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Ambitious Athletics Creates Community & Helps People Reach Their Goals

Season 2: Episode 18


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From reaching out after one of his clients misses a class, to providing an affordable one week trial for new clients, Ambitious Athletics makes connecting with clients their top priority. Ambitious Athletics strives to provide clients the tools they need to reach their goals, using a more personal approach for each individual. Hear from owner Carmen Sturniolo on how he makes sure he creates a safe and friendly environment for his clients; he’s joined by Steven C., a satisfied customer.

On the Yelp Blog: Get an inside look at the customer journey from the perspective of the customer and business owner.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. On Behind the Review I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interactions.

This week, we are excited to feature Ambitious Athletics, located in Washington DC. I discovered this business through a really fun project with Entrepreneur Media to identify the Top 150 Mom & Pop Shops in America. It’s a tough task to rank say a gym against a taco stand, or beauty salon. So we decided to find the top 15 businesses across 10 distinct categories. We also capped each category at 1 business per state, so there’s tons of diversity allowing you to visit a Top Mom & Pop Shop near you, or maybe even on your next vacation.

Ambitious Athletics was ranked #12 in the Fitness and Instruction category, and their client Steven C. so graciously took the time to share his experience with me, so I got in touch with owner Carmen Sturniolo to hear how he created this local business with such a loyal and active community of clients.

STEVEN: I was searching for a gym or a personal trainer or somewhere to start working out. It was winter, I don’t know, maybe it was November or so. And so I started doing online searches. Yelp, of course, was looking through different reviews. They have a perfect five star rating.

I’ve been to gyms before and you know, most of the time it’s just like open equipment and so you go and you feel bad about yourself cuz everyone else is very in shape. And I don’t even know how to work the machines, so I was nervous about finding something, but I read the reviews about Ambitious Athletics. And they were great.

So I thought, okay, I’ll go in and just try it out for their first orientation or the first personal training. So I did that.

EMILY: That’s Steven C., telling us how he came across Ambitious Athletics in hopes of a gym that didn’t come with the standard intimidation. Let’s hear his review and see if it was a good fit.

STEVEN: You can stop scrolling through Yelp trying to find a gym that you can feel comfortable walking into on your first day, because this is the one. Don’t worry about being the only person there with no experience.

I’m 34 and I literally have zero gym weightlifting or training experience, and I too have walked in and out of gyms due to intimidation and not knowing what to do. You should at least go to the orientation class cause you’ll sit down and talk about your goals and your story. You’ll learn about how the gym works and you’ll do some stretches to show off your mobility and or limitations. Hopefully I’ll see you in classes and we can be newbies together. Click on the website and at the top you’ll see ‘click here to reserve your orientation spot.’ That’s what I did!

EMILY: What a great review! It can feel nerve wracking when starting at a new gym, especially for people who are new to the exercise space. I was able to sit down with Carmen, owner of Ambitious Athletics to hear how the business came to be, and learn a bit more about what goes on behind the scenes to create this welcoming culture at Ambitious Athletics.

CARMEN: It’s a number of catalysts that have put me into the position here. One unfortunate circumstance was my dad passed away or suffered at an aortic dissection. And that made me want to learn more about the body.

He passed away right as I got my first job outta college here in Washington DC and I was sitting at a desk job. And got the call and they gave me one week to grieve my first parent’s passing and that was a little kick in the gut for me to really evaluate what my purpose is in life.

There’s gotta be something more I could be doing for the world, kind of like my dad did. He was a carpenter, also cut hair.

He also had a small business in his day and he never had to hand out a business card. You know, everybody came to him. So I left that job and tried to find something and was trying to figure it all out for about a year, and kind of was poached by a gym as I was doing this sales and marketing job for a firm here.

Well, the Washington Nationals were building their new stadium and this woman reached out. She was like, ‘Hey, you look like you work out. Do you need a gym membership?’ And I was like, ‘Leave me alone. I’m not answering your questions.’ And she was like, Hey, have you ever thought about personal training?

And I kind of was like, you actually, now you’re speaking to me. Cause as I was doing paralegal work at a law firm, I was exercising in the gym there and was helping a bunch of the different lawyers there exercise and do it well. And at that time, my good friend and the lawyer for Ambitious Athletics, still to this day is like, you should do this as a job.

