Nick Shaw, a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, created a million-dollar, one-man business built around automatically recurring revenue at Renaissance Periodization, his fitness training and diet services business in Charlotte, N.C.
Since I last spoke to him for Forbes, he’s gone into growth mode at the seven-year-old business and has ventured into app development. His fitness and diet app RP Diet has logged more than 200,000 installs on Google Play and the iTunes store since it was released in April.
“Everything seems to be trending in general to technology, to apps,” says Shaw.
The app, which the company describes as a “diet designer and coach,” tells subscribers what to eat, based on their schedule and their health goals, offering features such as meal planning and a shopping list. Shaw has been selling it for $14.99 a month or $149.99 per year, after a free two-week trial.
“We’re slowing becoming a tech company, even more than a fitness company,” says Shaw.
In building a million-dollar, one-person business, Shaw made it into an elite but growing group of solo entrepreneurs. There were 36,984 non employer firms—those with no payroll—that hit $1 million to $2.49 million in revenue in 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau found. That number is up by 38% since 2011.
Some million-dollar, one-person business owners prefer to keep their business to a boutique size. Others realize once they hit that point that they want to keep growing their company and see where they can take things.
That was Shaw’s decision. He hired his wife, Lori, to help him in 2015 and with the company growing rapidly, began staffing up in 2016. He now relies on 25 coaches—20 Ph.Ds and five registered dietitians—who are 1099 contractors and built his support staff to 10 employees. Last year was his sixth year of generating revenue above $1 million annually at the profitable firm.
Here are the growth strategies that have been driving the company’s growth.
Think scalably from the start. Shaw, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management from the University of Michigan in 2009, originally targeted athletes such as bodybuilders as customers when he went into business offering sports coaching. However, he realized early that service businesses like coaching have a built-in limit: There are only so many hours in a week to sell, and that limitation would still exist for any additional coaches he brought on. As a father of two, he wanted to build a business that allowed plenty of time for his family, so he began looking for a way to grow the company that wasn’t dependent on how many hours anybody put in.
His answer was to “productize” what he was selling, turning the knowledge and intellectual property behind his business into products. Working with an exercise physiology consultant, he created a product—prebuilt diets—that allowed customers to tap into his advice without working with him directly. Customers were able to customize the diets based on their gender, weight and fitness goals. He packaged these as the 3-Month-Diet Plan, which sells for $600, and an enhanced plan that includes training by email or social media chat for $850.
Shaw also introduced a simpler offering, a diet template, delivered as a pdf file, to help people lose or gain weight depending on their goals, which sells for $109. Meanwhile, he published several ebooks, such as the Renaissance Kitchencookbook, Recovering from Training, and Renaissance Woman, a fitness guide for women, which sell for $14 to $37.
As customer demand took off, he used the customer relationship management software Infusionsoft to manage the process of sending out orders. That enabled him to keep up with orders from tens of thousands of customers worldwide.
Keep perfecting what’s already workingLMK LMK. As customers became more heavily dependent on their mobile phones do to just about everything, Shaw realized there was another opportunity in front of him: developing an app.
The challenge was taking what customers loved about offerings like his diet templates—along with constructive feedback—and translating that to a tech product. “We have a lot of people who are dedicated followers of our pdfs, and even to our old Excel files,” says Shaw. “We have to prove the app is significantly better to those clients so they see the value in switching.
In 2016, he and a team of tech contractors began working on app development. They focused on adding features that clients had requested, like having the app do any math involved in the diet.
“It’s one of those things where you have to have realistic expectations and timelines, especially if you are getting into something new,” says Shaw. “It takes a long time to really get up and running. Even to make changes and edit takes a lot longer than you would think. I tried to keep that in mind and be really patient. You don’t want to rush it out and have it not be any good.”
Then again, he realized he couldn’t wait forever. “Nothing is going to be perfect,” he says. “You have to make it good enough to get it out, and you need customers to be able to freely express their critiques.”
Since releasing the app, he’s made a number of edits in response to reader feedback. “Probably every month there are going to be updates,” he says. The app includes filters for people eating grain-free, gluten-free, vegan, Paleo and other specific diets and also includes a barcode scanner so people can scan in their favorite foods.
Fortunately, the app has been racking up high ratings, with 4.5 stars on Google Play and 4.6 stars on the iTunes store. That’s exactly where he’d hoped it would be. “I took a look at the top 10 apps in this space,” notes Shaw. “If you’re around 4.5, you’re very good.”
To reach new customers, Shaw has, along the way, built a strong presence for Renaissance Periodization on Facebook, where the brand has 119,000 followers, and Instagram, where it has 473,000 followers. That has given him a natural market for his tech products. “Now we have to show them how awesome the app is,” says Shaw.
Partner for growth. In running his company, Shaw realizes that one of the greatest challenges facing his customers is today’s lifestyle—where fewer people do physical work—and the standard American diet, which some in the nutrition community describe by the acronym “SAD.”
“Food is more delicious, easier and more convenient than ever,” says Shaw. “All of the technology we have makes people do a little bit less. People are expending fewer calories and eating more. It’s no real surprise why the obesity rates are going up.”
To make it easier for customers to make healthy choices, Shaw partnered with Ascent Protein, a provider of protein powders and supplements, and Trifecta Nutrition, which makes healthy meals and ships them, vacuum-packed, to customers’ doorsteps on ice packs. “It eliminates any excuses for not being successful,” says Shaw.
Of course, not everyone can afford to order pre-made meals. To support those who would rather take the DIY approach, Shaw’s wife has created a popular series of cookbooks, including a vegan cookbook.
“We’re always trying to improve,” says Shaw. “How can we make better products? How can we help more people? We’re listening to customer feedback.”