Manny Alayon, owner of North East CrossFit, gave a candid interview about his business which currently has 250+ members. In a relatively short time (4 years), his box has risen to become a dominant force in the Lower Hudson Valley with a membership that is quite literally triple the size of many area boxes. He shares many of his best practices as well as his mistakes for the betterment of the community so that all box owners are able to find the success he’s had. Be on the look out for North East CrossFit. For Alayon, this is only the beginning.
North East CrossFit is in Eastchester which is in Westchester County, NY. We are 30 minutes from Rockland County and 30 minutes from the city. When we first opened, we were in Scarsdale about seven minutes from our current location. The main reason for the move was size. We were in a 750 square foot store front. It was tiny. It just wasn’t the ideal spot. We were in a storefront and we didn’t really need a storefront. It didn’t really help us bring in more people.
We chose Eastchester because Scarsdale didn’t have any affordable space available. There’s virtually no warehouse space in Scarsdale. And also, we didn’t have a lot of the Scarsdale population which would be a lot of the stay at home moms who do Soul Cycle and other boutique fitness classes.
Eastchester ended up being a really fantastic location because we are close to really a few highways. We’re about five minutes away from 287, the Sprain, the Bronx River, and the Hutch. We neighbor Scarsdale, Bronxville, Yonkers, and New Rochelle. We border a lot of really cool towns and we were very lucky to find a nice, big open space where we could make noise and parking is pretty available.
We got very lucky finding our space, but we moved in here prematurely and got shut down by the building department after about six months. It took us three months to get all the necessary permits after that. It was a big obstacle because we had to vacate the space almost immediately. Luckily, one of my coaches owned a baseball training facility called Frozen Ropes which was about 20 minutes away. A lot of the clients followed and that was where we hung out in the mean time.
So that kind of sucked because we had a lot of momentum with the new space and that kind of put our plans on hold for a little bit. Yeah, we lost a lot of people. I think right before that happened, we were at like 120 members and growing pretty steadily. About 70 members followed us to Frozen Ropes.
When we got back into the space, some people came back and some people didn’t but over time, a lot of people ended up coming back. I thought I lost them for good because they were at another box and I thought they were settled in. We also dealt with obstacles like being under cut by other gyms as well, but a lot of the members ended up coming back despite those things. Now, we are 250+ members, but at the time, it was extremely stressful.
CORE VALUES AND VISION
Attending a couple of business seminars give me some direction as far as how to create brand, how to create a vision, and then how to create a plan from that vision. Something that has worked really well is to keep everyone on the same page. We communicate a lot- my staff and I. I communicate EVERYTHING with them. If I have an idea, I’m always sharing it with them. I actually created an employee handbook that has our mission statement, our core values, and some protocols. So anytime there is an issue or I need a little bit of motivation, I look back at these core values and it reminds me of pushing forward and creating a plan for that.
SELECTING AND DEVELOPING COACHES
My coaches have had the opportunity to work under me for a while so they are all very familiar with how I like the classes to be structured. They get constant feedback from me as well.
Personality wise, I couldn’t have picked better people. You can have great coach but if they have a shit personality, their skill level doesn’t matter at all. At the end of the day, it’s really all about personality. It’s pretty easy to teach someone how to coach, but you can’t teach someone how to adjust their personality to mesh with each individual they coach. They’re going to meet so many different people with varying needs and they’ve got to know how to stroke everyone the right way. If you have a one track personality, you’re going to have people who really, really like you and some people who hate you. At the end of the day, you actually need everyone to like you. You need everyone to look forward to going to your class. You don’t ever want to create a situation where people don’t want to go to your class.
All of my coaches were once members in the gym, except for Debbie. Debbie is the first coach I have that was not from the inside. The “pros” of hiring a coach from the outside is that they have an easier time earning the respect of the clients. They didn’t start off as “your friend from the box who is now telling you what to do.” And if they are experienced and open, like Debbie is, they bring a different set of tools to the table. This is only an advantage if they are open to change because they also need to learn how your style of coaching. Also, feelings don’t get hurt because the box owner hired an outsider rather than selecting from several people within the gym.
The “cons” can be that it takes longer for this new person to understand the gym’s culture and way of doing things. Molding them has the potential to be harder if they are not open to new ideas. Experienced outsiders will almost always come with habits they have developed that you have to change. That takes patience and consistent feedback. Also, it can be difficult to put trust into someone you don’t know very well. Realistically, you are giving a huge responsibility to someone that you don’t know on a super personal level.
I really like pulling coaches from within the box because they know the environment. They know the vibe. They were a student under you. They weren’t apprentices- they were actually a student- so from a teaching standpoint, to teach them how to be coaches is a little bit easier because all they know is you. You pretty much mold them from the ground up.
