This article was written about my women’s program by a long time client, and great friend. Check it out on Medium.com

Small businesses have a hidden-in-plain-sight advantage over bigger businesses — a direct connection to their customers and to the communities they build.

The women of LIFT riding the devil’s tricycle. Photo by Dave Re.

Jen Shaw has been helping make women’s butts look great on (and off) camera for ten years. She’s the owner of LIFT, a women’s only strength and conditioning program in Austin. Shaw came up with the idea for the program while coaching at a Crossfit gym. Like any good entrepreneur, Shaw listened to her customers — repeatedly. Female clients would say they loved working out together but wanted more focused strength-training coaching (think: more Olympic lifting and fewer wall-ball reps). Shaw wanted to give women the kind of community they craved and the space to train in, so she decided to venture out on her own.

Jen Shaw and I back when she started her women’s only lifting program and today, running the show at LIFT. Photos by James Scheuren/Dave Re.

Over the last decade that Shaw has owned and operated LIFT, I’ve religiously shown up multiple times a week to work out with her. I’ve been through a career change, had a baby, recovered from having that baby, and through it all, I’ve watched Shaw grow her women’s only program exponentially. She’s helped me train through significant life events. But what really impresses me about Jen is how she listens to all of her clients and is able to meet them wherever they are — in training and life — she offers them exactly what they need.

Listening to clients and understanding their needs doesn’t just result in great looking butts — it sets Shaw’s business apart. Seeing LIFT grow over the years has given me insight into how small businesses can differentiate themselves from bigger businesses through fostering real connections with the people they help. Here are three things (aside from countless weights) I’ve picked up from Jen over the years…

Women have babies.

I started working out with Shaw at age 29. Back then, I needed to get in shape and educate myself about nutrition. She helped me accomplish both, and learn how to maintain them consistently into my next life stage: pregnancy and postpartum recovery.

It’s unsurprising that this is a common pattern with Shaw’s clients — women have babies — and when she realized this aspect of her clientele, she wanted to be able to coach us safely and effectively through both pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period. She started training as a doula to gain more exposure to what she was preparing her clients for in the gym. Then, she became certified as a BirthFit coach and the gym became an official affiliate under the brand that’s known for safe and effective exercise and weightlifting through pregnancy and postpartum recovery. The athletes at our gym rejected the cultural shaming around weightlifting during pregnancy and Shaw came prepared with a safe and effective methodology. You don’t train for a marathon by sitting on the couch for nine months. She learned how to support us through this very physical (and often emotional) life transition, and none of us will shut up about important it was.

Me, bench pressing at 6+ months pregnant vs. pushing 250# uphill (not pregnant).

“I want to support and nurture women throughout every stage of life.” -Jen Shaw

Small biz tip: Your clients are people, and people go through many different life stages. It’s important to get to know your clients and the lives they’re living, to differentiate your business and help stoke personal growth.

Learn how to take pictures that make your clients look good so they’ll feel good — and share them.

Shaw is intermittently taking short videos and photographs during out workouts, and no one ever looks unfortunate. Yes, that’s intentional. And no, not every gym does that well. She’s not a photographic genius and I know she takes lots of garbage shots. But, she’s become a good editor and she knows what to post and what to trash based on how well she understands her audience.

Small biz tip: Your clients want to feel proud that they’re part of something, and they want to help you tell that story. Scroll through your Instagram feed, and you’ll notice sponsored ads from companies with staged photos of models that perpetuate perfection or idealism instead of real-world grit. Don’t do that. Instead, opt for authentic people in actual situations. They will share said photos with their network, and more real people will come knocking.

Nurture your community and it will grow itself.

When my son was born, the women I work out with brought my family food every night for THREE weeks. They were like ninjas, sneaking up my lawn to stealthily drop a hot meal in the cooler on the doorstep. If I invite you to come to work out at my gym, you may think that I hate you (because the workouts are hard), but the opposite is true. Lifting heavy weights at the crack of dawn with some of the most badass women in Austin is an initiation, an honor, and a great reason to get my butt out of bed.

Jen has gone out of her way to make sure that we see each other in normal person clothes too, not just when we’re dripping sweat in one another’s eyes — so that we can support each other outside of the gym in addition to the support inside the gym. We’ve taken it from there and cross-pollinated our lives: we talk to one another as mentors, we hire each other for jobs, cast one another for commercials, and babysit for each other’s kids.

Small biz tip: The feeling of belonging holds a lot of power: it’s a deep-seated human need. Create an environment that supports authentic connections to build a community of people who will help each other beyond the “walls” of your business. It’s a win-win situation that will also help you grow your business organically.

Small businesses don’t always have to consider themselves at a disadvantage when comparing themselves to bigger competitors — they have a unique opportunity to be right there on the frontlines, and get to know the real people behind the “customer” designation businesses place on them. Being able to interact with people directly means listening and molding their businesses’ offerings to better serve them. Jen Shaw and LIFT are an incredible example of the direction a business can take when its shape and growth are inspired by and built for the people they’re supporting.

Shaw’s programming to build functional strength isn’t just for lifting groceries or fat babies, but it helps with those, too.