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gym owners

The Secrets to Moonlighting

The Secrets to Moonlighting

Is it possible to balance a second job on top of owning a gym? We ask three cheer professionals who’ve been there and done that.

As our economy rebounds from the “Great Recession,” juggling multiple jobs is a common conundrum for many people—and cheer professionals are no exception. In fact, for gym owners, balancing more than one job might be a necessity regardless of what’s happening in the economy. As most owners will candidly share, opening a gym is something you do because you’re passionate about cheer, not because you want to get rich quick.

Just ask these three moonlighting entrepreneurs, who know the perks and pitfalls of juggling jobs all too well.

Stefanie Nelson: In 2010, Stefanie Nelson started North Florida Elite with two 6’ x 10’ folding mats and a small rented space. At the time, she was working as a middle school science teacher, but realized that she missed coaching, so she started a tumbling program. Fast-forward to 2013, and her Starke, FL-based gym is now 6,000 sq. ft., with tumbling programs, cheer classes, a special needs team and half-year/all-star teams. Despite the growth, Nelson still juggles her teaching job with the demands of running a gym—something she’s trying to mitigate. Shares Nelson, “My ultimate goal is to not have two jobs.”

Doing double-duty makes for a very hectic life. Nelson works until 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and she’s working at the gym until 9 p.m. on Fridays. On Saturday, she’s paying bills and grading papers. She also leans on her “overly organized” husband, who runs the house and helps coach when she needs him. (The gym recently lost a coach so he’s filling in for the time being.) “He’s the glue that holds it all together,” Nelson says.

People who are thinking of holding down their full- or part-time job and opening a gym shouldn’t have any illusions about the dedication it requires, but Nelson says the rewards can make all those late hours pay off. “The main thing is seeing the girls and wanting them to experience success on—and off—the purple floor,” she says.  “I want them to see that there’s more to the world than our little town in Florida.” (A few students have written about Nelson’s influence in their life for their college essay applications, which she says has been especially gratifying.)

Nelson’s advice to future gym owners is to “be organized and do it because you love it and not because of the money. I don’t want a thankless $100,000 a year job. Make sure you get into it for the right reasons. There have been days when I thought, ‘Why not sell the gym and not work 70 hours a week?’” But for Nelson, the thrill of seeing her athletes succeed both on and off the mat is what makes it all worthwhile.

Leslie Pledger-Griffin: Like Nelson, Renegade Athletics owner Leslie Pledger-Griffin understands the sacrifices that must be made in order to get a gym off the ground. Pledger-Griffin first started teaching tumbling out of the wrestling room in her high school at just 15 years old, and she met her husband at a cheerleading competition. They started their all-star program together, and Pledger-Griffin balanced her job in education for a year before leaving to work full-time at their 12,000 sq.-ft. facility in Calhoun, Georgia.

When she was juggling, Pledger-Griffin would leave the house at 6:30 a,m. for her teaching job, work until 3:15 p.m., drive to the gym and work there until 10 p.m. “You are exhausted,” confides Pledger-Griffin. “You still have to cook supper, wash and iron clothes and, on weekends, you often have practice or competitions. Then you start all over again on Monday.”

On that note, Pledger-Griffin advises anyone working and running a gym simultaneously to take ample time for self-care—whatever it takes. “Time is valuable,” she shares. “There is no shame in taking a nap if you can squeeze one in between jobs. Eat and sleep when you can.”

Another of Pledger-Griffin’s keys to sanity is to “work smarter, not harder.” For Renegade Athletics, she utilizes the web-based class management system Jackrabbit so that she can answer account questions or schedule classes from anywhere. “You can do it from your other job, from home or even from your smartphone,” explains Pledger-Griffin. “It’s the best money we spend each month.”

Michelle Epps: Meet Michelle Epps, who owns Cedar Hill, TX-based Twisters Spirit Athletics. At one point, Epps was working full-time, working on her MBA and running a new gym all at the same time—with a staff that had no real competitive cheer knowledge. “We were learning as we were going,” Epps says of those early days. One of her biggest challenges of running a gym while holding down a second job was “keeping a high level of quality at both jobs.” Yet Epps knew from the beginning that if she were forced to make a choice, she would choose her gym: “It was, and still is, my passion and my purpose. It is that thing that I would do for free.”

