Debra Bassin: Courage and Grit Personified
In the second part of my Geriatric Gymnastics profile, Debra Bassin: A Profile of Courage and Grit, I discuss the early sparks that led Debby into entrepreneurship. In this chapter, you’ll get a glimpse of some of the hurdles she had to maneuver in order to officially open her doors, as well as how her expectations were not always reflective of her reality.
The Bumpy Road to Orchard Street
Once Debby made up her mind to move forward with starting her gymnastics business, her organizational brain went into full swing. Over the course of 2014, she used her training and carefully crafted a business plan. Finishing it that December, she showed it to her father-in-law, and save for a few tweaks here and there, he gave her an enthusiastic seal of approval. Then, she sat down with Barry to make sure he was behind her in this massive undertaking, which he was. Business plan in hand, there were two major hurdles she had to secure: a business line of credit and a venue. She started an extensive search for both.
During her search for financing and location, one problem became clear to her: being a diminutive, polite female, she realized that many did not take her seriously and underestimated her capability to pull off her business. Little did they know that this “little girl” was really a smart powerhouse and a force to be reckoned with. On her third try, she found a bank manager who actually read her business plan and took her seriously, securing a business line of credit to get herself started.
The location, however, did not come so easy. She was very sure that she wanted to be in the Mahwah/Ramsey, NJ area, but not near any other gym facility within a 10-mile radius. As it was, the main focus of similar facilities was on competitive gymnastics. Often, the kids who wanted to flip for fun were often relegated to follow a prescribed program that didn’t necessarily address the individual students’ true abilities. She recalled an experience she had when she brought her kids to a local facility, They had structure, but not the level of coaching I felt was appropriate for kids. There were two sects of students: team (3x/week minimum, 2 hours per session) and recreational, who were akin to ants under their feet. Each class, the same skills. No variety, no progression. They didn’t care what my kids could do, it was like they were on a script.
Debby decided she wanted to serve that demographic of people who were looking for a recreational gym, including adults, and teach gymnastics from a developmental perspective, progressing anyone who demonstrated the ability.
Over the course of an entire year, she scouted 10 spaces in total. I was curious to know at what point any anxiety crept in; to me, just the activity of looking for an appropriate space would have been enough to send me packing. Not Debby – at that point she was thinking big, but she didn’t yet have anything on the line. Even with the activated line of credit, she didn’t owe anything until she started spending money. There were no clients or equipment yet, so the mounting emotions were more of sheer excitement rather than anxiety; the wheels of her dream were just starting to set in motion.
If anxiety wasn’t an issue, frustration certainly was; in 2014, while she was mentally ready to open her doors, the process of acquiring a facility was moving at a snail’s pace. A particular snag was not just securing the right location, but waiting for it to be ready to receive clients. In May 2016, Flipper’s Gymnastics became an LLC and her original plan was to open the doors in March of 2017. A wrench in the works: once she found the perfect space, the landlord told her that the previous tenant in the space had another year left on the lease. As luck would have it, that tenant had wanted to break their lease and Debby offered to buy them out. Even with that, her original opening date got pushed to August, since those tenants wouldn’t be vacating until March. That date once again got pushed to November. This is where the anxiety started to creep in. At that point, money was spent, she had started to advertise, sign people up for classes, all in anticipation of finally getting her fledgling business on its feet.
Debby is nothing if not resourceful and persistent. Realizing that the clock was ticking loudly and she needed to start her teaching schedule, she contacted the landlord who also owned a large space a block away, one that she had seen and rejected. Though it was partially occupied by another tenant, there was an available section she could make use of. If she could rent that space on a month to month basis while she waited for the occupants of her permanent space to clear out, she could set up a temporary gym, and finally open her doors.
Ask and ye shall receive; the landlord agreed.
Expectations vs. reality
I asked Debby how her expectations measured up to the reality of owning this kind of business. She laughed and shook her head. “There were tons of expenses I did not foresee.” Initially, she expected to make her money back in five years. Doing the back-of-the-envelope math, she had a formula all set in her business plan: number of classes + number of students + this much tuition + this much time – projected expenses – paying off her line of credit = she would be cash positive in about five years.
To give a sense of the magnitude of opening this business, let’s just take a look at gym equipment expenses. Debby knew she’d need to purchase everything large and small: trampoline, tumble track, miles of foam flooring, balance beams, bars, towers, octagons, panel mats, landing mats, belts, chalk. There’s so much more that fills the enormous 8,000 square foot warehouse space, all to the tune of about $75,000. That expense was just to get her started. Once she was in Orchard Street, she built a padded safety platform around the trampoline. She reorganized the space several times to make the work flow more efficient and built safety improvements along the way as she saw the need.
That $75,000 didn’t include anything else, like office equipment, technology, rent, utilities, salaries or insurance. Nothing in this business comes cheap.
Of course, with any business venture, you must always expect the unexpected. For example, she discovered late in the game that the Orchard Street facility was not zoned properly for a business with in-person clients. In order to get her certificate of occupancy for the appropriate zone, she had to install fire warning lights all over the space that could be visible from everywhere in the gym (an enormous expense). She also needed an architectural consult to make sure the building was safe to accommodate the rigorous requirements of gymnastics activity. That revealed the necessity of raising the height of the existing railing on the stairs according to code. Et cetera, et cetera.
