Over the holidays I got hooked on the NPR podcast called “How I Built This” that interviews the founders of some big companies about how they got started. Some of those stories are truly fascinating and chronicle the classic tale of rags to riches. Others had a pretty good jump-start. For example, the founders of Soul Cycle started with an original cash investment of about $250,000. That’s a big chunk of cash! How many of us have access to that kind of money? Certainly not me. So today I wanted to tell you my story of opening my own yoga studio, and what I have learned in that process. Of course, I am nowhere near the level of the companies featured in the podcast, and I started with $300, but somehow it seems like my story would be more realistic and more familiar to other yoga teachers out there. So I hope that you will learn from my mistakes and maybe get some useful ideas for yourself.
Ever since I started to study yoga, I was determined to have a yoga studio. This was the only model of teaching yoga that I could envision. I had all sorts of rainbow visions of how wonderful and fulfilling it would be. I remember one particular dark rainy day in November when I was pacing around my neighborhood and dreaming about my studio, frustrated that I didn’t have resources to pull it off.
Eventually, my single-minded determination has paid off, and I found a person who was willing to be my business partner in this venture. Together we found a decent space in our neighborhood that had a large room for classes and couple of smaller rooms – one for private sessions and one for an office. The space needed some major remodeling, so I found a contractor, we drew up plans and got ready to sign a lease. After a few weeks of back and forth with the landlord that lease fell through because, in the words of the agent, “the landlord was tired of all this negotiation”. I was devastated. Eventually, I started looking at other spaces in the area, but most of them were very large, very expensive and required a complete build-out at my own expense. I simply didn’t have the money for that. Right around the same time, my business relationship began to unravel, and we ended up walking away from each other for good. I was back to square one.
Few more years passed as I kept teaching around town. Some major developments happened in my personal life, as I met and married my husband and completed my Viniyoga teacher training. Around the same time, I stumbled over an office space above an Ethiopian restaurant . The space was just one room with wood floors that could accommodate about 8 people, but it was only $300/month. It was a total steal and I jumped at it. I ended up teaching a number of private yoga sessions there and some regular classes. My students formed a lovely community there, and some of them still fondly look back at that time and that space.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the restaurant downstairs served very flavorful curry, so my space ended up smelling like curry ALL THE TIME. It was charming at first, then it became distracting. In addition, I discovered that a block away was an infamous corner where all the drug deals in the neighborhood took place. There were always some shady personalities hanging out around my building, and it simply didn’t feel safe for my students to walk home after our evening classes. So only after a year at the space I began looking for a new one.
At that point, I had a pretty well-formed idea about what I wanted. A well-meaning friend told me “If you get a yoga studio, you will be in the business of running a yoga studio, not teaching yoga.” But I was more interested in teaching yoga. So I decided that it would make more sense to go for a smaller, more intimate space that would accommodate a maximum of 15 students, and have a wellness center with different practitioners sharing rooms and providing massage therapy, acupuncture and other services. The rent from the practitioner’s rooms would help pay for the studio space. I was hoping that my students from other classes would migrate to my studio and help get me started. The tricky part was that my classes were spread all around town, so I had no idea who would follow me to my new space.
However, after considering several spaces I had to compromise. I signed a lease on the space that was lovely, but again, was just one big room on the second floor of the building. I didn’t like the fact that it wasn’t a store-front, and I hoped that in the future I would be able to lease other spaces in the same building for my wellness center. Few weeks later I discovered that the owners of the building had decided to lease the entire structure to a private school, so I was out once again. I was walking back from that frustrating meeting to my bus stop when I spotted another building nearby that was being remodeled. It had a store-front and the door was open. I walked right in, surveyed the situation and immediately assessed that it had potential. I talked to another tenant in the same building (who happened to be an acupuncturist), and got the name of the landlord, who turned out to have an office in the same building. I walked right in, expressed my interest in the space, and we signed the lease in a month. I called the space Potentials Yoga Studio.
This landlord, the architectural firm, turned out to be much more accommodating. They agreed to move some walls for me and remove fake dropped ceiling. I personally painted the whole space, and together with my husband we laid floating bamboo floors over one weekend. My studio space was coming together. The whole project cost me about $5000 in cash, and I borrowed another $5000. Just then my landlord had mentioned that they weren’t sure what to do with a space right above my studio. It was pretty much gutted, but had structural columns that prevented it from being one open space. Long story short, this is how I got my wellness center upstairs with three large bright rooms for various practitioners and my office. So, I ended up leasing the entire wing of the building. It required another $5000 investment and some serious time and effort (painting, setting it up, putting in a simple kitchen, etc.)
