A degree from Harvard Business School does not guarantee your success in starting and succeeding in business. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more. These statistics haven’t changed much over time, and have been fairly consistent since the 1990s [1].

AXIS has been in business for 27 years. The odds were stacked against us, and the Covid pandemic of 2020 further fueled the fire. The forced shutdowns of gyms across the country led to permanent closures of 25% of all health clubs and 30% of studios [2]. Yet, AXIS survived. How is it that this small business, started by a knucklehead football player in 1996, has made it when most have not? We hope our story will help your small business survive and thrive through anything. It all starts with relationships! 

The Beginning

“It was October 1996 and I opened the doors, all alone, scared to death but as excited as I could be since this was my dream coming to fruition. I had envisioned opening a beautiful facility where trainers could learn, share, and create a career for themselves, a career which did not exist at the time. I saw a gathering spot for clients to be engaged, motivated, and taken care of as if they were at a 5 star resort.” – Scott Norton, Founder/CEO

AXIS was founded by athlete turned entrepreneur, Scott Norton. A devastating knee injury ended Scott’s Division One college football dreams at Utah, but started the path to what would become AXIS Personal Trainers. Scott took every opportunity to learn from the best strength coaches, athletic trainers and physical therapists, along with reading and educating himself from business leaders such as Tony Robbins.

After leaving Utah and returning to the Bay Area, Scott began building his career as a personal trainer, training some of the most elite business “athletes” in the Silicon Valley. His strong drive and character, along with his ability to create great relationships, led to the first investment into AXIS by Louis Borders. AXIS opened on October 6th, 1996 and has been a leader in health, wellness and longevity for over 27 years.

Three years after the start of AXIS, we were able to secure funding from Sequoia Capital which allowed us to grow the business; this was both a blessing and a curse. It brought many new opportunities and challenges as well. The large investment allowed us to open two other facilities in the Bay Area, with a plan to roll out nationwide. We were able to recruit and hire trainers and executives from all over the country. We made significant improvements to the original AXIS and had excitement for the future.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

With the quick growth came many opportunities for our team as our small business began to act like a big business. We had trainers who became managers with no prior experience in running teams; we had a team of employees who thought they knew better than anyone running the company, and a board of directors who lived in spreadsheet land. Everyone had their own opinion on how to run the business. This was a recipe for disaster.

“Playing” business is different from operating a successful business. What may seem to make sense in theory and on a spreadsheet, does not necessarily translate into success. As the Founder, but no longer the CEO, Scott would sit in board meetings and fume over the fact that the focus on building a strong team and providing outstanding customer service was lost to the projections and numbers.

These days, many executives seem to understand that customer service is a key differentiator in business, however in the early 2000’s, this was thought of as “soft” stuff that doesn’t turn into real revenue. This was absolutely 100% wrong as we would prove in later years, when we were able to get back to our roots. Go with your gut, lead with love, and provide an experience that is unparalleled for clients/customers and your team, and you will thrive!

Winter is Always Around the Corner

Tony Robbins speaks about preparing for “winter”, the business winter. Any business will go through ups and downs and the economy will always go through phases of strength and struggle. You must prepare for the winter before the snow starts falling! 

AXIS has been through three economic downturns so far, and has come out stronger each time because of constant never ending improvement and preparation for the worst case scenario. Maybe a little luck and a lot of love has helped too!

The valuable experience gained in 2001, 2008, and most notably 2020, is priceless. The many challenges and lessons learned have given us the knowledge and skills necessary to build a team and a business with a strong foundation to succeed through the good times and the bad.

After the dotcom fiasco in 2001, Sequoia Capital was done with AXIS and the debt was handed over to Rick Stubblefield and Lighthouse Capital. Over the next few years, Scott and Rick developed a strong bond. It is this relationship that is particularly important to AXIS surviving the mortgage debacle that crushed the banking system and the economy in 2008. It was a blessing in disguise as Rick wanted out. Rather than closing AXIS all together, which is a quite normal course of action in these situations, he had a special place in his heart for Scott and the company he started. Because of their mutually respectful relationship and genuine appreciation for each other, we were able to buy back the company to own AXIS with no strings attached. This allowed us to finally focus again on what matters for our success: a strong team culture and a focus on providing an exceptional experience for our clients.

During the pandemic, starting in March of 2020, we were either closed completely or open with extreme limitations for over 1 1/2 years. If you owned a gym or a restaurant, we know you can relate to this heartbreaking reality that was completely out of your control. We also had to contend with the mask mandates for over two years, and the constant fear that kept people from going to a gym.

We survived when many gyms and small training facilities did not. In fact, we have thrived and feel our team and our community of clients is stronger than ever. We attribute this success to the strong foundation we have built. We were preparing for the “winter”, both financially making sure we put money away for a rainy day (or a Nor’easter), as well as securing a solid client base and loyal team. This does not happen overnight and is something that must be worked on constantly through engagement, empathy, support and real conversations. Success, whether in your personal life or business, starts with strong relationships.

Me Becomes We

No one achieves success on their own. We always have people who help, support and contribute to our success. It’s crucial to have a partner who you can trust completely, someone with whom you can share your insecurities and show vulnerability. You have to be able to trust each other enough that you can debate, argue, maybe even get angry, but always end with the right answer and right path for your success.

Imagine having a partner who thinks they know best all of the time, someone who you resent because they dismiss your ideas. Or maybe it’s someone who just agrees with you all of the time in order to “keep the peace”. It could be that they side with other team members instead of having your back. How do you think any of these scenarios will end??

It’s also important to foster relationships with your employees, they are your first customers! Treat them with respect, show them you care, show them love, and support their growth. The better your team, the better your business. They are the ones who are interacting with your clients everyday so they better love what they do and feel that they are an important part of the business. Nothing is more important than strong relationships! Whether in good times, or when shit hits the fan, your relationships will determine your success.

In upcoming blog posts we hope to help you succeed in your service business as we share some of the strategies, successes and failures that have shaped AXIS and have allowed us to thrive into our 27th year.