Do you have an older relative in your family who talks about how it was “back in my day” and refuses to move on from his beloved, prepaid flip phone?
I think we all know at least one.
These unique but lovable characters are so funny to us because we can’t seem to understand why they are so adamantly against change.
Change is hard, though.
CrossFit’s short history over the past 15 years illustrates that.
Many of us remember gyms that were gritty, dirty, loud, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. In fact, it was this garage gym appeal that initially drew the early adopters to the scene.
But with any trend, CrossFit evolved. The market expanded to more of the mainstream folks, and what used to work in the past no longer did.
Pukie the Clown was no longer part of the inner circle. We canceled his membership and started handing out gym towels.
We took “HTFU” off the wall, and we started using words like “value,” “customer service,” and “premium.”
There was certainly a change in the members we saw come into CrossFit gyms, but what about the owners?
Suffice it to say, many of us know of gym owners who had simply had enough and either closed their gyms or sold them.
They were burned out, disillusioned, and unsure of where to go. The CrossFit they fell in love with was no longer around.
This is why it’s exceptionally rare to see gym owners who have crossed the chasm and come out the other side alive and well.
One of these gym owners is Danny Wisniewski, owner of CrossFit Central Lancaster, also known as The Hive, in Lancaster, UK.
Danny’s story is much like any other: he had a normal job at a factory, discovered CrossFit in 2010, then he opened up his own gym in 2012, as he said, “straight out of the back of the Level 1. I had some PT qualifications, but no business knowledge. Just opened an affiliate. Let’s just train and hope this thing works.”
What he did know was that he needed 24 people to break even.
Sounds like a recipe for success, huh?
We are lucky today as gym owners, where we have a wealth of resources at our fingertips. We only have to listen in to a few videos and podcasts to quickly understand that “no business knowledge” and “break even” is a bad strategy for any gym owner.
Unsurprisingly, even though Danny gained a lot of members over a short period of time, four years into gym ownership, he was burned out.
“I was working all the hours myself, coaching all the hours. I had like, a coach, who picked up maybe two hours a week, nothing major. She took a day off my book, but that day still consisted of programming, email, all the general stuff. I was the cleaner, the coach, the programmer, the receptionist–every job within the business. That was me. I was that guy.”
Danny wasn’t just burned out.
“It was 2016, I actually told the members, ‘That’s it. The doors are closing.’“
Danny ran his business and personal life into a brick wall, and he didn’t know how to recover. In the fog of burn out and fatigue, Danny turned outward, reaching out to Tye at Affiliate Solution, now known as Vive Group.
Even then, it wasn’t smooth sailing from there.
“I was just broken,” as he laughed, “It was just like, ‘I don’t even know if I want to push ahead.'”
Tye forced him to confront the fork in the road.
“You close and you go with someone else, and I guarantee you’ll hate it. Or you’ll decide that you push ahead.”
It was so tempting for Danny to shut down his gym, he took a full week to think about it. He finally realized that however unhappy he currently was, he wouldn’t be any happier anywhere else.
“[Tye said] ‘You can work down the road anywhere, but you will hate it.’ And I spoke to my wife, and she said, ‘You will. You will not be able to after two years of working for yourself. Going back would be such a struggle.’ … I was rock bottom. It was a last-ditch effort.”
How extraordinarily difficult it must have been to take a leap of faith when he was clearly at the end of his rope.
What pushed him to make the changes his gym needed?
“I tried everything that I believed would make it work, and it was just having someone else guide me. I was accountable not just to myself but to Tye, then I would get the stuff done I needed to.”
Or put it simply, “I didn’t want to fail. I don’t like quitting.”
For ten weeks, Danny and Tye worked together to solve some of Danny’s biggest pain points at the gym, but it was really over the next two years that Danny made all the changes he did.
“You can take the band-aid off nice and gently, or you can whip it off. Which one are you gonna do? And I thought, ‘I’m just going to do it gently.'”
Changes to CrossFit Central Lancaster
The main struggle Danny had in the beginning was open gym. What was initially a nice-to-have offering for the members turned out to be what drove him to almost close the doors.