And I was like, exercise as a job? I was like, okay, sure. And so it was just like a catalyst of different things that all lined up. It all started with my dad passing and you know, I believe that his spirit kind of lined these things up and had things fall into my lap, or at least made me recognize these opportunities.

And so went on to be that trainer at Sports Club and I was there. I learned a great deal, but really felt like there was a little bit more that I could offer and that’s whenever I thought about starting my own business and giving people the experience that they really deserve in health and fitness.

EMILY: Carmen started his business as a result of a difficult event in his life, but he was able to pivot his career and find his true passion! Once Carmen realized that he wanted to branch out and start his own business, he let his passion drive him to make the leap.

CARMEN: I left that gym and then a bunch of my clients came with me and I said, hey, I’ll come to your house. I’ll train in a park, whatever you’re comfortable with. So that was how I segmented my one-on-one training out into ‘the outside,’ if you will. And then from there, I started picking up more groups and wanted to train people together because that was a better use of my time.

And then that kind of got the wheels turning more. And working with a variety of different coaches and attending conferences and just trying to figure out how businesses are built. How to best leverage your time, other business owners’ time. I started walking around to karate studios and talking to them and saying, Hey, is there any time in the day where you’re not using this, that you would want to sublease some space to me?

I’m originally from Pennsylvania. Met a guy who was also from Pennsylvania, who owned this variety studio. So we already had that connection and he was an entrepreneur himself and just gave me the opportunity to get in there in the morning when he wasn’t using it.

And that allowed me to go from personal to group while I still maintain some at home and personal stuff. But I was outside and in conference rooms and in backyards and back alleys for about two years before I got into that karate studio and that helped me build my community and my space to finally open a brick and mortar spot in 2015.

EMILY: I love that Carmen had already created a strong community before he even had a physical space. This goes to show how much consumers value personal interaction and connection. Once Carmen had the opportunity to open his own gym, it was so important for the space to reflect how he wanted clients to feel.

CARMEN: With every decision as an entrepreneur, you’re looking to maximize your time and perfect everything like right up front. So it was many hours of standing over here in this shelled out space. Honestly spending hours just like walking around here, drawing on the concrete floor of where things are laid out, how they’re laid out.

I like a wide open space that seems like there’s almost no equipment in there. Those things can blend almost into the walls, but still provide depth and character to especially a gym, but almost pieces like hidden.

When you walk in, you’re walking down the stairs, and first when you walk out from the door, there’s a big mural with like our chevrons up there that say ‘strong fit and athletic.’ And that’s what I always want to bring to our clients, and hopefully our clients want to embody.

They wanna be strong, they wanna feel fit and overall athletic, to be able to move and do the things that they want on a regular basis with whomever they want. During travel, whatever it is. There should be no limit to your body. And that’s what you see.

Then you turn to this grass wall that has our logo on it. Very simple. And from there you turn the corner of the stairs and you walk down into a very well lit place with gray floors. We’ve branded gray and teal and pink are our colors and black. So all those colors are brought into the space and at a time when so many different gyms and fitness places have all these dark walls and dark lights for all of this. I like to go the opposite way and I like super bright. I like to feel that energy. I like to feel the walls coming down on me. I like to feel things are open and expansive and there’s no limit to what I can do in a space.

So you get down this black turf that leads you right to the wall at the end, which is a beautiful piece done by a Mac Rado who took all of my thoughts of bringing this Miami surfing, skateboarding, shop and vibe together into one. And it says, ‘life is your sport.’ And again, what we live by is taking that strong, fit, and athletic and embodying those into your life. The sport of life that we play every day and just hope and stay injury free and capable of doing anything.

EMILY 5: I can feel how passionate Carmen is about the work that he does, just by the way he talks about the space. Every part of the gym has been thought about and accounted for. It’s set up to be welcoming, and make an impact on new members.

We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back Carmen shares more about their one week trial and how it helps attract the right members.

EMILY: One of the biggest challenges every business faces is getting new people through the door. With fitness, it can be a challenge! But Ambitious Athletics wants people to try it out, so they create a low barrier to entry, with high reward.

CARMEN: It’s a seven day trial. We call it a little starter packer, or starter session. So basically we give you everything that you could possibly experience here.

It’s seven days long. You can get all the things done within the first two days or three days, but we offer you seven days to complete two group training sessions, a body composition on our in-body scale, and then one hour in our recovery room, which has an infrared sauna.

