OUR last first day. (We hope). Today, June 7, it will be 64 weeks, 448 days after we first closed the doors to our business. It will be the day that we pray is our last first day. I am the co-owner of ATP Fitness a PT studio based in Douglas, Cork. I set up the gym in November 2016 with my friend and business partner Cian O’Flynn.
The goal? To simply help people navigate through the haze of information that is health and fitness and help people become their best. We love what we do, we are two experienced coaches.
However, we were two very inexperienced business owners. By inexperience, I mean no experience. Two lads who had an idea of what having a business would be like, two lads who were in for a rude awakening. That first year was brutal but in the best possible way. We worked 14-16 hour days, only taking breaks during the day to go for a nap on a blow-up bed we put in our office. The business was going great, we were completely winging our way through as business owners. We expanded our team and the next hurdle of management arises, again an area with absolutely no experience.
This was a big eye-opener for us and the pressure of being a business owner became apparent. We also became very reactive to the business growing. Busier simply meant let’s get more staff. We built a great team, and our business was performing well.
However, we were also aware of the statistics thrown around that 20% of start-ups fail in the first year, and up to 60% fail in the first three. We managed to beat those statistics and navigate our way through those first three years.
2020 is the beginning of year four we are feeling good, even with the statistics of start-ups failing in the first five years heavily stacked against us. The gym is busy, we are coping with the normal day-to-day stresses of working in, and running a business. Now throw in a pandemic and let the roller coaster begin.
As we approach March, it is clear this is a real threat to the world, and it is definitely going to impact the business. Although, we still did not know to what extent. I had already cancelled my wedding that was due for May but was still a little oblivious to the impact on the business that lay ahead. I look at a post we put up on March 15 it read: “ATP Fitness closed until the 29th of March. We look forward to welcoming you back again soon.”
We closed the business and quickly began creating content online for our clients. We just wanted to keep our clients moving and engaged while we were “temporarily” closed.
It’s Friday, March 27, and we are watching Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the TV. It is hard to comprehend the scale of what is being said. It is hard to digest the reality of what lay ahead. The emotional roller coaster well and truly begins. Every lockdown has been brutal, but each in its own unique way. For me, that first week of the announcement has got to be one of the worst. Nobody likes uncertainty. This was a time where the only thing we were guaranteed to know, is that nobody was going to know what to do.
Panic, fear, anxiety, and sadness just to name a few of the emotions we were going through. The fear was twofold. Fear of not knowing just how dangerous this virus was as we sit in our homes in isolation and fear for the survival of a business, we worked so hard to build.
We had five staff members going through all the same emotions like ourselves. We are learning about the PUP and TWSS, but still with no real understanding of what it was, what it meant, or what we were entitled to.
There was a decision made that for the business to survive, we needed to close the floodgates immediately. With no revenue coming in, we had to stop cash flowing out. We put ourselves and our staff on the pandemic unemployment payment. One of the sickest days in business for me was sitting on my laptop getting ready to go on a zoom call with our staff, with nothing but bad news.
At this point, like most others, we had no idea what the future held. We quickly shifted the focus to getting our business online. Those first few weeks of zoom PT and classes were a steep learning curve for us. We stayed in the faces of our members and tried to help them the only way we can, through health, fitness, and having a laugh. That first lockdown was an emotional roller coaster, to say the least.
The stress and anxiety that came with each announcement is something I will never forget. As the months roll on, like the humans we are, we adapt. We are tipping away with online classes, numbers are low, but it is something. We created our FeelGr8 six-week online health and wellness programme, a goal of ours for years, but would have not happened in this time frame only for the pandemic. Silver lining and all that.
However, as much as we adapted, our business is still down more than 90% on revenue month on month.
Since we first opened our doors, we aimed to put away something every month to build savings for future investment in the company when needed. Pre-pandemic that investment was always going to be a second gym. We wanted to expand, we wanted to be bigger. However, since the pandemic, our mindset has completely shifted. We, like so many others, have had time to stop for a second and evaluate our situation. We no longer have a vision of a second gym and we are in a different direction now, and we feel lucky now that we did not make that move.
However, we did not think that investment would be the survival of the business, but it is only because of those savings we had any security.
We finally get a date, June 29, 2020, we can open our doors again. Pre-pandemic we would have operated PT and classes with up to 600 bookings per week. As we reopen with strict guidelines in place, our capacity plummets. From Cian, myself, and five other trainers operating fully, to Cian, myself, and one coach returning to personal training only as classes are not allowed. You jump from elated to being back open, to sad and angry at what has happened to your business (in the same day). We are open, it is great to be back.
Eventually, classes are allowed back in groups of six and the buzz begins to come back. The new normal is well underway. While we felt we were in a good place, we were also aware of the rising case numbers and what was going on around the country. October 19, they announce Level 5 again. Six-week lockdown and it all starts again. The emotional roller coaster kicks in again. There was a sense that this one was going to be the six weeks and I think the mentality was let’s just get through these six weeks.
We shut the business, pushed our online programme and classes which we now had up and running. We knew what was happening with the TWSS and even though we went back to a 90% drop in revenue, it was a case of let us just get through this. Back open early December, one of the quietest months of the year for gyms, but at least we were back open. Hindsight is a great thing, but I think if we knew what opening up the way we did would have caused, then we would have taken a different approach. In those few weeks, I think we all knew what was coming. We opened the country due to pressure not because we were ready to.
On December 22 the government announced level 5 with some adjustments. The emotional roller coaster really took off here. Gyms were allowed to operate in the latest announcement.
Elation, excitement, and most definitely some confusion, but hey we were staying open. We got a week and they come out and close us down again. Enter lockdown 3. For me, January and February were the most challenging to my mental health. I really struggled and I know from speaking to so many, I was not alone.
We get to March 30 waiting for the big announcement. Finally, some bit of a road map. Yet, no mention of gyms? Personal services but no gyms. This caught us by surprise as we were always lumped in with hairdressers etc; OK, get through April, it’s looking positive open in May was the assumption. They say you should never assume.
April 29, the next part of the road map. June 7 for gyms? This caught me with such a mixed bag of emotions. Friends texting me saying congrats you have a date, and me feeling happy about that. To me being annoyed that we are now suddenly categorized separately from all the businesses we were previously in with.
Our gym will have been closed 10 out of 15 months as we reopen since the pandemic began. I try to be an optimist, even in the worst times.
I would like to think that this is our last first day. Being a small business owner these last 15 months has been challenging, to say the least, heck being anybody these last 15 months has been a challenge. We are all suffering from pandemic fatigue.
One of the biggest things I have learned as a business owner and human is that we are all so different. We are all in this storm together, but we are all in vastly different boats. If you see a ship sinking, do everything in your power to keep it afloat. Support Local. Support small businesses.