Husband-and-wife duo turn the kickboxing franchise 9Round into a world champion

photos by Will Crooks

With 548 locations – including more than 150 added in the past year – Simpsonville-based 9Round was recently ranked No. 915 on the annual Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies.

CEO Shannon Hudson, who founded the company with his wife, COO Heather Hudson, is happy to be featured on the prestigious Inc. list for the third year in a row, but, just like in his kickboxing career, he is not content to coast.


“We’ve got to go faster, and put the pedal to the metal,” he said about the franchise that started with one location on Butler Road in 2008 and now spans 40 states and 11 countries. “We have very lofty goals. I want to open a location a day for a year. We’re working to have 1,000 locations open by the end of 2018.”

9Round is a specialized fitness center that teaches kickboxing techniques to people of all ages, abilities, and fitness levels. The Hudsons created a nine-circuit system that offers a full-body workout in 30 minutes.

While much has changed as the company approaches its 10th anniversary next year, some aspects of the business have stayed the same. “I’m proud of the fact that we started out with the nine circuits, and the circuit order is still the same,” Heather Hudson said. “But we’re always coming up with new workouts, and we’ve added heart rate technology that shows your heart rate in real time on a screen. The trainer can then custom train you based on your body’s exact needs.”

As more boutique fitness brands crop up, the Hudsons have stayed focused on their core brand while also adding features to make joining a gym – or owning a location – more appealing.

“We have to create new workouts, keep the technology up, and grow in a very smart way,” Shannon Hudson said.

Round One

Shannon Hudson, known as Shannon “The Cannon” during his fighting days, is a former IKF light middleweight kickboxing world champion and 5th degree Black Belt in Japanese Shotokan karate. After years of competing, he wanted to create a non-intimidating but effective workout using the training techniques he had learned.

Heather Hudson is also a Black Belt in Shotokan karate and lifelong fitness enthusiast, and she found that the nine-circuit workouts they were developing took her fitness to an entirely new level.

After the success of the first location in Mauldin, the Hudsons began franchising in 2009 and three years later had 70 locations in 17 states.

Since 2013, the company has grown by 481 percent, with revenues of $11 million, according to the Inc. list, which tracked three-year data.

The Hudsons, who employ 20 people at their corporate headquarters in Simpsonville, say the key to steady franchise growth is in the gym.

“You have to give an amazing experience,” Shannon Hudson said. Though he doesn’t have exact numbers, he said a large portion of franchise owners start out as clients and trainers. “This is their opportunity to do what they love. I’d say maybe 10-20 percent of our trainers see this as an opportunity to grow and own their own business.”

That means the best way to attract new franchise owners is to ensure quality and consistency in each gym and to take the time to train the trainers. “Just like Chick-fil-A — we love how they grow,” he said.

“Before they become an operating partner, people work there first. We have that same mentality. We like to hire from within. It’s the same with our members — it seems to work well.”

He said the booming fitness market is expecting to continue to grow nationally and internationally, which is why he views 5,000 clubs as a feasible goal for 2030. “Just like there is room for both a steak place and a pizza place, there is room for a 9Round and a Crossfit,” he said. “We love the competition, and we can differentiate ourselves so well from everyone else.” He said the workouts appeal to both genders equally and are ideal for fitness neophytes as well as athletes looking to cross train.

Many of the international markets are about 10 years behind the U.S. in the fitness business, he said, and he expects a massive surge. About 15 percent of 9Round clubs are international, including locations in Saudi Arabia, England, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand. Another is expected to open in Turkey next month. “Our goal is to do a couple of international deals every year,” he said. “Fitness is a pretty universal language, and kickboxing for fitness translates very well.”

Supplementing the business

Always on the lookout to meet member needs and expand the business, the Hudsons recently launched sales of 9Round whey protein powder with the tagline “It’s not just for bodybuilders” and are in the process of adding supplements to the lineup. Five items will be available at 9Round locations and will soon be sold on the website and newly retooled app.

“We want to stay in our lane, but we wanted to offer the basics for living healthy outside of 9Round, too,” Shannon Hudson said.

The new products created additional need for distribution, and 9Round is in the midst of expanding its office and adding a new warehouse on Pelham Road, which will add four employees.

The new app is a way to connect with members and will feature free information for prospective members as well, including 9Round locations and nutrition and fitness tips. Members can log in to get meal plans, track their heart rates and workouts, and have an expanded selection of tips.

“We can nudge members we haven’t seen in awhile, or they can nudge their friends,” Shannon Hudson said. “We’re putting six figures into this app, and it’s a lot of work, but it’s the evolution of the brand.”

In addition to its position on the Inc. list, 9Round has been selected for a variety of accolades, including being rated No. 190 on Entrepreneur magazine’s list of the top 500 franchises. named 9Round No. 7 on its list of the top 25 fitness franchises, up eight spots from 2015. A panel scored each fitness franchise on multiple categories, and 9Round’s scores in marketing and ongoing support allowed it to top brands such as Crunch Fitness, Pure Barre, and Iron Tribe.

Packing a punch

The goal is for franchisees to open their gym within six months, with most opening in four to five months. The improving real estate market has made the real estate piece slightly more challenging, since demand is higher and supply is lower around the country, but a 9Round real estate team helps owners find ideal locations at a reasonable price. The compact gyms require only 1,200 square feet.

From products to workouts to marketing ideas and materials, the 9Round team seeks to give owners all of the tools they need for success, but the ultimate fate of the gym is in the owner’s hands. “From scheduling employees to payroll, we leave nothing to chance,” Shannon Hudson said. “Most of the work is done.”

Heather Hudson adds that because the process is so streamlined and the brand is becoming more well-known, gyms can open breaking even or even profitable from month one.

“We have a really robust pre-sale system now,” she said. “We want to have at least 100 members pre-sale. When they do that, it relieves so much stress, because 150 members is break-even.”

Prospective owners often think businesses can’t be profitable for two years, and while nothing is guaranteed, “many of our owners open their door profitable,” she said.

In April, Heather Hudson was named a 2017 Enterprising Woman of the Year, a tribute to the world’s top women entrepreneurs. She also took second in her first fitness competition, Carolina Supernatural. “I wanted to push myself,” she said. “It took tons of discipline, but it was a cool celebration of fitness.”

In his spare time, Shannon Hudson recently published a book, “Zero to 100: The Blood, Sweat and Tears of Building a Fitness Chain from Idea to 100 Locations.” The book details how he managed to start the business with no credit or savings and strategies he used to maximize growth and defeat competitors.

Both Hudsons get into the 9Round gym as often as possible. They even try to drop in for a workout at the nearest 9Round gym when they travel. “It helps us stay in love with the brand,” Shannon Hudson said.

The couple, both under 40, has had a steep learning curve, but they say nine years of exponential growth have been exciting and gratifying, and they look forward to more. “I keep learning every day,” Shannon Hudson said. “We want to dominate the marketplace and own kickboxing fitness, and we’re in a great position.”



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