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Radical Podcast - Ryan sits down with Kory Keefer

January 15, 2019

Radical Podcast - Ryan sits down with Kory Keefer
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A lot of inspiration and value from this episode as Ryan sits down with CORE24 gym creator and owner, Kory Keefer. Ryan and Kory talk about brand building, the impact of culture on gyms, and some of the ups and downs of growing a business. Learn more at Radical.Company or follow @radical_results on Instagram.

A lot of inspiration and value from this episode as Ryan sits down with CORE24 gym creator and owner, Kory Keefer. Ryan and Kory talk about brand building, the impact of culture on gyms, and some of the ups and downs of growing a business. Learn more at Radical.Company or follow @radical_results on Instagram.


Ryan Alford [00:00:14] Hey, guys, It's Ryan Alford, host of the Radical Company podcast. It is the podcast Friday here at Radical. You don't know what Friday it is, though, because depending on when you're listening to this, you never know what Friday that might be. So we'll keep the suspense there. But, I'm really excited to be joined today by Kory Keefer, a local gym owner here in Greenville. They have a couple of gyms in their family that they run. Kory is someone I've really been watching in the Greenville market doing a lot of things culturally with both music, the gym, art, and a lot of things. Kory, I am really excited to have you on the podcast. 

Kory Keefer [00:00:52] Yeah, awesome to be here. I love coming in and discuss some stuff and have some fun. 

Ryan Alford [00:00:58] So yeah,  I'm a member. It's easy and I don't mind saying this even with clients and other people listening, the best gym in Greenville. It just really fits my vibe personally- killer equipment, killer vibe, killer culture. It's the first gym I think in Greenville that really captured the spirit that I was looking for in a gym. So kudos to you. I know you've worked hard on that. I am really excited about the gym culture there. 

Kory Keefer [00:01:31] The biggest thing is when you walk down the stairs, we want to punch that in the face with that. You just wear it. It's something different, where it just looks and feels like it's not a standard corporate gym. That was the biggest thing. Walking down the stairs, you just welcome to our world where it's not going to be anything that you're used to. That's kind of where it started. 

Ryan Alford [00:01:54] Well, you definitely got that going. Let's start, man. I'd love for our listeners to give your background like the history with the gym. You guys started the first gym in Seneca. Do a little synopsis of your background and what led to today.

Kory Keefer [00:02:16] So a quick rundown, I went to college in Charleston, which is  too much of a fun school. I graduated with a major. I didn't know what the hell I was doing there. I was just partying and keeping a good enough grade to stay in school. So I graduated there and I don't know what the hell I want to do. So I just booked a trip to London and backpacked Europe for like six months. I was like, "I just got to get out of this bubble because it's easy to get stuck in that bubble-the food and barf and just whatever." It was just like finding myself, seeing what I can do by myself.

I always had that entrepreneurial spirit. Then my parents, my dad's a pilot, my mom's the entrepreneur behind everything started the original gym probably fourteen years ago. My dad wanted a 24 hour gym because he has weird flying hours. They started a small one and my mom pretty much did the whole thing. It grew from just a small thing to an actual gym like business. When I was in high school, I messed around with it, but it wasn't anything that I wanted to do because I wanted to do my own thing. If my dad says anything, no matter what it is, even if it's right, I'm like, "screw you, I won't do my own thing." Then I'll come back to what is my own thought or my own thing. They're like, "OK, yeah." They ran it awesome.

Then the management kind of plateaued for a while. They were talking about selling it. It's like too much. It's more than what they wanted because my dad's still doing a pilot. I was like, "I want to do something else." I'm tired of this shit that she's doing all the time because it wasn't really like growing at that time. And, that happened when I was coming back from Europe. I have this desire to start something. Let me figure out if I can just jump into it. Worst case scenario, I mess it up and you sell it anyways. I started cleaning the gym. I was like, "I'm trying to make this gym look immaculate and clean it." Let me see if I can start working with the management and see if I can get people excited to come to work.  I just like doing small things and was able to grow the gym the first year. It was like 25 percent, then 50 and 70. It was just like a startup. So we grew up within like the first year to almost three hundred percent. We were able to expand that in three locations in the Seneca area.

