Ep 9 – Adam Browne – Vagus Fitness
The Ambition Project – Calgary Entrepreneurial Podcast
The Ambition Project is a video series in which we interview successful and ambitious Calgary entrepreneurs and talk to them about their struggles, what they’ve had to overcome on their journey and valuable insights they have to share with up and coming business owners. The series will premiere on September 18th, 2018. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to stay updated or stream an episode on Spotify or iTunes.
Jonathan Hafichuk: Welcome Adam , thank you for joining us today, I’m super excited to learn more about Vagus Fitness, I originally met you about a year and a half ago at the measurable difference?
Adam Browne: Yeah I think it was march 2017,somewhere around there, April, May?
Jonathan Hafichuk: Adam runs a gym here in Calgary that is in a very specific Niche ,you’ve been running for about 10 years now?
Adam Browne: Yeah 2008, Yeah so we are personal training, so more specifically than gym. Meaning that all the sessions we run are either one on one or with a small group and so it’s not an open gym I guess you can say.
Jonathan Hafichuk: So what made you decide to go in that direction?
Adam Browne: Actually we’ve been in business for 10 years so we originally started off as boot camp so I guess you know groups of anywhere from 10 to 20 participants and you know there’s a whole bacher for that goes along with this but we decided at one point in our business about 3, just over 3 years ago is that we wanted to move, we wanted to niche ourselves essentially and be more on the one on one side of things rather than the group side of things , and so that was a decision we made it was a business decision but yeah It was the turning point of our business and that kind of led us to where we are now.
Jonathan Hafichuk: So what does Vagus fitness offer? what is your primary focus ?
Adam Browne: So our main target is that we serve is 50 + , people with bone and joint issues and so we yeah basically we help people to live better lives, live better quality lives with longer lives and we didn’t always used to be such a narrow Market but we kind of focussed down into that niche so yeah that’s what we do we more specifically we specialize in strength training on the fitness side of things.
Jonathan Hafichuk: How did Vagus fitness get started?
Adam Browne: My business partner Kyle, actually started it in 2008, he’s a kinesiologist and right after university he started running boot camps and fitness classes basically on the side of what he was doing as a job which is a kinesiologist at a physio clinic, Me and him we’ve known eachother since highschool , so we played highschool football, highschool rugby and that’s kind of how we met . and so that was kind of a starting point to our business , he brought me on in 2010, I had been kind of helping out a few years prior to that. Formation of the business was really 2010, for me on my side of things.
Jonathan Hafichuk: And where did it start?
Adam Browne: We actually started it originally out of a physio clinic that Kyle was running or was working out of they would rent the space out to us at night, but when we really got into the meat of things was when Kyle bought a house in Tuscany and we renovated the basement,put rubber floors down dug a ditch to the basement so we could put a back door in and yeah we kind of formed a little personal training studio down in the basement in Tuscany and that was kind of a real beginning and that Was yeah 2010 ish with the give or take a few months.
Jonathan Hafichuk: And what was your background before going into the training industry?
Adam Browne: Yes so for me, I just graduated from University , I took a business at UofC with a major in entrepreneurship and so you know I Guess my career was always going to be some type of entrepreneurial endeavor Kyle who is my business partner he’s a kinesiologist we the summer before I graduated we worked together at the Foothills hospital just doing lawn maintenance and we’d always discuss what we’d like to do in the future and he was kind of on the same path as far as wanting to be an entrepreneur and that’s kind of the beginning of our discussions of starting some type of fitness related business started.
Jonathan Hafichuk: So why fitness?
Adam Browne: Fitness is something, it’s always been a part of my life, but I guess for me why I decided to get into it is because it had such a big impact on my life right out of University I guess you could say ,more specifically strength training,So what had happened was I played , I was a 3 athlete sport in highschool, I played football,basketball and rugby so I was active literally all year round. And sometimes
the sports even overlapped a little bit so very active in highschool and I graduated highschool,the freshman 15 is a real thing.And yeah I packed on some weight at that point within the first few months of university I sought out a personal trainer myself, his name is James Fitsgerrald he’s actually quite a renowned trainer within north america now so I got really lucky with who I started training with it kind of showed me what strength training can do for your life, how it can have a real big positive impact, not only physically,but emotionally,spiritually, and just mentally as well. He is what really introduced me to what strength training really was, before that i didn’t know what it was so that’s kind of how I got into the strength training industry and that’s what made me want to pursue it as a career.
