Fiona, thank you so much for joining us today. Let’s dive straight in. When did you set up Muddy Plimsolls?
We set up as a limited company 7 years ago in 2008. We just had our birthday in February. It feels quite a milestone to say 7 years.
And how do you find that process? Because 7 years is quite a long time. Did you find there was a point where you suddenly found your feet?
Any day now! Yes, I think with running a business, you end up questioning and re-evaluating what you’re doing all the time – which is exhausting – and I never think you get to the stage where you find your feet completely. And if you felt you did, I think you may be missing something. I think when you’re running your own show, you need to constantly keep on it. So no, I don’t think we’ve ever really relaxed into running a business, Tom. It’s constantly in flux. A constant challenge.
So what were you and Jason doing beforehand?
Jason was working as a sole trader in the fitness industry, so had experience with personal training clients for about 3 years before we met. He had the bases down already and together we pushed the idea up through the roof, by creating a limited company and really working on the business.
I was working in a completely different field, in the City – in a nice, comfortable office in the Gherkin building. But I wanted a new challenge and a change, which I suppose comes from being the daughter of an entrepreneur.
Within 3 months of meeting, Jason and I had set up the company – and shortly after I quit my job and we just went for it.
Did you have any experience with personal training yourself beforehand?
No, not with personal training. I’d always been an outdoors person, which is difficult when you’re living in London. But I would always be arranging outdoor holidays and breaks. I’d go surfing. I arranged a trip to the Faroe Islands, learning how to sail – which was a baptism by fire. I loved going hiking. So I was a physical person, but I wasn’t doing fitness exercises or lunges and pull-ups in the park.
Did you sample Jason’s services before you decided to go into business with him?
No, I didn’t, not for a long time. I just trusted that he knew what he was doing, as he had such a loyal client base. It wasn’t until we decided to get married that I started personal training with Jason, in order to get in shape for our wedding. And from then on, the process of embracing a fitness lifestyle has been amazing.
But no, it wasn’t my field. Jason is the fitness guy and the creative brains behind Muddy Plimsolls. And in the beginning, because of my 15 years of administrative experience, I ran the business side of things. It was very much a collective effort – a good mix of skills.
You offer a service now for people to get in shape for their wedding. Did that come from your own wedding?
Well, Jason had trained some brides before he decided to train his own fiancé! So, no, I wasn’t the guinea pig. I remember we had a product called ‘Get fit for your dress’, where we’d get your body in shape specifically for the cut of your wedding dress – to make the most of it. So if you had a backless wedding dress, for example, you’d train with us to ensure that your back looked amazing on the day. It was fun.
Was it Jason’s idea to go into business together?
I don’t know if Jason would have suggested that … I was a bit bossier. I think it was probably my idea. I’d been looking for a good business idea for years, as I just wanted to get out and run my own show. And then Jason came along with this great idea, and we just flew with it. So the idea came more from him, but we moulded it together.
So where did the name Muddy Plimsolls come from?
That was trial and error. We had a few disasters! In fact, ‘Muddy Plimsolls’ was the third rebrand we had to do. So if anybody is out there listening or reading, here’s the thing: is your company name important? Sure, super important. Should you put your company on pause in order to think about its name? No, just get on with it. We didn’t come up with our name for a couple of years. Once we had it, we were delighted and trademarked it – and we’re still really proud of our name.
But our first company name was ‘Bespoke Fitness’, which is not unique and is currently the name of a handful of other companies throughout the UK – so that didn’t work. Then we thought, well we’ve got quite a distinctive surname, ‘Doggett’, so we’ll call ourselves ‘Doggett Fitness’, because that would be unique. But this became another lesson about testing your market. Our designer branded us an excellent logo, which we thought looked really cool because she’d figured out that ‘Doggett Fitness’ had the words ‘Get Fit’ in it. And we thought wow, that’s great. So we went to Marylebone Fayre to launch our new brand, and people thought we did fitness training for dogs – or training outdoors alongside your dog. It was a nightmare, complete bust, so we had to rebrand again.
So Muddy Plimsolls came from hard graft, but we got there in the end.
You’re in business as a husband and wife, and you hadn’t worked together before, so how have you found it and how do you find the balance between running a business and your marriage?
Is there supposed to be a balance?! Our one concession when we first started was that we agreed we would always take Sundays off, so that we didn’t work 7 days a week. But it wasn’t really until we had our daughter – and Verity’s two and a half now – that we established a distinctive balance, or at least roles.
Now we share the parenting. So Jason takes care of Verity while I’m doing business stuff, and then we’ll switch. We do roughly half a day each but adapt according to what’s going on and work late into the night. But, no, it wasn’t until we had Verity that we shifted our balance and built in proper time for both.
For us, because of the industry we’re in, a lot of people do their fitness early mornings, evenings or weekends, because they work 9-5 full-time. So the concept of ‘usual’ business hours at Muddy Plimsolls goes out the window. Even spending time on Twitter discussing fitness with my community – tweeting about marathon runs or parks to visit – takes place at odd hours.
Do you use a program like HootSuite to set up your Tweets?
