Free Form Fitness founder puts entrepreneurial muscle behind new incubator

Former fitness biz boss Jean-Luc Boissonneault’s newest venture, Miyagi School, is aimed at giving aspiring business owners a lift
Jean-Luc Boissonneault
Jean-Luc Boissonneault and his wife Chelsea during their travels. (Photo provided)

After selling the chain of fitness boutiques he founded a decade ago, Jean-Luc Boissonneault spent most of this year travelling the world and trying to figure out what he’d do next.

Eventually, he realized the answer was right there inside him all along.

“At heart, I’m a coach,” he says.

The serial entrepreneur and his wife Chelsea ultimately decided their next venture would be aimed at helping other aspiring business owners author their own success stories. Backed with the proceeds from the seven-figure sale of Free Form Fitness, the Ottawa couple has launched a new incubator called Miyagi School, after the wise martial arts master from the Karate Kid movies.

Mr. Boissonneault, 34, says he can’t put a price on the knowledge and insights he’s gained in a career that has seen him launch nine different businesses. He’s learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to starting new companies, and he’s eager to help others profit from his experiences.

While he plans to take an ownership stake in Miyagi’s most promising startups at some point, he says the idea is really to help other people develop their entrepreneurial and leadership skills.

“Throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve it,” says Mr. Boissonneault, who started out as a personal trainer at a local gym before opening his own fitness facility that grew into a chain with four locations in the capital.

“We want people to organically grow the business. That means there’s a lot of up-front mentorship and giving them the right tools for them to lead their own teams. As they start to gain traction for that business, then there’s going to be a need for money once you actually have something.”

Although most incubators tend to focus on tech-based startups, he says he’s opening his doors to any entrepreneur who’s honest, determined and willing to learn – no matter what industry he or she is in.

“For us, the most important thing is to partner with the right person,” he explains.

Citing a recent Oxford University study that suggests nearly half of all jobs in the United States are at risk of being automated in the next 25 years, Mr. Boissonneault says many workers currently toiling for a paycheque need to learn how to become more self-reliant.

Proper encouragement

“The way I see it is there’s going to be an influx of people losing jobs – good people that have just never been trained to be a leader,” he argues. “What happens when no one’s there to hire you? What do you do?”

Mr. Boissonneault, who attended college for two years but didn’t graduate, says he believes business schools are actually a “detriment” to growing Canada’s entrepreneurship culture because they train their students to be followers rather than leaders. But he thinks that with the proper encouragement, just about anyone can learn the skills necessary to turn a promising idea into a successful business.

“I think the majority of people, given the right circumstances and maybe also losing a job or something like that where they’re uncomfortable, they can do it,” he says. “I haven’t seen many incubators that are focused on those people. In fact, I haven’t seen any. You don’t need to be a genius. You just need to figure out the right ways of going about it, and that’s what I can teach these people.”

“You don’t need to be a genius. You just need to figure out the right ways of going about it, and that’s what I can teach these people.”

The fitness guru believes many budding entrepreneurs lack the confidence to turn their plans into reality, pointing to a “Dragons’ Den-type” pitchfest he attended at Algonquin College as an example.

“Most of these students have never even taken action on what they’re (studying). They’re in business school and they haven’t tried to start a business on the side? To me, that was just mind-boggling.”

He received 67 applications for the first cohort and plans to accept four companies, adding there will be no limit on how long they can stay in the program.

Mr. Boissoneault says he envisions a whole “network” of enterprises eventually being mentored through the incubator. For now, he’s funding the non-profit operation himself but says he plans to bring other investors on board once member firms begin to scale up and require more capital. Local tech leader Scott Annan, the founder of Guides.co, is among those in the Ottawa business community who’ve already offered to lend guidance, he adds.

Meanwhile, he says he has no plans to launch another startup of his own – for the foreseeable future, anyway.

“Before I did this, I thought long and hard about what I want to do for at least the next 10 years, and this is it,” he says. “You know, I get bored. But the thing with this business is that it’s very hard to get bored. You’re creating all sorts of different companies, and that’s what I love to do. I am so ready for this. I can’t wait.”