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It’s long past midnight and you’ve just put the finishing touches on your new yoga studio. Its doors open in a handful of hours. You’ve worked your tail off to make it happen. Everything is ready: the floorboards shine and the flyers with their schedule of classes are squared on the front desk. There’s a lot riding on it: money, credibility, livelihoods, your future. You’re excited, tired, scared and somehow oddly confident all at the same time. You’re not naïve: you know that a business isn’t a cakewalk and that a high percentage of commercial ventures close their doors within the first year.
The Arthashastra, an ancient Indian work on leadership, says that if a king or a queen doesn’t have a large treasury or a powerful army, he or she can still prevail, provided she has courage and enthusiasm coupled with mantra shakti: good counsel. You certainly have the former, or you wouldn’t be where you are tonight. The purpose of this piece is to help provide you with some of the latter.
So take a breath, and with it, a moment to contemplate six key understandings.
1. Know who you are and what your yoga business is about: Self-knowledge
The one trait that all successful entrepreneurs seem to have isn’t business acumen or dedication, as one might imagine, but a thirst for self-knowledge. Then again, maybe this isn’t as odd as it sounds. In a small business, success often rests on one or two pair of shoulders. As go the entrepreneurs, so goes the enterprise.
Self-knowledge is fundamental because without it, maya – delusion – can get pretty thick. Even now, this magical goddess is doing her thing, throwing up smoke-screens, creating illusions. Maya wraps great business opportunities in packages we don’t recognize and sends us beautiful perfumed gifts filled to the brim with styrofoam peanuts.
The bigger our ego and the deeper the pockets of our ignorance, the easier it is for her to work. The better we know ourselves and our businesses, the less easily we’re fooled.
Then, too, the yogic virtues like aparigraha (non-grasping) aren’t praised so much by the yogis of old simply because they had nothing better to do, but because they had learned through hard-won experience exactly where covetousness leads. No less a sage than the mighty Jedi Master Yoda explains, “Fear leads to anger and anger to suffering,” and often, he might have added, to business failure.
So the very first business technique is to take your ego once in a while and put it on the shelf, where maya can’t get it. Don’t worry about losing it. It’s not that easy.
2. If you build it, they will not come, unless you let them know it’s there: Marketing
At this stage, marketing is undoubtedly your most essential activity. Marketing simply means getting your studio’s name and services out there before the public eye. Put in the form of a question, marketing asks, “You know your studio is opening in the morning. Who else knows, and why should they care?”
Marketing yourself effectively requires three not-so-easy pieces:
• a target audience
• core messages
• a choice of media
Go out the door of your studio to the street. Now look around you. What do you see? If it’s residences and apartment buildings, that’s great, for we know from market research that many people want a yoga studio in the vicinity of their home. Even in California with its ubiquitous car culture, no one wants to travel far. The people in these houses and apartment buildings, then, constitute one of your prime target audiences.
What’s that, you say? There are no houses around you – only shops and office buildings? Then your target audience is a little bit different, composed of the folks who work nearby. That’s fine, too. In fact, one large yoga chain is presently buying up studios in office parks and industrial areas, based on its experience that people love to practice yoga near their workplace, where they can pop in at lunchtime or after five.
This exercise above is just a starter. There are many other audiences that we could add. What about the people who drive down your street? Do you plan to offer therapeutic yoga? Children’s programs? Does your studio have a yogic affiliation? Answering these questions will lead you to the names of prospective customers whom you’ll want to add to your target list.
I once worked on Wall Street, giving seminars to entrepreneurs. My first morning there, I spent marketing – calling and emailing everyone in my database of about 350 names. When I told my partner what I’d been doing, he said, “Aw, Pete, that’s not marketing. That’s networking. Marketing is about numbers.”
He had a point. A marketing campaign like yours is successful if it has a response rate of as little as 1%. This means that one out of every 100 people who get your message replies to it and wants to know more. So the wider and deeper you cast your net, the more likely you are to bring in the necessary volume.
Later, you may not need to take this scattershot approach. Word of mouth will help build your business. But since you’re opening your studio’s doors tomorrow, or today, you have to proclaim your existence to the universe, loud and clear.
Alón Sagee (business coach) addresses the subject of core messages very well, writing about the need “to create a clear and compelling tagline composed of a few words that convey to the reader what doing business with you will mean to their lives.”
It is important to note that it is their lives you must focus on, not yours. In fact, in order to write compelling marketing copy, you have to be standing in your audience’s shoes. And you can’t do that when you’re stuck in your ego. Writing copy from the wrong perspective is the single biggest error that businesses make when trying to sell themselves or their services.
A further iteration of this same theme is writing in terms of features, instead of benefits. Offering a class at 6:30 in the morning is a feature. The benefit is that people can come to your class before they go to work. In fact, it’s a great way for them to start their whole week, or set up their workday. This may seem obvious to you and implicit in the term ‘6:30 am,’ but it may not be to your audience. You need to connect the dots for them.
Remember: yoga to some is a subtle and unfamiliar process. As part of your marketing (and your teaching), help people to see and understand what they’ve gained. Don’t take for granted that they already know it, except in the vaguest way. At the end of a yoga class, a woman shared that her skin was improving. Immediately, two other students raised their heads. Their skin, they said, was clearing, as well. But none of them had associated this improvement with the yoga they were doing until that moment.
