Do you want to learn how to build a successful online personal training business?
In this case study, you’ll learn how Andy Morgan built his.
The demand for online trainers is huge. With the growing popularity of online fitness packages and the maturity of the internet, online training is here to stay.
Who is Andy Morgan?
Andy Morgan is an online nutrition coach and trainer and the founder of the English language site rippedbody.jp, and athletebody.jp (home of the largest fitness and nutrition site in Japan). He’s trained hundreds of clients from all
over the world and has just written a book called The Diet Coaching and Adjustments Manual.
His guides led me to hire him this past year as my online nutrition coach. Even though I knew a lot of trainers that I could have trained with in person in Miami, I choose to train with Andy online. His clear writing on complex nutrition subjects really hit home with me and led me to trust his expertise.
In this interview with Andy, you’ll learn how hard work and a maniacal attention to detail led him on a journey that he could have never predicted.
I know you’ll enjoy this…
Interview with Andy Morgan
1. How long have you been training people online and why did you start training people online? How important has hard work been to your success?
It was pretty much completely by accident. One day I walked into the gym and saw a friend, Steve, that I hadn’t seen for a few months. He was looking really lean. He lifted up his shirt and revealed a rocking set of abs. I was shredded at that time too, but he told me that he did it still eating pizza, eating just twice a day, and wasn’t taking any supplements.
At that time I was well bought into the broscience-eating 6 meals a day and spending $200/month importing supplements from the US to Japan – so I was quite taken aback. Steve told me about Martin Berkhan’s website Leangains.com. I read it all in two days. It filled me with a rage to know that I had been wasting my money on these supplements and had been making my life unnecessarily difficult eating 6 meals a day.
I decided to try to do something about it here in Japan, so I started a website in both English and Japanese writing about it, hoping to grow a local personal training business. Suddenly though people from all over the world started asking me what my online coaching rates were. Everything developed from there.
There have been many ups and downs in the last four years, but the end of the long story is that the English language site (RippedBody.jp) does really well, and can cover the costs of the Japanese site ( Athletebody.jp), which we’ve built into the most popular fitness information site in the country.
We’ll get there, for now though it’s ~$80,000 in the red cause we didn’t make any money for the first three and a half years, but it is just about breaking even now.
This may seem crazy given how popular the site is here, but I don’t accept any advertisements nor have any products on sale as I believe it would undercut our credibility and trust of the readership. Looking back, I think this was the key factor in getting as popular as we have.
2. When you first got started, how long did it take to start seeing results from blogging (online clients)?
Within 2 months, I had my first client. I got lucky, though. I was writing about a popular topic at the time (Martin Berkhan’s Leangains) and he just happened to retweet my before/after photo that I had on my site from using his method. I had 7000 clicks on that day, which was enormous back then considering I was getting less than 500 clicks per day at the time. That lead to people applying about coaching.
Three important points I’d like to make about this:
- The only reason this lead to applications is because I had good content on the site – clicks don’t mean anything unless people hang around. Just think about all the links you click on Facebook/Twitter each day – how many times do you go to a second page from a site you land on for the first time – very rarely, right? You need to have good content to display when people do come or they will just leave.
- It took me over a year to get back to that traffic level as a daily average. But when I got this initial break, I jumped on it and didn’t stop working. There is an element of luck in any success – but the difference between those that are successful and those that aren’t is that the former group were ready
for the lucky break and made the most of it when it came.
- I didn’t pester Martin to tweet this for me – he did it cause he saw it and wanted to – it happened organically because I @messaged him saying thank you. This is really important – never forget that those you look up to in this industry get bombarded with e-mails, comment questions, Facebook messages, and @tweets, many with requests for people to read work. It builds up to a point where it becomes impossible to respond to them all, and this can be a very tough mental transition for people. I’m at around this stage now – and though I worked my nuts off to answer everyone up until now I have had to start saying no recently. Working too much has cost me friendships.
Connections are important in this industry, and you’re going to need to start building them, but some advice: Before
, rather than the other way around. – Don’t say to people, “Hey, can you tweet/post this?” – cause you’re not only asking for 5-20 minutes of their day for them to read the article, but for endorsement, and that is not something they can simply give knowing how wide their audiences are.
Try to be friends with people. Don’t be a nagging douche that gets his panties in a twist if you send someone a message and it doesn’t get a response – try to see their side of it. They might have been playing with their kids on the sofa when your Facebook message came through, they saw it but forgot to come back to it later.
