5 Years Of Lift The Bar – An Interview With Chris Burgess

We interviewed Chris Burgess, the man who started it all, about the first 5 years of LTB.  Here’s what he had to say. (You can listen to the full interview with Chris using the link at the bottom of the post.)

How was LTB born? What was the original plan?

This is the interesting thing about the start, the idea itself was born out of me helping Jonny. I was a pretty good performing personal trainer and when Jonny passed his course he asked if he could shadow some sessions. My aim was to see if I could make his path from newly qualified to earning good money shorter than my own. The thing I loved about that journey is that when you have someone watching you it makes you justify everything you do. Jonny stayed on working for me, my personal training business continued to grow and as a result I burnt myself out. I had to take a week off to disconnect, during that time I reflected on what I’d really enjoyed during the year and helping Jonny was part of that.

I started thinking “What if I could bring together a pool of people who wanted to follow a similar syllabus of learning, who could hang out with me over the internet for a year and see where it goes”. So, towards the end of 2013 I put out a throw away post asking if people would be interested.  I expected 4-5 people and decided I could only manage 30 people maximum.

It took me burning out to realise I was going down a bad path and not enjoying what I was doing and that if I wanted to help lots of personal trainers it needed to be online. Money wasn’t ever the driving factor – I wanted 30 people max into the service and those people were paying £19 a month, this was never about making money. It was about sharing the bills, we could have a kitty of money between us to bring educators in on subjects we wanted. The 30 places went really fast – I’m not sure how… The sign up process was overcomplicated but people still did it. It was that it was the right thing at the right time in the right place for the right reasons.

Roll on 5 years and there are a 1000 people, how does that work?

As 30 turned into 35 then 40 then 50 it grew out of not wanting to let people down. The original service included a check in call once a month but you get to 50 it’s really hard, harder than the personal training clients I was still seeing. I found myself easing out personal training clients to keep up with the calls and I wasn’t happy. When we got to 75 people I had to make what felt like an awful decision to add in a higher price point for people who wanted skype calls. Luckily, it was a nice even split in the take up.

That’s something I think a lot of business owners miss – create your own emergency, scale will come from bursting at the seams in your current model not from a plan. Something I’m really proud of is that our business has iterated when it needed to, rather than when I wanted it to. Big, big, difference.

How does it compare to original plans?

There was no frame of reference for the kind business we have now, we’ve had to make everything up as we go along. What’s difficult is finding people willing to come along for the ride knowing there is no frame of reference for what we are doing, there is no case study on longevity on the kind of business we want to run because we are a new kind of business in a new kind of industry doing things no one has done before and that’s scary and finding the right people to come along with you is the most important part. Did I expect when we started with 30 people we would get to a point where we needed a team like we have? No. Could we have got to this level without that? Absolutely zero chance.

People shouldn’t be too worried about if something doesn’t work because then you can tweak and iterate, you should be worried about if it does work. Outside of the industry you can see people look to automate things to give the appearance of hands on without being hands on but I don’t want to run a business that way. Where we are now, the heart and soul of the business and what our intention is, that’s never changed. The mechanisms behind how we deliver Lift the Bar, that’s changed beyond all possible belief but there was never a plan for this. We can say we have individual plans for elements but there’s no grand plan or vision. As long as the heart and soul of the company is the same and we want to be hands on with our member support then we’ll be ok.

What have been the biggest learning curves?

I look back at my own personal skill set, 5 years ago I didn’t even know that you could store videos on the internet, the biggest learning curve for me is that you have to learn on the job and learn fast. If the business needs something and you don’t have the money to invest in x y or z you have to learn how to do it because as soon as someone is paying you money there is an expectation that needs to be met. You need to make sure that every single person is getting what they’ve paid for.

Another learning curve for me has been to make sure I am in a really good place to deal with everything. 20 people I can deal with, 1000 is really tough. Making sure I surround myself with the right people is really important. Every business needs people to come in and not be yes people. The reason we are where we are now is that I learnt very quickly that the one thing the business didn’t need was more people who thought like me. They wanted the same thing as me, they wanted the hands on approach to caring, but the way we go about our jobs is very different.

I think a lot of businesses make the mistake of the owner surrounding themselves with people who just say yes and massage the ego. The business may grow but it doesn’t serve the needs of its customers very well. I learnt early on that I needed to acquire skillsets that I didn’t have and that would take too long for me to acquire. I also needed personality traits that were completely different to my own. That’s what’s taken us from 100 members to 1000. Surrounding myself with the right people at the right time has been absolutely critical.

What have been the highlights of the last 5 years? The real plusses?

It’s really hard to answer this one. Getting to the first milestone, which for me was the first webinar, then the first 100 members, then getting to the following year and people still being with us. That was a real highlight, that I’d created somewhere where people wanted to stay.
Personally, the biggest highlight for me is that I’ve created something that means my wife doesn’t have to go back to work, that we have a great family life at home. I still work a crazy amount of hours but I have a working schedule that allows me to spend time with the girls during the day. The main highlight is that I have a business that allows me to live the life I want to live.

Then professionally, that we are doing something that is truly meaningful to the people we count as clients. Nothing in my professional life will make me prouder than the culture we have created amongst our team to do just that. I get to do incredible fulfilling work that has a knock on effect to trainers who get to do incredibly fulfilling work for their clients. If our 1000 members do 20 sessions a week that’s 9.6 million sessions a year we have an impact on. It’s phenomenal, even if they only take skills from us that impact 2 minutes of their session, there’s no greater feeling that that.

I know you had a moment of realisation at the first Christmas event in 2015, about what you created tell me about that.

You run an online business and everyone is a Facebook avatar, they’re all a square on the screen and you care deeply about those squares and you want them to do well but when those squares turn into real people and they are all there because of this idea you had once, it brought a tear to my eye and I still get emotional thinking about it now.

The reason for that is when they tell you what LTB meant to them and what it continues to mean to them, it makes you realise you’re the right person for the job. I realised that, no matter how limited my skillset is, these people are very happy with the level of effort I’ve put in and are very proud to be a part of what I’ve created. That’s when I realised I’ve got a truly, really nice business, a really, really nice customer base and one to be very proud of.

What does LTB mean to you?

It means an opportunity to try and change what people perceive personal training to be, we’ve got a long way to go but if we can do that, we can have a meaningful impact on the world. When we’ve got conscientious trainers out there and they become the norm, people will start signing up to PT not just for fat loss or outcome based reasons but because they feel understood and feel like they can get a physical improvement.
If, when someone looks for a PT they know they are going to end up physically and emotionally stronger that would mean everything to me. There are 20,000 trainers in the UK and we have 1,000 of them.  What we do is not normal.  It is not the standard.  It is not expected.  And until it is we won’t stop working. That’s what we’ve got to do.

I think people are surprised that personal training still matters to me that much.

I know people look at me and think that it’s ok, he has a big online business, he doesn’t need to be a trainer any more. That’s rubbish. Yes I’m passionate about growing my online business and that PT’s have every bit of development they’ll ever wish to have but all of that means nothing if none of those PT’s are taking the career as seriously as I do because that’s what we need to do.

Listen to the full interview with Chris here: