A Conversation with Barry Jay, Founder of BARRY’S, on Entrepreneurship, Building a Movement, Succession & Success.

A Conversation with Barry Jay, Founder of BARRY’S, on Entrepreneurship, Building a Movement, Succession & Success.

It was 1998 when Barry’s first opened its doors in West Hollywood with an innovative new offering in fitness, combining HIIT interval training in a group setting. One part strength, one part cardio, 100% Barry Jay. This first site was founded by Barry Stich (Barry Jay) with help from his partners John & Rachel Mumford.  By 2011, the business had gone global (with its first site in Bergen, Norway) and today Barry’s has over 90 locations around the world, with over 140,000 people a week taking classes. In 2015, North Castle Partners (the investors behind Equinox Fitness, Curves International, Jenny Craig, Naked Juice & Octane Fitness) made a significant investment in Barry’s Bootcamp – allowing Barry Jay to move onto the next stage of his career, writing, producing, and directing horror films. You can see the trailer for his latest film, The Way Out, here.

In this interview, I speak to Barry Jay about Barry’s Bootcamp and how he built one of the world’s most recognised and fastest-growing fitness brands. We talk about his journey, succession, and how he’s gone on to find success in a whole new field, horror films.

Q: What was the origin story of Barry’s?

[Barry Jay]: I had gotten a job at a fitness studio; I had never taken a fitness class in my life and was working behind the desk! Eventually, I started taking classes (for free!) and loved it. We’re talking the mid 1990s here… and the weights were like 5 or 10lbs. If you got lucky, you grabbed a set of 15’s. The class was fun… I got a great sweat… but I still had to go to the gym to do the bigger weights – although that missed the class atmosphere. In both settings… class and gym… I hated the bright white lights. Maybe it was my clubbing days, but I could not stand looking in a mirror with those bright wight lights above me, everything felt so flushed out. There was one day at Gold’s gym, where I was teaching classes and told everyone to go downstairs and get heavier weights. People were marching upstairs with big weights, and we were able to do have the class vibe, and still do an arm day, chest day, leg day… I started telling people to meet me a half hour before class to run with me on the treadmills; I’d just scream out things to do and people followed along, and then we’d do the class right after. That was the birth of Barry’s.

In the classroom, I always used to turn-off the lights. It wasn’t the red we have now, but it was dim. There was enough light to see, but no bright white light. I also remember there was somebody in my body-sculpt class who said, ‘hey, you should call this a boot camp!’ – at the time, I was thinking about opening something up with this formula, and Rachel (my business partner) said, ‘why don’t we call it Barry’s Boot Camp!’ It was her idea- I swear- and she was glued to it. There was the little issue however of me not wanting to be at the centre of things, and it was hard to accept… she was adamant we needed a centre-piece, like ‘Johnny G Spinning’ and was determined, so I let it go and said I could live with it.

That’s how we started. I sensed there were others like me who would want to work-out with weights, people who struggled going to the gym alone, who wanted more results than a sculpting class was giving them.

Q: Do you think your passion for storytelling played a role in the success of Barry’s?

[Barry Jay]: … once a storyteller, always a storyteller! In our case, storytelling was about community. In the beginning, I was really connected to the boot camp thing, there weren’t many others (especially indoors). When we just had the one store, I was teaching 40 classes, knew everybody, and we had a community. People made friends in class and met each other to take class. They’d join the academy too where they make a commitment to come at the same times on the same days with a particular group of people. It encouraged engagement, community support and accountability. If people didn’t show up, we’d call them and say, ‘hey, just wondering where you are, you’re supposed to be here at the academy.’ At most gyms, if you don’t show up, nobody cares, and that’s the truth. I love gyms, but if you don’t show up, nobody will call you, nobody cares, they just take your money and have one less body in the room. W were different, we cared, we wanted you to show up, wanted you to know it worked, and wanted you to know that you could do it. Those early years were crazy, believe me, but as we grew – we made sure that the sense of community remained. The instructors engaged with the clients, and became friends… part of their lives… they knew the client journey, knew their struggles, knew what they wanted to gain or lose, knew when they were injured even. Each instructor was really invested in the growth of the individuals in their class. It was our truth, it was sincere, and people could tell they’d stumbled across something special.

Community brings out the good… the encourager in people. You could be on a treadmill next to someone who’s having a hard time, and it just brings it out of you. I’ve seen it in class where a total stranger will turn to someone next to them and say, ‘you’ve got it! You’ve got it! Stay in there, you’re almost done with the sprint!’ – that little bit of encouragement makes a world of difference.

Q: To what extent did your early life shape that need for, or the shape of the community that Barry’s created?

[Barry Jay]: I grew up in survival mode. It was constant. I didn’t know what to expect on any given day, what was coming, and I had to be strong enough to be ready for anything – to take it, hide from it, or dodge it. I had to have a strategy. Sometimes the strategy was to bite the bullet – but it also gave me a special bond with the small group of friends I had, who were the family I built around me. Without really thinking about it – I think that followed me into Barry’s and that’s maybe why people responded so well to how they felt encouraged. When Barry’s took off, I wanted to make sure people were not only cared for, and cared about, but also encouraged to show up, do better and work harder. Yes today sucked, but come back tomorrow, I’ll meet you there.. That means the world to somebody who doesn’t feel like getting out of bed that day.

Q: How did you retain the essence of the business as you scaled?

