Inspired by an injury that would ultimately end his NFL career, Will Bartholomew was looking for a training facility that was made for someone like him, someone wanting to train like a Division One athlete. Not finding the right place, Will decided to start D1 Training and like a true entrepreneur, he played every position in those early days from coach to bill collector to toilet cleaner. Today, D1 Training is one of the fastest growing fitness franchisees in the country. I sat down with Will to learn more about the breadth of the D1 offering and how they are helping their members through the long “offseason” caused by COVID-19.
Dave Knox: Let’s start with the backstory of D1. What was the real inspiration behind the business?
Will Bartholomew: I have to rewind, all the way to high school. When I was in high school, I was really impacted by a couple strength coaches in the weight room. Then, when I went on to play football at the University of Tennessee, I fell in love with the weight room, that was my home. When I was having a bad day I was like, "All right, let's just go pump some iron." I knew I wanted to do something in the fitness space, that was birthed in college. Then, when I was with the Denver Broncos, I blew out my knee my rookie year in training camp. I came back home to Nashville, Tennessee, and I was training in a community center, and I was throwing around some serious weight because I was a guy with some serious goals. I was trying to get back in the NFL. I had a manager come up to me and go, "Hey, I know who you are, and this isn't really the place for you. This isn't a place where you're going to be throwing around big, heavyweights, and screaming, and yelling, and trying to get back in the NFL." I go, " Man, where is there a place for me? There's nowhere like this, there's nowhere like I had at the University of Tennessee, there's nowhere like a Division One school program, for athletes out in the marketplace." So, I opened up my first location, just in the burbs of Nashville, in Franklin, Tennessee, and started the very first one there. The whole design was to train the middle school and high school athlete, that's the core of our business, to train like a Division One athlete. That was the whole context. Look at it like athletic tutoring. You think about the kids that are in schools these days or sitting at home in front of a computer screen, and they're either struggling in math, or they're excelling at math. Or, they're right in between. The tutor really helps those people that are really excelling, and the ones that are really struggling. That's the way we see D1 positioned in the marketplace, as someone to help that kid make the team, get a little bit more confidence. Or, someone who really needs that extra push, to that next level. So, that's when I created it, that was all the way back in 2001.
Knox: D1 is unique in the range of your audience, because you train everyone from NFL draft picks to families. Why is that range so important to D1?
Bartholomew: If I go back to right when I started D1 in 2001, I had a 2500 square foot, little gym. I hand-rolled the patio carpet turf out, I hung the speakers on the wall, I assembled the racks. I was the coach, I was the bill collector, I was the toilet cleaner. When I first started training athletes I was like, "Man, I'm going to help the stud kid get into the D1 school," and I had plenty of those. Then, I had a kid sign up, his parents, they were friends with one of the stud kid's, and this kid has never made a team, had never been an active participant. The family recognized, "Hey, if we're going to give him any shot to start or have sports in his life, then we need to give him an advantage." So, he started training with me, and after about eight weeks, he went from, literally the first day only doing 2 pushups to 38 pushups. The confidence went off the roof, his discipline on what he was eating, his parents are calling me going, "He's being more respectful." That was when I was like, "Man, this business is not for just the stud kid, it's for this kid. It's probably even more so for this kid." I really wanted to bring that D1 mentality to the community. That was where it was all birthed, and we started growing it from there.
Knox: How does the business breakdown across those types of athletes?
Bartholomew: If you just look at it on a macro level, 61% of our revenue comes from scholastic athletes, that high school, middle school, grade school kid. Then, the other 39% is actually adults, that are wanting to train like Division One athletes. We don't even throw the Pro sector in there, just because when we service the pros we love it, but that's not who we built the business for. The underlying message at D1, the underlying core value of the business is not just to get bigger, faster, stronger, do more pushups, or run a faster 40. The underpinnings of who I am as a man is not an athlete, or a businessman, or a CEO, or a founder, it's the character in which we live by. One of the things we are very intentional about at D1 is instilling what we call D1 character, which there are 12 words spray-painted on every wall of every D1. Those words are integrity, perseverance, discipline, fearless, and those are the type of character words that we're trying to instill in our athletes, not just training bigger, faster, stronger. As we know, during this crazy time that we're going through as a country, it is more important to have that values and character, and persevere through what we're going through, versus being able to just run fast.
Knox: Fitness is an industry that is constantly evolving. There's the latest trend and latest fad. How are you amplifying D1 Training's business model, compared to these other niche fitness concepts?
