How Sam Overcame Incredible Personal Challenges To Grow Alpha Fit Club

How Sam Tooley Overcame Incredible Personal Challenges to Grow Alpha Fit Club

At just 31 years old, Sam Tooley is the co-founder of a highly successful gym with 13 locations and more on the way. While Sam has had plenty of highs as an athlete and entrepreneur, he’s also experienced some incredibly difficult times.

Sam lost his father and brother, just nine months apart while in his 20s. He’s also completed rehab to overcome substance abuse issues. And Sam is also open about struggles with depression and anxiety.

In this interview, Sam opens up about his journey and how his entrepreneurial spirit and his refusal to quit have helped grow Alpha Fit Club.

👇 Key Takeaways

  • See how a volunteer coaching job changed Sam’s life.
  • Sam recognized he couldn’t control what happened to him, but he could control his response.
  • He credits constant support and the ability to believe as keys to overcoming.
  • Alpha Fit Club was founded after spotting a gap in the market.
  • You’ll love the creative way Alpha Fit Club kept its community together during the pandemic.

Overview

Business Name: Alpha Fit Club
Website URL: www.alphafitclub.com
Founders: Sam Tooley, Jerry Eicke, Rob Bothe, Tim Banos, Bre Casey, and Allison Kenney 
Business Location: New Jersey, USA
Year Started: 2019
Number of Employees/Contractors/Freelancers: 100+

Tell us about yourself and your business.

My name is Sam Tooley and I’m 31 years old, born and raised in Westfield, NJ. I grew up playing every sport under the sun but it wasn’t until high school that I found my niche in running. I was always moderately athletic, but only because I was the fastest kid on the field.

When I found running, I found my home. It was simple but not easy. I was fortunate enough to have Coach Martin during high school. He saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. I started as a mediocre runner and grew into a state champion and school record holder. 

After high school, I went on to run at Fairfield University but my stint running was brief. I had fallen out of love with the sport and in love with the gym. Admittedly, the only productive thing I did in college was go to the gym and build businesses on the side.

I always had the entrepreneurial spirit – from running a laundry company during my freshman year of college to renting a fleet of Italian Ice Trucks in my hometown. I wanted to make money and I enjoyed the process of bringing an idea to life. 

By the end of college, I was struggling to find my way and feel my best. Junior year, I was academically released from the university. My parents were recently divorced, and I took the passion I had for running and poured it into partying. That partying eventually became a necessity rather than a good time. I was lost and broken. 

It wasn’t until my Dad, who never stopped supporting me (even if I felt I didn’t deserve it), asked me what I actually wanted to do with my life. I was a 5th year senior, fresh out of rehab. I ultimately decided to come home and coach at my former high school. I knew I needed to be around the program that provided me with an outlet if I wanted to walk the walk. 

That volunteer coaching job became the foundation for what has become a journey I could never have imagined. I went on to start my Instagram account, coach endurance athletes around the world, open multiple gyms, franchise a group fitness concept, and work with some of the biggest brands in the world. The journey was not without its ups and downs along the way. 

You’ve been open about past struggles with mental health. Can you tell us about your journey?

In high school, I was really angry. My home life was broken. Fortunately for me, I had found the track and had an amazing group of friends. I poured myself into both. Over time I realized I always needed an outlet. The question became whether it was positive or negative.

By the end of college, I was dealing with a tremendous amount of depression and anxiety. My outlet was partying, just hoping to fast forward through my day. I ended up checking myself into rehab at 23 years old. I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired as they say. 

That decision, while one of the scariest of my life, became the foundation for my mindset. It allowed me to handle anything and everything that came my way. I finally took responsibility for my life and my actions.

I recognized I couldn’t control what happened ‘to me’ but could control how I responded. It was my responsibility to do so in a way that aligned with how I wanted to show up in this world. 

And I didn’t know how much I would need that. 

A year later my Dad would pass away suddenly from a complication in a procedure. It turned our world upside down but simultaneously reaffirmed the above. I took it as a sign that it was my time to step up and lead. I wanted to show my brother what was possible and that we could still succeed. It was the catalyst for me starting my online coaching business, and eventually opening my first gym. 

