“Not Everyone is your Customer…and That’s OK” Words of Wisdom with Christa Gurka

“Creating a niche market and truly understanding WHO your customer is (and how they think) will yield much higher returns when budgeting where and how to spend your marketing dollars. It’s like Meredith Hill said: “If you speak to everyone, then you speak to no one.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Christa Gurka, an orthopedic physical therapist who specializes in corrective Pilates-based wellness. Christa owns, operates and teaches at Pilates In The Grove, two premier South Florida Pilates studios, where she works with clients of all ages and fitness levels to help them achieve optimal health. Since its inception seven years ago, Christa’s businesses have exceeded industry standards with double-digit year-over-year growth.

Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I trace my drive and inspiration to excel — in business and in life — directly back to my mother, the epitome of a true American success story. An immigrant who arrived in this country as a teenager with no college degree, she not only raised my siblings and me on her own, but instilled in us a tremendous work ethic. Demonstrating what hard work looked like on a daily basis, my mom worked tirelessly to provide for us (not to mention showed up for every school and sporting event without fail). And despite our financial circumstances, her unwavering strength and determination allowed us to receive top educations and chase our dreams.

My Mom’s love, support, encouragement and fierce work ethic helped shape me into the mother, leader and business owner that I am today. And that drive not only pushed me to create a financially independent life for myself and my family, but to build something that would help others meet their personal and professional goals as well. Pilates in the Grove is a company built entirely of 15 strong and empowered women that challenge and learn from each other daily. It is never lost on me the path that it took me to get here, and the impact my mother had on that process. My mother and grandmothers worked too hard for me not to be successful.

Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?

One of my first years in business, we had a client who regularly attended classes and private sessions with us. She was a fitness instructor’s dream client — kind, punctual, humble, hardworking, committed — plus she referred her mom and sister to us too. I noticed that she’d always sneak quietly out of class a few minutes early, so one day I asked her about it. Turns out, she would do a baby swap with her husband so he could work out after her class. Of course I suggested to her that instead of going elsewhere to work out after their swap, he could give Pilates a try.

On the first day of this new arrangement, she headed downstairs and said that her husband would be up for class shortly. Next thing I know, in walks one of Hollywood’s biggest superstars. I almost passed out. It took me a little while to register what was going on and that he was the husband. Apparently my whole staff knew who she was, but I truly had no idea. Needless to say, I was treating a movie star’s wife for almost a year without knowing it.

Yitzi: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company stands out because we are far more than a traditional fitness studio that tries to help you drop a few pounds or cut your body fat. We harness our extensive backgrounds and educations to identify each client’s “why.” We talk and listen to them about where they are and where they want to go. Next we structure a program tailored to their individual needs. And then we guide and support them on that journey. Our company-wide mission is simple: to help our clients become better versions of themselves through positive movement and mindful breathing. Our brilliant clinical staff is comprised of not only fitness instructors, but also experts who hold masters and doctorate degrees in physical therapy and movement science.

A story I like to share is about a gentleman who walked through our doors at well over 300 pounds. He was understandably intimated and fearful to join a fitness studio populated with relatively healthy and fit people. But we worked with him to provide a comfortable and encouraging environment where he could move forward one step at a time at his own pace. He has since lost more than 150 pounds, and continues to attend weekly sessions with us. I truly believe that it is our personalized, strategic approach that keeps our businesses thriving.

Yitzi: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I certainly agree that success is not achieved in isolation, and I am grateful to say that there have been a number of positive forces — from my team to business coaches to mentors and colleagues — who helped me get to where I am today.

But, if I had to choose one person who has been most instrumental in my success, it would be my husband Scott. Since day one, he has been by my side, leaning in and supporting me, walking each step of this journey alongside me. He’s installed equipment, changed light bulbs and helped with photo shoots. He’s shared advice on proposals and assisted in figuring out QuickBooks (when I was still doing payroll and reconciling the books myself). He gives me feedback when I ask for it, encouragement when I need it and praise with every accomplishment. But most of all, Scott has been an equal partner at home, allowing me to work early mornings and late nights at times, so I could grow this brand to where it is today.

Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Besides what we do on a daily basis — which I believe brings good to the world by helping people feel better about themselves — I am very proud of the work we do in and around the Miami community. As the product of a single-parent household, it has always been important to me to help kids and families who need assistance.

