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Jun 28, 2022

This gym owner’s secret? Prep for little steps

Craig Sylvester interview

Craig Sylvester knows what it feels like to take a leap. He spent 14 years literally leaping into emergencies as an EMS and Firefighter Medic. While those calls could be adrenaline-pumping, some were simply taxi-runs to the hospital for patients whose lifestyles had led to poor health. Frustrated with how many people were in distress due to lack of exercise, poor food choices and dehydration, Craig decided to do something about it. He made a career-changing leap in 2011 and opened a warehouse gym, Michigan Kettlebells Strength and Training Center. He’s been building up his membership and gym community ever since. Craig’s on a mission to help people incorporate fitness into their lifestyles and ultimately live better, healthier lives.

Here’s more on how Craig Sylvester keeps his entrepreneur passion running:  

On making the leap
Working in the Fire Department was amazing but it was also frustrating because 75% of my runs were for people who were unhealthy due to lack of exercise, food choices, and dehydration. I felt like I wasn’t helping with the bigger problem. I decided to become a gym owner, because I could help more people with their health than I could as a Firefighter. It’s not just a business, it’s my passion. I want everyone who comes through our doors to have an awesome experience.

On his mission
We opened Michigan Kettlebells with the goal of helping people incorporate fitness into their lifestyle. Originally I thought I only wanted to train athletes, but then I realized all types of people need this support. From high school wrestlers to postpartum mothers to retirees, everyone should be able to live the life they deserve.
⁠I want members of my gym to be able to do whatever they want to do as they get older. Play with the grandkids, climb a mountain, be strong enough to enjoy life. It’s simple but it’s hard. Half the challenge is getting people to show up. Then we put simple steps in front of them and help them get stronger. That’s my mission. 

On juggling two jobs 
⁠I also work in IT project management about 30 hours a week, so running the gym business at the same time is a huge challenge. I carry two laptops—one for IT work and one for the gym. I try to carve out time for entrepreneurial tasks throughout the day. Even 25 minutes here and there can accomplish a ton. On the weekends, I take 1-2 hrs of good focused time and get a lot done.

On being prepared
The worst mornings are the rushed mornings, when you’re starting off behind. The best advice I can give anyone, including entrepreneurs, is to prepare for a relaxed morning. I always set out 16 ounces of water so it’s ready to drink right when I wake up. I foam roll for mobility, do three minutes of box breathing exercises with an app, and eat a light breakfast. But my night routine is just as important. I set out clothes, pack my bags, get lunch food ready to go, plan breakfast, and most importantly, get enough sleep. That way I’m ready for a solid morning.

On leadership
I truly believe we all are followers and leaders. To be good at one, you have to be good at the other. I learned this from my days at the Fire Department. How can you lead if you don’t know how to follow? You need to understand how it feels to be the people doing the hard work. If you see things from your employee’s perspective, you’ll be a better leader.

On his using his superpower for good
My superpower is probably relationship building. Our gym community is a result of that skill. But that involves marketing, which I had to learn along the way. I didn't like sales at first. I never wanted to push anything on anybody. Then someone reframed it for me and asked, “Do you believe in your product?” If you believe your product will really help your customer, then it's your duty to sell it to them.  

On choosing collaboration
You can have a scarcity mindset or you can have an abundance mindset. You can collaborate or you can keep everything a secret. I’ve learned that when you collaborate, especially with people running similar businesses, you end up making better things happen. 

On making the endless Covid pivot
The pandemic has been all about adapting for the gym. Early on, we tried to use the tools available to keep members engaged. Right away we let everyone come and check out kettlebells, no charge. We loaded a truck and brought equipment to the people. We did Facebook live workouts, Zoom happy hours, and tried out chats to keep members accountable and motivated. Unfortunately, a lot of people had no desire to work out at home.

When we could eventually move to safe outside workouts, it felt beautiful. At first we only ran one class a day, and about 20 people showed up. Then we opened up the gym with spacing protocols. I tried to listen to my customers and make changes that felt organic. I wanted to give them hope. I wanted to show that, with little steps, we could get out of this slump together.

On staying motivated 
⁠I honestly never wanted to take the gym completely online. I didn’t want to lose the community. The pandemic was tough, and I did have a point last year when I thought I would have to close permanently. I kept the business going for 11 high school wrestlers I’d promised to train. I held on for those kids and for all the gym members who needed to keep moving forward. They needed this community to live on. 

These relationships keep me motivated. Physical results are great, but when people are looking forward to seeing each other at the gym, that’s what keeps me going. I love the beautiful part of human connection that happens from my business. 


Michelle Keller

UX writer, content editor, small business storyteller.