On episode 29 of Decision Dialogues, Mark Willoughby is joined by Michael Gibney to have a chat with Thomas Johnson, founder and CEO of GetUpNGetFit, a wellness concierge company. Thomas’ early life was tumultuous, as he was forced to escape the Liberian Civil War with the help of his family and their friends. His entrepreneurial spirit took over after earning his degree, when he decided to found GetUpNGetFit. He discusses the knowledge he gained up to and after its founding, the lessons he learned, and what motivates his philanthropy.
The summary below has been created by a professional transcription vendor upon review of the recorded presentation. Please excuse any typos as well as portions noted to be inaudible.
Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby, and I’m a Principal and Wealth Manager at Modera Wealth Management, LLC. Today, my colleague Michael Gibney, who’s a Principal and Wealth Manager at Modera too, and I, will be chatting with Thomas Johnson, who’s a Civil War survivor, a philanthropist, an investor, a C-Suite advisor, podcast host, and founder and CEO of GetUpNGetFit, a wellness concierge company. Welcome everyone to the show, and I’ll hand it over to Mike.
Thank you, Mark. Welcome, everyone. And a special welcome to Thomas Johnson, who is a college friend of Joy. So that’s how we got introduced to Thomas. So we’re happy to have him. And Thomas, I will just hand it over to you to introduce yourself, and welcome—thank you for joining us.
Yeah, thank you. Thank you, gentlemen. And Joy as well. So I’m Thomas Johnson. I’m a Civil War survivor, philanthropist, investor. I’m also a C-Suite advisor, podcast host, and the founder and CEO of GetUpNGetFit, which is a what is costumers company that supports high performers towards living a healthier lifestyle.
All right, I think the elephant in the room question is you must elaborate on the Civil War survivor comment, please.
Yeah, so my parents had myself and my sister in Liberia. And shortly afterwards, they came to the States to get things settled, to set for us later on. That was the goal. So they left us with our grandmother. At the time, my grandmother, she was very well off had a lot of property in Monrovia, but the civil war broke out shortly afterwards. Now imagine you’re a child right, you’re having a great time. You have a lot of space. You enjoy nature. You enjoy your family. And all of a sudden, chaos.
So I experienced this very chaotic situation at a very young age. I was, what, about three years old? Three to five. Hearing bombs, running. It was even a time where, when everyone was running from the rebels, they lost me by accident. So I was misplaced. I remember being so frightened, and luckily for me, a family friend saw me and picked me up and took me to a place that was safe. But later on, my family found me. So I experienced a lot of chaos at an early age. But despite my situation, despite the adversity, I was able to grow through that, and become the man I am today.
So I tell people instead of living the victim mentality, instead of embracing that, you want to kind of embrace the hero. You want to be that person to overcome. Because if you can overcome, you could show others and lead others towards being better people. Towards, you know, getting into the next level in life. So I’m not a victim. And I went through certain situations and it made me a better person—made me a better person.
No doubt. When we were preparing for this. My first thought was your civil war survivor was a euphemism for something. But it was very literal. And I know Mark as a history buff, may want to jump in and ask some questions. Because that is a phenomenal story.
I just can’t imagine what you went through Thomas. And I’m just curious in the end. So your mom and dad had come to the States first.
How did you eventually manage to get out of Liberia?
So my family is extremely large, right? I had some family on my mother’s side, that were also, they were into politics, you know, they were in some government position as well. Let’s just say, “being consistent and persistent.” My parents were relentless in trying to get us towards the States. So going through the whole visa situation, you know, trying to maintain communication while everything was chaotic.
They persevered and they were able to send for us.
But my grandmother and my family members, they were the people that nurtured us and protected us and showed us love. I tell everyone, to this day. I wouldn’t be alive right now if it wasn’t for my grandmother, you know? So yeah, that’s pretty much it right there.
It’s an amazing story. Amazing story. Welcome to the United States of America, right?
Yeah, I’ve been there for about 30 years now.
So bring us through that. Thomas. Bring us through coming here, going to school, meeting Joy. Bring us to your career that led to your working life.
Yeah, so, I actually stumbled upon my career. Originally when I first entered the university, I was a business management major. I did my internship at Moody’s Investor Services, working at finance. And my goal was to go get a degree and come back, right? But as you know, life happens.
