“We were in our prime spot, coming off one of our best Januarys and Februarys,” Burley said. “February, March and April are when we make our money.”
That all changed on March 15, when the pandemic forced him to make a hard pivot, recasting his business top to bottom.
Burley, 37, immediately froze memberships so clients wouldn’t be charged while stay-at-home orders were in effect. He held off on making rent at the Georgia Avenue location, though he’s in talks to resolve the issue, but stayed on top of tax and utility payments.
He remade his business plan, downsizing classes from 30 people to five to allow for social distancing and started offering virtual classes, called Sweat Anywhere, and an outdoor boot camp. He partnered with Hook Hall, a nearby space where he is moving his business in August, and cut prices.
To make ends meet, he took a job as a leadership consultant at Call Your Mother Deli. And he secured a $30,000 loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which covered payroll and the new Sweat Anywhere app. He also did some triage, holding on to staff as best he could, though sometimes in different capacities.
“As a small-business owner, you have to survive,” he said. “We had to pivot. We changed our model to make it into small-group personal training.”
The business is more than just a livelihood to Burley.
“I literally created this thing, grew it from the ground,” he said. “It took a lot of grit and hard work, but we went from being just a pop-up to a full-fledged studio.”
Burley grew up in West Baltimore, the middle of three sons, who found “inspiration, motivation and acceptance” through fitness. “I was overweight and dealt with self-esteem issues. I played every sport you can think of.”
When he was 18, his mother died of a heart ailment. “I learned quickly life is short,” he said. But the loss also made him “more compassionate, makes me see a bigger picture.”
He went to the University of North Carolina, graduating in 2005 with a degree in sports medicine. He landed a job at Bowie State University, as director of sports medicine.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, and didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he said. “I think not knowing is a good trait, because we are sometimes held back in life by fears of messing up. Like an infant who stumbles and falls, you just get back up. The further you go in life, people tend to second- and triple-guess yourself. You lose confidence, and confidence is the most important thing in the world.”
In 2009, after four years at Bowie State and earning a master’s degree in health and fitness, Burley followed his partner, who worked for the Foreign Service, to Rome. It was there that he got his first taste of entrepreneurship, starting a health and fitness blog in the U.S. Embassy newsletter. He started training State Department employees, including high-ranking officials, and then expanded his client base through people he met at a popular salon.
“It’s knocking on doors. I knew if you wanted clients, you go see hairdressers and cosmetologists,” he said. “I turned a liability of not speaking Italian into an advantage. The owner at the salon connected me to English speakers, some German, some English, some Australians.”
By the time he left Rome in September 2012, he said he had three trainers working for him.
When he and his partner returned to Washington, Burley opened a pop-up studio called Sweat Fitness Party in Adams Morgan. The goal was to make it fun to work out, and he employed a disc jockey and used lighting to create a nightclub atmosphere.
He attracted clients through networking, and business grew fast. Within a year, he had 20 clients and was teaching at least 24 sessions a week.
“I was pretty booked,” he said. “If you are one trainer, you don’t need more clients than that.”
He soon changed the name to Sweat DC, and hopes one day to have a Sweat LA, Sweat Atlanta and others. The idea, he said, is “to create something bigger than me.”
Sweat DC has taken a hit — the 200 pre-pandemic clients have dwindled to the 20 or 30 a week who attend his outdoor boot camps — but Burley is doing what he has to do to keep it going.
Having just a few clients “is a simple process and stress-free,” he said. Ultimately, “you have to figure out what is happiness to you.”