7 Lessons I Learned from My Mom About Entrepreneurship

My mom with a student from her ballet company.

When my mother was a little girl she wanted to dance and she wanted to paint. Her father told her she could do neither. Instead, she would become a doctor. She rebelled, dropped out of school, married my dad when she was 19, and gave birth to three boys.

As my brothers and I got older, Mom started taking dance classes on her own. She loved it and was really good at it. The owner of a small ballet studio asked if she wanted to teach a class of her own. She did, and not long after, the owner skipped town, taking the students’ tuition for the rest of the year with her and leaving the responsibility of managing the business to my mother.

Over the next nine years my mother grew the school from less than 50 students to over 1,000, managing over 100 classes each week, producing world-class performances, and building a reputation so good that she sold the company to the official school of the Pennsylvania Ballet. I got to watch how she did it. Here are some lessons I picked up along the way.

Be creative. Creativity helps you see opportunities in difficulty. My mother noticed the girls coming to classes often were dropped off with their brothers in tow. Most of the boys didn’t want to take dance, but they had nowhere else to go. She got my dad to teach karate classes for the boys — he learned karate as a boy himself and enjoyed teaching others. Before too long, the entire family had a reason to spend hours at mom’s studio. The girls would learn dance, the boys would learn karate, and the parent’s lives became much easier.

My mother’s Nutcracker featured boys doing karate during the fight scene between the Rat King and the Prince. Marrying the performing arts with the martial arts was not only a good business decision, it also created a spectacular performance.

Go all-in (but think hard before betting the house). Some people think entrepreneurship is sexy. It’s not. It requires tireless and sometimes thankless work. You have to be committed 110% in order for the business to have a shot. As long as it is a labor of love, you can do this, but I learned from my mom that there can be limits.

As the business grew, my mom had to take increasingly bigger risks. By the second year, she moved from a 700 square foot studio into a 3,000 square foot space. This growth required higher fixed costs in rent, and higher levels of stress. By the fourth year, she needed to expand again. She decided to knock down the walls of a vacant adjacent space and to build a custom 5,000 square foot studio. The landlord was cool with it, on one condition — she needed to put her house up as collateral. Even after she sold the business, the dark cloud of losing her home hung over her until the term of the lease was up under the new owners. I’m not sure if she would do it again if given the opportunity.

Sweat the small stuff. My mother knew everything about her business and paid special attention to every detail. She knew the measurements of each girl and handpicked every costume herself. She did sound checks hours before each performance and went to every corner of the auditorium to ensure the sound was right for everyone in attendance.

Treat and pay the team well. Mom sought out the best teachers and paid well above market wages to keep them. She understood that quality matters and if you want to create a name for yourself, you have to invest in providing the best product or service available and that means having the best team working with you.

Doing right pays off. My mom believed that growing the bottom line was not the end-all-be-all. Helping to instill values like honesty, discipline, and teamwork in the girls was most important and was what kept her passionate about the work year after year.

The recession of the early ’90s hit some of the families of her students hard. Many parents let her know that they had to pull their kids out since they could no longer afford tuition. My mom always responded the same way, “Don’t worry about it. Pay when you can.” She never turned a single student away because their parents could not afford it. Building community was more important than short term financial gain. But this ultimately paid off anyway. The economy eventually turned and the parents became paying customers again, never forgetting what my mother did for them. Mom understood that doing the right thing is always the best business decision.

Be yourself. My mom was not without her detractors. Her competitors badmouthed her as not having been “classically trained” or a professional dancer. It never changed her. The more traditional training of her competitors was also less interesting. My mom’s grit came through in everything she did and it inspired her students to also break outside the mold and to test their own limits. It created a competitive advantage that set my mother’s brand apart.

Never give up. The ballerina works through the pain of blisters, practicing a single routine again and again until it is perfect. The entrepreneur is no different. They make mistakes. They fall flat. But they get back up again. No matter what, they keep moving. My mother would not take ‘no’ for an answer, even if it came from someone whom she loved and respected, like her father.

The story for my mom doesn’t end with selling the company. She retired with my dad and moved to Florida where the colors inspired her to take up painting late in life. Turns out she’s really good at that too. Today her artwork hangs in some of the best galleries in the nation and in homes around the world.

Happy Mother’s Day, Ma. I love you and I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from watching you and now try to emulate as I work to grow a business of my own.