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A small and steady start ends in bigger gains: advice from Iron Alley Gym

Becoming a successful business owner doesn’t happen overnight. Especially in a venture completely outside your element. Sharon Prokophuk, co-owner of Iron Alley Gym learned that pretty quickly. In 2018 she went from working as a Medical Office Assistant for an Orthopedic Surgeon to opening a gym with her two daughters and son-in-law.

Slow and steady, as they say. “Start small, and grow from there.” Said Prokophuk, “It’s incredibly hard to backtrack, but starting smaller and growing as your business grows will make sure you can sustain it for a long period of time.” This allows you to quickly learn, adapt and optimize a business based on the needs of customers. Like when Iron Alley first opened up their doors from 5am until 9pm, exhausting themselves for 16 hours a day assuming if you build it, they will come.

Turns out that sometimes they don’t. So the team took a closer look at the habits of their customers and found out the best approach would be to operate for 5 hours in the morning and 5 hours in the afternoon, with a gap in the middle of the day. “It’s much more sustainable, and I wish we would’ve started with limited hours.” She said.

Starting small and steady gives businesses an advantage to implement changes quickly based on learnings. We wanted to know more about Iron Alley Gym and all the lessons Prokophuk has learned over the years so we sat down with her to find out.

What was the inspiration behind Iron Alley Gym?

Iron Alley was created as an alternative to your big, corporate box gym. We were tired of the way people were approached, both as a client/member and as someone working there as a personal trainer. We decided to create something where everyone can come and accomplish their goals, regardless of what they are, without judgement. We dropped the usual pressuring sales pitch that corporate gyms use to get you in the door, and decided to welcome people with open arms. We have strived since the day we opened to create a community that acts as a family and be a place people are excited to be a part of. Our slogan is “United in Fitness,” as we want everyone to be united under one roof through fitness.

Why did you create this business specifically? Why didn’t you settle for working for an established gym?

After some of the partners had worked in an established business, we decided we wanted to create something from scratch where we could write the rules. A place where we could edit things if we didn’t like the way they worked, and try new things without being tied to a set of corporate policies.

It’s been a year since COVID-19, how’s it been going for you?

The gym has done surprisingly well. Towards the beginning of the pandemic, things didn’t seem so certain, and there were moments that we were paying for it out of our own pockets, but since gyms have been able to reopen, and thankfully stay open since we have made it work. It’s been a slow return back to a new “normal,” but we’re incredibly thankful to those who have continued to support us with their business.

When was it the most difficult?

We were closed for two months exactly at the beginning of the pandemic, and we didn’t know whether we were going to be able to weather the storm. Nobody plans for their business to have to unexpectedly close, especially so soon after opening. For a small business, it takes years to be at a place where you can handle a huge loss, and we had only been open for two years at that point.

How did this affect the way you plan for your business? 

We had to cut back on our expectations of growth. We took our business plan each government announcement at a time and had to pivot multiple times with how we allow our business to operate. From having nobody in the space for two months, then having only three personal trainers working with clients at a time, and now having a long list of protocols to keep everyone safe. We aren’t having 50 people walk through the door at a time like we might’ve once expected at this point in our initial business plan.

What’s helped you adapt/survive?

We are super lucky that we didn’t go too big, too soon. We’ve been able to work with our trainers to formulate protocols that keep everyone safe. They are probably on the more strict side when you look at different fitness facilities across our area. We also have made multiple concessions in not allowing new members to join us for a long period of time, to not allowing drop-in visits—all to keep the bubble small and have a small group of people we can monitor and make sure are following protocols.

What was the cost of adapting your store?

By now, we would’ve expected exponential growth had the pandemic not happened. We’ve had a couple of new members join us, which we are so thankful for, but we’ve also had to turn many people away in an attempt to protect the current members from a huge influx of new bodies in the space.

What has been the biggest challenge as a business owner overall?

The biggest challenge has been learning how to make the right choice for the business, regardless of the potential for it not making our customers happy in the beginning. There are so many people who rely on our facility for their business, their mental health, and their goals, so making changes can cause a very emotional reaction. We’ve always done things with the best interest in mind, but sometimes change is hard for people.

What has been the biggest benefit of being a business owner overall?

The biggest benefit of being a business owner is being able to see the effect that our facility has had on so many people. It has changed so many people’s lives, been a safe space for them to come and make themselves feel good. We’ve brought many people together, who otherwise wouldn’t have met. The absolute best feeling is to hear someone say “oh! I’ve heard about Iron Alley before!” and have such positive things to say.

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