Nine months later, the month I signed a lease to my first 700-square-foot gym, tragedy struck again. We experienced a house fire late in the night. My Mom and I were able to escape but my little brother Jake, who was going to be a sophomore in college, did not. We held his services on my 25th birthday. That next year would go on to be the hardest of my life. I lost all sense of purpose. 

But I was in the right place, surrounded by people who loved me, doing what I loved – coaching. And thankfully with a new mindset centered around showing up and owning my circumstances, making sure I was making my family (and myself) proud. 

The hardships didn’t stop there. I was just getting started in business as a young (I am still young, let’s be real) entrepreneur. But contextually speaking, my toughest challenges were behind me. 

What have been the keys for you in overcoming these struggles?

There are so many answers to this question, but I would say ultimately it was the constant support I’ve always received paired with my ability to believe. 

Without my initial support to take the steps necessary to take control of my life, I would have never had the courage to do so. Coming out of rehab and being supported to follow my heart and start coaching felt similar.

Losing my Dad and my brother and being met with so much love is something I will never forget. And as I’ve pushed forward in growing Alpha Fit Club and our other business ventures, I’ve always found myself able to tune out the noise – one of my favorite quotes is “The Man in the Arena,” and it’s tattooed on the back of my calf – and focus on those whose opinions matter. 

The second is my ability to believe. When tragedy strikes or even when you’re simply dealt a difficult hand (addiction in the family, parents divorce, etc.) it’s easy to lose belief that things will work out if you keep showing up.

I can confidently say that’s never been how I roll. I am not wired that way. Just like anyone else, I have moments of doubt, of uncertainty. But I’m more focused on “Is this right for me?” and not “Everything will work out as it is supposed to.”

Alpha Fit Club Website

What was your inspiration for starting Alpha Fit Club?

Alpha Fit Club was born out of what felt like a gap in the marketplace. I had a small private and semi-private training studio in Westfield. I was working around the clock; waking up at 2:45 a.m., leading sessions from 4:00 a.m. until 11:00 a.m., grabbing lunch, hitting a nap, working out, coaching at the high school, and back to the gym to lead evening sessions. It was all-consuming. 

I was 25 at the time and all my friends lived in the city. I was watching boutique group fitness explode but didn’t quite understand it. It wasn’t until two of my clients turned business partners invited me to a class in the city. We checked out an up-and-coming concept and I started to get the vibe. We considered franchising an existing concept but after careful consideration (and soul searching) that didn’t feel like a fit. We needed to create something that was our own. Enter Alpha Fit Club. 

My OG studio was called Alpha Performance Studio. The name Alpha stemmed from my days running cross country and track and field in my hometown of Westfield. The group names were Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Fox Trot, etc. The idea was as you worked your way up, you’d eventually end up in the Alpha group.

Little did I know at the time how hard that was, being on one of the best cross country team’s in school and state history. But it built a different type of person, a resilient person who showed up day in and day out, who was a good teammate and a good citizen as Coach Martin would say. 

We wanted to take the sexy vibe of a NYC boutique fitness studio, bring it to the suburbs, and pair that with an intentional programming methodology. We infused strength and conditioning into a circuit-style format. Members would rotate around the room in a group of four, their accountability pack, and an incredible dynamic coach would lead the experience. 

Our first location in Westfield was a rocket ship. Within nine months, we had a community bursting at the seams. And then the pandemic hit. More on this in the biggest challenges section. 

How and when did you launch the business?

We launched the business in April of 2019 in a 2700-square-foot space that used to be a small food mart. The original founders group funded the business out of pocket. I poured my life savings (and then some) into the business. It was an absolute labor of love but that made the process all the better. We were absolutely building the plane and flying it at the same time which I think made the experience feel like family. 

Tell us about your first year in business.

Our first year in business was not my first year as a gym owner, which boded well for us. While I had not been in the group fitness scene, we were able to trial classes out of my original space. The eventual product looked very different from those early days, which are fun to look back on, but the opportunity itself was priceless.

Once we opened, we continued to tinker. We focused on the customer experience, the programming, the flow of operations, and no stone was left unturned. And perhaps most importantly, we continued to develop our team. 