Jonathan Hafichuk: Very cool, and then what did you require of your first trainers in terms of certification?
Adam Browne: Yeah so initially it was very basic certification so we started off you know, we were hiring more on personality side of things and we put the certification thing ,we kind of pushed it to the side ,we weren’t too concerned about it and that was initially how we hired, was personality-based which when we were running boot camps and fitness classes and things like that, that was totally fine. Now we’re in a much different market , much different niche and so those standards have changed for us.
Jonathan Hafichuk: So starting out in the basement, you got some clients I imagine from working out of the physiotherapy clinic before, and then at that point did it start to grow?
Adam Browne: Yeah so we started to grow within our basement, we were serving 30 to 45 year old house mom demographic, naturally they talk, so just from a grassroots perspective it kind of grew, and blew up in a sense where we went from 20 clients to 80 clients within a year so,we didn’t really do any advertisement , we put flyers up on like mailboxes and stuff like that, I really have no idea if that worked.
Jonathan Hafichuk: Did you do anything to encourage word of mouth spread?
Adam Browne: Yeah we have a referral programs in place,where people have a free month if they refer someone to us but more so I think it was just people are attracted to I guess,back then I was 23 at the time , my business partner was 23 and they’re just attracted to the enthusiasm, the personalities of the kind of culture that was built,the community that was part of our business back then and that’s what brought people in.
Jonathan Hafichuk: Did the community and the culture come intentionally?
Adam Browne: I think that’s a good question. Yes and no. when you’re such a young entrepreneur you don’t necessarily think about all those things out of the gate, once we started to roll a little bit we understood what the community aspect meant and we really did push that part of it. Initially not necessarily but a year in we understood that that was an important part of our business so we rolled with it and really intentionally tried to build that aspect of our business.
Jonathan Hafichuk: When you were early on in the basement ,I can imagine you had a huge amount of overhead. Very stressful business? or was it pretty chill?
Adam Browne: At the time I thought it was stressful, but to be honest with you it was pretty chill, all we had was the mortgage to pay, you know as we have grown over the years , the stress has reached levels I never want to get back to the city of Calgary knocked on our door one day and came by and told us a neighbour had filed one too many complaints about parking issues, and we got kicked out and had to stop operations immediately .So that obviously was a pretty stressful point in our business
Jonathan Hafichuk: So it was kind of a catalyst to the next level,
Adam Browne: Yeah so when that happened , we were lucky enough that it happened in spring time , and we were running boot camps so we didn’t need much equipment to do it, so we immediately were able to move our operations to a field inTuscany and just continue until we found something that could take the place of our basement in Tuscany to a more permanent solution to what we were doing.
Jonathan Hafichuk: So you’re running classes in the basement, the city comes and says you can’t do this,you move to a field,what was your plan once moving to the field?what was going through your head? What was your plan of action to move to the next stage?
Adam Browne: Yeah I guess there would have been 2 options really it would be to continue running in a field, well 3 options, continue running in a field,second option was just to shut it down and third option was to find a facility that we could run out of and we chose a field isn’t a place where you can run a long time business,and for us this was a long term thing so we sought out a facility,rented out a 1250 square foot spot in Montgomery,and we signed a 2 year lease initially, and that was kind of our
introduction to running a business with real overhead, And so that’s what we did, we moved to Montgomery,put some paint on the walls,went to home depot and bought some cheap tile for the bathroom and put it down and opened for business.
Jonathan Hafichuk: When you got into your space in Montgomery there ,did the stress and the realness of the business like really hit you at that point? Did you have to go all in? What did that look like?
Adam Browne: At that point we actually had Rent to Pay,and so that was the first of each month you had to have your rent checked in and it has to clear so that was the point where it was like we’re running a business here with real expenses,we have a lease,and we have to figure this out so it was the first for us for running a full time business for both of us,Kyle at the time,before moving into Montgomery he was still working part time at the physio clinic I believe,so when we ended up moving he quit his job so he could dedicate full time hours to this.
Jonathan Hafichuk: Did you have to grow your clientele quite a bit to make that rent happen?
