Our last first day. (We hope).

June the 7th 2021 will be 64 weeks, 448 days after we first closed the doors to our business. It will be the day that we pray is our last first day.

I am the co-owner of ATP Fitness a PT studio based in Douglas, Cork. I set up the gym in November 2016 with my friend, and business partner Cian O Flynn.

The goal? To simply help people navigate through the haze of information that is health and fitness and help people become their best. We love what we do, we are two experienced coaches. However, we were also two very inexperienced business owners! By inexperience, I mean no experience.

What you tend to see a lot of the time is people who study business rarely become business owners, and those who start small businesses have rarely studied business. We fall into that bracket.

Two lads who had an idea of what having a business would be like, two lads who were in for a rude awakening. That first year was brutal, but in the best possible way. We worked 14-16 hour days, only taking breaks during the day to go for a nap on a blow up bed we put in our office. The business was going great, we were completely winging our way through as business owners (still are a bit today). We expanded our team and the next hurdle arises, managemant.

An area we had absolutely no experience. This was a big eye opener for us and the pressure of being a business owner became apparent. We also became very reactive to the business growing. Busier simply meant let’s get more staff. We built a great team, and our business was performing well. However, we were also aware of the statistics thrown around that 20% of start-ups fail in the first year, and up to 60% fail in the first three! We managed to beat those statistics and navigate our way through those first three years. Hooray! 2020 is the beginning of year 4 we are feeling good, even with the statistics of start-ups failing in the first 5 years heavily stacked against us. The gym is busy, we are coping with the normal day to day stresses of working in, and running a business.

Now throw in a pandemic and let the roller coaster begin!

Nothing like a global pandemic to test the strength of your business.

It is January 2020; we are all aware of the news of the corona virus. We are aware of what is going on, but like to think it won’t really affect us as a small business in Cork. Oh, how wrong we were! The word naive comes to mind.

As we approach March, it is clear this is a real threat to the world, and it is definitely going to impact the business. Although, we still did not know to what extent. I had already cancelled my wedding that was due for May but was still a little oblivious to the impact on the business that lay ahead. I look at a post we put up on March 15th it read ” ATP Fitness closed until the 29th of March. We look forward to welcoming you back again soon.” I don’t think you ever really want to accept bad news, even when it is staring you in the face.

We closed the business and quickly began creating content online for our clients. We just wanted to keep our clients moving and engaged while we were “temporarily” closed. It’s Friday 27th of March. The day of my would-be stag. Cian and I head to the beach for a very cold dip in the sea and a coffee. We head back to Cians to have a few drinks with our partners as we watch Leo Varadkar on the TV. It is hard to comprehend the scale of what is being said. It is hard to digest the reality of what lay ahead. The emotional roller coaster well and truly begins.

Every lock down has been brutal, but each in its own unique way. For me that first week of the announcement has got to be one of the worst. Nobody likes uncertainty. This was a time where the only thing we were guaranteed to know, is that nobody was going to know what to do.

Panic, fear, anxiety, and sadness just to name a few of the emotions we were going through. The fear was twofold. Fear of not knowing just how dangerous this virus was as we sit in our homes in isolation, and fear for the survival of a business we worked so hard to build. Trying to get reliable information was a scramble. Knowing what to do next was near impossible, but we had to do something. We had 5 staff members going through all the same emotions as ourselves. We are learning about the PUP and TWSS, but still with no real understanding of what it was, what it meant or what we were entitled too.

There was a decision made that for the business to survive, we needed to close the floodgates immediately. With no revenue coming in, we had to stop cash flowing out.

We put ourselves and our staff on the pandemic unemployment payment. One of the sickest days in business for me, was sitting on my laptop getting ready to go on a zoom call with our staff, with nothing but bad news. We contacted our landlord to try and freeze our rent. I went through the stress of freezing my mortgage, which came with the uncertainty around, how that was going to affect me in the future.

At this point, like most others, we had no idea what the future held. We quickly shifted the focus to getting our business online. Those first few weeks of zoom PT and classes were a steep learning curve for us. We stayed in the faces of our members and tried to help them the only way we can, through health, fitness and having a laugh. That first lock down was an emotional roller coaster to say the least.

Pre-announcement anxiety: The stress and anxiety that came with each announcement is something I will never forget. The number of times I sat next to Lisa in tears, as Leo extended lock downs, because I simply did not know what else to do. As the months roll on, like the humans we are, we adapt. We are tipping away with online classes, numbers are low, but it is something. We created our FeelGr8 six-week online health and wellness program, a goal of ours for years, but would have not happened in this time frame only for the pandemic. Silver lining and all that!