We're in the one now, which is a 14000 square foot gym. We bought the building. It's awesome. We came to a point where like, "OK, I don't need to be there every day to run the show. So let's look at an actual city and Greenville, you know, made the most sense from the Seneca Clemson area. Happening somewhere across this the building right now, which was a shithole when we got out.  I was like, "there's no way I'm ever touching this gym like it. It's horrible". I think maybe this is something that if we just strip it down to the bare minimum or canvas, maybe we can work with this. So that kind of came up.  I guess some of these ideas that I was trying in Seneca. It is an interesting market. I love Seneca, but you have an older demographic. You have high schoolers and Clemson College, but it's not necessarily in Seneca. I was trying all these marketing things and some of them were working. I was like, "I really feel there's something that could be bigger."  I want to try it like a city where the population is a little more dense and let me figure out something with it. So that's when Greenville came about and then. So, started with this idea.

I guess the brainchild behind it was sitting around with some of my friends. I was like, "Look, where do we hang out with people outside of the bars? Or where do we meet people outside the bars?" No one can come up with an answer. We watch the football games when we go out. It's all like sitting around like bars or clubs, like really hang out with people or meeting people outside of that. I was like, "OK, if we move to a new city, how do you meet someone?" You can do these lame people meet up groups and shit like that and maybe go to the bar by yourself. But that's weird. I was like, "OK, it's not weird to go to the gym by yourself, and if the atmosphere is more energetic, it's easier to meet people." If there's a lot of younger people, then there are just cool entrepreneurs, young professionals. There can be a place where you can meet and interact and have an environment that you enjoy going to when you wake up. So instead of waking up with a hangover, it is kind of that same idea behind going out because you go out to meet people to dance, to have a good time  and like drinking a byproduct of that. Well, "Why can't we just do that in a gym setting where everyone knows that working out and eating healthy is good for you. So little people do it and everyone knows that drinking and going out is bad for you, but like no one else is going out on a big night or Saturday night with your boys or girls. So instead of preaching to everyone you should work out because it's good for you, I was like, let me just create an environment that is more enjoyable to come to. Then, it makes working out easier if you just come to the environment. This is more of an atmosphere and a vibe and it's easier to work out because you just like to come to the space in general when it's a place to hang out, a place to meet people, but I mean, obviously a place to work out.Everyone knows working out. I could ask a homeless guy on the street, I'm like, "Yo, if you worked out, is that good for you?" And he's like, "yeah." He knows that because drinking this beer every day is bad for you. Everyone knows. It's just like no one wants to do it. Taking the psychology behind it a little bit and just creating a space, I guess brought that out. 

Ryan Alford [00:08:02] Yeah, I love that. Once it becomes a lifestyle, you enjoy going to the gym, but there's always something on the tour of doing it. If you can bring it and make it somewhere, that's more in line with the things that people are interested in, whether it's the music, whether it's the look, whether it's the vibe, the people, the culture, it's great. I mean, what a concept.  I lived in New York for five years. I didn't walk into a gym that looked and felt like yours. Yeah, there was some energetic music going on here, but it still felt very corporate. I think there's something there. I'd love for you to talk about your cultural inspirations. There's tons of art  you've done in the gym. Talk about the inspirations for the culture vibe. It's the core. 

Kory Keefer [00:09:13]  I just kind of grew up being a rebel. Always played in the gray area. So I never was like a hardcore troublemaker, but If there's rules, I'm going to try to play around them. If you tell me, don't press that button, I am probably going to figure out a way around to do that. Like you said, everything felt so corporate and they're afraid to be edgy. They're afraid to rebel against that. Rebel, I guess maybe just a bad word, but like kind of just rebel to be like yourself, like not afraid to. Show your true self. I guess the culture behind is like, you know, music and the art and, tired and fitness and all those things. You don't have to speak the same language as someone to be able to connect over a song or music. You don't have to speak or even be in the same culture barrier as like an art piece. It kind of transcends cultural barriers- the art and those things and fitness as well. You can see someone that has a cool style. You can connect with them and not even know who they are. That I wanted to bring into the fitness world. A big thing of the music is being edgiest. I feel like there was a burning desire for people to be "OK, yeah, this music is going to cuss. We're going to have beer on tap." If that offends you, then we're not for you. There are too many gyms and too many places. We're just trying to appeal to everyone. Just trying to bring the prom queen or whatever and just be like everyone's going to like you, that sounds good at first on paper, but then no one really likes you. But, it's OK to piss people off. I don't want to have everyone here, but I want to have a select group of people that truly believe in our style. If we have that, then we'll be able to breed a better culture and have like true fans, true customers. People that are are a part of it and more or less than just members,

