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How to Open a Pilates Business at Home

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Home Pilates studio of Jessie Zalla, Brooklyn, NYJessie Zalla at her home studio in Brooklyn, NY

By Nicole Rogers

At a Pilates workshop in New York recently, I listened as Kathy Grant recounted stories of her training at the studios of Carola Trier and Joseph Pilates. Suddenly I realized that Grant, Trier and Mr. Pilates himself all had home studios. After all, they lived in New York, so space was limited; and Pilates wasn’t intended to be a big moneymaker. For the last decade though, Pilates has gained notoriety and popularity, inspiring large studios all over the country. But many Pilates instructors, for a variety of reasons, still teach at home to a small and loyal following, steps from their kitchens and bedrooms. A few such instructors offered their insight and advice for anyone interested running a Pilates business from home.

Marina Trejo and Jessie Zalla owned a studio, Happy Now Flat Belly, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn for five years. When the rent went up 25 percent and two new studios opened up nearby, they had some tough questions to answer. Their business was successful, and it seemed they could rent a new space that would fit their needs. But since both had large living spaces (a rarity in New York), they agreed that financially it might make more sense to start home studios. In addition, Marina had a young child, and she felt running the business from home would allow her more time with her son. Seven months later, both have thriving home studios and more freedom to control their own schedules.

Lara Hudson, owner of San Francisco’s Mercury Fitness Pilates Center and star of several best-selling DVDs, got her start renting equipment at a small personal training gym with florescent lighting and industrial carpet. That environment lacked the elegance Lara wanted in a Pilates studio, so she set out to find an apartment she could teach from and hit the jackpot—a Victorian apartment with a 400-square-foot front room with it’s own entrance, 14-foot ceilings, hardwood floors and huge bay windows.
    
As opposed to Trejo and Zalla’s situation, where ultimately the home studio ended up being the dream, Hudson’s home business served as a solid stepping-stone to a bustling studio. “Running my home studio definitely helped me to build up enough clientele so that I could take the leap into a larger studio while continuing to generate income both during the build-out and once the new space had actually opened,” she said.

Amy Goins’ story is similar. She started teaching Pilates in her sunroom with only mat classes and eventually one Wunda chair. She has since turned that business into Centered Pilates Studio, Charleston, WV’s first full-service Pilates studio.

Family and Pets
One thing that all of these women have in common is an extremely supportive spouse. It would be nice if everyone took Pilates Monday through Friday between the hours of 10 am and 5 pm, but the truth is that your family may have to tiptoe to the shower in the morning or eat dinner quietly in the other room, depending on the setup of your home space. It’s important to make sure the other members of your family are prepared for this lifestyle—essentially to have their home turned into a place of business.

Though teaching from home does allow for more time at home with your family, there must be boundaries. As adorable as your five-year-old is, your client is paying for your time, and someone else will have to take care of your child for that hour. Trejo has the support of her husband and a part-time nanny to take her son out of their loft while she’s teaching.

Pets are part of the family as well. Some clients may have allergies or just dislike animals. Zalla’s two cats have free reign of the house. “I tell every new client that I have cats and if they are allergic or just plain hate cats then this might not be a good fit for them,” she said. But some people love animals and may prefer your home studio because of your furry friends. Goins’ clients looked forward to her cat Max greeting them at the door.

Think about how your animals act around strangers and people at the door. If necessary, animals can be confined to another room, and dogs can go to daycare on the days you teach. This doesn’t eliminate the allergy problem, but it does take care of curious cats and barking dogs that can distract from your session. The more you teach at home though, the more your spouse, children, pets and clients will learn to respect each other’s space.

Privacy and Professionalism or “How to avoid a bedroom that feels like a Pilates studio and a Pilates studio that feels like a bedroom”
Figuring out how to integrate a Pilates area into your home really depends on the layout of your living space. Trejo built a wall in her house to separate the Pilates studio from the living space, Goins hung a curtain between the studio and the kitchen, and Zalla likes the aesthetic of the Pilates studio in her home, keeping it open so the whole space is visible. There are some universal truths however. The space must be extremely clean and free of clutter at all times. Stacks of cds, scraps of paper, mail, clothing, all must be put away and organized. Pilates is a study of the mind-body connection after all, and clutter does nothing to help concentration.

Trejo, who loves to cook, stocks up on candles to help eliminate food smells. “I have to make sure the dishes are done the night before and the space is aired out,” she said. “I have ceiling fans.” Trejo also keeps the tone of her studio professional, creating an atmosphere that promotes her privacy and the privacy of her family. “I don’t show anyone my bedroom. They use a bathroom, they come, and they go. No one is sitting around afterward having a cup of tea. It’s a balancing act in that I’m inviting people over to my house. I’m pretty selective about the people coming here,” she says. A good client will respect your space for the home it is. And a separate entrance for your studio space doesn’t hurt either!

Zoning and Insurance

Zoning laws for home business vary depending on where you live, and it’s an important issue to look into. Some housing developments zone homes as live/work, which is perfect for a home studio. The same goes for apartments. If you find a live/work space, your zoning concerns are minimal. Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to have that situation. If you rent, maintaining a relationship with your landlord is important. If you can be honest and upfront about your business you will eliminate a lot of stress.

