Until a few years ago, Troy Valls thought he would be an “advertising lifer,” with a clear-cut career trajectory. Then an HIV diagnosis motivated him to spend more time in the gym focusing on his physical fitness.
In 2018, he and some friends decided to start their own gym, Move.Lift.Live. Located in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood, the business practices an integrated approach to fitness that combines CrossFit principles with the services of physical therapists, massage therapists, and on-site doctors. The idea, Valls says, is to take care of the whole self so that clients are both building physical strength and an understanding of how their bodies work in order to prevent pain and injury.
Hello Alice chatted with Valls about his path to gym ownership, his integrated approach that blends fitness and wellness, and the gym’s hyperlocal focus on customer acquisition. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You have a long, long resume in the advertising and marketing world. Was fitness always an interest that ran parallel to your career?
No, not really at all. In retrospect, I can see kind of the turns that led me to this point, but I never thought I’d end up where I am. When I was graduating from school, I was set on advertising. I thought I was going to be an advertising lifer. Fitness was something that just kind of always mattered to me. I was very active, but I never really knew my way around the gym until much later. I was never a hardcore fitness junkie like I am now, or like the people I’m surrounded by.
There are a lot of gyms, and there are a lot of CrossFit gyms. What was the business opportunity that you saw with Move.Lift.Live?
A lot of it has to do with my personal experience. A little more than a decade ago, I had moved back to Miami and been here for about four years. I was working out at the gym, but I had been in the middle of a slump. Fast forward to 2010, and I actually tested positive for HIV. It was at that point in time when my health became a concern. It used to be about casual fitness and trying to maintain stuff, and now it was like, ‘Oh, shit, now I really have to think about doing the best things I possibly can for myself so that I have a good shot at living a long, healthy life.’ Around the same time, I was dating someone who was doing CrossFit. I had never actually heard of it, and it turns out that there was a location not too far from me. I instantly fell in love with it. It’s hard, it spoke to my competitive side, and it spoke to the side of me that loves to overcome things.
But the truth about CrossFit is that it’s also a really, really good tool for identifying people’s weaknesses — and I had a lot of them. Years ago, I had been hit by a car on a bike. That yielded a lot of troubles with my lower back, and it would kind of come and go in episodes. Enter CrossFit, and it was becoming this recurring thing. There would be that one deadlift that would put me out for a couple of months. At this point, I’m 35 years old and thinking to myself, I’m too young for this. My doctors were starting to steer me toward the steroids injections and surgery. I knew there had to be another way, so I started doing my homework.
I was doing yoga, seeing a chiropractor, going to massage therapists. But it was this method of postural realignment that actually fixed me. In one session, I already felt better than I had in years. Not only that, but I was starting to notice the stuff that I was doing at the gym felt much more secure and stable. I was starting to realize that I had a little bit more understanding of my body. I had a lot more self-awareness, and therefore a lot more control. That’s when the lightbulb went off.
You wanted to integrate that wellness aspect into the gym environment?
Yes! So many people go to the gym and ignore these little problems that they have, whether it’s their knee or their shoulders or their elbow. We know the gym thing is right for us and feels good, but we tend to brush these issues aside because they’re the things that would inevitably pull us away from the gym. Instead, we ignore it until it’s a major problem. The fitness system is broken. Yes, we’re training physically, but that should also incorporate an understanding of what might be going wrong.
That’s where the idea for Move.Lift.Live. was born. How do we create a CrossFit environment where we expose weaknesses but also have the solutions to those weaknesses? So I started getting certifications, and I started learning, learning, learning. Two friends became my business partners, and we started to kind of shape this idea until I wrote the business plan. Yes, we do CrossFit, but we also have an integrated partnership with a physical therapy practice. We have three doctors on site, and we have trainers who are very much mindful in terms of movement. This is about creating that comprehensive approach to the way we actually allow people to find their fitness so that it’s truly sustainable. We want people to get out of pain cycles so that they can do this stuff for the longest time possible.
That holistic approach means you have a doctor, physical therapist, and massage therapists. Does that pose any challenges for you as far as costs?
Actually, quite the opposite. The way that our partnerships are set up, it actually becomes a revenue stream for us. Our partnership with both our massage therapists and also our doctors, they actually pay us rent to be part of the facility. The benefit of having them there is that we kind of triage all our members. Instead of leaving the gym to go to PT somewhere else, our members just do it at the gym. We get to understand from the doctors what stage they’re in and if they can find their way back to the gym and what kind of modifications we have to make. Really, it makes us all more intelligent about what a client’s progress is and what they require. Same thing with a massage therapist: You know whenever we have a member whose back was really tight after that workout yesterday. Everything is kind of full circle there for our members.
How are you are acquiring your customers?
Most of our stuff is organic. We had the luxury of being a small business that really is focused on getting as much traction as possible in a very, very specific community. Brickell is an interesting area. We’re part of downtown Miami, but downtown is split by the Miami River. People just don’t want to deal with the bridges to get to Brickell, so we’re really focused on our immediate area. Brickell is not big, but it’s densely populated with 40,000-plus people now. We’ve done a lot of social media, but we’re out on the streets, too. So many people come into the gym saying, ‘Hey, I saw your people running in and out of your gym and I was curious.’ We get people off the street like that all the time.
Finding strategic partnerships with local organizations or local groups or local individuals also allows us to continue to talk to people in Brickell who haven’t yet heard of us yet. We’re still in this little corner. Some people don’t even know we’re there, especially because Brickell tends to be somewhat transient — you get a lot of new people in town. That’s been our focus: the investment in the grassroots stuff and the organic stuff that we’re doing locally, and just making sure that people are actually exposed and seeing us.
What would you say are you greatest business challenges right now?
We’re really trying to evolve what people expect from their gym. Most people have a hard time carving out space for themselves. They’re doing the 9-to-5 that they invest all their time and energy into, which means they don’t want to really think about their health and fitness. They want someone else to do the thinking for them. What we’re trying to do is bring that degree of self-awareness to people. That’s the hardest thing to do because most people just want to know that they checked that box of getting a workout in and be done with it. That’s cool, but then you have this knee problem that you’ve been ignoring or this shoulder problem. People try to sweep that under the rug; they expect physical therapy to be this big thing that they’re gonna have to undertake, so they don’t touch it at all. What we’re trying to do is really simplify it for them so that they realize there’s an intuitive path to correcting these issues all at once.
That’s so interesting. Your long-term, integrated approach is really different from concepts like ClassPass, where you’re taking different classes at different gyms all the time.
Exactly! That’s the tide against us, right? That’s what we’re kind of up against.
In the longer term, do you want to focus on this one location, or will you expand?
We went into this calling it ‘the lab.’ This is the place where we would kind of perfect our craft and create a system. In the long-term, I’d love to see it as more like a franchise. I’d love to see this up against the Barry’s Bootcamps of the world where we truly become seen as a place where it is like a health clinic. This approach shouldn’t be reserved for boutique fitness places; it should be something that becomes readily accessible to the masses. If we can perfect a system that can then be scaled and replicated, that’s the goal.