In the first of a new interview series in Fitpro magazine that profiles fitness leaders, Karen Lisa Laing met Claire Burlison Green and asked her about launching Clubbercise, the dance workout programme, and what fellow fitness professionals can learn from her experience.
I first met Claire Burlison Green, co-founder of Clubbercise, at the Women in Fitness Empowerment (WIFE) business event in March. What struck me most about Claire’s business success is that her marketing and business background meant that, when she started Clubbercise, she already had clarity over her brand and knew exactly what customer problems she was solving. I spoke with Claire to find out more about the story of Clubbercise and what fellow fitness professionals can learn from her success.
Q Karen: How was Clubbercise born?
A Claire: Clubbercise came out of an idea hatched during Christmas drinks with two friends, Sarah and Laura, in December 2012. We’d started going to Zumba classes a couple of years earlier (we didn’t like the gym). We were discussing how some music makes a real difference to our energy levels when we’re in class – particularly the dance tracks. We said, “Isn’t it a shame there isn’t a class out there that uses the kind of music you’d hear on a night out?” And Clubbercise was born.
Q Karen: So how did it develop from a good idea into an actual class?
A Claire: We started our own class in Plymouth, for friends and family really. I’m a bit of a bedroom DJ – music has always been a real passion – so I mixed the playlist. Sarah and Laura were both dancers, so together we created the class.
Q Karen: How did Clubbercise grow from one class into a national phenomenon?
A Claire: Launching instructor training courses was a very natural progression. We had the branding and Facebook page established from day one. Friends of participants around the UK commented on how much they wanted to come, so we knew demand was there. I did some market research and discovered no one else had launched a ‘healthy clubbing’ workout like ours on a national scale.
Q Karen: It strikes me that you were really clear about your brand and your market when you launched Clubbercise. Do you think that’s been the key to your success?
A Claire: Yes, absolutely. My background in marketing and graphic design meant that we had a strong brand identity from when we launched the classes in 2013. We also knew our target market. We were it! We were those people who wanted to go clubbing without the hassle or the hangover. Clubbercise is clubbing in trainers, in a safe, non-judgemental environment.
Q Karen: Has the fact you didn’t have a fitness background brought challenges too?
A Claire: Yes, it has been hard work. When I wanted to develop Clubbercise as a training programme, I first decided to study the ETM qualification and do a tutor training course. At that point I was pretty much a one-man band – I even had to teach the first few courses myself. It was embarrassing training people with more experience than me. I felt like such a fraud and, although I love dancing, I know I’m not the best. Fortunately, I can’t have been that bad since most of the people on those early courses are still teaching!
Q Karen: What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve faced in developing Clubbercise?
A Claire: We recently ran out of glow sticks at IFS and got booed! In all seriousness, managing cash flow and the legal side of a business has presented major challenges. When Clubbercise grew, I wasn’t just a sole trader anymore. I had people to pay and stock to buy. [Clubbercise is the biggest importer of LED glow sticks in the UK.] It was tough and eventually I took someone on to manage that side of the business.
Q Karen: What’s the most important business lesson you’ve learned?
A Claire: Without a doubt, learning to relinquish control. When it’s something you’ve created, it’s very hard to let that something go – especially when, in the early days, there is often only you. But I had to get help. I’ve learned to value my time and delegate my weaknesses and have invested accordingly.
Q Karen: Tell me more about your team.
A Claire: When I knew Clubbercise had potential, I got a government start-up loan. Through this, I got a mentor who helped me set up the company. His best advice was, “Don’t build a team with lots of people like you.” I’m a real forward thinker and have a tendency to run before I can walk. I joke that my business strategy used to be SOP – ‘seat of pants’. Fortunately, I’ve now got a great friend and managing director Ulrika who excels at the operational stuff. So Clubbercise has now moved from a SOP strategy to one that’s much more comfortable for all of us!
Q Karen: Have there been times when you’ve wanted to give up?
A Claire: There have certainly been moments of exhaustion. It’s like a rollercoaster. There are ups and there are downs but I can’t get off … and I don’t want to. I’ve built a business that makes people happier and healthier. I’ve been close to burnout a few times in my life, which has taught me to look after myself and my health more. I’m of no use to anyone if I burn out.
Q Karen: What do you do to balance work and life?
A Claire: I set myself goals. I’m not a natural exerciser so, when I’m busy, fitness can get neglected. I like to dance at least once a week and I do HIIT workouts in my front room every other day. I also make sure I get outdoors or just switch off my phone for a while to recharge my batteries.
Q Karen: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?
A Claire: I’ve invested my savings from the sale of a house into the business. I also dropped my biggest client in April 2014 while I was still working as a marketing consultant. It was a big risk but an important one: letting go of income in order to make space for Clubbercise to grow.
Q Karen: What’s the best advice you could give to someone building a fitness business?
A Claire: Have a look at your business. See which aspects have potential to bring in a secure, steady income. Then focus on that. Write a business plan and stick to it. I see so many people in fitness spreading themselves so thin, trying to do so much. You can still do all of the other stuff as hobbies or sidelines but get the secure income in first.
Q Karen: I’m interested in the social enterprise aspect of Clubbercise. Could you tell me more?
A Claire: For years, I’d dreamed of growing a business with social responsibility. I was inspired by TOMS shoes [TOMS matches each sale with a donation of shoes to a child in need]. I wanted to do something to help people in extreme poverty but I know I’m not the sort of person who would travel across the world to build a school with my bare hands. That’s just not me. I have other valuable skills and I knew I could help in a different way. As Clubbercise began to take off, I thought, “Clubbercise could be it.”
The decision to donate to Oxfam’s safe water projects seemed obvious considering how much water we drink during fitness classes. Through Oxfam, for every person who trains with Clubbercise, 10 people get access to clean drinking water. We’ve now trained 1,000 instructors, so that’s 10,000 people we’ve helped get access to clean drinking water, with plans for more.
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About the author
Karen Lisa Laing is a writer and journalist specialising in fitness and women’s health. Karen runs writing courses for fitness professionals. She also teaches Pilates and pre-/postnatal fitness and co-directs the fitness business Fit School with her husband Chris in Essex. karenlisalaing.com