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Integrity: Keeping it Together While Running A Small Business

Brady and I recently went to a seminar about running a CrossFit gym, by Ben Bergeron of CrossFit New England. (As an aside, if you’re running a CrossFit gym, and get the chance to go to this seminar, it’s totally worth it. Ben’s great, he represents the best of what CrossFit has to offer. Totally worth it.) In it, he talked a lot about “integrity.” It’s a word that people use a lot, but I don’t think that many people use it the way that I think is most powerful. The way that is hard. The way that, literally, keeps it all together.

People talk about “integrity” in a way that is interchangeable with “manners” and “proper” behavior. As if “integrity” means “doing the right thing.” And it can mean that, or has at least come to mean that. And that’s awesome. I think that most of the world has a long ways to go in terms of both having good manners and doing the right thing.

He talked about “integrity” as always making sure that you clean up the gym after your shift, or change the toilet paper roll, or be sure to respond to calls and emails in a timely manner. Those are all important, I totally agree. But for me, they fall under the heading of “manners” and “doing the right thing.”

But for us, at Rocket, integrity is a lot more than that. It means that every external action that we take matches our internal values as humans. It means that we don’t do anything that doesn’t reflect our deepest beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. That’s the harder definition of integrity: The state of being whole and undivided. Think of it as structural integrity for your soul. And yes, that makes running any business, certainly a CrossFit gym, a whole lot harder.

We run into little integrity issues all the time, in ways people might not expect.

Ordering t-shirts, for instance. Brady feels very strongly that we will only by t-shirts that are made in the USA with union labor. It’s the only way he feels that we can be sure our supply chain doesn’t include unfair labor practices. And it supports both the US economy and the strength of unionized workers. It matters greatly to him. It matters less to me (we all have our things,) but I would never ask him to compromise his integrity and carry a product that he doesn’t believe in.

Retail, also. We have actually resisted it for a long time, because it didn’t inherently align with our core values. Our core values were to approach this gym as a way to build healthy bodies and communities. It was never about making money. That is something that we rarely even discuss. Selling products, to us, seemed like it put the focus on making money, not on our athletes. So we didn’t do it. Now, with more than 200 members, we can see value in making sure that it is possible for them to grab healthful snacks when they’re busy. So we’re going to do it.

However, we will still only carry products that we believe in and endorse. No Progenex and the like for us. Why? Because our core values have to do with helping “ordinary” people be the best version of themselves that they can be. The handful of firebreathers that we have, the ones who may make it to the Games, have their own regimen, and we will help them in every way we possibly can. (I will happily order their stuff wholesale for them and not mark it up, because that serves them.) But we do not want to let our other 196 (or so, I dunno) members think that they should be focused on bulking up, getting cut and winning the games. Rather, we want to teach them to make great choices about real food, even when they’re busy. So we will choose products to sell that reflect those beliefs. No chemical shitstorms. We do not care how much money we can make selling that stuff. We will not do it.

Now, this funniness with FitAID is akin to the t-shirts. We agreed that “recovery drinks” are  a gray area in our “real food” stand. Neither one of us drink them, but we know people like them, so, whatever. That’s not really compromising our integrity. However, I feel very strongly that I will not carry a product that uses women’s bodies as a sexy selling-tool. Just won’t do it. You know the difference, right. Ads that show men actually doing things like lifting weights, but women just standing there with erect nipples, glistening cleavage and a come-hither look. (Oh, ya, KillCliff is out too, that ad I just described is one of theirs.) I will not support that kind of crap. I just can’t do it. Because of my integrity. (Brady agrees, but is less fired up about it. However, like with the t-shirts, he would never ask me to compromise my integrity and work with a vendor that offends me.)

Because that external act would go against my internal beliefs and cause a rift in the structural integrity of my soul. Can’t do it.

Yes, it means my life is a little harder. I have to go out and search for products that align as closely as possible with our core values, rather than just accepting the free-fridge and great deals of people like FitAID and KillCliff. And that sucks. It means we pay more for t-shirts, and have to deal with shitty customer service sometimes. Oh well. It means that we will likely pay more for all our products, and as such, make less money, because I am not willing to look at our athletes as profit centers. It means that we will have to pay someone to manage all of this, because to do retail in a way that doesn’t erode our integrity, it’s more time than we have.

And I think that all of those decisions will make us a better business. A better gym. And even better trainers, because our athletes will trust us.

People have asked us why we don’t do Groupons to drive traffic, or coupon deals, or offer our members a bounty for bringing us new members. Same reason. It does not serve our athletes for us to do that. At every turn, we have said that we want to work with people who are committed to themselves. If you have to offer someone 50% off to try it, the chances of them being committed and staying are slim. We are not just about generating numbers, we are about empowering people. Our retention is incredible, and I think that’s why.

I have told many people  that when they choose a CrossFit gym, they need to look for subtle cues about the motives and integrity of the gym. I have told people to be wary of big retail sections. Of gyms that sell too much “bulk up and be meaty” type products. Of gyms that have Groupons and super sale deals to get lots of new people in the door. In my opinion, those are all signs of gyms that are looking at their people as profit centers.

We will never be that gym. There will always be gyms that make way more money than us. There will always be gyms that send more athletes to the national and international stage than us. And we will always wish them well.

But that’s not who we are. And we know it. Our integrity is firmly in tact.

Every single decision we make is rooted in the single question: will this serve our athletes?  It’s why we built a new lifting platform before we bought a new computer. It’s why we spent our day adding rings to the gym rather than paddle-boarding. (I kinda wish we could take that one back.)

And it’s working. We’ve still got most of the members that walked through the door when we first opened it 3 years ago. And they are still paying the same ridiculously low introductory rate they were paying when they took a chance on us. Because that’s integrity. They believed in us, we believe in them. We matter to them, they matter to us.

Now, who can recommend some recovery drinks that don’t have nipples as advertising icons?


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