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The ‘secrets’ behind building a multi-million dollar fitness empire

Written by Jack Delosa
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As Australia’s most influential personal trainer and co-founder of the 12 Week Body Transformation, Michelle Bridges, has built a multi-million dollar fitness empire spanning across apparel, training, equipment and health foods, helping Australians lose an impressive 2 million+ kilos.

While on the surface building a fitness business might look glamorous, we caught up with Michelle to get an honest insight into what it actually takes – what she’s done right, what’s gone wrong for her and how she has pushed past the challenges that inevitably arise for entrepreneurs.

What is your advice to those who are in their first 1-2 years of business and trying to gain traction?

Take your time to bed down your business foundations. Avoid trying to get too big too quickly. Be smart with how you spend your money. Consider collaborating with others to help grow your customer base and stretch your marketing. Be prepared to be a jack of all trades, learn on the job and work big hours.

You’ve created an incredibly successful online product in the 12 Week Body Transformation (12WBT). Why did you create the 12WBT and how have you turned it into such a popular product?

It all came about because everybody in the country wanted me to train them. I knew there was a way of reaching everyone online but I just wasn’t sure how - the nuts and bolts of the whole thing. So we got help from some friends whom we partnered with to create 12WBT and we came up with a plan. It was to take my first book Crunch Time and bring it to life online. It was a dream come true. Now I could reach everyone!

From outback farmers to inner city folk and everyone in between. Over the years the product naturally evolved but it was the people who became members that were amazing! They did the work, they hit the results, and then connected and touched each other in a way that we could never have imagined. The community came alive and they were oh so passionate! It makes me teary just thinking about it.

Since launching 12 Week Body Transformation (12WBT) so many new fitness programs have become available online. What do you do as a brand to ensure you’re one step ahead of the competition?

We’ve always been committed to creativity – we’ve always asked ourselves “How can we best use the technology to provide the best online fitness, nutrition, and mindset program we can?” So since we started, we’ve continuously pushed the boundaries of what’s possible and that’s resulted in us having a really customisable, user-friendly program offering.

By continuously asking ourselves how we can innovate using technology to make the member experience engaging and exciting, we’re able to provide the best platform for our members to then get the best results.

One of the things that underpin 12WBT’s success is the huge community you have built around it. What advice could you give to other business owners who want to build and foster their community?

Be absolutely sincere about WHY you want to build and foster your community. If you want to do it because you think it will help your bottom line, you’ll fall on your sword. We wanted to build a community because we knew from experience in the ‘real world’ that community support is what helps people stay committed and reach their goals. We recruited staff who passionately believed in support as the backbone for success in weight loss and fitness and together we very deliberately built the community on that basis.

ENGAGE your community – be transparent with them about why you want to build the community, so they can see your sincerity and passion; and engage them in helping you build it. We’ve always said to our members – support each other, it takes a village. Reach out and be a support for someone, and reach out for support yourself. Build your community of helping hands to hold each other up, because we’re all in this together. So we ask our members to help us build a community of commitment, compassion and courage and they respond amazingly. It’s one of the things about 12WBT that I’m most proud of, the community is so sincerely supportive and I just love that.

Entrepreneurs are so busy it can be hard to find time to exercise. How do you encourage people to find time to do this?

Some of the busiest people I know are exercisers. World leaders, business leaders, even our own Prime Minister are well known for being regular exercisers. The time doesn’t fall into our laps, we have to make the time. If we’re fortunate to be able to schedule it in like clockwork at the same time every day that’s awesome, but most of us need to be flexible with our schedules. I aim to train first thing in the morning, but sometimes early work commitments don’t allow that so I’ll often find myself training at lunchtime one day and then at night the next. It’s a commitment. It’s a discipline. But the rewards are unbelievable!

In your experience, what’s the difference between building a business and building a personal brand?

Although they are quite different, in my case, the two rely on each other. Alignment is critical so when decisions need to be made we have to ask the question: “Does this align with what we are trying to achieve within the business?” or “Does this proposition align itself with the brand, is it on brand or off brand?”