Epps stresses the importance of knowing when to work—and when to take some much-needed away time to recharge. According to Epps, it doesn’t do you or your athletes any good of you’re burned out and low on energy. Her calendar was and is her “best friend,” and staying organized and coming to realize that you cannot please everyone are also key lessons she has learned along the way.

The ability to delegate is another crucial tool. Epps urges gym owners to accept the fact that you likely can’t—and shouldn’t—try to take on every single duty yourself. Ask people for help, surround yourself with a great support staff and prioritize. It’s easy when you’re multi-tasking to think that every issue that comes up is urgent; learn what has to be tackled today, and what can wait until tomorrow. On the same note, Epps also advises future gym owners to know their niche and focus on making that great, rather than trying to tackle everything at once.

As far as taking that huge leap and quitting your job to focus on the gym, Epps says, “I think the first step in making the decision to work at your gym full-time is knowing that this is your passion. This is the job that gets you up in the morning and keeps you up at night thinking of ways to make it better.”

In other words, work hard, work smart and go into this for the love of the profession and the kids. If you have to balance two or more jobs—as many owners do at first—take one day at a time and remember that you went into this because it’s your passion. Or, as Epps says, “the thing you would do for free.”

-Dina Gachman

Game Changers: Jessica Smith of Southern Cheer Elite

Game Changers: Jessica Smith of Southern Cheer Elite

When Jessica Smith first started her Danville, KY-based gym, Southern Cheer Elite, she stacked her shelves with all the business books she could get her hands on. But the primers didn’t prep Smith with the intel necessary for success—either the information wasn’t industry-specific enough or didn’t have practical applications for her own business. One thing was clear: Smith was going to have to find her own way to make it as a small gym owner.

She tossed the books and followed her own instincts to create a thriving business in the world of all-star cheerleading. In two years, Southern Cheer Elite has grown from 12 to more than 130 athletes—a stark contrast to its humble beginnings. “I started my business with $30 worth of borrowed equipment,” she remembers. “We slept on the floor of our apartment and I worked 60 hours a week as a waitress.”

Smith was soon able to say sayonara to her day job, progress that she credits to following her gut. According to Smith, most of the experts in the books she read recommended diversification—advice she chose not to heed and has since seen a growth of 20 percent. Instead, Smith turned her focus to exceeding customer expectations and incorporating personal touches in her dealings with families and athletes. “You have to go out there and hustle and be a part of people’s lives,” says Smith. To do so, Smith and her staff do everything from sending birthday cards to giving out long-stemmed roses at competition. Even the invitation to join their team spreads the proverbial love, as it resembles a wedding invitation.

It’s all part of Smith’s philosophy that cheer parents are actually her employers—one she believes that many gym owners forget or neglect. Smith says many owners believe that everyone is replaceable, but at Southern Cheer Elite, that’s not the case. To minimize commuting and maximize convenience, Smith often goes as far as to change class times or let parents bring kids of different ages at the same time. She also seeks parental input when it comes to scheduling meetings: “We don’t just tell them when it will be,” says Smith. “I’m going to be that person that accommodates them.”

Part of the reason Smith values her cheer parents (whom she calls her “advocates”) so much is her belief that they played a big role in the rapid growth of Southern Cheer Elite. Many parents took it upon themselves to refer new business along with their own, with one mom even bringing in 30 new athletes she’d rounded up. “Our business is forever indebted to those people who took a chance on us,” says Smith.

Smith’s employees are also vital to her success. She’s willing to train the right staff members, even if they have no prior experience in the cheer business—an approach she calls “growing your own staff.” She pays them more than she pays herself, a sacrifice she makes willingly. “They’re worth more than I am. I can’t do it without them,” says Smith, who didn’t take a salary the first year, and even now—like many business owners—is the last to get paid. “You have to be willing to be poor for a while,” she concedes.

For Smith, however, it’s a conduit to following her passion—and the eventual success of her business has allowed her to do just that. “If I won the MegaMillions on Friday, the only change you’d see is that I’d probably have a bigger facility. There can’t be a Plan B in starting a program,” says Smith. “You have to be all in.”