Adam Browne: Ya so that the nice thing was that we were making enough money beforehand so that when we moved in we were still able to cover our rent,but I mean the goal was to grow our clientele right, so that’s what we did. We just continued to grow mostly by word-of-mouth to be honest with you, we did a little bit of Facebook advertising stuff but that was in 2011 so Facebook hadn’t really realized its full potential as far as advertising goes so yeah we attempted to grow our clientele with very traditional forms of advertising,I remember we printed a bunch of signs,put up on the side of the road, posters on the side of mailboxes and light posts,and put a big banner up in front of our store/location and all that type of stuff. I’m not actually sure what worked.
Jonathan Hafichuk: As long as it worked.
Adam Browne: Yeah something worked back then.
Jonathan Hafichuk: At that stage did you know who your ideal target clientele was yet ?
Adam Browne: We we thought we knew who our ideal clientele was but I don’t think we really understood what that actually meant at the time compared to right now where we really have a good understanding of our clientele but back then we thought it was 30 to 45 year old moms and that what we thought we served best and what we rolled with for a while but things have changed quite a bit since then.
Jonathan Hafichuk: When you were starting out I imagine you taught a lot of the classes, or did a lot of the training, did it get tiring? did you do a lot of the movement and exercises while you’re teaching all the classes ?
Adam Browne: Yeah I was in the best shape of my life!But yeah we taught all of the classes so 4 to 5 classes a day, doing certain portions of the classes with the clientele themselves ,you know our warm ups and our cool downs where we did the ab work and things like that, we would be quite active so yeah it was actually crazy,looking at a picture of myself back in those days,it’s crazy, I was in great shape back then but yeah it got exhausting.I think when you’re young,you can sustain that kind of stuff but as you get older,you get more responsibilities,your body just..working out 5 times a day just isn’t the best thing.
Jonathan Hafichuk: I used to coach gymnastics and parkour and I remember when I was like 22, 23 running classes and stuff back-to-back was no problem but I couldn’t do it now.
Adam Browne: I know,it’s funny how your time goes on and you look back, I was 23 almost 10 years ago and yeah
Jonathan Hafichuk: Do you find despite being in the fitness industry it’s still hard to maintain the level of physical conditioning you want to while running a business?
Adam Browne: Yeah absolutely,over the years ive struggled with my own fitness, I go through waves of being in great shape,and then getting out of shape and being in great shape again, it’s always been a struggle and I think that’s really why i can connect with my clients and I have an understanding on what it’s actually like to get physically fit and it’s tough,it’s hard,it takes work, it takes dedication, running a business there’s not a set schedule so it’s hard to be habitual with your own workouts and things like that but ive tried to figure out a way.
Jonathan Hafichuk: So when you were starting out in those first two years at Montgomery,what was your first real struggle that you had to deal with? What was difficult to overcome in that time?
Adam Browne: The first two years,that’s a tough question because I don’t think, really that big of a challenge because ur expenses were still pretty low,I think the biggest challenge honestly is patience . To put things into context a little bit, when we moved to Montgomery we had actually signed our Royal Oakley lease at the time but the complex wasn’t to be built for another 2 or 3 years so at that time we had plans of moving up to bigger facilities,bigger and better so I think the toughest challenge for us at that point was having patience for it happen and yeah i think that was probably the toughest part about being in Montgomery was that this thing in mind that we were working towards, and the complex was supposed to be ready within a year and then it got pushed to 2 years and I think it actually got pushed to 3 years by the time it was all said and done just because of how construction works in Calgary.
Jonathan Hafichuk: When did you first experience having difficulties like trying to make rent and stuff like that?
Adam Browne: Yeah so when we moved into Royal Oak,we went from a 1200 square foot facility to a 4200 square foot facility so obviously with that comes higher rent, not only did we do that but we also moved from a strip mall in Montgomery to a high end retail location in Royal Oak, so our rent skyrocketed, we went from 3000$ a month to like 15000$ a month overnight and so,it was the first year of that where we just every month was a grind to get by, we were losing money every month,we had money in the bank to get us by but we were losing money every month.So that was easily the most stressful part of my life.That first year.
