America at work
Becoming The Boss: How an Entrepreneur Went From Trainer to CrossFit Owner
Nicolette Ghimire | December 7, 2015

This story originally appeared on Above the Fold, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s digital platform featuring analysis, commentary, and real stories about the intersection of government and business.

Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating small business owners who have made the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer. Check back periodically for new installments.

It’s quarter to noon on a weekday, and in the surrounding office buildings in downtown Washington, D.C., most people are quietly toiling away inside their office cubicles. But here, Jess Glyn’s “Hold My Hand” is blaring two floors down in the basement, and there isn’t a cubicle in sight.

Welcome to a not-so-ordinary boutique gym, 202Strong, where one of the company’s young owners also happens to be a not-so-ordinary fitness coach.

Maddie Watkins, a 27-year-old personal trainer and entrepreneur, co-owns two locations of 202Strong, a small chain of Washington-based CrossFit gyms. Watkins majored in microbiology at the University of Maryland, but after discovering a passion for weightlifting in college, she eventually left the laboratory behind in favor of a much more physically active lifestyle at the gym.

After wading into the health and fitness industry as a personal trainer in 2010, Watkins built a large list of clients ranging from high school athletes to women over fifty. A year later, her path collided with Rob  Koebke’s when they both worked as coaches at a CrossFit gym in Maryland.

“I approached him one day, randomly, and said let’s open up our own gym in DC,” Watkins recalls. “He said, ‘If you’re serious, let’s talk.’”

Four years later, Watkins and Koebke co-own one 202Strong in the heart of D.C. and another in Bethesda, MD. They each teach classes at both gyms, and they have hired ten employees. In an interview, Watkins discusses the transition from being a personal trainer to a gym owner, the most exciting part about being an employer and her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

How did you become interested in the health & fitness industry?

I was always interested in fitness. I was a competitive figure skater growing up. But what inspired me to really start being a trainer was when I started to work with one, and he introduced me to weight lifting. The strength and empowerment that I got from that was something I hadn’t gotten from anything else. It really helped me grow as a person, so I wanted to give that back to other women out there.

How was the transition from being a trainer to an entrepreneur?

It surprisingly wasn’t hard. It came naturally in a sense because I love fitness. I always promoted myself as a trainer and catered to my clients in that customer-service aspect. I’m used to the sense that if I don’t have clients, I won’t make an income. Here, if we don’t have members, we can’t pay the bills. So it’s on a much larger scale, but a very similar feeling.

CrossFit gyms have become a popular trend in the past couple of years. How have you been able to carve out a distinct brand for your small business?

What we’ve heard from clients who have been to other gyms is that they really like the attention that they get from coaches at 202Strong. They trust that when they come in, the coach will be able to help them. They won’t get hurt and they won’t do it with poor technique. The programming of our workouts is done in a fashion where you will get a great workout and you will challenge yourself, but you also won’t beat yourself to the ground.

Rewind to five years ago. Did you ever imagine that you would be running your own business?

Five years ago, I would never in a million years have imagined where I am today. I was painfully shy. I couldn’t talk to strangers. I was so quiet! I also remember thinking that I never actually wanted to own my business because it’s so much work. I just wanted to do the coaching and the training.

But I later realized that I wanted to grow myself as fitness professional and get my voice out there. I believe so much in our product. I don’t think a lot of other gyms offer what we have, so I want people to have that vehicle to try the weight lifting and not be scared.

What’s your favorite part about co-owning this business?

Definitely being a leader to my coaches and teaching them. Also, I’ve wanted to grow into the fitness industry as a fitness professional and get to know all the trainers and owners out there.

When did you hire your first employee and what prompted that decision? What role did they fill?

I knew someone at GWU who now works at our front desk at the DC location. She recommended a friend who is a personal trainer. Her friend had no previous experience in group fitness coaching, but we took the time to train her and had her shadow us. It was a long learning process.

How do you go about finding your employees?

We use our initial interview and a two-month internship to evaluate whether someone’s a good fit for us. Rob and I first do all of the coaching, and then start recruiting other coaches. Our employees are all people we’ve known or have been recommended to us. We have a Bethesda location as well, and the coaches there are coaches we worked with at our old CrossFit gym.

What was the most exciting part about bringing on your first employee?

The most exciting part is teaching someone else and giving someone else the experience that I was lucky enough to have. Coaching and helping guide and mentor our new employees through the process, to me, that’s really exciting.

What’s the most challenging part of managing employees?

I’m a really big control freak. So it’s really hard for me to let go and trust that, it’s okay if I’m not here she’ll do a great job and people will like her. I’ve gotten better with not being a helicopter parent.

What kind of skills and characteristics will you be looking for as you continue to build your team?

I’m looking for someone who is willing to learn, reliable, outgoing; someone who also wants to grow themselves as an expert and as a trainer.

What are your long-term goals for 202Strong?

I would love for it to be a national brand. I also really want GirlStrong (a 45-minute all-girl high intensity workout class held on Saturdays) as a program to grow, because I think that is something that is really missing in the fitness industry. I think the challenge will be growing the businesses on a large scale while keeping that really personal Maddie and Rob feel that we have in just two locations.

What piece of advice do you have for aspiring small business owners?

First, make sure you love what you do. Everyone says that, but it’s probably the best thing that I have come to acknowledge. You have to put your life and soul into your businesses, be excited and love it.

In terms of being a boss, when you have that passion and enthusiasm, it really shines through to your employees and it makes them want to work for you. Someone once told me that a big part of my job is getting my employees to want to work for me, as opposed to feeling like they have to. When you have that enthusiasm among your whole team, your business is going to be ten times more successful.