Teaching Tips

How to Open Your Own Studio After Spending Years Teaching for Others

Jessica Kubat (center) with her studio staff. Photo by Vincent Alongi, courtesy of Kubat

Jessica Kubat's path to becoming a studio owner wasn't typical or glamorous or the product of a family business, handed down. When she opened MJ's House of Dance in Lindenhurst, New York, this past summer, she had just turned 40, was a mom of three, and had worked at two different studios long-term. Over the last two and a half years, she'd painstakingly saved up $25,000 and had gone to the Small Business Development Center at a local college on Long Island for help creating her business plan. Her area was moderately saturated with studios, so she spent considerable time planning what would set her school apart—live musical accompaniment, for one—and hired a marketing director nine months before the business even opened. It was a methodical, careful approach—Kubat calls it "the old-fashioned way"—to opening a studio, and it's paid off: She started summer classes with 75 students and is well on her way to reaching her first-year enrollment goal of 250 dancers. "When I turned 40, I decided that it was time to do something bigger," says Kubat. "I always wanted to own a studio—it was just never financially available to me."

Getting into the nitty-gritty: the business plan

Kubat was surprised by how detailed the financial aspect of her business plan needed to be. "You have to go into every little detail," she says. "What your goal is (how many students you want to have), how much space you'll need for that many students, how much money is going to come in from those students." Because she knew she wanted to create a competition team during her first year of operation, she needed a separate financial plan for that entity, considering those dancers take many more classes than the average once-per-week student, at discounted rates.

Though she says it was easy to imagine what her studio and students would look like and what her performances might be like, it was much more difficult to figure out the nitty-gritty financials. "I knew I wanted to use live music, but how was I going to pay those [music] artists?" she says. "I wanted to bring in professional lighting, too, and stereo equipment, and to have high-end flooring." These costs added up quickly, she says—and exceeded what she'd expected to spend.

Setting her prices required some reconnaissance. "Part of the business plan was that I had to look at three other studios' pricing, and they had to be within 10 miles of my location," says Kubat. "We created our pricing taking into consideration what theirs was and also what we thought would work for us."

Delegating when needed: the marketing plan

Kubat understood the importance of marketing in building clientele (and revenues) for the studio. And she knew she needed someone with experience to take the lead on that important part of the studio's future. She hired Jacqueline Costello, who'd graduated from Pace University with a degree in communications and a minor in business administration, as her marketing and assistant director. Costello proposed a marketing plan modeled after that of a new dance competition she knew about.

"Originally, we did a lot of organic marketing," says Costello. "We posted in local Facebook groups, because Jess is from the area. There's one day a week where businesses from the area can post in the groups." Costello also did a mailer campaign targeted to women in Lindenhurst, ages 18 to 55 ("We wanted to hit the grandparents, as well," she says), and a Google Ads campaign. "I looked at our analytics and the people we'd hit organically," she says, "and then created a lookalike campaign in Google Ads. With that, I'm hitting specific people in a 15-mile radius, and their calls are sent directly to Jess' cell phone. She has a Google telephone number that she pays for, which allows her to actively answer phone calls [that are forwarded]." Costello and Kubat also invited the local radio station to come down during the studio's grand opening and say a few words about the studio from on-site.

Setting her studio apart: the longevity plan

From the very beginning, Kubat wanted to make sure MJ's House of Dance had something to set it apart from other local studios. Every class has live musical accompaniment (ballet, for example) or an on-site DJ for hip-hop and adult fitness classes. "It's really fun, and it adds so much," she says. "You're feeling the music, and not just [she intones robotically] dancing...to...the...music. There's so much more to be said for a dancer who really understands that relationship."

She was determined, too, that her studio would exist firmly in the 21st century. Kubat set up a YouTube channel for her studio so she could post videos of the dancers performing class combos or choreography. "Kids are so into their phones," she says. (Studies confirm that YouTube is the most popular social-media platform among Gen Z 18- to 24-year-olds.) "We'll post the dances we do weekly so they can go back and practice and show their family members and friends: 'Look what we did in contemporary!'"

Another unique marketing strategy of MJ's House of Dance is its student-ambassador program. Members are student teachers for specific classes, for which they receive a stipend, but they're also in charge of introducing themselves and the studio to new dancers. Kubat asks the 25 ambassadors to post pictures on their social-media platforms in studio apparel, highlighting their enrollment at MJ's. At local events that the studio takes part in, the ambassadors may hand out "Wow" cards to encourage kids to join the studio. "The cards say, 'Wow, we think you're really special,'" says Kubat. "The idea is that the ambassadors introduce themselves to new people who they think would be wonderful to dance with us."

Despite this being only year one of MJ's House of Dance, Kubat is already looking to where she'll go from here. Her five-year plan (which was a part of her business plan) includes owning her own building and having 10 to 15 teachers/staff members. But mentorship is perhaps her most important goal for the future. "My ultimate dream is to see my staff own their own studios," she says. "I wish I'd had more people support me on my journey. The hardest part for me was breaking away from working for someone else, but I knew it was something I had to do—because I knew I could be good at it."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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