Jonathan Hafichuk: So from an application standpoint ,what did you guys do to make sure you could make that rent or to increase sales so you can make that rent?
Adam Browne: Losing sleep that was one, but we were kind of in the period, when we were in Montgomery we were doing mainly doing just fitness classes and boot caps, when we opened in Royal Oak we were doing boot camps and fitness classes plus personal training so we were growing the personal training side of our business to help make up that shortfall and that was kind of our plan,there’s a lot of lessons that we’ve learned, number one being its hard being something for everyone and so our boot camp and fitness class clients are a lot different than our one on one clients , different demographics,different needs and wants, different income brackets, all of it.It made it really really hard to market both sides of the business.
Jonathan Hafichuk: How did you maintain your energy because I’m guessing at that point if you’re doing all that personal training plus running classes and boot camps how did you maintain your energy to put in those really long days to put in those hours.I imagine you had to sacrifice things like social life activities and stuff like that.
Adam Browne: I think when you’re in it you just do it,I didn’t have a choice, I just did it, woke up every morning , go to work and did my thing all in the while on trying to change our situation.For us I realized,something had to change beyond just what we can do within our business.and so yea that was easily one of the most challenging parts of my life.The first two years of moving into our Royal Oak location was easily the most challenging years of my life and it’s just something I look back on and yeah, I just did it.
Jonathan Hafichuk: What was your biggest motivation that got you out of bed in the morning ?
Adam Browne: Wanting to be successful, basically I looked at as a challenge of who I was as a person and being able to push through that and really decide that I have the ability to push through this. I had two options it was either just give up and quit and have a failed business and possibly affect my entrepreneurial career for the rest of my life or push through and come out on the other end one way or another,so that’s what I decided to do, and my business partner Kyle and Lesley ,it helps to have a team around you , so that everyone can push each other through.
Jonathan Hafichuk: Did you think about quitting?
Adam Browne: Yeah , everyday, everyday I was like why the hell am I doing this but it was more of like when you have an injury or something,it’s just something that you thought about,I just thought about it, I never actively pursued quitting but it was , geez I can’t do this forever so that was kind of yea, definitely.
Jonathan Hafichuk: Thinking back,what do you think you learned that was of the most value from those 2 years?
Adam Browne: I think one thing is is that putting things into perspective, a lot of times,when we have issues and problems, me especially ,I get so caught up in it and I don’t look at the big picture of things and I think that was a big lesson for me is like okay let’s take a look at the step back and take a look at what we’re going through and what the problem is and what’s the worst outcome that could happen and most of the time it’s never as bad as you think it is and so just putting things in perspective and really taking the time to think about the decisions that I’m making, the impact they’re going to have on the business, on the business outcome and being comfortable with making decisions and if youre wrong, you’re wrong.And that’s all you can do.
Jonathan Hafichuk: So those 2 years when you were working crazy hours, throughout this stressful time,what kind of things in the rest of your life did you have to sacrifice to be successful there?
Adam Browne: Yeah it was tough, you sacrifice time with your friends, I wasn’t taking a salary at the time so I could do a lot of stuff at the time,I was in my mid twenties so losing that aspect for about a year to two years were definitely some of the things ive sacrificed but i looked at it as part of the journey, so for me it wasn’t a massive sacrifice, it was just something that was part of life for me, but yeah tons of sacrifices that entrepreneurs, as you probably know,but its not , what I might consider a sacrifice is probably different than what someone else might consider a sacrifice so i’m still lucky enough to have a strong group of friends that i’ve been friends with since junior high, my family is in Calgary, I have a very strong connection with my family,so that’s kind of what helped me, that support structure was definitely helped me bring me through the tough times.
Jonathan Hafichuk: At first was it difficult for you to say no to people when they wanted to do stuff?
Adam Browne: Yeah absolutely, when you’re 25 years old you want to be able to go to Coachella or whatever you want to be able to do that, but I had to work,at least I thought I had to work,looking back I would have done things a lot different but yeah I had to teach fitness classes on Saturdays and Sundays so definitely missed out on a lot of things like that.I don’t really have any regrets over it.
