As Restrictions Lift, An Indie Gym Owner Sticks To Private SessionsCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In Rockaway Beach, Monice Small is building a dedicated fitness community — one personal training session at a time. Published: May 25, 2021
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Now that New York City’s ostensibly “back to normal,” I’ve been pondering when and whether to restart my gym membership. I haven’t set foot in a group fitness setting in 15 months, and even thinking about doing so makes me feel queasy. My hesitancy isn’t driven by rational health concerns, since I’m fully vaccinated and have happily embraced the CDC’s new guidelines for when to go maskless. Rather, it’s a product of months of conditioning to fear — and avoid — group settings.
Well, we’re obviously traumatized. I’m excited for the day when I feel safe to go back to the gym, but I’m in no rush to get there. One thing I’ve learned in this terrible year is that marking time isn’t wasting time.
Though many chain gyms have rushed to reopen, the situation has been a lot different for boutique studios. This week, I spoke with Monice Small, a personal trainer in Rockaway Beach who started offering Zoom workouts after losing her job at a brewery last year. Within a couple months, she had earned enough to open her own small studio, GOODFORM, and start offering private in-person sessions. Though she could technically start teaching group classes, Small is committed to her hyper-personalized programming necessitated by the pandemic. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re the first Rockaway Beach business owner I’m profiling; what brought you there?
I was born in Jamaica and came here when I was 3, so I'm not a citizen, but I'm a permanent resident. I was raised in Atlanta up until about high school, and then I lived on Long Island from high school until college. I met my husband in college, and he’s the one who is from Rockaway. I was like, "Is that upstate?" And he's like, "No, it’s in Queens!" When I came out to visit him for the first time, I completely fell in love with the area. That was six or seven years ago, and I’ve been here ever since. I am very friendly with a lot of the neighborhood business owners, and a lot of them gave me good advice and helped me to get [GOODFORM] going, in one way or another.
What were you doing before GOODFORM?
Oh, so much. Before I started GOODFORM last June, I was working at Rockaway Brewing Company and also a couple of places in the neighborhood, mostly in the hospitality scene. It was a good time, but the hours are rough, and to be honest, I'm not that keen on alcohol. I drink, but I don't like working in a bar as much as I used to. I didn't quit … When the pandemic [hit], Rockaway Brewing let me go because they weren't sure what was going to happen.
How did you get into the fitness space?
I got into personal training when my mom passed away a couple of years ago. We didn't realize that she was even sick in any way, shape, or form. She passed away from a heart attack. Me and my brother were really thrown for a loop. We just had no idea. It was so sudden. And that was when I vowed to take care of myself. I didn’t decide to be a personal trainer right then, but I started to be more in tune with my body and take regular doctor visits. I decided to be a personal trainer a year before the pandemic; before that, I was doing Pilates. I actually became a Pilates instructor through Equinox. I got a basic mat certification, and then I was like, “I love learning about anatomy and how movement can help people's everyday lives,” so I decided to also get my personal training certification. I was still working at the brewery when I was like, "Maybe I'll sign up [to work at] the gym.” And that's when the pandemic hit. I was like, “Oh shit. I don't have any money." And I wasn't able to get any unemployment because of my residency status. I didn't know what to do. My husband said, “Just start training people.” Then my friends were like, "Mo, start doing online classes." So I started doing Zoom classes. Like I said, I had no money — I paid for the Zoom membership with my credit card. I told people that I was raising money to have my own space, and the donations started flooding in. I made about $6,000 in donations, and the rest is history. And then by some miracle, all of the back pay from my unemployment chipped in three months later. So I was able to have a little bit of overhead and pay back some of my credit cards and the debts I accrued. It was amazing. I did not expect this to be as profitable as it has become.
Wow. So you didn't think you'd be eligible for the unemployment benefits because of your status, and then it turned out you were.
Exactly. I had to submit a few documents [by mail] stating that I was a permanent resident. You know, the government's crazy. I don't know how they don't have it all linked [online], but it is what it is. So it took a while and a lot of people were giving me horror stories saying their parents weren't able to get it and all this stuff. So I didn't anticipate it, which is why I asked for donations. And then it kicked in, so it helped me tremendously.
You started Zoom classes at the beginning of summer 2020 ... When did you open the space?
I signed the lease in July. My goal was $5,000, but I ended up making about $6,000. I had seen the space before I even started the Zoom classes, and I was like, “I want it, I just need to figure out how to get it.” My husband [offered to] help, but I was like, “I don't want to use your money.” With the Zoom classes, I was able to [afford] the down payment.
What kind of programming did you offer in the new space, considering that the pandemic was still very serious?
For the first couple months, I was having Zoom classes in my space. And then I started offering private sessions to clients, and I think the real appeal of it was the fact that it wasn't a gym and people felt safer doing it here because it's a lot less crowded, it’s just me and them. A lot of [business] is word of mouth. Most of my clients are in the neighborhood. Maybe they saw a flyer somewhere or they saw me through social media. This neighborhood is like a small town. It's a big small town. And then I was able to build a decent size of clients where I don't even have time to do Zoom classes anymore.
And is it just you running the whole operation?
Yes, unfortunately and fortunately. It's hard, but … Honestly, I’m a little nervous about hiring people. Especially in this industry, people can get, for lack of a better term, “bro-ey.” You go to a gym and see these guys throwing plates around and just taking up space and you can feel a little nervous. I'm not saying I would like an all women's space, but I would like to keep some feminine energy, you know? I’m taking my time with it and focusing on the clients that I have now; the most important thing for me is building my client base and making sure they know that they are priorities.
Who makes up your core clientele?
Right now, my oldest client is 71 and my youngest is around 23. They're usually beginners to weights; maybe they run, or they've done swimming, or they're watching YouTube [fitness videos]. But most of my clients are like, “I've never picked up something heavier than 20 pounds and squatted with it.” And so they are nervous and they want to do it with proper form … And I’m all about form. I mean, it’s in the name.
Your business model has been fundamentally structured by COVID constraints; as the pandemic retreats, what do you plan to keep and what do you plan to change?
I ask myself that question every single day. I have no idea. I've been dabbling with maybe having smaller groups sessions here, like two to three people. But honestly, I don't think it's going to change until I get a bigger space. [Editorial note: the current space is approximately 400 square feet.] Maybe I'll add another trainer, but other than that, I think this is working right now. AIso, I think people are still a little bit nervous ... I have spoken to people who are like, "Yeah, I'm vaccinated, but I still don't want to go to a gym."
Has opening GOODFORM during the pandemic changed your personal approach to fitness?
Yeah, for sure. I’m definitely giving myself a lot more gratitude. I'm much more present. And that might be because I have my own space. I'm not just doing moves. I'm not just aimlessly working out. I can't believe that I'm able to have my own space and do what I want [there], whether it's lift heavy weights or stretch or just breathe.
How to support GOODFORM: