When Mohammed Ibrahim’s martial arts training gym was being demolished, he took it upon himself to open his own gym. We wanted to know more.

What do you do when the powers that be tell you that the martial arts gym where you train is about to be demolished? Find another gym… or start your own gym? Mohammed Ibrahim took the latter approach, creating a gym that is not only about exercise, but about community. We spoke to him to find out the story behind his “gym for the people”.

 

Can you describe your business, what it offers and how long it has been around?

My business is called MyGym – a gym that focuses on general gym fitness, martial arts and Olympic weight lifting. I started this project in May 2012 and opened in September 2012 so we’ve just entered into our 3rd year of business.

The name is quite funky and unique, as though you are trying to express yourself through this venture. Explain the passion behind this venture.

We’ve got quite an interesting story about how we started.

Firstly, I came across Taekwondo about 15 to 17 years ago when I was 14 or so and eventually I became an instructor. The reason why I love Taekwondo is the aspect of speed, power, each kick you are fuelling with your passion for the sport – you feel the energy running through your body and you can’t compare it to anything – it’s one of the best feelings. Taekwondo teaches you to be respectful and disciplined in whatever you do. As a whole it’s a great art.

At the time there were a bunch of us University of the West of England (UWE) combat clubs, being Taekwondo, JiuJitsu, kickboxing and fencing. We were all training at a venue at the university and were given 2 months notice to leave because they were going to demolish the building. I looked at different sports venues to see if there was any availability for us but there wasn’t – unless we were prepared to go far out or pay more than we could afford.

The university already had a budget in mind to pay for our clubs to use and they did say that they would pay if we found something suitable within our budget. I went looking on that premise but still not finding anything, I had an idea. I noticed that there were lots of premises around Bristol that were not in use and were affordable and we could possibly make a business out of it, accommodating the university clubs in the process. I had a student at the time, Luke, who is now my business partner, and he suggested that we work together to make something special. So I then went on the hunt for a property for two months. I eventually found something and we approached the university with our idea of opening a gym business, and after several talks they agreed to visit our venue. As we were able to get the clubs up and running in time the university agreed to help us with funding, and were in fact grateful that we were able to offer a venue in such a short time frame. Through the university we managed to secure a three year contract, which helped us with some of our loans. Eventually four months after starting the business we were also able to get a grant from the local area and we used these funds to include a proper gym area rather than just martial arts. We have been running like this since January 2013.

Tell us a bit about your background. Are there any influences that started you on this path?

Honestly the idea was a bit of a eureka moment. I went to university to study information systems and marketing. I was working for the NHS as an IT engineer when the business idea came along.

I’ve had a passion for Taekwondo for many years now. I started when I was a teenager and got to red belt level, one below black belt. Then a couple of years ago I was coming home and was laughing at my neighbour’s kid who was making faces at me through the window. A guy approaching me thought I was laughing at him and quickly turned it into an aggressive racial attack. He hit me, leaving me with a bleeding nose, and I swore then that I would never be a victim again, so I got back into Taekwondo, eventually taking this to being a trainer at UWE. Saving our clubs became a personal mission for me – I didn’t want to see our clubs disappear because of a venue issue, so the drive and the passion came from wanting to make sure that our clubs survived so that I could make a difference to other people, like my first Taekwondo trainer/mentor had made for me.

His name was Master Suh Ki Young. I came across him back in 2003. We saw a notice in the Oriental Market across the road in Bristol and were at the time looking for a master. I trained with him for a good six years until his passing. I have so many great memories of him both inside and outside of Taekwondo. He had a unique style of teaching. He had a humble and refreshing nature and was incredibly fit. He was a great inspiration to me.

Master Suh Ki Young

Master Suh Ki Young

So you didn’t do it for financial reasons? To make money?

No, at first it was literally to save these clubs. Fortunately for me the business is now in the position where it is able to pay me a salary – not as good as my previous job, but I made a sacrifice and I think most people who start a business need to sacrifice on some level, but I do feel a lot happier because I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I see the direct result and I can see what a difference it is making in the community. As a younger student, before I became a coach, I always had a vision that one day, maybe in my 30s I would have my own Taekwondo club and be teaching, but I never thought that I would have my own gym. That’s a bonus.

And your family background? Was there anything that motivated you from your childhood to start your own business?