So while in college, my sophomore year—broke college student, right? Looking for ways and means to try to, you know, afford booze and party money. I got a job at the gym. But while working there, that’s when it dawned on me—it did not feel like work. Everything was just flowing effortlessly, you know? Now parts of tha, you know, I come from a sports background, I played football in high school, I ran track, I always took care of my body. But being in a space that allowed me to learn more about the human body and working with the faculty and the staff, and the athletes, and being able to support them along the journey—I had found my lane, right?
It was no longer just going into the gym and like signingin, like checking into the gym. I was literally in my zone. So the second semester, they made me supervisor, you know? And I had an amazing time. And I saw Joy a few times coming to the gym. Now normally I’ll ask do you have the key card? And you know, we’ll greet each other and, and keep it pushing.
But being in that space, I’d say I found my calling. I changed my major from Business Management to Nutrition and added a Personal Training minor. And later on also did additional studies, where I did rock climbing—I know, random. I climbed the Adirondacks as well. But I will not trade my experience for anything else, because it was meant to happen that way, you know?
That’s great. And finding your niche in school.
That is a huge plus, and you’re among the few of us who are able to make a living from what we love to do. So good for you.
So bring us through your history out of school, and how you got to GetUpNGetFit—starting your own business.
Yeah, so originally, you know, normally when we have a game plan, it doesn’t go 100% according to plan, right? According to what you thought, or what you perceived this plan to be. So, in college, my rugby name was “Onyx,” right? Onyx. So my goal was to create a gym called “Onyx Fitness.” So I was like no way I’m gonna graduate you know, I’m gonna look up the domain and after I graduated, I looked up Onyx Fitness—it was taken. So by you know, just asking my siblings, and just coming up with different types of wordings, I was able to come up with the name GetUpNGetFit.
But it has been a journey to be where I’m at right now. So from being in college, and having my wellness concierge company, it has been a journey. And the reason why I say this is, after I graduated, I went the independent route, I worked with a few clientele, right? But then I also realized that I was lacking experience in terms of working with high performers, right? The only type of clientele I was accustomed to at that time was collegiate, right? Athletes, you know, folks within the college setting.
So I knew I had to mix it up. So I got a job at a few gyms in Manhattan. And I was exposed to more folks in corporate, right? And, you know, while going through that, that time of that experience, I became a celebrity trainer. I’ve worked with a few politicians, a few celebrities, a couple of professional athletes—even met The Rock, right? And it was an amazing experience. But I’m very goal oriented. So after two years, I told myself, “I don’t care if I’m making six figures, I’m out of here.”
So two years and two months, while being at the other gyms, I left, and I went the independent route. So I did a few boot camps, classes in Brooklyn and other places. Then I finally decided to go a little further. But what really changed the trajectory of being a personal trainer to now, being an executive wellness coach, was my experience working with a client of mine at the gym.
So she was the VP of a multi-million dollar company in Manhattan, and she was having most of her meetings at a restaurant. She was having about eight meetings per week, and one to three drinks per meeting. And when I saw that, I had to kind of stop in my steps and reevaluate what I was reviewing. You know, it’s like, “You know what, something’s going on that’s way beneath the surface.”
So I decided to have a conversation with her the next time. So this was a lady she was an A personality type, extremely intelligent, very upfront. So my thought process was, “I’m going to speak to her, just like the way she is. I’m going to approach her, and just keep it very honest, very upfront.” And that was the game plan.
So she came to the gym, we sat down. And I told her “Listen, this is what I just observed. If you continue down this trajectory, this is what’s about to happen.” And out of nowhere, she just broke down in my arms and started crying. Now, I wasn’t expecting this reaction, you know? And well, listening to her pour out her heart to me. She was telling me how she was extremely stressed out, how being a woman in her position, she was extremely stressed out, how nobody understood how it was, you know, to operate at this high level. And I had no response. Normally, I’m the guy with all the answers, right? I had no response. All I did was close my mouth and I listened.
And it dawned on me that there were so many other high performers going through the same thing. They’re working their butts off to, you know, hit the bottom line to make sure that their companies are running smoothly, but they are struggling, right? They tend to forego their health, and just double down on the company-related activities. And because I also work with professional athletes, I reflected on work with these athletes, and I realized that they had a wellness support team to keep them healthy, during the season and offseason. They had, you know, massage therapists, personal trainers, other therapists, right? Dietitians, etc., to keep them healthy during the season and offseason.