But, the art I mean, I'm not an artist. That's something I did in middle school and then never did it. Besides that, I started throwing paint on the walls and my buddies as it was cool and a release from doing business. At four in the morning, I can do some artwork. It brings some L.A. vibe, some Miami, New York style-kind of all together. Some underground music culture. I grew up just listening to hip hop. All my shit was ever just hip hop stuff. My mom used to find the CDs with the parental advisory and she was like, you can't listen to this trash. Still my dad's like Dr. Dre’s albums and stuff like that. It's like some hip hop culture into it and just like hype stuff. I guess not necessarily mainstream as what we're at more of that underground vibe. But, yeah I am not afraid to be authentic. When you walk in there, you get a piece of me.  I was like that's just it. So you're able to like, see inside my mind a little bit and connect with me and in a real way that I'm not afraid to show.  

Ryan Alford [00:12:30] I love that transparency. I think it's moving towards that place where people are getting more comfortable  being their authentic self. But, at the same time, it's such a rarity. With everyone following the herd and especially with corporate businesses and things like that. I understand the PC side of things and having to toe that line, especially if you want to have 500 locations and have the 99 model, but I think you're really on to something with really carving out a look of feel in a culture that matches the energy and it almost creates community. I think that's the word I kind of come back to when I think about what course doing versus other gyms. I've been a fitness guy my whole adult life and I've been a member, probably living in Greenville or  New York, whatever, probably 50 gyms. But there's a community with core that I think that you've really struck a nerve with. That's just growing. So I commend you for that. You talked about your parents. It's interesting thinking about pleasing your parents. How did they come into court? What do they think of where it landed? 

Kory Keefer [00:13:58] So my mom's a saint, by the way. She's such a sweetheart. She's always like this, music's too loud? She's like, "Did they just say the F word?" I'm like, "Yeah, Mom." But, that's OK. She always like, "you need turns down." I'm like, "what do you want to play?" She doesn't like country or something like that. At first they were anti everything. They're like, "I don't get this, this doesn't make sense." Then they started seeing I guess the path behind it was like working. They're like, "OK. They gradually come on board with the ideas behind it. But, they don't interject on too many things. I mean, they don't say their two cents. They ground me in some sense of just like see in that perspective what you know, we're not. I'm not targeting that age demographic necessarily.  If I was, then that would make us every time, and that's what it goes back to. We have to have a competitive advantage on these corporate gyms. You've got these giants out there to go any times, these Planet Fitness. I'm not going to beat them at being goes. I'm going to beat Planet Fitness being that Planet Fitness. It's like, "where do I have a competitive advantage there?" They are a 747 Boeing jet, they can't just make a U-turn really quick. If they want to change their corporate structure, it's going to be a slow process. I can move very quickly and I can make something that has an edge to it that they can't. They can't play music like that. Their corporate would have a heyday. HR, will get calls left and right. I can do that, though. So it's like, "OK, I can have something that can appeal to that younger demographic or just someone they want to see a younger demographic." It's more of a mindset. It's not an age necessarily. You have to be eighteen to get in the gym, but other than that, I don't care how old you are. It's more of the mindset that. You can be an 80 year old, but if you are cool with that and you just want to have that environment, then yeah, that's awesome. Our age or younger  you know, 25 to 35 year old demographic. It doesn't have to be age, it's more of just a mindset that we're going after. That's like where we can grow more. It is just like creating a niche, and it's hard because at first you're looking at penpals and everything, OK. If I do classes, if I do this, I can have a much broader network of people that we can appeal to. Maybe at first you can get them as customers, but then you start losing the true people. They are like, "well, the music's too loud," so we'll turn it down. People are like, "well, that's what I came here for". Then you lose them. You wouldn't have a core group of people. You try to get brand loyalty off price and that never where you can never brand loyalty on price than your gas station. No one does that. Try to have true customers, like Apple. Apple could come up with an iPhone generation, whatever. Nothing changes, which they pretty much do, and a million people are going to buy it. It could be three thousand dollars for the next one, and the cameras can be one pixel better and everyone's going to buy because it doesn't matter what Apple does, they have branded that. It's OK if you don't like Apple products, they're not for you. It's bad to have that mindset behind a soul cycle. You can go to the soul cycle, a powerlifter. They don't try to appeal to powerlifters, but they appeal to that certain demographic. They exploded and they did amazing. So it's just like reverse engineering of what you want to have from there originally. 

