What I learnt from a decade in business: KX Pilates founder Aaron Smith

KX Pilates Aaron Smith

KX Pilates founder Aaron Smith. Source: supplied.

Like many other businesses, 2020 was supposed to be ‘our’ year.

To put things in context, KX Pilates celebrated its 10-year anniversary in February. We’d just held a successful conference with our studio owners, opened our 68th studio, were in the midst of securing a joint venture to launch into China, and looked forward to hitting $32 million in annual turnover when COVID-19 struck.

With almost half our studios in Victoria, this meant two lockdowns put the brakes on our trajectory and hit us like a ton of bricks. The result? A 98% revenue drop for several months as the business pivoted to stay afloat.

I’ve learnt plenty since founding KX Pilates more than a decade ago, but this year has certainly accelerated the business lessons. Here are my top 10 takeaways from 10 years in business.

1. Work outside your comfort zone

When I was younger, I had plenty of opportunities just to cruise along in mediocre jobs but it was only when I stepped – or was sometimes pushed – out of my comfort zone that I found my resilience, my problem-solving skills, my innovative spirit. I travelled, I struggled, I learnt.

This year has crystallised the notion that you often need to get out of your comfort zone to progress. Trust me, you will do some of your best work.

2. Passion fuels motivation

It’s easy to get excited by a new venture – it’s much harder to maintain that energy on a daily basis. Motivation is fickle and cannot be relied upon to ensure continued success.

What you need is passion – both a passion for what you’re doing and a passion to succeed. Working at something you resent does not show commitment, it’s an indication you’re not courageous enough to change.

There were definitely days when I was less than enthused about pilates, but those were the days when I drew on my passion for helping others succeed, whether that was a client achieving a fitness goal or a franchisee reaching a business milestone.

3. Take control of your life

Once I realised life is about choice, the better I felt about chasing my dream. Putting faith in my idea and doing everything I could to make it happen was a commitment that I was prepared to make to assume control of my life.

I would rather have failed but known I tried than to never have tried at all. To the risk-averse this may seem foolish, but it was better than being taken wherever other people wanted me to go.

4. Lessons are everywhere … and some of them are free

Learn from others, both their great ideas and their mistakes. When I worked for a pilates studio in the UK, I understood why it would never grow: it turned its most ambitious trainers into competitors and squandered its potential by staying small. I transformed that lesson into a franchising model for KX where we could expand by having our best people run their own studio.

Some lessons are expensive, for example when you invest in something that fails. But the real cost is not learning from that lesson. So when faced with failure take stock, don’t recoil.

5. People are the biggest differentiator

A business is nothing without its people, both its team members and its clients. Start by building a relationship with your advocates, especially the early believers; they took a risk by advocating for you early on and without them, the movement towards achieving your vision would never have gathered momentum.

Pay attention to maintaining the right culture. If there are people around you who don’t share the same values and outlook, it will become a problem.

I stepped down as CEO in November 2018 because I realised that in order to take the business forward, I needed a CEO capable of doing just that. The move also allowed me to focus on innovation and international expansion, which unbeknownst to me at the time, would become major areas of hope and excitement for our business during COVID.

What COVID also taught me is that while I enjoy those two areas, my real passion in the business is people. I’ve recently taken on the role of chief cultural officer because I believe our culture and our people are everything.

6. Make time to succeed

About half way into our journey, we started expanding the KX brand into areas such as yoga, barre and cycling workout experiences. However, the core business needs of those disciplines didn’t quite fold into our core pilates operations and demanded more from us than we could give – we were spread too thin.

My advice: don’t start anything unless you can dedicate the time needed to make it successful, or chances are you’ve already failed.

Ideas need commitment, not just money.

7. Know when to take the emotion out of business

You can fall in love with an idea, or get on really well with a potential business partner, but if it’s not right for the business, it’s best to take a step back.

It’s easier said than done but hone the ability to separate your personal feelings from your company and look at business opportunities from a business perspective.

8. Confirm, never assume

For any business, do your research and test, never assume; assumptions can turn into expensive lessons.

Testing is a cheap way to know you’re wrong before you invest.

9. Innovate from within

Find something new in what you are already doing.

After some time, the pilates workout that we launched with in 2020 was no longer enough; we realised copycats could learn the routine and duplicate the method in their own studios. So in response, we’ve spent time and money developing a proprietary machine that we’ll be rolling out to our studios in the coming year to differentiate us from the competition.

During the pandemic we also realised we had to change our attitude towards online classes. We have always focused on creating the right feeling and community when people physically step into one of our studios, so the pivot to ensure we could retain the KX community and the quality and intensity of our workouts in our online sessions was important and something we continue to work on and refine.

10. Look after yourself

A good diet, exercise and time off will prevent burnout and is essential for your physical and mental wellbeing. You’ll not only feel clear-headed and focused, you’ll also have the energy for the next step in your business.

And if you’ve done the right things, there will definitely be a next step.


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