And boy was I happy that I had income from those rooms upstairs (once I found the wellness practitioners, which is a whole other story)! My studio had a very slow start as I discovered that as much as my current students loved my teaching, they were much more interested in convenience and preferred to stay in locations that were close to their office or home. So very few students had migrated to my new space. Most of them came from my former space above the restaurant, but since I quit all my other teaching gigs to run my studio, I had many more hours of studio time to fill.
Looking back at my promotional brochures from that time, I smile at my bright-eyed optimism and cluelessness. I had lots of great ideas about what kinds of classes I was going to teach, and very little idea of how I was going to promote my new studio. I did mailings to the residences in the neighborhood (waste of money), pay-per-click advertisement online (even bigger waste of money), flyers in coffee shops (pointless). What really worked for me was word of mouth and website SEO. My existing students brought their friends and family members. I stayed in touch with them via regular newsletters and offered new programs and occasional discounts. I optimized my website for the search engines, so I started getting students from the internet who were interested in resolving specific issues via private yoga sessions. I offered each potential new client a free private yoga session and most of them signed up for a session package afterwards. I worked hard – taught a lot, starting at 8 am and some days going till 8pm, often teaching on weekends. I ran the books, created and managed our website, did our marketing, build partnerships with our wellness practitioners, did Open Houses and started Teacher Training Programs. It makes me tired just to think about it now. On top of that I got pregnant and became a mom, so that complicated things a bit 🙂
Those days were intense, but rewarding. I felt like I was finally living my dream of being a studio owner. By year 6 the studio was finally becoming reasonably profitable; I thought that I had figured out how to juggle my many responsibilities, and things were humming along nicely. And then my husband got a great job offer in Michigan, so… I gave up my studio and moved to Michigan.
That’s the thing about dreams – sometimes you have to give them up for the greater good of your family. In Michigan I had to start teaching yoga from scratch all over again, but I also had more time to dedicate to my new venture – Sequence Wiz. I had started the sequence builder two years prior, but couldn’t commit too much time or effort to it, so it remained obscure. Once in Michigan, I started writing regular blog posts, recording videos and growing the company. And here we are, seven years later, humming right along with many exciting visions for the future. Life can take some unexpected turns, but what I’ve learned from my own experience (and from those folks on the NPR podcast) is that you have to be nimble, think on your feet and be able to pivot your business, if necessary. Here are some other lessons I’ve learned:
- The familiar model of a yoga studio is not the only way to develop a yoga business. There are many, many other models, and there are many other yoga teachers who get creative with their offerings. In fact, many larger yoga studios are struggling right now because of internet classes and other factors – the world is always changing and we need to adjust accordingly.
- Certain failures can be a blessing in disguise. When my first yoga studio fell through, I was devastated. But then my business partnership ended on very poor terms, and I am glad we didn’t have a stake at the joint business. Or, I was heartbroken to give up my yoga studio when I moved, but it led to another opportunity (growing Sequence Wiz) which turned out to be even more fulfilling for me.
- The way you envision things and the way they turn out to be are usually very different. Owning your own studio might seem glamorous, but it usually means long days, lots of stress and, often, little return. If you are considering opening a yoga studio, it might be good to “try before you buy” – get a job managing one and see how you like it.
- If you do commit to a particular path, there are ways to make it work, but it will take time and effort. In my experience, it takes an average of five years for a business to get up on its feet (if it can last that long). You just have to keep your eyes open to potential opportunities that come along for your business, and not to be afraid to make decisive choices.
- Get some experience and mileage under your belt. I hear about yoga teachers planning to open yoga studios fresh out of their teacher training programs. That seems premature. I believe that it can be very useful to gain experience while working for other people, to develop your own flavor of teaching, and your own following. That way, when you are ready to take a plunge, you will not start with an empty studio.
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Be very careful with your finances. Don’t get an expensive space, and figure out an additional stream of revenue (from renting out space, teaching elsewhere, etc.) that can support you as you get started. Personally, I didn’t have enough cash to cover a year of operating expenses, as is usually recommended, but I had rooms to rent and consistent income from existing private clients that kept me afloat.
- Convenience is everything. Make it easy for you students to come to you. Get a space near where your students live or work, make sure there is a place to park, make sure there are signs outside pointing to your space, have classes at popular times, make sure they can find all necessary information on your website, etc.
At the end of each episode of that NPR podcast they always ask the proprietor – how much of your success is luck, and how much is hard work? This question seems impossible to answer, but what I see in all those people is that they had perseverance AND were able to spot a wave of opportunity that was building up in their field, jump on it and ride it. What kind of opportunity do you see building around you? Can you ride it creatively? I have spotted a couple of waves that I am planning to ride this year and I cannot wait to share them with you! And over the next few weeks couple of other yoga teachers and myself will share some other potential settings and ways of teaching yoga – I hope you find it useful!
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