Jeremey Martin, CEO and co-founder of Loaded Athletics, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, joined Cascadia Report for a chat about his career both as a sportsman, and as a successful young businessman who was recently highlighted in BC Businesses ‘30 under 30’.

Loaded Athletics was founded in 2016 by Jeremy Martin and was soon joined by his wife Tara. The company has been built on the back of a lifelong passion for the benefits of weightlifting and competitive sports, and the desire to empower people with their own strength. We talked to Martin to find out more about the story of Loaded Athletics, and how they have used technology to continue to provide services to their customers every day during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeremy Martin - Loaded Athletics

“I was working as a personal trainer while I was going through school and worked training other people's clients as a coverage trainer. So anytime someone was going on a vacation or something, they would call me, I'd train their clients for a little while. People liked the way I was coaching, and I ended up getting some referrals based on that. That eventually evolved into me having enough of my own clients that I needed to legitimize the business. I started as a sole proprietorship and then eventually my wife and I got to the point where we knew the next logical step was to find a space of our own to run the business. In February of 2019, we officially opened as our own gym.”

Martin speaks humbly about his day-to-day role at Loaded Athletics as ‘maybe CEO, head coach, training overseer, janitor’ - as with many young business owners he values being hands-on. Though he has a wealth of experience in strength training and coaching Martin is quick to recognise the role that his wife plays in keeping Loaded Athletics running smoothly.

“We cover each other's bases a little bit. She [Tara] does all the administrative side. She does all our billing, payroll, all the stuff that I'm horribly bad at and she's incredibly good at. We've been able to make a very well-rounded business partnership between the two of us. That's one thing I'm very proud of - that amidst all the warnings of working with your spouse, we've done a pretty good job of not really stepping on each other's toes and building the business and that's been, that's been really fulfilling for both of us.”

Tara Martin - Loaded Athletics

The path to becoming a successful business founder was not obvious to Martin at first, and he describes the journey as ‘a long and winding road’ which he started to explore at the age of 13. Watching his father train in the gym he had made in their basement, he says he was ‘enamored with how strong he was and, and how dedicated he was’ which he credits as his inspiration to take up weightlifting, and later pursue it as a career. This progressed into a lifelong love for sports and training which Martin followed into school and later pursued as a career.

“I had the opportunity to pursue a couple of different sports beyond high school. I decided instead that I wanted to pursue this idea of learning, how to train for sport and training other people to perform better. I ended up going to Capilano for a bachelor’s in human kinetics. That's where I met my wife, Tara. We both transferred to UBC to finish our kinesiology bachelor's. When I finished that, I got offered a scholarship to do a master's degree in kinesiology. And that was predicated on me working as a graduate assistant in the UBC strength and conditioning centre with the varsity athletes. Every time there was an end to one part of the journey, there was a door that was basically right there for me to walk through and just led me on this path to where we are now.”

Following a promising high school showing in football, rugby and basketball, Martin found himself limited by the opportunities that the Catholic school he attended in Kelowna could provide to follow his dream of a life in professional football. His passion for training and developing his own skills led him to a brief career in mixed martial arts, and was offered the opportunity to explore a career in the sport, however following a meeting with his doctor to discuss the ‘between 10-15’ concussions he had suffered, he decided to pursue his first love of weightlifting.

“You can choose to keep pursuing the sport and hope that your brain is okay, or you can pursue whatever you want to do for the rest of your life and preserve your brain as much as you can. Once I stopped MMA and I went to school I realized quickly that I still loved doing something competitively. I went into powerlifting first and I competed in power lifting for a couple of years. Then I got roped into strong man. Ever since then I have been competing in Olympic-style weightlifting. It's been six or seven years now of at least doing one or two competitions a year of Olympic style weightlifting. And I've brought myself to a third-place finish at the national championships.”

During all this Martin had a dream of opening his own gym so that he could share his love of weightlifting and coaching. While starting your own business from scratch can be daunting, starting a gym in Vancouver has its own unique set of challenges that he had to overcome to make it happen. We asked Martin what hoops he had to jump through to get there, and what advice he would have for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps.

“The number one thing I really have to tell people is to be patient. It’s pretty cliché, but if it feels like a door is closing on you when you're in the process of finding your own space or looking to open a gym, it's probably supposed to close. In some cases it was the very last minute - right before we were about to start building something would happen where it would get pulled out from underneath us, or we would have to pull out and you'd be devastated and you're back to square one.”

“Zoning in Vancouver proper is very restrictive for fitness facilities. Vancouver doesn't allow that in industrial spaces, they only want production or distribution companies to be in those spaces. Fitness facilities must be under retail. The problem with retail spaces in Vancouver is they're mostly mixed use. If you start dropping weights on a floor that has people living above it, people don't tend to like that. That's been one of the major things in Vancouver - you have to be extremely diligent in looking for your spaces here because if you don't test sound before you open up, you may be in for a tough time with your neighbours and nobody wants to be the bad neighbour.”

As a business that traditionally relies on people coming through the doors for in-person training, Loaded Athletics has been forced to operate under the restrictions set out by the government during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ability to be able to provide training plans and coaching online has been hugely beneficial to their members and allowed Martin and the team to maintain the relationships they had built.

Loaded Athletics in action

“Since, our in house capacity has had to be restricted, we have a lot of people that have switched over to an online model that we're running and either way I get to see results and people get to see results. We get to help them move better and feel better for whatever it is that they're trying to perform for. It’s been something that we've been meaning to explore before all this happened. I think a lot of businesses are realizing that a huge proportion of their communications can be done online and don't need to be done in person. And to some extent, the fitness industry is realizing that as well. We did host some classes on Zoom. We did three or four a week. But one of the major things for us is we have a niche in the fitness industry.”

