Stefi Cohen: What It Takes to Build a Fitness Empire

Stefi Cohen is one of the owners of Hybrid Performance Method. She holds a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, a CSCS, and has broken a total of 11 all-time powerlifting world records throughout her career. Additionally, Stefi is currently ranked #2 in the world for holding the all-time highest Wilks score with a remarkable 698.11, and continues to push the boundaries of what’s physically possible for the human body. 

In today’s episode, I sit down with Stefi to chat on her upbringing in the sport of powerlifting and her mindset — but more importantly, how she has helped Hybrid Performance Method scale, along with tips for other business owners to do so. It can be scary to scale a business at times, however, Stefi explains if you equip yourself with the right tools and mindset, then it’s manageable if it’s a goal you possess.

If you’re trying to grow your business — whether it be in the fitness industry or not — then we hope you love this chat!

In this episode of The BarBend Podcast, guest Stefi Cohen and guest host Jake Boly discuss:

  • Stefi’s origin story and how she got into powerlifting. (1:50)
  • When and where did the idea for Hybrid Performance Method start? (8:10)
  • When Hybrid Performance Method started truly rolling out their product. (10:30)
  • Stefi’s mindset behind scaling a business and how she navigated her “ah-ha” moment. (11:15)
  • Best tips for trainers/coaches/business owners for growing their business and deciding when to scale. (15:00)
  • How Hybrid Performance Method integrated apparel into their already establish business and then scaled it. (19:00)
  • Deciding between what you want versus what the data/customers say/want. (22:50)
  • The future and where social media might be heading and where folks should be adapting. (25:45)
  • What has been Stefi’s biggest lesson learned from the last five years in business, training, and life. (27:45)

Relevant links and Stefi’s/Ghost Strong’s pages:

Transcription

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

If I could do one thing differently…If you’re someone who wants to scale your business, I think one of the most important things is structuring, so organizational structure, just making sure that everything’s written. If you have someone who’s working for you, everything needs to be contractually written.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Welcome to the BarBend podcast, where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your guest host, Jake Boly, and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Stefi Cohen is one of the owners of Hybrid Performance Method. She holds a doctorate in physical therapy, a CSCS, and has broken a total of 11 all-time powerlifting world records throughout her career. Additionally, Stefi is currently ranked number two in the world for holding the all time highest Wilks score with a remarkable 698.11.

 

In today’s episode, I sit down with Stefi and chat on her upbringing in the sport of powerlifting and her mindset that has gotten her here. More importantly, how she has helped Hybrid Performance Method scale, along with tips for other business owners looking to do so.

 

If you’re trying to grow your business, then I hope you’ll love and resonate with this episode.

 

As always, we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to the BarBend podcast. If you have it already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend podcast in your app of choice. Every month, we give away a box full of BarBend swag to one of our listeners who leaves a rating and review.

 

What’s going on guys? We are down in Miami, Florida with the BarBend podcast. We’re here with Stefi Cohen. Hi, Stefi. Great to have you on.

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

 

Hey, Jake. Thanks for having me.

Jake BolyJake Boly

I know that you’ve shared your origin story now multiple times on different platforms and different podcasts. For any potential reader, listener, and so forth, who doesn’t know you, I would love to hear your origin story. How you got started in powerlifting? Just kind of your overall journey and strength.

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

Cool. I’ll give you a SparkNotes version of it. This is arguably the hardest question for me because I never know how much detail to include. I guess if you want me to go into more detail on any point of the story, you can let me know.

 

I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. I played soccer my entire life. From the time I was about eight years old. Sports were always part of my identity. The thing that brought most happiness to my life, the thing I identified the most with, just being an athlete.

 

I played for the National Venezuelan Soccer Team. We actually were the first female professional soccer team in Venezuela. Soccer in Venezuela at that point in time wasn’t developed. There wasn’t a lot of people interested, and we had no structure. By the way, they are actually killing the team now.

 

I moved to the States with the intention of becoming a professional soccer player, obviously. I got a scholarship at San Diego State University to play soccer. My plan was to have a better chance at having a higher-level education and more quality education but also see where I could take my soccer.

