When her local yoga studio was closing its doors, Dani knew she had to do something to rescue this much-loved community resource.
Tell us a little about you…
I grew up in a small working-class town in Texas and was the first in my family to earn a college degree. I majored in Public & International Affairs at Princeton University and earned a Masters in Instructional Technology & Media from Columbia University. My husband Bob and I met and married in New York City. We now live in Glencoe, IL with our two children (16 and 11). We are longtime members of the Lake Shore Unitarian-Universalists, where I currently serve as Board Chair.
Balancing work, family, and community life has always been important to me, so I spent most of my career, from 1999 to 2012, as a part-time independent consultant, focusing on workplace performance improvement, project management, and change management. Prior to my next act, clients included McDonald’s, United Airlines, and Walgreens.
When did you start to think about charting a new direction for yourself in midlife?
I was a bit restless in my consulting career and was seeking a way to make a difference in the world, perhaps through non-profit work or academia. But my decision to run a yoga studio was a complete surprise. I had never considered running a main street business.
Here was my a-ha moment: I walked into my local yoga studio for class and saw a sign posted on the door: “We are closing at the end of November.” Unexpectedly, my heart dropped right into my stomach! As a casual and not particularly consistent yoga student, I hadn’t realized how the practice, and that studio, in particular, had become an important respite and sanctuary. It seemed a shame for the community (and for me!) to lose such a great resource.
I started to research how to save it and got excited about the possibility of a fresh business challenge.
So… I bought the studio.
What is your next act? Tell us about what you are doing…
I own Reach Yoga, a studio offering yoga and yoga-related classes, seven days a week. Reach also features a great boutique selling gifts, a unique assortment of fun fitness apparel, and yoga-related merchandise.
My decision to run a yoga studio was a complete surprise.
As the owner of the studio, I do not teach any classes. I run the business, including customer experience, marketing, accounting, talent management, etc., along with wonderful instructors and a great team.
I briefly considered enrolling in Reach Yoga’s teacher training program but decided against it. The yoga teachers I know work very hard to continuously develop their own practice and hone their instructional skills; teaching yoga is rewarding, but also consuming. Teaching and running a studio at the same time looks really, really difficult. So, for the foreseeable future, it is enough for me to be a student of yoga, rather than a teacher.
My yoga practice fluctuates (as anyone’s does), but on average I take 3-4 classes per week, which is more than I did before owning the studio. All our teachers are really wonderful, in my opinion, so each week I take classes with different instructors—and get a richer learning experience as a result.
Reach Yoga relies almost exclusively on referrals from current instructors and students to find our teachers. Additionally, quite a few of the graduates of our own teacher training program have become Reach Yoga instructors.
I am not qualified to evaluate our teachers, so I do not. The yoga classes I take are purely for my own health and enjoyment. We offer our students opportunities to provide feedback about classes, and we pass that along (anonymously) to the instructors.
Occasionally, we find that a class isn’t drawing enough students on a regular basis to make it worthwhile for the teacher or the studio. In that case, we might try a different format, drop the class, or let another teacher take a shot at the time slot.
Why did you choose this next act? What other options did you consider?
In my late thirties, I spent two years at Northwestern University completing the coursework for a Ph.D. in Education & Social Policy. While I very much valued what I learned there, ultimately I decided a career in academia was not for me, so I did not complete my doctorate.
Buying a yoga studio was definitely a heart and gut decision, not a logical one. My initial research revealed that even if the studio became wildly successful, it would never make much money. That was disappointing—it seemed silly to give up a lucrative and flexible consulting practice to spend long hours making, at best, a fraction of my income (not to mention the very real risk of losing money).
Ultimately, I decided to do it anyway, and there has not been a single moment of regret. Yoga has given me a lovely new group of friends and a role in our community that I enjoy. The studio is a block from my son’s school. Most importantly, I feel engaged and creatively challenged by the opportunity to offer an incredibly valuable service. Customers walk into class feeling stressed and tense, and leave full of bliss! Over time, the existence of Reach Yoga improves the health of individual students as well as our overall community.