And don’t forget your neighbors! Happy neighbors are good for the home and the business. If people drive to your studio, you need to be very conscious of parking. Pilates is a low-impact business, but parking in someone else’s spot can cause high-impact problems.

Hudson offers great insight from her own experience with zoning and business licensing. “Because many people now telecommute and work from home either part or full-time, the zoning laws are somewhat ambiguous (at least in California) as to who can do business in their home. So check your city’s guidelines for zoning laws particular to where you live. But it is imperative that you procure a business license and liability insurance for your home space—I insured my space but neglected to get a business license, so when I opened a bigger studio at a new location, the city retroactively invoiced me for the business license fees I had not paid during the years I had worked from home. So definitely set that up beforehand!”

Renter’s, homeowner’s or business insurance needs to cover your equipment, computer and anything else you buy for your business. Check with your insurer about your individual situation. As a Pilates instructor you should always have liability insurance, especially when teaching from home.

Marketing
Our home studio owners generally agreed that word of mouth and referrals are the best method of marketing for a home studio. Have business cards on hand for those moments when a friend of a friend asks about your business at a dinner party. Teaching a mat class at a local gym is fun, and a great way to market yourself in your neighborhood. Give your friends some free sessions so they can sing your praises around town. Hudson’s home business tripled in the first year by word of mouth alone!

That said, please exercise caution here. Anyone contacting you through a website could be just that—anyone. Just because Betsy calls to set up a session doesn’t mean that a predator won’t show up in her place. Teach to people you know, or at least people you have met a few times or friends of friends, and use common sense, especially if you live alone.

Pricing and Profit
If you can afford your rent or house payment now, you will make a profit on your home business. Don’t rent or buy something you can only afford if you have, say, five clients a day. The last thing you want to risk is your home! The beauty of the home studio is the financial aspect—low overhead. If you can already afford your home, any sessions you bring in will be profit, and building the clientele slowly by word of mouth will be fine. However, you should still set goals and write a business plan. You will be happy you did in the long run.

Everyone I interviewed charged essentially the same price at their in-home studio as they would in a regular studio, making the home studio pretty lucrative. This of course depends on what kind of equipment you have, and what services you offer.

And don’t forget that any renovations, Internet, phone, a cleaning service, etc. are all tax write-offs!

Equipment
Take time to research the best equipment for your space. Choose the brand of equipment you like teaching on, and take full advantage of the new convertible styles. Do you want to teach duets, semi-privates or just private sessions? Choose equipment that will allow you the most possible options for teaching. This is probably the biggest expense for your home studio, so consider it very carefully.

The Pros and Cons
The women I interviewed generally agreed about the biggest pros and cons of having a home studio. Working from home allows you to be your own boss and manage your own schedule, you can get things done at home between clients, and financially there is very little overhead, so you see profits right away. The flipside of that is the danger of becoming a hermit and the loss of privacy. Working and living in the same place requires the discipline to force yourself out of the house every day to do…something. Teaching alone and seeing many of the same clients every week means that continuing education is even more important than usual for someone with a home studio.

It also requires a rather large commitment from your family. Having people into your home daily is stressful. Have you ever sold a house? Remember the open houses and the realtor bringing people through every few days? Remember how clean the house had to be kept at all times? Now imagine that every day. Trejo put it this way, “[Having a home studio] seems so easy. But then on a Sunday night when you know you have to wake up the next morning and the house has to look a certain way, it can be really stressful; especially if you’re in a relationship with anyone else, and their schedule. You have to ask yourself if it is something you can handle emotionally, physically, mentally.”

Leaving Home

If having a commercial studio is your eventual goal, having a home studio is a great, low-risk way to start your business. Goins and Hudson both carried a healthy clientele successfully from home studio to a larger studio space outside of their homes. Though a few clients will always be attached to your home space, and some may not find your new location as convenient, the majority will follow as long as you uphold the same high standards at your new place of business. Goins made an effort to make her new studio space feel as “homey” and comfortable as her home studio did.

Hudson explains how her home studio helped her to transition to a larger studio. “I learned that if you are looking to eventually open a commercial studio, it’s important to do things by the book, learn about city guidelines and regulations, and learn how to manage your schedule and your time. Running a large studio and staff is much different than having your own home space, but you can make the transition if you are organized, have a solid vision and plan, and possess the discipline to see your vision through. Your home space is the first step you can take in expressing who you are as a trainer, what you believe in and why you are unique, a cut above your peers!”

Nicole Rogers is a Pilates instructor and writer. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Reader Comments (10)

This article is well written, informative, and very pertinent to the current economics. I started in a home studio. Many of the comments made me laugh when I remembered rushing to clean the space and the living area...Almost pretending that no one really lived there. While I hope that things change to benefit thriving Pilates studios, it is more important that good teachers can thrive and continue service. It was good to remember that Joe live in his home!

Thanks,
Pat

October 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPat Guyton

What a great, exhaustive article! Jessie was one of my teachers when I got certified. She is truly an amazing teacher, I would do Pilates with her in a windowless basement!