 

Moving to the States and being 17 years old, being away from my family and my coach, and all of that was difficult because I felt like I had no support.

 

When you’re 17 and things start getting tough, and you add a bunch of other variables like adjusting to a culture, learning a new language, being tested in that new language, having to make friends and find your place socially. It got very lonely because I felt like I was just juggling too many things and not really doing any of them very well.

 

The one that consumed most of my time was soccer. We trained multiple times per day. Training sessions were really long and hard. I decided I that maybe I needed to focus more on my school because soccer was a little bit uncertain. Whereas I knew that by getting good grades, getting a good education, preparing myself for a future, that could potentially yield more benefits in the long run.

 

I decided to stop playing soccer, decided to move to Miami because it was closer to home. It’s only like two-and-a-half-hour flight to Venezuela and also culturally, this is pretty much like South America here in Miami. It felt a lot more like home and I felt like it was a better environment for me at the time.

 

I always say that in hindsight, looking back at that time in my life, I feel like if I had half the mental strength, and the perspective and attitude that I have nowadays, I would have never quit. I would have definitely found a way to persevere and go through. That for me was a lesson that when things get rough, you should try to ride it out and try to see what comes out of it.

 

Moved to Miami. Again, felt a bit lost as far as my identity goes. I stopped playing soccer, wasn’t an athlete anymore. I thought I would be OK with that, but I started looking for other sports to play, because I felt really empty. I don’t know. I wasn’t ready to not be an athlete anymore. Just did a bunch of different sports, half marathons, triathlons. I rode bikes. I tried skateboarding.

 

I also took kickboxing, boxing classes, and then eventually landed in CrossFit. I went to school with Noah Ohlsen, and he was the one that introduced me to CrossFit. They had a Canes CrossFit Club, it’s called. It was really close to campus. We would meet every day. We would train.

 

I love the competitive aspect of CrossFit. It really made me feel like an athlete. Anyone who’s tried CrossFit who was an athlete before can attest to that, where everyone really cares about what time they’re getting, what weight they’re moving. The coaches are encouraging. I really love that competitive atmosphere.

 

From there, just trying to improve my different skills for CrossFit. The first one, the most evident one for me that needed work was weightlifting, lifting weights, because I had never lifted weights in my life. Even though I was in the national soccer team in Venezuela, we didn’t have access to a gym.

 

It’s not a prestigious thing to be in the national soccer team in Venezuela. We played in a dirt field. If we weren’t playing in a dirt field, we were playing on the beach, for our conditioning. We didn’t really have gym and weights and anything like that. I felt I needed to get stronger, and I needed to improve my snatch [inaudible 7:03] .

 

Hired a weightlifting coach, got into that. Did it for about three years or four years at a pretty high level, competed in states, American Open. I didn’t actually end competing at the American Open but I qualified. Then got into grad school. Getting into grad school…

 

I feel like my SparkNotes story ended up being way longer. Sorry, guys. Bear with me. I’m at the tail end. It’s almost over, I promise. Going into grad school, really hard to balance Olympic weightlifting and grad school because weightlifting demands so much of you, both from a focus standpoint and from the amount of time that you have to dedicate to really be competitive.

 

It was kind of a similar story to when I was doing CrossFit, where I wanted to improve on a particular skill. In this case, it was strength. I thought that if I got better and squat bench deadlift that I could improve my weightlifting after grad school, but I ended up just switching to powerlifting and staying there.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Interesting. Thank you for the elaborate SparkNotes.

 

That’s really interesting. My question for you is, when you got the idea for Hybrid, when was that and where did that start in all of that SparkNotes story?

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

I met Hayden after my first semester of grad school. He had been traveling in the US around that time, trying to network. He owned another company called Working Against Gravity. That was the first time I was exposed to and met someone who owned an online business. I didn’t really understand much about it.

 

I was really shocked at the scalability of the business and really how much money you can make from it. I didn’t know it was possible. That was interesting to me. After a few months of us dating, he decided to sell his shares in that company. We started just talking among each other, trying to find something else to do for him.

