By Michelle Fama
“You live in Los Angeles…but your Pilates studio is in New York?”
People always ask this question when they find out what I do. More often than not, it’s followed immediately by another: “How does that work?” The trick is to organize the studio so well that it practically runs itself.
I moved to Los Angeles for the first time in 2006. My business partner, Kim Villanueva, and I had operated Core Pilates NYC in New York City for three years with much success and decided to launch a second location on the West Coast. I was itching to trade in subways for surfboards, so I packed my life into 15 boxes and bought a one-way ticket. The studio launch required both of us to be in Los Angeles for months at a time, which left the nurture of our three-year-old “baby” on the opposite coast to our admin staff and instructors.
Two very hard years later, we decided to sell the Los Angeles studio. Though the L.A. business venture did not work out, life there did. I finally had a lease, my puppy had neighborhood friends and the surfboard earned permanent wall space in my beach bungalow. But the business I owned was back in New York—even if my heart wasn’t—so I packed up everything (but the surfboard) and headed back East.
Kim and I were surprised at how little the New York studio needed us when we returned. We were like parents trying to bottle-feed something that was used to eating a grilled steak. The studio proved to be a well-oiled machine and sustained not only function but growth in our absence. This realization fueled us to plan to take the studio toward ultimate self-sufficiency. It became clear that with a little operational rehab we could earn a lot of freedom. Kim could take the sabbatical in Spain she had always wanted, and I, thanks to a very supportive and understanding business partner, could officially blow the dust bunnies off the surfboard and make a life along the Pacific once again. The best part is that we could do these things while still knowing and growing our business.
So, whether your goal is deeper business development, to spend more time with your family, to get that master’s degree or to simply step away from the day-to-day, it’s all possible. Your studio can work for you without you. Here are our top strategies for running your studio from afar:
Let Technology Work for You
Technology completely revolutionized our business. It was hard work at first, but installing a studio management software program allows clients to schedule and pay online 24/7, which takes a burden off the front desk. (We use MINDBODY.) It also makes checking sales figures from a remote location a possibility. Revenue is no longer dependent on “catching” a client or making phone calls to collect unpaids. The auto-e-mail feature, which automatically generates welcome emails, last session(s) remaining, package expirations and much more keeps the client outreach and marketing churning without any manual effort or face time. And reports can be easily produced from anywhere. From daily sales to “big spenders,” management, analysis and retention are as easy as a push of a button.
A subscription to a remote computer access service like gotomypc.com or sugarsynch.com allows you access to the studio’s computer from anywhere and share files—it even work with QuickBooks.
A “smart” phone, such as an iPhone or BlackBerry, allows you to access studio e-mail and sync calendars.
We also spent time setting up an online bill-paying service. The service receives all our bills rather than the studio and pays them on time. (We use Paytrust.com.) Now there’s no need for anybody to be present to open up bills, and we can access everything online.
Finally, Skype is wonderful for video conferences—you can sit in on staff meetings without having to be there in person.
Create a Structured, Happy Staff
If you don’t have a front desk or office manager, get one! They’re worth their weight in gold and can even increase sales if you include a sales-incentive bonus. It ensures that someone is on the front lines of the business and will tend to client relations.
Schedule monthly conferences through Skype to keep the lines of communication open and can hear first-hand status updates from teachers about clients and other goings-on.
Designate a senior-level instructor as a “Staff Relations Director” who oversees the team of teachers. That way, you create a management structure rather than having to keep up with every person. Keeping employees happy in your absence is a surefire way of ensuring commitment and that “extra mile.” Allocate a small budget for the Staff Relations Director to organize team-building, such as seasonal or monthly socials, and to buy birthday and shower gifts to keep the mood warm in your absence.
Organize and Establish Routines
Set up routine communication with your studio manager. Propose an end-of-day e-mail—with a template so the information structure is consistent—to discuss sales, complaints, teacher status, etc.
Make checklists so that inventory becomes an automatic no-brainer every month. Create manuals for the front desk or work-study staff so all employees know exactly what is expected. This creates consistency and accountability, making management from afar much easier. Organization is very important; be sure files are in order and labeled neatly and important documents are easily accessible for the staff.
Keep Up With Your Numbers
If you have access to your data from afar, be sure to set up a regular time to get to know your numbers. Checking sales figures, class attendance and bank balances is the best way to gauge the temperature of your business. You don’t want to be caught by surprise if sales are slumping, attendance is down in certain classes or the bank made an error.
Wean Your Clients
One of the biggest hurdles you’ll face is phasing out teaching from your schedule. What to do with those dedicated clients that only want to work with you? What worked well for us was selecting instructors to “shadow” us for a few months. They observed those clients during sessions or classes and, in turn, the clients got to know them as well. When the hand-off took place, everyone was prepared.
Encourage clients to be self-sufficient through online scheduling (see technology above). Offer promotions and discounts exclusively for online purchases.
Define the business by the brand and by your staff of instructors, rather than by your own reputation.
Every small business owner struggles with letting go of control and with micro managing. True, nobody will treat the studio as well as its owner, but it’s about striking a compromise and accepting a level of “not so perfect.” Manage the urge to do everything. Assess which responsibilities you feel comfortable delegating to other people. And once you make your decisions, stick to them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michelle Fama is the co-founder of Core Pilates NYC and is the NYC chapter head for the United Pilates Collective. Prior to establishing her Pilates brand in 2002 and growing it internationally, Michelle lived and adventured extensively through Africa, Southeast Asia, Indonesia and South America as a journalist and travel writer. She has authored guidebooks for Frommer’s and other travel publications and contributed outdoor adventure, travel and Pilates articles to various magazines including Pilates Style, Women’s Health, iyogalife.com, Outside, Away, gorp.com and Island Life.
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