Forrest Walden is CEO/Founder of Irontribe Fitness (www.irontribefitness.com). Irontribe began in Walden’s garage in 2008 and since has grown to 60 locations being developed in 15 states, making the company one of the fastest growing fitness companies in the nation.
David Lamb: “The Blueprint Podcast,” with David Lamb. Real life, real‑time stories of how great businesses grow from the drawing board to the real world. What do you do when you’re making more money than you’ve ever made in your life but your gut tells you it’s time for a drastic change?
Hello and welcome in The Blueprint Podcast. I’m David Lamb. That’s exactly where today’s guest found himself. Forrest Walden is CEO and founder of Iron Tribe Fitness, a thriving business that was all a part of a mulligan that began in his garage and is now busting at the seams.
We caught up with Forrest at the home office in downtown Birmingham. Here with Forest Walden, CEO and founder of Iron Tribe Fitness, headquartered right here in Birmingham. Thank you for the time, sir.
Forrest Walden: Yeah. Glad to be on.
David: Now the stats I’ve got on you, feel free to update because things change. Iron Tribe now in 40 cities and 15 states.
Forrest: That’s correct.
David: That’s correct. For those who may not know, from the guy who founded the company, what is Iron Tribe Fitness? Describe it for us.
Forrest: We are a group personal training business, and the way we describe ourselves is we’re fun, fast, and fit.
Fun, every time you come in you’re going to be in a group, you’re going to have a great experience, great workout. It’s fast, 45 minutes in and out. We say, “Give us 3 days a week, 45 minutes, we’ll get you in the best shape of your life,” and fit, we want to get guaranteed results.
David: Is this the perfect merging of a passion with a business model, and by that I mean you hear the saying, “Do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Is this true of you?
Forrest: It is for me because I’m honestly an accidental entrepreneur. I was not the guy who grew up dreaming about opening my own business. I did not study business in school. I was a workout fanatic.
Really out of necessity, because I was the weakest, and the slowest guy on the football team, and if I ever wanted to see the field I had to hit the gym hard. I avoided it as long as I could, and finally embraced the fact that I had to live in the weight room to compete.
David: Was there ever a conscience decision on your part…I’ve spoken with some friends of yours, and one of the things that they have all said, a common theme, is that you really are passionate about health, fitness, and working out. This is really a passion of yours.
On your behalf, was it ever a conscience decision to try to make money helping people get healthy, or did it just happen organically?
Forrest: When I was at Auburn in the late ’90s, personal training did not exist. None of my teachers honestly could ever tell me how to monetize my degree. I was studying exercise science because I didn’t know what else to study. I loved working out.
They would say things like, “Go do hospital wellness or cardiac rehab,” and those sounded so boring to me. I was competing in natural bodybuilding shows at the time, and I was in really good shape, so people would just ask me, “Hey man, how do you get abs? How to build your arms?”
I just started helping people in the gym, not even getting paid. I just stumbled into it and lo and behold the industry was unfolding in front of me. Personal training was really coming on the scene about the time I was getting out of school.
David: Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, talks about how he only invests in businesses that he can understand. For your sake, and for the folks out there with a dream and trying to figure out their place as an entrepreneur and a small business owner, what’s the benefit of working in your passion, in something that you really absolutely love it?
Forrest: Well, for me it’s the fact that when the hard times come, and they will, when the long hours are staring you in the face, when you’re delaying gratification longer than you ever thought you’d have to and you keep plowing those investments back into growing the business, to me, the passion for what we do, and for us it’s changing lives through fitness.
It’s not just fitness, it’s seeing people embrace it and change their lives.
That’s what fuels you during the tough times. Even where we’re sitting right now, this is my corporate office but it’s connected to a gym. All day, every day, I’m hearing weights drop next door, I’m seeing people run by my windows.
Sometimes I just have to push away from my desk. I didn’t think I’d be building pro formas and talking to brokers, and all this type of stuff that I do. Sometimes I just need to walk across the hall, go into the gym and talk to my customers. We did that on purpose, for that very reason.
