Studio Business: 7 Business Lessons Learned in 2015

Focus on filling your classroom with educators who love kids and respect you as a business owner.

As 2016 swiftly approaches, why not focus your New Year’s resolutions on your business? If you need inspiration, read on: These studio owners took the wisdom they’d gained from the past year’s problems and channeled that into major change.

1 Don’t be afraid to meet with parents. Robin Dawn Ryan admits that she rarely met with competition parents at the Robin Dawn Dance Academy she runs in Cape Coral, Florida. “I found it a big stressor,” she says. But after hearing from other studio owners this summer at the Dance Teacher Summit, she realized she’d been missing an opportunity to let her comp parents know how important they are. “Our team is only as successful as our parents and how supportive they are,” she says. “You have to let them know that you want them to be a part of your decision-making.”

Despite her initial reservations, Ryan called a meeting with parents to explain the reasoning behind many of her decisions regarding the team (her selection process, for example) and nail down a competition schedule for the year. “They thanked me!” she says, in surprise. “No one argued with me, and all I got was positive feedback. You’ve got to keep the doors of communication open.”

2 Make the switch to an online payment system—and change the culture of collection at your studio. As executive director of Just For Kix, a dance studio (and dancewear) empire with more than 200 locations, Cindy Clough spent years trying to put an online payment system in place for tuition. “Our company has so many variables,” she explains. “Getting payments was time-consuming and expensive.”

To implement such a big change successfully, Clough encouraged regional directors to transform what she calls the “culture of collection” in their communities. She explained it as a three-pronged process: Do not accept cash or check payments—drive parents to pay online; require all dancers to be paid up for the month ahead, or the student cannot enter class; do not allow students with balances from the year before to come back.

3 Create a total bill of all studio fees for the year, and then divide it into equal monthly payments. Carole Royal made it mandatory that competition students at her Phoenix, Arizona, studio participate in this new payment plan. She and her staff used the previous year’s totals to figure out as many expenses for the upcoming year as possible—tuition, choreography, costumes, conventions—and divided the total by 11 (the number of months the comp kids received instruction) to arrive at a projected monthly bill. Late fees were applied if parents didn’t pay on time, and solo fees were not included. “It kept a huge bill from hitting a parent in, maybe, April,” she says. “Our parents liked this.”

4 Mobile optimize. Everything. Suzanne Blake Gerety, who co-owns Kathy Blake Dance Studios in New Hampshire with her mother, can’t stress enough the importance of optimizing for mobile. “Your e-mails, everything, must expand and contract according to what device people are on,” she explains, so people aren’t squinting or endlessly scrolling to read your message.

Gerety’s studio website, marketing e-mails (via MailChimp) and even her website’s absentee notification form (which parents fill out when their child will be absent from class) are all optimized for mobile devices, both cell phones and tablets. “Even if a studio doesn’t have a big budget, you can at least get a WordPress site,” she says. “Then you can create something that’s automatically mobile-responsive.”

5 Deal with social media and review sites in a proactive and professional way. “Even if you don’t love social media or feel you don’t have time for it, someone has to be listening for your brand,” says Gerety. “You have to take a proactive approach.” She recommends contacting a parent who has written a complimentary e-mail and asking if she or he would be willing to post that as a review. “You can’t go out and solicit reviews,” she says, “but if someone sends you an unsolicited e-mail, it’s OK to ask. This is the new word of mouth.”

When dealing with negative reviews, Gerety advises responding promptly, with a positive tone—acknowledge the issue, and then move on.

6 Remember that your staff are your employees first—and your friends second. It’s easy—and natural—to develop close relationships with your staff, particularly if they are longtime members of your team. But you’re running a business, and you can’t let personal feelings cloud your judgment.

“Employees are just that: employees. No matter how long they’ve been with you,” says Phyllis Balagna, who owns Steppin’ Out—The Studio in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. “For several years, I tried to hang on to an employee who was a former student. She had so much potential—I tried to develop her into something she just couldn’t be. Bottom line, you can lead people to the water, but they have to drink it for themselves.” Focus on filling your classrooms with educators who love kids and respect you as a business owner.

7 Keep your studio’s focus balanced. At many competitive studios, it’s the so-called recreational dancers—the kids who take class only once or twice a week—who fall by the wayside. Don’t sacrifice one set of students for another. After Sue Sampson-Dalena’s competition team won Studio of the Year at The Dance Awards—“the decathlon of dance,” as Sampson-Dalena calls it, requiring intense preparation—she decided to spend the following year recommitting herself to her noncompetitive segment. “I’ve been working really hard this fall to give a lot of attention to my students who are not on teams—that they’re in the right classes, at the right level, that it’s a good fit for them,” says Sampson-Dalena, who owns The Dance Studio of Fresno in California. “I want them to feel like their two hours a week at my studio is as important as the kids who are there 9 or 10 hours a week.” DT

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