Oct 12, 2021

How to Win When the Playing Field Is Leveled — Interview with Alex Cibiri, CEO of Element Fitness

Through the pandemic, Element Fitness’s physical operations were closed 410 out of 486 days. It could have buried the company, but not only did Element survive, it thrived.

Alex Cibiri, CEO of Element Fitness, shares how they navigated the crisis to maintain revenue, avoid layoffs, and achieve a 90% member retention rate with a 9.8 Net Promoter Score.

Alex speaks to pivoting, grit, and the spirit it takes to thrive in a crisis.

Alex Cibiri is the founder & CEO of Element Fitness. Alex is responsible for creating, developing, and executing all aspects of the Element Fitness vision: growing a community-focused functional fitness market in the Greater Toronto Area.

In This Episode

  • How Alex Cibiri and the Element Fitness team had to reassess according to new pandemic needs.
  • How Element engaged its members to figure out what they would want in a virtual gym and what services they would pay for.
  • The strategy to pivot when they knew clients were going to be nervous leaving the house, and how Element came up with unique workouts at home.
  • The pandemic created one of the greatest entrepreneurial moments. Alex says, “It was like going back to university.”

Show Links

VIEW TRANSCRIPT

– Brand X, brand Y, brand Z, not one sticks. Watch it again in slow motion.

– Welcome to the Sticky Branding podcast. In this show, we are unpacking how companies grow sticky brands. Hi, my name is Jeremy Miller. I am the founder of Sticky Branding and host of this podcast. And I’m so delighted and excited to introduce my friend, founder and CEO of Element Fitness, Alex Cibiri. Alex, welcome to the show.

– Thank you so much for having me. So I’m holding back giving the intro of Element Fitness, ’cause you know your business better than anyone else. And I also kind of wanna put you on the spot and see how your elevator pitch is, so tell me, who is Element Fitness? Who are you guys? What do you guys do?

– So we’re a CrossFit gym in Mississauga, Ontario on the border of Oakville. And basically what we do is we make fitness accessible, call it elite fitness accessible to regular people. When I started in fitness, I was always into sports, I was never really into the working outside of things, working out was a happy side effect and accident of being really active. And then as you, you know, you go on with life and you grow up and you start sitting behind a desk and you try the regular gym thing because there’s no more gym class and it turns out it’s really boring and it’s not really fun, and I had a really hard time staying motivated and just by fluke, I found a CrossFit workout, did it with some friends and that totally kicked my butt and ever since then, I was like, I wanna find a way to bring this to normal people because most people see it as a very elite unattainable kind of thing. So we’re really just trying to make it democratize fitness, essentially.

– How, so you got exposed to one class, how does getting exposed to a workout lead to starting your own business and gym, especially in something, like what I’m assuming when you started, CrossFit wasn’t really known by many people.

– Yeah, no, I started doing CrossFit in early 2007, and no one really knew what it was around here. And for me it was, I’m a commerce business guy, that’s what I went to school for my whole life, I was always interested in business and the inner workings of it. And because I started and had such an amazing experience with it, I would almost dare say like transformative experience with it. I looked around and I saw that there was no CrossFits anywhere around me, then I thought this is a perfect opportunity because like no one else is doing it here. So what better way to start than to jump in and do it myself. And that’s literally what it was, it was kind of, I wanted a place and that’s been a lot of the driving for the growth, and the evolution of the business has been like, what would I want in a gym? What would I want to attend? What would I pay money for? All that kind of stuff, asking myself those questions has been kind of one of the north stars that we had for a really long time.

– Hmm, amazing. And you’ve had an incredible ride, over the next, upcoming up to the pandemic, you grew Element into one of, if not the largest CrossFit gym in Canada, is that right?

– Yeah, it was definitely up there, it’s hard because CrossFits, and it’s hard to quantify because CrossFits themselves are very, they’re licensed based. So what people don’t know about CrossFit often, they think it’s a franchise and what it actually is, it’s a licensing deal, so what you do is you pay CrossFit home office a certain amount of money every year and for that in exchange, once you meet a couple of criteria, which admittedly, the bar is relatively low, you get to call yourself a CrossFit gym. And after that, everything is up to you from coloring to branding, to the workouts themselves, to how you operate the business, how you charge, everything’s up to you. And so that’s hard to have to find peers and comparisons in the space, but definitely from all this stuff that we’ve seen, we were one of the biggest and also one of the oldest being established in 2008.

– Wow. So we’ll talk in a moment about the pandemic and just the impact that had on Element in your business, because it was awful. But if we go to just before that, late 2019, early 2020, what was the business like? Where were you positioned at? What was the brand known for? Like, how would you describe Element and what it was working to accomplish back then?