David: Before you formed Iron Tribe, you had great success with another company fitness franchise. Tell us about that as much as you want to, can, and what you learned there and how it helped shaped you as a leader.
Forrest: I was an independent personal trainer, young, out of school, 23 years old, was doing really well for myself.
David: 23 is when you started that?
David: Dude, you were right out of school.
Forrest: Right out of school. I read a book called, “Rich Dad Poor Dad,” and I realized I’m trading time for money, and there’s no scale in what I’m doing. I was newly married and I was never seeing my wife because personal trainers notoriously work when everybody else isn’t, which is early mornings and late nights.
I thought, “What can I do to create scale?” I stumbled across an ad for Fitness Together, which was a franchise personal training business, didn’t even know there was franchising. Flew out to Colorado, loved what I saw, bought it, opened the first one June of ’01.
That’s really where my life changed because even opening that business I had no vision other than me being the product. It was just going to be me doing the training in my own business.
Well, the CEO and founder of Fitness Together put the book, “The E‑Myth,” in my hand by Michael Gerber and it rocked my world. I thought, “Oh my goodness, there’s all these things I don’t know how to do.”
Actually, knowing how to do the work in my business is a liability because I will default to it, and I won’t learn marketing, accounting, and all these leadership.
I replaced myself on the floor and started diving into business. The greatest surprise of my life is how much fun business was. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I get to do all these great stuff and be in the business that I’m passionate about.” It was just a perfect marriage.
Long story short, grew that to 55 locations in three states, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina. Sold it all back January of 2010. Opened Iron Tribe February of 2010. Literally the next month, so ultimately I just sold it back to my franchise company. They waved my no compete and I started over.
David: I’ve been doing some research on you the last couple of days, and I’ve seen some other interviews and read some stuff. You, in talking about…Before you started Iron Tribe, that you talked about discontent, and how unhappy you were just internally, if you will.
Why did…because you had great success from what I understand. In terms of financially it appears as though you were successful, but internally you were unhappy and discontent. What led to that discontent you think?
Forrest: I was traveling more than I had ever expected to be traveling. We had three kids at the time, we’re adding the fourth. I didn’t like being away from my family, number one. Number two, I sold my locations that I owned and operated here in Birmingham, and so I wasn’t in the business anymore.
I was supporting all these businesses from a centralized office, and I miss the interaction with my customers. I miss seeing people literally changing their lives through fitness. Thirdly, the industry had changed. Fitness Together was one‑on‑one personal training, and the industry was starting to move more towards a group model.
I really wanted to capture that because I thought it got better results for our clients. Those three things really led me to say, “You know, I accomplish what I thought I wanted which was pretty much passive income, but I’m a little bored, and I’m a little apathetic to what we’re doing. I want to start over.”
David: Again, in an interview that I heard, you use the phrase of that decision. You use this phrase that you really had to start over. It sounded like you didn’t have a choice not in terms of an external pressure, but it’s something you had to do.
Walk us through that feeling, because here’s why I’m stalling right here, because I think that jumping off point is crucial. It’s a precipice, there so much pressure that comes with it and how to make that decision.
You clearly got it right. Look at the success of Iron Tribe, but take us back to then and how you came to that decision, and why you really felt like you had no other choice but to start over.
Forrest: I think it was my first experience losing my passion, and I didn’t even recognize myself. I was not eager to get up in the morning. I wasn’t excited to go to my desk, even my wife would say, “You don’t seem the same.”
It took me a while to process it because I thought, “Well, I’ve accomplished what I wanted, and look at this stuff and all the growth and I’m still in an industry that I love.” But ultimately, I wasn’t fulfilled and it took me a while to put my finger on what it was, and I wasn’t excited about what we’re doing, the model we were growing anymore, and I thought there was a better way.
And just started dreaming about what it would look like to start over. Then that was an enormous decision because it meant taking on debt again, getting back on leases. I mean there’s one conversation in particular with my wife, and I was bitching and moaning, “Oh, this is what I want to do.” And she just said, “Do it. You know you’re not the same person. You need to go do this.”
