Gymbox’s irreverent founder built a brand out of making fitness fun

GYMBOX founder Richard Hilton stumbled upon the idea for his company as a skinny 19-year-old living in New York and working in advertising, as we found out at a recent Leap 100 roundtable.

He wanted to bulk up. “The Americans were having a lot more success with women than I was because they were all huge,” he explained. He signed up to a gym, but was uninspired and lost enthusiasm after three months. Then he came across Crunch. “It was an insane environment”, says Hilton. Graffiti replaced the usual white walls and live DJs played every evening. One week I was doing boxing with a class taught by Muhammad Ali’s trainer, the next week it was taught by a drag queen who just happened to be a great boxer.”

Crunch went on to hit a $100m valuation in 1997, when the founder sold out. When Hilton returned to the UK, he spotted a similar gap in the market. But he didn’t want to franchise Crunch, believing it was very American. To quote Steve Jobs: “good artists copy; great artists steal”. What made Gymbox a success was its uniquely British brand. With no experience running gyms – or businesses for that matter – nobody would give Hilton a penny to start the company. But he had a “massive piece of luck”. An intro to Fitness First resulted in £2m and support on the logistics of the gym.

“Thank God they did, because if I’d done it on my own, we wouldn’t have lasted six months,” says Hilton. He was able to focus on the vision, interior design and marketing. “At the time in the 1990s the average gym advert was a thin person who used to be very, very fat with a pair of their old trousers, saying ‘I lost three stone in three minutes’. I hated it.” The adverts for Gymbox were done through flyposting. “It was illegal then; it’s even more illegal now,” says Hilton. The first was made up of the following words in boxes connected by arrows: office affair, need shower, Gymbox, home sweet home. Next came a sign near local gyms stating “better gym this way”, with footprints leading to Gymbox. “We weren’t popular, but it had the right effect. Within the first six months of launching, there was more press on Gymbox than the six major operators combined – we were one tiny gym in London.

The membership followed as well. We were at two and a half thousand members in the first year.” Hilton bought back the stake he sold to Fitness First, then he scaled the business further by selling out to private equity and buying back the business through management buyouts a number of times. “If you create a great brand, you can’t sit still. You’ve got to harness the power of the brand.” But in 2014 he decided to sell with a view to not buying it back. “I realised I was the one who was going to hold the brand back if I didn’t step aside,” Hilton says. “I was becoming very protectionist,” he admits, as he became concerned with the risk to his own net worth.

He still owns 20 per cent of the business, and works at Gymbox one day per week, but he is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the brand. Hilton knows how to tell a good story, but it’s not guff and it’s self-deprecating. The brand is quirky and irreverent – because that’s exactly what Hilton is. Perhaps the best lessons for entrepreneurs looking to build a brand as successful as Gymbox is a surprising one given the founder’s background in advertising and marketing: be honest.

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