Yoga has given me a lovely new group of friends and a role in our community that I enjoy.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
People were generous with advice and support. Yoga instructors not only agreed to stay on under new ownership but also offered their thoughts on how we could grow. Some dear friends helped brainstorm a list of names, then our team of teachers voted for their favorites.
The former owner of the studio really wanted to see the studio succeed and, if she had not shared her lessons learned, we would not be where we are today.
My husband took up a lot of slack at home, as well as providing input to strategy. And our yoga students showed their faith by continuing to come to the “new” studio, telling their friends about it, and offering suggestions.
What challenges did you encounter?
My main challenge has involved having the patience to let our growth strategy play out over several years. No matter how much yoga is vaunted, wanted, and needed, it takes time for people to integrate new habits into their lives.
Also, I’ve definitely learned to handle small failures. Ideas for how to improve the studio and grow our customer base are plentiful, originating from teachers, students, team members, competitors, business books, and journals. But, out of every ten new things we try, probably eight do not succeed. Fortunately, the ideas that do work have helped us grow to ten times the size we were in 2012 when I took over ownership.
You never know until you try.
The main change I’ve made to Reach Yoga has been to fill our schedule with many more regular weekly classes so that our students have more options from which to choose. We’ve also had successful partnerships with other local businesses and non-profit organizations, including Family Service of Glencoe, North Shore Exchange, Guildhall Restaurant.
Then there are the ideas that didn’t work. We tried offering Pilates classes, but that never appealed to our customer base. We advertised a summer intensive teacher training program (20+ hours per week for 10 weeks), but it turned out prospective yoga teachers preferred fewer hours per week over a longer period. But you never know until you try.
Our space includes a boutique stocking yoga-related apparel and merchandise as well as a nice selection of gift-y items. Often, when I am the one to select the merchandise we carry, I end up owning it. So I rely on our teachers to decide what merchandise to stock. That works better.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Never. Multiple times each week, a student thanks me for keeping the studio open, and compliments our space and wonderful teachers and staff. I never get tired of hearing it. It is very motivating to stay the course.
My family and friends have also been enthusiastic supporters. My college roommate said, “is this the female Princeton grad version of a midlife red sports car?” Probably.
My husband didn’t take a single class for the first year, and then a light bulb clicked on, and he fell in love with the practice. For a while, he took more classes than I did! Now he takes about 1-2 classes per week. Often a “date night” starts with a late afternoon yoga class together.
My daughter (16) has occasionally worked the front desk, which is a great experience. My son (11) sometimes helps out behind the scenes, for example, breaking down cardboard boxes and carrying them out to recycling, or making some simple web page updates.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Don’t assume you must do something related to your past. No matter how radical the departure you are considering, your prior experience may be more relevant than you think. My background in large-scale corporate change management, technology, and instructional design has been solidly applicable to running a tiny yoga studio. Who knew?
My college roommate said “is this the female Princeton grad version of a midlife red sports car?”
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
The yoga world is brimming with talented people who love yoga so much they are willing to work hard for little (or no) compensation. These are your competitors. So… don’t count on making much of a living. That said, it’s fantastic to have yogis as your colleagues, competitors, and customers. They are the nicest people on the planet.
Here are some ways to promote your business, ones that have worked for us at Reach Yoga:
- monthly email newsletter
- social media including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- for yoga beginners, marketing partners such as Groupon
- advertising in Chicago Area Yoga and other yoga-specific venues
- donations to silent auctions
- free events benefiting local non-profits
- postcards advertising new student special at Lululemon, Lucy, etc.
That said, I think many of our students are referred by yoga instructors who teach at Reach.
Multiple times each week, a student thanks me for keeping the studio open
What resources do you recommend?
The Yoga Baron website has been a source of practical advice.
MindBody is a great software that lets us track student payments and visits, sell services online, and track our inventory. It also tells us which class times are most popular and calculates our payroll. MindBody also offers conferences on how to run a yoga or fitness business.
The Yoga Alliance is helpful for yoga studios as well as teachers.
Recently, a book called Why Employees Are Always a Bad Idea influenced me to experiment with a profit-sharing program.
The Inc. magazine blog delivers a lot of great ideas on a daily basis.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
There are still so many creative new things to try! The future of Reach Yoga is exciting.
My next act (someday) is likely to involve educational interventions for underserved populations.