– It feels like, in one way it feels like just yesterday, in another way, it feels like it’s two lifetimes ago. I mean, I think like that’s with everything with post pandemic and pre pandemic. But almost doing great, one of the big things, so we have a thriving community here like most CrossFit gyms, we are really known for a really diverse, inclusive community. And we brought the community together through a bunch of different ways. One of our main ones was doing these competitive events that were really focused again around regular people, competing and doing CrossFit workouts or CrossFit style workouts in a competitive setting. So our whole thing has always been about creating a positive experience around fitness that helps change people’s lives and helps them give them confidence in other areas of their lives. So where we were at, we were really working on developing a stronger management team and trying to actually create some structure around something that was a very, and even the industry is traditionally, the small gym industry is traditionally a very, very flat structure, we were trying to create a little bit of hierarchy in terms of being able to magnify our reach and kind of solidify the quality of the product that we’re delivering.

– It’s amazing. And I can speak from a transparent perspective, being a long-time member myself, the community I think is really what sets all of them apart. You feel like you’re in a family. If you don’t show up for a few days, you’ll get a call or a text or an email. And it’s the, just the connective glue is the people that holds that brand and that box together.

– Yeah, and then that, I mean, that was the challenge in a positive way that we were addressing is as you keep growing, how do you keep that community feeling and how do you be intentional about it? Because if you can imagine for all other business owners listening, right, you have 30 clients, it’s very easy for you to treat every one of those clients as if they’re your only client, because they pretty much are, right? When you get to 250, 300 clients, how do you maintain that same level of that community, that same level of individualization? You know, you haven’t been here in three days, I’m gonna text you to follow up, but if you’re away on work, I know to not to text you, and maybe I’m gonna text you if you’ve been doing, you know, workouts from your hotel room or something like that. So finding a way, and that was one of the big focuses pre pandemic was how do we create systems that are gonna allow our staff to interact with people in that kind of an individualized manner?

– Can you give an example of a system, like something that would have worked to nurture that connectivity.

– One of our systems that we have just basically based on different actions or attendances, we trigger off different ways to text or email someone, so for example, someone comes in when they’re a new member, after their third class, it triggers off a notification so we’ve intentionally made the decision to not go full automation with things. I think that takes away a little bit of the personality. So we’ll get a notification to text that person through our system to say like, hey, Jeremy, like Happy had a third class with coach Alex. Like, how was it? Do you have any questions, anything I can help you with? Again, trying to really, We really sat down and walk through the workflow of what a client’s first 90 days are like, and what would I do if it was, this was just my one and only client coming in, how would I treat them? How would I interact with them? And then how do I create a system, so I don’t forget? So that things kind of pop up and then now that can be delegated to different staff members to follow up in the same way.

– I love that what you just said Alex is just so brilliant because when you think of people as individuals, that’s actually where you’re gonna build that relationship or that sticky brand, because that’s when they know you, they like you, they trust you, because they feel like an individual, we’re all getting mass marketed through marketing automation, and that often now feels very inauthentic. But putting that deliberate approach to it is brilliant.

– Yeah, it’s strange because it feels like counterintuitive in 2020, 2021 to say, hey, do less automation and more individualization or things that don’t scale, but to me, some of those things that are unscalable, like sending handwritten birthday cards is a thing that is memorable enough, and we all know, you know, you sign up for a product, you get on the mailing list that sits there in my inbox, you know, Gmail sorts some of this stuff out. But when I get a birthday, it’s like, hey, Alex, happy birthday, and I can tell it’s automated. It’s like a whatever, right?

– Yeah.

– But if I go to my mail and I actually, even if it’s a couple of weeks late and I pick up, if it’s a handful of bills that don’t get emailed to you and a whole bunch of junk mail, and it’s a birthday card, you’re like, oh, this is, like this took some time, it’s handwritten like intentionally, it’s not mail merged. So these are the little things that, to me, if we can automate the things that computers can do that free up humans to do that individualization, that’s a really big differentiator and something that we’re really focused on.

– So brilliant. So you had this momentum, had all those growth happening and then it’s the sequence events, and we all know the March 11th is when north America introduced the travel advisory bands, by March 13th, the MBA and Major League, and all the sports teams have been shut down and we were locked down at that point, but you responded incredibly quickly. You were, from what I understand, producing virtual programming within 24 hours of these announcements, how did you do that? How did you respond so surprisingly quickly?