Our core business principles – being real, supportive, and energetic – often answer the questions for us, these principles are at the heart of everything we do. But it’s not without its challenges. One is a company the other is a living breathing person, and sometimes situations occur that require the team to really think outside the box! For example, a snapped cruciate ligament on the ski fields one week before a three-day athletic photoshoot…..Gulp! Sorry guys!

What we have done though is to build a brand around a personality, and then build a business based on that brand. The aim is to grow the brand until it’s strong enough to stand on its own, without my mug always needing to be next to it. This way the brand and the business will continue to grow and develop for years to come.

In the early days, before The Biggest Loser, how did you create your personal brand?

It’s funny, most people know me from The Biggest Loser and don’t know that I had been in the fitness industry working my craft for almost 20 years before! Over those years, I had certainly earned my stripes. I arrived in Sydney in 1996 with no job prospects, but a burning desire to make a difference so I got my head down and started really forging a career and a name for myself in the fitness industry. But I soon got to the point where I could see that there was no further growth for myself or my dreams in the industry, an industry that I love and adore, and thought “there has to be more for me.” I needed to grow and develop and pursue new dreams but I couldn’t see how.

This is when I started blazing new trails, doing new and different things, things that no one else was doing. I wasn’t being paid or anything. It was all for the love of the job but equally the desire to stretch myself. Create. Learn more. Do better. You could say this was the beginning of me building my brand. I was writing, I was pitching ideas to newspapers, magazines, and even TV networks. Creating concepts, thinking about writing a book, dreaming of ways I could get my message out there. I made lots of friends and connections in the industry and was voted Australian Fitness Leader of the Year in 2004.

We’ve talked a lot about what you’ve done right. But in business, some of our biggest lessons often come from the things we do wrong. What are some of the mistakes you’ve made in business? What are some of the things you’ve tried that haven’t worked?

Well in business I think you’ve got to take risks and push the boundaries and with risk comes inevitable falls. The key is balance – making sure you have more successes than slip-ups, so your business continues to grow overall. I‘ve certainly made my share of mistakes, and each time I’ve been determined to learn from them so that they’re not for nothing.

12WBT grew really big, really fast in Australia and we thought we’d try to crack the US as well. In a nutshell, we tried to bring our Australian model to the American market and it didn’t work. It cost us a heap of money and in the end, we had to cut our losses and call it a day. And that was really hard, because we’d put a huge amount of time and effort and money into the venture, and for us to realise that it wasn’t going to come off, after all that, was a real kick in the guts. As tough as it was to accept defeat, it was important for us to face the truth and call it a day when we did, so we mitigated our losses as much as possible.

Another really big and hard lesson for me to learn personally in business was that I needed to be more involved in the nitty gritty of my business. While I was out there being Michelle Bridges the public figure – being the trainer on The Biggest Loser, being the face of the MB Active brand, continuously facing out, I wasn’t seeing what was happening in the backend of the Michelle Bridges company, by this I mean the running of my own MB business separate to 12WBT, a business owned along with business partners and run by its own CEO.

And what was happening was that there were vast sums of money being spent in the business rather than on the business. There was a real imbalance between blue sky dreaming and the actual day-to-day reality and by the time I realised this, the company had gone from being really solid financially to actually being on really shaky ground.

It was a real wake-up call, to learn that I needed to face into my business as well as be the public face out. Lesson learned and I’m proud to say we’re back on solid ground!

We can’t wait to have you at the Entrepreneurs’ Unconvention 2017. Can you give us a quick insight into what you’ll be talking about?

I’m going to be asking you to answer some questions which may be challenging or uncomfortable. I’ll be putting forward ideas and concepts which may change your perception on things, or at least spark a seed of a new way of looking at things and how you can use business coaching to help.

I’ll also be sharing stories from my life both personal and business which helped shape and guide me. Sometimes you don’t have to be the one to learn the lesson the hard way when someone else has already had the kick to the guts, and been open enough to share it with you.

Hear more from Michelle Bridges on our podcast, The Make It Happen Show below where she covers her life and business lessons on living a life of purpose and passion.

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