Barbara den Bak / Sports Entrepreneur: "Staying put gets you nowhere."
Growing up surrounded by entrepreneurs is no guarantee of anything, but it certainly did the trick for Barbara den Bak, who now carries the torch for four generations of entrepreneurial women. Barbara came to prominence as an entrepreneur and sports fanatic after launching The Bootcamp Club, which she left at the height of its success to begin a new chapter with High Studios. No success story is without blood, sweat and tears, though, or as she puts it: “A scary rollercoaster of a journey.”
Interview by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Where did you grow up and how would people have described you as a child? I grew up in a rather remote little countryside patch just outside Amsterdam, which was heaven for a child like me – swimming during the summer, skating in winter, building tree houses. I was an active and creative kid. A dreamer, really. And I was always doing something – selling stuff by the side of the road, drawing, writing ... I once even tried to set up an animal shelter, but my parents didn’t seem very enthusiastic, for some reason.
What would those who didn’t know you well have missed in their description? My self-doubt.
What remains of that younger you today in terms of character? The pigheadedness and creativity, I’d say. Always active, always thinking up new ideas.
What did your parents do for a living, what were they like as people, and how do you think they shaped you in terms of self-confidence, ambition, willingness to take risks, and so forth? My parents ran a catering business in Amsterdam, as had my grandmum before them. I’m the fourth generation of entrepreneurial women in the family. My mum, grandmum and her mum were entrepreneurs, always were. They did everything from running a studio to setting up a souvenir shop and a catering business, and that kind of ambition runs through my veins. My mum was always behind me, instilling in me the idea that I shouldn’t be afraid to take risks. The proverbs "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" and "Fortune favours the bold" capture what she drummed into me repeatedly.
Sports run your life. How old were you when you first developed an interest in it? I did all the usual things girls do: horse riding, ballet – but I didn’t really excel at these and always felt like doing something else. It wasn’t until my teens that I got into jogging and keeping fit, and it gradually became such a huge part of my life that I can’t even imagine my life otherwise now.
Does it run in the family? Far from it! My parents aren’t really the sporty type. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve always been healthy eaters, but sports just aren’t their thing. Funny really, considering its role in my life.
What significant memories do you have from your teenage years that contributed to who you are today? It’s got to be being enterprising. Where we lived was quite remote, so I was often alone as a kid, and you tend to become creative when you have to entertain yourself.
You worked in the media before setting up The Bootcamp Club. What made you change direction? Well, I toyed for years with the idea of becoming a personal trainer. I just wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, help them to experience what it feels like to be healthy so they could feel even better about themselves, a feeling that tends to radiate outwards into everything we do, be that our work or our love life. Everything is affected by how we treat our body – how much we move it, what we feed it. It’s such a fascinating idea; priceless, too. The best job in media doesn’t hold a candle to helping people to experience what I’m talking about. So I started taking evening and weekend classes as a personal trainer in 2008, and it was while I was trying to envisage the ideal fitness package that I stumbled on the idea of the Bootcamp, which was huge in LA at the time. I was astonished that nothing like it existed in the Netherlands, but I started small by testing out the idea with a group of friends, and it grew from there.
This meant becoming self-employed. What challenges did you face? What fears did you have to overcome? Oh my God, lots! It was a massive and scary rollercoaster of a journey. Letting go of the security of a regular income, despite knowing that not going for it was an even greater risk. Staying put gets you nowhere. So I left. Fortunately, the people around me were really excited about the idea, which was enormously reassuring. I’ve learnt so much over the last 9 years. Knowing you’ve helped thousands to become healthier, that you’ve trained people preparing for obstacle courses or marathons, helped people lose significant amounts of weight, which boosted their confidence and helped them to find a partner or get a promotion. That you’ve helped people build their social networks. And the friendships established, the personal trainers and franchisees who’ve been able to make a living from doing something they love. To know that all of this came about because of something I dreamed up at my kitchen table. I still get emotional about it – it's just so wonderful. But being self-employed is still terrifying. You’ll never hear me declaring something a success – that would be tempting the gods. So I don’t rest on my laurels – you can always do better.
What qualities do you need to set up a company, and how much of these did you have? Perseverance, courage, single-mindedness. I’ve made and learned from so many fuck ups since I began. One of the hard-won lessons is that you mustn’t lose sight of your idea. I’ve often been too quick to drop ideas because other people didn’t think much of them. But tell a hundred people your idea and you’ll get a hundred opinions. So by all means remain open to other people’s opinions, but don’t get sidetracked by them, or allow them to dilute your idea. Otherwise you’ll end up with some mishmash you no longer believe in, and if you don’t believe in your idea, how can you expect anyone else to. If your idea isn’t brutally single-minded, it's a bad idea.
But having a team is a different matter? That’s the most important thing, isn’t it! I am blessed to have great people around me and that we work so well together. When you click, you click, and I can work with someone for years when that happens. And then of course I have my friends and partner, who are all pretty level-headed and frank, which I need.
