Begin Anyway: Bonnie Micheli and Tracy Roemer

The Begin Anyway Series focuses on people who have taken this journey and found success. Most of these people are nowhere near their ultimate destinations. What they have in common is that they have each made a conscious effort to improve their lives by starting over and pursuing a totally different path. We each have a unique journey, vision, and destination; but we all share the desire for a more fulfilling life.

Today we talk with the dynamic duo of Bonnie Micheli and Tracy Roemer, co-founders of Chicago-based Shred415.

Bonnie and Tracy took an idea hatched in their shared back alley while watching their kids play and transformed it into a group fitness powerhouse. Shred415 is an instructor-led, interval training class designed to target all levels of clients. They are currently working on opening their tenth location and have begun franchising their brand throughout the country.

From the beginning, Bonnie and Tracy were driven to open their own fitness studio that catered to busy parents like themselves. A shared disappointment in boutique fitness options in Chicago led them to open their first studio in Lincoln Park. Along the way, they have built an ever-growing community of ‘shredders’ and a remarkable team of trainers and support staff.

Tell us how you start each day. Do either of you have a motto or daily practice that has been inspirational or helpful to you throughout your day?

We are both busy moms, so we start our day getting our kids up, dressed and fed and out the door to school. Then, lots of coffee — it is a must! We are usually sipping on our go-to drink right up until the time we get on the mic for our first morning class.

Bonnie: I don’t like to get on the phone first thing in the morning. It is really tempting to wake up and start scrolling through emails or instagram. But I force myself to ignore my phone for the first 20 or 30 minutes of my day so I can clear my head and think through what I have ahead of me. This helps me prepare to tackle my day as best I can.

Tracy: My life is pretty jam-packed with teaching classes, business meetings, family commitments, school, activities with my three girls, etc. With so much going on, it helps me to take my day and break it into hourly blocks. Each morning I look at my daily overview of what I have going on all day long, and then I take my day in hourly blocks. I focus on what I have to do in the first hour, and then once that is accomplished, I look at the next. It keeps me from feeling too overwhelmed and also helps me to stay present in the meeting, conversation, or moment.

You were both married with young families when you started Shred415. Already “busy mom’s,” as you said. What was it like building a business while maintaining a focus on your growing families? Were you hesitant to begin because of this?

We couldn’t have done this without our families. Yes it was a lot to jump into — we had 5 young children between us — but we helped each other along the way. And, our husbands are both amazing men who stepped up to cover anything we had to miss during the early days. We wore so many hats early on — we would greet our clients as they arrived for class, work the front desk, roll towels, teach and even work the kids room sometimes! Our families were incredibly supportive and on board with our dream so we knew we had their blessing.

How did you get to the point where you knew it was time to open your own business? Do you remember any “aha” moments that planted the seed and inspired you to open the first Shred415?

We definitely had an “aha” moment. Ours came when we were sitting in our shared alley behind our houses in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. We were watching our kids play and talking about our love of fitness and our shared disappointment at the boutique fitness options available to us here in Chicago.

We both said we wanted to start something that would allow for high energy, interval training and classes that also combined strength training. We just looked at each other and said “Let’s do it!”. After that moment, we’ve never looked back!

Tracy came from a fitness background, which she has used to lead her shredders on a daily basis.

So how did you move from that initial idea to reality? Any research about creating a small business, generally, or entering the group fitness market?

We actually moved really quickly. We were both involved in the fitness industry already, and Tracy’s entire career was in fitness, but we definitely did a lot more targeted research for the type of studio we wanted to open and took a lot of classes in Chicago to understand our competition.

We would meet whenever we could manage the time — sometimes only for 10 minutes at a Starbucks — to create our plan for our first studio, which became Shred415. From the time we said let’s do this to the time we opened our first Shred415 studio was 8 months.

Do you recall any major fears of failure in the early days? Tracy, I’ve read that you tried not to tell any friends what you were doing in the event that it didn’t succeed. I think any brick-and-mortar operator fears the first day in business — that they will open the door for the first time but no one comes in. How did you push through these fears?

We were terrified! We were actually so excited about the concept and so busy making it happen it hadn’t occurred to us to be worried until that very first day when we opened our doors. We just stood there looking at each other — NO ONE came! But we didn’t let it shake us; we worked our networks and got our first few clients in that first week. And then the word-of-mouth started to spread so quickly; before we knew it we had wait lists.

What about early missteps? How did you overcome those stumbles — what did they teach you?

Oh, absolutely. We learn something with each new studio we build. We have fine tuned things as we have gone along — layout, bathrooms, storage, etc; but we are continually improving and adjusting those details.

During the first year we realized that all of our instructors were just as enthusiastic and “addicted” to Shred as our Shredders were becoming! We learned that their buy-in was an essential component to making the business work. We made it a policy that we only employ Shredders. We want them to love and believe in the work out just as much as we do. And that has given a unique boost in the market — you can tell how much our instructors believe in what they are teaching!

Fast forward to today: you two have been recognized as ‘Entrepreneurs of the Year in the Midwest’ as a result of the business you’ve built. Looking back on the early days, how likely does this seem?