 

Mainly, because I was in school. I couldn’t commit 100 percent of my time to anything else. At that time, we were training Hybrid. We were training Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting, doing some bodybuilding to look good. That was how we were training.

 

We were always get a few questions, not a ton. I had about 3,000 followers at the time. Hayden had about 12,000 followers at the time. I thought I was dating a celebrity. We got a few questions about our style of training. How do you incorporate Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting in some bodybuilding into one training program?

 

Decided to give it a go. I remember Hayden telling me that he thinks that we have something interesting. That he thinks that we could sell a Hybrid program. I could understand why he thought that anyone would want to buy a training program from us, out of everyone else that’s offering programming.

 

He seemed really confident on the idea. My job as a girlfriend is to be supportive. I said, “I support whatever you want to do. I’ll be all in, if you think this is a good idea. I have no idea how any of this works, but you have the experience from the other company you already started. I’ll help you with whatever I can and we’re in it together.”

 

He invested a bunch of money into creating our own software. At that time, the most popular training platform was TrainHeroic, but they take about 30 percent of whatever you make. It seemed like it wasn’t worth it, so decided to create our own software, beta-tested.

 

When we posted on our Instagram that we needed about 12 people to beta test the program, the software, we got about 400 replies. That was my aha moment. “OK, I guess we do have something that’s interesting and that people are looking for, and that people are interested to learn more about.”

Jake BolyJake Boly

 

That’s really interesting. What year was that when you guys started to really invest all of your time into Hybrid and start beta-testing that?

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

 

I think that was 2015.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Yeah, because I remember BarBend when he first wrote about you guys, it was in 2016. Just looking back at the last three years and how much Hybrid has grown, and how much you guys have grown personally and professionally, I would love to hear a little bit more on basically your mindset behind scaling.

 

I think that could be very scary for folks, especially when there is a little bit of uncertainty. My question for you is, you’ve mentioned that Hayden was very certain, and then you were a little bit unsure, but then you had your aha moment. From there, has it always been, “Hey, this may or may not work, but I’m confident in what we’ve done so far?”

 

Were you going to keep building and building and building, because that the mindset you’ve taken on, and if not, how have you approached scaling?

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

Scaling is not for everyone. Not everyone wants to have a huge business and take on hiring employees or contractors, more and more people to help you as you grow. It’s not for everyone. For us, it is. We feel like if you’re not growing, you’re dying.

 

We’re just trying to expand and grow as much as possible, while we’re in this space, and while we’re relevant, and while the space is growing with us. We take it one day at a time. It’s a job, and it’s an area that didn’t use to exist. Every single role that people have at Hybrid, for the people that work with us, has been made up based on the needs of the company.

 

Usually people start at Hybrid doing something, low level something that we need to delegate, say for example, answering customer service or packaging or shipping or inputting training programs. That’s where people start.

 

As they start showing what kind of value they can bring to the business, and that’s how they evolve in rankings within the company, as the needs get increasingly bit larger. It just depends on what the demands are at that time.

 

For example, Alex went from being the gym manager, to answering customer service, to being the person in charge of directing all operations outside of the gym and outside of the online platform, to apparel, that kind of stuff. I never anticipated that it would grow. I knew it would grow, but not at the pace that it did.

 

The thing I always say is that if I could do one thing differently as far…If you’re someone who wants to scale your business, I think one of the most important things is structuring. Organizational structure, making sure that everything’s written. If you have someone who’s working for you, everything needs to be contractually written on a handshake agreement.

 

We tend to hire people that are our friends. People that get into this business, usually young, creative, a little bit more on the more-casual-end. I think that in Spanish, there’s a saying, [Spanish] .

 

It means that as long as everything’s set in stone and written, then the friendship can continue successfully. I would say keeping everything in writing, making sure everyone knows what they’re doing, what their responsibilities are, and then starting to create a structural organizational, structural framework, right from the beginning.

 

We need people that can organize. We need people who can manage. We need a subgroup of people that can organize this other subgroup people. Start thinking about it that way, because if you do end up growing and being huge and you don’t have structure, it becomes a shit-show.