“I just saw people following programming they just weren’t ready for, just messing themselves up, and I thought, ‘This isn’t what I got into CrossFit for.’ […] In 2010, it was a good time where [CrossFit] was about moving well and getting together with a bunch of like-minded individuals. Then the competition side took over and it ruined my business. I had to pull [open gym] back. So that’s what we did.”
Danny shut down open gym, but he learned a valuable lesson in what happens when you make the tough decisions necessary for your business.
“When [we no longer offered open gym], yeah, I got called an a**hole and all sorts of things, but it’s all worth it to not have the hassle and not have these toxic people affect my gym.”
Fortunately, this move turned out to be better than he ever anticipated, “When the open gym went, I lost 13 members. Within four weeks we gained 21, and it was people who came back because they didn’t like those people.”
Over the course of two years, Danny streamlined their membership options, rebranded, and implemented a number of staff members and systems, to include a General Manager, Coaches Development Program, and retention program, to name a few.
Today, his life and gym are night and day compared to how they were back in 2016.
“It’s a complete turnaround. There’s no talk about closing or quitting. It’s just the gym practically runs itself. We don’t need to do marketing because people are constantly coming in. […] Before, I was doing everything. […] I didn’t have a holiday. I didn’t take any time off. [Now] we have a break twice a year.”
The Real Transformation
Throughout the interview, Danny quoted nuggets from business books like E-Myth, Rework, Raving Fans, and How to Win Friends and Influence People. From someone who admittedly started as a gym owner with zero business knowledge, the transformation he had clearly made over the years was awe-inspiring.
Danny did absolutely whatever it took to survive.
He let go of his ego, and he let someone else lead the way for a little bit.
“I can either look after this thing and take the guidance from someone who I felt was clued up and knew what he was talking about, or [I can] shut the doors and just crash and burn.”
The gym transformation aside, Danny had to undergo a mental transformation that many gym owners from that period in CrossFit had difficulty making. He wasn’t just expected to improve his business–he had to change it radically.
“I’ve got six friends who all shut their gyms or sold them. They’re now doing something completely different. And I think I owe it to Affiliate Solution because I’m still going. It was such a change. The difference was, being a coach and trying to run a business, I’m not a businessman. And what Tye did was give me all the tools I needed to run a business.”
Danny was all smiles, even as he relayed story after story of the setbacks he endured over the past seven years. It was both baffling and reaffirming to see someone who could take his previous failures in total stride–like a true entrepreneur.
What’s even more surprising is that, despite his misadventures, Danny learned to build a team and trust his staff members today more than ever.
“We have five incredible individuals now, who build their own thing. […] It’s not just ‘You’re a coach at The Hive,’ it’s actually about, ‘You’ve got this thing, you train kids,’ and I want that to be a business in itself […] I don’t want employees, I want a team of individuals who are driving forward to make their business and my business something special, and I think that’s something we’ve got.”
Experience Leads to Wisdom
The lessons Danny has learned over the years have infused him with wisdom and clarity as to what is truly important for both himself and the business.
Even though he has come to value the business lessons he has learned from books and others, he is clearly a man of values first.
“Currently we have 86 [members]. I don’t like going over 100. […] I’ve been at 153 members, and that’s where I was wanting to close the doors. It wasn’t just about the money. It was about me having quality of life and balance.”
Revenue doesn’t mean a whole lot if you’re burned out.
That said, Danny can comfortably talk to the business tactics as much as he can his personal mission statement. It’s his versatility and ease in both the short and the long view that truly make him an adaptable leader who can thrive anywhere.
If there is anyone who deserves a happy ending, it’s Danny. Today, Danny not only makes a great living, but he also has a great life.
“If I didn’t go into the gym for the next six months, I would go back and it’d still be there. It’d probably be a bit better than I left. Now, I don’t have a job. I have a business.”
Author: Chelsea Ricketson
Chelsea runs CrossFit Lobo with her boyfriend Lee in San Antonio, Texas and is Vive Group’s latest staff writer. She also writes about her journey as a gym owner on the great Almost Elite blog. Follow more of her writing here!