One thing that I’ve found true of our evidence-based circle of fitness professionals is that everyone is cool, if you are cool and fair with them, no matter how big their name and reputation.
3. I don’t remember how I found your site, but the first thing I read was your diet guide. I remember how detailed it was and I knew that I would be coming back for more. Why did you start writing these guides?
I think people underestimate the power of writing in detail.
– they want to build an audience but don’t want to put in the work. So they end up writing click-bait articles all the time that don’t lead to anything other than a casual click and then exit of their site. This presents opportunities for new guys in the industry if they are prepared to work hard.
Mauricio, you’ve seen for yourself how the site brings people back to read the articles again and again. It’s like that with a lot of the articles on the site. That’s what I want. People don’t hire someone after reading one thing, they need repeat exposure. So the question is then, how to get that repeat exposure?
The solution to that I figured a while back was instead of just writing articles as individual stand-alone pieces of advice, I’d tie them into a greater “full guide” concept. – When people come onto the site on any article they see a reference to that concept in each one so that they feel they are just scratching the surface.
You sew the seed in their minds that to not click or bookmark this would be to be missing out. This isn’t any marketing gimmick, it’s simply the truth. They then click through and keep reading, giving them repeat exposure.
The repeat exposure builds up trust, and that leads to a very small fraction of people inquiring – which is enough when the viewing numbers are high enough.
4. With the amount of detail in these guides how long does it take you to write these guides? Can you put an ROI (return on investment) on these
It’s not uncommon for me to spend half a day writing and rewriting an opening paragraph and still not being happy. I’m not a gifted writer, I have to work very hard at it.
It’s very difficult to put an ROI on the guides. I work on them all the time – yes, even the old ones so they don’t get dated. I can’t stop thinking about work and I have often found myself preferring to work on the site than hang out with friends. It’s destroyed friendships.
This is a personal problem I’m working on. What I can say for sure is that without the guides, I would be nobody at all and no one would want to hire me. So they are responsible for all of it.
5. You have a very thorough client vetting process. How did you come up with that process and how successful has it been?
Simply just through trial and error over the years. You get to learn who the kind of people you want to work with are, and those that you can work best with, and you just tailor things to attract them.
One thing I can’t stand is people with short attention spans. If they can’t put the effort to focus, then they simply aren’t going to be successful in my opinion. So, I write in a lot of detail, which puts off these people. When people are frustrated enough with their lack of results, they’ll learn to focus. That’s when I come in.
What criteria are you looking for when choosing to work with someone?
Aside from the ability to focus, I’m after male trainees, generally 25-45, with some significant weight training experience. – I don’t work with beginners as there are too many places for them to stuff up their training in the gym which will undercut even the most well-laid plans.
Remember, I do this online so there it is not easy to see if they are getting it right or not, and then coach them through it if they aren’t, so I just narrow my range to the experienced trainees.
Finding a Niche
6. You have a strict client vetting process, but you write to a more general audience. Your writing targets male between the ages of 25-45 that want a more aesthetic look. How and why did you choose this audience?
They are like me, so I naturally know and work with these guys’ best. I think my writing speaks to these people most.
A lot of personal trainers don’t like the idea of niching down and targeting a specific audience. How important is it to define the audience you’re writing to?
It’s everything. I mean, whatever you write about, will attract those people.
For example, there is no point in me writing about issues for women as I only work with men – it doesn’t help my business because I can’t write in the level of detail necessary to show off my skill-set, and I just get a lot of frustrated women click the coaching page and find out they can’t work with me anyway – I don’t want to deal with that.
As another example, if I were to write about rehab, injury prevention, stretching, or muscle imbalance correction it is the same – I’d get people coming to me asking me to help them fix these issues, but it’s not what I do, and I have no business talking about these things as it’s well outside my skill-set.
So, even though people often ask I stay away from such subjects.
If anyone approaches me looking for something outside of my skill-set I just refer out. The funny thing is, people are so used to people making a play for their money that they are very grateful to get a straight response telling them that I can’t help, but I think they should read this, do this, or contact this person.
Choosing How to Communicate
7. How do you choose to communicate with your clients? Why have you chosen email instead of Skype and other alternatives? Why do you have a strict no smartphone policy?
I choose to communicate with clients exclusively via e-mail as I’ve found this to be the most effective way of doing things.
