure that people are seeing progress with them. It is a linear strength program, it is an 8-week cycle. We do 8 weeks of front squat and strict press, we do 8-weeks of back squat and bench press. Then we do WODs, we keep the weight pretty light for people. If we are doing barbell movements in WODs, I don't like it be more than 60% of a one rep max, maybe 70% every once in a while. CrossFit gets a bad wrap because Joe Schmoe gets his certificate and opens a gym and sees Jason Calipa clinging 365 and thinks that my mom needs to do that. We try to keep the WODs shorter and more intense with a bit lighter weight.

Our 3rd program is called Barbell. Everyday of the week we're doing a clean and jerk or a snatch. We've got to lift everyday, sometimes things can get a little bit harder, muscle-ups handstands, that sort of thing and usually that class takes about an hour and 15 minutes, sometimes a little bit longer to get through their programming. This is for someone at the higher end of the spectrum or wants to be there. That is our training if that is what you were looking for.

Peter: How would you describe your community at the gym?

Jake: I think our community is really really solid because this is a customer service industry. You can be the best trainer in the world but if you are an asshole no one wants to listen to you. Every one of the coaches at the gym were hired because of their people skills primarily and it goes hand in hand with being a great coach. That's been a huge part in creating the community that we have. We have an athlete of the month where we highlight a member and ask them a few questions about how they found CrossFit and what they like about the gym. We try to create an atmosphere that is, where we won't tolerate if people come in and they aren't really pushing themselves. But we are also not a gym that is super bro-ey that is shitting on people if they're not able to do handstand push-ups and things like that higher level stuff. It's trying to walk that fine line between not letting people get away with not pushing themselves, but also not making people feel like shit if they Rich Frowning or somebody like that. I think that's gone a long way.

We try and do or have been doing more events recently. The past 3 we have done have been in-house competitions. We've made all of the events accessible to every member so we didn't have any events where there is a muscle-up or a pull-up because a lot of people can't do pull-ups. This has created an atmosphere where people feel comfortable with the level of fitness they're at but also people know that this is a place where you're going to come work out and you're going to work out hard.

One of the things that we haven't been great about and I am looking to do more with is to set up extra-curricular, curricular that's a funny word for a CrossFit gym but, things like playing pick-up basketball once a month or something like that. So you can express the athleticism you are gaining, you aren't lifting weights. You're doing something that's fun and it gets people together. We do a lot of happy hours, maybe about once a month we do a happy hour, everybody lets loose. I have 2 beers which is my limit. Stuff like that has done it for us. Community could be better but right now it's really good. It could be great but it's definitely a good solid community.

Peter: Do you see people from your community spontaneously getting together on their own? Or doing things together outside of the gym?

Jake: There are a few groups who meet up. There was one group that was doing an arts and crafts group. A bunch of the girls, a bunch of friends that were there from when I took over the gym that have been getting together. One of our coaches is getting together a team of 3 other girls to do a CrossFit competition “Ladies of Lifting” or something like that. They will get together and practice outside of the gym.

Peter: Shifting to your personal training style or philosophy. You've got those 3 tracks of training that we talked about before. Where does your training style come from? Are you super heavily influenced by CrossFit perceptions? Where does your personal training philosophy come from?

Jake: A little bit from different places. I really love Olympic lifting, people who come to CrossFit are seduced by the Olympic lifts. I've also done 2 USAW certifications. My other head coach Tim did his CrossFit weight lifting certification. We've had Demitri Lapakov who was a bronze medalist in the 2008 Olympics, he's done 2 seminars with us. We recently have got Kyle Ernst who is from Texas but was at a USAW training in Colorado for a long time and part of the Jr. National team. He did one seminar with us and is going to do another and we are planning on bringing him in every couple of weeks.

So that's that. I've looked into to what sets us apart and that's played a huge part in, I'm researching Olympic lifting programs and looking the percentages and reps that they are prescribing and using that to influence how I am programming for CrossFit  classes. Obviously CrossFit is very different. I am of the mind set of taking certain things, there are certain things in CrossFit that I don't agree with but by and large I agree with pretty much most things that the program does but there are certain pieces that I feel are missing. So I've looked to Olympic lifting.

One of the big problems that I see with CrossFit , the way that CrossFit trains people in Olympic lifts is that they are always pushing people to failure. It's always, whenever it's clean day you're going for a max clean. Whenever it's snatch day you're going for a max snatch and the problem with that is that you miss a lot of reps and you hit a new PR but on the way you missed 8 lifts. One of the things, in pretty much every Olympic program I've seen, focuses on the meat and potatoes of their program is 80%. Most of their programs are at 80% so you build a shit-load of volume making lifts at a decent weight but you're not missing any. You're training your body to make the lift rather than miss it. So that's one thing that I think people get wrong. I recently did a seminar in California called Strong Fit with a guy named Julian Penault who had a podcast on barbell shrugs, which is f*cking fantastic if you haven't checked it out. But he looks at a lot of holes in the CrossFit program and addresses them with "strong man" principles. Kind of very easy stuff like overhead yolk bearings is one of his, sled drags another one of his big things and sandbag carries. I actually just got back from that and we got some sand bags and just got a yolk and we're going to be doing a strong man day on Saturdays.

I am always open for ideas. I'm always looking around and trying to read things and find out what makes the most sense possible. There is not one perfect program, there is never going to be. It is certainly not for every person. Men respond differently to volume than women do, so you have to take that into account when you're writing a program. I'm constantly digging myself deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, but I love it.

Peter: You actually purchased CrossFit Rep, and when you did that you had about 35 members, and then you went to 115. That's amazing.

