Test the water before taking the plunge

Taking inspiration from industry leaders is a good business strategy, but adopting their practises wholesale can be dangerous, says Justin Tamsett. For true success you must research, plan and test before implementing radical change.

It is frequently said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The astute club owner or manager will agree with this, and will keep one eye on trends and new developments both within, and outside of, the industry to get ideas for differentiating their club from the competition. Whether it’s programs, equipment, marketing methods, sales techniques or even the product we are delivering, it is important to keep your mind open to new ways of doing things. It is equally important, however, to stay true to your business’s unique circumstances, brand and clientele.

At this year’s FILEX convention, delegates were subject to some genuinely innovative thinking from the many Australian and international presenters. To my mind, two in particular – Thomas Plummer and Ingrid Owen – were talking game-changing strategies. Thomas openly challenged the business model for fitness businesses in the coming years, and Ingrid revealed how integrating group training into 24 Hour Fitness, and overhauling its company culture, massively increased the US club chain’s success.

Many people I spoke with during and post convention were similarly struck by the big message of these presenters and expressed their desire to implement their ideas. While it was encouraging to see club owners and managers taking inspiration from successful industry leaders, I must confess to feeling some consternation at the prospect of them potentially overhauling their business models based on other people’s experiences.

From the outside looking in on these experiences, we say ‘WOW!’ and can get carried away with the desire to copy or implement the strategies immediately. The fact is, many of the ideas that challenge our current business models have become successful after a great deal of thinking and planning. Those implementing the changes have looked at all arguments – for and against – for the product delivery strategy, the pricing concept and so on. They have researched, designed, changed, updated and finally arrived at the model that works best for them. It is never a case of overnight success: a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes.

In his book Great by Choice, Jim Collins shares a great analogy for making strategic changes in your business: rifles and cannonballs. In 18th century warship conflicts you could destroy your enemy with cannonballs – if you could hit him. The problem was, there was no way of knowing how far any ship at sea was from you, how fast it was moving, or how strong the wind was blowing – three vital factors for accurately firing a cannonball. It could take a dozen or more precious cannonballs before you found the range and hit your target.

Wise captains did not waste their cannonballs, weighing 15 or 20 kilos apiece. Instead, they shot rifle bullets, weighing only a few grams. By using the rifle shots, which were low cost, low risk and comparatively inconspicuous, they could test the strength of the wind, the distance of the ship and the speed at which it was travelling.

Once they had hit the target with the practise rifle shots, they would switch to cannonballs. This meant the gunners did not need to possess brilliant skills or insights: they simply had to practice low cost experimentation.

Too often, when a good idea comes along, undisciplined captains fire ‘un-calibrated cannonballs’, having no idea whether they’ll hit the target. This can lead to calamity – probably more often than it does to success. Missing the target uses up resources, thereby limiting the ability to fund future endeavours.

Every business has its own idiosyncrasies. This uniqueness means that what works in Los Angeles may not work in Melbourne or Mount Gambier.

Business owners have a responsibility to improve their business while providing members and clients with the best opportunities. It is also crucial that the team at the club is confident that the business is heading in a clear direction. If we lurch from idea to idea based on the latest book we have read or speaker we have heard, we are not providing stability for the business. And, of course, we also need to make a profit. These key responsibilities can be impacted if we launch into a new business strategy on the basis of a speaker at a conference saying that it worked for them.

While it is excellent business practice to not sit on our laurels, we should also listen to a wide-ranging selection of ideas before embarking on any radical change. We need to do our own research, planning and testing. We need to fire our own rifle shots before wheeling out the big cannons!


Justin Tamsett
A 25-year veteran of the fitness industry, Justin facilitates four REX Round Tables in Australia and New Zealand. As managing director of Active Management, he consults with clubs in sales, customer service, retention and marketing. In 2011, he was inducted into the Fitness Australia Roll of Honour and in 2008 was named Australian Fitness Network Presenter of the Year. For free business resources, including webinars, podcasts, reports and newsletters, visit www.ActiveMgmt.com.au or like www.Facebook.com/ActiveManagement