We never dreamed of that kind of recognition. We were just focused on creating a studio where we knew we would love to workout, and making it the best it could be. We never really let our mind wander to future accolades for our business acumen. It has been an incredible ride so far and we couldn’t be more thrilled and honored for the experiences and recognition we have had.

“I force myself to ignore my phone for the first 20 or 30 minutes of my day so I can clear my head and think through what I have ahead of me. This helps me prepare to tackle my day as best I can.”

Tracy, you have a background in fitness and Bonnie, you came from the accounting world. You’ve obviously found an excellent way to compliment each other’s skill sets. How important have your different professional experiences been to your partnership?

Tracy came up in her career managing big box gyms, teaching group fitness classes and working with fitness legends like Billy Blanks. Bonnie worked with computers and knew it wasn’t right for her.

Before we decided to open Shred415, Bonnie left her corporate job and was teaching group fitness classes. The first time Bonnie was on the mic for a class she knew she found exactly where she belonged. Our strengths and weaknesses are so complementary of each other. We really believe that is what makes us such a strong team. We make all of our decisions together, but also remember that we do have different backgrounds and experiences and rely on each other to bring our unique perspective to each discussion.

The fitness industry is very difficult to break into, especially when you’re up against franchising giants like Soulcycle, Barry’s Bootcamp, and Orange Theory. You’ve managed to create your own place in the market with great success. Why do you think that is? What has set you apart from your peers?

Our community of Shredders is incredible and we are so proud of it. From the beginning, one of our biggest differentiators was our Kids Room. We attract a lot of busy moms and having an onsite space for their children to play while they work out was a huge plus for us.

But, really we think it all comes down to our community — from day one, we both worked the front desk and got to know all of our Shredders. We really felt that focusing on customer service and creating a space where our clients are known by both of us, and our staff would make Shred415 what we wanted it to be. As we have grown, we have really stressed the need for exceptional client service to our staff and trainers. We are very intentional about that focus.

There is something really special about our Shredders, so many friendships and relationships have begun at Shred415, couples shred together, families shred together…. we feel so lucky to have such an incredible group of devoted and enthusiastic Shredders, they are the best part of all of this!

Creating a successful business is difficult but learning how to manage a team can be just as arduous. Did you have early struggles building a company culture? If so, what did you learn? How have you successfully built the great team you have today?

We definitely had growing pains, especially as we began to expand. In 2014 we put together a corporate team which included our co-directors of training and other roles which really helped formalize our structure. Once we had our corporate structure settled, it made our expansion much easier. We had a team in place to train and set up our new locations. They are amazing and we lean on them beyond belief. Most of our corporate staff have been with us since the very beginning!

One of the most impressive aspects of Shred415 is the strong branding — an essential asset for any successful company. Was this created organically or did you have a particular vision going in?

We definitely had a vision of what we wanted and who we wanted to be. One of our strengths is that we have always stayed true to that vision. We listen to our gut, we never disagree on what is best for the Shred415 brand and that has allowed us to build Shred415 into exactly what we hoped it would be. We feel very lucky that we get along so well personally and professionally — that relationship has made decision making and tough business decisions so much easier.

Since opening your flagship location here in Chicago, you have expanded your footprint to other parts of the Midwest- including Indiana and St. Louis. You are looking to expand your business to even more cities in the very near future. What have you learned the most about the franchising process?

What haven’t we learned?! It has been a whirlwind of a process but so exciting and rewarding. Leading up to our expansion, we established 9 corporate studios. We have loved meeting our future franchise owners (97% of whom are Shredders!) and seeing them get so excited about Shred415 with a desire to bring it to their communities around the country.

We have sold 22 franchises since we announced in mid-July and we are thrilled! Franchising has opened up an entirely new direction for our careers and we have really enjoyed diving into the franchise world. We will continue to open Shred415 corporately owned studios and are excited to see where that takes us as well.

Not only have you both created an incredible fitness and beauty movement, you have also become inspirations to young women and entrepreneurs everywhere. Is there any advice you would give those who are just beginning that you wish had known?

Really just encouragement — if you believe in your idea, and you have put in the work to develop a plan — go for it! We are so glad we didn’t hesitate when we decided to take this huge leap. We are all held back by fear and doubt to a certain degree — you have to believe in yourself and in your idea and know that you can do it. It won’t happen if you don’t try.

Thank you so much for taking time to chat with us, ladies. Finally, I love a great cocktail. Who is one person that you would like to have a drink with, get to know, and gain inspiration from? And what are you drinking?

We also love a great cocktail — a paloma for Tracy and a super dirty martini for Bonnie! And we love Reese Witherspoon. We have always thought she was great, but this year we were glued to our screens watching ‘Big Little Lies’ and we were amazed by her. We are inspired by Reese as an entrepreneur, as a mother, wife, actor, producer, and just in general as a busy working woman. We would love to sit down with her and ask how she does it all, what she sees for her future and what inspires her to keep reaching for more each day. Reese’s production company recently announced it will produce the film version of one of our favorite books Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — we would love to hear all about her plans for the film! And if we could do that over cocktails we would love it even more!

A huge thank you to Bonnie and Tracy for sharing their Begin Anyway story with us. Be sure to check out Shred 415 and sign up for a class today!

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