tips for unlocking the mysteries of making it big in the business of yoga

By: Al Lipper

There are over 6,000 yoga studios in the US, and many more worldwide. Perhaps yours is one of these. Some of these studios are thriving centers where the mind, body and spirit of thousands of people congregate each year. Some have waiting lists for membership. Others have classes that you need to get to 15 minutes early or you won’t get a spot. What these studios all have in common is that they have achieved a relatively high degree of success. What are these studios doing that makes them standing room only?

Why are some studios ultra-successful, while others often face those sad days where only two or three students show up to a class? Most studio owners have been here at one time or another, patiently waiting as the clock ticks off minutes past the class starting time, desperately hoping that students have just been delayed and will arrive any minute. Often owners blame it on a poor location or the competition, or they say that “people just don’t understand.” These are the reasons they believe people don’t come to their studio. And I agree with some of this, but after talking to dozens and dozens of studio owners from all over the success spectrum, I have some good news for you.

Most of the time, these reasons make up only a small part of why a studio struggles. “Good news?” you ask? Yes, this means that there are other factors—things that can be changed much more easily—that are the primary reasons some studios succeed while others flounder. So what are some of these “keys to success” that the studios that do really well are using? Let’s take a look.

Marketing is an investment, not just an expense. So often studio owners think of marketing as money that goes out the door. I’m going to encourage you to recognize that good marketing is more like putting $100 into a savings bond and getting $125 back after some period of time. (For yoga studios, the time frame is generally in the order of weeks to months.) Marketing is an investment. In order to get 10 new students in a given month, you might spend $300 on marketing. But those students will then spend an average of $150 per month at your studio, which ends up being $1,800 a year. In other words, you spent $300 to get these students, but they give you back $1,800 in gross revenue (probably closer to half that, or $900 in profit, each year). Would you invest in a savings bond with that kind of return?

The problem is, most studios treat marketing as a set of isolated efforts, not as a process. Marketing is a series of steps you lead a prospective student or client through in order to get them to be a paying student or client. Beverley Murphy and her husband created a group of studios in New York called Be Yoga that, once successful, were sold to YogaWorks and are now known as YogaWorks New York (where she continued to be employed as a director). Beverley relates, “We focused on just getting them in the door. You lose money getting them to come in, but you make much more once they become students.”

It’s part of a whole process. Beverley explains an example of one of the strategies she used successfully: “Advertise using a postcard with a picture of someone doing yoga on the front, and with basic information on the back. Put it in other businesses—pay someone to go to the health food store around the corner, the chiropractor down the street, the dance studio, a coffee bar. The card should always have a pricing special on it. We had a $40 intro offer that was unlimited yoga for a month. The goal was to get them in the door.”

Another critical piece of the marketing process is knowing who you are trying to market to. In other words: Whom do you intend to teach yoga to? A common answer is, “Anyone who wants it…” This may be true, but it is generally not effective marketing. There’s a saying in advertising: “He who does everything for everyone has no one as his customers.” We as human beings want to feel that we are special. When a service seems to address my needs directly, I’m much more likely to buy it than one that is more generic. If my back hurts, I’m much more likely to take yoga in a studio that provided me a coupon for a complimentary back pain relief class than one that just tells me to come in for a free class. My back hurts, so I want the studio that understands my pain. 

Betsy Kase, Owner of Yoga Haven in Tuckahoe, New York, puts it this way: “The key is figuring out what your population is and understanding what’s going to work for them. Do you have an elderly population that you can work with and should you be offering a more restorative yoga? Do you have women in their 20s and 30s who are having babies and catering to them by doing prenatal and postnatal yoga? Find these little niches that can help bring in revenue besides your regular schedule.”

Betsy takes this a step further by considering the schedule of each of these niches, and has her studio really cater to them. “Women in their 40s are coming in during the day when their kids are in school, so have enough classes available during the day,” she explains. “Then you have the people who work during the day coming at night. Think about whom those people are and what population they are. What are their abilities? And whom are you going to hire, and put in at night, compared to the morning or weekends? Evaluating your schedule to see if it works well for the population you are trying to serve is essential.”

In an online class that I conduct, I regularly work with studio owners who were never introduced to the concept of marketing as a process. They didn’t cover this in teacher training, so don’t feel badly if it’s new to you. It’s not hard, but if you don’t do all the pieces, or do them in the wrong order, you’ll lose potential students left and right. This leads to the next critical part of getting and keeping students, and that is…

The Exceptional Experience

People don’t come to your studio for yoga. They choose to spend time in your space because of the experience it gives them. When you go to a restaurant you enjoy, it’s not just the food on the plate—it’s everything from the ambiance to the service to the fact that the waiter remembers your name. It’s a total experience. Do this successfully with your studio, and you’ll gain and keep more students than you thought possible.

I often suggest that the first step in gaining a new student is simply to get a student to take a free class. Not just any class, but one with a teacher that has great energy and charisma. Tim Dale of Yoga Tree in San Francisco describes the teacher’s part in creating this experience. “The teachers with the packed classes have charisma,” he explains. “They bring it all. It is not just good instruction, playing good songs on the jukebox, or just kicking their butts. It is a combination of all of those things. Some of the better teachers are really good at creating community. They send the love throughout the room. You can feel the love and passion for what they’re doing.”

