Entrepreneur and fitness powerhouse Debra Fountain launched LIFER Fitness Studio in 2015. The West Hartford-based studio offers a unique workout experience. Debra spoke to Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about her entrepreneurial experience and what it’s like to launch a startup in a competitive market.
NAN PRICE: What does it take to be an entrepreneur?
DEBRA FOUNTAIN: For me, it’s about the product. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur you have to really love the product. And for me, it’s fitness.
NP: How has your background helped you to launch the startup?
DF: I have a degree in business finance and I did some multilevel marketing in my early 20s, so that helps. But I knew I didn’t want to be in an office and crunching numbers.
I was a personal trainer before I became a group fitness instructor. I loved that freedom to work my own hours and choose who I wanted to work with. So taking that concept and applying it to a group fitness atmosphere—it’s the same thing. It’s working with a group of people I love working out with. I love that.
The next logical step was owning my own studio. I think my progress was pretty linear.
NP: Fitness studios and gyms are popping up all over West Hartford. What makes LIFER unique?
DF: Good question. I’ve been in the fitness industry for almost 20 years. I took all the things I liked and the things I found unique in my fitness journey and put them all into one space.
And for me, the most important elements are community, consistency of the instructors, and accountability. I think those things are key to making a studio successful. You make the client accountable and they become accountable to you as an instructor. And you have to be willing take that on. Once everybody is sync and there’s accountability, success usually follows.
NP: Tell us a little about the fitness studio and the term “lifer.”
DF: A lifer is essentially a person whose lifestyle balances a healthy mind, body, and soul.
The studio offers barre, cycle, yoga, kickboxing, and core. We also just launched an app. It’s the same philosophy: cardio and resistance training. It’s not just for our members, but our members travel or can’t make it to a class for whatever reason can still work out with us. And again, there is an accountability.
NP: Now that you’ve been open two years, how would you say the startup has evolved?
DF: Our most popular classes combine cycle and barre or cycle and strength. It’s all in one hour and all in one room. We didn’t start off with that concept.
People want to get as much quality as they can in one hour. We figured that out early on. I think with a new business you have to be willing to change and adapt. And within a year we added and combined to create new classes. We are still evolving. So six months from now will have new classes.
NP: A lot of startup experience those types of pivots to hone in on what their customers really want. How are you building a customer base and marketing?
DF: We use a lot of social media—all the platforms. We’re kind of nestled off of this main road, so we do rely a lot on word of mouth and, as long as were putting out a good product, people are talking.
NP: You also do a lot to give back to the community.
DF: Right. We try to get involved in community events as much as we can. The community gives to us, so we like to give back. We participate in fundraisers, like Pedal for Cancer, and Johnny’s Jog. In the summer we take our bikes to Blue Back Square and do a free class for the community. We also give to the local schools.
NP: What it’s really like to be an entrepreneur?
DF: As an entrepreneur, I think sometimes you can get so caught up in the work and the money that you forget it’s not just your life, you’re impacting a lot of other lives. And you can’t measure that. It’s a rewarding feeling when someone says: This my favorite place to work out.
Also, I am a role model for my children. They see what it looks like to love what you do and they see me passionate about something I’m doing. You can teach your kids all day, but showing them goes a lot further.
Speaking of family, my family’s love and support—especially my husband, who has always believed in me—has been a huge motivator for me. My faith has also played an important role in my success.
NP: What challenges have you’ve faced launching the startup?
DF: Competition. And setting yourself apart.
NP: How do you handle that?
DF: Believe that you have something unique. Don’t worry about how many other studios and gyms are popping up. Keep doing what you’re doing.
Finding your niche is a challenge as this fitness industry explodes—and it is exploding. Don’t try to be all things to everybody. And don’t take it personally. If someone’s not coming, they may have found something else. And really, if you’re in this for the right reason, where you want people to be healthy, who cares about the method?
You’ve got to remember why you got in this business. If you really want to help people, just help the people you can. And again, don’t try to be all things to everybody.
NP: You and Studio Manager Abby Harpp have a great relationship.
DF: Yes! She’s my right hand. It was important to me to have a studio manager who is loyal and trustworthy. Abby and I met in the gym. She took my classes. She knows my style. She is a lifer. We complement each other. I think that’s important.
You have to be able to mesh with that one person. You need to have that person in your corner. And if you don’t have that, it’s a rough road. I can’t imagine not having Abby.
NP: Any advice?
DF: Don’t hire friends and family first. I have four kids. They don’t work here! They do help, but I think you have to establish yourself first because then your feelings won’t get in the way.
So, when you start out, try to hire somebody who’s not in your close circle, because then you get objective opinions right away. And you grow.
NP: Speaking of growth, do you see expanding or opening additional fitness studios?
DF: I’ve been approached many times about opening another studio in another town. We are doing something that’s not being done a lot in this area. We’re doing something unique and we can see it’s successful because we’re retaining our members.
But in terms of growth, this is still my baby. It’s only two years old. I would like to do just this for a little while and perfect it before I expand.
I do see LIFER expanding to a franchise. I think it’s a concept bigger than me. There are lifers all over—that’s kind of the idea behind the app. And I think a lot more people want to be lifers. So yes, I do see it expanding. I just don’t know when.