Now, I chose my coaches based off of personality. So Adam, who was one of my first coaches, wanted to coach and I saw how he clicked with members in the community. I saw that he was respected so we started from there. I pick them out based on personality. I look at them and say to myself, “Do the members respect them currently and can I see them leading a group of people?” If the answer is yes and if I could imagine taking a five hour road trip with them (since I’ll need to be able to work closely with them), then I think they have the makings to be a decent coach.
Another coach, Cameron, was a really well respected athlete within our community. He was 23 when he started so most members were older than him. It was intimidating and a bit of an obstacle for him at first, but everyone respected him because of how he carried himself. He wasn’t a cocky little hot shot. He was a mature, a good athlete, and he worked hard so people wanted to learn from him.
That’s how I picked them out. And teaching them how to coach is just a matter of being patient, giving them constant feedback, and making sure that they’re receptive to feedback. If they’re not receptive to feedback, they can not work for you.
TREATING EMPLOYEES WELL
My full time staff is salaried, they can earn a monthly bonus, and they have health coverage. They coach 20 classes per week and also have some side duties like cleaning, helping with social media, etc. They typically work in shifts instead of doing random class hours so they either do 5:30 am to 1:30 pm or 3pm to 9pm. We are still working out the kinks, but I want to create a relaxed yet productive work environment that doesn’t “burn them out.”
LETTING COACHES GO
I’ve been lucky in that it hasn’t happened yet, but at some point, it’s going to happen. We are growing, not only as a gym but as a business, and I anticipate it happening at some point. That’s reality. As a business owner, my vision will change a little bit and the rules are going to change. If someone’s not receptive to that, I have to be prepared to say, “Best of luck with your future stuff.” That’s just going to happen as things go.
We’ve been open for four years (since Feb of 2012) and I haven’t reached that point of normalcy yet. I thought having full time coaches and full time staff would allow me to have more time, but I actually don’t. I work just as much, if not more than I ever have. I’m still at the gym physically 60+ hours per week. I’m here from about 9 am till about 8 pm, M-F. And I’m here either on Saturday or Sunday. I think part of that is because I’m absolutely a control-freak and I need to make sure that things are going my way. My staff is still pretty young in terms of knowing exactly what I want so I like to be around to make sure that my vision and my message are very consistent.
So, right now, I’m still putting in a lot of hours. The only difference now is that I do have some flexibility. If I really don’t want to be at the gym, I don’t need to be because there are always people running it. But I’m am here to make sure it’s being run the right way. I don’t ever want to be a gym owner who just sits around and does nothing. I always want to know my members and want them to know me. I don’t think I could truly every take a back seat and not be around. So yea, I’m always around. But I do anticipate peeling back within the next six months. But there are still some kinks I want to work out and until those have really settled, I’m going to be actively in here.
We are at 250+ members. I feel so fortunate. Traditionally, the summer season is always slow season for us. This is our fourth or fifth summer. Every summer I always look at our data and it’s always slow. Right around now, we always stop seeing people. But just this week, we signed up four or five people. People just keep coming. So I feel super, super lucky. We are a little bit behind our goal, but we are going to get there.
Customer service is everything. We have to make our community happy. And we have to create an atmosphere and a vibe in the gym that is consistent every single day. One thing I’m really big on with my staff is that if you run a class, that class has got to be the same every time. Every single time that you run that class, it’s got to be with the same upbeat energy. It’s got to be with that loud, exciting tone. The structure has got to be on point- the class management, the timing, everything about it. It’s like your show. The class is your theatrical performance.
The biggest thing that we do is word of mouth. We ask for referrals all the time. There is a constant, constant communication between our staff and the members about telling people to come. I send out a weekly e-mail every Wednesday with big news going on in the gym, etc. In that weekly email, we ask for referrals and talk about our referral program. We are super transparent with our members about what we want from them. In the e-mail, I’ll say, “Hey. We love serving the community. We love buying new equipment for you guys. Continue spreading the love and help make our family bigger.” We are constantly asking, asking, asking. So I think that definitely helps us a lot because most of our members come from referrals.
SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE
We create a really big social media presence and put it out there that we are good. Before we were as big as we are now, we created a perception that we were really big because we very active were on social media. We always highlighted our best attributes. We always carried ourselves as if we were bigger than we really were and I think that catches wind.
I’ve been at the same rate for four years. I used to start with contracts- It used to be $195 month to month and the price dropped with a contract. Now, I have two membership options and they are both no- contract. Unlimited is $199 and 3x a week is $169 and we have a couples membership. But those are our two main memberships. We keep our pricing structure simple.
