Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with WIP Fitness Co-Owners Mary Kate Doyle and Laura Jean Keever about their experience launching—and growing—their startup in Greater Hartford.
NAN PRICE: Did you always know you were going to work for yourselves?
MARY KATE DOYLE: I was a stay-at-home mom after I had my third child. I realized it would be tough for me to balance being a mother and getting what I wanted out of the work I did before, which was in advertising in New York and Boston. The schedule wouldn’t work.
I thought what many others think when they start their own business: This is going to be great. I’m going to work for myself. I’m going to meet my kids after school. It’s going to be easy breezy.
I wasn’t afraid of starting my own business because of the example that had been set for me by my father, who owned his own business. I knew it was something that, although scary, wasn’t unattainable.
LAURA: My dad also owned his own business. He set a great example of working hard and playing hard, which I always admired.
I had worked at a law firm in downtown Hartford, and then I was home with my kids, who are similar in ages to Mary Kate’s. I was trying to figure out my next steps and Mary Kate was in the same boat.
But I didn’t have an entrepreneurial drive. I was sort of surprised—and still am thinking back five years ago—I can’t believe we did this. It’s not something I’ve always dreamed of.
NAN: How did you come together and form the business idea?
MARY KATE: Laura and I had known each other for 10 years. We met through our children and connected around town. We started working out at the same gym and workout buddies.
We really fell in love with the boot camp-style workout. It’s an effective, fun, functional workout, but everything else was lacking. It got us thinking: Why are most gyms run by the “fitness guy”?
NAN: Sounds like a lightbulb was starting to go off. When was this?
MARY KATE: Yes. I threw the idea out to Laura about opening our own gym in August 2012.
LAURA: People thought we were crazy! Most gyms start with a trainer who branches off and when they open, they have clients who come with them. We spent many nights writing up a business plan and researching to see if this crazy idea was viable! We also drove all over West Hartford trying to find the perfect location.
NAN: Let’s talk about that.
MARY KATE: We found the space in November 2012. With any business, location is the toughest part. There were so many hurdles to finding a perfect home: Townhall, parking, zoning. Every time we got through a hurdle I don’t know that either of us ever thought we were going to go through with it!
LAURA: We knew we wanted to be in West Hartford. We both live here, we’re connected in town. We started looking at spaces and quickly ruled out anywhere in the center of town and anywhere in Bishops Corner. We couldn’t afford it. So that was really a challenge.
Finding the space at New Park happened serendipitously. I was working with a wallpaper company that happened to be in this building. As I was showing up for an appointment, Mary Kate called to tell me she’d found this really cool kind of warehouse space. I asked: Where are you? She said: 485 New Park. I said: That’s where I am, where are you?
MARY KATE: We walked in and said: Yes, this is it.
LAURA: That’s when it really hit us: Okay, we are opening a gym.
MARY KATE: Every time there was a roadblock, I thought: We’re never going to surpass this. It’s going to trickle out now. I would feel like giving up, and that would be the time when Laura would push. And the times Laura felt she couldn’t keep grinding, I would encourage her.
I think that has been a real quality of our working relationship. There’s never been a time both of us have felt so defeated we couldn’t push.
LAURA: I agree that’s why we’ve been so successful—because we have each other. I couldn’t imagine trying to do this by myself. Our husbands have been very supportive and involved, but it’s not quite the same when you’re in the trenches with someone and you can celebrate that success.
NAN: You opened the first location in West Hartford in 2013. Tell us about the growth since then.
MARY KATE: We opened our second location in Avon on Route 44 in January 2015 and then we opened in downtown Hartford August 2017.
LAURA: We have a lot of clients on the Avon side of West Hartford, so when we opened that location we had built-in clientele.
MARY KATE: Downtown has been a similar experience. A lot of our clients from West Hartford who work downtown have migrated there. It’s nice to have seasoned clients next to new ones.
After we opened in Avon, we were thinking about opening in another suburb, but Laura and I just weren’t into it. We realized downtown Hartford was where we wanted to be. It’s different. It was a new challenge for us.
Then, in November 2017, our lease in Avon was ending and we were approached by The Shoppes at Farmington Valley about moving to that location. We quickly realized this would be a great opportunity for us, and it’s been a great move so far.
LAURA: Our new location gives us great visibility. It’s a very different model because it’s a high-end shopping center. There’s so much foot traffic and we have a storefront. We started working with grace+GRIT owner Melissa Weinstock, who is subleasing and collaborating with us in our space there.
NAN: Earlier, Laura was saying you are the business owners not coaches. How did you find staff and build clientele?
MARY KATE: All but one of our coaches came from a referral from a client or another coach. The one who didn’t followed us on Instagram, came in and took a class, and asked to be a trainer.
A lot of our clients are from referral. As we grow bigger, we get a lot from Yelp and Google.
LAURA: Fleet Feet owner Stephanie Blozy was a big supporter from the beginning. We really respect her as a female business owner and such a force in the West Hartford community. We talked to Stephanie and pitched our idea about opening a gym. She helped put some feelers out. When we opened, we had a few clients, who came from her.
And now, five years later, we’ve created a name for ourselves. We’ve gained recognition, which helped as we branched out to downtown Hartford and Farmington Valley.
NAN: What differentiates WIP from other fitness facilities?
MARY KATE: Our model is: We’re clients and we have the same expectations our clients have for a workout.
That’s very unusual in fitness, because our coaches are really invested in your experience. It’s been very difficult finding the type of people who can represent our vision. But, once you have amazing people working for you it attracts others.
Also, one of our core values is that you’re not going to see before-and-after pictures. We’re not about that. We just want to be your safe place and support your goal during your workout.
LAURA: If you look at our business plan from five years ago—before we even knew what owning a gym meant— there are so many points we’re proud to say we have followed. Clients come first. We have an engaging community. We’re involved in the community.
MARY KATE: What really differentiate us is our community of clients. They’re an encouraging bunch.
LAURA: That’s why people like group fitness. Some people prefer to work out on their own or get a personal trainer. People come to WIP because they enjoy being part of a community of likeminded individuals.
We knew we were going to hire great coaches. We knew we were going to have great pricing. We knew we were going to be the welcoming force for people when they walked in. But having a really supportive community happened organically, and that was the best part.
NAN: Do you plan to open additional WIP locations?
MARY KATE: Right now, we’ve got our hands full. But you never know. There are huge opportunities to grow with the three gyms we have.
LAURA: We feel great where we are with our coaches, our clientele, and our gyms. We want to enjoy them and continue to let them grow. We’re constantly thinking of ways we can do better. You have to constantly be evolving with your clients.
NAN: What’s it really like to be an entrepreneur?
MARY KATE: Being an entrepreneur exceeded my expectations in a million different ways. I don’t think I could’ve ever imagined what it would be like to own my own business and how fulfilling it is. A good day can go to an amazing day into the worst day all in 15 minutes. That’s a tough thing to get used to.
After five years, Laura and I are both better at rolling with things and learning to deal with them. It’s things you never anticipate—there’s a flood in the gym at 5:00 a.m. or stolen computer downtown, or an employee disintegrates into thin air! Learning to work through those things and not let them make you bitter is hard, but I do think the pros far outweigh the cons. And I couldn’t imagine working for anyone ever again. There’s so much flexibility and we wind up having a lot of fun.
Also, Laura and I have created a great thing here. It’s something we are so proud of. We have to remind ourselves we created it.
LAURA: When we first opened we were afraid of failure. To look back now and see that we did it—and now we’ve done it three times?! It feels incredible.