Starting a business from scratch was not an easy "challenge" this UK entrepreneur set himself up for. Luke Hughes, founder of UK personal training course provider Origym put his heart and soul as well as his lifetime savings into his startup. Today, Origym turns over a few hundred thousand per year, making it a worth while investment for the young entrepreneur. Luke takes us through the steps he took to get to this point and all the challenges he faced towards the success.
Tell us about your business. What kind of services do you offer and how did you come up with the idea for it?
Origym is a training provider for internationally recognized fitness qualifications. We primarily sell gym instructing and personal trainer courses for the fitness sector through a variety of learning styles including, mentored, e-learning and classroom based courses. We also provide bolt on courses for those who are already qualified including continuous professional development and targeted courses for those wishing to become a specialist within a certain aspect of fitness.
We have several unique selling points to the way we operate that save us both money and generate a better customer experience (in our opinion). Firstly every member of our team is a qualified personal trainer, from the Directors to the sales team and the accounts. This is so every member of the team can fully appreciate the learners’ needs and empathize better with their circumstances if they raise a concern. I have paid for some staff to be qualified and others are already qualified. One aspect that we felt the industry was lacking in, was the business side of becoming a personal trainer and that an alarming 70% of people who qualify are back out of the industry within 12 months and 90% within 3 years. We knew it was due to the lack of business input and understanding how to get clients, market themselves correctly and engage with clients. We introduced free business webinars, videos and created a specialist course in it too to give our students the business skills to allow them to hit the ground running when the had achieved their qualifications.
Our other major USP is actually how we deliver. We wanted students to learn from established experts and have their assessments locally as opposed to travelling like every other provider so we employed mentors who had a wealth of experience as personal trainers and paid for them to get qualified as tutors. The student then saw them for 24 hours of direct one to one learning plus shadowing of real personal training sessions with real paying customers. This has not been done in our sector and we are still the only provider to do this. This also had the positive that we did not have to pay venue costs and allowed us to scale as soon as we had another mentor in place meaning we went UK wide within a few months.
How did you decide you wanted to start your own business?
I have always wanted to start my own business, but I did not know what in and I wanted to start a business that did not have an earning cap or based on an hourly rate. I was a national sales manager for a course provider, but I saw some fundamental flaws in their business model, which derived into a large volume of complaints. Despite offering numerous strategic routes to enhancing customer experience I felt my contribution was not valued and that the interests of the consumer was not the main concern.
I knew my skill set were sales and marketing, but I needed a partner that possessed relevant tutoring qualifications to write the course structures and knew how to legally start a business and Steph who worked on a freelance basis in Liverpool for the same company matched my needs perfectly as we are both the same age, have similar educational backgrounds, owns another business but has very different skill sets, thus after one quick email from myself, I was up in Liverpool talking about our plans and what we felt the market lacked and most importantly how we could combat it.
You mentioned that you sacrificed two and a half years of your life to get the business up and running? How did you keep that business vision alive in the hard moments and kept pushing through?
Firstly it was my dream to have my own business and I had no intention in letting this opportunity slip through my fingers by not putting the hard work in.
I worked between 80-100 hours a week 7 days a week, in the first 6 months, I did not take 1p in salary and funded my Facebook ads, which fortunately were a massive success from my own bank account to keep the working capital above the threshold we set.
There have been plenty of highs and lows, but the main motivation came from watching us slowly get good reviews from customers.
This showed we were onto something with our unique style of teaching. Even when certain aspects went wrong or not quite as effective as I thought they would, that our idea worked, just maybe the execution needed tweaking which we did several times over the past couple of years.
When times got tough and I was out of my comfort zone on areas that neither of myself or Steph had familiarity or felt out of our depth, I just had to remind myself would you want to go back to a job where you have no control and your input is not valued? Definitely not!
Sometimes you are better off taking a day or half a day off to re-charge, stick to your ethics and what you believe will make a difference and remind yourself your not going to be great at every aspect of business and that sometimes you have to seek help from other sources. There is no shame in not knowing what SEO is or where to advertise, just that it is an integral element of business and that there are companies that do specialise in this to help you. Another added motivation for me personally is that there is no chance that I am telling my mother that I sold my car, rented out my house and move cities for this not to work. She is very supportive with everything I do but my family is from an employed background and I wanted to show them it was the right decision.
How did you fund your business in the beginning stages?
My business partner Steph, had an existing business that would act as the venue hub for our training and our long term vision and major USP, which is that we would not use third parties for our venues but actually run and lease our own, something that we still do as the only provider in the UK within our sector. This allows us to undercut all our competition. The arrangement I had was to live with my business partner rent free for 12 months and utilize her already self paid venue to perform our training needs and daily business running, such as practical training days, calls, internet access, whilst I put in over £20,000 in running capital, which derived from savings and selling my car.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when you first started as a business owner?