I opened my own home studio 2 years ago. We looked for a while and found the perfect house, zoned for both commercial and residential use. My studio is 400 suare feet and has it's own entrance, bathroom and closets. Therefore a complete separation between living and working space is easy.

I see between 35 and 40 clients per week, starting as early as 6:30 AM and finishing as late as 9:30 PM, so working in my home has allowed me the freedom to be with my family between lessons.

Safety is definitely an issue when working alone in your home. I only schedule new clients during the times my husband is home.
Having children and pets in the house is also an issue. My pets are not allowed in the studio and so far no clients have complained about allergies. My son is always at school or with a babysitter while I am teaching. He does come in from time to time to say hello, but my clients don't mind the occasional brief visit.
I try to create a homey athmosphere with aromatherapy and flowers and by offering tea, water and other beverages. I do not however, invite clients into my actual living space. Separating the studio from my home is key to maintaining sanity. When I walk through the door into my living room, I am truly no longer at work.

When running a business with clients in your home, homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance will most likely not cover you. You'll need an umbrella policy and additional liability insurance, which can run as much as $1000 per year. It makes sense to speak with a good insurance broker, who can determine your needs and find the perfect policy for you.

October 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMary Ann Naar

Great article. I also have a home studio and although at times it presents problems and at times I am combing the classifieds for reasonably priced space, it works out for me much better than renting. I can keep my prices low and I can choose to work fewer hours since my overhead is low.

We bought our house in Southern Cal. right at the top of the market (of course!) but we picked this house because it has a huge front bedroom that was large enough to host two reformers, a Cadillac and a Wunda Chair. If we hadn't found this house odds are we would still be rening!

My girls are older so small kids are not a problem but my old black dog can sometimes be an issue. Usually I keep her in the garage but everyone once in awhile I don't have the time to move her and she ends up right in the studio. I always manage to get her out, but usually I have to drag her away which tends to cause a lot of laughter from my clients. Fortunately, most of my clients love dogs.

A home studio isn't for everyone and there are some clients who will not come to a home studio so you have to decide if it is right for you and your business goals. At this stage of my life and with the economy so weak right now, I love being home and I find that the benefits certainly outweight the disadvantages.

October 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDevra Swiger

I also have a home-based studio and am fortunate enough that it has its own entrance and its own bathroom, even though the space is only around 12x14! The mirrored closet doors on one side and a wall mirror on the other helps with the sense of space and streamlined Allegro/Tower equipment also helps. The thing about "strangers" coming to the house does worry me a little bit, but I always inform new clients that I have dogs - and even though they're blocked from the room, they can still see in and be seen by clients - maybe a deterrant, maybe not. My biggest issue is not accepting a credit card deposit for intro sessions. Personal credit card machines and associated fees are too expensive for me at this point (my fees are a little under market, mostly because I do work at home and have no overhead) and even though I make reminder calls, I get intros who "forget" to come! Anyone else exprience this in a home studio?

October 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterluann

A wonderful read!
Thanks for reminding us Nicole that great things often start small. I began Real Pilates (then Tribeca Bodyworks) in my living room in 1995. Almost 14 years later, I can still remember my poor husband peeking out from the bedroom door seeing if it was safe for him to come out and shower!

I loved my home studio and the small commercial space that followed it. And for completely different reasons, love my big studio which allows me to be away from work and with my beautiful daughters while it runs all day long.

No matter which formula you settle on, there are dozens of ways to make it work!

Alycea Ungaro
Real Pilates, NYC

October 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAlycea Ungaro

Luann:

I have the same concern as you do regarding first time clients who don't shop up or cancel at the last minute. One suggestion for you is to set up a Pay-Pal account. This will allow you to accept credit cards w/o having to maintain a credit card machine. I personally have yet to do this, but I am certainly thinking about it.

October 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDevra Swiger

Debra,
I'll go to paypal and see how this will work. I have a paypal account that I pay other vendors (Ebay, etc.) from that is linked to my checking account, so it should be able to work in reverse. Question is, will people really do that - go to paypal, set up their own account, and actually reserve their session financially. Business is so slow right now, that I don't want any potential stumbling blocks to prevent someone from coming to me! Thanks for the suggestion!

October 30, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterluann

I have used paypal to accept credit cards. You use the clients credit card number, thier address, phone number and e-mail press enter. Simple as that. They dont need an account but there is a three percent fee. The account is different than the basic account to pay venders but you may be able to upgrade easily

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermelissa

Very informative article and something I would considering as I practice Pilate's. Home based business's relating to better health is definitely on the rise.

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersuzanne scholl

Great article! I am highly considering opening a home based pilates studio as well. I have been teaching pilates for 13 yrs and have a huge following. I have already had 2 opportunities with 2 separate investors who approached me to open up a commercial studio but they have both backed out on me. I find that I cannot trust anyone anymore and if I'm ever going to have my own studio one day, I have to do it myself! And since I do not have the money to start big, I might as well start small. I just want to know, how long did it take before you were able to make enough $ to finally open a commercial studio. That is my ultimate dream!

February 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPattie Techera

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