That was the final answer when she bought in and said, “Go do it.”
David: Have you always been surrounded by a pretty good group of mentors or people you can bounce some ideas off of and can speak into your life, into your dreams?
Forrest: Yeah, I do always have an accountability partner that I meet with that today actually, but my ultimate mentor has been my stepdad. He’s the CEO of Express Oil Change, which is a 300 unit franchise brand.
I mean what a mentor to have. He has direct experience in this industry, and he is just a godly man, runs his business backed Christian principles, and has been a huge influence.
David: Yeah, Ricky Brooks.
Forrest: That’s right.
David: Great guy. After that, you actually started in your backyard?
Forrest: In my garage, yes.
David: After you did all that, at that point were you thinking business‑wise and how to scale this?
Forrest: Not at all.
David: What were you thinking when you said, “Let’s just work out in my garage.”
Forrest: I want a place to work out with my friends, and not at Gold’s Gym. There was no gym that I wanted to be a member of in Birmingham that I felt would accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.
This was at the heyday of Fitness Together, traveling all over the country. I would come home, and when I was in town, me and my friends would work out hard in my garage.
Naturally, when I started seeing the magic of group versus one‑on‑one training, that’s where the dream started.
David: Another phrase that you use I thought was intriguing, that you really built the fitness facility in Iron Tribe that you wanted to work out in. In essence, were you your first customer? First client, I guess? [laughs]
David: In terms of understanding the business, and where you excel, and where it might work. Does that work as a model to use yourself? Something that works for you, so that you understand it?
Forrest: There’s a double answer. Yes, I think it can work. It did initially, but what we realized over time is I am not our avatar. I’m in good shape. I am an aggressive athlete. I push it really hard. I want really hard workouts. Really, who we’re serving is mainstream America. We’re serving the 35 to 60‑year old affluent male and female who values their time, and values accountability.
They don’t necessarily look, and sound, and have the same preferences as me. When we really identified and dove in through focus groups and research of who is our customer, we started to make different decisions versus me as the primary customer.
David: I’m assuming that was further down the line.
Forrest: It was.
David: Let me ask you, just a double back real quick. When did you know you were ready to move from the garage? You had something, and from then, moved to a storefront or where you all moved to an actual facility?
Forrest: Once I made the decision to do it ‑‑ which was probably August of ’09 ‑‑ I knew I had to have a prototype. I had to show that it had a model that could work. Then I wanted to scale it multiple times ‑‑ which we’ve done here in Birmingham ‑‑ and I wanted to franchise it. From the beginning, I was building a model to franchise.
Real quickly, we got that first one open. We opened one almost every six to eight months after that, until we had six open. We had it franchised within two‑and‑a‑half years.
David: You did not waste any time.
Forrest: No. I was so busy, early days.
David: [laughs] I’ll bet.
Forrest: It was fun, though.
David: Why the franchise model versus chains or something else? Was it because of Fitness Together? That’s what you were familiar with?
Forrest: It’s a great question, and one I thought a lot about. I had a background in it. My stepdad, who’s been my investor from day one, obviously has an extensive background in it. We just looked at the ability to scale. We thought we had a model that lent itself to scaling and franchising.
The real question was, should we just grow corporate stores, or should we franchise? Ultimately, it felt like franchising was just a good growth opportunity. Growth model for this business.
David: Are you an advocate for franchising?
David: What I’m asking is, are you an evangelist for the abilities of that? Even now, because franchising was super in style, then it wasn’t. Now it’s back.
Forrest: I don’t think most people realize how much of our economy is driven by franchising. You go to any strip mall, and I guarantee you 60 to 70 percent of the businesses in that strip mall are franchised. The reasons are, the averages of a small business making it are pathetic. Not that it can’t be done, but less than 20 percent make it past five years.
The franchising model, it’s more like 60 or 70 percent. It’s because you give all the tools, and systems, and branding, and stuff that takes a lot of time in the beginning to create. You hand it to someone who can execute from day one. It’s a game changer.