Jake BolyJake Boly

I love that you detailed a game plan for folks who might be on the cusp of scaling, but I do want to circle back to that topic. Do you have any tips? Let’s say there’s a budding trainer in the industry. He’s got 20, 30 clients, and he wants to grow his business, but he’s unsure if he should.

 

Do you have any tips for someone who might be on that idea of like, “Oh, should I scale and hire my first employee to take on more? Or should I just keep doing what I’m doing?” Do you have any tips for maybe the trainer, coach, business owner in the fitness industry that’s a little bit uncertain on if they want to scale or if it’s even for them?

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

It depends on several things. Risks is one thing. Say, I’ll give you the example of when we decided to open our gym. We didn’t need to open a gym because it’s not our main source of revenue. We knew it never will be our main source of revenue.

 

Why would we open a gym? There’s different reasons why we want to open a gym. To have a bigger presence in the space. Have a brick and mortar always gives you more a better appeal in the eyes of the public.

 

It’s a real tangible thing. It’s a structure. It just makes you seem like you’re bigger than you actually are, and adds more legitimacy to the business. For us, it was a financial undertaking, especially at that point in time when we were investing so much into our software and growth.

 

From our risk standpoint, maybe it was a little bit on the riskier side, but we thought that it would pay off in the future. That’s one thing, just managing risks versus rewards of a particular decision that you want to make.

 

You need to know exactly when it’s a good time for you to bring someone in, based on the trajectory of the business. Like, you’re really in need of this person. What’s the interest in what you’re selling or the service you’re providing? Are people really interested? Are you having…you have a wait-list?

 

Do you have the need to bring on this particular person? There’s things that we’ve done that we knew for sure that they were the right move, and that they were going to move us in the right direction. There’s things that we’ve taken risk on, the gym is one.

 

Now we actually just signed the lease for another 5,000 square foot area or warehouse, where we’re going to do our own printing. That’s a risk. I don’t know if that’s a good move. We bought our own machinery.

 

We’re going to do our own printing, we’re going to have our own podcast studio and shooting studio. It’s going to cost us money every month. I don’t know, I’m not sure if that’s the right move, but we’re at a point where we’re financially stable enough to make that move and take that risk.

 

It just depends. I think sometimes you do have to take those risks, if you want to grow and you have to make decisions that are a little bit out of your comfort zone and that might be the only way for you to grow and sometimes it’s obvious when you have to expand.

 

But the example that I like to bring that’s more recent is Victoria’s Secret. They just went bankrupt. They were super successful. They were pretty much monopolizing the entire underwear business, right? Especially for girls, like if you need a bra or underwear, you would go to Victoria’s Secret.

 

They were doing just fine and they decided to get into the market of something for kids. I think it was underwear for kids or an apparel line for kids and they pumped so much money into that business, so much because they…I don’t know, maybe it was an ego thing, like they didn’t want it to fail. They end up going bankrupt because of all the money they had to invest in that other business.

 

I’m not saying just keep all your eggs in one basket, but stick to what you know, and stick to what works. Even if you want to expand and you want to scale, never take your eyes and your focus from the thing that makes you the most money. I think that’s an important point.

Jake BolyJake Boly

I totally get that. Recently, you guys launched Hybrid Apparel, right, within like the last year, I believe. Was it about a year ago, I guess?

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

Year less.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Year less, right? My question there, and this goes off the topic of scaling, is the online business you guys have nailed down. The business and scaling like your space. It sounds like you guys took a risk on, but you’re scaling now and understanding a little bit how to manage that, how to build that, apparel, that’s very different.

 

How has that factored into the scaling? Did you guys perceive that as a risk? How has that growth been? Have there been any lessons you’ve learned with that side of the business?

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

o, I think from our risk standpoint so far, minimal, we base the amount of T-shirts that we order on like previous months, so very rarely we’re left with a ton of inventory. If we are, we also find a way to get rid of it, which is through mystery shirts.

