Why she left a $185,000 job to launch a D.C. fitness chain
One of the keys to success in the business world is knowing what you are good at and what you are not good at.Anne Mahlum, 34, founder of a string of five Washington-area fitness centers called Solidcore, knows her strengths and weaknesses.
“I’m a good CEO,” said the quotable North Dakota native, who gives motivational speeches at $10,000 a pop. “I’m not a good COO,” or chief operating officer.
Mahlum prefers “the action”: Think big thoughts, lead by example, motivate people behind those ideas and put the resulting enterprise on an upward, self-sustaining arc. She has done it at least once with a Philadelphia nonprofit group called Back on My Feet. Solidcore appears to be on a similar — and profitable — trajectory.
“I’m really good at building and creating stuff,” she said.
Then there are some things she is not great at. This entrepreneur-in-a-hurry prefers not to grind through the minutiae essential to running a business, including meetings, spreadsheets, hirings, firings and negotiations.
“I need somebody to handle operations and administrative work,” she said.
I could tell from our phone conversations — one of which took place while she was in a hair salon — that she is accustomed to setting the tone.
“I really don’t like to be told what to do,” she said, adding, “I don’t have a lot of patience for anything. It’s a virtue, and it’s not. I don’t understand why things can’t get done faster than most people do them.”
See what I mean?
Her approach works for her. Solidcore has more than 12,000 clients in about a year and a half. Mahlum expects the company to gross $5 million this year.
She also owns the royalty rights to a Solidcore studio near Minneapolis, which uses the same $6,900 megaformer exercise machines her Washington studios rely upon. Mahlum licensed the Washington and Minneapolis territorial rights to the machines.
Mahlum owns 100 percent of Solidcore, whose 50-minute classes tone up regular folks and celebrities across the region, including first lady Michelle Obama.
Solidcore has six full-time employees, including owner and chief motivational officer Mahlum, who will pay herself $80,000 this year. There are also 46 part-time coaches, who receive a base pay plus bonuses depending on class size.
Solidcore’s selling points — its differentiator in business lingo — include the personalized service in the intensive classes, which are limited to between nine and 13 participants. Prices are all over the place, with classes running around $30 each depending on what plan you purchase. One-on-one sessions can reach $95.
This overachiever grew up in Bismarck, N.D., the middle of three children. Her mom taught third grade, and her father sells insurance.
Her first taste of Washington came during her final year at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, when she interned on Capitol Hill for then-Sen. Kent Conrad. She finished in three years with two degrees: political science and public relations.
“I was in a hurry to get to this life that I thought I wanted,” Mahlum said.
After earning a master’s in public communications at American University, she got a job as a policy analyst at the Association of Research Libraries on Dupont Circle.
She never meshed with her boss and quit after an unsatisfying year.
“I am very grateful for that because I learned what not to do,” she said of her boss.
She eventually took at job at a political watchdog group in Philadelphia called the Committee of Seventy. Her running route (she doesn’t jog — she runs) took her past a men’s homeless shelter. In May 2007, she had the idea to start a runners’ club that might bring order and purpose to the lives of the shelter’s residents.
“Everything about it made sense to me,” she said. “Running is so powerful. It was absolute therapy for me when my parents went through a divorce.”
After some e-mails and a meeting over coffee, the director of the shelter sent Mahlum the names of nine men and their shoe sizes. A popular store called Philadelphia Runner agreed to donate the footwear for the participants.
She called her project Back on My Feet because its purpose is to help members of the shelter become self-sufficient and productive employees. She started hosting races and galas. She raised $300,000 and persuaded big corporate sponsors such as Marriott, AT&T and Accenture to donate.
About 46 percent of Back on My Feet participants graduate from the program, many of whom find jobs at places such as Marriott.
She attributes her success to her total commitment.
“You have to be all-in,” she said. “You have to be super-convincing. A homeless runners’ club sounds like you are out of your mind. I feel like if I told someone they could fly, they would believe me.”
After six years, she was earning $185,000 a year, had a $6 million budget and commanded a staff of 48. There are Back on My Feet chapters in 11 cities across the country.
Then she did a remarkable thing. She realized she was a better entrepreneur than operations person — and she walked away Aug. 1, 2013.
“A lot of times, founders can stay too long because they don’t know what to do with themselves,” Mahlum said. “They get so attached to their company, whatever it might be, they don’t know who they would be without it.”
Mahlum said Back on My Feet is prospering without her presence because, in part, it has a strong board of directors that infuses her project with the same passion she had.
She found her next project while in Los Angeles on business, when she became intrigued by some machines she saw in a fitness studio window.
She was at the studio the next morning, undergoing the hardest workout she ever experienced.
Mahlum went back to her home in New York City and began figuring out how to turn her L.A. workout into her own business. She took $150,000 in savings and bought 10 megaformer machines for $69,000. She hired a real estate broker, and he found her 2,000 square feet of space on Columbia Road in the District, putting down $27,000 in cash for a four-month security deposit. “It was a risk. I had never done this before.”
She bought the territorial rights for more than $100,000, which she is paying off over several years. She knew the media game from Back on My Feet, so she built a social media presence for Solidcore across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
She offered 10 days of free classes when she opened the Columbia Road studio in November 2013.
Within three weeks, her classes were full. She opened another studio less than four months later. Now there are five. She expects to have between 10 and 15 in the region by the end of the year.
Mahlum said friends found it hard to swallow the fact that she is a capitalist. “They said, ‘Anne, you are supposed to be this martyr, go to Africa and save the children.’ I like to create things,” she said. “That’s my motivation. There is also nothing wrong with making money.”