David: Found this quote…Love this quote from an article in the “Birmingham Business Journal.” You said, “You have to have a big enough vision to get people excited enough to join you. Then you have to hire the vision, train to that vision, and let go as the entrepreneur to let the business grow. As we’ve gotten bigger, I’ve had to let go of more and more things.”
How do you decide what is your decision to make, and what’s something you need to let go off?
Forrest: It’s a great question. That all started…I heard a very successful CEO that I have studied under say, “The things that you did to get your business to three million are not the same things that you’ll need to do to get it to 10 million.” That ultimately became a question of, what are those things? What do I need to stop doing, and what do I need to start doing?
Vision is huge. One of those. Hiring, attracting, recruiting the right people. Then spending more time developing and delegating to those people, versus doing it yourself, which is a temptation of any founder CEO typically, who wants to get stuff done. It’s just been a release.
It’s an ebb and flow on different stages of, what should I be touching, and what should I not be touching? Then having people who can fulfill around you. If you don’t have people who can fulfill, you will inevitably always go back to doing it yourself.
David: Has it been more difficult to find interoffice personnel that’s a part of your inner workings team ‑‑ the right fits there ‑‑ or has it been more difficult to find the right fits in terms of the franchisees? What’s the more difficult?
Forrest: Probably the franchisee. We grew so quickly in the beginning predominantly through customers. Typically, a client here in Birmingham who had had a great brand experience, and who had usually owned their own business, and wanted to take our model somewhere to another city.
What we’ve learned is, that’s not always our best avatar if they’re not going to be working in the business every day. We’re really an owner‑operator model, so it’s taken us a little bit to figure out who is our best franchisee. But we know that now. We know exactly what that looks like.
David: One of the things that you all do that is incredibly impressive…I mean, your growth is incredibly impressive. But also, you all have given away ‑‑ and yearly, give away ‑‑ a lot of money to…I’m not completely clear, but it seems as though there are a couple of charity or philanthropic endeavors.
First of all, what is that? I heard some number like $500,000, or some crazy number like that. What do you all do, and why do you do that?
Forrest: Great question. I was a co‑founder of a non‑profit ministry called Neverthirst. We put in clean water solutions around the world. There was a point in my life where I thought I was going to do that full‑time, and ultimately felt no, I’m definitely led to start a business. But I want to connect those two.
I’ve been around the world. I’ve seen kids dying of diarrhea. I’ve seen what happens when someone doesn’t have clean water. Through the relationship with Neverthirst, Iron Tribe created a workout called Workout For Water.
Once a year, we gather and do a workout at all of our locations. All the funds raised go to Neverthirst. In the last seven years, we’re at $2.3 million raised. We have served over 75,000 people with clean water. That’s all done to the local church, and it platforms the gospel which is something we believe in. It’s actually one of our core values.
We say, “We connect God’s blessing with God’s purposes.” We feel like owning this successful business, living in America, all of the resources and the relationships we’re blessed with, we feel like we’re compelled to give to others.
That’s one way we do it. We also partner with Lifeline, which is an adoption agency here. I have an adopted son. That’s something close to my heart, and sponsor them. Just always looking for ways to impact others.
David: How does that impact your businesses, and also the franchises and the franchisees? What is the effect and the impact of those, that giving and that charitable aspect of what you’ll do? What impact do you see in your people?
Forrest: I think it starts with…We have awesome customers. They resonate with our values. That’s why they’re here. That’s why they’ve stayed. They really appreciate being a part of something bigger.
Some of the things I’ve…One, I’ve been able to take them overseas to actually see the wells. I’ve taken the franchisee stuff, and customers. Kevin [inaudible 19:17] was one of them.
David: That’s a cool trip.
Forrest: What I’ll hear after the events, and variably is…I knew there was a need. I didn’t have an outlet to give. I just enjoyed being a part of something bigger than myself. Then they just resonate with a business that wants to give back.