The switch to online classes proved to be popular with Loaded Athletics’ clients, and Martin says that he was impressed by the dedication that many of them showed to maintaining their routine in their own homes, saying ‘there were some really cool solutions that people came up with’. Following the success of the virtual training sessions, Martin says they started to lean more heavily on a fitness app that allows trainers to upload personalized programs, and communicate directly with their clients to monitor their progress without seeing them in person.

“We use an app called Train Heroic. It's a solution for strength and conditioning coaches at universities to be able to deliver mass programs to all their athletes and track the athletes on one sole platform. It's a way for personal trainers to be able to provide training outside of their personal training sessions, they can add extra workouts to their clients' calendars. But it's also a way for people to monetize their programming and sell it via a marketplace within the app. It's the best way for me to be able to provide workouts for all of my clients and see that they're doing the workouts and get feedback from them and change them on a week to week basis and personalize it as well. We try and make sure it's as customized to their needs as possible.”

Embracing online classes and the ability to provide high quality training programs and coaching via a mobile application has provided Loaded Athletics the opportunity to continue to engage with their clients even if they decide not to return as the government in BC relaxes restrictions. The community aspect of weightlifting and attending a gym can be supplemented by this offering, and can be extended to customers wherever they are in the world, as Martin says:

‘I've had clients that have moved down to the States that are still following my programming. We just got in touch with a client that has moved to the Netherlands, and she's going to start on a program of mine soon.’

Building and maintaining the Loaded Athletics community in Vancouver is something that Martin speaks passionately about, especially considering some of the stigma around weightlifting gyms in particular, saying ‘I'm really proud of the reputation that we've gained as a gym and as an extremely inclusive community’. They offer regular incentives to attract new members, including 50% for people taking their first sessions, or those referred by a member. They pride themselves on a reputation built on the quality of the coaches they hire, and the efforts they make to ensure that people of any size or shape feel welcome.

In addition to building their own community, Loaded Athletics have been active in connecting with other local businesses both within their own industry and beyond. The spirit of collaboration in the Cascadia corridor region is strong, and the opportunities for partnerships with other businesses in the region is something that Martin and the team are always looking to build upon.

“Within the fitness industry there's a physio clinic called Lift Physio. We started working with them quite a bit and they have great physios. Body Energy Club is a local supplement and health store in the Vancouver area. They came to our grand opening and had a booth with smoothies and sample packs and everything like that. They love supporting, supporting local businesses and local ventures. They’ve been great. We just spoke with Vega who makes vegetarian based protein products, and they are sending us a few samples to hand out to our clients. I'm hoping that we'll turn into a bit more of a partnership with them. My wife and I live in the brewery corridor in Vancouver, there are quite a few beer makers and distributors around us. Electric Bicycle Brewing also helped us out with our grand opening.”

“It's really cool to see how many of these local businesses are so supportive of other businesses, even if they're not closely related in terms of what industry they're in. They're happy to help people out and help cross promote as much as they can. We try and reciprocate that whenever we can as well. I'm hoping that that sort of community bond just continues to grow, especially with so many businesses not being able to work at the capacity that they're used to working. Everybody has to help each other out a little bit.”

As a professional fitness coach, we were keen to find out more about Martin’s leadership style, and how he combines what he has learned from his background in kinesiology with the demands of managing a business and the team.

“It's an interesting blend of ways that I have to lead because I'm not only running this business with my wife, but I'm also the head coach. We have a competitive weightlifting team that has up to 20 competitive weightlifters on it. We can show up to a competition and I'm coaching between 10 and 20 people throughout a weightlifting meet. I am the head coach during those scenarios and same thing with our power lifting team. I'm not the type to use negativity as a motivational tool. I would much rather someone look to me to feel better about what's going on then be afraid of what I'm going to say.”

“That trickles down into my, my role as a business owner as well. The number one thing for me is positivity first because at the end of the day, even at the competitive level in North America, these strength sports are not a living for 99% of the people that are participating in them. We've purposely not hired a bunch of coaches. We have tried to really grow with one, one coach that we have named Gustavo and he's one of the few people that I think may be more experienced than me in the training world. know no matter what type of class he's going to teach; he's going to bring a wealth of experience to it.”

Looking to the future, we asked what plans Martin has for Loaded Athletics, and how he sees his place in the business evolving over time. While he is quick to pay tribute to the hard work that his wife, Tara, has contributed to building the business and maintaining it throughout the COVID-19 situation, the ambition for future growth is tempered by his passion for the community and work that he does.

‘There are days where I think how making Loaded Athletics a household name would be an amazing thing. But there are other days where I picture this gym just being around for the next 30, 40 years and, and having this loyal following and growing as a community where it is. And I don't necessarily know that one or the other is better. Whatever the scenario maybe I don't ever picture myself being the guy behind the computer, running the business, more than the guy on the floor, teaching people how to be as strong as they can possibly be.”

Finally, we asked Martin what three key things he has learned from his experience so far.

1. Strength is never a weakness. That is a big one for me. The idea that being strong isn't just how much weight you can lift. It's how resilient are you, how resilient is your body? And if we extrapolate out further, it's how resilient you are as a person.

2. Trying to remain positive and, and looking for silver linings is beneficial to every facet of life. Leading with love and leading with positivity is a huge tenant of my life and always has been.

3. It's not a death sentence to run a business with your, your partner. I'm so lucky to have her because if I was alone in this, when COVID-19 hit, I don't think the gym would be open now.

Loaded Athletics are open for business, and are excited to welcome new members whatever age, size or shape you are. You can find them on Instagram, or by visiting the website here: https://www.loadedathletics.com/