[Barry Jay]: Our first store stood on its own for 5 years, and after that we opened our second. Somewhere in that period, Joey Gonzalez became a client and my god he was relentless about wanting to work at Barry’s. I was very much on his side and had to also make sure Rachel saw the benefit of bringing him on, and she did. I’ve done a few very-right things in my life that I’m proud of, and one of them was getting to know Joey and bringing him into the business. Joey was a gift, and we knew we shouldn’t miss out on him. We grew the business with Joey to San Diego – he brought people in that he knew… Alicia, Harley and so-on. They became instructors and brought in clientele. The business started to grow from within, and then went to franchise. It was people who took, and loved, the class that became our franchisees initially and one of the key principles was that whether you walked into Barry’s in Manchester or West Hollywood, that you should feel that same love, community, warmth and welcome. And look, we’re not perfect but we try to be darn good. And we try to make everybody feel like they belong there, they’re welcome there, we’re glad they’re there and we want to help them get results.

Q: How did you prepare yourself, and your business, for succession – when you decided to move onto your next challenge in life?

[Barry Jay]: It was because of Joey that I could even contemplate moving away from the business – it was because of Joey that we could do a lot of things. He is arguably one of the greatest CEOs I’ve ever encountered – he’s worked hard at becoming a great CEO, and leads by example, with kindness, and is extremely smart. He’s a much better businessman than I am. You’ve got to remember… I was a guy who worked out a lot, and taught classes around town. John and Rachel had the money – when we opened, it was a huge deal for me – I could not have done it on my own. I wasn’t some natural born businessman – I had to learn about business along the way. Joey however is a true entrepreneur, he’s very business minded.

Joey also knew I loved horror writing and making movies. We bonded on that as a mutual interest of ours, and it helped us grow as people. As the business grew to New York, London and beyond – it felt like a miracle to me and Rachel. We kept thinking back to meeting at Century City when we had temp jobs, talking about the one store, and worrying about how we’d even get 8 people to our class. Here we are today with 90 locations… it’s mind boggling, and I’m grateful.

When we took-on the investment from North Castle, there was no doubt from any of us that Joey would be anything other than our perfect CEO. I remember talking to him in private… we were hanging out and he actually said to me, ‘Barry, what do you want to do?’ – you have to remember, I love Barry’s… I’m grateful for the life it’s given me, but I’ve been teaching classes since the 1990s… it was now 20 years later… and there was more I wanted to do. I felt I’d done ‘this’ well enough and felt like Joey had it all under control. It was Joey really that gave me permission… he said, ‘Barry… retire if you want… go do movies… it will be fine…’ – and that was the little tap I needed. I weaned myself off the business… I went from 15 classes to 6. My last big retirement class, I was bawling like a baby the whole way – I’m quite emotional like that.

I still have a little part of it on paper. But I don’t do anything on the day to day, except for take the online classes.

Q: How did you get over the ego of success when starting over?

[Barry Jay]: Starting over was a challenge honestly. I had to tell myself I was going back to Point A, and that I was going to have to let go of age and any other excuses and start again. I was in my 50s, but needed to summon the energy and stamina of a 25-year-old if I was going to make it work. I also listened to the fact that from when I got up in the morning, the only thing I wanted to do. the only thing I could think about… was making movies. With Barry’s it was the same, at the time, the only thing I could think about was doing classes, writing schedules, finding music – it was my blood – in the same way that filmmaking became.

I took a lot from Barry’s mainly – god bless em’ – the people. I didn’t literally poach them, rather, they were in my corner. My literary managers, my entertainment attorneys, my producers, and the people who were willing to read my scripts and give me honest feedback. The people who looked out for me when I had my first contracts…. I never once felt alone, and I knew that people would be there to provide intelligent advice – whether I listened to them or not! When I didn’t listen, it usually meant I had to learn the hard way. Mistakes sometimes can only be learned by doing things the hard way!

In the same way that people encouraged each other in the Barry’s community, this community around me encourages me to level-up with each film, to be more ambitious, to do more, to be more creative.

To have that kind of support meant the world to me, it was the kind of support I hope we always gave everyone else when they were coming for their workout journey. Now I was on the receiving end of it for my movie making journey.

Q: What does success mean to you?

[Barry Jay]: For me, success has levels and compartments.

Am I financially successful? Sure, I feel it because I’m self-sufficient.

I also feel successful because I’m sober and have been for 18 years.

I also feel successful because I’m a good husband, and a good family member.

When Barry’s first opened, my heart was pumping. I quit my teaching job, my job at the weather channel, gave up my health benefits, everything. I took a leap and said this must be a success. The fact I was able to live my life because of Barry’s without needing any /other type of work felt like a success to me.  Barry’s has helped people – and to me, there’s no greater success story.

As far as film making is going, I feel like if I have a great journey and keep levelling up with each project, that I’m succeeding. When I first started, I would watch back my films and be thinking ‘I wish I’d done this or that’ but now, I feel like I’m more satisfied with what I create. However…. Films cost a lot of money, and you only make a fraction of that money back. Lots of well-written and well-directed films don’t financially succeed, you can’t take it personally. I would like the financial aspect of my film making to rise to the level Barry’s has reached, but that aside I certainly feel successful as a writer, and director. Now, at the age of nearly 60, I’m teaching myself to edit, and do lots of new things. I love it, it makes me happy.

Q: What do you hope people learn from your life?

[Barry Jay]: I cannot count the number of times I wished I was dead, or thought about ending my life because it seemed like the ‘nicer’ option. There was a part of me… not a huge part… which kept telling me, ‘they won’t be around forever, you don’t have to be in this situation forever, if you can just deal with what’s happening… if you can just deal with the torment and hang-tough… one day you’ll get out’ that’s the voice I listened to, the voice that told me to hang-in there. The voice that told me things could be different, one day.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.