7 lessons from the corporate world—for dance studios

Think the corporate world and the dance studio biz have nothing in common? Think again.

As owners of businesses firmly rooted in the art of dance, it may be hard to imagine that business practices from the finance or marketing worlds can apply directly to what you do. After all, aren’t investment bankers and MBA graduates pure numbers people, with an eye solely on the bottom line, no matter the creative cost? Yet savvy studio owners know that important lessons can be gleaned from those with corporate skills. In fact, more than a few studios have found success by bringing partners with these strengths into their businesses. DT spoke to three women—a former accountant, a brand manager and an investment banker—and asked what were the most important business practices they brought with them from the corporate world. See your students as the customers they are.

“What do they want? Why are they coming back to you every year?” says Niari Keverian, who’s worked for Staples and Welch’s—as new stores and senior label analyst and assistant brand manager, respectively. “Listen to your customers.”

Now the business manager and a faculty member at Nicole’s Studio of Dance in Waltham, Massachusetts, she’s done a thorough study of the school’s clientele and shaped the studio’s approach accordingly. “We’re not a competition school,” she says. “The kids we have, they’re not the competitive type. So we don’t appeal to that. They just want to perform. And they want to have great experiences and opportunities.”

To fill that need, Keverian has worked hard to bring in high-caliber guest artists, like “So You Think You Can Dance” finalist Jaimie Goodwin, and make the end-of-year recital a big deal. “Our recitals are more of a production that we invite the community to come watch,” she says. “We spend a lot of money and use state-of-the-art equipment.”

Be on top of bill collections.

“It’s important to keep an eye on your receivables,” says Brenda Lougheed, an accountant who is now the business director of Florida School for Dance Education in Palm Beach Gardens. “Don’t let anything go past 30 days—that has ruined a lot of businesses in this industry. Families do get into financial crises, but you can’t set a precedent” that will run your business into the ground.

Live by a budget.

Lougheed keeps careful tabs on the artistic directors’ studio spending. “Sometimes they want to buy a costume for $400, but there’s a costume that can do the same job for $200,” she says. She works closely with the directors to formulate a budget and then makes sure they stick by it. “When they go outside of those guidelines,” she says, “you can bring it to a discussion table.” She doesn’t interfere with the artistic side of the business, she points out: “I just watch to make sure everything is staying in line with what we can afford. And we do very well.”

Build it before you need it.

Remember that growth is great—but it’s expensive. Planning ahead gives you room to build up your systems and work out kinks before you take a leap forward. “Build your payroll system, get a good bookkeeping system in place,” says Tatiana Webb, a former investment banker who now heads the in-school ballroom dance program Dancing Classrooms New England. “Just because you’re small enough now to do it in the back of a notebook doesn’t mean you’ll always be able to.” Establish good habits early.

For instance, “Try to keep the fixed cost aspect of your business as low as you can,” says Webb, who spent a lot of time when she was in finance looking at the inside of other companies, learning what tactics kept them on firm ground. Controlling fixed costs is easier than ever for dance studios to do now: Rent your space out, farm out your time and your teachers’ time outside of the studio.

Take a professional approach to hiring.

At Dancing Classrooms, applicants are required to submit a resumé and cover letter and undergo an interview. “That’s been extremely important for us,” says Webb, “because our program is just as much about modeling professional behavior as it is about teaching. Your studio is only going to be as good as the people you hire. We view it very much as a corporate job.”

Run your studio like a start-up.

Webb, who eventually went on to earn her MBA, suggests treating your studio like the small business it is. “Experiment,” she says. “Fail fast, fail often. Be realistic about what is and isn’t working. You have to be systematic about testing things out and unsentimental about cutting your losses when you know things aren’t working.” Whether it’s a project, person or system that isn’t gelling, recognize that it’s not working and find a way to move on.

Take your business outside its four walls.

“Our studios today don’t look like the ones we trained in,” Webb says. “The landscape is incredibly different. Use the tools at your disposal.” She cites social media and the sharing economy—with tools like the communication platform Slack, which studio owners can use to streamline their many types of interactions and media sharing with faculty and staff—as hallmarks of a new business era. To give your studio staying power, keep current with new business ideas, and take advantage of apps and tools that can give your small business the power of a much bigger one.

Remember: Having a strictly business approach isn’t the answer—your artistic strengths are an important part of the equation, too. It’s the combination of corporate-minded practices and your own brand of dance creativity that will make your studio truly sparkle. DT

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