For Lisa and Allen and Trish Drennan, it took a dramatic life event to make them recognize it was time for a change in their personal and professional lives. For both, the death of a mutual friend was a wake-up call that brought them together to support each other in becoming healthy and strong and to make it their lives’ work to help others to do the same.
A graduate of the University of Delaware, Lisa Allen had had a long-term career in communications, representing various trade associations in D.C. The work was interesting – everything from issues management to crisis communications – but when she had her first child at age 31, she decided it was time to work for herself and “own” her time a bit more. For years after she hung her own PR shingle, she found herself being able to devote more time to working out, something that had played an important role in her life since graduating from college.
Allen remembers herself as a chubby kid, who put on even more weight in college. “I had an “a-ha” moment soon after I graduated and realized I needed to do something different. I started running a lot and lost the college weight and was actually pretty proud of the fact that I got and stayed fit. Ever since then, exercise has become a real passion of mine.”
But Allen never really intended to make a career out of her love of health and fitness until she met Trish Drennan.
Drennan also worked in the field of communications after an unexpected detour as an engineer. After graduating from Wittenberg University with a degree in international relations, she thought she would pursue a career on Capitol Hill. But when she found herself jobless between election cycles, a temporary job launched her into a new career as a wireless technology expert.
“I got placed at this technical engineering company, and it was at the time when wireless was really booming. It was a brand new trade so the company invested in training us. Within a year, I went from being a liberal arts girl to a wireless engineer trainee at George Washington University.”
Soon, Drennan was shipped off to Germany and found herself designing wireless networks for LCC International. She stayed there for almost five years but when the company decided to go public, they looked internally for people who understood good communications in addition to the technical side of the business. Drennan found herself tapping into those liberal arts skills in the sales and marketing department and later in investor relations.
In all, she spent nearly 22 years at LCC, eventually managing a team of 300 communications professionals around the world.
But with each promotion, the former college athlete found her commitment to fitness woefully waning.
“Once I started working, I went hard and heavy into my career. Unlike Lisa, I never had a weight problem until I had kids. By the time my third child was a year old, I was 45–50 pounds overweight. I was travelling internationally, juggling the needs of three kids and had a husband who also had a big job. It was a crazy time in my life and I was really soul-searching.’”
Although she was coaxed into contracting with the company to help them through another transition, Drennan, like Allen, decided to go out on her own. Now that she too owned her time, she started working out on a regular basis with her new friend.
In the Fall of 2009, for Drennan’s 40th birthday, the two decided to train for a marathon. With loads of time to chat during long training runs, the “what if” conversations intensified as the pair discussed how they might make a go of it in the fitness industry.
During that time, a friend who ran a local boot camp in Ashburn invited Allen and Drennan to help her run the boot camp a couple mornings a week. This was the opportunity they had been looking for – running an already established fitness class and seeing how it went. At this point, the two friends had become such health and fitness junkies that they not only ran marathons but also competed in triathalons and spent the rest of their spare time reading up on the latest health, nutrition, and fitness trends. Drennan had lost forty pounds and was feeling fabulous, and Allen was determined to continue to help other people meet their fitness goals.
So donning their marketing hats again, the pair branded their own boot camp, Motiv8Me, and launched a new program.
“My husband joked that I went from an expensive clothing habit to an expensive equipment habit,” said Drennan.
In March of 2010, they launched the business with eight clients, each of whom had to commit to an eight-week session. It was important to them that their customers follow through with their commitment to the program and their own personal goals. The closer they worked with their clients and researched what was out there, they more realized they had hit on an idea that added value in the fitness world. “As students in lots of fitness classes ourselves, we were really frustrated with the fact that you could be doing moves wrong to the point of hurting yourself, but no one would tell you because the group fitness instructor was incentivized to come in and teach, not to take care of the people.”
Allen and Drennan took their plan a step further and became certified fitness instructors, quickly realizing what they really wanted was not just a boot camp, but a full-service gym that was different from any of the other fitness offerings available. Something that would offer everything they had learned and believed was critical to a lifetime of fitness – high intensity interval training, core work, strength training, and yoga. On top of that, they wanted a gym that didn’t sell shakes or powders or any hint that weight could fall off easily with short cuts. “Although we are not certified nutritionists, we wanted a gym where we could talk with clients about the importance of long-term good nutrition habits, and where we would commit to them if they would commit to the program,” explains Drennan.
With those goals, the pair came up with a tagline that would be the centerpiece of their gym: Sweat. Nourish. Commit.
Again, the fitness junkies found themselves leaning on the skills they honed in their former lives to ensure their new venture was a success. “We really come into this industry from a very different perspective. Most people who want to open gyms are former trainers, but we take a business perspective. We wrote a business plan, we did a competitive analysis, we knew how much money we had to raise to make it work.”
They opted to turn to their own families to borrow the money rather than taking out a small business loan. Each side put in equal amounts, and Allen and Drennan have opted not to take a salary until the loans are mostly paid back. They also decided to rebrand the company to something stronger and came up with BlackBench Fit, in reference to the eight black workout benches they purchased during their earlier outdoor bootcamp days.
Three years later, and BlackBench Fit is humming along and the two are ahead of schedule based on the original projections in their business plan. “We were able to make a small dent into loan repayment this year, AND put a little bit of money each into our 401ks.”
But more than feeling satisfied at their business savvy, Allen and Drennan count it a blessing that they’ve been able to launch careers in a field that is so meaningful to them.
“One of the most rewarding parts of our job is also the most surprising,” shares Trish. “I had no idea I had a teacher or a therapist in me, but I love that part of the job.”
“I feel like what we’re doing now is a real calling for me,” adds Lisa. “It’s so gratifying to help people reclaim their bodies because I’ve been there and know what it’s like.”
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