 

It’s a 15 for 1, 25 for 2 when shirts are regularly $25. There are strategies that we’ve employed to avoid having a ton of inventory and avoid losing money on the apparel. I don’t think from a risk standpoint, it’s been vegan.

 

Again, it’s been similar to how we started Hybrid, like a demand thing. People wanted to wrap our brand and our clothes. For the longest time, we left that on the back burner and just printed the signs that we had from a long time ago from our first designer.

 

Obviously those weren’t anything too special, but people would always want to buy them. It was actually Alex’s idea, he wanted more responsibility and he said that he’d take on the responsibility of having to contact the designer, because from a logistics standpoint, it’s also a lot of work.

 

You have to come up with a design that you like, contact the designer, make sure he’s doing his job in a timely manner, then contact the manufacturers. It’s a whole process. It was more like a supply-demand thing where the demand was high for Hybrid Apparel-style shirts. From a scaling standpoint, I think one thing that people failed to do was be observant.

 

You get direct feedback from people all the time. If you put three different styles of shirts, A, B, and C, and C sells like hot bread and A doesn’t sell, you don’t make A anymore. You stick to C. For some reason, people don’t get it sometimes. You get immediate feedback based on what people buy, based on the likes you get on Instagram, based on the people who follow you.

 

Feedback is there all the time. We’re in a technological world. You get access to data all of the time, you just have to be aware of it, observant and be able to interpret the data. That’s the approach that we’ve taken with our apparel brand, making a bunch of different styles of shirts at the beginning.

 

Shirts that were more artistic, shirts that were more basic, shirts that were simplistic just with a small print in the front, shirts with a print on the back, shirts with a print on the sleeve. We tried a bunch of different things and molded our style to our customer instead of the opposite.

 

We didn’t force it on the customer, we listen to what people are buying or pay attention to what people are buying and then give them exactly that.

Jake BolyJake Boly

That is a fantastic tip because I think that often really does get overlooked. Especially if you create content, create anything that goes public-facing and you share it, data’s always there. I think it’s hard for folks sometimes to draw the line between what they want to do versus what others want from them.

 

Question for you there, has it always been that easy to look at the data and be like, “OK, this is what’s selling really well, let’s go with this,” or have there been times where you really want to do this over here that might not be doing so good, but there’s a clear answer that this is going to be better even though you might not be as in love with it? How do you navigate that?

 

Have you ever had to and if so, who in the Hybrid crew is really good at observing the data and analyzing and seeing the trends and analytics?

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

I think we all are. Right now, we just brought someone else in, Ian Kaplan. He’s our COO, our brain. He’s really good at pulling up any sort of information that we might have on our software, comparing trends, creating charts, and all that stuff.

 

We are, also, Alex, Hayden, and I are very intuitive. It’s almost like we don’t need to see the details. We just know based on the feedback that we get online, customers, and obviously sales. There had been times where the answer is just not clear cut. Sometimes it’s clear.

 

People are not buying my shirt that has a scorpion on it. Maybe people don’t like that. People are buying my shirt that has palm trees. I think people like lighter designs. That’s easy.

 

Sometimes solutions aren’t clear cut, and they require a lot of trial and error. They require maybe you investing more money in marketing. Maybe trying different techniques that are not going to work.

 

We’ve run into a similar issue with our Hybrid Nutrition. We started it about a year and a half ago and it’s doing relatively well. We have around 1,200 or 1,300 clients right now. The clients that we have are happy. The business is doing great. From a growth standpoint, it hasn’t been growing at the same rate as our training or apparel.

 

For months, it’s created a dialogue between all of us, just trying to figure out different ways that we can increase our client retention, that we can improve the client experience, that we can provide more value to our clients, that we can communicate better, connect better.

 

It has been a challenge. The solutions are a little bit more intricate and require a lot more thought and studying. We still haven’t figured it out.

Jake BolyJake Boly

hat is really interesting. I’m excited to see how you guys navigate that one as you grow. Thinking about navigating and progressing, and initially, like you said, that is relatively new that you’re also growing with, where do you see social media going in a couple of years and the online presence at all with social platforms?