Ryan Alford [00:17:29] You're a young guy. I mean, compared to this old building across the table. You've got a business acumen that I really respect. You strike me like I wasn't a straight-A student by far. I never was. I was not in Clemson. I wasn't in high school. I don't even know what my GPA is. I'm going to announce that on the podcast. But, I always had a business. What I really respect about what you've done, listening as we've gotten to know each other, there's a business acumen about you. An understanding of branding and business. Where does that innate come from? 

Kory Keefer [00:18:20] So I didn't really take that many business courses in college. I was a communication major because all the hot chicks were in communities across. Sorry, mom and Dad. That's pretty much what it was like. 

I took a couple of entrepreneur classes, but like I said, my mom is an entrepreneur. She's built businesses and stuff. I think, like, that was like subconsciously and still when I was younger, I guess, it just comes from that. I'm good at taking myself out of a situation and the emotions out of a situation and being able to look at it from a customer's scenario. I think that helps. I'm attached obviously to the gym, but I can see if it's not working properly or if there's something that it's just my perspective. I think that helps a lot where I'm like, OK, if I was to walk in here, if I was someone off the street or if I was just a random person, how would I feel? How do you look? How would I like this? I try to do that more often so that I don't get caught up in this narrow minded vision. It's all emotional stuff. I guess it's my upbringing. I really don't know.  I'm not going to claim that I know shit honestly, because I just kind of shoot from the hip and at halftime I review the playbook and see what's working and what's not. Like, "Okay, this really didn't work. Let's try this." I'm not the most structured person either. It's kind of controlled chaos and. I know that and I probably need to hire someone that's a little more structured to help me in that aspect. I don't try to be something I'm not or try to act like I know things that I don't. I'm always trying to learn.

I think at college, it's probably my senior year when I was really like, "What the hell am I going to do after this?"  I just thought, "I'm really good at meeting people, just having connections with people. I met Tommy Baker. I believe his name is a big name down in Charleston. I met with him for brunch. I had a meeting with him and he was like, "What value are you going to add to me?" This is like a senior year.  I was trying to work for him. At the time I had nothing to say. I was like, "oh, shit."

I literally had that conversation pretty much ended. When it hit me I was like, "OK, what value could I?" At that point I had nothing. I didn't really have anything. So I  started reading books. I'm a slow reader, so I started listening to books more or less, and I would do other things. I think that jump started a mindset of like pissed me off for greatness or success, if you want to. I was around affluent people, but I was there like cocktails. Then I was like meeting these people and I was like, "OK, you're not necessarily smarter than me. You just were able to do it. You're not like an esoteric figure that no one can touch." I guess it's like something switched. I was like, "Alright, I'm going to figure this out." It's just a process. Let me just do it. I don't want to look back at myself and be like, "Damn, what the hell was I doing?" Or go to my kids in the elementary school thing and they are like, "oh, my dad's a loser." I don't want to be that. So, I was like, "All right, I think maybe just like, help me." And, I am not afraid to mess up. I think that's a big thing, too. My parents allow me to try so many things. I was a skateboarder, all this stuff, like D.J. stuff in college and I wasn't afraid to try things and see what I liked and fell and some things too because you just got to hit one home run with it, making that like the next thing. It's a failure, but not necessarily, you know, it could be a money failure, but it was expensive failure, expensive lesson 

Ryan Alford [00:22:20] You learned from it. 

