After an early career in the restaurant hospitality business, Nikolai found himself burned out and at an inflection point. After some encouragement from his personal trainer, he took the leap and transitioned into personal training where, through injury, he discovered his passion for kettle bells. He also discovered that there were few options in the fitness community to go deeper in the method. So, in 2013, he and his wife Amber began teaching classes, gradually building an enthusiastic and dedicated client base in South Seattle. In March, they found themselves against a big wall - in an industry that was particularly hard hit by closures, but also as parents of three young children. Their story shows what it takes to survive the constant onslaught of challenges that small businesses are facing right now AND offers some hope for our nation’s kettlebell shortage!
Interview with: Nikolai and Amber Puchlov, owners of Seattle Kettlebell Club
Neighborhood: Rainier Valley
You have built a really loyal following around an unlikely niche product; the kettlebell. How did this all get started?
N: At the beginning, it was a struggle to teach people how to use kettlebells - to get them to accept them. People think kettle bells and they immediately think danger. So, we taught classes in parks for free for a couple years, trying to get our name out there. I would rent space from other gyms or businesses that would let me use their locations, to teach as well. But we kept getting bumped out of spaces. Eventually, we found the location where we are now and it has been beautiful for us. We've been here for the last four years now and our members have followed us, through all of those different locations. But, yes, it was a lot – there were a lot of tears, getting to where we are now.
Kettlebells are certainly having a moment this year, with all the pandemic-driven shortages. But, they weren’t always sexy. What kept your customers on that journey with you? Was it the practice or the way that you ran your business?
A: I think it’s because we run our business like a restaurant. Nikolai worked at Nordstrom and then in restaurants. I was working at the Salish Lodge and Spa. Neither of us came into this as fitness gurus, who couldn’t wait to open their own gym. Our passion was in offering an amazing customer service experience. I think that’s just a different path to gym ownership than most people have.
For example, at the end of classes, we pass out hot towels that have lavender oil on them. And that all started with someone joking “where’s my hot towel” after class and we thought, that’s a great idea – let’s do it! It is really fun for us to dig into that question of how we treat our clients - How do we please them?
N: We’ve been battling the stereotype of kettlebells and the person who does kettlebells, from the very beginning. They can be intimidating and they shouldn’t be. We knew that we would never really get people past the first step, if we didn’t go that extra mile, and put it on a silver platter for them.
A: The image of kettlebells is this image of bros, grunting, and throwing down the bells. Nobody does that here.
I think about this all the time; how much the culture of strength training has changed, to be more inclusive of women and people of all body types. When I was growing up, even as an athlete, I was never taught how to lift weights. The gym was for guys, for the football players. But, now so many people have a committed strength training regimen.
A: One of the cool things about Kettlebells is that Nikolai and I can do the same workout together. I'd actually be curious to know how many other gyms have so many couples that work out together. And, even just having guys in classes – at other gyms, you don’t see very men in group training. But, here it’s really split.
What is the draw for them?
N: They come to us saying “I’ve tried everything else, you guys come recommended, and I’m broke, fix me.”
A: And, nothing against Crossfit but, we have a lot of folks who got hurt doing Crossfit and they can’t keep doing it…but kettlebells were their favorite part of that so they want to keep going.
Walk me through all of your business lines.
N: Pre-COVID or Pre-Rapture, we had classes and personal training, based on a membership model. I got into this through personal training but, you’re only one person and there are only so many hours of the day…we want to help many people and to do so in an exciting format...really, group classes are best format for that.
So, how were you doing at the beginning of this year? You had been operating for 7 years but had spent much of that time getting settled. How were you feeling about 2020?
A: I’ve always said “we’re almost there, we’re almost there”. Well, in January, we were like “are we here?” and that lasted for 30 days.
N: We were finally in this place where we could pay back our investors, pay our bills and maybe even pay ourselves a little bit. The business was picking up steam, we were thinking about opening a second location, a bigger location. Then, this happened.
One of the most interesting parts of this work, in collecting stories from across the small business community, is that I can start to see these trends. And, so many of the folks I’ve spoken with have said just that: this was going to be the year. Something about the timing and where we were in the economic cycle, but folks were starting the year strong.
A; That just gives me goosebumps, it makes me sad. What would that have looked like if COVID hadn’t happened?
So, beyond the obvious, what happened in March?
A: I think our customers knew what was happening before we did. Our heads were just in the business and focused on caring for our three young kids.
