9 Lessons From 5 Years In a Start-Up Business

ACALÍ has been on the go for 5 years this year. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the doors opened for the first time, or since we moved into our new city centre location on Bishop Street. In the last 5 years we have:

  • Conducted over 600 one to one consultations with new members to help them get started on their strength and movement training journey at ACLAÍ

  • Carried out over 10,000 training sessions with our members

  • Trained 12 coaches on our unique strength and movement training methods

  • Created a training method that is fully integrated and inclusive for people of all levels of ability

Developing our system of personal training to help people in Cork get healthy, sports people to improve their performance, and people with injuries or who are post-operation to get back to being fully functional and freely moving has been the biggest single project of my life so far, and at the 5 year mark, I think that we are well on the road in the right direction. From a personal point of view I have worked with people in different parts of the world to learn from their methods, and have sought experience from the worlds of gymnastics, dance, circus, the arts, Olympic weightlifting, strongman, calisthenics, and power lifting to add what is valuable to our own training methods.

Around about this time each year has always been a good time to reflect on what we have achieved in the previous year, and where we are going for the following year, and as the 5 year mark is a good landmark, I though I would share some of the main lessons that I gained in the last 5 years with you.

Where it All Started

Back in 2013 I took the plunge to get ACALÍ off the ground as a training facility that would focus on helping people with their health and fitness, help athletes improve athletic performance, and create a culture of inclusivity, creativity, and cooperation with our members. The motivation behind starting ACLAÍ was to enter the health and fitness world with somewhat of an alternative approach to what is mostly out there.

I really believe that the age of the screaming gym instructor, and purposeless exercise purely for the sake of burning calorie (or 'deleting those cocktails' as I recently heard a mic'ed up fitness instructor screaming at her victims) are numbered. Building a business on the promise of 'six pack abs', 'getting shredded', or 'beach body' is not something that attracted me, and to be honest, not something that I wanted to be associated with.  

Why We Do It The Way We Do It

Strength and movement training can be a really positive influence on both physical and mental health, with both those things being just as important as the other. The goal of ACLAÍ has been to build a sustainable, cooperative, inclusive, and friendly training facility, team, and training method, and to connect people through training and our events in a way that is more meaningful than the stereotypical screaming gym instructor way. Helping people to move better, learning how to train in a way that creates long term results, and enjoying the process. (Easier said than done I hear myself say with the beauty of hindsight.)

Below are 9 big lessons that I take from the last 5 years of the journey with ACLAÍ. Some of them I had a fair idea of before I started and others I had no clue about, but all of them have been thoroughly put to the test during the day to day running of ACLAÍ over the last 5 years. I put this post together so that they might be useful to anyone who is going through the process of starting a business at the moment, and also to give our members an idea of the road that has been travelled to get ACLAÍ to the place that it is in today.

1. Learn about tax

Sole trader, limited company, VAT, PAYE, income tax, ROS, expenses sheets. These are all things that I wish I knew more about when I started off with ACLAÍ as it would have saved a hell of a lot of time and money to have been in the know about the above things from the get-go. "You learn from your mistakes", as they say and I certainly learned the hard way about all of the above. I put this lesson first because it resulted in a make or break situation that put me on the cross road between walking away from 2 years of hard work, or soldiering on to follow the dream. At one stage, the county sheriff rang me to tell me he was standing outside the gym and was going in to make a seizure of the equipment on account of unpaid revenue bills. This was a particularly low moment, but was the turning point where I committed to getting ACALÍ completely debt free and operating sustainably. This has since been achieved and has resulted in a space that facilitates creativity and progress in a way that can be very difficult to do when most of the money coming in the door is going back out again to pay off loans and debts.

The three main action steps that came on the back of realising that I knew nothing about tax affairs were to:

  1. Invest time in learning the basics myself

  2. Getting an accountant on board to help with the books

  3. Systemizing how we process our vat returns, pay our tax, budget, and stay up to date with all payments. (We use SageOne for payroll and Accounting for anyone who is looking for an easy and effective software.)

2. Have a Value Based Filter

Everything we do at ACLAÍ passes through the filter of our values before a finger is lifted. If we want to try something new, I ask myself the following three questions: 

  1. Does this represent the standard of QUALITY that we value?

  2. Will our ALL of our members ENJOY this new approach?

  3. Does this meet the high ETHICAL standard that we have set for ourselves at ACLAÍ?

If a new training program is based on smashing someone to pieces in training without regard to the quality if movement it doesn’t pass the filter. If a new project will exclude some of our members or seems like a pointless exercise without purpose, it doesn’t pass. If something seems unfair, unethical, unsustainable, or feels wrong, it doesn’t pass.  

