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How Does Your Small Business Serve Your Community?


Packed into Rocket CrossFit after a big Holiday Workout

My husband and I own a CrossFit gym. We squeeze more than 200 members into a 1,500 s/f gym, 14 at a time. Rocket CrossFit is not a fancy gym, though we’re well-equipped. We don’t send members to The CrossFit Games, nor do we care to. We keep our prices as low as we possibly can, because our goal is to increase community, not just make money (though this is our livelihood.) As a result, we know many of our neighbors, run into them everywhere, and they know each other. Many friendships have been formed over the years. We are a classic small, neighborhood business, with a classic impact on community.

When we opened, our mission statement never included the words “money” and “profit.” We wanted to empower people and create community.  We looked at the financial models, and knew that would come, but we didn’t put that first. IF, we believed, we could build a thriving community, the numbers would serve us and our business would thrive. We were right. 

But our focus, from the get-go, was on community. Community is a virtuous, and profitable, cycle in this case. If enough people are committed to each other, then they keep coming back, and empowering each other. It’s the core of why CrossFit works, really. That kind of accountable support network, in which you feel good not only when you achieve a goal, but when the people you care about do as well, is “addictive.” And productive.

The benefit expands outside our own walls.  Sure, we become an essential nucleus, but  the energy emitted from us not only attracts more people to us, but it enriches more people around us, whether or not they ever become members.

(When my husband was talking about this as his business model, I couldn’t help but stare in his gorgeous blue eyes and think he was a totally delusional hippie. But damn, he’s a brilliant delusional hippie……)

With our core business up and running and taking care of itself, we quickly started looking for ways to do more. Not more weightlifting, but to impact our members, AND our community in more ways.

Many gyms run nutritional challenges, so we gave that a try. We ran a 30-day challenge. But we wanted people to commit, so we had a buy-in. We collected all the cash, and the winner got to donate the money to the charity of their choice. This had two immediate added benefits: People were invested in the nutritional challenge, learning a lot about how food impacted their body, AND  good money was raised for charity. So this became something that we did on a regular basis. To date, several thousands of dollars have been raised for causes that are important to our members. The “soft” benefit however, is just as important. It is proof to our members that we care about community. It sets the tone for who we are as a community gym.

You are a part of a community and your behavior has an impact on others. Have a good impact.

A couple months ago I was on a treadmill at Rainier Health and Fitness. This is a place that I love – partly because they have treadmills, and with a badly broken neck, that’s the only way that I can run comfortably – because they are also a community gym. Way more, even, than Rocket is. They are a true non-profit. Their memberships are remarkably cheap, so that they can reach out to marginalized peoples: immigrants, the working poor, the elderly on fixed incomes. When I am there, I am running alongside women in full head-covering who don’t speak much English and people in their 80’s just moving with determination. It inspires me.

They also have a CrossFit gym. They are, by any measure, our closest competition. So when one of their coaches came to me, asking if I had any ideas on ways to get floor mats cheaply, because they really wanted to expand their program but were limited by that one, very expensive factor, a “good” business person maybe wouldn’t have offered to solve the problem for them.

But I am not a “good business person,” my focus is on being a good community member. Here’s the thing, they are a non-profit, as I already told you. They do charge more – but still very little – for their CrossFit program, which, in turn, funds their regular gym. Moreover, they are able to do way more free outreach to community youth than we can. They have more space, and more time. And access to things like grant money and donations to run their outreach programs.

Our tiny gym is packed to the gills, I can’t add more programs right now. They can. And they want to serve our at-risk youth. (I should mention that we are both in the part of the city that boasts, by far, the highest gun and gang violence in Seattle. We’re on a nearly once-a-day streak for shootings right now!)

I don’t care if they are a mile from me charging less for ostensibly the same thing, I want them to thrive, because they are a force for good in our neighborhood.


Getting ready to unload a ton and a half of mats with David from RHF and Anthony from PR Lifting!

So what did Rocket do? We bought them their mats. But not on our own (we don’t really have that kind of money either.) We went to our community. We knew they needed 7oo s/f of mats. Our members generously donated almost all the money, Rocket put in the rest. But it didn’t stop there. I was able to work a deal with a local gym supplier, PR Lifting, who willingly sold us the mats at cost, and delivered them for free. Because when you kick-off the virtuous cycle of contributing, others can’t help but follow your lead.

It felt so insanely good to unload a ton and a half (literally) of thick rubber mats into that gym yesterday. THAT is what it looks like for a community to come together.

When you engage your members in community service, you set a standard, just like when you do it with your children. No lectures necessary, just a simple pattern that shows “this is how we do things.”

I am so proud of how much our community has done for the community around us. I can’t take all the credit. All we *really* did was set the tone. When we had a chance to make a little extra profit (many gyms do fitness challenges for their own profit, which is fine, I am sure they have reasons,) OR give to community , we chose to give. We just don’t factor things like that into our financial plan.

After dropping off those mats yesterday, I asked our members to remind me of all the places we’ve donated money on their behalf in the last year or so: Ingersoll Gender Center, Old Dog Haven, Union Gospel Mission, Urban Impact, Social Justice Fund, The Healing Center, Seattle Tilth, and a fund for the firefighter who was badly burned fighting a forest fire in Eastern Washington. (I suspect there were more, but that’s what we came up with off the top of our heads.)

We’ve learned a lot in 4-1/2 years of running a neighborhood business. But the biggest surprise is how easy it is to give.

  1. Ask your community what they care about, and raise money together. Whether it’s a contest winner, or a monthly vote, let them be the voice of generosity. It inspires them, and allows them to share what matters to them. That’s is a powerful way for people to connect with each other.

  2. Find small revenue streams that you don’t NEED yourself. Contests? A special t-shirt? A one-time event? A few hundred bucks here and there makes a big difference to a non-profit.

  3. Identify physical things that need doing in your neighborhood and harness community energy for that.

  4. How can you bring the community in and serve them for free? We have free community workouts once a month, no strings attached. And more than one member who really couldn’t afford the fee, so we found creative ways to either discount or barter. Small things like that add up, and mean a lot.

I’m too lazy to go look it up right now, but I’d guess that Rocket has facilitated the donation of at least $5,000 in the last year to the causes that matter to us and our members. But more than that, we’ve set a tone that community matters. That being of service to those around you is good for business. We’ve created a way for our members to connect to each other and the community around them.

That is good for business. Selfishly speaking, that makes them like us even more, makes them even more likely to stick around.

Doing good is good for business. I promise.

Oh, also, we sweat a lot. People have built muscle, lost weight, gone off meds, did things they didn’t think possible, cried a little….  You know, we really love finding that power. Inside and out.

Strength is balance. Balance is strength. We are stronger together.


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