David: I don’t want to get bogged down here, but it’s interesting to me the way you all chose to do that. Often times, if folks are told to do things…They’re from a marketing standpoint. It looks fantastic and all of that, those motivations.
For you as you talk, your eyes light up. This is a passion of yours. For the business owner that says, “I don’t know that I have the time to do that. I’ll just do that personally.” What do you think they’re robbing from their fellow employees, their team, their culture by not gathering around the calls like that?
Forrest: I think it’s completely inspiring to help others who have no possible ability to pay you back. What a lot of people miss is the connection between, “I gave,” and then seeing the result.
We’ve been so focused on showing the result, not only to our clients, but to our stuff and our franchisees that just the eye‑opening experience of, “Man. What can I accomplish, not only through Iron Tribe, but in my own person life?”
For me, it’s almost the opposite. I feel the light that shines the fore, that shines the brightest at home. You do the stuff over here, and then your eyes are open. There’s need to try it around this, “What can we do locally?”
David: It’s awesome what you do. Congratulations on…That’s just amazing. Shifting gears, dramatically here. [laughs] I’m out of transition for giving away a couple of million dollars to this.
Another thing that’s interesting about you all, limiting each location to 300. How did you arrive at that number? Initially, what was the reaction from your team as an adviser as you say, “We’re going to limit our growth.”
Forrest: We knew we’re going to create a premium product. We wanted to create the anti‑gym. The gym model is, “Get as many people to come as possible, and hope they don’t show up.” We’re the opposite. If you don’t show up, then we’re…
David: [laughs] You just let out a secret that we’ve all thought for years.
Forrest: It’s true.
David: Pay on January 1st, right?
Forrest: That’s right. Ultimately, we want to create a personal training environment in a group setting. In order to do that, we got to know your name, we got to know your goals.
We played with that number. Initially, it was 200. We just play with it. What is the number where we lose that connection with our members? 300 is where it just didn’t feel as personal anymore. 300 is still a very profitable model. That’s where we should go.
David: Who came up with the name Iron Tribe?
Forrest: I did.
David: That’s you?
David: Did it come to you in the shower? How did that happen? [laughs]
Forrest: A couple of reasons. I just blogged about this recently. I had two really good friends in college. We’re workout partners. We call ourselves the Iron Triangle. I always came back to that.
Then when we were on my garage, people were calling it the Cult, in my backyard. I’m like, “It’s not a cult, but it is this tight group. That’s it.”
What’s a positive word for cult? Ultimately, I came with tribe, and then Iron Tribe, because Birmingham is the Iron City. It just all worked.
David: Have you read, “Tribe,” by [inaudible 22:40] ?
Forrest: I have, multiple times. It’s a great book.
David: Then you follow up some of that?
Forrest: Yeah, there is weight on you to step up and lead, right, premise of the book.
David: That’s it. What does it take to build a tribe? By that, I mean a loyal, passionate…You used the word, but even I describing you all…Cult is a negative word.
If you talk to folks who are into Iron Tribe, do they or drink in the cool lame? There is a repassion. How do you build that? How do you build customers like that?
Forrest: Again, it starts with the vision. It’s starts with hiring and training, and measuring against the values and the mission of the business.
People are everything. We’re not serving a cup of coffee. We’re not serving a product. My product is my staff that they encounter every day in the workout floor. If those guys don’t ooze or purpose our values and our mission, the customer is never going to get it.
There’ll never be that exchange and resonance of what we’re trying to do. It’s all people.
David: I heard about a crazy road trip, and I don’t know how often you do this, where you visited 30 locations, lead 30 workouts, and lead 30 meetings with leadership. Is that a regular thing, or a onetime thing? What’s the story here?
Forrest: That was a onetime thing. It emanated from just the feeling and the fear of being on an ivory tower and being disconnected with what’s going on in the brands.
Built a road trip to go visit 30 stores. I did half. My president did a half. We did it in about a three‑week span. Actually, he said, “We’re gonna get on the floor and coach classes and interact with our customers, and just make sure we got a heartbeat on what’s going on across the land.”
