In Shape for Quality

Self-employed trainer turns
fitness for quality into quality fitness

by Joseph D. Conklin

I first met A.H. when my personal growth shifted to a more horizontal direction. At that time, he managed the employee gym where I work. Since then, he has gone solo, working as a self-employed personal trainer.

Over the years, I have enjoyed hearing others’ experiences with quality—either working for themselves or for someone else. A.H. was the first one I could remember who had recent experience from both sides. When I learned he had gone solo, I wondered if his perspective on managing for quality had changed. He took time from his busy schedule to share his thoughts on this and related matters. I found his story inspiring, thought-provoking and challenging.

Going it alone

Joseph Conklin: A.H., why did you strike out on your own?

A.H.: I have always wanted to work for myself. Twelve years ago during college, I was not sure what I could do with a physical education major. The idea of being a public school gym teacher seemed too limiting, and the idea of trying to manage a bunch of rambunctious kids was positively scary. I graduated in the middle of a privatization wave that saw opportunities in the public education sector dwindling. Even if I wanted to be a gym teacher, the options to do so were becoming fewer and further between.

One thing that helped me strike out on my own was the encouragement of important role models. My dad always said I should imagine and create my own future. My favorite summer job was in housing construction. There, I loved the thrill of seeing the immediate impact of my efforts.

Robert Kiyoaski, author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, sold me on the value of striving for excellence and investing in yourself.

Pat Croce, then president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, also summed up some valuable lessons: "Learn everything you can, go after every opportunity and engage the talents of people who know more than you on an important subject."

Philosophy aside, I should also mention the extreme fulfillment of earning money from my own enterprise and initiative.

J.C.: So what did you do to prepare?

A.H.: It wasn’t as if I had some well thought out, detailed business plan: That kind of thinking is not who I am. I tend to see the vision or end game first and add the details after the direction is clear.

I did sense that working for myself might be a long-term objective, so one step I took in college to prepare was to graduate with a joint degree in physical education and sports management. The notion of working for someone else made sense as long as I thought of it as a useful apprenticeship. That’s the attitude I carried throughout my time running the employees’ gym.

J.C.: If you could start over, what would you do differently to prepare?

A.H.: Looking back, I would have cultivated a better set of management skills. I wasn’t well prepared for such a role. Later experience taught me the value of such preparation. Other than that, I would follow the same inspirations and tread the same path.

J.C.: What quality metrics applied when you worked for a company?

A.H.: At the employee gym, we were always tracking:

  • The percentage of members who actively participated.
  • The percentage of members who renewed.
  • The number of personal training hours we booked.
  • The number of members attending special exercise classes.
  • The number of new members joining over a given period of time.

We supplemented these quantitative metrics with more qualitative feedback from member surveys.

J.C.: Now that you are on your own, what quality metrics apply?

A.H.: I find myself tracking a lot of the same things. Being self-employed, the number of personal training hours I book is much more important now. When I worked at the employee gym, I had corporate backing and resources to supplement our programming efforts. Now, resources have to come from me.

An important new metric is my own originality at crafting new offerings that satisfy and excite my clients. The member feedback is as important as ever, but hits me in a new way now through social media. I find out faster than ever before how I’m doing, and so does the rest of the world. Since striking out on my own, I’ve learned about a whole new form of stress management.

J.C.: What role does quality play in your overall business success?

A.H.: Quality is the main driver of my success. In my business, that means giving clients the personal touch—not relying on cookie-cutter fitness classes or products from the corporate office. You know the saying: "Under promise and over deliver?" The strength of that truth smacks me in the face every day. A big part of the quality picture for me is listening to the words and feelings of my clients. One mistake there and I can kiss the client goodbye. While I need a minimum number of clients to survive, so far I’ve found getting the quality right takes care of the quantity.

J.C.: What specific quality successes and failures stand out in your mind since striking out on your own?

A.H.: I’m especially proud of a fitness program that I created called "Sweat It Off." It’s a metabolic work out similar to P90X1 but geared for a larger percentage of the fitness population. By that I mean the work out forces you to train multiple muscle groups at random intervals with very short rest periods. It targets both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, improving coordination, flexibility and overall fitness levels.

Most of my significant quality failures I can trace to the different mindset required when working for yourself. At the employee gym, if I stopped listening too soon or second guessed what a member needed, there usually was another member coming in the door to give me a second chance. To survive in self-employment, a lot of your presumptions have to be checked at the  door. I believe that message is sinking in.

Survival skills

As I wrapped up the interview, I concluded there was significant overlap in managing for quality regardless of who the boss is—yourself or someone else. I sensed the self-employed may require more strength, power and flexibility to survive. A.H. inspired me to figure out my own personal quality fitness program. I may never strike out on my own, but I can see the value of being good enough to do so.


  1. The inventor of P90X is Tony Horton.

Joseph D. Conklin is a mathematical statistician in Washington, D.C. He earned a master’s degree in statistics from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and is a senior member of ASQ. Conklin is an ASQ-certified quality manager, engineer, auditor, reliability engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt.

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