Posted March 14, 2019

1 Year In: The Self-Employment Experiment

January 1, 2018: I had zero clients.

I had just walked away from a career in a health club after spending the previous 14 years there. It was a good experience overall but it was time to move on as a new opportunity presented itself. A new facility was opening up which gave trainers the ability to work out of their existing framework as independent contractors for a relatively low monthly lease price.

Since it’s been a little over a year since I made the jump, I wanted to give an update on how things are going, review my experience, and give some pointers to anyone else looking to do something similar.


I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man

After working as a personal trainer for a while, I had a good idea of systems, policies, procedures, invoicing, and all the other stuff that goes with running a business, but there’s a bit of a difference when you are in an existing system set up by accountants and HR professionals and when you do that all on your own.

And by “a bit of a difference” I mean a giant “what the hell do I do now” type of scenario where you have to make everything and put it in place on your own. This can be daunting at first, but setting up with some good software through Pike13 helped automate a lot of those processes, plus let me manage billing, scheduling, attendance, and automated reminder emails all from my phone, which helped save a ton of time and effort for a relatively low cost each month.

It took about 2 weeks of consistently working on the planning elements to get everything organized so that when the facility opened up I was able to train clients on day one without any specific hiccups or issues.

To go along with this, I had to actually start doing some form of accounting since I had an incorporated business and couldn’t just get by with recording income and expenses like before. So I met with an accountant and got an idea of what I had to do to make everything organized and had my wife do my book keeping to make sure I didn’t get in trouble with Canada Revenue at the end of the year. More on that to come.

Starting from Zero

My opening statement on this post was true, I had zero clients at the beginning of last year. I had walked away from an existing clientele, handed them off to other trainers who I felt could do a good job, and wished them well. I was essentially starting from scratch.

But an interesting thing happened. As soon as I announced that I was making a change, I had about 14 people reach out and say they wanted to start training with me. They had wanted to for a long time, but either didn’t want to come into the company I was working for, or didn’t want to drive downtown and pay the exorbitant parking fees of downtown parking.

By the end of January, I had 20 clients. By the end of February, I had 31.  It was off and running. In the year I managed to work with 113 different individuals and trained 1400 sessions on the year, in spite of taking 6 full weeks away from training clients. Not too shabby.

Some mild scheduling changes meant I was working 3 fewer hours each week, but was able to put enough of a priority on getting additional sleep and still being home in time for dinner with my wife each night (maybe a bit late on Tuesdays and Thursdays). Combining an average of an additional 75 minutes of sleep each night with a facility that has a ton of windows and a south facing exposure for a massive amount of sunlight after being in a gym with no windows for over a decade, and my energy and mood were considerably improved.

I Count Reps, Not Accounts Payable

I completely understand I have zero knowledge of accounting or book keeping. I made a mistake at the beginning of thinking I knew what I needed to do and not asking my accountant to specifically lay out everything involved in the process, which meant my wife doing my book keeping was not able to do the job she needed to do because she was working with improper information on my part.

My goal for 2019 is to get everything organized and recorded properly so that I can make accurate submissions, have payments made and give my books to my acocuntant at the end of the year and have him give a fist pump of excitement because everything’s done properly. He’s working with Lindsay and I to help us along the way, so hopefully that will be a stressor that gets removed.

New Gym, New Uniform

One constant from working in a commercial gym was the uniform. The same thing every day for years on end until they rolled out a new style every 5 or so years. Working independently meant I had the chance to wear whatever I wanted to, but after 14 years of uniforms, all that freedom made me……. wear a different uniform.

While I’m sure my random collection of wrestling t shirts and occasional polo would be fine to wear anywhere, the decisions on each day made me a bit stressed out, and once I managed to get some branded shirts with my logo on them, I just started wearing those every day.

I remember Dan John giving a talk about reducing decisions and mentioning he has something like 28 of the exact same shirt because that’s all they made in his size across North America. It meant that each day he didn’t have to make a choice on what he would wear, he’d just grab a clean shirt and be ready to devote decision making power to the stuff that mattered in his life.

Stuff That’s Worked Out Well So Far

Financially, it’s been a great move. My expenses for lease and software are pretty small, which means I keep about 95% of what I charge. In my new environment, I have the ability to charge whatever I like, and in some instances am actually charging clients less. Combine that with free parking, lower membership rates, drop in options for those looking to not get a membership, and a fantastic space, and the response has been universally positive from everyone coming in to work with me.

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6:30 am and packed gym.

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The limited overhead management and procedural “stuff” that tends to come with being an employee working in an existing structure was discarded entirely, and much of it automated to the point where I could run a fairly successful business with nothing more than my phone and the occasional check in on my laptop.

I also have the freedom to make my business what I want. I have an online coaching platform through and will eventually get set up to have it as a one-stop shop for my in-person and online coaching, which will give me the ability to write a program for a client, load it into the app, and have them log their workouts online so I can check, plus I can easily bring their workouts up in their sessions to log and adjust automatically. This will beat the old paper books I’ve been using.

I’ve also been able to purchase some measurement equipment to use with clients to get more data on their workouts, and since it’s a business expense I can claim it against my business income. Same goes for a portion of my home office, travel, meals out with my “shareholder” and a bunch of other stuff I wasn’t able to claim previously. I also have 100% of my income in my corporation now, which can make taxes actually a bit easier overall.

One of the biggest benefits in owning your own business is I can subcontract to other trainers to train clients if I’m away, which happens any time I’m teaching a workshop or want to take a vacation. Previously to do this would have been an accounting nightmare as there are different rates trainers work at and are paid at, and switching levels was something that was actively discouraged. Now, I just set a rate for each client session the other trainer is comfortable with, have them train the session, then pay the trainer. This allows me to take time away, have my clients taken care of, earn a small fraction of the session rate the client is paying for, and everyone is happy.

Stuff That Still Sucks

Compared to running your own business, being an employee is the considerably easier option hands down. I’m fortunate that I can hand off book keeping and accounting, but if not that would be an added expense every month as I would have no hope in hell of knowing how to do it or doing it right. Combine that with paying sales tax quarterly, corporate income tax, personal income tax, and probably some mystery existence tax that no one tells you about until you get a bill for it, and I’m paying taxes essentially all year instead of just once a year when my T4 forms would come in.

While I was still paying taxes as an employee, the main difference is that as an employee taxes were deducted automatically, whereas I get the money, then have to figure out how much to pay and for what/where/how. I’ve set up a savings account that I just put money into each week and accumulate what is needed to pay for taxes, and then just get payments deducted from that account, which makes life easier, but it still sucks getting a bill for many thousands of dollars every now and then. That being said, paying taxes means you’re still earning an income, so I’ll take it as a blessing I guess.

Advice to Anyone Going On Their Own

I don’t care how good of a trainer you are, if you have no idea of how to do basic accounting or have someone do it for you, you’ll have no idea whether your business is growing, failing, or whether you’ll be able to pay the bills. Start with your systems and make sure you know what’s going on.

Bootstrap your operations to be as inexpensive and automated as possible. The reason I lease time from an existing facility versus open my own is I have no financial obligations to the purchase of equipment, lease terms, insurance, utilities, upkeep, staffing, or the other stuff that comes with owning a physical facility. This keeps my expenses for in-person training to less than $1000 a month. Essentially, if you have no clients or existing business, DO NOT OPEN YOUR OWN FACILITY.

Set boundaries and stick to them. My schedule is set and non-negotiable. If you want to train on the weekend, I’ll find someone else for you as I won’t come in.I could easily fill 7 days a week, but then my wife would likely leave me and start a puppy rescue compound somewhere in the country.

Also, don’t fall behind in paying your taxes. That shit doesn’t go away.

Hopefully this helps shed some light on how things have been going from the bossman perspective and can give some help to anyone looking to jump out on their own as well. I can say without a doubt it’s been one of the best moves I’ve made, and I’m extremely happy with how everything has turned out so far.