Yes, we do. But I find you can only do so much with scheduling. You’ve got to be there as it happens to take part in the conversation and engage with people.
Do you do much on other social media, other than Twitter?
Facebook is great, but that’s more Jason’s project. I love Twitter. The engagement possibilities are amazing. Being able to manage your reputation online, and get your brand out there, and talk to this huge community of people who wouldn’t be available to you in any other way – it’s just fantastic.
When did you get a website in this process, and was your first website run on WordPress or have you tried other things?
We’ve tried a lot of things, but once we found WordPress there was no going back – WordPress is awesome. But we did have a lot of trial and error before then. Originally in 2008, we had a simple 5-page website, which I made myself on my iMac using iWeb and hosted it on MobileMe. Just a funny little site to begin with, within a few weeks of launching the company. It wouldn’t be anything that you would recognise as a website now, but amazingly we did get some traffic and direct sales. Possibly because at that time, in our industry, it was uncommon for people to have a website. If you were looking for a personal trainer back in 2008, you went to your local gym and looked at the notice boards. Nobody was doing personal training outdoors, at least not one-to-one, high-end personal training. So we were discovered by the few people who were looking online back then, but it’s a completely different story now. Everyone has a site and the competition is fierce.
It’s a bit like the question of branding – should you wait until you have the perfect site before launching your business? No, just get something up there, you can always change it later.
As for WordPress in general, I’m not a techie or a designer. But for my first job out of uni, I worked at a creative design agency in Scotland, as a project manager liaising between the techie floor and the client. So I had some experience doing website architecture – but also a grounding in SEO in 1998, in its infancy. So we did have that market knowledge – understanding the importance of SEO – in the early stages of our own company.
But WordPress took the development of our website to a different level. Even though I wasn’t a designer and Jason didn’t come from that background either, we could still speak with the online WordPress community about creating and fine-tuning a good-looking website. It was amazing to discover the amount of material that you could furnish for free and the information that’s out there – with people saying, ‘well I tried this and this but it didn’t work, so try this instead’. Or, ‘here’s a theme I made at the weekend, have it’. It’s incredible, I’d not experienced anything like it before. So yes, I fell in love with WordPress.
Even today, if there’s a glitch with the website, there are so many forums we can go on and so many kind people sharing information and experience. And when you don’t have an in-house tech team, as we don’t, and your website crashes at 2am when you’re trying to post something, it’s brilliant to know you can go online and find out the answer.
Speaking about websites crashing, you’re customers of blogVault who we interviewed last in this series. What do you think of their service?
BlogVault is amazing. They have saved us at least twice. I mean, we lost our website, I was in tears, and blogVault had it. Within a short period of time it was back up and running again. If it wasn’t for blogVault, we would have lost everything. Previously we used some plugins where you had to remember to save the database separately to the theme files – it was super confusing – and you had to keep your fingers crossed that you had saved the right bits in the right places. But with blogVault everything is fine, you don’t need to worry – which is one less worry when you’re running a business.
Yes, we’ve found blogVault amazing, both for our clients and ourselves. Do you find the support element good too? Because with most backup plugins, you’re on your own.
Oh yes, for what we pay them – which I think is around a fiver per month – the service is absolutely awesome. Because on those occasions when you really need them, they’re there.
And how did you find them?
Through the WordPress community again. Looking for recommendations and stumbling across different things, we found them, thank goodness.
As for day-to-day management of the website, is that mainly your job?
It changes. Jason and I both do it, we’re both on it, and it’s all in-house. Sometimes we have bloggers who will post for us, not guest bloggers, but Muddy Plimsolls bloggers. But predominantly it’s us maintaining and developing it. But it’s like an obsession, because you end up changing something every day. You never get to a stage where it’s completed and finished, there’s always something else that you can do.
It’s like your business itself, there’s always something else you can do to make it better. Do you find the blogging element takes up a lot of time? A lot of business owners know they should be blogging, but don’t really have the time, they’ve always got other things to do.
I’ve had a lot of conversations about blogging in the last couple of years with Matt Beswick. He’s fantastic – an SEO guru, here in the UK. And we were chatting about how useful it is to be blogging in our industry. Because in the fitness industry there are a lot of people blogging with a lot of very strong opinions that they want to share every hour of every day, like the number of pull-ups they’ve managed that afternoon. Most often this is not useful information for their own readership or the fitness community as a whole. Of course, there are exceptions – if you blog about a smoothie you’ve just created and include a recipe, then that’s useful. But the market is completely saturated with this sort of information. So with this in mind, Matt and I discussed how often we should blog. We now blog sporadically and put massive effort into each post, but we don’t blog everyday or several times a week because it’s not the best use of our time, or the time of our followers. It’s better for them to read an occasional quality post, rather than blogging incessantly. We compare it to blogging in the plumbing industry. How interesting it is to read about nuts & bolts fixtures and new tap fittings, compared to ‘ta-da: this is the new bathroom I created these past six weeks’.
That sounds like a really good strategy, focusing on quality over quantity. So, who do you host your site with, and how do you find them?
Tsohost, and they’re fantastic. Again, it was trial and error trying to find the right one. In the beginning, we were just keen to get online quickly, so opted for a big company advertising cheap hosting, but it was a nightmare. When we had a problem there was no service provision and we were stuck. And you don’t realise it can be different.