You invested six years of your life in The Bootcamp Club, which became a huge success. And yet you sold your stake and walked away from it in 2014. Why? It was an amazing period. The company grew tremendously, with new regional franchises and spin-offs. But after six years, I needed a fresh, creative challenge as I’d exhausted the permutations of exercise regimes within the idea. Besides, the competition was getting ridiculous. The bootcamp was a flexible concept that you could scale up quite easily without having to spend lots. But that was also its major drawback as it made it very easy and attractive to lots of people looking to start a business. Next thing we knew, there were bloggers setting up bootcamps. It seemed like all you had to do was generate some attention and appoint a healthy-looking personal trainer, and you were on your way. Come Monday evenings and there was barely room to swing a cat in the Vondelpark [Amsterdam’s most popular park] for all the bootcamp groups. The popularity of the idea gave me a warm glow, but I was done. I needed to create something distinctive again. Furthermore, my business partner and I now had different ideas about how to proceed. We were just entrepreneurially different, which was beneficial for a while. But that’s life. I believe we attract particular groups of people for each phase of our lives. And I’m now once again surrounded by yet another wonderful group of people. It’s tough starting again from scratch, but you become all the better for it.
It meant the end of a pretty intense working relationship with your business partner. How do you feel about that now? What did you learn from the experience? A truly tough year, 2014. The breakup of the partnership felt like a personal and business divorce in one, so I needed some distance to let it go and start a new chapter. It taught me a lot, both with respect to business and relationships; for instance: keep your professional life and your private life separate. I’ll never set up a business with a close friend again. A friendship is too precious a thing to risk. It might feel like you can change the world together when you start out, but your ideas will eventually cease to overlap. There’s a Dutch saying that goes: Met vrienden moet je wandelen niet handelen, which translates roughly as: You go for walks with friends, not to work.
You launched High Studios last year as a high-intensity boutique studio. When was this idea born? I’d been following the boutique fitness trend since 2013. Fascinating market. And, yet again, completely unknown in the Netherlands. It's such a different approach to fitness: small-scale and flexible, with a strong focus on the experience. I visited several boutiques in New York and London to derive inspiration for making High Studios unique and highly service-oriented, which is one of the key attractions for people. After selling my stake in The Bootcamp Club, I bumped into my current business partner, Han Doorenbosch, owner of TrainMore and ClubSportive. I run the operational side of things and Han and I work together on strategy; he’s also an investor. I really admire what he and his wife, Marjolijn, have accomplished, and his drive and ambition are contagious. We opened the first studio in Amsterdam in April 2016 and we're opening three new studios this autumn. We're also looking into expanding internationally. It’s demanding work and involves lots of testing and tweaking, but the idea is sound.
You became a mother during the launch period. What is it like to start another company from scratch and become a first-time mom? It was quite a rollercoaster – climbing ladders with the architect, dashing all over the city with a big belly, from web-builder to copywriter, construction site to the architect’s office; then working late into the night at home. My pregnancy wasn’t exactly the rosiest experience. But, fortunately, I felt fit enough to manage it all; it’d have been a different ball game otherwise. Two weeks after the delivery, I was in strategy meetings. With James in tow. I took him everywhere with me. You know, all those clichés about motherhood are simply true. It is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced. Of course combining motherhood with running a business isn’t always easy, but I don’t think it’s that different for young mothers with regular jobs – each of us still has to race to the nursery after work, go grocery shopping, cook, bath the baby, prepare the baby’s bottle, all the while hoping you’ll have a moment to yourself before bedtime just to catch your breath. I’m just fortunate that my household runs like a well-oiled machine, and that I have a partner with whom I can share the load, which makes a huge difference. I don’t see how I could manage otherwise.
How were the challenges different this time, personally and professionally? It's a completely different experience with a baby. You simply have less time to devote to your business, so you have to manage your day differently. Especially so in the first year when you have to get up three or four times a night, which doesn’t leave you at your sharpest. It took awhile to find a routine that worked. What made the difference for me was keeping fit and taking good care of myself. You can still manage a workout, even when you’re exhausted – even if it’s just a 20-minute session. It gets the blood pumping and gives you an energy boost.
When you launch something new, there’s often some initial internal resistance. Did you experience this with High Studios, and how did you push past it? I still struggle with this. On the really rough days, you find yourself asking: What have I gotten myself into? Is this actually going to work out? On such days, I really have to buck myself up and tell myself: Come on, you; put on your big boy pants and deal with it.
What would surprise someone who knew you as a teenager if they saw you today? I honestly couldn’t say. I have no idea what people thought of me back then. Bit of a weirdo with an over-the-top quiff, probably.
You broke free. What advice would you give someone considering such a daunting step? Just do it. There are no guarantees, not even with a regular job. I know so many people with truly great ideas, but for some reason or the other they don’t act on them. By taking action you’ll discover just how creative you are when you have to earn a living from something you’ve created. And if what you do reflects who you really are and you surround yourself with the right people, you’ll be okay. Believe in your ideas; it’s minds like yours that create the world.
What advice would you give your younger self? Stop doubting yourself. You can achieve more than you realise.
When your son, James, grows up, would you want him to follow your footsteps? As long as he does what he loves, I’ll stand behind him all the way. Live your life. The world is yours.
Finally, can we expect a third concept in the future? I’ve got my hands full with opening three new studios. Then again, I love learning and trying new things, so who knows. Ideas abound.