Mike Doehla converted his garage into a gym and began training people. No one really cared except him, and that continued for 13 months until he shifted to nutrition coaching, as he realized that people didn’t have a problem with fitness; they had a problem with food and nutrition. That’s when he started Stronger U, a nutrition coaching company nowadays generating $600k in monthly revenue.
Hi Mike! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
Hey! I’m Mike Doehla. I grew up in Newburgh, New York, and went to school for business. 4 years ago, at 33, I founded Stronger U, a nutrition coaching company of which I’m currently the CEO.
Prior to this, I worked in banking for many years and then I transitioned to human resources. I wasn't very happy in that world; I wanted to do something more creative. I didn't necessarily see myself as an entrepreneur, but I wanted to work in the fitness industry in some way.
That’s how I converted my garage into a gym and began training people. But in the early days, I didn't have a clue about what I was doing. My website was terrible. My gym was cold. Nobody really cared much about it except me. I did that for 13 months working a few hours a night. Then I went completely online and stopped training people to focus on helping them with nutrition (coaching). I then became full-time and hired three other coaches to help me.
I decided to make that transition because the training thing was not working; it was more of a hobby. In order to grow and to quit my full-time job, I would have had to quadruple the number of people I was training. That’s when I figured if I focused on something I was better at and more passionate about, I could make the transition.
In the beginning, the business model was a subscription with a minimum of 12 weeks, though we also sold 6 and 12 months. Today’s model is still a subscription though pricing has changed a little bit from the early days.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
At first, the goal was to help people with training as I really wanted to work in that field. However, I then started to realize that people’s issues were really around food and nutrition. They didn’t need me to train. They needed me to improve their eating habits. I got sick of watching people suffer and knew I could help, so I dove in.
My knowledge about nutrition comes from 15 years of learning on myself, getting certifications, reading lots of books, watching videos, talking with mentors, and things like that. A lot of trial and error on myself as well. I do have to thank those early members for giving me their trust. Without them, we do not exist.
At the time I started, there weren’t many people doing something similar online. There were a lot of nutritionists who had traditional offices, but the way we did it was different. We didn’t need to charge what they charged and we didn’t need to have office visits. Everything was virtual.
How did you build Stronger U?
At first, I didn't have a website or anything. I was just talking on Facebook about nutrition when someone came and told me: “Hey, I want to hire you”. I thought of a price that was fair to ask as I had no proof of concept yet and evidence that what I was going to say was going to work. So I just threw a number out and it was enough for them to be incentivized to follow.
After that, I gained some traction from a lot of the first customers’ networks. A lot of the people they knew, wanted help as well. I built a crappy website on Wix that helped me display what I offered. People that were working with me would just send their friends to the website and then these people could contact me through email; it wasn’t a sales tool.
Soon, many people began to ask about my service, but I didn’t have enough time to coach them all. It would have risked the customer service which is essential for business like this. That’s why I started looking for people who could do a great nutrition coaching job and invited them to come on board with me.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
Our marketing is still very bare-bones. We're thinking of hiring someone to help me do marketing, but we're still riding the wave of word of mouth. We just do a very good job with our clients and they grow the business for us. The website has improved a lot since the start, though.
Social media helps but to an extent. There are accounts in our niche with 100k followers but are only helping a few people. We have around 35k followers and have helped even more than that.
We have also tried some ads on Facebook but it didn’t really work. In our industry, marketing is more about brand awareness than selling right on the spot. It's hard to sell a multi-hundred dollar service with an ad.
Word of mouth is, in the end, what has allowed us to grow to a 70 person staff and 40,000 customers. I think the reason it has worked so well is because of how badly the nutrition industry is failing people. People are really sick of not getting the results they are supposed to get from other diets. We fix that. For good.
The dieting industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and it is doing a crappy job. It can help you lose fat, but it doesn't help you change behaviors. It doesn't give you strategies, it just gives you some rules that you have to follow, and if you don't, you don't get results. We're very flexible in that way; our approach is to meet people where they are and just try to help them on an individual level without all the nonsense.
Pricing the service has been one of the hardest things for me as we grew. We obviously needed to charge more, not only because we’d got better at what we do but also due to the increasing costs of running the business. We had to charge more in order to hire more people, grow, and improve. But not too much where nobody wanted to work with us. So that has been a really delicate balance.
What are your goals for the future?
We really want to keep growing and help more people. Staying where we are right now would mean helping fewer people and that doesn’t sit well with me.
I don't have any revenue goals. My goal is mainly around how many members we help, how successful they are, and how many jobs we can create. I’m much more process-driven; I know that if I do the right things every day, our goals will happen by default.
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
The technology stuff, aligning the team and finding really good people have been the main 3 challenges. The coaches are the most important people in Stronger U so hiring correctly and knowing who's going to be an awesome coach that aligns well with our values and what we’re trying to do as a business, is hard.
We don't have any recruiters but we have built a network of friends that generally recommend coaches. I also meet some coaches at conferences. Even some clients experienced in nutrition have become coaches and we have trained them. Some of them become full time, some others part-time.
Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?
I think funding has been a disadvantage in comparison to our competitors. We are 100% debt-free, and everything has come out of our pocket. There are some other businesses in the industry that have received millions of dollars in funding and can grow much more quickly and efficiently.
Another disadvantage is the nutrition market. It's really hard to build trust. Many people have been misled and lied to so many times with other diets that it makes it hard to convince them that our system works. Stronger U offers something quite simple and it almost intimidates people because they don't think good nutrition can be this easy. This is also related to the word of mouth strategy we have mainly used, why we value our members so much, and why we put customer service over anything else.
What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
“Start with Why” by Simon Sinek is one of the bests books I’ve read. It shows you that there always has to be a good reason behind everything you do. Without that good reason, there's just chaos and no direction. But if you have that why and a set of values, then you know everything you do is about that and you can't go wrong.
I read a bit but don’t consume much information apart from that. I think too many people keep consuming a lot of information while they already have the necessary knowledge to implement. Collecting more information instead of doing isn’t always the best strategy.