At what she thought was the height of her career, Ellen Latham suddenly lost her dream job of managing a high-end fitness spa—an event that left the single mom devastated and with a “horrifying feeling in the pit of my stomach,” she recalls. The life-changing event could have been catastrophic, but instead Latham transformed it into an opportunity, starting a home Pilates studio that would eventually evolve into the popular fitness franchise Orangetheory.
Latham had experienced significant success with her fitness career before she was let go from her job. She’d earned a master’s degree in exercise physiology, taught group exercise classes at some of Florida’s most prestigious spas and was a fitness expert on TV. But she’d always worked for others. Losing her job opened up the possibility of a different path.
“I try to look at the positive side of every situation,” she says. “It was the perfect opportunity to take all that I had learned, hang up my shingle and build something new.”
Latham eventually moved her business out of her spare bedroom into a bigger studio space, and in 2008 developed the workout that would become the foundation of Orangetheory Fitness. Today, the fitness studio franchise has 1,300 locations and more than 1 million members, and is one of the fastest-growing women-owned businesses in the country.
Building on what works—and what didn’t
As Latham’s first studio took off, she began to hear feedback from members who wanted a more vigorous workout in addition to the strength and toning they got from Pilates. “They were saying ‘We love what you do with group fitness, but we want to burn more fat,’” she says. This request formed the seed of what would blossom into a billion-dollar global business, comprised mostly of women members and many husband-and-wife franchise teams. It also reinforced a business lesson that Latham has come back to again and again—the importance of listening to what customers want.
Latham leaned on her scientific background and group exercise experience to create a new kind of workout that met her customers’ needs. Of course, she considered what her gym members loved, but she also explored what made group exercise classes fail. “As a business owner, it’s important to look at what isn’t working, and I saw a lot of things that didn’t work in group fitness,” she says. For instance, classes were rarely designed for people of various fitness levels. And, many relied on fitness fads that promised significant results but weren’t rooted in science.
Latham envisioned something better. Orangetheory combines treadmill running and power walking with rowing and weight training for a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout. Class participants move through color-coded heart rate zones, aiming to spend 12 minutes in the “orange” zone—working at 84% or more of their maximum heart rate. That’s where the metabolic magic happens, spurring a calorie burn that lasts after the workout ends.
She launched Orangetheory in 2010, just as consumers were beginning to shift from big-box gyms to studios that specialize in specific types of workouts, from indoor cycling to HIIT to yoga. For example, membership at boutique studios grew 121% from 2013 to 2017 compared with 15% at traditional gyms, according to Fitt Insider. Despite price tags that tend to be higher than full-service gyms, people have flocked to studios like Orangetheory. Such studios also have higher member retention rates. The Association of Fitness Studios reports that boutique studios have better member retention than traditional health clubs, 76% to 71%, respectively.
The community that forms at many boutique studios likely plays a big role. At Orangetheory, Latham says the fact that everyone is doing the same workout helps members bond. Creating a workout and environment that’s open to people of all fitness levels has also been important. “I get thousands of emails from members who say things like, ‘I was always picked last in kickball in elementary school and now I am an Orangetheory athlete.’ Studios have raised money for members who lost homes in a fire ... one woman donated a kidney to another member who was in her class—I mean, you talk about something that’s more than a workout!’”
Mentors and “momentum shift”
Building a company can be a roller coaster of success, failure and everything in between. Latham had early wins, but she also faced challenges. Ironically, one issue was the name, which was unique, but not descriptive. “We had people coming in thinking we were Orange Julius,” she laughs.
To get through the tough times, she relied on the wise advice of her father, a beloved football coach and phys ed teacher in the small town where Latham grew up. “He didn’t so much parent us, he coached us,” she says. The concept of “momentum shifting” was key to his philosophy. In football, that meant reminding a losing team to focus on what they’re good at, instead of on the negative. Latham applied the same theory to her business and life, focusing on what she has—and using that momentum to keep moving forward.
In the early days of her business, Latham says she lacked the confidence she has now. She questioned her decisions and allowed setbacks to throw her off course.
“There weren’t a lot of female business mentors; most of the gym owners were men,” Latham says. “Luckily, I had some male mentors who were very positive and gave me great feedback.”
In addition to the mentorship, she says that simply recognizing her success as it happened gave her the confidence to persevere. “Seeing all of these women come to my studio and find success allowed me to acknowledge that I really did know what I was doing.”
Latham considers herself a lifelong learner, and she advises other women entrepreneurs to be so as well. Her commitment to constant improvement and her forward-looking, work-with-what-you’ve-got approach has been a critical part of her success. “My personal philosophy is that worrying about the future is not a productive use of brain cells,” she says. “I like to look at challenges as opportunities instead.”
To hear more from Ellen Latham and other women entrepreneurs like her, visit pnc.com/businesswebcasts. You can register for upcoming webcasts and hear past replays.
Become a home workout whiz
Whether you’re working from home or just looking to change up your workouts, you can stay healthy even without a gym or studio membership. Check out Latham’s tips for getting fit no matter where you are.
1. Create a habit. “Being behaviorally consistent is important,” Latham says, who works out every morning at 7:30. Plan to work out at the same time each day and stick to it. Doing so creates discipline and also a commitment to a healthy routine.
2. No gym equipment, no problem. Latham is a proponent of using what you’ve got on hand to workout. Soup cans, backpacks filled with books, or even a gallon milk container filled with water can all serve as weights in a pinch. You don’t need fancy equipment, just a little creativity.
3. Focus on functional exercises. There are two kinds of strength. Absolute strength is about being able to lift a set amount of weight; functional strength refers to your capability to do the things you enjoy. To enhance your functional strength, explore exercises that rely on your body weight. Activities such as pushups and burpees keep you fit and, more importantly, go a long way toward maintaining physical fitness as you age.
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