Tsohost was recommended especially for WordPress websites and for being friendly with small businesses and they are awesome, in fact we’ve recently written them a client testimonial. I’ve occasionally done things to the website that’s broken it, and it’s reassuring to know that I can ring them any time of the day or night and they will help. They’re wonderful.
That’s really great to hear. We hear a lot of good things about Tsohost. We don’t use them to host our sites, but we do a lot of testing and use them for test servers.
Yes, we’d recommend them to anybody. They’re so helpful, and they’re really nice guys too. They’re London based, though I believe they have people around the world, around the clock.
We have clients using every host imaginable, and it’s surprising how few there are who have consistently good reviews for. We have a hosting whitelist and Tso is always pretty high on there.
Anyway, you’ve recently moved out of London. So tell us about that.
We have. Jason’s a born-and-bred Londoner and I’ve been living in London for thirteen years, so moving out has been a big shift. And of course, our business is London-centric – we created it that way – so the decision to run our business remotely from outside the capital, was a big one. It’s a very recent change these past few months, and we’re still working to get everything running fluently. We’ve moved our working office and home life to rural Suffolk, an hour and a quarter from Liverpool Street. Business-wise, it’s a good move for us. It allows us to concentrate on running the business and forming a different relationship with our clients. Jason is taking a step back from training clients one-to-one, out in the field, instead taking time to mentor our team of outdoor personal trainers. So he’s now free to lead the team in a different way, and it’s better for the company.
And do you think that was important in order for Jason to make that shift of role?
I hadn’t thought of it that way. Perhaps. There was a time when we were in London that we tried to work out how this change – this new developmental stage of our business – could realistically happen. But again, you have to jump in and just try these things, because you never really know how it’s going to work and fit together until you’ve done it. A bit like having a baby!
So how do you keep in touch with your team of trainers in London? And all your clients in London?
Coming from an administrative background, I stick with the most important thing – the phone. And I appreciate that’s not the most technical appliance these days, but it’s the best way to carry on good communication with everybody and to keep everybody happy. Unlike emails or tweets, a phone call is a very personal form of communication, which in our line of work is essential.
In addition, our email marketing campaigns are sent using Mailchimp – who are also awesome – allowing us to be in contact with our clients, in a non-intrusive way, via their inboxes. For keeping up-to-date with our team of trainers, we use Todoist and that’s been super too. We can coordinate, and make sure we haven’t missed anything, and ensure our trainers’ schedules are all running smoothly.
Also, I should mention that we specifically bought a property in an area with good connectivity. We’re set up with Virgin’s lightning fast fibre-optic broadband. This was so important to us that we ensured connectivity was up and running before our plumbing was fully sorted! I think we may even have a faster connection here in the rural wilds, than we had in Oxford Circus.
And how does it work with phones? Do you have a London phone number?
We do – that was all a drama! We wanted to retain our Central London 0207 number, as we’d built our business on it, these past 7 years. We didn’t want to lose the number, but BT didn’t want to give it to us. So we managed to port it, using a company called Vonage, which is working well. We’ve also got a couple of standard Virgin landlines, in addition to mobile and iPad technology – so we’ve got more phones than we know what to do with! We’re fully techied-up.
So last question, what’s your vision for Muddy Plimsolls going forward? Any interesting developments on the horizon?
Again, that was one consideration for us moving our home life out of London – could we also expand Muddy Plimsolls out of London? We’re pleased to say we’re now set up in Berkshire, which was a big change of focus for us as a London-centric company, and we’re now looking at operating in Suffolk and Essex. Our plan is to develop the business geographically – that’s our main big challenge of the moment.
And how are you going to promote that? Online, or offline stuff as well?
We do a mix. Offline, we’re approaching and engaging with journalists, forming long-term relationships. Online, there’s the classic SEO stuff, building our brand and reputation through participation with a global audience – through blog comments, forums and interviews. Twitter allows us to engage with a niche fitness community. I follow a lot of female fitness bloggers and bodyweight athletes – and it’s nice to be able to build relationships and share opportunities with them. Twitter is one of my main promotional avenues because it provides so many different and often unexpected opportunities to get your name out there.
We’re especially proud of some ‘linkworthy’ material that we host on our website: a map and guide to the fitness trails of London. We started work on this project after watching a presentation at MozCon 2012 by Wil Reynolds of SEER, where he speaks about companies producing ‘Real Company Stuff’ – material that’s genuinely worthy of attention – rather than gaining promotion through SEO shortcuts or tricks.
We started our project nearly two years ago, promoting awareness of fitness trails and introducing Londoners to new free fitness destinations on their doorsteps. It’s been well received by many London bloggers – from street runners to muddy race enthusiasts – who’ve kindly posted about it. And it continues to generate interest about Muddy Plimsolls from within our niche market, helping people to become familiar with our brand and what we do – which is getting out of the gym and finding fitness outdoors.
Thank you Fiona, it’s been great. Thanks so much for your time.
Well, this has been really fun. Thank you so much. I think this is an awesome series.