Running your own studio often comes with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. After all, you're the one who teaches class, creates choreography, collects tuition, plans a recital, calls parents, answers e-mails, orders costumes—plus a host of other tasks, some of which you probably don't even think about. But what if you had someone to help you, someone who could take certain routine or clerical tasks off your hands, freeing you up to focus on what you love?
Accountant Jessica Scheitler has a helpful phrase for the clients of her Las Vegas–based tax preparation business, Financial Groove—one she thinks they'll understand: Expense full-out. "It's the same as when you're at a convention, and you're supposed to dance full-out, as big and crazy as possible," she explains. In the world of tax preparation, it means handing over all your studio business receipts, rather than cherry-picking what seems appropriate or "right."
There are a few other things she'd like from her clients as well—so we made a list. Use it to impress your accountant this year (and make their job a little easier).
Competition trophies, well-respected faculty and an end-of-year recital with Vegas-level production elements are all powerful attractions for potential students and their families. But what about recognition outside the studio sphere, in your community? Is there value in that?
Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"
Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.
Slow, but consistent
Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."
When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."
"The fliers weren't working."
With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.
His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."
How much you bid affects in what order your search ad appears among other businesses. But a business with more money to spend on keywords won't automatically see their ad pop up first. Multiple factors—keyword bidding price, how long a user stays on your website, your click-through rate—determine what's called your quality score. And it's your quality score, ultimately, that decides in what order your ad appears on Google.
"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.
Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.
As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."
Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."
When Google came to town
Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."
Of course, digital advertising can only take a studio so far. You have to follow through with a great product—and that, Savino says, is Valentina's greatest contribution to the business. "At the end of the day, if the product isn't good, people are simply going to leave," he says. "She's the heartbeat of the studio."
You've grown up dancing; you can no longer ignore the itch to teach; you've been secretly planning your first recital theme for the past three years—in fact, you're eagerly hatching plans to open your own studio. While your passion for dance and desire to pass on such a beloved artform will be strengths for running a studio, they are by no means sufficient to make it a success. Owning a studio is a commercial venture that requires capital, business savvy and an almost obsessive attention to detail. Here are six risk-reducing strategies to ease into studio ownership.
Make sure your technology works for you, not the other way around.
Today, we didn’t have internet in our office until 3:00 pm. And it felt amazing. My fellow editor kept lamenting that she couldn’t get anything done without it, but I’ve never been more productive. It’s because I’m usually trying to prove to myself that I can do 15 things at once. It’s because of—in a word—e-mail. E-mail is a complete time suck, and studio owners know this just as well as magazine editors.
Today I learned that messages can wait, because sometimes they must. Without the option to answer numerous logistical e-mails, I was free to do an essential (my favorite) part of the job: write. For studio owners, I imagine this is like the times when you get to just teach. It feels great, doesn’t it? It’s important to make real, uninterrupted time for this kind of work, not only so you enjoy it, but so that you do it well.
I asked Cindy Clough, owner of Just Fox Kix—the dancewear company and several successful studios—how she keeps e-mail from taking over her busy life. She has a few tips:
- Overload clients with info. Clough keeps as much current information as possible on her company’s Facebook page and website. “I try to be as detailed as possible in my communications,” she says, “so they don’t have to contact me as much.”
- Send one-way messages. Clough uses an app designed for classroom teachers called Remind. You can send a mass text to a group of contacts, and no one can reply to it directly. In that sense, it functions like an alert: “Due to snowy weather, preschool classes are canceled today.” Boom. Done. If someone really needs to reach you, they can e-mail or call you separately, but it’s not quite as easy as clicking “reply” on the message.
- Manage expectations: Reply less frequently. In addition to running her own studio, Clough coaches a high school dance team. When she took on those extra dancers, she began replying to the students and their parents just once a day instead of immediately or hourly. “I work with a lot of high school dance coaches, and they get bothered [if the internet isn’t working],” she says. “I tell them I coached before the internet. It really does eat up your time. Checking it less often is important.”
There you have it from the veteran businesswoman. If she can manage to take a step back, we all can.