There are so many things to decide on during a. typical week in any business that this filter has served as an easy method for me to make a speedy decision one way or another without having to think about it too much afterwards.  

3. Invest in building a team

What started as a one man show, quickly evolved into a project that needed a team that shared the vision of ACLAÍ, and were motivated to make progress personally, professionally, and collectively. Over the years, we have had some great coaches passing through, and today we have a small and dedicated team in Orla-Peach Power on administrative duty, and Alan Dineen and Baptiste Vergé on coaching duty.

Starting with the right people is essential, but spending time growing into a team and developing a work flow that creates a functional work environment, promotes creativity and cooperation, is responsive to feedback and essential changes, and consistently gets the job done to the right standard is something that requires time, communication, and hard work. Our regular team meetings, coaching meeting, admin meetings, and daily communication is the key to making the ACLAÍ machine purr.

The team at ACALÍ are on the same page when it comes to the standard that is expected from each member of the team, and know the mission, goals, and values of the business. Fine tuning the team dynamics is a long term project and one that has paid off in spades with regard to our coaching consistency and the standard of service that we can provide to our members. Its also a work in progress. The main point is, investing in building the team has been one of the top lessons of the last 5 years.

4. Build a sustainable system

The three mottos that I have had on repeat for the last five years when it comes to our systems at ACALÍ are:

1) Would this work if we had 100 people training with us?

2) how can I make this job easier the next time it comes around?

3) Has this been done in a way that I can show someone else how to do it just as effectively.

Number 1 comes from wanting to build a business that can scale to a sustainable level and still maintain a high quality service for everyone who come sin the door. Number 2 comes from being able to fine tune a process so that each time a repetitive job needs to be completed that it doesn’t take as much time to do it the next time around. Number 3 comes from the necessity of having to delegate and share jobs among the team so to free up time and space for the next job that needs to be done that has not yet been systemized or streamlined. If you were able to see the walls of our office (ACLAÍ command centre!), you would see the extent to which we have worked on building a sustainable system. They are covered with process maps and flow charts for just about everything we do individually and collectively at ACALÍ. This has helped create a productive work environment and cut back on the time that it takes to complete tasks consistently, and allowing more space for creating new programs, projects, and ideas.

5. Focus on the individual

In some ways, this lesson is the opposite of the 'Build a sustainable system' lesson. Instead of focusing on the big picture and how the service can be scaled, it has been equally important to zone in on the individual member at ACLAÍ, their needs, their concerns, and their progress. A big lesson for me has been to learn that the business must operate as if we only had one member and that they are the most important member that we will ever have, as well as being able to deal with large numbers. During our weekly team meetings on Mondays, we go through each and every individual member at ACALÍ to assess their progress and work together on any special requirements that they have at the moment. This can range from a specialist program to deal with an injury, upcoming competition, a change of program during Ramadan, or a few tweaks here and there to help a member burst through a training plateau.

Focusing on an individual member can mean setting the rule book aside for while, and just spending a bit of time to get to know the people who have entrusted us to help them with their health a bit better. Enjoying peoples company, and training with them when the opportunity arises and not always assuming the role of the conductor of the orchestra. Every single person has their own interesting story, and my top favourite thing about ACALÍ is getting to know our members and hear their stories. This has to happen on a human face-to-face level, and it is something that has to happen if we are to fulfil our goal of creating a genuine and friendly experience for our members when they are in with us. Which brings me to the next major lesson of the last 5 years…

6. Curate a genuine and enjoyable experience

There is a world of difference between bringing someone through a training session, and curating a genuine and enjoyable experience for a member during their time between our 4 walls. The designed flow of experiences from the very second a person sees the front of the gym, walks in the door, goes to the dressing room, gets ready for a session, trains, cools down, gets dressed, and walks out of the gym. From the music, the temperature, the vibes, the space, and the program, everything contributes to the overall experience, and assuming responsibility for each one of those variables has been a major lesson over the last 5 years.

Of course, the program is an absolutely essential part of the experience. It needs to be well designed to match the ability levels, and goals of the member, and we spend a lot of time and effort on our programming.  However, imagine a top class program in an untidy gym, the wrong kind of music, a bored coach, or an intimidating environment. It just would not work. On the other hand, a friendly environment, accessible equipment, and supportive coach can boost a members mood and create a positive work environment and create an overall happy experience during the session. Something that can be very well appreciated at 6:30am in the morning or after a hard day at work.

There is a lot more to it than the program.

