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Aaron Smith, founder of KX Pilates

Top10 Dynamic Entrepreneurs: Aaron Smith of KX Pilates talks about tough entrepreneurial times

With the dream of establishing his own business when he was just a little kid, Aaron Smith is absolutely on his way to achieving his goals. Starting as a personal trainer, he has now founded Australia’s largest pilates franchise with 65 studios currently operating across the country and Indonesia.

KX Pilates is here to disrupt Australia’s existing fitness industry with innovations in areas of education, workshops and training.

However, it wasn’t easy – the first twelve months of running KX Pilates were tough both financially and emotionally, for Aaron. His family stepped in to help at the critical points, from the smallest thing such as washing towels to providing the much-needed emotional support whenever Aaron felt dispirited.

With the ten-year anniversary of KX Pilates just around the corner in February 2020, we talked to Aaron about the company’s story of growth and its future plan of expanding internationally.

When times were hard in the early days, what were the things you did or thought in order to keep going with your vision?

I commenced the KX Pilates journey after returning to Australia $20,000 in debt. In the early days of launching the company, I was working 60 – 80 hours a week (40 classes, 5-8 private sessions, marketing, admin etc), up at 4.30am and home after 10pm. The first 12-18 months was an absolute grind, only paying myself $200 a week.

I very quickly learnt that success takes passion and resilience. Curveballs are endless and you need to be a master at either ducking, weaving or smashing them out of the park. You can’t afford to be complacent about your life as you are the only one in the driver’s seat. For me in the early days it was all about getting my mindset in the right place. I stopped drinking for a long time, exercised every day and ate exceptionally clean. All in order to put my body and mind in the best position it could be in to tackle anything that came my way, I surrounded myself with amazing people, many who I met through young entrepreneur groups, so we could all support each other on our start-up journey. At the same time removing all negative people from my life.

I also learned the value of enjoying being present in the moment and grateful for what you have, not always what your chasing. Very few people in this world have succeeded without hours upon hours of hard work. Behind every success is years of planning, failure and grind. Learn to live with it and enjoy the journey.

What are your tips for knowing when to open the next location?

Knowing when to open a new studio can be somewhat of a challenge. In a perfect world when the demand is presented you should be able to expand, however, that is not always the case.

It’s hard to explain, but most of the time we just knew when the time was right to continue to expand. You need to be comfortable in what has already been achieved, obviously financial modelling is key, but most of all it’s a gut feeling on if / how you will all cope by moving on to the next stage of growth. It’s also incredibly important to know yourself: the mental and physical load you can cope with and then how you want to balance that with other areas of your life, otherwise it’s easy to burn out and if that occurs you are useless to everyone.

While knowing when to open a new location is important, it is also important to know what to expect from that location and how long it’s expected until that location becomes established and starts turning a profit. When KX began to expand, I realised my passion wasn’t in the day to day running of the studios so my position turned to growth. It was all about timing though as to enable to do that I had Eli Censor, a KX trainer and early business partner, who was a natural at connecting to people and began running three studios so I could focus on the bigger picture of where I wanted KX to go.

What has been the biggest achievement for you?

Our biggest achievement to date has been the expansion of the KX Pilates brand throughout Australia, with the most significant being when we reached 50 studios in 2018. When you write down your ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’ [BHAG] in the first 3 months in business, it’s incredible to have that in the back of your head, and know day in day out what you are working towards, hoping you’ll achieve it, but really not knowing if you will or not. Now being Australia’s largest Pilates company, it’s amazing to know how many people we employ (over 400), how many client lives we effect on a weekly basis (approx. 3000) We have created a brand where our loyal following of ‘KXers’ feel connected, a company that is apart of many peoples day-to-day lives where they feel like they belong. In this day and age, I believe that is extremely powerful and I thank each and every KX owner for making this dream of mine a reality.

How did you know when it was time to come away from running the business day-to-day, and how did you go about getting the right person in?

For KX Pilates, the secret to our success is undoubtedly our people. Our studio owners and trainers are the real rockstars of the KX brand. They are the smiling faces that represent our ‘Kaizen’ philosophy of ‘continuous improvement’ to a tee. They are true brand ambassadors who go above and beyond for clients day-in day-out and provide an exceptional client experience.

After 8 years leading the charge, I fell out of love with the day-to-day running of a franchise business. My passion will always remain with growth KX, but the mental energy, stressful decision making and excessive hours of being CEO finally took its toll. At the same time, with two amazing children under 4 years old, I saw my dedication in life shifting much more towards my young family, so I knew it was time to step aside. One thing I learnt as a founder was that hiring a CEO, and stepping to the side, is also a form of exiting. You still see your brand go to the next stage, although you might not be leading it – and that’s a powerful form of exiting, with the upside of retaining ownership.

I met our CEO, Selina Bridge, back in 2016 and we would catch up for coffee to talk business and life. At the time she was in a senior management role with the Fitness Franchise Curves Australasia. I knew given her prior experience and passion she was the perfect candidate to lead our company into the next stage of growth and beyond – she instantly fit with the culture and is a true asset to this company. Selina obtained the acceptance and the love of the network from the outset. She fell in love with the KX workout and was quick to become a raving ambassador of the brand without even trying.

Do you have any exciting new projects coming up soon you can share with us?

My initial long-term exit strategy was to establish 50 franchises and 10 company studios in Australia, however, after achieving this milestone 1 year earlier than planned in 2019 (and with our first International studio launching in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2018), I realised there’s still so much more to be done, and so many more places to take the KX experience. Whilst still growing incredibly strong in Australia, we’ll see more studios in Jakarta opening next year along with China and USA being new targets for 2020, so it’s a really exciting time for the business.

Huge system upgrades occurred this year switching over to a new online booking system which we are still improving and perfecting every day, and we’re also currently in the middle of a brand refresh with the brand and studios transitioning to a lighter, brighter and fresher look.

Leading the innovation front now for the brand, over the next few years we’re also excited to explore both the wholesale equipment side of our business with making our own equipment and accessories specific to our style of training, along with fitness and pilates education; two pillars that will significantly assist in building credibility and long standing success of the brand. So watch this space! But one thing can be certain with KX, we will always push the boundaries, always be looking on how we can improve, learn and give back to our loyal clients to make KX a better company tomorrow and beyond.

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Darcy Song

Darcy Song

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