I don’t like contracts because tying people in is intimidating and creates a barrier. We keep a super, super low barrier here. We don’t charge extra for On-Ramps. We don’t do anything sneaky. It’s straight forward. Our potential members see that and they become so comfortable with it because they see that our vibe is relaxed and that our coaches are not in their face. They see no contract so it’s like why wouldn’t they join? I tell them that if they don’t like it after a month, no hard feelings. We’ll shake hands and then just go our separate ways. And it works out well for people. We rarely have people that are here one month and don’t like it.
It’s really huge to always communicate with your members, especially for me now that I don’t get to see everyone. I don’t always show up to the 5:30 am so it’s cool that the members know that even if they don’t see me, I’m still the guy who’s doing the e-mails and I’m still communicating. I’m still part of the community.
We send out a survey monkey quarterly. It’s mainly about the coaching and the services- a “Hey guys. How are we doing?” type thing. As a business owner, people always want to tell you how to run things, but I let people know that I’m not about that. Too many people and too many chefs in the kitchen can be a big issue. But the survey monkey is that opportunity for people to tell me what they like and what they don’t like.
I’ll ask things like, “Who is your favorite coach and why?” and “Who is your least favorite coach and why?” It’s a cut throat thing but because it’s anonymous, I get a lot of honesty. And then I can have individual meetings with my coaches and I can say to them, “This is what I think. This is what they think” and we’ll try to find a happy medium.
If we see a common theme, we talk about that and try and fix those issues. If it’s with the program or service, we’ll ask, “Hey. We have some ideas for a class. What do you guys think of A, B, C?” -that kind of stuff. We try to think of questions that pertain to what’s going on in the gym- problem areas, things we’re doing well, things we’re not doing well. We try to put that in the survey and address it that way.
Currently we have CrossFit, endurance, gymnastics, weightlifting, CrossFit kids, and we are getting more into private coaching now too. Our bread and butter is CrossFit. We believe in CrossFit. I don’t think we’ll ever turn into a gym that branches very far out from it. We’ve talked about possibly offering different types of classes, but right now, the gym is doing so well and our clients are happy with it. I want to evolve, but I don’t want to fix what’s not broken. It’s about finding that balance -noticing when attendance is down because people are bored and knowing how to combat that.
ADVICE FOR WOULD-BE BOX OWNERS
It’s the best job in the world. I can’t picture myself doing anything else. I love coaching. But being a box owner is not as glamorous as people think. I talk to my coaches about this because I want to know their future goals. I start every single staff meeting by saying to them, “Guys if you ever want to open up a box or you guys want to do different things, communicate with me. If it is something I can help you with, then I want to support.” But they do get warnings about opening up nearby and trying to take NECF members with them. As long as they are respectful about it and don’t poach. I’m not one of those people who will rip them apart if they’re trying to open a box. Would you hate your kids for going to college? No, you don’t. You’re happy for them. That’s kind of how I look at it.
But at the same time, I try to be very realistic with them. I’ve been in this for four years and I’m not making the money that, personally, I think I should be making. I’m so invested in it that I’m happy and it doesn’t really matter that much.
Owing a box can be super stressful and you have to be willing to work odd hours. You have to be ready to work 24/7, to answer your phone at midnight, and to answer e-mails at midnight. If you don’t do that, there’s someone out there who is doing it who will be more successful than you.
If you have an incredible work ethic and a drive and a motivation, then you should be a box owner. If you are someone who looks at 60 hour weeks and you dread it and feel like it’s going to be a lot, then you have no business being a box owner. You should just be a coach and do the part that you like doing. Because if you don’t enjoy working 50-60 hours a week and not knowing when that’s going to end, then being a box owner is not for you because it’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of stress, man.
OVERCOMING ADVERSITY AND ACHIEVING GREATNESS
We’ve had some really nasty up and downs. At times, a lot of people would have called it quits. When we got kicked out of here, it was the most stressful period of my life. I didn’t know if we were going to get back in and I had to take a salary cut. It was such a wake up call for me. It lit such a fire under my ass that now I’ll never settle. I’ll never become complacent. I just have so many big plans for the gym and now that I have a staff, I have big plans for them because I don’t want them to leave.
In the future, my ultimate goal is for North East CrossFit to become a flagship gym; A gym that people around the world have heard of the same way people from around the world have heard of CrossFit New England, CrossFit Invictus, and Reebok gyms. I want North East CrossFit to be that. We are in an uphill battle because we aren’t a heavily backed up gym. We aren’t backed up by a million dollar investor. This was opened up on a credit card, man. It’s pretty incredible.
But that’s my ultimate goal for it. I want to grow into separate areas. I want this box to have different in house services- an in house chiro/pt person, an in house massage therapist, etc. I want North East CrossFit to be a one stop shop for health and wellness. And I want to give more opportunity to my current staff so they can grow within the company. I want to create different roles for them so that they have a future.
Photo credit: North East CrossFit coach Cameron Hudson