Jake: Yeah. Basically I had a bunch of really crazy ideas when I bought the gym. One of my ideas was that I was going to offer a half priced membership to strippers to get a bunch of really hot girls to the gym. That way all the guys in town would be like oh yea, we gotta work out there. Destiny from Yellow Rose is there! Obviously I did not go that route. I called a friend, a buddy who is not the owner but he runs a very successful gym in New Jersey called Gorilla Fitness, he is a long time friend. I gave him a call and ran that idea by him but he said, “yeah I don't think you want to do that.” Basically his counsel to me, and this is the way that I've run the business, is put every dollar that you make back into the business. Don't waste any money on marketing, run an ethical business and in the long run that is going to pay you more dividends. And that's basically the way that I've run my business. There is no one in there that is only paying for a half priced membership because they are more attractive than somebody else.

I don't waste money, every dollar that I make, besides paying my mortgage and buying organic food at Whole Foods, goes back to the gym. I am buying more barbells, I am doing everything I can to make the environment at the gym as good as possible because the clients are priority, these are the businesses that grow from the ground up. You can waste a bunch of money on a billboard and get people in your gym but the gym sucks because you spent all your money on billboards across town it's not going to do you anything. And a large part of that also was, I haven't really wanted the type of client that I had to find through a billboard. I wanted the type of client that has wanted to find CrossFit. And those are the people that we get. Every now and then you get a bad apple but they tend to weed themselves out.

Peter: I think this will be really helpful to a lot of box owners out there. I talk with a lot of people who seem to have around 80 members and are just stalled out at 80 members. What is one actionable thing that they could do today or tomorrow to start getting more members or to follow on a similar path that you have taken?

Jake: One thing that I do, I actually haven't done this in a little while, I've done this maybe 2 or 3 times. At the end of class I've asked them, “hey guys if you're happy with the gym and don't mind taking 2 minutes out of your day at home tonight when you go home and writing us a review online.” That's how people find gyms. They find gyms through Yelp and through Google. If you go about that, it's solicitous obviously, but if you go about it in the right way and you're correct in your phrasing and you say, “hey guys look I just want you to know that we don't spend any money on advertising here, every dollar that we make we're putting back into the business. If you feel good and are enjoying your experience at the gym. If you wouldn't mind writing us a quick review we would really appreciate it.” That does wonders for the business and the more people we bring in here the more we can turn back around and do for the business. I've given that speech maybe 2 or 3 times and that probably, if I were to single out one thing, has been the largest factor in bringing people into the gym.

Peter: You've got inbound clients and you've got clients leaving. Is there anything that you do to keep clients around? Or anything specific?

Jake: Yes, so a linear strength program, especially as Americans when you do karate, you have a belt system. You have to see improvement, especially in strength training you don't see that when you step on a scale. A lot of times you weigh more because as you know, muscle weighs more than fat does. That can be discouraging for people and if you are able to give people you're not going to be able to set people a goal as far as a muscle-up but you can do a sit-up tabata. So somebody shows up for their first session, at the end of the session we set them up for a sit-up tabata. So we're looking at an average number of sit-ups that they are getting per round. Then we repeat that same test 2 months later and the client are amazed. “Holy crap I was averaging 5 sit-ups every 20 seconds when I showed up here and now I can do 12.” Now you are showing somebody that the program is working and maybe they step on the scale and it’s giving them the same readout or they weigh more but their clothes fit better and they understand that they are stronger.

So giving someone concrete goals and being able to show them that they are advancing through a strength program, that will keep people. Community is obviously huge, people make friends and if you can develop a great community and create a positive place where you are high-fiving everyone after the work out, people are getting each other pumped up. Those are all things that will keep people there. It's creating immense value for the client to see that.

Peter: It is really interesting that you said that you don't do any marketing. Are there any marketing channels that you absolutely hate? One thing that comes to my mind is that I see a lot of boxes doing Groupon.

Jake: That is actually something the original Box owner Robyn told me to avoid like the plague and that was great advice. I don't do Groupon I never have. I've had clients approach me about group discounts. “Hey we’ve got a group of 6 people from Wells Fargo that want to sign up, what can you do? Can you do $70 a month?” No I can't. I am not going to devalue my service because I know that the program that we've written is awesome, our equipment is awesome, our coaches are awesome. I am not going to undervalue. That's fine if you're going to try and undercut other businesses it's like a race to the bottom line. Say we sell our membership for $99 a month and the guy around the corner is going to $95 then the next month you're at $90. It's not going to work. We have a pretty competitive price point for our membership, were at $140 a month now. It's as low as I feel comfortable going. It's a fair price, it's more than a fair price and I am not going to devalue it. Groupon makes me want to curse it's name. I would never do Groupon. If people approach me and say, “this membership is really expensive, I love the training but the membership is too high.” OK, well come back to us when you can afford it. I am sorry but that is the price, this isn't a used car this is a gym.

Note: the preceding interview has been edited for flow and clarity.


  • Peter Keller

    Hey Dillon, thanks for the comment! I’ll reach out to you separately. Let’s get a interview recorded where you tell us why you like Groupon.

    I’m not trying to bash Groupon or promote them- I just mentioned them to Jake since it’s a polarizing topic and I thought he might have a viewpoint.

  • Dillon

    A lot of discontent for Groupon, but why be so discouraging to something you’ve never even tried? Devalue your service? Find a way for it to make you money, then let them see your value.

    We are launching our first Groupon this Friday and fashioned it in a way that we will lose $0, discount nothing, and bring in more members. We’re actually making $$$ on a service that we previously offered for free to first-time customers.

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