Ask Mike Walker what he enjoys most in life, and he’ll tell you it’s helping people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he realized his calling to open a personal training studio in West Hartford, and launched WeHa Fit in February 2021.
A friend of Mike’s and his family, MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price has been cheering along and looking forward to reuniting with Mike to learn more about his entrepreneur journey.
NAN PRICE: How has your background prepared you to open your own fitness training business?
MIKE WALKER: I spent many years in corporate fitness. And, as funny as it may sound, part of the reason I left is because I didn’t want to wear khakis and a polo shirt when I was training people!
In 2003, I opened a gym in Newington with a friend of mine. I learned a lot from that experience. We spent $30,000 on cardio equipment, so we were closed in a year.
I spent a lot of years training and managing gyms and lived in New York City from 2008.
When I moved back to Connecticut, after 10 years in Manhattan, I flip flopped between the restaurant industry and the fitness industry. It’s similar customer-facing work. I was working for a restaurant in West Hartford Center and I developed a pretty severe drinking problem. I bottomed out, and when I decided it was time to stop drinking, I realized it wouldn’t make sense to work in the restaurant industry anymore and have so much access to liquor.
An opportunity presented itself to go back into the fitness industry. I started working for a gym in Southington that had boxing and mixed martial arts. It was a nice opportunity to work with a lot of kids and a myriad of different people. But, I wasn’t making a lot of money—and they wanted me to wear a polo shirt and khakis!
Another opportunity presented itself to become a district manager for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, which was an awesome opportunity. The money was great, I was managing 10 different stores, and then COVID-19 hit and everything stopped.
NAN: How did you bounce back?
MIKE: Once COVID-19 hit, I was three months post-operation after having reconstructive shoulder and bicep surgery. We just had our son January 26, 2020, and I was sitting at home and eating a lot of Ben & Jerry’s. I was overweight, depressed, and pretty immobile.
One day I looked at a picture of myself and thought: Enough is enough. I started with just one pushup that day. One turned into five, five turned into 10, and 10 turned into working out at home during the pandemic. I started working out in in parks and posting some pictures on social media. And then people began reaching out about training them in person.
I love training. I’ve been doing it for 20 years. I’m a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) certified personal trainer and nutrition coach.
NAN: At what point did you decide to find a location and open an actual gym?
MIKE: The weather got cold. So, I started researching where there were some spaces and found a beautiful preexisting space in West Hartford. It’s in the budding fitness hub of Elmwood in the industrial park near New Park Brewing. I share the space with Cue Fitness and Pilates.
Most of the equipment I needed was already there and I’ve been slowly adding and piecing things together. The beauty of personal training is you don’t need a ton of equipment. When you’re working one-on-one, you can really tailor things to your clients’ needs.
NAN: Did you start out with a formal business plan?
MIKE: I do have a business plan, which is very simple. One of the lessons I’d learned from opening the gym back in 2003 is how important it was to start small. So, my business plan was to start as small as possible, meaning invest as little as I needed for rent.
The initial goal was to get out of the house a little bit and see if this is something that’s sustainable. My plan is also to time block by scheduling my clients back-to-back so I’m not necessarily trading time for money. Instead, what I’m doing is maximizing my work time and my family time—which is important with our second child on the way at the end of August.
NAN: How are you marketing and building clientele?
MIKE: I already had clients I trained last summer who were ready to come on board. So, I started with a book of business. I also had a lot of clients from Southington when I was training at that gym. Honestly, many of my clients are people who are in recovery with me. They’re wonderful human beings who understand how important it is to prioritize your health. So, I started fairly busy and it grew really quickly to the point where I’m expanding my hours now.
NAN: Some would say that the fitness industry, especially in West Hartford, is oversaturated. What makes you innovative or sets you apart?
MIKE: I’m okay with the oversaturation. Think about it this way: You go to the mall because there are 30 stores where you can shop. It’s the same idea for what we do. I love this area of West Hartford because we’ve got so many fitness places in our industrial park and over by the GastroPark, including BODYROC Fit Lab, Excel Fitness, Knockout Fitness, Lifer Fitness Studio, Sudor Taino Fitness Studio, and WIP Fitness. I think it’s amazing.
We want people to come to this area of West Hartford, come to Elmwood, get your fitness on, find who you like. And the nice thing is, if somebody comes to me and I’m not a fit for them, I’ve got a lot of referrals. We’re all supporting each other.
In terms of what’s what separates me or what makes me different than my competitors it’s my approach and the programming I do, which is tailored for each individual and constantly changing.
NAN: What do you see for future growth?
MIKE: I’m working with a mentor and planning to transition into more virtual training. I’m going to take a six-month masterclass to learn how to do that. I’ll never stop doing the one-on-one, in-person training because it’s my passion. But there are a lot of people in the world who can’t get to my studio in West Hartford, CT.
With virtual training, there’s an opportunity to help more people and get my name out there. And the platform already exists. The process, the procedures, everything is there because so many people had to figure out what worked and what didn’t work. So, all I have to do is duplicate what successful people are doing and follow a couple easy steps.
NAN PRICE: You’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. Any advice for others who are starting a business?
MIKE: My main piece of advice for anybody who’s starting a business is, it’s not as important to have a business card as it is to have a business. I think a lot of people think they need to get everything in place before they can launch. Just go for it, figure out how to make money, and deal with the challenges as they arise.
Take advantage of all of the free marketing avenues out there. Marketplace, word of mouth, and social media are amazing platforms. You may even have friends who will interview you for their website!
There are so many opportunities and people who genuinely want to help those who are passionate about what they do. For me, I take a lot of pride in helping people. It gives me so much self-worth and it fills me up.
I used to feel skeptical when I heard people say, “If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I’m actually living that now, which is amazing. I wake up happy. I go to bed happy