So, as you proceed to craft your message, write it with this thought in mind: What does the opening of my studio offer to the folks who live and work nearby? Classes three times a day, closed Mondays? Hopefully, much more than this!
You have your audience. You have your message. Now how are you going to get it to them? That’s media. It can be a print ad, a website, or your presence on many social media; it might be a flyer, an email or an event, or all of it. You need to find the one that works best for you, your studio and your audience. Yoga Mandali, in the heart of Soho, has a great location, but an almost invisible presence on the street, tucked as it is in an office building under which the subway runs, and seven floors above the renowned New York food emporium, Dean & Deluca. Phil Di Pietro, the studio’s owner of two years, attacked this problem recently by hanging a banner that you can’t help but see on coming up from the N, R & W trains. A conservative guess is that the banner is seen by a million pairs of eyes a day, and it has resulted in a new and steady stream of students.
3. The exchange of energy between customer and studio has to be equitable for the relationship to endure: Balance
Marketing is hard work. Because of this, once you have clients, you don’t want to lose them. So consider ways to make stronger their connection to your studio. Betsey Downing, owner of The Garden of the Heart Yoga Center in Sarasota, Florida and one of Anusara Yoga’s most senior teachers, has an interesting take on this: “We don’t offer open classes that anyone can just walk into. Students purchase a course of instruction and commit to it when they make their full payment. If they miss a class, they can usually make it up by taking a session in another, parallel course, but for anyone else, after the 3rd session, the courses are closed. If anyone could come in then, I really wouldn’t have taught my students anything.”
Betsey’s experience is that upping the ante and making more of a demand upon her students has benefits for everyone involved. “Rather than trying to get more bodies in the door, we focus on the folks who are committed to the entire session. And asking our students to make a commitment means we have to make a commitment to them back. This helps build long-term loyalty to our center. Because they’re committed, the students learn faster; and the teachers are happier, too: they have a consistent student base from week to week and can teach the group progressively. And they’re no longer stuck with only 2 or 3 people in their class the day after Thanksgiving.”
I bring this up not as a recommendation, but to flag an issue. How do you create “brand loyalty” and keep your students coming back for more? There may even be something in the counter-intuitive approach of making your services harder – not easier – for people to get. Again and again, over the years, teachers and studio owners have told me that raising their prices has had unexpected payoffs. Students who weren’t serious or had issues about payment or commitment fell away – and were replaced by more committed ones.
4. Talk to your people like the adults they are: Communication
If being studio-centric is the biggest mistake when writing marketing copy, the biggest mistake you can make with your staff is not to communicate with them regularly and frequently. This doesn’t mean sharing confidences that you should not. It means directly enlisting them in your vision for the studio and making them partners in its success. Treat your staff like the adults they are – keeping them abreast of important issues, of the studio’s finances and conditions – and they’ll respond accordingly, even sometimes heroically. Act like the big Mommy or Daddy, make arbitrary decisions, keep everyone in the dark, and they’ll behave like a group of rebellious teens. The choice is yours.
5. The buck stops here: Financial Responsibility
We’ve talked a lot about what to do. Let’s consider some things to avoid. The most common reason for business failure is over-extension: financially biting off more than you can chew. Your growth as a business should be organic. This doesn’t mean it can’t be explosive – look at a bean stalk! However, if you’re tired of enjoying your mental health and deeply yearn to get back on meds, do this: hire a large staff and more studio space than you can reasonably use, then get up every day and try to find profitable work for your staff to do and paying clients to fill your studio. Now, instead of running your business, your business will run you – into the ground. Guaranteed.
So be fruitful and multiply. But pole-vaulting up to a higher tattva is not the way. Business growth should impel expansion. Expansion by itself doesn’t necessarily create growth.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s your job to protect your business. No one but you should be able to access and spend the studio’s funds above a set dollar amount. I’ve seen half-a-dozen small businesses cleaned out overnight by a disgruntled or larcenous employee, who for some reason had been given the password to the bank account and the keys to the safe. There are certain jobs you cannot reliably delegate and one of these is oversight of your studio’s finances. It isn’t that people aren’t to be trusted – they are. However, you need to put in place safeguards and structures that protect you and that make it exceedingly difficult to be taken for anything but the smallest of sums.
This is part of the dharma of doing business. Business, whether we like it or not, is a contact sport. And there are always some people out there who don’t play by any rules at all. I once watched a man leave a studio’s shoeroom carrying a bag. Well-set up gent. Didn’t think about it twice. When stopped at the door and his bag was opened, out tumbled 20 pairs of shoes!
Well, look at the clock, it’s twenty to seven! I didn’t know I’d been talking so long. You have just enough time to jump in the shower, change your clothes and open the doors. But before you do that, I’ve got one last suggestion.
6. Ask for the grace of whomever or whatever Power you believe in, whether it’s God, the universe or your own inner self.
There are millions of things we can do to succeed – some of which we’ve looked at here. But none will bear the desired fruit if we’re disconnected from our essential nature, which is the secret and the power behind every victory we’ve ever had.