Kory Keefer [00:22:20]Exactly. If I lose all my money, if I do this or whatever, worst case scenario, I can call mom and dad and sleep on that couch. My pride would definitely take a hit, but whatever, if that happens, I think that I was like, "OK, I'm going to figure this out." I think that's just where it led me to do it and not playing by the books. Honestly, I didn't read business books because I didn't want to play how businesses are doing. I want to kind of set my own. I guess parameters of what we're doing. 

Ryan Alford [00:22:55] You didn't read them and I haven't read that many. But I've been in it long enough to know that you've got a sense about being adjusted. But, I see what you're doing with the marketing and like your vision, like some of the content and all that, like understanding, branding, even the concept. I talk with a lot of people, clients and have been at this at marketing a long time. It's either an acquired or innate ability to understand the power of a brand. A lot of people, you know, they want to sell more stuff, but they don't understand what gives something its worth, its value. Yeah, I know this water bottle is worth whatever, but it's a Fiji water bottle and I pay three dollars for it instead of 99 cents. That's not just a given, I've really respected that.

Kory Keefer [00:23:52] That was something that I was like when I was younger. I always had a sense of cool or I was always trying to be on the trends of stuff. My sister was older, so I was taking styles that her and her friends were doing. I was always trying to be the front end of what I was wearing and what was cool. I was not  afraid to be a little different. I think it was like when the first time I found out about Louis Vuitton was and I was like, "Shit!" or no it was a shop. I was at a shop. We were traveling younger and I picked up a shirt and it was like fourteen hundred dollars. I didn't know the brand at the time. I was like 12. I asked mom, "why is this fourteen hundred dollars? It looked like a regular shirt to me." She pointed to the logo and I was like "what?!" It's pretty much the same shirt, same shit maybe a little better. But, put the label on it and it's a thousand percent profit margin on that. That goes back to the brand. That brand is like what was made, more something, whereas a feeling. That's what I want people to think about core. When they come in, there's a feeling. It's not just like a logo. It's something that they can relate to. They're like, I want to put that on my back.  I see that and I relate to that. There's a part of me in there, too, where people get Harley Davidson tattoos on them. It's a corporate logo, you get tattooed on your chest or whatever. But, it's like they have something to that. I'm a ride or die type there? That's where I want to evoke a feeling. When you look at our page, I want there to be a feeling behind it rather than just like, "oh, it's a gym." The gym thing's almost secondary to what I want that community and that culture to be. It just happens to be a dope gym. 

Ryan Alford [00:25:41] Yeah, I love it. So what's the future hold? What's in your crystal ball or plans for other gyms or for core here? I imagine you've thought about expansion. I think we've even talked about that a little bit after you're being careful just to do it the right way. Talk about where things are headed?

Kory Keefer [00:26:07] So Atlanta, Charlotte  kind of peeking our interest a little bit. I mean, it makes sense for semi-locals to keep it in the area so you can drive there. I have a really good feeling about Atlanta. I love the culture there. There's a bunch of sports teams, there's a bunch of movies going on. There's a bunch of hip hop culture. I think that's a great spot to be at. So expansion is obviously on the forefront. But I don't want to run before, you know, I'm walking right now. I'm trying to incorporate technology a little bit more into what we're going to be doing. I'm playing around some ideas of what we can have with technology embedded into the gym. Whether it's automated front desk stuff where we have like pre-workout on tap and different style and just have everything a little bit more like tech-friendly and integrating that in somehow. Obviously, I want to innovate with the gym every day, every month. I want you to walk in there and be something a little different or feel different and build that brand itself. I need to build the brand more before I really can take it nationwide or anything. But yeah, I want to expand because I feel like, why not? We're doing well here. Obviously, we can be doing better and we are going to keep growing. But now, I want to hit it when I can't because we're seeing these places and cities that people are coming to grambling like, "man, I wish there was a gym like this in Houston or in Tampa where I live or in Atlanta." I'm like, it's really not. Then I like crowds in these places and I'm not seeing anything that has exactly what we like doing. They're either like Class-Based boutique gyms or these massive lifetime fitness clubs that are one hundred thousand square foot. People were kind of missing the true gem. That's not afraid to be an actual gym. So, if we can get capital right and the funds, then I guess people will write to us. The big thing is having people in place at all these gyms so that I'm not having to be there 18 hours a day.