So I asked myself, “What would it look like if I just married these two? If I take this structure and bring over to this type of clientele?” It took a long time to kind of figure out how to really make it happen. And I did it eventually. And I was able to create my wellness concierge service where we identify our clients’ habits and negative habits and we create a program for them. We connect them with a wellness support team to keep them accountable and support them along the journey. So they could travel, you know, back and forth and still be able to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
That’s a great story! So obviously, that was one of the triggers to have you start your own business.
Walk through that with me, Thomas—that’s a big risk to take, starting your own business. How much risk were you willing to take, and what was going through your mind if you said, you know, I can do this on my own?
The thing is, I’m a very stubborn individual, right? My risk tolerance is extremely high. I’m single, I have no kids—my overhead is extremely low. I could survive on one meal a day, alright? So my my risk tolerance was pretty high. But one thing I’m pretty good at is failing forward. If I fail—I don’t really believe in failure, I believe in learning through the process, right? So when I first started, my business acumen was zero to none. You know? I was just a personal trainer that wanted to help people. So it took a long time to figure out how to run a business. So once I started tapping into personal development, I started collecting books, and started studying success and other folks who were so successful at creating businesses, I became better. You know, once I started asking the right questions, I became better. So the journey has been a beautiful one.
You know, I have to jump in here, Thomas, because having listened to a number of folks like you on other podcasts, a lot of stories have a lot of similarities. And it sounds like you worked quite a while for other companies first, and learned a lot along the way, and used the journey as a way to come up with an idea for your own firm—that sounds like it’s the way it’s worked for you over the last number of years.
So yes and no—I learned a few things in terms of you know, how to work with clientele. But one thing about me—I’m very observant. I also learned the things that I did not like, right? I saw a lot of things within the fitness—within the wellness—industry that I did not.
The first thing is the lack of accountability. Right? Most people want to join a gym especially like around New Year’s. They will join a gym because they are gung ho to change their body, change their mindset. And once they lose that motivation to go right back to the old habits. So most gyms make the majority of their money through the first month of the year. So that lack of accountability is very prominent within the industry.
I also saw, you know, clients working with trainers and focusing only on superficial goals. “I want lose a few pounds for my wedding dress, I want to look good for the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, etc.” But once they reach that goal, what happens? They go right back to the old habits.
So seeing these reoccurring, you know, trends, it bothered me. It was not sustainable, you know? So I wanted to really step up and make a difference. So I guess you will say I’m against a lot of things that’s occurring within the wellness industry, I wanted to correct that and be the change.
Talk to us about how you’re doing that with your get up and get fit.
With GetUpNGetFit, we focus on more of a lifestyle change, right? A lifestyle structure. So like I said, when a client comes on board, the first thing we do is we assess their lifestyle. Now every individual is different. You can have a twin, but just because you guys are twins, does not mean you have the same lifestyle, right? So we assess the lifestyle, we find out about the negative habits, then we create a program for them, then we connect them with a wellness support team. So for instance, if you’re person a working at your desk for hours at a time, I’m definitely sure—I’m almost 100% sure, you might have posture issues, right? You might have tight hips, tight shoulders, etc.
So we assess the client as an individual, and create a customized program for them that they can implement into their lifestyle. Of course, and we’re high performers. We’re always busy, we’re always on the go. So we don’t think about the little details. But if you have a wellness support team, somebody to keep you accountable, it makes it much easier. Having a wellness support team is just as important as having a legal team, right? Just as important as having accountants to manage your money and finances, etc. But we tend not to think about these things.
And I love the fact that you’ve mentioned it a couple of times that you call yourself a wellness concierge. And you know, again, things you’ve mentioned too, the things I’ve gotten from your website, is you’re customizing this for someone. So you’re calling yourself an accountability partner. You’re saying on your website that this is an investment in yourself. And you’re focusing on nutrition. So you seem—when someone starts their own business, you need to have a niche—and it seems you’ve created a great niche to cover those three things. Self investment, accountability, and nutrition.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so when I say lifestyle, it’s, nutrition, is a huge aspect. But I normally tell people, sleep is king, nutrition is queen and exercise is the prince or princess, right? Because people don’t even think about sleep. Now. If you don’t sleep for some amount of days, you could literally pass away. You could survive not eating for a few days. You could survive not exercising for a few days. But people don’t think about these things. So it’s more of a lifestyle approach. So we assess your sleep, you know, your nutrition, your stress level.
