On the up · 8 January 2016

Move Pop Up Gym: Taking fitness out of dark basements and into Battersea Power Station

pop-up gym
Move Pop Up Gym has held fitness classes at Battersea Power Station and One New Change

When public exercise classes in breathtaking locations proved unprofitable, the founder of Move Pop Up Gym used the knowledge and contacts he’d acquired to create bespoke pop-up fitness events for a different audience.

Business Advice spoke to him to find out how he managed to shift his business direction and to appeal to corporate customers and television broadcasters.

(1) Who are you and what’s your business?

I’m AJ O’Neill, founder of Move Pop Up Gym. I was a West End performer and personal trainer, and had created my own Move dance fitness class for gyms, but I wanted to encourage a wider range of people to try them, which led me to launch a pop-up exercise business to take fitness out to exciting locations.

(2) How long has Move Pop Up Gym been around for?

I started Move about two-and-a-half years ago, in June 2013. But the model has changed a lot since then. My initial idea was to make exercise classes more accessible, as most of the gyms where I was teaching before I started the company had membership fees and people couldn’t come and try my classes without making a huge financial commitment. I now focus on corporate and private events, including going into schools.

(3) How do you make money?

I can arrange pop-up fitness events in pretty much any location, and provide clients with a package that includes all the costs – the teacher, the venue, the music, the insurance. Being able to arrange the latter is a huge advantage, because there are strict requirements in the fitness industry and because I’ve built up good cover over a number of years I can pretty much do things in any location, including places like rooftops – as long as I keep people away from the edge! Move’s children’s music video workshops are also being televised in Ireland, which provides an additional income stream.

(4) What makes you different and why should people take notice?

Anyone can sweat in a small, dark room, but Move allows people to exercise in really cool locations. Participants have been totally blown away by classes in places like Battersea Power Station.

AJ O'Neill
Move Pop Up Gym founder AJ O’Neill

(5) What was key in terms of getting started?

Our first location was the roof terrace of One New Change, an amazing site in the city next to St Paul’s Cathedral. I had done a photo shoot there when the idea for a pop-up gym was already on my mind, and thought it would be a great place to do a fitness class. I think being given the space proved to people that if even if you’re a small business, if you ask somewhere high profile they might just say yes. It’s now our flagship location.

(6) What’s your biggest achievement to date?

I’ve been able to work with some fantastic companies to create really exciting corporate events. We did an away day for Facebook, which allowed staff to make a music video as a team building exercise, organised a wellness week for the Royal College of Physicians, and have also worked with Adidas and Stylist magazine. We’ve also been involved with some great charities, including Comic Relief.

But most importantly, my initial idea of taking fitness out of gyms has been the foundation for so many amazing opportunities to do big charity and corporate events which I wouldn’t have had otherwise. When it turned out that my strategy wasn’t viable, I was able to take the two aspects of the business that I was most passionate about – fitness and entertainment – and combine them to make something which was profitable.

(7) What setbacks have you had along the way?

During the first year I got lots of attention but made very little money. Cost stopped me being able to run most of the public classes I initially wanted to do. Some of the locations I was using when I started now charge more than £1,500 per day, which means classes where you charge £10 just aren’t viable. I had to shift my focus to pop-up events for corporates and private individuals.

pop-up gym

8) In five years’ time, I will be…

Bringing fitness and dance to more people, with more personal trainers working under the Move banner so that I can offer one-to-one as well as group exercise. I’d like Move to do fitness and wellness retreats too, though I’m so busy with the existing scope of the business that it’s been hard to find the time to organise them. I’ve found that scaling has been quite difficult, but the main way I’m looking at making it bigger is to get other people to start teaching Move, the company’s signature class, and to expand our TV offering.

(9) What one tip would you give to others starting out?

It’s hard. You need to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, and a plan to get there which goes beyond the first step. I had about six mini business ideas which I tried to combine into one company, which has made it difficult for me to focus, even though I’ve had lots of enthusiasm for my business.

10) Who are your business heroes and why?

I’m really inspired by some of the other small fitness businesses out there. Hotpod Yoga, which provides inflatable heated yoga studios, is really impressive and has incredible technology. KiwiSweat in New York, which offers pop-up spin, yoga and dance classes, has also used tech in a clever way.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Hannah Wilkinson is a reporter for Business Advice. She studied economics and management at Oxford University and prior to joining Business Advice wrote for Kensington and Chelsea Today about business and economics – as well as running a tutoring company.

HR