7. Find The purpose of whole thing

Do what you believe in - if it feels wrong then? Health. DO you follow your own training advice? If not, why not? For me it comes down to believing in what I teach. If I advise someone to do XYZ but don’t do it myself, then XYZ must either be a bluff, or I am one of those 'do as I say not as I do' people, which can be seen from 10 miles away.

The big purpose of ACALÍ is to help our members move better and improve their health. Learning how to train, developing strength and mobility in an enjoyable way, and making movement a part of daily life again are all aspects of our mission.

Another core part of our purpose is to bring people together. We are social beings, and even though we are more connected to each other than ever before, digitally speaking, there has never been a time when person to person communication and cooperation has been more important than it is now. From our social get togethers, groups training sessions, and sharing the space with each other every day, bringing people together is a big part of what makes ACLAÍ what it is.

Creating and learning are essential for health and for having an inner sense of purpose. As a lesson, I apply this to myself individually, to the staff at ACALÍ, and to the members. With the space to create new programs, come up with fresh ideas about how we can help our members get to the next level or how we can bring people together gives me a huge sense of purpose and a motivation to keep going. Giving the coaches the space to express their opinions and create new ideas and programs is essential for our collective progress and their individual development, and this is all made possible by the great members that we work with. When the members are learning new skills and developing new strengths it gives them a sense of achievement and a feeling that the training is going somewhere is crucial for long term participation and enjoyment of strength and movement training.

8. Things take time.

This seems to be an unavoidable fact. A lot of the systems I developed with ACLAÍ over the last 5 years have been done to save time, so that I can move on to the next things that needs to be created, developed, or tweaked. Actual hours working on something is a basic requirement for creating something worthwhile. Time spent thinking about doing things, or time spent worrying about something that is yet undone does not count towards the time it takes to actually make something happen. 

Sometimes (a lot of the time), I have a picture in my head of how I would like something to be, and when that doesn’t match up with the reality of how it is, it can be frustrating. For example, if I have a particular process in my head for how people book themselves in for sessions at ACLAÍ, but its not quite working the way I would like it too…it can be a bit of a pain. But most of the time this is just a signal that this process needs more work and time to reach the standard that we want.

The most basic representation of this idea is the 10,000 hour rule that suggests that you must but in 10,000 of quality practice to truly become an expert at something. You can have the best ideas, best staff, best location, best programs, but the system as a whole needs some real man/woman hours to reach a level of excellence and mastery.

The key tools that I personally use to make sure that my time is allocated in the right places for forward movement are:

  1. iCal

  2. Trello

  3. Notebook (the paper kind)

I have my iCal synched between laptop, desktop, phone, and our backend customer support system so I can clearly see my appointments and block out time for other projects and tasks each week. I use Trello for project managing things like the Rebel Matters Podcast and the Strength and Movement program that we run for the Rebel Wheelers Multisport Club. My hardback notebook is nearly always within arms reach to write down ideas, take notes at meetings, and to make my task list each day.

The bottom line for me on this one is: It takes time. Real time. Not pretend time.

9. Keep going back to The Basics

Going back to the basics of the service that we offer and our core mission is the default action when things seem to be getting a bit out of hand, or we are in a bit of a lull. Getting back to making some great programs, improving something about the experience of the members, or getting people together to lift some weights has always been a great way to re-centre and re-focus the efforts. This is where the importance of having a mission and some core values outlined in advance of the shit hitting the fan, or before overwhelm from a new project sets in. I would say that its pretty hard to establish your core values when you are in the throws of getting something done for a deadline, where it is much easier to get back to the basics as long as you have identified what the basics are in peacetime. 

Overall, I can summarise my own pre-determined basics as follows:

Mission

  • To help our members achieve their goals, and bring people together.

Values

  • Quality, Inclusive, and Ethical

ACLAÍ Approach

  • Move with quality, real food for real life, lead by example, create positive change

Basics of Training

  • Mobilise, Lift, Squat, Push, Pull, Carry, Getup

Energy

  • Get good sleep, drink more water, eat three good meals, go outside, move

Productivity

  • Make a list and pick the top priority thing on the list. Work on this one thing.

The above are not rules or commandments, just pointers that allow me to bring myself back to the basics when things seem to get a bit out of joint. Which one of the above things to focus on just depends on what's going on at the time. If I find myself in a training lull, I can just go in to the gym, warm up, squat, carry, and leave. If I have low energy, I will drink more water, go outside, get a good sleep etc. You get the picture. This strategy has worked well over the last number of years to be able to do a self check-in and address whatever is going on.

Thank you for taking the time to read through this larger than usual post. leave a comment or though below if you would like to get in touch, and if you are interested in coming on board at ACALÍ as a member, you can book yourself fin for a free consultation at this link right here.