Interview: Mike Doehla, Owner of Stronger U
Schimri Yoyo: Alright. We’re here with Mike Doehla of Stronger U, and we’re just going to begin with a little bit about your background, Mike, for this feature on Exercise.com. What first sparked your interest in nutrition and fitness?
Mike Doehla: I think I have kind of, one of those cliche fitness and nutrition stories, where I enjoyed it, and once I got really serious into it, I wanted to help other people with it. Tried to find a way to break into it as a career, and I actually started training people in my garage to start and it—
Schimri Yoyo: I’ve heard of a garage band before, but never a garage nutritionist.
Mike Doehla: Yeah, it didn’t work really because I was still working full-time, and I [could] only train an hour. So, I kind of bailed on that idea and I went for what I think people really needed help with, which was the nutrition. That’s what I thought was my place in the business.
Schimri Yoyo: So in keeping with that [theme of] nutrition, what would you say is the difference between actual nutrition or proactive nutrition and “going on a diet”?
Mike Doehla: I’d say the difference between going on a diet and nutrition is probably, one is more short-term, [and the other] one is more long-term. I think going on a diet is, when someone just has a result of whatever that diet can do, in terms of like weight loss. Nutrition is this holistic, all-encompassing lifestyle. It’s not just losing weight, it’s kind of how you live with food.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay, so what you’re saying is that it’s basically an experience versus a lifestyle?
Mike Doehla: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s a good way to put it.
Schimri Yoyo: Now, let’s think about some of your beliefs and methodology, as far as your practice and your philosophy towards fitness and nutrition. What one word or one sentence, would you describe your approach to nutrition training?
Mike Doehla: I think you have to be strategic with it. You can’t just follow a certain set of rules. You have to follow a certain set of behaviors.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. I read up on you a little bit, and I know that one of your core philosophies is the idea of “Structured Flexibility.” Can you give us just a quick summary of what structured flexibility is and why it’s important to your practice?
Mike Doehla: Yeah. When I think of structured flexibility, I think of it as being able to live within moderation with your diet, but also having a set of rules or a set of guardrails. So, when you think of flexible dieting—you think—I think a lot of people default to the flexibility part more than the structure. So it’s our way of describing what’s actually going to be happening, rather than just selling the idea of flexibility.
Schimri Yoyo: So, how do you promote healthy weight loss with your clients? How do you prevent them from losing too much weight too fast?
Mike Doehla: We’re big on data and feedback, the biofeedback. The feedback in terms of check-ins and measurements and weight. We’ll always keep a really close eye on that stuff, in terms of, if they’re reporting too quick of weight loss and they’re feeling sluggish, their workouts are impacted, their sleep, their irritability. We can really monitor those things through our approach, so it doesn’t happen since we see pretty much everything on a weekly basis or day-by-day.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. So, constant communication and engagement is key to making sure that your client is—
Mike Doehla: Yeah, nothing ever gets out of sight because of our contact.
Schimri Yoyo: In your opinion, Mike, how are nutrition and exercise related? How do they complement one another?
Mike Doehla: I mean, I think it goes without saying that they are best friends, yin yang. I mean, it’s the perfect mix of a healthy lifestyle, right? You have to eat right, you have to work out for health reasons. I think of, nutrition is kind of the thing that really changes the size of people, but exercise is what sculpts them.
Schimri Yoyo: Oh, that’s a great way to put it. That’s a great way to put it. Now, is there any type of a go-to food group or beverage that you rely on heavily when you’re training beginners or experienced clients or is there a base to start off with?
Mike Doehla: So, I’m big on nutrient-dense whole foods for everyone. If someone is slightly more advanced of an athlete and needs to worry about nutrient timing, yeah, then we’ll go for some supplementation. Some of the sugars and the carb drinks and the protein shakes and stuff like that. But for the most part, we’re all about whole foods, nutrient-dense, depending on the level of the individual.
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Schimri Yoyo: How do you measure progress? You talked about the data and collecting data. How do you use that data to measure progress for clients and for yourself?
Mike Doehla: So we’re big on watching the trends and seeing which way things are moving. Not so much what the actual number is. So in other words, if someone says, “I want to lose 20 pounds.” We might say, “Well, we don’t really know what 20 pounds might look like, but let’s watch the trends and see how the measurements change, how the mirror changes.”
We’re big on the non-scale victories. How do you feel when you walk up a flight of stairs? How happy are you with your results? What’s your progress like in the gym? How are clothes fitting? I would say my progress is very similar. I try to practice what I preach, in the sense of consistency, not so much perfection. I want to make sure that I know what it’s like to go through the things our clients are going through.
Schimri Yoyo: On a day-to-day basis, walk us through the process of how you put together a nutrition plan for a client. What are some of the data inputs that you need to go through your process?