Our Dance Teacher Summit gets started tomorrow afternoon with a special studio owners roundtable before classes and seminars begin on Friday. Here's are some recital ticketing tips from Danie Beck, just to get you excited. Beck owned Dance Unlimited for over 40 years. She and our other ambassadors will be on hand this weekend to share their best business advice.
former owner, Dance Unlimited
Danie Beck has seen her students go on to study dance in college and perform in national Broadway touring companies. A Dance Teacher Summit ambassador for three years, Beck has recently sold Dance Unlimited to a former student.
Dance Teacher: Over the years, you’ve had as many as 500 students performing in just one yearly recital weekend. How do you organize ticketing for such a high-volume event?
Danie Beck: For many years we went through the “waiting in line at 4 am with a lawn chair” routine, so by the time the parents got into the studio, they were so aggravated it was like dealing with a tiger! And when they got to the auditorium for the show, the grandmother would be saving six seats with a sweater, a purse and an umbrella and people got annoyed.
Something had to change. I couldn’t go through this horrific mob scene every year, so we started a lottery for requesting tickets. There’s an open period of about a week when parents can come in, draw lottery numbers and fill out ticket request forms for each show. At first the office would be mobbed on the first day, but people have learned it really is strictly luck of the draw, and it doesn’t matter when they come. They have an equal chance of getting the seats they want whether they arrive on the first hour of the first day, or right at the end.
DT: How do you assign tickets once you have the ticket request forms?
DB: I do it. I can do about one show an evening, going through the ticket forms, filling each request the best I can, starting with the lowest lottery number. It works well, it’s organized and everyone is polite about it. They understand it’s luck of the draw. One year you might draw number 9; the next year you might draw 99.
I also use the lottery to encourage early registration. If you register early, before April, you draw from a lottery bag of 1–50 instead of 1–100. So it’s useful as an in-house tool for registration, as well.
DT: Did you get a lot of pushback from parents when you made that change?
DB: I was lucky that the lottery worked right off the bat. When you make a big change, you have to believe in it, and you have to show that you do. You go in with a positive attitude. “It’s going to be so much better, you’re all going to be happier,” and so on. Then, once you’re made the change, you work with what you’ve created. You can expand it, or if it’s not working the way you’d hoped, you can adjust it, but you don’t need to announce that. You don’t say, “It wasn’t working like I wanted.” Always stay positive, because if people doubt the way you’re thinking, then they’re going to question every move you make. You simply say, “Yes, that worked well, but I think this will work even better.”
Photos from top: courtesy of Break the Floor Productions; courtesy of Dance Unlimited
Today we're featuring DT Summit ambassador Bonnie Schuetz, who has owned Boni's Dance & Performing Arts Studio in The Woodlands and Spring, Texas, for more than 30 years. We spoke to her about keeping her dancers healthy during performance season and asked her to reflect on her first year as an ambassador.
Number of students: 1,600
Dance Teacher: Your company students perform over 12 times per year—at competitions, community shows, recitals and The Nutcracker. How do you make sure that they aren’t overdoing it as they prepare for these performances?
Bonnie Schuetz: We really try not to push our kids. I monitor them as much as possible. During Nutcracker season, I don’t like them to have competition solo or duet rehearsals on weekends. In fact, I don’t allow them at all on Sundays, which is the day of our Nutcracker rehearsals. We want the dancers to have lives, to be kids and teenagers, to go to homecoming, etc. It makes us a much happier family.
And when they are injured, I make sure that they’re not trying to dance. If their doctor’s note says six weeks off, they’re going to be off for six weeks. Their bones are soft, and they’ve got to rest. We’re really careful.
BS: In previous years, I just had so much in my brain that I wanted to share. This year, I was thrilled that I got an opportunity to do that. I’ve been a teacher for over 40 years and had my studio for more than 30, but I still learn something every time I go to the Summit. I think my favorite thing is just to sit around that round table and talk.
DT: What was the main message of the seminar that you ran, “Pre-School Ideas”?
BS: Adding programming for preschoolers can really be the bread and butter of your business. Studio owners love teaching, but they have to remember that it is also a business. For some reason people think that dance teachers aren’t supposed to make any money. Most of us would just do this from the bottom of our hearts—and I did that for years—but we can also be successful businesspeople if we think outside of the box. The best way to make money is to take advantage of your existing clientele. They’re already in your building, so just sell them something else. —Rachel Zar
Photos from top: courtesy of Bonnie Schuetz; by Brenda Bolton, courtesy of Bonnie Schuetz