Nine months into operations and the pandemic struck. We were floored. We wanted to make the right decision for our team and our members. Eventually, the decision was made for us. We took a day, collected ourselves, and pivoted. I would lug a boom box and a whiteboard downtown into the street. Hundreds of people would come out on a Saturday morning to get after it. We were relentless in finding creative ways to keep our community together; from daily IG Live workouts to Zoom workouts to those sessions in the streets. We would not be denied.  

What strategies did you use to grow the business?

Word of mouth and referrals have always been our bread and butter. We wanted to make sure people feel loved, supported, and taken care of during their fitness journey. They entrusted us to lead them and that felt like an opportunity, and in turn a responsibility. 

We also got creative, throwing challenges, pop-up events, and community-driven initiatives. We would think outside the box and buy the first 100 coffees at a local coffee shop while I set up a table in the corner. Folks would come to grab a coffee and be told it was taken care of by that smiling kid in the corner. They’d come thank me, we’d chat, and maybe they’d eventually wander in for a class. It was worth a shot. 

When you’re starting a business there are no rules. Anyone who tells you there are will soon be forgotten. Whether it’s your first location or your 10th, in my experience you have to stay scrappy. Every business is a small business when you’re building brick and mortar. 

What are your future plans for the business?

Our goal has always been to franchise our concept. We opened two more locations in the middle of the pandemic in Verona and Red Bank, New Jersey. We pushed forward when others were not. People like to tell us we were smart, I like to say we were bold and lucky. Things worked out. 

After a year of those locations being open, we started to sell franchises. Within a year we essentially sold out the state of New Jersey. In the last 12 months, we’ve opened six more locations in Glen Rock, Short Hills, Basking Ridge, Marlboro, Princeton, and Wayne, NJ. By the end of Q2, we will have four more locations open in Marlton, Brick, Belmar, and Jersey City. 

We will continue to expand organically. We get a franchise inquiry a day for places all over the country and it’s exciting. We have a responsibility to continue to support our existing stores while simultaneously building out the infrastructure to support new studio growth.

I’ve always had the obnoxious saying (I have plenty as I’m a coach at heart) that we will continue to take the next right step for our brand, our franchise partners, and of course our members. Whatever that looks and feels like, we’ll know. 

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned growing the business?

Complacency is the killer of all businesses. You can always improve. 

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?

Honestly, I still think it was the pandemic. To have your business completely shut down and so much uncertainty in the air was incredibly difficult. Especially in an industry that thrives on and prides itself in connection. 


That biggest challenge was also our biggest opportunity. We knew people were craving that connection and we capitalized on it by doubling and tripling down on the business. Were we lucky that things eventually panned out as we had hoped? Of course. But did we only reap the rewards because we were bold in that moment? Absolutely. 

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Listen to your gut. Just like becoming an entrepreneur is a vulnerable pursuit in and of itself, putting yourself out there to build something new and that’s yours is even more brave. So many people will tell you what you should or should not do. But if it doesn’t feel right to YOU, eventually it’ll never feel right. It’ll feel like you’re building someone else’s dream. 

Figure out what’s driving you and never forget it. Things will absolutely get HARD. You will have moments, many moments, you want to quit. If you don’t have your North Star, it’s much easier to fold.

Call on that “why” when you need it most and never forget it. For me, that’s making my brother and Dad proud, making all the people who have supported me proud, and most importantly making the most of my time and living in alignment with who I know I am capable of being. I am here and I have this opportunity. And for me, opportunity feels like a responsibility to make it happen. 

What are some of your favorite books, blogs, podcasts, or YouTube channels?

My favorite book of all time is “High Performance Habits” by Brendan Brouchard. It has you ask yourself questions like “How do you want to show up each day?” The questions in the book serve as a framework for how you can approach each day. It’s a book I revisit to start each year and one I gift to almost everyone. 

The latest read was “Unreasonable Hospitality,” which is a restaurateur’s take on creating an unforgettable experience. We’re all in the service industry whether we realize it or not, and the quicker you realize it, the quicker you’ll win. I love finding books from folks in other industries and then figuring out ways to apply it to our world in the fitness space. People who think outside the box inspire me. And that’s a creative fire I never want to put out.

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