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The fitness space is crowded, challenging, and dominated by big brands. But the upstart brand AARMY has carved out a growing niche, with revenue up more than 200% in the past two years.
How is it growing so fast? By making fitness as personal as possible.
AARMY is a gym headquartered in lower Manhattan, and offers in-person workout classes along with a plethora of online classes. But the real differentiator is AARMY’s philosophy: Founder Akin Akman says he wants his company’s coaching to reach beyond the walls of the gym and “reverberate through lives.”
“If I can help one person, if I can build one person up, I’m good,” says Akin Akman. “Some of my proudest moments are when people will come and tell me, ‘I lead my team differently because of you. I talk to my kids differently because of you.'”
And in turn, those people become the company’s most powerful advocates — helping to grow a community of devotees in a way that’s hard for a big brand to replicate.
Below, I break out the four key principles that Akman has used to build AARMY — and that any entrepreneur can use to propel their brand.
1. Fit it to Your Pre-Existing Passions
AARMY wasn’t just a business opportunity for Akin. It flows naturally from his life story. He was sent to an intensive tennis academy in Florida at the age of seven, and has been training with and coaching others ever since.
“A lot of the [AARMY] programing comes from how I grew up training,” he says. “Recovery and prehab and rehab from my injuries and just knowledge that I have acquired over the years.”
After his tennis phase, Akin became a coach at Crunch and Soul Cycle — and grew a devoted following before using all those skills to strike out on his own. Some lifelong passions might be easier to slot into a successful business model than others, but finding that intersection can be well worth doing.
2. Know Why People Come to Your Brand
“Build it and they will come,” as the old saying goes — but they don’t always come for the reasons you’d expect.
Akin learned this himself. When he first started coaching, he assumed his clients would be, as he says, “athletes like myself that missed that daily hustle, that camaraderie, that team that works diligently to sharpen your skills.”
But his actual client base became much wider. “It can be for everyday use,” he says. “It can be for sports. It’s functional training. It’s also PT, it’s longevity. So there’s all these ways to get people to see the benefits of the movement.”
By being open to a wider variety of customers and motivations, he was able to build a larger and richer community than if he’d stuck to a narrower idea of who would want to train with his methods.
3. Uniformity is Powerful
Every sports team, from soccer to tennis, boasts a uniform that binds its members together. Akin embraced this tribe concept for AARMY, drawing upon his background in tennis and his days at Soul Cycle.
He envisioned a brand where people felt connected through a shared sense of identity and belonging. Because “a soccer team has a uniform, you know what team they play for,” Akin says. To reinforce the identity, everyone who works out at AARMY wears the same gray, black, or camo-green colors during workout classes. (He sells AARMY-branded clothes, but people can also bring their own.)
By embedding a unique visual identity into the culture of his brand, he creates brand loyalty and instills pride and camaraderie among his members. That can have tangible and immediate effects on the bottom line too, with swag and merch making up nearly 10% of AARMY’s revenue.
4. Combine the Digital With the Physical
Which is better — a brick-and-mortar experience, or a digital platform? There are pros and cons to either, which is why Akin wanted to give his clients options. The trick was finding a creative way of blending the two, combining the best elements of each.
On the one hand, technology can undeniably remove obstacles, and be more convenient. “I like to get all the excuses out the door because people always have excuses. So having an app or being able to do it online also cuts that out. You can literally do it anytime, anywhere. You just have to want to do it,” Akin said.
But in-person workout classes can foster a stronger community and create more intense experiences, so the way Akin sees it is you can work out at home or while you’re traveling to “get that extra credit work and then come in person and execute at a higher standard.”
There are times when you have to pick a lane, and times when it’s all about blending the different models, and creating a hybrid that makes sense for the specific goals you’re setting out to accomplish.