At both of our Pilates In The Grove locations, we offer donation-based community classes, wherein we donate 100% of the proceeds to two non-profits close to my heart. The first is The Barnyard of Coconut Grove, a neighborhood community center that offers a safe space for kids to learn, play, connect and share. My siblings and I attended schools that offered care before and after school while my mom worked long hours, but many families in my area do not have that option. The Barnyard Community Center, where we’ve sponsored kids to attend summer camp, provides after-school programming for families who need it.

We also support the efforts of Breakthrough Miami, an academic enrichment program that provides motivated elementary and middle-school students from underserved areas with the tools they need succeed. In addition to sponsoring a scholar for a year, I have been instrumental in helping the organization raise money. I am a direct product of programs like Breakthrough Miami, that afforded me the opportunity to receive a private school education due to their financial aid programs, and I was also able to attend a top university because of their continued financial assistance. I am eternally grateful for the opportunities that my education has afforded me.

Most recently, I have begun speaking nationally to small business owners about how to create, cultivate and sustain a successful business in the fitness space. I feel that it is my duty to pay it forward, and help other small businesses — many of whom are women-owned — scale and grow. There is room on the top of the mountain for plenty of us, and I am out there trying to help more reach their peak.

Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my Start-Up” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Investing in your business is a crucial piece of the equation. The old adage “It takes money to make money” holds real value in the world of small business success, especially when you are looking to grow and scale. As a new business owner several years ago, I remember being so scared to spend money. I skimped on anything that I felt wasn’t absolutely necessary to keep the doors open. It was suffocating. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over years it’s this: if you’re unwilling to invest in your own business, then why should anyone else? I understand the spending is scary, but it is vital. And when targeted effectively, can dramatically improve your bottom line.

2. The path to success is not always a straight line. Creating a business plan, setting goals, working toward them and achieving success does not always follow the shortest, easiest or straightest path. You will have set backs, speed bumps, roadblocks and detours along the way. At some point, you will likely feel as if you are swimming upstream. But eventually you find the right path. I have made — and continue to make — a mountain of mistakes, but the path I am on continues to move up the grid even though it may not be straight. In the end, YOU are going to have to blaze your own trail. Just don’t be so focused on the finish line that you forget to enjoy the journey.

3. Not everyone is your customer…and that’s ok. Creating a niche market and truly understanding WHO your customer is (and how they think) will yield much higher returns when budgeting where and how to spend your marketing dollars. It’s like Meredith Hill said: “If you speak to everyone, then you speak to no one.”

4. Invest in people and develop systems. The people you hire are certainly integral to the success of any business. But having the right people without a solid set of systems can be a recipe for disaster. When the team and the infrastructure are equally strong, businesses will generally operate at a high rate of effectiveness.

5. Sometimes you have to just bet on yourself. Each day we have choices and decisions to make, and whether big or small, they create opportunities for us to bet on or against ourselves.

One way you bet against yourself is when you say yes to something, but deep down want to say no. I read once that if you aren’t saying “hell, yeah”, then it should be a no. I have been working hard to incorporate this into my business practice. While it can be challenging at times, saying no has also been very helpful. Get rid of the guilt because as your prioritize your life, you are clearing the way for you to rock the things that really matter. Plus, no amount of betting against yourself is going to help you achieve your dreams.

On the other hand, when you bet on yourself, you take a chance. You are trusting your gut, your instincts and your decision-making process. And when you bet on yourself, you give yourself the chance to win. And win big!

Of course there will be times when the house wins. But remember: the path to success is not a straight line. Rather than looking at these instances as failures, let’s look at them as opportunities for growth, development and learning. Betting on yourself opens you up up to bigger and better opportunities. It gives you permission to chase after your dreams, instead of constantly hedging your bets.

Yitzi: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

I would love to sit down with Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, the founders of SoulCycle. Intrigued by their story for years, the first thing I’d want to know is how they went from a one-studio operation (with a rickshaw outside for marketing) to a strategic partnership with Equinox. I am so curious about how these two powerfully intelligent boss ladies managed to navigate the ever-changing fitness community and revolutionize the industry. On top of that, they were perfect strangers who worked together to develop an iconic brand and culture. I am sure it was not without its downfalls and challenges, but I would love to know how they got past those moments and stayed the course.

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