Now stress, we all know stress is the devil in a sense, right? We deal with stress, but most people don’t know how to really manage the stress, right? They might turn to booze or drugs, etc., or just some type of negative behavior to cope with that. So it’s really, the goal is to have a healthier lifestyle, have a lifestyle that allows you to be an able person, have a life’s allows you to feel good, you want to feel good, you want to you want to have energy, endurance—you want to be able to walk up a flight of stairs and not be huffing and puffing.
There seems to be a lot of concentration and a lot of focus on that, you know? You see commercials for the Peloton, and for NordicTrack things that are trying to promote what you’re helping people with. Do you view that as competition? Or is it just heightened awareness for you?
You know, they are competition. I’m not going to deny it. These are huge companies with a lot a lot of money. But my thing is, it’s just extra motivation for me, man. I’m an athlete. I have the athlete mindset—I will always compete. If anything, you know, they’re basically fueling the fire.
I love it.
One thing I always like to ask our guests, Thomas, is, you know, as you’re getting ready to start your own business—talk to me about some of the financial decisions, sort of, you had to deal with and think about and make, before you decided to stop working for other companies and go out and work on your own. What was the financial end of that like?
So with that, I had a few thousand—I think I had like $2,000 in my account when I left. So it was extremely low. So when I started my boot camp, like I said, the investment was extremely low. The only thing I needed was, I needed some money to purchase flyers, right? And in terms of space, the first boot camp I had after I left DBG, was at Prospect Park. That was a place that had—it was positioned in a way where it provided shelter, but also, I didn’t have to pay any money. So my overhead was extremely low.
So, as I brought on board a few clientele, I was able to save up. But I wasn’t really thinking about the future in a sense. Like, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot over the years. So when I first started off, you know, I wasn’t thinking about how much money I need to invest in a company, I was not thinking about startup capital at all, you know? If, what I know right now, I wish I knew it before, but everything happens for a reason.
So what would you share with our listeners that you would have done differently, maybe as you were going through that period of your life? What would you say to the younger Thomas?
Get a mentor, get a coach. That’s the fastest, fastest way to speed forward—by getting a coach, a mentor. I didn’t have a mentor or a coach, I just went according to what I thought was right.
And can you share a mistake that was made and then on the flip side of that some decision that was made that was really positive.
The decision that was positive was leaving the corporate gym I was working for, because I saw a lot of folks that were much older than me, there for such a long time, and I didn’t want to be like these people, doing the same thing over and over, for years and years. So that was one of the best decisions I made.
The mistake that I also made was not stacking up. You know? Not planning accordingly. That would have made things much better in terms of building up my business, and provided me peace of mind.
Switching gears a little bit. And again, something I’ve taken from your website and something we’ve talked about: The philanthropic side of your business, or what you call the “social sustainability impact goal”—that is very near and dear to my heart. I am the philanthropy chair at Modera. So anytime I see someone who has as much of a well thought-out plan as you do, it is really encouraging to me. Can you share what you’ve laid out on your social sustainability impact goal?
My social sustainability impact goal of impacting 50,000 people per year is something that’s near and dear to my heart. I came up with this goal recently, around COVID. So I believe in listening to your intuition, I’m a person that lives with his heart on his sleeves, right? I love to help. I’ve always been that kind of person.
So one day, when I was in my kitchen, I had this epiphany, and the question was asked, “TJ, who do you want to be? Do you want to be that person that’s always going to complain about life, about society, and what’s going on, or are you going to be wanting to make an impact?” And the number of 50,000 came out of nowhere—impact 50,000 people. And once I got that number, I’m like, I kind of asked myself, “Why 50,000?” I was a bit confused, right? 50,000 is a random number. Why 50,000?
So I shared this with my coach, and I also shared it with a few folks within my network. And a buddy of mine from Australia—he owns a few companies, about eight companies out there—he connected me with this gentleman that lives in Singapore. He’s the chairman of this nonprofit called B1G1. We hopped on a Zoom call, and he has—his was such electric, you know, he has so much energy for a person that’s in his, like, late 70s. He was so enthusiastic about his company—about his not-for-profit, that I kind of bought into it.
But what I love about B1G1 is they match corporations with causes all over the world. And they also provide 100% of the proceeds to these causes. Now I’m a person that, I’m big on due diligence, I love that—before I dive into anything, I do my research, right? So I did my research, and they were legit. And I told myself, “This is definitely what I need.” So I decided on the spot that I’m going to connect all of my activities to this. I’m going to connect all of my company’s activities to a cause.