Bartholomew: If I rewind back to all that first location, I had a lot of success. I was leaning on some advisors, and they said, "Hey, Will, you don't know if you have a real business until you've got multiple locations in multiple cities." So, I was just young and brash enough, and the confidence that I had, I was like, "Okay, I'll do it," and pulled that trigger, and built it to three locations. Of the three, one of them failed miserably, two of them thrived, so I learned my hard lessons. Then, took that, repackaged it, and started scaling it. From 2001 to 2015, we actually ended up doing 32 corporate gyms. Of the 32 corporate gyms, we own most of the real estate. There was this underlying asset behind the actual operations of the business. We started seeing things shift. I lived through 2008 — 2010 owning a ton of real estate, which that was at the heart of what everybody was going through at the time. It's crazy to think we came out of that so much stronger and better, but we learned from that. We learned, and we saw a couple of needs that needed to happen.
One was we had just launched in the physical therapy business, and we were helping out physical therapists, and helping orthopedic groups, and hospitals run their PT, so we saw a need there. We also saw a need for D1's actual business to be optimized, in the sense of from a unit economics standpoint. So, we did a couple of pivots and through those hardships we learned how to pivot, and learned how to adjust the business model to thrive. When we came out of 2009 and got the businesses super healthy. We ended up monetizing that real estate by selling the buildings off in a couple of different ways. Then, in 2017, we had built our therapy business up, and we made a pivotal decision at that point to sell that business off. We reinvested in the gym business, which is my true hardcore passion, and we started franchising it just in 2018. We've been around since 2001, but we literally just started awarding franchises in 2018. The cool thing about that is that now that we have all these great entrepreneurial business owners out in the marketplace, running our system.
Knox: With franchising being a newer thing for you, how do you find the balance between the right business partners and the right coaches that are out there doing the training?
Bartholomew: That's the magic in the sauce, the lifeblood of the business. The one thing we always go back to is our value system. One of the things we pride ourselves on is not awarding franchises to people that don't have the exact same core values. We just did our big national summit, and I told the franchisees that they were the 4% 'ers. What I mean by 4% 'ers are that last year, of the people who applied to own a D1 franchise, we only awarded 4%. We're hyper-selective on making sure they have the same value system, because we know if they have the same values, then when they're using our processes and systems, they're going to hire the right people. Then, those people that are hired in the facility are going to attract the right type of customer. Then, those customers are going to stay with us, for the long haul. That's why I have members that have been with us, tried and true, for nearly 20 years. I've got people that trained in the original D1, that are still with us. That's what's really cool about this business, is that if you have those same value systems, you just stick with each other, and continue to improve, and get better.
Knox: Recent events have obviously put a new spotlight on the fitness industry, with gyms being forced to close nationwide, and many people turning to at home fitness solutions. What is D1 doing differently in light of this?
Bartholomew: What's really cool for us is we've seen the trends of where things are going and our innovation teams had been working on an online, remote program since last Fall. When this whole thing happened with the country and the Coronavirus, we were able to launch a brand new program, that had been tested for six-plus months, almost overnight, but we had been working on it for a while.
You see, D1 is so much more than turf, and weights, and loud music. We're a community of people with character, and values, that are striving for goals, and to get better. So, the way we're delivering that promise is we've launched a program called D1 to U as our online home solution. What that looks like is we have an app, that we've been in partnership with a company called Train Heroic. We launched that to our entire system, with all our programming, and videos, and everything in there so you can do the workout at home. What's really cool though that is we have a chat feature, and we do challenges amongst each other on a daily basis, so we're giving fist bumps, we're giving arm bashes, we're giving chest bumps virtually, if you will, through pictures, and the chatter within our program. Then, the other thing we're doing is all our members are getting, three times a week, coaching accountability. What that looks like is either a Zoom call, or text, or actual phone call, and we go through their workouts, what questions they have, what things we need to be working on together. Then, the big part of this, the other leg of the stool, is nutrition accountability. We're going through what they're doing from an eating perspective and holding them accountable to making sure they're maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and working towards reaching their goals. It's been amazing, the response has been awesome. We launched this on a Friday and had over 1500 people sign up immediately. By the next week, it was up to 5,000 people on our platform. It's just snowballing super fast, and we're thrilled because we feel like we're serving a need. I call right now the greatest, biggest, probably the longest offseason of an athlete's life, ever. I can't think of when the last time there was this big of an offseason for athletes. When sports stop, that's an offseason. So, we're attacking that head-on, to make sure these athletes train because we all know, the offseason is where you win or lose games, so we want to make sure everybody's staying on track, and training really hard. We always saw D1 to U as a platform to keep our athletes engaged, no matter where they are, or what they're doing. It’s a way to live up to our tagline of "Anytime, anywhere."