David: How fun was that?
Forrest: It was fun. It was eye opening. One of the demographics in Midtown Atlanta don’t look like home with Alabama. I remember a coach in that class looking around going, “I forget that we serve a very diverse demographic that’s not always…It’s homogeneous, is 280, or homely.”
That was eye opening. It was fun. It was great to hear the stories of impact. Ultimately, it helped us make a lot of good decisions about some of the things we are pursuing.
David: You’ve built an incredible business. What do you think is your superpower? What is Forrest Walden really good at?
Also, part two of that question is, what are your weaknesses and things that you have intentionally tried to mitigate the negative effects unless you’ve built this here on Iron Tribe?
Forrest: It’s a good question. It’s one of…Spend time thinking about…I went through a course called strategic coach. They challenge you to identify your unique ability. My God, I don’t know what my unique ability is.
You have to email people and say, “What do you see me doing that I’m good at, and that I enjoy?” I did that exercise to 10 different people. They all came back and said, “You’re great at creating a vision, and communicating that effectively.” Then you surround yourself with great people.
I really think that’s what it is. I’m not super talented in any one thing. I’m not great at tech, I’m not great…There’s just nothing you could say that I excel at. Except that I do have the ability to know where we’re going and where we want to be, and then putting the right seats around me.
Where I’m weak is a lot of times in the detail to execute against the vision. I have to have people who can…I have a girl on my office who says, “Force [inaudible 26:12] the walls, and I feel in the corners.”
I just want to put it out that this is where we’re going. I need these people to execute around me.
David: Was it difficult and painful to realize your weaknesses? You weren’t good at everything, and you got to find folks to pick at maybe where you’re not as strong?
Forrest: I think it’s the funnest part, because to me it’s business as a team spot. Some of my favorite days or my offsite, leaving with my leadership team where we’re getting down and dirty of what we’re going to execute, how we’re going to share this love.
I just can’t imagine being a solo entrepreneur for long, and trying to do it all myself. I love doing it with the team.
David: At one point, I heard that a goal by 2017, the goal for Iron Tribe was 100 locations serving 15,000 athletes by the end of this year. On target for that?
Forrest: We’re not on target. We launched that at the end of ’14, and we he came back and modified it. What we realized is…The goal was ‑‑ we call them athletes ‑‑ how many customers athletes are we serving at the end of the day?
We’re on target for our athlete number with less locations, which actually means healthier stores. In a way, we are on target.
David: You and I have a couple of mutual friends. I picked their brains a bit about you before our conversation. Some of the words that consistently came up, relentless, a reader.
You’ve already mentioned three or four books. That one was on target, smart, and hungry. You don’t have to tell me if you think you’re smart.
David: I won’t make you do that.
Forrest: I want to.
David: Relentless and hungry, is that something you are pretty good?
Forrest: Yeah, absolutely, there’s a fire that burns. I just want to be excellent. I want to create something that serves people, and provides opportunity for the team around me. If I’m not doing that, if I’m not thinking about what’s next and where we’re going, nobody is. That drives me.
David: What’s next? What’s next for you, and what’s next for Iron Tribe? As you look ahead, where are you guys headed?
Forrest: We had taken a little pause from franchising aggressively as new sales. We opened seven last year. We opened four this year. We’re really retooling the model and making sure our economics are super strong. They were going to franchise aggressively, and hit that 100 goal.
David: Well, you are a proud member of the Birmingham Business Community. We’re pulling for you. You’re generous with your time with us, and I know with a lot of other folks. Thank you for that. Thank you for what you’re doing with Iron Tribe.
Forrest: Absolutely, thanks for having me on.
David: Forrest is an incredible guy and businessman. I believe that it really came through in our conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Hey, we’d love to have your feedback. You can check us out at blueprintpod.com. On Facebook, The Blueprint Podcast. On Twitter, you can find us @theblueprintPOD.
Find us there on Twitter. Hey, thanks for the time. We’ll look for you next time right here on The Blueprint Podcast.