And so you come in for that starter session, initial starter session, and that gives us the opportunity to meet you. Understand where you are, who you are as a person, what you’ve done in the past, what you’re currently doing, what you’re currently looking for, what’s your injury history like? Why are you doing this?

And kind of the conversation, the list goes on. But we want to meet you where you are not only for that starter session, but every day that you come in here. So every day that you come in, we’re always asking everybody, how are you feeling today? How’d you sleep last night? Like, where are you?

Because if we have a big workout teed up for you, you might come in and go, oh, you know what? My one year old put me through the ringer on my sleep and I’m on like two hours of sleep, but I’m chalking it up as a win that I’m here. Fantastic, great. There’s no reason to crush yourself in this workout today and put your body in further recovery debt.

So how about we scale back a couple things for you where you can move a little bit, get a little endorphin rush and get outta here. So then hopefully tonight he or she sleeps a little bit better. And you can come back in here tomorrow and put forth like what you have available in your gas tank. So that first starter session, it was like, when we met Steven, we’re just like, you know what have you done in your past?

And we have an intake form that they fill out prior to coming in. So we have a general idea and we use those as touch points to figure out what they’ve done, any injuries or anything that they’ve had. But then we dive a little bit deeper into that and it’s private. When Steven came in, it was done as a group, but now it’s private because we like that time there and it gives us a little bit of opportunity to peel back the layers a little bit.

Because that’s important to us. That would be important to me if I walked into any gym, any business that I was investing in myself, to be known as somebody, not just a number, and be a part of the volume of clientele.

EMILY: Carmen’s philosophy and treatment towards each client doesn’t go unnoticed. Steven says that the conversations that he had with Carmen during the trial made him feel welcome and comfortable in a normally uncomfortable environment.

STEVEN: Just after the first night of being there, I went to a night class and Carmen sat down with me and another person doing the orientation and asked, like I said, the review asked our goals and our story, and so it wasn’t just, ‘do you wanna be buff in six months?’ It was like he really talked to us about who we are as a person and why we’re there.

And I was able to share struggles with mental health and how I wanted to benefit my mental health through physical activity and he really dug into who I was as a person. So I was very inspired to write a review. To be able to share, like other people need to have this experience.

EMILY: When I first heard about how inexpensive the trial was, I was shocked. Oftentimes, gyms that provide similar services are much more expensive. I wanted to hear what Carmen’s rationale behind a cheap trial was.

CARMEN: Most people have a good $20 bill in their pocket or in their Apple Pay or something like that, and we wanted to give them the ability just to walk in and do it. If you lose 20 bucks and you’re like, this isn’t for me, you had the opportunity to come in and say, I might know somebody that this would be a great place for, or this might be a place that I would feel comfortable coming back to later.

Honestly, it’s so we can just have a conversation with you and just be ourselves and just demonstrate our quality of training here and our community and how we carry ourselves and want to actually make a difference in health and fitness. That’s an opportunity to meet somebody, shake their hand, say hello, because you already share a common interest of being somewhat in the health and fitness realm that it’s just a good conversation no matter what.

EMILY: I love the way Carmen describes human connection. I can really tell he’s passionate about making a change in people’s lives. This passion has translated to all of his clients, creating a community. He says that it is important for him to maintain a friendship with his clients.

CARMEN: The cool thing about like the starter session is that it kind of weeds out the people that don’t fit our culture. And we have such a good community and good culture.

And if we can continue to cultivate that, that’s gonna weed out the people that are here to just not be a part of that. If they have bigger goals, we might not be able to accommodate their goals, and we might not be right for them. So it gives both parties just an easy way to figure out like, this is gonna be a great place for me, or this probably isn’t gonna be a great place for me.

EMILY: That’s so great! The community that has been fostered at Ambitious Athletics is very different from most gyms. It’s amazing that clients not only create friendships with the staff, but also each other. Throughout my interview with him, Carmen has continuously emphasized how essential it is for his clients to be satisfied.

CARMEN: I think member experience is just huge. I like to ball on a budget. And I want to bring a Four Seasons-like experience to this, and it’s something that we’re always working on and trying to elevate and trying to learn more about our members.

