I’ve always been an optimist. I remember my first real breakup like it was yesterday. I was crying on the couch of our college apartment, venting to my roommate about all of my ex’s heartless indiscretions, yet at the same time absolutely certain my prince charming — you know, the guy who’d eventually sweep me off my feet, was just around the corner. My roommate was wonderfully sympathetic, assuring me that I’d find the right one someday — with just a twinge of disbelief in her voice.
I guess it was this same attitude that compelled me to open a yoga studio in one of the most yoga-dense, over-saturated markets in the country. I knew I could do it. I’d been teaching all over the state of New Jersey for over five years and I knew a lot of people in the community. I’d been incubating the concept of a studio for a while, but the practical pieces came together shockingly quickly, so my announcement to my bosses and peers was rather sudden. I was met with a LOT of resistance. Even studio owners I’d known and respected for a long time said things like, “Pssht, another yoga studio? Good luck.” with an undercurrent of sarcasm that was hard to ignore.
I wasn’t a natural at business. In fact, all of my academic and professional pursuits up until this point had been in the medical field. I learned pretty quickly that self-confidence was a tiny little fraction of the pie of things that make a business work. I’ve definitely made more than a few mistakes. I’ve worked harder than I ever have. Above all, I’ve learned a TON, and I’m ready to share it.
I was 100% guilty of feeling like my love of practicing and sharing yoga was a good enough reason to open a business. It wasn’t. I encourage those who love teaching to do it. Teach at every studio. Lead retreats. Start a teacher training. But don’t open a brick and mortar space. I will be brutally honest in saying that I’ve never done less physical yoga than I have in the two years since I opened my studio. A business is a living, breathing entity and it takes a tremendous amount of skill and attention to keep it alive. Most of us who open studios come from backgrounds other than business, so aside from having to complete the day to day operations and teach, we need to devote a tremendous amount of time to learning how to run a small business. I’m fortunate that I discovered (by being thrown into the fire) that I actually love business, but I wish I’d figured that out before I signed the lease.
I vividly remember a conversation with a former boss whose studio was struggling. I asked her who her target market was. She said, “everyone.” She closed three months later.
It’s very, very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the wider we cast our nets, the more fish we’ll catch. The problem with that thinking is that a lot of those fish are half-dead, missing a fin… you get the picture. In studio speak that means that if we try to appeal to everyone by offering a million different services and dropping our prices, we’ll wind up with clients who either can’t pay, won’t pay, or will never be truly invested. It’s been proven that the vast majority of clients who choose not to return to a business do so because they never felt an emotional connection to their brands. Let’s solve that problem before it happens.
One of the best things I did before I opened was create an ideal customer avatar. The more specific, the better. It’s best to consider who your customer is, what she enjoys, and most importantly, what she’ll pay anything for. Then we can design our studio’s look, feel, branding, pricing, and marketing campaigns based on her needs and wants. It’s so much better to draw a few high quality clients than a lot of clients.
Like I said, I know a lot of people in the yoga world, so I talk to a lot of yoga studio owners. I actually have a friend who saved up the tiniest little bit of babysitting money, painted her space herself, bought some mats and props, paid her first month’s rent with one grand opening party and has been off and running ever since. She’s grown a lot since then and runs a beautiful, successful business now, but she is the exception, not the norm.
Most yoga studio owners are terrified to spend money and I get it, cash can be really, really tight. There are, however, a few key investments that we can make right off the bat, and a few things that we really shouldn’t skimp on, ever.
In my opinion, the number one thing worth spending money on is our people. I have a manager and desk staff that help take some of the littler things off my plate so I can focus on the big picture of growing my business. Our teachers are the beating hearts of our studios. They’re the ones who will (hopefully) represent us more often than we do. I like to pay them an amount of money that communicates that I value their time, emotional investment (especially in the beginning when classes are bound to be small) and expertise. I also pay them in a way that doesn’t put me out, which is why I believe in a flat rate, especially because I’m running on a membership model (more on that later). I’d so much rather reward my staff for loyalty to the studio by offering raises to their flat rates every so often than reward large classes, which are 99% of the time a result of MY hard work at marketing. Which leads me to my next point…
We must spend money on advertising. The days of flyering the town, mailing out postcards, and printing in the newspaper are long behind us. Advertising budgets are usually tight, so to get the most bang for our bucks, we have to be where the people are: the Internet. Of course, strategy will differ a bit depending on target markets, but in general, if someone’s young enough to get on a yoga mat, they’re online in some capacity. Paid social media and Google AdWords are great places to start, and it’s so much more effective to concentrate our money there than scatter it all over the place. I always ask the clients who do come in how they heard about me so I know what’s working. That way, I can pour gasoline on the one or two fires that have already started.
I spend a lot of time working on my studio’s internal systems. Whether it be our class and massage experience or our sales strategy. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be on a membership model, which has not only been a blessing in terms of reliable, predictable revenue, but frees up my energy for meaningful, connected teaching rather than desperate selling. I read a great book when I first started out called “Built to Sell” in which the author, John Warrilow, describes the process of building a business that will thrive without its owner. This isn’t because we’re supposed to disengage from our businesses completely, but because we should create well-oiled machines that bring in money steadily, reinforce our brands and free up time for the whole of our lives. Afterall, yoga is about balance.
Self-care is a bit of a buzz term these days, but the sentiment couldn’t be more important — especially for a solo business owner. We tend to take on more than we should, we take disappointments personally and we have the potential to spend every waking moment working. Mixing our deep love of yoga with business can make for a particularly lethal combination, since most of us are so emotionally invested in our work that it’s challenging to separate one from the other.
One thing that’s helped me is scheduling literally everything. I bought a big customizable notebook in which I mark down every class, meeting and phone call. If I need to work on a particular project or task, I block out time on my calendar for it. Then, I only allow myself to work for the time allotted. If I haven’t finished, it gets pushed off into the “miscellaneous” space I’ve blocked out for the next work day. I also schedule yoga for myself, which is super important personally and to keep my teaching fresh. I created a yoga teacher self care kit that I often use to track my classes and reading, and to jot down ideas. I also schedule fitness classes and social commitments. It’s helpful for me to see how much of the week I’ve spent working vs. relaxing so I can try to balance them out for the next week. It’s definitely a work in progress but getting my business up and humming has made everything else possible.
This is just a starting point, but my newest goal is to teach others that it IS possible to build the lives we want with a little optimism and a lot of work. Owning and operating a yoga studio is both the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve ever done, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Business is good, balance is good, and oh yeah, I even found the guy.