Peter Taunton, known as the serial entrepreneur and founder of Snap Fitness, might be a stock worth watching – not for updates on franchising, but rather for market indicators representing entrepreneurial opportunities for the next generation.
The data illustrates business license applications have continued at a torrid pace since the onset of Covid-19. While new businesses are sprouting up across the country, enrollment numbers, at the undergraduate level continue to be tepid. LinkedIn hails this period as the “Entrepreneurial Renaissance” indicating a significant desire for early career professionals and students to gain entrepreneurial skills through education.
Does the education sector have an active role in this storyline? Currently, the sector is butting up against variables, like loan-to-salary ratios out of balance, that leave many pundits wondering whether pre-existing, generational career tracts need to be scrapped for updated offerings more in-line with the economic factors influencing students. It poses the question: How can an individual or sector look for direction to better navigate the changing realities of a gig economy?
Lead by Example
Taunton, by any measure, has been and continues to be wildly successful in his entrepreneurial ventures.
To garner the story behind Taunton’s success and better understand his less conventional journey, this reporter decided to lean into a path historically less traveled, but possibly positioned to be a major thoroughfare for generations of students inspired to further their pursuits, on their own terms.
Taunton grew up in a rural Minnesota town where he and his twin brother represented the tail end of seven siblings. The setting and family dynamic marked the beginning of his understanding of entrepreneurship. “My father owned a grocery store, and I had a front-row seat to watch what real-life entrepreneurship looked like. He was floating the boat with seven screaming kids and a store to run.”
There was a carryover effect in Taunton’s life from watching his father wake up early for work every day except Sunday, which he referred to as church and family day. “My father was a hard-working guy, and it tells you a lot about his character. For all the success I’ve had in my life, I owe a lot of that to my father by just observing and applying the lessons learned.”
Taunton went to school in a two-room schoolhouse and still proclaims to have the DNA of that small-town boy running through his veins. “I am that same person. It’s not about the money. I’ve pulled nine figures out of companies I’ve owned, but I’m not sitting here today, doing what I do for the money. I love what I do and believe work can be fun,” he says.
Grit matters to Taunton as detailed in his book, Impossible Hill. To him, it’s all about challenging oneself, believing, and realizing that failure is part of the game – traits essential for any aspiring entrepreneur.
Unlike some experts who tout predictable, empty advice, Taunton is a living, breathing example of someone who shatters the clichés. “I was the youngest of seven, went to school in a two-room schoolhouse, had ADD off the charts, and quit college.
If I were a stock, you would have shorted me,” laughs Taunton.
Inherently shy at a young age, Taunton found confidence through the sport of racquetball. By the time he was 18, he was touring professionally and sponsored by one of the largest racquetball manufacturers in the world.
He developed confidence on the court, earning it with every swing of the racquet. “That’s why I’m such a strong advocate of competition,” says Taunton. “Whether you’re winning or losing, it’s the discipline and accountability that you have to hold yourself to do anything at a high level. It transcends well from sports into business.”
Competition, among employers, for talent seems to be the sport of reckoning for companies struggling to understand the needs of multiple generations engaged in a battle for independence and opportunities specific to each group.
Data Leading the Way
Workforce data continues to pour into the market revealing tension between the wants and needs of talent and the private sector. One not-so-subtle data point illuminates the challenge employers face as U.S. employees, especially those between the ages of 20 to 34, are willingly leaving gainful employment.
Why exactly are younger professionals leaving their conventional jobs? Could it be they are searching for options that better align with their desires and self-worth? Understanding motivations might come down to looking at the makeup and histories of individuals to expose the reality of their prospects.
“My mom had seven kids in 10 years. Being the youngest with my twin brother made me inherently scrappy,” recalls Taunton. It was always competitive in his household and getting off the school bus was an everyday race up a long driveway to get the food his mom made or brought home from his dad’s store.
“I remember how my mother would throw a frozen pizza on the table cut up into slices and it was like a pack of hyenas with all of the kids. You would try like hell to get your first one down fast, which always burned your mouth because of the hot cheese. The hope was that you might get two if you were lucky. It was a competitive dinner table,” he adds.
While a person’s history plays a vital role in shaping their drive and personal inclinations toward education and career objective, outside influences in the media can also add to the equation.
According to Taunton, social media often makes the landscape of making it in business a fake reality. The narrative that supports success is falsified visually. “90% of it isn’t true, people fanning $100 standing in front of jets they don’t own, they make it look easy. It couldn’t be further from the truth,” adds Taunton.
The imagery and discourse can stop well-minded individuals from even giving themselves a chance. It can kill the spirit of those leaning in, staying at home, saving money, and hoping one day to have their own business. “The road to success is laden with a lot of trial and error, failure, time, capital, and learning as you go. All those things are part of the process of becoming a successful entrepreneur.”
Education in Entrepreneurism
Calling oneself an “entrepreneur” is not something that can be self-professed, explains Taunton. It takes effort, time, capital, and results. He finds receiving a degree in Entrepreneurism a bit puzzling believing, instead, that practical experiences serve as a better classroom.
“An entrepreneur is somebody that has taken the risk,” says Taunton. “They’ve saved capital, invested and in some cases, lost. If you’re putting capital at risk, you’re an entrepreneur. You can’t sit on the sidelines, having never invested in anything and call yourself an entrepreneur.”
Even though Taunton quite literally folded his textbook and abandoned standard education before receiving a degree, he did it because he realized that incurring debt through student loans did not meet his aspirations as a businessman. For certain professional pursuits, Taunton believes the education system is well laid out, but for those wanting to pursue entrepreneurism, he feels it mostly comes down to simple economics.
“If you want to be an entrepreneur, it’s most important to understand the basics of supply and demand. It’s good to understand how a balance sheet and income statements work, and the basic blocking and tackling of cash flow,” he adds. Then, as he explains, you can set yourself to succeed and bootstrap a company.
Twenty years before starting Snap Fitness through trial and error of building and saving, he used 10% of $3 million to bootstrap the company on a $300,000 investment. He didn’t need to raise capital but rather using bootstrap methods and increasing growth he expanded into numerous ventures including his new Açaí bowl company called Nautical Bowls.
Side hustles formed during Covid-19 have become the norm and prospective employees are now remote driven where performance and output are the key markers. “Who cares if your employees are doing things at 9 am or 9 pm,” he says.
Talent is always important, but Taunton looks for people with grit and not those searching for titles. “Try and get people who will walk on fire for you with passion and see the vision. The first few employees you hire need to be utility infielders.”
Once Taunton realizes that a company is going to be worth something, employees receive equity with an expectation of loyalty that spans several years. “Half the people that I’m launching my next brand with are people that have worked with me for years in different ventures. I would take them to battle with me anywhere,” he says.
Old World Meets New World
The private sector appears to be open to new ways of integrating a new generation of American workers through formal degrees, certifications, apprenticeships, badges, and life experiences.
The journey of Peter Taunton may have formally launched the day he closed his college textbook, for the last time. Surely, his confidence derives from a practical grit, ingrained in him from countless sprints up the driveway in small-town Minnesota. Success for current students appears to map to independent and critical thinking skills adaptable and pliable to the needs of an ever-changing American workplace.
Taunton might suggest that the incoming class of entrepreneurs grab the next slice of pizza, before it’s gone.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.