Ryan Alford [00:28:23] Sometimes hiring people is the hardest thing you do. 

Kory Keefer [00:28:25]  I mean all the people at all my gyms, that's the only reason why I'm here. I have amazing staff from Greenville and Seneca. That's the only reason that I'm able to grow. I give it all to them and just being able to keep those guys and girls in place and just being able to have that where the trust is there. That's the biggest question mark with businesses is the people behind it, because technically they're representing the business. If you get an asshole where they look good when you're around, but when you're not around, they're dickheads. They're like, what course sucks? Or Radical suck just because of one person that could ruin it for that group of people or whatever.

Ryan Alford [00:29:11] I'm sure you're learning this already. I've been hired and I get fired. I hate that word. But, I had discussions with probably dozens of people, unfortunately, in my career. But, it's hard to get it right every time. I'm blessed to have a great team here at Radical, too. They represent you at all times. That's definitely one of the hardest things as we close out.

Any advice that you've learned now running your own business or maybe someone young or they're like, I want to be an entrepreneur. I want to grow. You've accomplished a lot of things. I know you're still growing and you're humble about it. But, any advice that you throw out there for anyone listening that's thinking about it, not just the gym thing, but just business in general? 

Kory Keefer [00:30:09] Yeah, I just like the advice I try to tell myself, and anything, general, is just action. That's what makes the difference between winners and losers and recognize there are losers in the world. There's winners and losers and don't be a fucking loser. The difference is people that take action whether if you're fit or not, you're taking action by going to the gym and working out whether you're showing up to work everyday. That to me is like the biggest difference maker in the winners and losers and the people that are successful, the people that do well is action by calling your mom. Just just doing it. So many people will do things on paper or like research, and then that paper goes in a binder and never gets old enough. If you did half less research and then more action, it could have flipped the other way around. So I guess that's the biggest thing. I wish that would have been vice to myself that I would have done in college. I would have taken more of those action steps then, maybe I could have been in a better position than I am now or further ahead. There's no special formula. Obviously, hard work and all that shit, but action, taking that first step just towards it is worthwhile. Then everything else will happen or not, that's on you after that. 

Ryan Alford [00:31:27] I love it. Well. I'm definitely going to hold you to speaking at one of the Greenville Hustle. That's been an interesting venture for us, trying to bring those like-minded people together. There's invariably the doers and the non doers and so you  get a shake through that. But I'd love for you to come speak at one of those events. You know, tell the story.

Kory Keefer [00:31:56] That's one thing that I've slacked on is my networking. I'm always really good at that. But like with open gym, I have not been as good as reaching out and like networking or just talking to people and stuff. So I definitely love to be involved and speak or whatever. Like I said, I don't act like I know everything, so I definitely don't. I don't know shit, but I would speak from my own experience and that's what I think. 

Ryan Alford [00:32:21] Yes, I know, you had a great story to tell. You should be proud of everything you've done with Core. I'm proud to be a member, proud to support you. I really appreciate you coming on today. 

Kory Keefer [00:32:30] I appreciate you having me. It was awesome.

Ryan Alford [00:32:32] Brother, thanks so much. Take care. Hey, guys. I really enjoyed today's podcast with Kory Keefer. If you're in Greenville, you need to get to Core 24- best gym in Greenville, Bar none. Check out Kory. You can find him on Instagram, all the regular channels for Core 24, Greenville. I believe that's it for you. Get in there and I hope to see you. We will talk to you next time here on the Radical podcast.