Mike Doehla: Yeah, so we’ll gather a lot of information both physiologically speaking and psychologically speaking. We’ll ask height, weight, age, workouts, daily activity, dedication level. I want to know what people are capable of doing or what they think they’re capable of doing. Then we’ll calculate some calorie and macronutrient targets. If they’re a certain individual that might need to worry about food timing and specific meals around training, we might go a little bit deeper, and that all happens through questions and feedback.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. Now, from [observing] your clients that achieve the best results under your tutelage, what are some of the key traits or common traits that [they share]?
Mike Doehla: I think the most successful people are the ones that set themselves up for sound nutritional decisions. So that includes reducing stress, getting to bed, being a planner, rather than a reactor to certain situations. We kind of encourage people to think ahead, in all regards. If you can set yourself up for a good day of eating, then you’re going to—it’s going to be a no brainer, you’re going to have success.
Schimri Yoyo: Are you apt to give your clients lots of homework to do, to take home with them or is a lot of it more when they’re with you in person?
Mike Doehla: So, we do everything online, actually.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay.
Mike Doehla: Everything is done through either text message, phone, email check-ins. So, we will give them tasks if we think it’s helpful. Let me see a day in my fitness pal planned out to the macro or within a reasonable margin of error. This week I want you to set a bedtime and get eight hours of sleep. This time I want you to get 10,000 steps a day. So, we do give a lot of actionable items for them to accomplish.
Schimri Yoyo: How do you decide which clients to take on and which clients to say, “You know what, this might not the best fit”?
Mike Doehla: So, I think we’re kind of open to pretty much everyone. But if someone has a certain medical condition or if they have some sort of eating disorder that we don’t think we’re qualified to help with, we might refer out. So, we like to say we can help anyone, anywhere.
Schimri Yoyo: Now, going into your day-to-day practice of the business and actually running the business, what would you say sets Stronger U apart from other health and fitness and nutrition programs? What gives you guys that distinct edge to attract clients to you?
Mike Doehla: Yeah, so I think what makes us different is, we’re not just focused on a client’s goal while they’re with us. We want to know that they’re going to be left better off when they’re done with us. We focus big on the community and the support, along with education. I think the most important thing for us is five years down the road, do they remember things that we taught them to put them in a good position?
Schimri Yoyo: Okay and now, do you offer group sessions and group plans as well as individual or how does that work right now?
Mike Doehla: We only do individual. So our coaches will work with a number of individuals on a one-on-one basis.
Schimri Yoyo: When you were first starting out, how did you decide where to set your price points and which services you would offer?
Mike Doehla: So that’s a good question. Because when I was first starting, I had no proof of concept. I just wanted to get the opportunity to help a lot of people. So I had pretty reasonable rates because I wasn’t—I didn’t have any overhead, so I got people through the door. I showed them what I could do and I only had one service, one-on-one nutrition coaching.
So, I knew what problem I wanted to solve and that’s the product I offer.
Schimri Yoyo: How has that expanded as you’ve had more time in the business?
Mike Doehla: Luckily, I made the right decision with that one product because it’s still all we offer. We just charge a little bit more because we’re a lot better at our job now.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, [it’s about] knowing your worth, I totally get that. How difficult is it for you or what steps do you take to differentiate your time when to work in your business and went to work on your business?
Mike Doehla: That’s a great question. I still am kind of a believer that you don’t always have to separate the two. There are certain people in certain roles that are working on the business and I’m kind of one of those owners that’s in the store, per se. So, I think for me, working in the business is working on the business.
Schimri Yoyo: Now as far as, how does that then reflect itself day-to-day, as far as marketing and promoting? Do you use social media? Do you use other technology to promote and market your services?
Mike Doehla: Yeah. So, as of right now, we don’t really have any paid marketing. Everything we do is through social and word of mouth, but that’s free social. That’s posting on Instagram, interacting with clients, posting in our group page. So, I do everything on social media. I probably spend more hours on there than most people do. But I think we’re in the people business, we’re in the community business, we are connecting with our clients and people are on social media. So that’s where I choose to spend my time.
Schimri Yoyo: So, you’ve used the word community a couple of times and that seems to be important to your practice. How do you build that sense of community if you’re doing one-on-one coaching with all of that? How do you create that sense of community amongst your clients, with each other?
Mike Doehla: So I think, we’re in a really magical time, right? With social media and these groups. And the one thing I think was missing in dieting, which is what I wanted to do with Stronger U, was develop a sense of support and community. Putting people with similar goals together, really just brings everyone up at the same time.
Schimri Yoyo: Now what’s the biggest challenge day-to-day for your business and what’s your biggest reward day-to-day?
Mike Doehla: I think the biggest challenge is a kind of knowing where to spend your time. As your business grows, and it grows pretty quickly, you get distracted and you don’t really know what to focus on. So I think, internally my struggle is trying to figure out where the best time is spent, what projects are the best to spend time on, how to grow without affecting customer service.