Even before she stepped foot in Orchard Street, the temporary space provided lots of tumult and unexpected expense that she hadn’t anticipated: she rented a fence to wall off her portion of the space, as well as a port-a-potty, since there was no bathroom in her section of the building. There was also an exorbitant amount of cleaning to do since it was in an industrial park and not an established fitness space. It took an inordinate amount of time and effort to shape it up to be presentable for her clientele, but she had no choice if she wanted to get things started. She moved all of her equipment into the temporary space, and classes were underway.
Running a business is never a smooth process. When it was finally time to move into Orchard Street, she had to pack everything up and move it down the block. Gym equipment is massive, unwieldy and expensive to move, even just down the block. She had to shut down for four weeks to get it all done.
Despite all of the setbacks and surprises, Debby officially opened her Orchard Street doors in December 2017. She was finally home.
Women are not machines
Debby reflected on her early expectations of herself.
I thought that as long as I had an admin who answered the phone and signed people up for classes, I could handle the rest.
As soon as she said this, we both laughed. As women who are mothers, we program ourselves to think that we are superheroes that can handle anything and everything that comes our way. We are excellent planners and also adept at pivoting and making adjustments as necessary. We also do not like to have to lean on others to get our work done, despite setbacks, and learn to make things work, however we can. It is easy to forget that we are but mere mortals, not machines. Add a career into that mix, or starting your own business, like Debby had accomplished, we just tell ourselves that we’ll keep going and handle whatever needs to be handled. After all, no one does it better than we do, right?
I made the class schedule such that no classes overlapped, so I could teach them all.
We know where this is going. The signups took off in a way that she hadn’t expected and she realized that she’d have to add more classes to the roster; a great thing for her business, a not so great thing for her 40-something year old body. Knowing she’d need help, she reached out to her friend, whose 16-year-old daughter Sammy was a gymnast, to see if she would be interested in becoming an instructor. Thankfully, she was. She also reached out to her Facebook posse (Facebook has been very good to me), which produced another young prospect, Brian. Sammy and Brian were her first two employees. I never realized I would need so many classes, so many instructors. Well, I could have predicted that for you, Deb.
Debby learned early on that she could not do everything, that once in a while, she would have to lean on the expertise of others. I made some really good alliances along the way. When she was scouting one of the potential spaces, a question of whether it would be cost-effective to remove a drop ceiling to accommodate the higher ceiling height necessary for gymnastics, and needed a consultation with a commercial contractor. After a little Facebook digging, she was led to Mark Thomas, who coincidentally was her neighbor down the street. Mark took a look at the space, determined immediately that the expense was not worth her while, and offered happily to assist her from that point forward in her location search. He accompanied her for the remainder of site visits to properly counsel her when interacting with potential landlords.
This new business relationship proved to be even more beneficial than Debby could have imagined. Not only as Mark become her go-to person for any work she needs done in the gym but in addition, his two daughters, Shelby and Tanya, who work for him now also work for Debby in the gym as instructors.
Envisioning the future
Even with the wonderful alliances and connections Debby has made, she still has one major issue: since she teaching six days a week, she is literally tearing her body apart from the rigors of spotting and constant demonstrating. Right now, she is the only one in the gym who knows how to teach the higher-level skills. Her biggest goal is to find a senior instructor who is old enough, responsible, and capable of teaching any age student at any skill level. Basically, she needs a clone of herself, only younger, who can take some of the load off of her shoulders. It’s a tall order, since most people who might fit the bill are in college or working other full-time jobs.
I never want to stop teaching because I love teaching. But teaching six days a week, it’s just mentally and physically draining. I’m in pain every day.
She keeps reaching out, trying to find new talent, but it is probably one of the biggest challenges of a gym owner. Most of her instructors now are high school students, and their tenure in her gym is limited since they will soon go off to college. Interestingly enough, she didn’t originally anticipate staffing to become such an issue. Finding qualified, trustworthy people with the skills and disposition to teach her classes has proved to be an ongoing challenge.
Ever clever and resilient, Debby came up with a long-term vision in late 2021, implementing the Instructors in Training program (IIT). Students ages 12-13 who she feels have the appropriate disposition, sense of responsibility and gymnastics foundation are invited to participate. A mutually beneficial arrangement, students learn how to be an instructor, get hands-on experience working with children, and extra gym-time both demonstrating for classes and working out before and after their shifts. The program is free of charge. On the “flip” side, Debby would get a chance to see how participants absorb the training and interact with younger students. Once they’d turn 14, if they were ready, Debby could then officially hire the well-trained students into her staff.
So far, in just a few months, she has a group of seven IIT’s. This is the kind of creative and adaptive thinking that will keep her in business for years to come, providing an ongoing stream of talented instructors as they approach legal working age. It doesn’t address her need for a more mature senior instructor to take some of the more advanced classes off of Debby’s shoulders, but it will certainly keep the machine running smoothly until that happens.
Despite the turbulence, Debby has persisted, keeping her vision squarely in her sights. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the big “C” word – COVID. That’s enough story for its own blog entry.
Stay tuned for Part 4: Surviving the Pandemic.
If you are in the Ramsey area and would like to learn more about Debby’s gym, visit the Flipper’s Gymnastics website.