Stories of Hope Part II: Going Broke While Going For Broke… Twice
This is part II of a two-part post, discussing lessons, failures, and setbacks experienced throughout the past 20 years by our Cut founders. If you haven’t read part I, do so here.
2016–2018: Building Cut Seven
If they don’t know your dreams, then they can’t shoot ‘em down — J.Cole
People tell you that starting a business from scratch is hard, but no one can truly articulate just how difficult it really is.
Alex and I decided to tell our plans of opening a gym to only a select few. We emptied our savings and retirement accounts and soon after, surprise! we found out Alex was pregnant. The risks were huge—and we felt the strain immediately. Within a single year, we went from collectively pulling in over $250,000 from full-time jobs and moonlighting as personal trainers, to barely making enough money to live on.
The day before Thanksgiving of 2016 our general contractors told us they were waiting for the SBA to pay them out before they could complete the buildout. It was a holiday and the SBA wouldn’t be able to verify the completed work for payment for at least a week or two. Construction was already delayed, we knew delaying construction any further would mean owing rent before opening the studio – so we opened a pop-up in a vacant furniture store, charging $15 a class and only $149/membership.Pregnant Alex and I taught every morning, every night, and every weekend class until we made enough.
It was extremely hard to open the business, and like a “famous last words” mantra, we kept saying that all we need to do is get open and the rest will take care of itself. Classic naivety.
Unfortunately, our story isn’t a book or a movie—failure is real, possible, and oftentimes right around the corner. But it’s also a mindset. What the outside world may view as failure, could be an incredible opportunity in disguise.
2017: When I thought opening a business was the hardest thing I would ever do
We got lucky. We made enough money to finish(ish) right before we got kicked out of the furniture store for making too much noise. We opened Cut Seven January 17th, 2017; far from the fields, rec centers, and apartment gyms where we honed our craft. Little did we know opening was the easy part.
The start was slow—we had no idea what we were doing. We had a staff we couldn’t pay, luckily I was still a full-time accountant and we often used my salary to make payroll. During the first month of our opening, Alex and I operated without necessary permits and were issued a cease and desist by another fitness company. Each morning, I walked to the studio half-expecting to see chains around the doors, mentally scheming how to break into my own gym. I started living by the mantra, “I get to do this today. I’ll worry about tomorrow then.”
I taught classes in the morning, went straight to my 9-5, then taught again at night—all while Alex battled through all-day morning sickness for her first two trimesters. I couldn’t quit my job because it was our lifeline, and with a baby on the way we couldn’t afford to pay for independent health insurance.
At the time, this was easily the hardest thing we had ever endured in our lives. In June 2017 we had our daughter and our business was far from a financial success—but we had a solid team around us. By October 2018, I was able to quit my 9-5.
2020: Closing the doors we fought to open
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.—Mike Tyson
If the pandemic hasn’t kicked the shit out of you in some form or fashion, then consider yourself one of the luckiest people alive.
Since the start of the pandemic, threats to close our business and dismantle our team had become commonplace.
We reacted, pivoted, dodged punches, and fought tooth and nail to keep our business alive. We felt (and feel) a responsibility to stay open, as we became our teammates’ only outlet in an otherwise reclusive life. Plus, we reminded ourselves that many had it far worse than us.
Of all the frustrations and setbacks, here’s what hurt the most in that moment: Rewind to March of 2020, when the pandemic hit and we decided to close our doors, we were a week away from signing a lease on our second location.
Instead, the money saved for our security deposit went to paying our coaches. We asked them to make online workouts and demo videos that could be posted to Instagram, paying their average class rates in exchange for content. At the time, we (and everyone around us) thought the pandemic would last two weeks.
Which, as you know, it did not.
So, we got creative. We launched a fitness streaming service called Cut Seven Play and coached classes over Zoom. (God, bless our athletes who kept their membership going and suffered through Zoom workouts with us. P.S., Lord, take me now if I ever have to coach a Zoom workout again. Amen🙏🏾🙏🏾.)
We were lucky enough to get a grant from lululemon, and once we were allowed outside we hit the ground running. Over the summer of 2020, for the second time in a five-year span, we emptied our life savings and retirement account to open Cut Seven on 14th Street.
Side note: Remember earlier when I said that failures are often opportunities in disguise? In a round-about, slightly-traumatic, fucked up way, we did accomplish our goal of opening that second studio. During a global pandemic.
2021–Present: Keeping the business (and the team) alive
Overcome any bitterness that may come because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain that was intrusted to you. – sufi Proverb
The first two weeks of denial during the pandemic were followed by three months of sheer depression. Our landlord threatened litigation over past due rent. I had tough conversations, many that were not handled well, with people—even employees—I love and care about. We felt the aftermath of turnover. Every time I turned around, I was faced with yet another piece of evidence pointing to my failure as a leader.
Cut Seven has, and always will be, a “team first” gym. But that credo became increasingly difficult to live by as at-home orders and mask mandates made it impossible for us to physically gather together. Our coaches and captains worked (and continue to work) their asses off at Cut, taking each change in stride. Every task—setup, demos, check-ins, you name it—took double the effort that it did pre-pandemic. With 100% of our physical and mental energy dedicated to simply keeping the business alive, we had zero reserves left for team connections—and bridges were burned in the background.
Nothing felt like a win. It still doesn’t. It feels like the longest sudden death overtime, where no team scores because playing offense feels too risky. When one thing goes right, there are three other things in the background going terribly wrong.
And yet, I never wanted to throw in the towel—it’s not in my nature. I still want to get better and do better, and believe a year of failure is a year of opportunities to grow and learn from.
The past 20 years were filled with tough shit—and I’m grateful for all of it
None of us expected the pandemic to last three years and counting. I know you’re exhausted, fed up, and perhaps a little angry. Since March of 2020, there have been several occasions where I thought, “This can’t possibly get worse,” only to prove me wrong.
And you know what? In some twisted way I haven’t quite come to understand, those times made me increasingly grateful for what I have.
Twenty years ago, I thought the end of my football career (mentioned in Part I) was the worst thing that would ever happen to me. Now, I can’t tell you how fucking lucky I am that it ended when it did. Five years ago, when Alex and I spent our life savings on a business that never seemed to open, I thought things couldn’t possibly get any harder. When we were forced to close our doors to that very business just three years later, I was in for a rude awakening for just how difficult things could get.
Life is filled with tough shit. But the hardest shit we go through isn’t what breaks us—that is what makes us. While memories from the past twenty years were painful to write at best, I can’t say I regret or would take back any of it. Instead, each of those times, and the lessons they taught, better prepared me for what came next—and I’m grateful for all of it.
Team, I can’t predict the next few years nor can I promise things will get better—but I can say we’ll be better prepared for it.
Pro Tip: Surround yourself with a bunch of people who don’t accept the status quo. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with coaches, captains, and athletes who, no matter the circumstances, expect effort from those around them. These are the people who applaud failure when it comes with maximum capacity. I am forever grateful for this team, not only for fostering a space where highs and the lows are accepted, but also for creating a safe environment for a weakness to become a strength and a fail to ultimately become a win.