One thing we’re really proud of is, as we grew, our customer service ratings have improved. We might have to play catch up internally, but our members don’t feel that. Then the biggest reward is really changing thousands and thousands of lives. You get text messages and emails all day long that’s like, “This thing changed my life.” It’s a daily occurrence. That is the best thing in the world.
Schimri Yoyo: Now obviously, there are peak times when people are thinking about nutrition and their health. Sometimes it’s around a holiday, often [it’s making] New Year’s resolutions, sometimes it’s around a life event. Whether it’s getting married or graduation or often, even now summertime, people want to get their beach bodies or whatever. How do you capture that kind of the buzz and that renewed interest and translate it to client retention?
Mike Doehla: Yeah. So we pretty much never slow down. We don’t really try to capitalize on the new year or holidays or things like that. We just kind of show up to work every day and put our—show our work to the world and we’re really lucky that our members are so supportive of our business and our service, that they tell everyone. So we really just kind of focus on that and the rest kind of works itself out. What was the second part? I’m sorry about that.
Schimri Yoyo: That was pretty much it. It was more of just the client retention piece. Can you elaborate on some of the different ways you try to retain clients? Obviously, there’s word-of-mouth, but anything else?
Mike Doehla: Yeah and the retention, a big part of the retention is really just constantly delivering value. Showing them that dieting and nutrition [don’t] have to have an end. There is a real big benefit of hanging with a coach and working with Stronger U through maintenance and into other phases of dieting because we know, statistically speaking, a lot of people can lose weight. They can crash diet, they can white knuckle it for 12 weeks, but holding those results is really what we’re after. I think just constant communication and goal setting with the clients, is really what keeps them around and helps them understand that this is not just a quick fix.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, you’re right. They’re just thinking of that instantaneous result. Is that actually sustainable over building something gradually and being able to maintain it? So obviously, that sustainability is a big important part of healthy nutrition but also a part of [a successful] business. So what are some things you’ve been able to implement in your business to keep it sustainable, as far as revenue, so that things don’t get flat? Obviously, there are peak seasons, but what are some things that you’re doing to help keep that sustainable base of revenue?
Mike Doehla: Yeah, so we’re constantly trying to think of how to make what we already have better. That’s really the goal. We think we have something really special, but we want to keep improving and keep identifying areas of opportunity. This year we’re big on technology, proprietary software being developed and investing in people and their development.
Schimri Yoyo: Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah, [it’s] the people. Honestly, you’re in the people business, so having the best quality of people and providing that service is going to be huge. Have you ever considered—I mean you seem you have a wealth of knowledge and you seem very tech savvy and doing a lot of your business online—have you ever considered putting together some sort of ebook or e-training to get your content even to the masses even more?
Mike Doehla: Yeah, I think I have four book ideas. I do want to do print, I think, just for a passion project. But I definitely don’t want to give all the secrets, but I definitely want to help as many people as possible. I definitely want to get those done one day.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah. That’ll be a different way to diversify. Obviously, you don’t want to give away the cookie for free, but give them—maybe whet the appetite a little bit.
Mike Doehla: Yep, Yep. But the ultimate goal is helping people live better lives and if a book can do that for $20 and they don’t pay us to coach, that’s fine. We did a good job.
Schimri Yoyo: All right and lastly, Mike, I mean, it’s been great talking to you. What do you see as the next step for you personally as a coach and as an entrepreneur?
Mike Doehla: I think constantly learning. I’m huge on it. I think my own professional development, in terms of business knowledge, people knowledge, nutrition knowledge is really what I’m after. Then just bringing that to our business, doing the things I’m good at, hiring people that are better than me at certain things and understanding all that can work perfectly together if we do it right.
Schimri Yoyo: Oh, this is a great answer. I mean, it seems just having talked to you here, that you’re business Stronger U is aptly named because it seems like everything that you’ve done has been well thought out to really make the stronger you. Just like one of your clients shouldn’t be just satisfied with improvements in just nutrition but holistically being stronger, you yourself, with that constant education and professional development, are never to be satisfied. You’re making sure that you yourself are always pursuing the stronger you. That’s awesome.
Mike Doehla: Right, right. Be happy along the way, but there’s—you can always do something better.
Schimri Yoyo: Well, and thanks again for your time, Mike. Much success to you and your people at Stronger U and definitely, would like to feature you again down the line.
Schimri Yoyo is a writer for Exercise.com and a financial advisor with active life and health insurance licenses. Born in Haiti. Reared in Brockton, MA. Matured in Philadelphia. Schimri is a proud graduate of Arcadia University, having earned both a Masters in Special Education and an MFA in Creative Writing from the castle-riddled campus in Glenside, PA. By personality and by profession, Schimri is an educator and a storyteller who is eager to assist individuals and families to stay financially and physically fit.
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