So now, every time we get a new client, we provide 365 days of solar energy access to a school in India. Every time I have a podcast interview, we provide school supplies and books to children in Cambodia. Every time I pay my coaches, we provide a portion of the proceeds to women entrepreneurs in West Africa. Now every time somebody’s filling out a survey, it’s the same thing.
So now everything is connected, right? And now, this allowed me to make my goal more attainable, as opposed to just guessing. And so far we’ve, you know, we’ve impacted over 4,000 people. But it’s such a fulfilling feeling to be able to impact people while growing your company without extra handouts.
And obviously the reason you do it is very personal. But do you see it helping get clients because of your willingness to give back?
Yeah, this is something, I mean, like I said, it’s something we’ve instilled, we’ve incorporated recently. So with GetUpNGetFit, we’ve restructured, we recently changed up the website and things of that nature. So we haven’t really tapped heavily into marketing yet. But a lot of folks are extremely enthusiastic when it comes to working with us. Even my podcast guests, when they hear about the impact goal and how we are now providing books and supplies to children in Cambodia on their behalf, yeah, they’re enthusiastic about, you know, having the podcast interview. So it’s been a great journey, you know?
Absolutely sounds like it.
The growth? Are you seeing organic growth? You just mentioned that there’s not a huge marketing effort if I heard you correctly. So has your growth been organic through referrals of people you’ve worked with?
Yes, it’s been organic. The reason why I mentioned webinar-heavy marketing, I wanted to restructure and incorporate all the little details that we’ve focused on doing like last year. So I told my team to hold off on the marketing. So December and January, that’s gonna be—we’re gonna focus more on the marketing efforts initiatives.
That’s when everyone sets their New Year’s resolutions.
Actually works out, the month of January. It’s an accountability partner.
There you go. I believe in timing—it’s all about timing, you know?
Talk to us a little bit about your staff. You’ve mentioned a couple of people that you’re working with. How did you find them? How many people do you have? How does that work?
I have a digital marketer, I have a person that handles you know, our newsletter and articles, things of that nature. And I actually leverage a lot of VAs. Working with VAs has been a blessing for me, right? I have a few folks in the Philippines, and also in Dubai. That has really, really helped, big time. So it’s a small team, but it’s going to grow. Eventually, the goal is to have somebody come on board and focus on the operation, so I can focus on what I love doing, which is creating relationships and think outside the box.
You know, as we come to a close—your story is just remarkable, Thomas. So thank you for sharing with us. But give us one thing maybe that I did not ask, that you want to share about your business or about your journey? Because it’s a unique one, and it’s a terrific one and obviously a very successful one. So is there something I missed that you would like to share with us?
You did pretty well with the questions, Mike and Mark. You guys did pretty well. You guys are a great team. Of course, Joy’s in the background. I appreciate the energy. Questions… in terms of questions… what drives me?
What drives you? Well that’s a great—let’s do, let’s go there, then. What does drive you, Thomas?
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
The ability to create impact, the ability to foster change, the ability to make the people that passed away proud by doing my best to make a difference in other’s lives. You know, all of these things drive me. My family drives me. I’m the eldest out of five siblings, so I know I have to be a role model. That drives me as well. You know, really, really making an impact.
That’s great. That’s great. We usually wrap up with a kind of a question out of left field, Thomas. So like, we’ve talked a lot about—but what was the last non-financial decision that you’ve had to make in the last day or so?
The non-financial decision to make was whether or not I should go outside and jump rope this morning. You know, that’s non-financial, you know?
That’s a good enough conundrum.
Yeah, five o’clock in the morning, I tell myself, should I get up and go outside jump rope? Yeah, just, and I made it happen.
Good for you! That’s something that sums up your attitude.
Well, thanks very much to Mike and to Thomas for letting us listen in on their conversation. We appreciate your time and perspectives. And thank you, our audience, for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues, for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.
Thomas Johnson is the founder and CEO of GetUpNGetFit, a wellness concierge company that focuses on correcting the root cause of its clients’ wellness problems with an on-demand wellness team that provides support with implementation of healthier lifestyle habits.
Thomas was born in Monrovia, Liberia, during a tumultuous time in the area’s history which ultimately led to civil war breaking out. Much of his family managed to immigrate to the United States during this period, and Thomas eventually earned his bachelor’s degree in Nutrition, Personal Training and Expeditionary Studies at SUNY Plattsburgh in 2010.
During college, he worked at the university gym as a personal trainer and supervisor, and he continued personal training after graduation. He founded GetUpNGetFit in 2013.
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