One of the models I often recommend goes something like this: Target a niche, and have marketing material designed just for these people. The goal is simply to get them to come in for a free class (or a $5 class, if you’re in an area where free isn’t a good idea). Once they come in (or even just call), the “Exceptional Experience” begins. You inquire about their interest in yoga, you let them know they are valued and important as a human being in your studio. Next, you schedule a free class for them, but not just any class, it’s one with the kind of teacher Tim described. You want them to finish that class saying, “Wow! That was incredible!”

The process continues with them being attended to personally by a staff member (work-exchange staff are great at this). Inquire about their experience and be genuinely interested in them. Next, assuming they are ready, offer them a $40 one-month unlimited package. (I know, you’re thinking, “But I’ll lose money on that.” Remember, marketing is an investment.) Each time that they come through your doors and have the Exceptional Experience, they become more and more of a devoted student. There are some more details to the process, but this is the general idea. Take parts of it, mix and match with what you have, but remember: marketing is a process, not an event! Once you get students coming in and staying, there’s another critical piece to success…

Minding your Money

Yoga is not about money. We don’t do ourasanas because someone pays us; rather it is out of a deep love and passion for the practice, the experience, and perhaps for sharing these things with others. But the day you turn yoga into a business, another piece gets added to the equation. There are two critical things that any yoga business must do in order to operate:

1.  It must fulfill its vision or 

     mission on a regular basis.

2.  It must make money (or it can’t

     continue to do #1).

That’s it, just two things. Money is the fuel that makes a studio operate. Without it, the studio closes down and serves no one. You’re providing a valuable service which your students and clients feel is worth more to them than the money they pay you for it. (They would rather have the experience of yoga than keep the $15 or $20 the class cost them.) It’s their choice. You are providing something really valuable, so please, don’t deny people the benefits of what you have to share. Don’t sell yourself short.

Now let’s put this idea into practice. You must charge what you’re worth. Decide if your aim is to be the bargain studio in town, or if you’re more of the Nordstrom or Tiffany of yoga in your area. If you cater to a more elite clientele, then charge appropriately. Remember, to these students, a few dollars extra for a class is inconsequential compared to the experience your studio provides. 

For studios with a larger number of drop-in students, I often suggest raising the cost for drop-ins. This does two things. First, for people who don’t care about the money, they’ll gladly pay the extra in exchange for whatever convenience it might provide them, thus increasing your profits. Secondly, for those who are concerned with the cost, it gives you the opportunity to suggest a class card or unlimited program to them, which will actually save them money over what the old drop-in price was. The key here is that you really don’t lose any students. It’s their choice whether to pay more, or to purchase a more committed yoga program.

Just as it is critical to have the right pricing, it’s equally critical to track and manage the money that comes in and goes out. In the studio business, there is a tendency to handle money based just on intuition, without really nailing down the numbers. However, as with any business, knowing exactly how many dollars you earned each month, what areas earned the most, and by the same token, exactly what you spent your money on is really critical. Joan Dwyer, owner of All That Matters in Wakefield, RI, sees it this way. “You cannot try to run a business completely on your intuition. This is a very intuition-based business, but you have to look at numbers and take what they have to offer you. Numbers should confirm your intuition and guide it. People think if they have passion and intuition, they are going to make it. I can think of about 20 yoga centers that have closed in this state, many due to lack of attention to the numbers. You can’t think that money is bad or business is bad and succeed.”

Imagine your car is running rough. You take it to the mechanic. He steps back a few yards and listens to it, then shakes his head and says, “Sure enough, it’s got a problem…I can’t tell where it is though.” He doesn’t open the hood, nor does he hook up his test gadgets. He just stands back, listens and shakes his head. Not keeping track of finances and examining your income and expenses each month is like the mechanic trying to diagnose your car from 10 feet away with the hood closed. Maybe he can tell something from the sounds the car makes, but he could determine so much more if he opened the hood and started poking around.

If you don’t know where your money is going, it can be pretty hard to make good financial decisions. For example, suppose income was a bit thin last month. You can guess that having more students would help. But what if I told you that you could make more with the exact same number of students and provide them with an even better studio experience at the same time? Tracking the numbers lets you notice things like: “We have a really packed moms’ yoga class, but we’re not making money on it because our child care costs are really high.” Or, maybe you notice: “Between long-distance, DSL, and cell phones, we spend $450 a month on phone bills!” Then you can make decisions, like getting different phone plans or limiting staff use of phones. Financial information gives you the power to improve.

Dorrit Geshuri, director of 7th Heaven Yoga in Berkeley, Calif., explains, “It’s extremely important to track your finances. Part of it is being able to analyze where your money is going, and if you’re spending wisely or if you need more in one place and less in another place.”

Summing it all up

There are obviously many major and minor factors that make a studio successful. I’ve focused on a few of the critical areas, which nearly all successful studio owners I’ve worked with seem to agree on. That is, while there are other variables in the success equation, these are essential no matter what you’re doing. If your studio is already strong in these areas, that’s great. If not, don’t feel overwhelmed. Instead, recognize that these types of changes are a process. You set an intention of implementing a goal, and then work toward it steadily each week. Remember, if you do nothing differently today, tomorrow is likely to be the same as yesterday.

Studio perspectives in this article have been extracted from the Super Studios Manual, a book featuring in-depth insights and wisdom from the owners of 13 uniquely successful yoga studios from across the U.S. 

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