 

Where do you see them transitioning to? I feel like we’re seeing an interesting change in how people consume content on Instagram right now, for example, unlike media, in general, has been changing over the last five years to a decade. I would love to hear your thoughts seeing as how you guys have grown so much over the last three years.

 

What your thoughts are for the future, and anywhere you think that it’s a good idea for trainers, coaches, other people starting businesses to adapt right now versus waiting until it’s too late and then being later to the game.

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

That’s a tough one, man. For one, I don’t like to think about it. It’s so scary because that’s our main form of advertisement, and it’s great. I really don’t know. I have no idea where it’s going. It’s constantly changing. Sometimes they’re throwing curve balls at us all the time.

 

They remove likes. There’s no way anyone could have predicted that. We don’t know how that’s going to affect anything. For me, I’ve noticed that my engagements, it’s been lower since the likes have been gone. There’s no way for us to know where Instagram’s going, what their plans with it are, or anything.

 

For me, I think what I’ve been doing is just trying to be on every single platform and trying to have a big presence on all of them. Especially on the ones that are more stable, for example, YouTube. I think YouTube is a safe bet. It’s been there. It’s owned by Google, right? It’s not going anywhere.

 

YouTube is a safe bet, and then making sure that you keep up with the youngsters. I’m on TikTok now. [laughs]

Jake BolyJake Boly

Oh, damn, you’re doing TikTok. I totally hear that. It sounds like the way you guys have grown and the way you adapt very quickly, I think that’s essential. At the end of the day, like you’ve said, there’s no way of knowing that. Like them taking away likes, who knows how that’s going to mess up the algorithm, and they’ll discover. We just don’t know.

 

We’re almost coming to the end of our podcast. If you’re listening, I’m sorry we didn’t talk so much about training. I’m really actually happy that we talked about the business side of things. I think that’s not talked about enough. One more question for you to wrap up this podcast.

 

Over the last three, four, five years, what has been your biggest lesson learned in either business. training or life that you remind yourself every day to keep you going, to keep you motivated, and keep you hustling?

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

 I started thinking about this the other day. Some people tend to not even start doing something because they don’t know exactly where they’re going. The uncertainty of the future is something that can paralyze a lot of people. For a while, it did to me, too.

 

I’ve been lost. I’ve been at a point in my life where I just had no idea of exactly what I wanted to do when a bunch of people around me did. They were studying to be a doctor. They were studying to be a lawyer. My parents were telling me I needed to have everything figured out when I was 19.

 

It can be paralyzing. It can be scary. It can really hold you back. One change that I made from that time of uncertainty until now — and I plan on continuing to do that for the rest of my life — is dedicating time every day to improve on yourself on one area or more.

 

Whether that’s as a person through self-help book or self-development books or on business. If you’re an entrepreneur and that’s something that interests you. If you’ll want to start your own business, read business books, listen to business podcasts, improve on your skills or your knowledge in your professional area.

 

If you’re a physical therapist, then read research journals, stay up-to-date with literature. Because you don’t need to know exactly where you’re going to end. As long as you equip yourself with all the necessary tools that you’ll need to succeed, including good communication skills, networking, knowing people, being a good person, being compassionate, empathic, kind, knowledge in business, knowledge in your field.

 

All of that stuff, if you equip yourself as much as possible with all of those tools, day in and day out, you’ll be able to have way more opportunities than if you just narrowed your focus and let the uncertainty paralyze you from making a decision or choosing a path or continuing to move forward.

 

For example, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in 5 to 10 years. It doesn’t scare me. It doesn’t cause me anxiety because I know that today I’m doing everything in my power to improve on myself. I know that whatever I do in 5 or 10 years is going to be way better than what I’m doing today. I remain optimistic. I just continue to prepare myself as best as I can for the future.

Jake BolyJake Boly

I love that. That is beautiful live advice right there.

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

Thank you.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Thank you so much for the time. I appreciate you coming on the podcast. We’ll definitely have to have a part two following this up with more on the training side of things, but thank you so much for coming on. It’s been a pleasure.

Stefi CohenStefi Cohen

Thanks for having me.

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