– So it’s interesting because I’ve been asked this question a few times and I look in hindsight and I thought it was like obvious to everyone, it’s one of those things. It was like, how is everyone else not doing this? I don’t know. So I guess around that time, I’m a big basketball fan I’m sure as you can see here behind me, and anyways, I remember watching the NBA game, I think it was a Thursday night when they canceled the NBA. And I was like, okay, this is gonna be something real. And about a week before that, so early March, maybe March 1st and second, I was just kinda like, everything we try to do, we try to individualize the experience for the clients and we really try to focus on how can we help people work out, essentially that’s what we’re doing, right, by making it fun, by texting you if you’ve been gone, that’s what we do. We’re helping you do this thing that you wanna do that typically felt like a chore, we’re trying to make it fun and inclusive. And so in my head, I was like, well, this is happening, like, people are gonna want some sort of option to do stuff at home, ’cause they might just feel nervous. In my head, I was just like, people might feel nervous leaving the house, before anything becomes like a rule or anything like that, let’s get ahead of it and come up with some at home workouts. So we filmed about, I wanna say 14 at home workouts, just set up a tripod and a camera. And we were kind of dabbling in content creation before then, but nothing like what we’re doing now, one of the silver linings of the pandemic and we filmed some of these at-home workouts. So we kind of had this at home workouts going and then when we, you know, we never imagined, and I never imagined that there would ever be a stay at home order of any sort of magnitude. I thought it would just be like, be careful, maybe distance, that kind of stuff. So when things happened, in my mind, it was like, okay, well, the playing field has been leveled. This is no longer a huge monolith of 150,000 square foot, we call them like global gyms, like traditional gyms, there’s none of that around, everyone’s stuck at home, so how do we best serve our clients at home? And so my mind, it was as complicated as it was, it was like, okay, what’s the best thing that I can do to help people work out at home, and in my mind was like, this has to be interactive, it has to be coach led and there has to look like quality production value on our end and for the customer. And so it was like, as soon as it happens, we had some of these videos already made, so we’re like, okay, we got some video stuff, so let’s try to like kind of mimic a Peloton type deal. And our unique spin on it is it’s interactive. So instead of it being a follow me, I’m gonna work out over here and I’ll pop into the screen and see what’s happening, we’re really big on coaching and so our coaches at the gym, they might demonstrate something, but they’re focused on interacting with the client. So how do we bring that same experience that we have in the gym? How do we bring that over to your living room? And that’s kind of where it evolved from. So when things shut down or when they announced a shutdown, our senior staff group, there’s four of us total, we went to a Jack Astor’s restaurant down the street and we brainstormed on their little, they have this table cloths, these disposable like kind of paper towel style craft paper tablecloths, and we just brainstormed like, okay, the world’s our oyster, we’re stuck at home for, I said, two months at the time, thinking that that was an over-exaggeration, we’re stuck at home for two months, what are we gonna do? What’s it gonna look like? And we almost, it was a mix of at home workouts and like programming like a TV channel. And that’s kind of where it started.

– And I wrote about Element Fitness at the end of last summer in my ebook “Crisis Marketing”, and your stats were remarkable. 92% member retention rate when people couldn’t go into the box and hadn’t been into the gym for months, with a 9.8 net promoter score for member satisfaction. So obviously something you were doing really resonated with the members. Like what do you attribute that to?

– I mean, I don’t think there was any one thing, I wish there was like a magic bullet. I think it was just a lot of little right things we did along the way. And some things, of course, in hindsight, we could have done better, but first pandemic, you know. Hopefully it’ll last.

– Yeah, hopefully the last too. But yeah, so like a big part, I would say to start, it was communication. We were obsessed with over-communicating at the time and it’s definitely a habit that we haven’t always been consistent with, but there’s a lot of, hey, just so you know, this is the news out there. Even before any sort of government regulations, we were like, okay, we’re restricting class sizes so we’re just kind of being conscious of what the climate was around us in the, you know, at that point, the court of public opinion, how do we manage this to make people feel safer? We’re upping our disinfection, all these kinds of things. And then as it came to pivoting, we said, hey, listen, like we’re closing down, this is the goal. And we were very, very, I was very, very transparent with people, I said, hey, we have full-time staff here. My goal is to keep them employed the whole time. Given we’re very blessed at the same time that the majority of our client base, the kind of work that they do, they’re able to keep working from home. So we said, we’re gonna be doing our best that we can to keep serving you because our goal was always to serve your fitness needs. So now the goal has not changed on our end. So if you’re able to support us, we’re gonna do our best we can to support you, and we laid out the whole plan of what we were doing. And it was, I mean, looking back and I remember some of the staff as we have quite spirited intentionally discussions about stuff, and that’s then, they felt like it was too much, and I was like, the one thing we can’t afford to do right now is to appear from any angle to any client that we’re not giving 150%.