Jonathan Hafichuk: That’s good, So I want to go because it’s really interesting to me, I want to go a little bit more into i guess to a degree theory when it comes to fitness,because in the industry there’s so many different approaches , you have the gyms that are trying to get people in shape to go do athletic fitness contests right, and then you have gyms that are just trying to get people to be as functionally fit as
people to live their best lives,then you have crossfit and all these different aspects,and then you have the power of the fuel weight lifting so it sounds like from what you guys are doing you just want people to be functional and healthy right?
Adam Browne: Yeah absolutely,that’s correct.
Jonathan Hafichuk: So what is your theory on the pros and cons to the different sides of that and why did you go in the functional direction?
Adam Browne: We’ve always been a functional type of place,I think a better question that I would like to answer is why we decided to go on the digilized approach and one on one and small group personal training ,versus a big boot camp setting and for us there’s a massive difference in the instruction that our clients get compared to what they can get in a bigger class setting.Our trainers are kinesiologists for the most part to begin with and second of all we really take focus on proper movement patterns and technique, and so for us that really what we try to promote is correct movement so we can avoid injuries and muscle imbalances and things that causes problems in the future.
There’s different parts of fitness, I myself went to boot camp last week to try it out,and for me that’s fine, for some people who are maybe a little bit older,or have injuries,that type of thing to take into account,those group places most of the time it can do them worse,more injured it can produce muscle imbalances, that leads to problems down the road and so there’s a certain subset of people I think should be doing more customized individualized approaches to where is if you’re a little bit younger,you don’t have any issues,those group style classes definitely have an important place in your fitness.I think it really depends on where you’re at with your own fitness,what your goals and wants are and what your capabilities are as well.
Jonathan Hafichuk: What advice do you have for people who are really busy, whether they have a family and kids or a business or multiple jobs or lots on the go, what advice do you have for them for both deciding what they should do to stay in shape and for sticking to a routine?
Adam Browne: One of the things people kind of fail to realize is that fitness should not be something that you hate and so for the average person thats looking to get in better health and get in better shape, is first of all find something that you enjoy.So that means, playing tennis every week at the winter club or cross country skiing or hiking. Find something that you really love and I strongly believe in the strength training aspect of fitnessAnd I believe that it’s the foundation of fitness is strength training so seek out someone who can help guide you through that process, design a plan that’s appropriate for you and your needs and your injuries and your wants and
your goals and realize that it’s the commitment itself, you can get by with 2 days of strength training itself and see improvements and see the benefits of that so realistically in the grand scheme of things, what’s 2 hours a week and also we have to make it a priority in our lives so of course we all have busy lives but at the end of the day we have 2 options we can sit on the couch and watch tv for and hour or go to the gym for an hour and so we have to make that choice,and if we don’t make that choice then we kind of get what comes to us in a sense. Don’t get me wrong it’s difficult, I struggle with it on a daily basis.I’m like I don’t want to do that damn workout,but its just something you have to do and so prioritize fitness in your life,understand the benefits of it long term because the benefits long term are often overlooked in favour of the short term results people are looking for.
Jonathan Hafichuk: What lifts or exercises do you find most valuable I know from other personal trainers I’ve talked to in some past experience, I’ve heard for just general fitness kettlebells are great and then like for strength deadlifts so what’s your opinion ?
Adam Browne: It’s interesting, most really good personal trainers have a system for how they put together their worout.So for me it’s not about whether its kettlebells that’s best or dumbbells or barbells or whatever your equipment of choice is.Its more about the movement pattern that were concerned about so whenI’m looking to design a program for the average person,I want to be able to do hinge movements,deadlifts is one exercise out of many in a hinge movement ,I want to do a squat pattern,we have body weight squat we have goblet squats,holding a kettlebell,we have goblet squats holding a dumbbell it doesn’t matter which one you choose.we want to do upper body push,we want to do upper body pull.And so those are kind of the four points that go into a fitness program as well as actual [Inaudible] core.
When I go online and im part of a bunch of different groups on Facebook,this question comes up alot “ What exercise is best for my glutes?” and it just drives me nuts because we shouldn’t be focussed on developing one part of our body we should be focussed on the system on how our body work together and so how we do that our program needs to include a hinge,a squat,a press and a pull.Focus less on a certain part of our body and focus more on a holistic aspect of what our bodies can do and that way in the future you won’t get injured.
