Side Project Stories #13: Brainbox Coaching & Fitness


For this thirteenth episode of the #sideproject blog series I’ve turned to a former colleague who has very much made her own luck. I’ve known Tracy for about fifteen years since we worked together delivering skills training first when I worked at the University of Bristol Students’ Union and later for the University of Bristol Careers Service where we worked together. Tracy has consistently developed a whole series of side projects which have led her to the brink of career stardom, but more on that later…

Dr Tracy Johnson

Tracy is the Founder of Brainbox Coaching & Fitness; an ever-evolving personal coaching business that includes personal training, yoga teaching, health and nutrition advice, professional development training, and self-defence instructor amongst her array of related offerings.

What ties together this veritable smorgasbord? Tracy makes clear that “everything I do is still coaching; it’s just adapting that approach for different contexts.” Tracy started with career coaching and skills training, evolving into personal coaching as a side project way back in 2004 and she started Brainbox in 2005 as a vehicle for a hoped-for career as a professional coach and speaker. Whilst the corporate speaking and training took longer than anticipated to get going the personal coaching became a steady side project, working with clients before and after her day job at the university and at the weekends:

“when you’re hungry for your side projects you’re willing to give up the time.”

This initial focus on personal coaching and a real determination to deliver a professional service for clients has helped her subsequently stand out in a field of well-being and fitness coaches, advisers, and trainers that can be flaky on occasion. Tracy brings a real coaching-based discipline to her interventions that others may lack:

“personal trainers often know how to get and stay fit themselves, but do not necessarily always know how to coach others quite as effectively.”

Rare Combinations

The array of services Tracy offers has also delivered some slightly unexpected, but now obvious benefits. Tracy has been able to combine some expertise for potent effect; the first of these was probably the personal coaching and skills training with the self-defence instruction; how many corporate self-confidence trainers are also qualified combat instructors? It was just this kind of mix that made Tracy both more credible to clients and garnered her more press attention along the way.

Tracy has made a habit of this; combining yoga teaching with fitness instruction and personal training, adding in elements of nutritional advice and more recently sports medicine. Flexibility, fitness, nutrition, and managing recovery from sports injury – all from one source.

“I’m always feeding things in from hobbies to the work, improving my offer, increasing my value to clients – it’s all grist to the mill.”

Serial Side Projects

So how has Tracy built up this array? Is this all just hobbies that accidentally turned her into professional swiss army knife?

“I can’t not learn. It’s been interesting and organic, but it’s never been an accident, the radar is always on for the next opportunity.”

Tracy has consistently found ways to follow her curiosity into new side projects which almost as consistently find their way into her business offer. From personal coaching to self-defence, from self-defence to fitness, from fitness to yoga, on to nutrition, then sports medicine – each one has been a side project that swallowed her weekends and evenings but eventually added to the Brainbox offer.

Only her love of cinema has so far escaped being drawn into the Brainbox offer!

Engineering Serendipity

Seen from this vantage it all seems very planned and pre-ordained; but as Tracy says it was more organic than that, not accidental, but not without struggles and failures too:

“If I look back it was terrifying; the constant stress of seeking clients and work; it was horrifying but I never lost money – I wasn’t making much but I made sure I wasn’t losing any!

Tracy does have tremendous discipline; starting from a very controlled series of part-time steps and keeping expenditure right down to reduce the risks. It took nine years to get from founding Brainbox to stepping right out from her day job in 2014, but it has been a steady series of growth steps since then, adding new offers, increasing her value, building her brand.

“I am ruthless about running a good business; I’ve become far more business-minded, I have a surprising knowledge of what is tax-deductible!”

Tracy readily admits that initially she did not see herself as an entrepreneur and founder (despite my suggestions at the time) but has come to take great pride in describing herself as a business owner and founder. She has subsequently given paid-for business start-up advice to several yoga teachers who often struggle to see themselves as being entrepreneurial.

Tracy also admits that not every idea and initiative has worked, and that only a percentage of the projects she has launched have gained traction and succeeded. But not being too precious and ‘failing fast’ has been a vital learning process in getting to ideas that do really work and add value to her clients and ultimately to her.



From Backstage to Front-of-Camera

The original plan to be a professional coach, even when she was moving into fitness and well-being, her plan was always to be the go-to-aide “just off camera”. However, her recent collaborations with production company Troy TV have put her squarely in front of the camera. This has led to a project they’re currently collaborating on to get a commissioned series on modern health and fitness. If this comes off everything may change; from being behind the scenes Tracy will be co-presenter and huge opportunities beckon for her as a ‘celebrity’ fitness and well-being personality. But this presents a dilemma for Tracy as she has always focused on that coaching relationship – “I want to keep my clients!” she points out! How does she pivot from being a one-woman service provider to potentially being a ‘product’ business in which she is the brand being attached to a range of products and services?

She’ll probably have to stick to her own final piece of advice to me:

“Know what your own ethics are; be good at what you do, be credible, do the best job you can for your clients, and you’ll make better decisions.”

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