However, as much as we adapted, our business is still down over 90% on revenue month on month! Since we first opened our doors, we aimed to put away something every month to build savings for future investment in the company when needed.

Pre-pandemic that investment was always going to be a second gym. We wanted to expand, we wanted to be bigger. However, since the pandemic our mindset has completely shifted. Us, like so many others have had time to stop for a second and evaluate our situation. We no longer have a vision of a second gym and we are in a different direction now, and we feel lucky now that we did not make that move. However, we did not think that investment would be the survival of the business, but it is only because of that savings we had any security.

We speak to each other about businesses that had no savings, or no way to pivot online, we ask oursleves, how they will survive?

I simply don’t think they can!

We finally get a date, June 29th we can open our doors again! Pre-pandemic we would have operated PT and classes with up to 600 bookings per week. As we reopen with strict guidelines in place, our capacity plummets. From Cian, myself and 5 other trainers operating fully, to Cian, myself and one coach returning to personal training only as classes are not allowed.

You jump from elated to being back open, to sad and angry at what has happened your business (in the same day). We are open, it is great to be back. Eventually classes are allowed back in groups of 6 and the buzz begins to come back. The new normal is well under way! It isn’t what we hoped, but it is adapt or die and ATP was not going to die. We went through a changeover of staff and hired our two new coaches Aisling and Bronwyn in September. Getting used to a new job is hard enough, let alone in a pandemic. While we felt we were in a good place, we were also aware of the rising case numbers and what was going on around the country.

It was at this point the government turned it into an All-Ireland Championship. Every county shouting for themselves, hoping their case numbers are lower than the everyone else to avoid lock downs. 19th of October they announce Level 5 again! Six week lock down and it all starts again. The emotional roller coaster kicks in, again.

There was a sense that this one was going to be the six weeks and I think the mentality was let’s just get through this. We shut the business, pushed our online program and classes which we now had up and running. We knew what was happening with the TWSS and even though we went back to a 90% drop in revenue, it was a case of let us just get through it.

Back open early December, one of the quietest months of the year for gyms, but at least we were back open. Hindsight is a great thing, but I think if we knew what opening up the way we did would have caused, then we would of taken a different approach. In those few weeks I think we all knew what was coming. We opened the country due to pressure not because we were ready to. I recall having conversations as Christmas week approached of ” Ya, there will be another lock down but hopefully only 6 weeks and we will be back open in February”

Little did I know!

The 22nd of December, government announce level 5 with some adjustments. The emotional roller coaster really took off here! Gyms were allowed to operate in the latest announcement! Elation, excitement and most definitely some confusion, but hey we were staying open. We got a week and they come out and close us down again. Enter Lock down 3.

For me, January and February were the most challenging months to my mental health. I really struggled and I know from speaking to so many, I was not alone. The novelty had well and truly worn off, it was dark and raining all of the time, motivation was low, and there was no end in sight. We ploughed on.

We saw more of an uptake to the online classes and personal training than we had in the previous lock downs. We were able to work on improving our FeelGr8 program. Trying to stay positive, but it just felt like being kicked when you are down.

We get to March 30th waiting for the big announcement. Finally, some bit of a road map. Yet, no mention of gyms? Personal services but no gyms. This caught us by surprise as we were always lumped in with hairdressers etc; OK, get through April, it’s looking positive open in May was the assumption. They say you should never assume.

29th of April, the next part of the road map! 7th of June for gyms? This caught me with such a mixed bag of emotions. Friends texting me saying congrats you have a date, and me feeling happy about that. To me being annoyed that we are now suddenly categorized separately to all the businesses we were previously in with.

What this lesson really opened my eyes to, was that we are all fighting the good fight, but we are all fighting our own fight. I can give you all the arguments as to why gyms should be open sooner, but every hair dresser, publican and small business owner, will give just as a convincing an argument as to why they should be open sooner too. We are all right, in our own opinions.

We have a date now. Our gym will have been closed 11 out of 15 months when we reopen, since the pandemic began. I try to be an optimist, even in the worst times. I would like to think that this is our last first day. Being a small business owner these last 15 months has been challenging to say the least, heck being anybody these last 15 months has been a challenge. We are all suffering from pandemic fatigue. One of the biggest things I have learned as business owner and a human, is that we are all so different. We all have different stories to tell.

For some, the pandemic has been an inconvenience to their lives. For others, it has been the most terrifying and challenging period of their lives. For some it has been adjusting to a new way of living. For others it has been fighting to stay alive.

We are all in this storm together, but we are all in vastly different boats.

If you see a ship sinking, do everything in your power to keep it afloat.

Support Local.

Support Small Business.


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