Hell of a lot of people trying to set up their own businesses these day, with some being far more successful than others. Carli Wheatley is perhaps most well know for founding the hugely popular Protein Haus brand across London, a chain of fitness food venues now covering five locations across the capital.
With years of experience in the health and fitness industry, along with a fair few of those honing her entrepreneur skills, we thought it might be worth grabbing her for a chat to see if we could learn anything.
Before setting up your own business, what were you up to?
I was a personal trainer from seventeen. I used to do amateur boxing and I was Essex number one indoor champion from 7 to about 12. I was always into sports and my dad always treated me kind of like a boy and took me into a lot of fitness places, so I kind of grew up in that environment. I think naturally I was always going to go on and teach or do something in the fitness industry.
I qualified in personal training, did qualifications in yoga, went to India to do learn about ashrams and silent retreats and explored all there was to physically moving. I was training a lot of older people as well and many of them seemed happy – you know, the meaning of life. Very early on I was looking for that and thought the answers were all through fitness. And then later I was exploring through diet – I was a fruitarian for two years.
I explored what was there on offer, alternative therapies, meditation. They’re all things I actually really enjoy, but I think there are a number of things makes someone happy.
When I was about 20 I was told that I was basically unemployable. But it was really good for me because it made me realise that I was really destined to work for myself. That was kind of where Protein Haus came from. I needed a platform to explain things. I’m an entrepreneur through and through, we’re kind of like a breed of people who are very difficult for the average person to understand.
I would have been described as being a little bit crazy before, so there was no one who was willing to put trust in me in running their whole business, in terms of marketing, content and PR. So, what I realised is that I needed to do something myself to showcase what I’m capable of doing. I was frustrated about the fact that everyone wanted to play it safe but, my point of view is that if you don’t play it safe, you end up changing the game.
At what point did you decide to set up Protein Haus?
I was doing a lot of transformation programmes in my personal training packages and was looking at a lot of companies to supply the food. I realised that I couldn’t just change someone by doing yoga and some weight training. I had to find the right diet for them. However, the food companies were all quite strict, you had to tick certain boxes and choose that specific types of protein, you couldn’t just do different things.
So, I ended up asking a restaurant that used to close at 5 o’clock if I could use their kitchen at night. I used to finish PTing then head to the restaurant and make some clients meals specifically how I wanted them to be, and it just kind of went from there.
There was a lady I knew at Canary Wharf called Camilla Wax. I didn’t know who she was at the time but she jumped on board my fitness plan. She really listened to a lot of the ideas that I had and she offered me an opportunity to pitch for a space. I went in with A4 pieces of paper and she was like “please leave and come back with a proper presentation”. She was going to help mentor me into what she thought I could potentially be.
She took me through about a seven-month period of actually presenting properly; working with graphic designers and presenting a really cool deck of actually getting my ideas out from paper with drawings, to a presentation that could be taken to a board of people. Canary Wharf is an amazing place, it’s like a private island and there’s lots of people who have to approve your ideas. There are lots of people who are waiting on the list for about ten years before getting seen.
I got offered a shop, and at the start I was like “I can’t handle this”, but they had this sort of electric, robot style kiosk and I’d seen it in Canary Wharf being used with a DJ in it. I said, “you know what, I could handle one of those”. So they gave me one, and from that point it was a thing.
If you don’t play it safe, you end up changing the game.
What advice would you give to people who have just started up in the fitness industry?
First of all, I’d make sure that your concept is tight. I’m a perfectionist beyond belief. You have to know your product inside and out. It’s actually amazing how many people have got money behind them, but don’t actually have much of a knack for their product, their brand and their message all synching up. Just as there are companies that will say “we’re a natural food company” but in fact they’ve got chemicals in their products. At Protein Haus we can have as many chemicals as we want, or not, because we say we’re a diet shop.
I create brands based on how you would create something for a human. You’d have to know your best friend inside and out; their size feet and bad habits. You have to know everything about your company.
Focus on the customer, because at the end of the day we are serving the public and not ourselves.
What are the biggest challenges to overcome and are they different for men and women?
The biggest issues that I’ve encountered is actually understanding how to run a business. The first step to take is to get a really good accountant that isn’t connected with anyone else that you might be partnered with from day one. You also need a really good lawyer that’s independent and looking after your needs. If you’re in business with partners or you’ve got investors, you need to have a lawyer from the start that is representing you. These can be quite big costs, but in actual fact these will be the things that save your arse at some point. So, it’s a really important.
The actual running of the business, if you take away the brand and the making money, the social media, the website and the look, is actually the behind the scenes, how it’s going to run and who’s accountable.
I hear it from two sides, you have financial people who know all about that side but haven’t got a clue about how to relate to the customer, or you have the complete opposite. The completely passionate, gone from market stall to first shop. They end up closing down or getting screwed over and end up owning 10% of their business. I don’t know why it’s not spoken about, but it’s so important to understand. There are allies out there for you, but they need to work independently for you and not the business.