– Hmm.

– This can’t be a 70% pivot, and like, don’t worry, we’re gonna do what we can. I was like this, they need to be able to tell that we are going above and beyond as much as we can to be able to serve them. And I think that was a big part of what it was because we kept trying new things, things didn’t work, we scrapped it, we tried a new thing and I really would attribute it to probably those two things over communication of what we’re doing and really putting in a disproportionate amount of effort on our part to serve our clients as best as we could.

– With all the infrastructure you built in this process, where do you think virtual will land now that we’re coming out of lockdowns, people will be back in the, the gym and working out again. Canada’s still lagging the rest of the world a little bit in terms of our restrictions, but soon within the next few weeks, this is gonna be the reality that we can go back and work out and be in person again and see people in our protein forms, but we’ve created, or you’ve created all this infrastructure now to enable people to work out at home and have that connection and connectivity. Where do you see virtual sticking within your portfolio going forward? Is it gonna be a piece of it?

– So I’d love to say yes, and I think it will be the, the what kind of a piece, I’m not sure yet. What we’ve noticed as we’ve been, so here, as we’re recording this right now in Ontario, we’ve been allowed to go back to work out outside, but not inside yet. And what we’ve noticed is people are so craving this in-person interaction that there, a lot of them are choosing the outside option, we’re still providing the in-home option, the virtual option as well. So our usage patterns have changed, but also noticing people’s timing patterns have changed. So when we were stay at home, there was a lot of activity during the day. People wanted to workout 09:30, noon, that kind of stuff. I’ll schedule it in like a, like a meeting and I’ll do it. Now we’re noticing as the world opens up again, people have plans in the evening so they wanna work out in the morning or in the evening and they’d rather kind of compress their Workday and work through their lunch if you will. So some of that’s changing a little bit. I think there’s an option, there’s gonna be an appetite for it going forward for sure. What I’m more excited about is just the capacities and capabilities really that we’ve built as a team to be able to deliver things virtually, things that’ll be virtual forever now, whenever we do a workshop at the gym in the past, it was like, hey, you have to physically attend, hey, and if you weren’t able to make it, here, I’ll send you the PowerPoint that we had up on the TV at the gym. Now our plan is anytime we do a workshop, that’s gonna be something that we film, you can interact with live. And now that also creates content for our YouTube channel or anything else going forward. So that’s a big part of what I’m really excited about this whole virtual thing. And all of our staff have become very well versed in to produce it, to produce these live classes. ‘Cause what happens is this is a one man show. So one of my, there’s a bunch of pre-production that happens, but when the class is happening, it was by design that I want one coach to be standing in the room manipulating all the equipment to be able to deliver this. And that’s another big selling feature on the business side of it, ’cause it doesn’t take four or five staff to produce this class. So there’s been a lot of new capabilities that we’ve developed that are gonna help us in the future, regardless of where the customer demand goes for the virtual product.

– I love the elasticity of the way you think and your approach to just being an entrepreneur, because it’s not that you are, like in one way, you could say we’re rigid, we’re gonna be launching and running virtual programs from here on out, it’s gonna be part of our thing. Whereas you’re looking at this is new capabilities and new skills that the company and the team has acquired, how can we use them as the world opens up, and it’s that curiosity, and, but also just how you’re innovating and applying it is just really, truly remarkable.

– Well, thank you. You know, one of the days I was driving back and forth to the gym and for any entrepreneurs that are listening, you guys understand the mania that entrepreneurial life is and specifically in this whole lockdown thing, you have low lows and high highs and all that kind of stuff and more lows than highs this last time when I was driving and I was like, okay, Alex, you got to figure out a way to kind of turn your mindset around and look for the silver lining. And in my head, I’m an analogy kind of guy, and the one that I couldn’t get out of my head that really kind of carried me through this whole thing. It was like, it’s kind of like, you’re going back to university right now. You’re in a place where you’re spending more money than you’re making no matter what you do, you have all these new things that you really don’t understand and you’re figuring it out, so I was like, how do I come out of this, on the other, how does the business come out of this on the other side? And it’s like, it went through university and now all of a sudden we’re like, great, we have these new capabilities and same thing when you graduate, you don’t know exactly what you’re gonna do with some of those courses, you don’t know how they’re gonna plug in, but so many times you have that one job, you’re like, oh, I did this thing before, I remember like, this is actually helping me. And it have just be one thing from a course or from a class or one thing a professor said that really carries you forward. And that was a lot of the mentality I was trying to bring forward is like, we have this thing, we don’t know where it’s gonna go necessarily, but it needs to open more doors than it closes on the other side of it. And that really, really helped and even sharing it with the team really, really helped them understand like where I was coming from from my perspective on this whole thing where I really want it to be, we need to come out of this thing with some sort of, you know, a competitive advantage when it comes to this stuff, rather than a, we’re just waiting for the world to go back to normal ’cause I see that as a missed opportunity.