My biggest challenge was figuring out where to start. What should be in house and what should I outsource from my business. I was far from an expert in any area apart from sales and marketing, but even then as I had never run a website before, I knew little about things like SEO or other techy phrases that are extremely crucial. I self taught and went on online courses for some aspects and then outsourced for others that I struggled with and just simply could not get inspired by.
I also wanted the product to be perfect with all these ideas running through my head, that I wanted to implement right away. I soon realized its all an ongoing process in that even the biggest brands in the world are not finished articles and that they are evolving all the time too.
Another major challenge for me was scheduling my own day. Sounds silly, but I was 28 years old and had always had a structure imposed onto me on what I should be doing and when I should be doing certain tasks. Now there was no structure and there was nobody else to tell me off if I was late or had not completed something by a certain time. Thankfully myself and Steph created pressure on each other as both our roles although very different directly influence the rate of the other, hence a pressurized schedule of tasks from Steph gave me structure, drive and I soon found that I was far more productive as answering to myself and matching my own ambitions than feeling the heat from any employer.
Another big challenge was as we scaled quite quickly our margins decreased and as VAT kicked in our lines were really fine. We kept hearing the phrase “this seems too good to be true” so we upped our prices by 34% and actually it made no difference to our sales volumes, we just simply made more money.
Being an entrepreneur, your workload must be very demanding. How do you prioritize your work?
My workload is far less demanding now than it used to be, where I was the marketer, sales rep, accounts, finance, solicitor and business developer to name just a few. Firstly you need to know when you work best!
I am not an early riser and never have been. I work really efficiently in the evening and at night. I think any aspiring entrepreneur needs to understand themselves and when they work best, which can be completely different to somebody else. You will NEVER see me at work before 9am, but you will frequently see me in the office on my own at midnight on a Saturday.
I used to categorise work into tiers of levels of urgency and ones that I felt needed to be conducted during business hours and ones that could be handled after business hours. If it was ever a complaint, customer enquiry or anything customer facing, speed of reply was and still is paramount. Firstly from a sales perspective I know from experience that getting their first is everything, especially if it looks like they have enquired at a few places so our sales reps are told to call them within one hour of their enquiry being submitted unless other sales calls inhibit. Secondly I want my customers to know they are getting their issues handled with by a real person, quicker than any other service they have paid for, so during business hours this type of work means stop what you are doing and handle the customer enquiry before anything else. I also pay my staff on customer satisfaction, which is done over a series of surveys, speed and quality of reply, which we do go through every two weeks one by one to sustain quality.
For ongoing tasks such as link bulling, course and resources development I would literally ask myself which ones of these is going to make the biggest impact on my business either from from either a sales perspective or a customer service one. Then I would solely work on that aspect that I felt would do the most! I used to try and juggle several at once, then a friend of mine and multi millionaire business owner, Tim, said are you a snake? I said which I assume every body would say, “what on earth are you talking about?” He said snakes can digest several things at once without any issues, you are not a snake, focus on one thing at once and get things live! Once live and running, then you come back and optimise to improve it, and then you move onto the next aspect. This has really saved me from myself. I was doing my best on about four or five different projects simultaneously and doing them badly as I was not giving them the attention and individual priority that they needed. I have also learned “to let go” on some aspects of the business and have staff to perform my accounts, sales, marketing and SEO and I just oversee and manage the process, which sounds a lot easier than reality. I block out time after business hours where I will not respond to any emails or calls to entirely focus on the area that needs doing and then as and when it is complete repeat the same process for the next area in order of difference to the business.
What would you say are the key things to keeping grounded as a business owner?
Keeping grounded is easy for me; it’s about knowing your routes and sticking to your ethics. I’m just an ordinary guy from Birmingham who wants to love going to work, which I do! This is an aspect many people take for granted. I wanted to find something I was honestly passionate about and that I was genuinely going to be proud of. I conduct business people facing and personable, hence why my face is on our website and I ring EVERY student who enrolls onto our course to introduce myself and give them my email address if they need anything.
Same as any other social entity, people buy off people they like, so I try and keep business very real and simple. I also believe in seeking opportunities and always ask every email from other companies to be directed to me, never want to miss a way of moving forward, where I know other business owners who mark emails as spam and I always think what if that was a great opportunity that you could have taken advantage of. A great example would be when QMU university emailed my sales guys who go referred to do their qualifications through us, some people may think this is spam, but now we run courses all year round directly out of their Edinburgh campus.
I think I used to be someone who shied away from pressure situations, but now I thrive under them.
What is your strategy to keep on trend/stand out from your competitors for your business market?
Everything for me is about balance. I take parts that I like about my competitors’ business and apply it to my own whilst staying true to what I believe is right. Just because your competitor has a massive turnover and does something one particular way, this does not mean they their way is correct, otherwise nothing would ever evolve. I use tools such as AHREFs, Google alerts and MOZ to track all my competition, as it is naïve to just focus on your own efforts.