Was there any point when you were setting up Protein Haus where you thought you might not succeed?
No. If you’re having doubts, then it’s not a good sign. You have to wholeheartedly believe in your business. Most of the time it comes down to your own belief in yourself. I’ve always had a major work ethic. I’ve always got up at 5am and always gone home at 9pm.
I think the fear of what is to come scares people a lot, rather than the idea it’s more “are you capable of doing this” – as you always are. I learnt on my feet while the company was growing but I was very sure that if I was working without any sleep, I was still going to do it. It took every relationship I had, it took everything away from me whilst building it, but I was okay to sacrifice it.
I meet so many people who say “I want to do what you did” and I think “good luck mate, because most people can’t”. I mean, it was in me to do it, it was always going to be in me to do this and I knew what was required and the fear was more like “oh God, this is going to take over my life. But just let it, if you’re going to go there.
What are your views on the current state of the fitness industry?
There are a lot of people playing it safe. Everybody’s copying Barry’s [Bootcamp] right now, which is really boring. I’d love to see some people have a go at different ideas because I think that when people have a genius idea they should let it come forward and have the balls to run with it. People tend to look at something and say “that’s doing well, I’m just going to do the same”.
I’d love there to be more platforms. I just did a ministry of Sound’s Riding High, I was one of the instructors. I did a week and it was brilliant. So I think more things like that; more fitness festivals, more wellness events just going on in and out of London for people to participate in. More just to show people who you don’t have to be a fitness freak to enjoy fitness, you can just add fitness in as and when you want to.
But there are obviously some good ideas to come, I’d just like to see them sooner.
There are allies out there for you, but they need to work independently for you and not the business.
What do you think will be the next thing that happens in the fitness industry?
I think the whole wellness side of things will kick in. I think there will be a lot more of looking at the mindfulness of exercise. So not just fitness. I think the wellbeing industry is on the rise in terms of meditation spots. I just look at New York and places like that. A lot of combinations of exercises together, so you go to a studio and they’ll be combining kettlebells with yoga. Fusion style stuff will end up coming through.
Otherwise, I can’t see massive leaps. I think there will be a few more wellness and fitness festivals within London and a lot more events in general going on to do with fitness and partying. I think those do a really good job in promoting that balance.
What are your views on Instagram and how it shapes people’s perception of health and fitness?
I haven’t paid a penny for PR and basically built my business out of Instagram. I went along to every event I could with my shakes and luckily everyone took pictures of them, and that’s how I built up my business.
Instagram for me was a platform to showcase a startup business.
Can you tell me anything about your future plans?
I decided to resign as director. I felt like I’d been at university studying how to run a business. It was time for me to get off the ship and get my life back a little bit. It was probably too consuming, unnecessarily. I felt like I had taken the business to where I could take it, so really someone else needs to come in now, like a big operator, to run it, like a big Pret or a Tossed. It’s beyond my remit. I’d done what I could and passed the baton on, and that’s what I felt was the right thing to do for the company and for me.
That got me back into the fitness industry for a bit. I started working at BXR teaching versa, doing a few fitness events and then creating some other concepts. I have another small concept that will be launching in London towards the end of the year which I can’t say that much about yet. I’m working on a meditation space, I’m working on some fitness events, but it’s all just very light-hearted and fun, doing what I do best – which is what I encourage anyone to do. Spend most of your time doing what you think you’re good at doing, because there’s something in that.
What brands do you think are doing fitness well?
Lululemon is amazing. I’ve had a lot of fitness clothes given to me and a wear a lot of sweaty betty, but in actual fact I get the most compliments and I feel properly my best when I’m in Lululemon leggings. I bought some leggings from amazon for an event I was doing and they were £11.99 – I actually did feel the difference. My figure looks much nicer with these Lululemon leggings. The research that they’ve put into making fabrics and making women’s fabrics feel comfortable and sexy in clothes, is a testament to where they are in the industry.
They’ve invested so much money into making people fee good, and ultimately that is the goal. If you can make people smile and make them feel good, they feel more confident and they look after themselves better.
I think Barry’s is doing a fantastic job. I always tell people who Kim Kardashian made Barry’s because that is where it started in Hollywood. My parents lived in Los Angeles and it was nothing then, Kim Kardashian went and then it blew up. So thanks to Kim Kardashian everyone loves Barry’s.
What is a normal training regime?
I created a concept called Naked with a girl that I used to work with and we do a lot of bodyweight training. I used to be really into weight training but over the years – I’m 35 now – I’ve tended to prefer to do a lot more yoga, flexibility work and bodyweight training, which is a lot of strength. A lot of press-ups and pull-ups and working through squats and lunges. But I guess just in a little bit more of a sexy way, with people, so I make it a bit more social, I make it a bit more about my own body confidence and less about my squat PB.
If you could give one standout tip for people wanting to live a healthier life, what would it be?
Drink water. We say that’s step one. To drink a lot of water cancels out a lot of my pick’n’mix and frappuccino habit.
Follow Carli on Instagram for updates on her future products.