– And I think you probably have come out of this with the significant competitive advantage, in some ways last man standing, but also just with the competitive skillset and capabilities you’ve built up, it’s really positioned you. So let me ask you just as we get to the close here, what are you most excited for as the world opens up? Where are your eyes going? Where are the green shoots of opportunity or where is element gonna be in the next year?

– I’m really excited for just the development and to be able to kind of unleash the team that we’ve built in, I would say forged through this pandemic. Throughout the most difficult business environment, I think I can’t even say it was incomprehensible ’cause I didn’t even think it was an option what we’ve been through, what it’s done is it’s brought our team from, and it’s a challenging team because we have full-time people mixed with part-time people mixed with part-time occasional. And like it’s a mixed bag of team members that we have here. And it’s really brought the team together and given us a common goal and what I’m really excited for us to now refocus at, the common goal was survival and serving our members and that will always be serving our members, but now it’s like, okay, how do we take this momentum that we have of bonding together as a team and take it forward to that next level to growing our membership base? Another thing that’s been big that started pre pandemic that has carried through is my commitment as an entrepreneur, I had to ask myself like, what do I wanna do with the business? And I realized my commitment is to my staff. I need to develop my staff and give them opportunities because one of my personal gripes with the fitness industry is if you’ve ever been to a gym, you notice most of the trainers and most of the people that are really young and they kind of age out real quick, ’cause there’s not a lot of career opportunities for them. And I think it’s a shame that we’re not able to keep a lot of institutional knowledge within gyms or within the industry itself because people have to go get, you know, a quote unquote real job when it comes to that. And I think that’s a very, it’s a shame. And I think it’s a very, a solvable problem. And so those are the kinds of things that I’m really excited to focus on is how do we build it so that the fitness industry is actually, has the same amount of respect as any sort of other call it like a white collar job, but it doesn’t look like, oh, you’re just a trainer, it’s like, oh wow, you work at Element or whatever other gym, like, okay, this is a legitimate thing. And that’s really what we’re focusing on because what I’ve noticed is if I put all my energy into my staff, it allows them to put all their energy into the members. And I think that’s been one of the big differentiators for us.

– I think that is such a brilliant place for us to add today because this is the idea that I’d love everyone to take away from you is that if you put all of your energy into your team, it will pay back in dividends. Not only just in the capabilities that they bring to the table, but also in the way they serve your customers, the way they help you innovate, the way they free up time, it’s this thing that it just, I truly believe that brands are built from the inside out and what you just described there is one of the best approaches I’ve ever heard on that. So thank you.

– No, you’re welcome. Just one more thing, the way you said inside out.

– Yeah.

– What it made me think of, I was telling one of my staff the other day, it’s kind of like, if you take a typical pyramid, right, you got that hierarchy, if you just flip it upside down and you have the boss at the bottom and everyone else up, I was like, that’s the way I envision it, is you got to build that way. It’s not going top-down where people, and I think this is a mistake a lot of people make, right. You try to do everything top down, instead it’s like bottom up. How can I help you the best I can? And then how can I kind of like elevate you to be better at your job? And that’s something that I definitely doubled down on in this and has really, really paid dividends to your point.

– Yeah, and it’s just a great example of servant leadership, but like it connects to the connectivity and the way you’ve approached reaching your members, you’re practicing what you preach, and that’s what I love about doing this podcast is it’s not about the theory, it’s about how you apply the ideas. And there’s just so much wisdom to learn from that. So I really appreciate that.

– Well, thanks for having me.

– So Alex, what’s the best place for people to find you? Where can we reach you or learn more about Element Fitness?

– So if you wanna go online, www.element.fit, element.fit is our website. You can see all of our socials and everything there. And if you’re looking to get in touch with me, just I’m on all socials @alexcibiri.

– Excellent, and we’ll put that into the show notes as well. Thank you everybody for listening to the Sticky Branding podcast. Be sure to subscribe to us wherever you get your favorite podcasts. We’re also on YouTube in a video format and then visit us at stickybranding.com for all the latest ideas, best practices and services on how to grow your business into a sticky brand.

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