Sustaining your USPS and truly believing in their value keeps you on trend to success. When I say believe, I mean know that they will make a difference to your customers and your profitability. I knew the venues would save us money and in fact it is better than saving us money, it makes us money on top as we have half converted them into gyms for access to the public giving us an additional revenue stream that none of our competition have.
Being first to market an idea is always good and using technology as that is on an onward spiral is something that we are very aware of too. For instance we are trying to create a mobile app for our student’s to access to that they can login via the phones which is yet to be done in our industry.
How do you market your business? What are the most effective channels in your opinion?
Marketing, my favorite topic! As we are providing education we want to look professional, yet personable so we use a lot of images with our real staff on and have our images and details people facing. We always keep our brand colours concurrent across all platforms and try and focus on offering the best value for money as an organization. I stay well away from phrases like “number one in the UK” or “fastest growing education company”, we want to give the impression of being humble and prospects see this jargon written across every site, which actually puts them off.
Channels depend on you margin; my margins are wide thus nothing is better than Google Ads and Facebook ads which is responsible for 85% of the revenue we generate. Having a wide margin leaves room for error, but if you have a small margin per sale, this room for error diminishes and you need to be checking your ads all the time! I always stress to apply logic to situations, have you ever read a newspaper ad and then rang the company running it, I never have! I do all my shopping on Google, which is why getting good, optimized Google ads that are relevant to your target market is key to success online. I would always have spare budget to focus on SEO and if you don’t know much about it, learn it and fast!
We do utilize course and leisure specific sites, but personally I never advertise in areas that are difficult to measure such as magazines, radio or TV. These are great for establishing brand awareness but at the beginning you need to know what works well and the numbers coming back down to the pence, so you can see what has worked and what has not and the plough more into what works, its that straight forward. The great thing about Google and Facebook ads is that they are so granule so that you can really laser in on your target market and ideal customer even if you input a very small amount of money, you can still get the return that you want, making them suitable for all types of business’ of any size.
I also do a lot of organic outreach as I love being pro-active and when something comes off, it can really come off and make a massive enhancement to your business. Relying solely on reactive business is a dangerous strategy as far as I am concerned. For example, I send around a hundred emails per week to fitness blogs, magazines, educational companies, trusts and potential affiliates to try and work with them o build a relationship.
Many entrepreneurs say that when it comes to decision-making, they rely a lot on their intuition and take calculated risks. Can you relate to this and what do you take in consideration when making calculated risks?
Completely agree! You will make mistakes, I certainly have, but I like to think that they are small or I have done the background and my due diligence before commencing with an idea to give it the best chance of success. I must be a pessimist, but I work out what would happen if the worst-case scenario occurred and then see how that would financially influence my business if all went wrong and have clear contingency in place if so. I know a lot of entrepreneurs work on the positives, but I work backwards when making my decisions, I work on the negatives until there are none left before committing to a decision that is risky, so the process of lamination if you like. This frustrates my business partner a little, but I have used the phrase “I told you so” before, which I am pretty sure she hates more.
A great example of this was that we wanted to start owning our own venues to cut the £150 per day that was being spent on venue hire. We then calculated what would happen if the courses did not sell and the we were stuck with a venue lease for three years with nothing getting run out of it? Simple we planned for it, we would sub lease to our competitors and other training companies and we would still make profit! I personally do not believe in making big risks that could potentially jeopardies my entire business, but I do think sometimes being a little edgy with your marketing or angle on how things should be done is good thing! If you conform to the standards of your competitors you end up losing your identity and lose your USP.
What advice do you have for those who want to start their own business?
I would strongly advise on being prepared for the relentless nature of business. It never stops and there isn’t really such a thing as a day off contrary to what productivity hacks you read in my opinion. The world does not care if it is your day off or your feeling run down, the emails still come in and the work needs to be done. The thing that does change is how you handle and manage this flow, so by having times of the day when you don’t even look at your emails and allow your mind to rest is equally as crucial as to the process of answering them.
This for me is the only negative and starting my own business is the best thing I have ever done. Having a business partner or investor I think has benefited me massively. Someone who is strong in the areas where I am not, picks me up when I am down, who shares my passion and loves talking about its development as much as I do. I used to feel my ideas were bound by parameters that actually never really existed, so if you have an idea that you really feel works, just go for it! If it really is viable and you feel that it can make a difference you need to hold yourself accountable for taking action and create your own opportunities. For example I wanted to run course for universities, I rang EVERY university, emailed all programme leaders and got no replies, not one! Six months later I did the same again! Had multiple replies and now run the courses for these establishments and the contracts are worth tens of thousands per annum. I persevered and created my own opportunity and when things did not go right the first time I changed my approach and tried again!