I tried Skype and it simply wasn’t for me. People would forget things that were said and they would have to be repeated in the e-mail anyway. Also, using Skype means I always have to be tied to a strong internet connection, which can bring about its own stresses.
Personally, don’t like to have a lot of meetings in my calendar, it cripples flexibility and spontaneity, people are late, and the chances of me screwing up are high.
E-mail allows for a consistent customer experience, and as consistency is tied into satisfaction, this is a big win for e-mail. I read and respond to e-mails only once a day. This encourages people to think things through before e-mailing, and ties into my idea of creating independence in clients as I coach them over the 12 weeks that I work with people. E-mails also form a valuable written record (for both you and the client) later on.
What this of course means is that people need to focus when reading and responding to emails, which brings around its own bunch of painful hilarity in this smartphone age – people just can’t put in the necessary degree of focus on a detailed e-mail (or series of e-mails) when they are on their smartphones – this is partly down to the tiny screen, and partly down to the distractions around them.
The biggest problem is that people miss things, and this means I have to send an e-mail to ask for more information, which causes an additional day’s delay (remember – I only answer e-mail once a day) and that leads to frustration and unhappiness on the client end.
The solution has been to ban people from reading or responding to my e-mails from their smartphones. Since doing that everything has become vastly smoother, I’ve had happier clients and better results.
Of course, saying, “please don’t mail me from your smartphone” is not going to be effective unless you enforce the rule, and this is not at all easy because we are trying to break people’s habits. This means I have had to be strict.
Here’s what I do:
- I state very clearly in the requirements on the application page that I don’t allow communication from smartphones.
- I have a checkbox when they apply: “Are you ok with my no-smartphone rule.” – Yes/No.
- I remind them of this rule in my first e-mail to them. This e-mail contains a questionnaire, and it will be difficult to fill out the level of detail necessary on a smartphone. So this re-enforces the rule. By this point it’s fairly certain that people will have seen the rule – even if they were on their smartphone for all of it, they are not likely to missed all three warnings (this is the reason I have to say it three times).
Whether they choose to respect that rule works as its own little test of their respect for me – which is important because there may be times where I need to make decisions that the client doesn’t agree with but simply has to trust my judgement on.
If any applicant then emails me from their smartphone at any point before they become a client, this shows me that they aren’t the kind of person that can read and respond to carefully written e-mails, and that the coaching won’t work.
There is no choice in my mind but to decline their application. I send them a one sentence reply thanking them for their application but declining to take it any further. I do not make any exceptions from then on, no matter what they write back, as I want a reputation as someone that keeps their word.
If a current client e-mails me from their smartphone (happens occasionally, and I really don’t mind that as mistakes do happen) they receive an autoresponder asking them to wait until they are at a computer before writing back.
Now, it is clear that this kind of coaching is not going to be for some people. Some people will want to work through Skype, and some people will want more frequent communication. That’s fine. You can choose to do that if you wish. I don’t, and it’s not a problem for people that become clients because I don’t pretend to offer anything otherwise at the outset.
This serves one more important function – you only get clients that are prepared to take the process seriously. Many people are prepared to throw money at a problem instead of work to think it through – you need to avoid these people.
Those that don’t take the process seriously are the least likely to be successful, and yet the most likely to blame their lack of progress on you. This is unfair, but that’s just how some people are. It’s essential to do your best to filter out these people, and I aim to do that as quickly as possible.
The application page does not read like a sales page, it’s written in my own voice, as that is how I e-mail people. I let people know that the application process is fairly involved. This pretty much eliminates non-serious enquiries as they won’t be bothered to go through it.
I have a list of requirements so that I don’t get people apply outside of the area that I coach or am able to. Also, by having multiple e-mails back and forth before any money changes hands, the client can get to know whether your style is a good match for them – whether your e-mail response times are acceptable to them, whether they are they happy about your predictions and suggestions on what you think that you can achieve together.
If they aren’t then they just won’t mail you back. Don’t take it personally and never chase down a sale.
8. You don’t offer a money-back guarantee. How’s this policy worked out for you? Why do feel it’s a mistake when online coaches offer a money-back guarantee?
Dieting isn’t easy, and when things get tough you want them to have a reason to push through. Another name for this reason, is ‘buy-in.’ One of the most effective forms of buy-in is the simplest – making people pay for your service.
In a bid to compete with other coaches and seem more attractive to potential clients, I see people offering a money back guarantee. I think this is a huge mistake. For the client, you immediately take this commitment tool away from them, and I struggle to think of anything more destructive to someone’s chances of success than this.
