I first taught dance at the high school where I worked as an English teacher. I’d danced my entire life and had a degree in theater. I used to take some of the kids to Roland Dupree’s professional dance center in California, and he kept urging me to open up my own studio. When my son was born, I thought being a studio owner might make for an easier time raising a child. (Little did I know!) I opened my studio in Phoenix, Arizona, 34 years ago with 75 students, and I’ve built it up slowly to about 500 students.
I had to learn that running a business required much more than being passionate about teaching dance. At first, I couldn’t stand collecting money from people. Maybe this was because I’d been teaching dance in a public school, where you don’t charge for classes. I kept equating running my studio with volunteering as a Girl Scout leader or coaching a peewee softball team. Having a business working with children where you charge a price was a rough concept for me. In hindsight, I wish I’d thought about pediatricians. They work with children, and they don’t volunteer—they make money! But I didn’t think that way then. I hired someone to collect the money, so that I didn’t have to face it.
Learning Not to Work for Free
My initial business plan was slim. I had tuition revenue, but I did everything extra for free. For instance, I choreographed everyone’s solos for competition at no charge. Then I began listening to other dance teachers. I learned that to run a successful business you need to get your income from several different sources, not just tuition. You need to understand that your time—or a staff member’s—is money. To choreograph a solo, you charge a fee. And when you stop choreographing and have another teacher create the solos, you still need to make sure that you’re getting a fee.
I never used to charge anything extra for conventions, either. But then I’d kill myself getting everything ready. When I began to tack on administrative fees, I was nervous—all the convention fees were published, and the parents would know I’d charged extra.
But it’s important to be aware of the standard practices in your market. I learned that other studio owners were already doing that, and I knew I could go back and tell that to parents. Even the phrase “tack on” is misleading, since it sounds like I’m doing something underhanded. What I’m actually doing is adding on fees to cover the services my studio provides. I’m transparent with parents that I add fees for something like fitting and ordering costumes. But I’m not specific about how much—I give a range.
Being up-front and unapologetic about charges doesn’t mean you have to divulge every single financial detail to parents. I’m not at all transparent about my personal finances, and I don’t share information about my studio’s profits and losses.
My New Guilt-Free Philosophy
A turning point for me was when I started listening to success books on tape. I’ve probably read or listened to hundreds of them: books on good customer service or how to build your business, and best-sellers like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One thing I learned is that you need to make sure the people who work for you want you to be successful. You have to surround yourself with people who are on your side.
I also realized that I should stop trying to prove parents wrong when they accused me of being wealthy. They seemed to think that their tuition was paying for my car, and it bothered me that they didn’t get the difference between my studio’s revenues and my salary. I felt like taking my W-2 and waving it in their faces just so they knew I wasn’t ripping them off.
Now, I’ve totally changed my philosophy. I decided that instead of trying to prove to parents that I don’t make what they think I do, I’m just going to go ahead and try to make as much as they think I’m making. I don’t feel guilty for driving a Lexus. My clients wouldn’t want me to drive up in an old jalopy—they wouldn’t be able to trust that I was good enough at this job, if all I could afford to drive was a jalopy. You need to communicate the idea that you are successful, and then you gain the confidence. And that instills confidence in your clientele.
The Right Price Lets You Deliver Quality
Setting prices at the right level is important if you want to build a sustainable business. Set them too low, and you’ll never be able to grow and offer new opportunities to your dancers, attract the best teachers, or even last for long. To decide on my prices, I first called other studios in the area. Our current tuition might be on the more expensive side, but I feel OK with that, because it reflects that my studio has top-notch teachers. If parents are dissatisfied with their child’s performance placement, I tell them, “You can trust us, we’re a national championship studio.” It’s possible that by changing studios their kid could be at the top of the totem pole, but that studio might not be able to push the child to their full potential.
I bend over backward when it comes to customer service, but I remain confident in the way I’ve chosen to run my business. People at the studio definitely think of me as the successful business owner now. Studio fathers, especially, tend to think of owning a dance studio as a hobby, but I think the fathers at my studio really respect what I do. Only a couple of my students will go on to be professional dancers. Mostly, I’m trying to shape them for success in whatever they do. I’m teaching them commitment, dedication and discipline, plus the ability to learn quickly, get along with all kinds of kids and listen to authority.
I’ve had students tell me that they want to grow up and be a successful business owner just like me. When you love doing something as much as studio owners love teaching dance, you don’t think you should be charging people. But the bottom line is: You can really love it and still make money and grow a business that will last. DT
Carole Royal is the owner/director of Royal Dance Works in Phoenix, Arizona.