My parents are from Bangladesh and India. A memorable time in my life was when I was about 6. At the time I was in Bangladesh and where my grandparents lived there was a forest to the rear of the village where we used to play. One time, for some reason or another, there was a really big Bengal tiger in the forest! There is a myth that if you see a tiger and look into his eyes nothing will happen to you. Normally a tiger will pounce as they don’t like to see their prey’s eyes when they attack. I had no idea of all this and my first instinct was to just run. My cousin was with me and we saw a tree and climbed as fast as we could. I only found out later that tigers are good climbers! We were at the top of the tree watching the tiger. It came very close to our tree and looked straight up at us and I thought we were dead. Then it decided to go back into the forest. Just like that. For about 3 weeks I never went to the forest!

Mohammed Ibrahim

So my dad grew up in Bangladesh and at age 18 came to the UK to try and get a better life for his family. He didn’t have much of an education, but he was motivated because he wanted to bring his family out of poverty. They came from a very different lifestyle to what we are used to in this country and it was a big motivation for him to get his family out of that. He learnt the language as quickly as he could and started working in factories before opening an Indian restaurant. So from a young age I have seen my dad working very hard. He has definitely had a big influence on me. Even before going to university he asked me to come work with him, but I told him that I needed to make sure that I had an education ‘just in case’. And in a round about way I’m back to what my dad always said I would do!

What about your partner Luke – how did you guys meet? Any interesting stories?

Luke comes from a similar background in that his parents are very entrepreneurial. They had their own business in property and also wanted him to work with them, so we are similar in that regard. In early 2010 Luke came to the Taekwondo club as he had heard that we do a good Olympic style – fast and rapid – and he was intrigued and ended up as my student, and two years later we became business partners.

startup_Bristol SKY Taekwondo

Ibrahim and Luke training for Olympic style Taekwondo

So how does your business differ from other local gyms and competitors?

I think the key thing with us is that we have a proper community feel. Our business wasn’t created strictly for monetary purposes – it was created for saving clubs that were in need and making sure that their future was secure. People who come into the gym say it doesn’t feel like a gym, it feels like a club. In most gyms people don’t even acknowledge you – they have their headphones on and their heads down and you just walk straight in and get on with it. It’s all very impersonal. Our gym however is welcoming – everyone knows us, everyone helps each other. There’s a very social atmosphere. Which is where our name came from. Our original name was the Bristol Sports Centre purely because we needed a name to set up the business – but we weren’t really a sports centre as we didn’t offer courts for example. So we started asking members for suggestions and somebody said “I just like to call it my gym” and that got us thinking. So we started asking people what they thought of this as a name and everyone liked it. The name has a sense of community and ownership – not just something belonging to me and Luke.

MyGym

Tell us about any challenges you have faced in setting up the gym

There have been lots of challenges! We surprise a lot of people when we say that we started this business with only a £10,000 loan. We literally started with nothing and came out of nowhere and somehow we managed to get help from various sources. University was itself very useful and as graduates we got a lot of help from the university incubator service, including almost free legal assistance with acquiring the lease for the premises. We really struggled for the first year financially – it was hard to pay for things because we literally had no room for error. The first year was the hardest for us because we didn’t know what was going to happen. We also have to pay Business Rates for our premises – £10,000 a year – on top of rent. But things have really kicked up since January this year – our membership has doubled and that really helped make the business grow the way we predicted.

Some start ups say that if you can survive for the first one to two years you will take off eventually. Would you agree with this?

Yes I strongly believe that. We have been a lot more optimistic since January this year but looking back to November last year we were questioning if it was worth it. We were at a stage where we weren’t able to draw salaries and struggling in our personal lives and wondering if we made the right decision. We worked on ideas to increase numbers and with lots of help we were able to double membership and that changed everything for us.

We also had another scenario where we had to save another very old club that was also closing down – the Empire Gym, which used to house the Bristol Olympic weightlifting club. In April this year we were able to offer them space in our club which was a serious boost. Olympic weightlifting is popular in our club as we offer the space needed to train. But had you interviewed me this time last year – well I may not have been as positive as I am right now.

And your vision for the next few years for the gym?

Our immediate goal is to make sure that we sell the business as much as we can and strengthen the model. We have a few things to finish off – for example improving the female changing rooms – and then focus on how we can make the premises our own premises and have the money to then expand. We would love to have another MyGym in another town, or even another one in Bristol further out, all with the same brand image and community feel. Our goal is not to be just a standard gym but to be a community styled gym no matter where we open. People have commented that our gym feels like a Rocky style gym – people really working out and not just looking pretty.

Taekwondo means everything to me. It’s made me a stronger person, a disciplined individual and of course fitter. It’s enabled me to meet lots of different people, who are not like my family. That’s what MyGym is all about.

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