For yourself as a coach also it’s important to realise that though you can lay the plans carefully for someone and do your best to coach people through things, you cannot make someone do the work. You still deserve to be paid for your work though.
Again, be up front about this with people. I have my terms and conditions publicly on the site, and in an e-mail before we agree to work together. – People will respect this openness rather than be put off by it, as long as you are open in the rest of your writing on your site.
Reviews and Before/After Pictures
9. You have a terrific results page. It’ s a great example of showing social proof and provides concrete results of your work. Can you provide insight into reviews and before/after pictures and how important it is to your business?
It’s certainly important but tough to quantify it. The guides would be a lot less powerful without the results and testimonials to back it up.
You can get away with just the latter for some time, but in order to really make yourself stand out, you need to put down some detailed articles – you’ll attract better (more educated and easier to work with) customers that way too.
Openness and Trust
10. How important has being open in your writing been? You take pride being there for your readers, how important has answering every comment on
your site been?
Again, it’s very hard to say, but I definitely think it’s important to be open in your writing and write in your own voice. People will respond better to you and you’ll get more applicants, have more open communication, and better outcomes as a result.
Never forget this fact –when people first come across our websites or Facebook pages we are just some guy sitting on the end of a computer that they don’t know – yet ultimately you want to take them from that state of mind to asking them to hand over hundreds of dollars – why should they trust you?
I think simply being there for people can go a long way to building trust. Someone thinking of hiring me can look back through the comments for the last four years, see that I’ve almost never missed a single day in answering
someone, see that I’ve been helpful each time, and though I’m still just some dude at the end of a keyboard, they know that the chances that I’m going to run off to the hills with their money are slim to none.
There is an extraordinary amount of appreciation and trust built up through these public online interactions. I often see the same people commenting multiple times across the site as they plot their path through the guides.
This seems to make some people feel that they owe me something. – I’ve had some people say they want to donate money, or hire me just to support me, yet I couldn’t recall ever communicating with them in the comments. Just how powerful are these comment answers when it comes to sales? – I think it may be key.
11. How did you promote your site in the beginning? Was it all organic traffic from Google? Did you do any guest posts on other sites? Where do you get your web traffic now?
I haven’t written for any sites in an attempt to get my name out there. The money that you make is poor for the effort it takes to write good stuff, and the number of people that will click through to your site is exceptionally low.
By way of example, I recently gave permission for a friend to use a few of my articles on his UK site that sells meat products to bros (musclefood.com). In total, they had over 200,000 page views (which is exceptionally large), but the number of click-throughs to my site was a little over 1000.
I just focused on writing good stuff, on my own site, and I let the quality of the work speak for itself knowing that if it was good enough people would share it. There is no more perfect example of this in action than the success of Greg Nuckols’ Strengtheory.com in the last 18 months. It went from getting ~15,000 clicks per month to ~250,000 per month last year – this is down to the high quality of the writing alone.
I look back on some of my old work now and shudder, but that’s just something that happens when you’re always learning. For that reason, I go back through the site and update things frequently.
I try to stay away from click-bait titles and keep more to those that people who are looking for detailed information will respond well to. As I said, you want quality clicks, not quantity – you don’t make money per page view after all.
I haven’t bothered to focus on keywords or SEO particularly, I just wrote about what I was passionate about and what people needed help with.
12. I noticed recently that you released a free email course for the people that downloaded your (free) complete diet set-up guide. How’s that going? How important has it been to build your email list for your business?
I didn’t have an e-mail list for 4 years, so I’m not really the person to ask about these things in honesty, though from what Sol Orwell has taught me and what I have learned from starting a list 6 months ago, it’s a really important thing – both for me and the customer.
There’s a great sense of satisfaction to be had in connection with your readers that email can provide which now Facebook and social media can’t. – With e-mail, you control the gateway, with social media, the social networks do, and they can squeeze you to pay for adverts just to reach all of your customer base – the people that have already liked your page but just don’t see you come up in their feed.
Here’s how I built my list in the last few months:
- I took different parts of the site, put it all on the one webpage, and built what is probably the most complete and detailed diet set-up guide anywhere on the internet. I then put it into an e-book for people that prefer that format, and offered an e-mail course on the mistakes that I see people make when they implement it as an incentive to download the book instead of just reading the page.
