How I Launched: Core Collective
Inspired by the gung ho spirit of New York’s glossy gym scene, member Jason de Savary details how he and business partner Héloïse Nangle created the fitness brand Core Collective
By Paul Tierney Illustrations by Alva Skog Tuesday 20 October, 2020 Long read
The big idea
‘I always imagined I’d own my own business. Sitting behind huge computer screens, I thought, surely this isn’t what my life is going to be? The idea of opening a gym was formed on a trip to New York in 2013. The culture there had clearly exploded and I immediately knew that this is what I wanted to do. I’d hung out with Héloïse, sensed she was a bit bored with her job, and knew she’d make a great partner. No individual part of what we were trying to achieve was actually groundbreaking stuff, we just wanted to be different. And be the best. In some ways it was refreshing that neither of us knew anything about what we were doing when we started.’
Forming a plan
‘It wasn’t about creating New York intensity, it was about trying to isolate what it is that people are excited about. For me it was energy. There are no major differences between London and New York, although the customer is more stand-offish in England, so that’s been a challenge. In 2003, when I first started working, being a member of the gym was something that you kept secret. Having a personal trainer? You didn’t want that kind of thing coming out on a wide-boy trading floor. When we began, working out was a much more intimidating experience for English people, although I think we’re past that now.
‘The thing that flipped our business model on its head is the ratio of trainers to customers we have. We hit a very rich vein of trainers at the beginning, and count professional boxers, Olympic swimmers and calisthenics experts among them. The other key difference is we’re a pay-as-you-go model. We’re not saying we want people exclusively. Come to us, yes, but go to Barry’s and Psycle, too. Our neighbouring gyms are our peers.’
‘You can’t rush these things, and there’s a neediness that comes across if you’re too pushy. We’ve knuckled down and tried to be wary of not just looking at the competition, but concentrating on the small day-to-day things, too. People will either buy into it or not.
‘Initially, our business plan was very focused on one site and getting that right. The expansion plan came later. We’ve grown more slowly than I would have liked, but that’s because the second and third sites were delayed with planning permission. I’d like to expand because I think we’ve got the foundations and the roots to support a larger operation.
‘We were lucky because our launch in 2015 coincided with a massive boom in Instagram. A lot of our trainers had big followings and we did some effective influencer-type stuff. Less so now, though. I think people are wary of social media. I don’t know why, but there’s been a shift. I think people are a little bit less shouty about it now. There’s more awareness around what we put online.’
‘We had to get good at making people interested in investing. In the beginning you only have optimism. You can’t see how it might fail. But then there are times where you think, I’ve made a mistake here. You have to learn from it and change. You have to paint a new picture that people can get behind. I think that’s increasingly become a part of our lives – having a long view on needs, threats and worries.’
Dealing with challenges
‘The whole thing has been much harder to do than we realised. From the outset, the big challenge was to find space in London, because landlords wouldn’t give spaces to new businesses. Kensington cost a lot more to do than we thought it would, but it turned out to be a good thing and we hit this early wave of excitement. I wish we knew then what we know now, but that initial momentum led us to continue and crowdfund. Lots of our members were really engaged. Luckily, Kensington’s a wealthy area and people wanted to invest.
‘We are living in difficult times now, but I think it’s important not to get too bogged down. It’s the sort of thing my mum would say, but you can only do your best, right? The big challenge now is we’ve got to be really honest with ourselves. It’s going to be a smaller business for a while.’
‘We think quite loosely and widely about what future plans might hold, but you need to keep the wheels on. There are times when we’ve slipped in what we’re offering and haven’t focused on the here and now. The trouble with our business, or any kind of hospitality/ leisure business, is that you can give someone an amazing experience 50 times and they love you, but if you annoy them once, that’s it. It takes a long time to build up a good reputation, but not a lot to trash it.’