N: I think I was in denial – I wanted it to all blow over. And it didn’t – it kept building. But, we didn’t turn despondent. We knew we had to find a way to make it happen.
A: Monday, March 16th, we closed after our noon class. And, we were on-line with a new website, with 7 or 8 classes pre-loaded, by that weekend.
I didn’t sleep for three days. I was building the website. He was filming classes. We decided to check-out our kettlebells so that every member could borrow one. And, yeah, we just kept it going.
Did you shift your revenue model to support that as well?
N: We created an online business, which is something we've been talking about for a while, prior to COVID. Now, of course, we had no choice. We charge for the online membership and the Kettlebell rental, but if their club membership package was higher than that, we are letting them accrue a credit. It’s hard - some want us to continue charging them and some have had to cancel, because they’ve lost their job.
The new online platform is allowing us to reach more people, generate new members. We have people in Hong Kong, in Australia, Canada and the UK. It’s still not enough to cover our bills, which is a difficult conversation to have with customers: I don't want to guilt anybody into paying for something that they're not using but I also want to be honest about what's going on.
What is next?
N: We have been thinking about how we would make the kettlebell different and better, since our first gym. So, now we're manufacturing our own kettlebells.
We've had two prototypes made and found a foundry in Spokane that can manufacture them. We should have them by November.
That’s amazing! In the midst of all of this, you found the resolve to do something more. I won’t ask you to spill any trade secrets but, what is different about this new kettlebell?
N: The design of the kettlebells we have in the gym is close to 50, 60 years old. They push down on your forearm a little bit and they're just they're not super ergonomic. They’re effective but they're just rough, they're uncomfortable.
I have been thinking: there's got to be a better kettlebell. There are some little tricks in there to get the center mass where you need it to be, so it flies better and it doesn't whip around and thunk your wrist. Our design is really contoured. It's the difference between driving the Model T and a modern car - it's a pleasure to drive.
We have been wanting to get kettlebells back to the U.S. for a long time. And, now with everything that's going on with the pandemic and trade with China, it's been very hard for people to get any sort of fitness equipment. So it turned out to be the right time.
You’ve started a new business line and you pivoted quickly to online classes – has there been anything that’s surprised you about all of this change, that you’ll carry forward?
N: It has been a struggle and it's been a real kick in the teeth. But for all the changes, it has allowed us to have our family time.
It has also enabled us to reach more people. We’ve probably had two to five years’ worth of growth in improvements in just a couple of months because we had to. It's accelerated everything.
A: We wanted to do the video classes for so long, but it's surprising to me that they are as good, if not better, than the live classes, in terms of how scalable they are. And, in terms of the coaching. We have Nikolai do the class and I’ll do the audio – we can make sure it’s perfect and keep the energy consistent.
(As we were talking, the Fire Department knocked at the door, to talk to them about the string of arsons that had been targeting small businesses in the area)
N: And, now this…arson. We’ve also been broken into. It’s been crazy.
How have you kept your head through all of this?
A: We actually live in Maple Valley, so we have a lot of time in the car where we can work through the problems. We’re also both a little competitive, and supportive of one another, so our approach is always ‘we're gonna figure it out’. We met at work, so we’ve always worked together – we’re really good at creating something together. That’s our driving force as a couple.
N: When you have no options except to succeed – when your options are to sink or swim, it’s motivating.
What do you wish that the community understood about your work right now?
A: It's going to be a real shame if businesses like ours, leave. I’m worried there will be a mass exodus of small businesses like ours. And I feel that that's either being overlooked or that it doesn't seem important. I’m not inspired to think about my 5 year plan in Seattle – it’s become so divisive.
N: I think there's a real disconnect. Think about all these great restaurants and awesome businesses – it’s all been done on the backs of people, people who have sacrificed their lives and their health and their families and their social lives just to do it. How are we really stepping up to support them?
Is there anything else you want to make sure gets said about your work?
A: I just feel very sentimental right now - I'm just thankful for all of the people that have been with us, along this whole journey.
It does matter what we do.
I’m grateful that we're still here, after all of the businesses that I have seen closing.
N: I love everybody in this town. Even the people that don't love me back. I hope people remember that it matters how we treat each other. And I think that's why we are where we are right now.
We have this little utopia microcosm in the gym - it isn’t just about kettlebells and getting in shape, it’s about people coming together - and we’re at a point where that could be lost.
Hey, Seattle, here's how you can get involved:
Seattle Kettlebell Club is now open for business, with strict safety protocols in place - check them out!
Or, log on for one of their on-line classes