Studio Business: 6 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Use the hard-earned advice of these veteran owners and turn your struggles into successes.

To kick off the start of a new studio year this month, we asked seven longtime owners—with more than 200 years’ experience among them—for their single most important piece of advice for new owners. As it turned out, the information they offer is valuable for any stage of a studio business career. Whether you struggle with setting boundaries, communicating with parents or being transparent about fees, the knowledge from these seasoned pros will come in handy.

Debbie Lamontagne

North Andover School of Dance

North Andover, Massachusetts

350 students

40 years in business

Parents only want what’s best for their children. “Or what they think is best for their children,” says Lamontagne. “If you look at it from that perspective, and you’re positive and confident in your decision-making, then you’ll have an easier time. Things will run smoother.”

Lamontagne was only 20 when she first opened her studio. She was surprised to find that her biggest challenge wasn’t managing a room full of kids or coming up with choreography. “Dealing with parents was the most difficult thing,” she says. “It took me a long time to be confident. If you don’t have that approach, you can seem negative and condescending, and you’ll feel like you’re always on the defensive.”

Carryl Slobotkin

Jazz Unlimited Studio of Dance Arts

Marlton, New Jersey

1,500 students

46 years in business

Be transparent—even about expenses. “Be upfront with parents and give them as much information as you can: a description of your programs, the calendar of events for the entire year, your faculty bios, the cost of everything,” says Slobotkin. “That way, parents can’t come back and say, ‘I didn’t know.’”

This can be hard advice to follow, especially when it comes to fees—like how much it costs to be a part of a competition team. Slobotkin knows, however, it’s best not to surprise parents. “It’s very costly to be a part of our dance company,” she says, reflecting on her recent audition process. “My company director outlined every cost for the parents, and I thought, ‘Do you have to put out all the costs?’”

But not disclosing fees has backfired on her in the past: “We’ve had kids try out, and then parents decided, ‘No, we can’t afford this.’ So we couldn’t have their kid.”

Molly Larkin-Symanietz and Michele Larkin-Wagner

Larkin Dance Studio

Maplewood, Minnesota

900 students

67 years in business

Set boundaries for parents and kids. Molly Larkin-Symanietz and Michele Larkin-Wagner took over their mother’s studio when she passed away in 2011, and they’re dedicated to upholding her legacy—which includes sticking to the rules. They stress that it’s essential to enforce all policies.

“It’s hard when you’re building a business, because you don’t want to lose kids, but people love it when you stick to your guns,” says Larkin-Wagner. “Our mother had a big heart, but she was a stickler for rules and commitment and dedication from the kids. Everybody had to follow the same rules.”

Consider compiling your procedures and expectations in a handbook. By clearly stating what time classes start, which classes are mandatory, when rehearsals are, what teachers expect from their students, you set a tone of professionalism, mutual respect and accountability.

Carole Royal

Royal Dance Works

Phoenix, Arizona

400 students

37 years in business

Be available to talk to parents and resolve issues. “But not too available,” says Royal. “Have parents set up a meeting, versus ambushing you in the hallway between classes.” She’s trained her parents and staff to go through the proper channels: “At my studio, parents know to call and say, ‘I’m really upset about this, I need to talk to Carol,’ and my front desk knows to set up a meeting.

“Sometimes, if I know it’s a sensitive topic, I’ll go into the meeting with my assistant. I never want to be surprised. Don’t be meek, or you’ll get easily run over by parents.”

Mary Naftal

Dance Connection

Islip, New York

650 students

27 years in business

Don’t take things  personally. “Because we work so hard, when parents are negative, we take it personally,” says Naftal. “It can make you rethink what you’re doing.” Over the years, Naftal has developed what she calls the 48-hour rule: “Every time you have a bad day, or if you’re upset about something, don’t react for 48 hours. Take that time to calm down. After 48 hours, determine if it still bothers you—sometimes it won’t—and if it does, by then you’ll be able to handle it in a professional manner.”

Danie Beck

Former owner, Dance Unlimited

Miami, Florida

375 students

45 years in business as an owner and consultant

Be positive in your communications. “If you’re not excited, no one else will be—especially when you’re making changes,” says Beck, who shared that one of her biggest challenges was when she instituted a recital fee. She explained to parents why this fee would allow her to expedite ordering for recital DVDs, T-shirts, photos—that it would result in a positive experience.

“It worked because of how I came across,” she says. “You have to tell them it’s the best thing since chopped liver. If you say, ‘Well, you know, I’m not really sure about this, but we’re going to try it,’ then it’s already lost. That’s why we’re in this business—we’re part actors, as well. You might be dying inside—I was many a time—but I stood up and said, ‘This is fabulous,’ while thinking, ‘I hope this works.’ But it did work, because I let my parents know it was going to.” DT

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