How I Made It: 'I started with nothing and now have my own gym business'

Welcome back to How I Made It,’s career journey series.

As many of us take the New Year as an opportunity to get fit and healthy, we decided to speak to Guido Basola, the owner of Elysium, a private gym rental company in London.

The 30-year-old now resides in north London with his long-term partner, though he was raised in South Africa and still retains the accent.

Elysium is a gym concept that allows you to book out a studio for an hour to train in solo, with a friend or PT as and when – so you’re not tied to a gym but still have access to all the equipment.

Working as a PT prior to forming his company in 2020, it a was bleak year for Guido (as it was for most of us) as he took his PT sessions outdoors in parks socially distanced in order to keep earning a living.

‘I was very wet and cold for a lot of 2020,’ he tells us. ‘I didn’t know what the answer was, but I knew I was very unhappy.’

Then inspiration struck, and his business was born.

One day a wealthy client rented out a room in which to train, which sparked the idea of having a business that allowed people to have greater flexibility instead of gym memberships.

He went from drawing ideas out on napkins to pitching for startup investments two weeks later with a business partner.

‘It was so much harder than I thought it would be,’ he says, but his journey to get to that point wasn’t easy either.

Here’s how he made it all happen.

Hey, Guido. Have you always been into fitness?

I come from a really sporty background and grew up being involved in sport at school. Fitness wasn’t something I thought about, it was just a part of my life and everyday.

When I moved to London, I worked in hospitality and lost touch with fitness for a long while.

At one tough stage in my life, I reverted back to fitness to find happiness again and get some balance, away from continual drinking in the London work scene. You can end up following people quite a lot in London and it’s not always positive.

What made you quit hospitality to retrain as a PT?

So I got a PT myself, but he was terrible and not my cup of tea. He forced me to leave the gym I was at because I felt too intimidated to go back.

Then I met another PT and I couldn’t really afford it but I approached him anyway and said: ‘This is what I have and I want you to teach me, so what can we do?’, and then we worked together for about a year. I lost 40 kilos in that time.

He came into my life and it became an positive thing.

My missus told me to quit my job and become a PT. We didn’t have the money but she backed me and she took care of us, so I quit my job to study to be a PT (which she paid for). It was a very tough period but she was immense.

Was it a smooth journey after that?

Well, I became a PT but that didn’t mean I’d make money because of how gyms work. I was paying £300 a week to rent gym space and it was horrific – I made no money.

I was really bad at ‘upselling’, which a lot of PTs do in gyms, like when they target the girls getting off equipment andaree pretty sleazy, which isn’t my thing.

I just wanted to help people like my PT helped me.

What motivated you during the hard times?

My partner motivated me because she did so much to support us. I’d wake up at 4am everyday, come home at 10pm at night.

I just had this hope.

About six months in I was about to hand my notice in because I thought I couldn’t do it anymore and I’d just head back to hospitality, but on that same week, six people I’d been helping for months but had never sold to – it was the greatest fluke – they all approached me and all said: ‘I’ve got a goal and want to do this with you, can we do two or three sessions every week for a few months?’.

They all paid me for three months upfront and I was able to get my phone back and pay off some debt. I was so overdrawn I’d walk into central London everyday because I couldn’t afford the bus.

It was a sign after all that hardship that I was meant to be doing this.

After that I became the busiest PT in the gym.

It’s so rewarding to see people genuinely achieve their goals.

Is that your favourite thing about the job, the transformations and goals you get to see people reach?

I don’t like to use the word ‘transformation’ as that suggests a certain body change.

The greatest thing about the job is you get to see people truly happy in themselves. It’s not always about getting the six pack, sometimes it’s just getting that bit fitter so you can run further than you’ve run before, or lifting the weights you never thought you could lift before.

It’s about positively impacting on someone’s life. Being a PT, as much as it’s about training, it’s about being there for people.

Sometimes, outside of that person’s family and colleagues, you’re the person they’re spending the most time with and you really get to know about them.

You just want to see people succeed and make it happen for themselves.

An average day in the working life of Guido Basola

5.30am: Wake up and go out for a brief check of all his studio sites to make sure all is well.

7-11am: Run PT sessions for a mix of clients at one of his sites.

11am-1pm: He repeats his site checks and ensures clients are happy.

Fitness has always been a part of Guido’s life (Picture: Guido Basola)

1-5pm: The afternoon is taken up with business admin that can vary day-to-day. It could involve emails, organising finances, and preparing for the next site opening.

5-7pm: The last one or two PT sessions will take place for the day, then he’ll do final site checks.

8pm: The working day is finally over.

Is there anything you don’t like about the job?

The biggest problem in the fitness industry is the perception versus the reality of it.

I think a lot of people think you get to sit about in cafes and train whenever, but many PTs burnout quite quickly because you’re so stressed about making money and building a business – and nobody mentors you through the process.

It’s a real sink or swim industry. It truly will eat you up and spit you out, and very few people will make long successful careers out of it.

Adverts sell it as: ‘You can make £100,000’, and, while that’s possible, the reality is you lose money before you make money. To get there, you’re always tired and lack regular social patterns.

This is a big reason as to why I opened my own company, to give PTs the platform to start their businesses.

When you recently showed me one of the sites and gave me a PT session, you mentioned your mum had inspired some of your thinking behind the concept. How so?

Through the highs and lows of watching my mum run a business, I saw she always gave back, from working with local rape centres in South Africa to cooking for economically challenged school kids – despite our own money issues – because she believes we always have to look out for our community.

One day it’s going to come back around. You’ve got to learn to give to get.

When I told told her about my current business, the first thing she said was, ‘What are you going to do give back?’

Sarah Everard’s death really stayed with me and I think the way women live is unacceptable.

In South Africa it’s pretty rough, nothing is open late. London is a city that runs near on 24/7 – there’s always something open somewhere.

But even with all these people out and about, there’s no support structures when people need it.

So that’s when I thought, what if our studios had an SOS function for people to use at night in moments of crisis? If they use our venues and are nearby a branch, they can gain access to a safe space, which if used will then automatically trigger a call to emergency services, show up on CCTV and alert me someone is inside and needs help.

In 10 years I hope to have 10 Elysium gym locations across London, and if I can help just one person in that time, job done.

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