Bent u trots op de missie van uw bedrijf? Een gesprek met Special Strong CEO, Daniel Steinjuli 28, 2020
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Does your company have a mission statement? If so, it likely includes general platitudes like, “deliver shareholder value” or, “lead the market in our category.”
But do you feel compelled by that mission? We feel lost by corporate slogans and marketing campaigns carefully worded to appeal to the largest market.
One look at Special Strong and you feel something is different. My introduction to the Texas-based fitness organization was through the journey of a Special Strong client.
In a video, I met Brandon Neal, a client of Special Strong. Brandon was born with scoliosis, a misplaced hip and a genetic gene mutation that impacts his speech, sight and muscular development.
In two inspiring minutes, we see an anxious young man walking without help for the first time in eight years. Brandon accomplishes what the average person takes for granted in a manner that takes your breath away.
After achieving his goal, Brandon asks his trainer, “Are you proud of me?” Watching from my mobile phone, I respond with “Yes!” to his question.
Brandon’s accomplishment is an incredible customer success story for Special Strong. But the most compelling aspect of this company is how routinely clients like Brandon achieve similar feats of strength.
Founded in 2016 by Daniel Stein and his wife Trinity, Special Strong works with hundreds of clients affected by autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Down syndrome, ADD/ADHD, cerebral palsy and other similar afflictions.
I spoke with Mr. Stein from his office in McKinney in a wide-ranging conversation about humble beginnings, meaningful work and growing a business with a lasting impact.
Where did your passion for fitness originate? When I was four years old, I was diagnosed with ADHD and I was completely hyperactive. My parents knew that I needed stimulation and they signed me up for sports like basketball and soccer. In middle school, they bought me a membership to the YMCA and I fell in love with weightlifting. It calmed me down, helped me focus and my behavior improved as if I was taking medication.
Did you always aspire to make a career of fitness? Not at all. I started as a personal banker for JP Morgan Chase. In that role, I learned to be more confident in asking for business. Most of my clients were wealthier than me and I learned how to listen and build relationships. It gave me the confidence to talk with people about money, but I was never great at that job. I felt like a lion trapped in a cage and knew I had to find something that didn’t require sitting at a desk all day.
How did that come about? A client at the bank opened a business account for a nonprofit that would provide fitness coaching for people with disabilities. A mentor of mine had suggested this for me, based on my love of fitness and experience with ADHD. I confided in this couple and said, “This is going to sound crazy, but I have considered this exact line of work.” As it turns out, they helped me find my first freelance coaching client.
What was that experience like? This client suffered from paralysis as a result of a drug overdose. It was humbling as I went through a similar experience but was fortunate to come through with all of my faculties. I continued working at the bank while training this client in my spare time. I enjoyed the experience enough to know that this was a direction I wanted my career to go. I didn’t know what it looked like, but I knew I needed to leave the bank to get there.
What steps did you take to pursue this new field? I left the bank to run a small weight-loss center where I could gain more experience in the field. It was a tough decision to leave the security of the bank and take a 20% pay cut. As soon as I started, I learned that the business was losing money. I focused intently on operations, installing more efficient processes. But it wasn’t enough and within six months, our center was closed and I was out of work.
What came next? It was a humbling moment in my life as my wife and I needed to move back in with her parents in a small town. Back at ground zero, I mentioned to the owner of the town’s small gym that I was interested in becoming a personal trainer. He offered me an opportunity to train out of his gym but I would need to source my clients.
How did you build a book of customers? I asked the owner for a list of every member of his gym. No one was working this list and the owner handed me a large stack of paper. I took that list into the yoga room and called every single member. I learned how to prospect with a script from my time at the bank. This was an extension of that process, albeit in a different industry. Within a few months, I had a full book of business. There were other trainers but they considered my approach too “old school.” I offered everyone a free session and those who enjoyed the workout signed up for more.
How were you able to grow that list of clients? I traded up to larger gyms on two occasions. Each time, the new gym was willing to share their list of clients with me. My last gym was Lifetime Fitness who also shared their enormous database. Within six months, I was ranked as a Top 1% revenue producer using the same process that worked at much smaller gyms. I wasn’t popular with other sales associates because I was doing the things they weren’t willing to do. If you want to be in the Top 1%, you have to do things the other 99% are not doing.
How did you decide to make the leap to starting your own business? A mentor of mine is a serial entrepreneur. He knew my aspirations to focus on the special needs community and started meeting with me weekly to set up the business. He helped me with the administrative side of the business, creating a website, legal considerations, name, logo, etc. Every week, he helped me take tangible steps to building my own business. It is amazing how small steps lead to big decisions. I was fortunate to negotiate a low-cost space and felt that the time was right.
How did you find your first client for Special Strong? So, now we are off the Lifetime Fitness salary and we have a mortgage to pay. I had some clients who followed me from the various gyms but I needed to find more business to keep our house. I taught myself about Facebook campaigns and started reaching out to the community I wanted to serve. Our first client called us after seeing a social post on Facebook. And to this day, it is one of the most challenging clients we have ever worked with.
How so? This was a young boy who was nonverbal. It was challenging to communicate with him in any way. When he was stressed, he would run away as an escape behavior. Here I am, advertising that I am an expert, and performing like a rookie. I was out of my league but his mom was so gracious. She never shamed me and taught me how to work with her son. If she hadn’t supported me, I might have said, “This isn’t for me. I don’t how to do this.” Four years later, they are still a great customer.
How quickly were you able to grow? It was slow. We built our business one customer at a time and I was hesitant to put myself out there on social media. Public speaking scared me and I wasn’t marketing as much as I should. Fortunately, I had good mentors who kept encouraging me and we learned the power of live videos for getting the word out to our community.
How has your marketing evolved? I learned that people don’t care about seeing me. They care about our clients and how we help them make breakthroughs. People want to see our clients doing things for the first time. They want to see action and the feeling our customers have when they break through a plateau. When I took my ego out of the equation and put the spotlight on my customers, our marketing took off. The number one thing in the special needs community is trust. Establishing Special Strong as a brand that puts customers first has been a critical step in our journey.
How did you decide to hire your first employee? I burned myself out first. I was putting in 80 to 100 hours a week in the beginning, and I couldn’t do it anymore. The first employee we hired was a trainer and shortly after, we hired a marketing manager. Those first decisions were made only after I physically ran out of hours in the week. I could have moved much faster.
What is next for Special Strong? We plan to add five franchises by the end of 2020. Within five years, we plan to have over 150 franchisees and build one of the first inclusive fitness facilities in the United States. After building our first inclusive concept, we plan to award other franchisees with the ability to have their own brick and mortar gym.
What advice would you give to someone considering a new venture in this space? Life is too short to not do what you love. If you aren’t sure what that is for you, go volunteer or observe someone who is doing something that you have an interest in. The fitness industry is saturated with trends and fads, which come and go. Do your market research and find a niche with longevity. Find something that is rewarding, fulfilling, and has a profitable model. You must have all three.