We take showing up very seriously and not to the point where we’re like on your case, you not getting in here a bunch. But we know that showing up three to four times a week is most beneficial for your goals. And we like to see people. It’s always more fun when there’s more people in here and everyone is in here and laughing and having a great time cuz fitness should be fun.

So we look at a report every Friday and see who has come in through that week and if they have anything scheduled for the next week. And we reach out to them. And if they’re gone for an extended period of time, we always just, ‘Hey, checking in on you, is everything okay?’ Because a lot of things that can happen during the week, during the day, that could set you back and you’re probably not thinking, oh, I need to reach out to my gym and let them know I’m not gonna be in for a couple days.

EMILY: It’s amazing that Carmen personally reaches out to his clients, asking about their well being. It really enforces the idea that in this safe environment, members feel comfortable sharing their personal lives and stories.

STEVEN: The connection that I had with the owners and could tell they really cared about their business. It was independent. There’s lots of fitness chains. Where you just feel like the employees don’t care.

They don’t care. So with Carmen though, and Cam – as a consumer, I felt I wanted to go back. Because they knew who I was. Every time I’d come in, they would say my name and ‘how’s it going? How’s this? How was your trip to Wisconsin?’ when I went home for Christmas.

And so they knew what was going on in my life and I think anyone can relate to, if you have that experience now you wanna come back and you wanna keep coming. As a consumer, I felt very comfortable coming back. I would say, usually with the gym, I would do three days or three times to come in. And then I felt really uncomfortable. It almost got worse and worse. But here you get more and more comfortable with each day. And Carmen would send me emails if I skipped a class, he would send me an email and say, Hey bud, hope you’re doing okay. We have this goal for you. Wanna make sure you’re coming in.

And I prepaid for three months or something. So it wasn’t like he was trying to get me to come in and pay for each individual class. He was just trying to help me reach my goals. So that too was really, it was like accountability. So, it kept me motivated for sure.

EMILY: Reviews are crucial to businesses and can be a great source of feedback or motivation for new customers . Carmen has his own great take on reviews.

CARMEN: I ask our people, I’m like, hey, listen. You don’t have to tell me what you think about this if you don’t wanna have a sit down conversation or a phone conversation.

But on your own time, if you could write something to help somebody else come in here and understand what it’s like. It’s not for us, like it’s for the next person. Because they may have heard or read a review from somewhere just like that to be like, you know what, I’ll give it a try.

So I look at it as paying it forward. And so I always ask, I’m like, Hey, listen, if there’s anything that you could write online that would help somebody else to walk in these doors and feel welcome, just like you, would you mind writing it? Because they can tell us. And it’s then what can we do with it?

We can put it on our website and stuff like that. But then there’s little skepticism with it, right? So having a third party involved is super helpful. It’s always been helpful. I love ’em. In the backend, we get an email whenever somebody writes a review, which is awesome.

And when it comes in, I’ll be honest, when it comes in, I’m like, I’m not gonna read this right now cause I always want to be in a really good head space. I want to be like, if it’s a one star or a five star, I wanna be able to read it and absorb it and react logically if there needs to be a reaction or let it hit me emotionally.

And so I take the time to carve out whatever it is, like 30 minutes and I’m gonna block this in case I need to just absorb it. But then I always take that time to then email. If it’s a current member, I’ll email them and say ‘Thank you so much for taking the time and to write this review that you feel it would, is helpful to us, and also helpful to the next person that could come in and could be training right next to you and have them look over at you and be like I’m here because that review you wrote was awesome. And that took away the gym intimidation in order for me to actually make the progress to actually do something and get a get out of what I was in, in order to get into something new or what have you.

So reviews mean a lot to me, and honestly, I am very right to the heart with them.

EMILY: Responding to reviews is so powerful. Not only does it deepen the relationship with the customer who shared their experience, but it also creates trust with future customers who are reading your online reviews.

STEVEN: I was very inspired to write a review, to be able to share, like, ‘other people need to have this experience.’ So that was how I got on it to leave a review and let’s see, to the reason for writing it the way I did, I know that I felt intimidated. I want anyone to be going to a gym and I know everyone else feels that way or many people who are starting a gym don’t because that’s the case. So I just felt compelled to let people know that if you go to this gym, that is not gonna be a problem. You’ll feel very invited. It’s warm and welcoming and so I had to go over my experience and then also how to do it, how easy it was to just go on the website and click the orientation class and get started.

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