Exactly one year ago, I opened my pole studio, San Francisco Pole and Dance. To celebrate our anniversary, I did what any good data lover would do. I went back, took a look at all the assumptions, financial forecasts and business plans that I’d based my business model on. I wanted to see what I’d gotten right and what I’d gotten wrong. TL;DR: there was a lot of wrong!
While I learn new things about customer behavior, preferences, and leadership or a micro-scale every day, the less tangible themes have been the places with the most surprising learnings. From energy expenditure to “planning” to community, here are a few of the things I think I’ve learned, based on where we are today.
Surprise, surprise perhaps only to me, but running a pole studio, like any small business, is intensely energy consuming. I use the word ‘energy’ instead of ‘time’ because the time is just part of the energy. While I do spend more hours at the studio than I did in my office jobs, I actually don’t spend much more time. Startups and jobs — those are generally time consuming too.
The difference between running a business and working at one is the way the business I own had ended up taking over all mental faculties. When I left my desk at whatever startup I worked at before, my mind would shift to life things. I’d step into the elevator going down to the lobby, and my mind would move on to whatever came next — dinner with friends, that show on Netflix, weekend trips, pole dancing.
From the moment I opened my studio, I found that the mental output doesn’t stop when I leave my studio space. I stand in the elevator, a creaky thing that takes 2 minutes to go down one floor and continue to think deeper about whatever business decision I’d just made. In this way, having a business is how I imagine having kids is. Whether I’m at the studio, on a date with my husband, or reading a book, I think about it. How could I be doing better? What is my 30 day revenue? How could I make that one thing more awesome for that one person? Oh yeah, that girl. Her brow was furrowed when she left. Did she not enjoy class? Why didn’t I ask her?
For the first few months into new small business ownership, I’d try to read books before I went to sleep, as I always do. Three pages in, I’d not know who any of the characters were. I was thinking about my studio. When I’d go on vacation, I’d tap incessantly on my mobile Nest security camera app just to check in. Did the instructor show up? When I went out to dinner with my husband, he’d stare at me after talking and I’d look at him confused. “Did you say something honey?” I’d ask. I was thinking about my business.
And the work never feels done. When I travelled to Prague for Pole Theatre Worlds, I used the fact that I was still on California time to wake up at 2am and audit my studio’s pricing options. It didn’t occur to me to go outside and walk around, enjoy the few days I had in PRAGUE (!). Instead, I crept out of bed where my friend slept soundly, set my laptop up on the hotel bathroom toilet and sat on the cold, white tile of the bathroom floor, doing competitive pricing analyses.
When I went to Boulder Colorado for Pole Theatre USA, I received a text message upon landing that there had been an accident in the studio, and someone had gone to the hospital after a stiletto to the head incident. I spent the next 2 hours interviewing the parties involved in the student’s care before going onstage to compete.
The day of the Golden Gate Pole Championship, an instructor stranded after a cancelled flight meant I had to leave the competition venue, go back to the studio and teach 2 bachelorette parties before competing in the pro division that night.
So again, the energy piece was one of the things that I’d gotten partially wrong. I had foreseen the time commitment but not the energy requirement or the necessity to be always connected by phone and email in order to avert unforeseen challenges.
Another thing I got wrong were the financials. In projections, I assumed that most expenditures, with the exception of software and employees, were static, one time fixed costs. I underestimated the costs of other things like employment taxes, state taxes, shipping for mats, additional insurance when you add height to aerial equipment, contractor costs (just times the quote by 2), etc. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Too, I overestimated people’s ability and willingness to pay for memberships or anything that looks like reoccurring revenue. I don’t mean to generalize this — it is perhaps specific to my studio demographic and location but perhaps not. For example, I assumed that I would have 20 people paying 300$/month for an unlimited membership (a deal for anyone who attends more than 2.5 classes per week regularly). In fact, that number has stayed steady at about 10 for over 6 months. It is 5th on the list in terms of revenue generators. Drop in classes reign supreme, making up over 60% of our revenue. Even for many people in San Francisco, where annual income is one of the highest in the country, there is a high preference, including among people who attend more than 3 classes a week, to pay drop in costs instead of membership rates. This is true even though the classes end up costing more per unit. This was unexpected, and has changed the way I market our different offerings.
❤ Community. Love. ❤
Finally, there’s the love. Over the past year, it has been repeatedly demonstrated to me that part of giving energy is getting it back multiplied. Pole dancing and aerial arts are intimate, exposing forms of movement. Really, what movements style isn’t? Dance is personal, individualized and vulnerable and there is no one right way to do it. I wanted to create a space where people felt good about their bodies and what they could achieve with them. What I set out to build one year ago was first and foremost, community. That focus has never wavered. Beyond the shot in the dark financial projections and guesses, the community was always the most important thing for me to build and if I have gotten one thing right, the community is it.
Every day I walk into the studio and watch new bonds being formed between the people who have made our space their home. I get to see a spark in my students eyes when they do something that they were afraid to do. I get to bear witness to the the triumphs and the failures. I get to see in real time how the work that my instructor team and I do creates a space for people to move in their most intimate ways. Then through competitions and showcases, performances and free dances, I get to watch how we all create art and dance with that individuality.
I too, have grown. How could I not? Each week, I teach, learn, share and dance with hundreds of other people.
When I first started, I reached out to many other studio owners for advice. “Within a month, you’re going to hate pole dancing,” I heard over and over. For many, it seemed, the business side bled into the artistic side and ended up making it feel weighty and tiring. For me, the exact opposite has been true. I don’t know what the difference is. For me, the value of the work — the endless emails, the not-being-able-to-turn-your-brain-off thinking, the perpetual fear of a lackluster Yelp review — it nets positive by the community that the work builds. And I love it.
I love it more than a year ago when we began and I continue to fall more in love with it every day. I don’t always get it right and sometimes, I get it real wrong. But with a relentless focus on building a strong community, I go to work every day and create the world that I want to live in — one where women and men and everyone in between support each other, share knowledge, share dance, and tell our most intimate life truths with our bodies. I could not be more proud of how far we’ve come.