- That may sound like a gimmick, but it isn’t. People have been loving the course – I worked hard on it and it shows. I’ve been watching people make the same mistakes again and again for 4 years, so I knew how to really nail this and offer something valuable. I timed the sequence of e-mails so that they are sent right around the point where people are going to screw up – saving them potentially 5 times in their first 2 weeks. By the end of it, people are left without any doubt that I know exactly what I’m talking about. They are then going to be far more receptive to something that I have for sale.
- Whatever you are going to offer in exchange for an e-mail address needs to have real value. Unless it’s so good that it pains you to give it away for free, you probably need to work harder on it. That free guide? – It’s 16,000 words long and everything I know about diet set up. The email course? I spent 6 weeks on it, an hour every day writing and refining it.
Can you talk about the strategy behind your coaching sales page?
My coaching page doesn’t read like a sales page at all. Have a quick look and you’ll see what I mean. I think people are sick of being sold things and are refreshed to hear someone just say it like it is. – I can do this, I can’t do this. I have client requirements, there is a waiting list.
Note from Mauricio: This is called scarcity. People are lining up to train with Andy
Is this something you’re after and ok with? Yes? Cool, apply for the waiting list below. No? No worries, please enjoy the site and feel free to ask me anything in the comments anytime. – So few people write their sales pages as plainly as this that it makes me stand out.
You can make yourself stand out my cutting out the crap and speaking to people like you’re speaking to a friend down the pub.
Then again, I haven’t read any marketing books, so you probably shouldn’t listen to what I say.
Can you talk about the strategy behind the design of your site? Who designed it?
I designed it. Just played around with WordPress constantly for the last four years. I hired a designer once to help me get upgraded to a new theme, but a lot of the fancier elements that he introduced, I ended up getting rid of as it slowed the site down too much. I get the WPCurve guys to help me out with little bits of code when I get stuck.
13. How much revenue did your online training business generate in 2014? 2015? How long did it take your online business to start generating revenue? What expenses do you have? Unexpected expenses?
I’m not prepared to divulge specific income figures, I think its crude, though I admit this might be a British prudish thing.
However, I’ll give some other numbers that I think will be far more meaningful for people, and you can do some math and guesswork to figure out income if you’re really interested:
I end up coaching less than 1/4 of the applicants – either I refer them out, they can’t afford me, I’m able to give them some simple advice to help them get out of their rut, or we simply can’t get on the same page about expectations.
My service isn’t cheap, but then it is nowhere near as high as some of my peers. (I may have to change that before I get back to coaching simply because the demand is now too high.)
I could work with more people, but I simply don’t need the money and I prefer the extra time. I’ve taken the last 6 months off from coaching to live on savings entirely, working on the website in the meantime, improving the articles.
-Past a certain point money doesn’t motivate me, but doing good work certainly does.
14. What are the pros and cons in working online? What one thing should a personal trainer that wants to work online takeaway from your success? What’s next for you?
It seems that everyone and their mother wants to be an online coach nowadays. I can understand why – location freedom is a wonderful thing. However, as many find out quickly, it’s not the quick road to riches that people think it is, and (as with everything) you won’t be successful if you don’t have passion for it.
Passion. Seriously now. If you do not love what you do, and I mean truly love it, then find a new career.
If you don’t feel a tingle of excitement in your balls when you read a new article (or study) by one of the people you respect in this field then it may be a sign that you need to do something else.
(Then again, perhaps I’m a bit weird.)
I’ve put a lot of effort into making the site look good and read well. There’s hardly a day that’s gone by in the last four years where I haven’t made an edit to it in some form or other.
I do this because I’m addicted to making the edits and I’m conscious that I need to be careful to not put out any incorrect or unbiased information.
Also, I’m a firm believer that it’s good for business, that this level of care and attention to detail shines through, leads people to trust me, and to apply for coaching, which is ultimately what puts food and beer on the table.
Sincerely, I hope your readers find this helpful. I’ve had a lot of young coaches ask me to teach them over the years, but I’ve had to decline due to a lack of a system for it. I’ve fixed that now.
For any aspiring coaches out there, the last three months I’ve spent emptying my brain into a book and video package explaining how I coach.
This is going to help shorten the process of acquiring the skills necessary, helping to significantly cut down on all the trial and error. You can find out more about that, and read a couple of sample chapters here, or if you prefer audio format check out this podcast interview I did with Eric Helms.
Thank you for your time,