Jonathan Hafichuk: To a degree, if you break it down to really basic level and this might not totally hit it everything if you’re doing like some sort of a hinge like a deadlift,you’re doing some squats or some sort whether its body weight or whatever,pullups and pushups you’re more or less hitting your body engine.
Adam Browne: Absolutely, you have a deadlift in your program,you have a squat in your program,you have a pushup,what’s your other one, chin up,absolutely, you’re hitting a big portion of what you need to hit.Now little intricacies that go into that like I have a horizontal press and a I have a vertical press,I have a horizontal row and a vertical row so those types of things play into part of it to and what part of your body do we need to develop.But yeah if you were to design your own program,a hinge,a squat a press and a pull.
Jonathan Hafichuk: So what are some other hinges that you see that are really good rather than deadlifts like maybe if someone travelling,whats some things that are easy to do?
Adam Browne: Yeah you can do hip thrusts,laying with your back on a bench or even the ground,heels out in front of you and just lifting the hips up, it kind of looks like you’re humping the air in a sense but that would be one easy way for the average person you don’t need weights to be able to at least start with this stuff so if you’re travelling you can go to a hotel gym and they’ll at least have something you can use to be able to do a Romanian deadlift.So a conventional deadlift you need a bar and things like that but we can do a Romanian deadlifts, we can do single leg Romanian deadlifts, there’s a whole variety of exercises but you don’t need too much to be able to do some of this stuff ,doing a chin up you need a bar so some things we need a little bit more equipment, some we don’t.
Jonathan Hafichuk: The business is growing and evolved quite a bit over the last 10 years,now getting to a point where you’re trying to remove yourself to a degree from the business,right? What are you doing to go about building systems and processes so that the business can run smoothly without you? Is your partner trying to take a step back as well?
Adam Browne: Yeah so the goal of me and my business partner is to take more of an owner role of the business rather than an owner operator role so we’ve had business coaches in the past that have really instituted the idea of systems and processes,and so we studied it quite extensively over the years so we understand the value of that and so we’ve been in business long enough that we have a pretty good catalog of systems and processes .I’ve typed out and write and perform as videos,some perform as written some perform as just audio, and so our next step is we just promoted one of our trainers into more of a managerial role,so that our first step is getting out of having to think about things like transactions and payments and daily emails that we get from clients and things like that.Anytime our manager runs into a problem that they can’t solve, get them to write it down and it’s up to us to come up with some sort of process that could help fix that.And so i think systemizing
is an ongoing thing and It’s not something I really enjoy.But I see the value in it because if I can create a system that takes half an hour to create ,in the future it can save me however long ,how many hours of time to deal with that issue.
Jonathan Hafichuk: Very cool, and what’s your goal for the future, where do you see Vagus doing in 10 years?
Adam Browne: At one point in our business we wanted multiple locations and last year we were a couple days away from signing a lease and we just decided that right now isn’t the time for us to have two locations,we want to focus in this location that we have now and improving it and systemizing it so we’ve been taking a lot of steps to work towards that including renovating the studio ,upgrading it, putting out manager in place , make sure all of our trainers are operating with very similar philosophies and styles and so we’re on our way to that goal. Personally I want to continue to grow as an entrepreneur I guess my next and then I’m going to be doing is diving into a separate business from Vagus fitness that is more, you know utilize the skills i’ve learned from this system process oriented type of business with less overhead and a more direct route profitability.
As far as Vagus Fitness goes, I want to get the most out of this location that were in right now and I dont think were there yet.I think there’s a couple more years to go,but just making it a place that have a real impact on people’s lives and we have that which is great but I think we can do more,educating people via video education and things like that,I just see Vagus fitness to continue to refine our processes , we serve a 50 plus market we want to continue to do that.But as far as i’m concerned, were the leaders within Calgary.In terms of actually developing a program that is focussed on a 50Plus demographic,and I want to continue to innovate within that space and continue to be the leader within that space instead of always playing catch up. So yeah that’s kind of my 5, 10 year goal.
Jonathan Hafichuk: That’s very exciting, I’m excited to see what you start next.
Adam Browne: Awesome,Thanks.
Jonathan Hafichuk: Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it, I think you provided a lot of value to people watching and maybe i’ll have to come and try some training some time.
Adam Browne: Hey, we’ll see you.
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