Growing Pains

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This past Thursday, I hopped on plane to fly to a pole event. For the first time, I was being asked to attend not as an instructor, or as a judge, but as I am in my muggle life: as a construction/real estate professional. It felt like an intersection of the two biggest things I am passionate about and love in my life, and I was strangely nervous to speak in a setting where I was tremendously invested in being able to contribute as productively as possible.

I was headed to the USPSF Studio Owner Symposium in Jacksonville, Florida. A good friend of mine, Summer Mull Vyne, was organizing it and had asked me months ago to contribute somehow. She knows how passionate I am about sharing knowledge in our community, and it was just a matter of figuring out how I could best contribute. I told her yes before I even know what I would speak about, because when it comes to trying to make our industry stronger and better and smarter, the place that it starts, to me, is by empowering studio owners.

When our industry started and studios first opened, it didn’t take much except passion and will to succeed. We were so niche, that if you worked your ass off, you might make mistakes along the way, but you would figure it out. It would work. One of the speakers at the Symposium, Fawnia, told us about her history and learning experiences in opening one of the nation’s first studios in Las Vegas a decade ago. She was honest in that she really didn’t know what she was doing- she took opportunities that presented themselves and capitalized on them and worked really really hard. Today, she is a fixture in our industry, a pioneer, and has served as a role model in many ways to many people. But even Fawnia, with all her knowledge, admitted that she took some important takeaways from the Symposium and listening to the guest speakers.

Because here’s the thing. Now we are too big to operate the way we used to. We’re in the middle of a huge growth stage, and that means a lot of learning pains and having to rejigger the way we used to do business. Because while at one point we could get away with flying by the seat of our pants, now studios and owners have tremendous liability financially and legally. And the emotional and time burden on a studio owner is huge. I’ve travelled to tiny studios that are held together by love and force of will, surviving out in small towns that are super conservative. I’ve seen the large studios in big cities that are seeing competition pop up all around them. I’ve seen the posts where an owner is stressed about committing to the huge cost of a lease, or a new buildout, or an unplanned repair, or juggling their lives with their studio.

Now, we need to know everything about ASCAP and BMI and commercial music licensing. Because they are targeting our small studios. They are sending representatives to stand outside our doors and count how many people come in and out, so that we are paying them the fees they are owed. We need to know everything about marketing our business, and how to understand branding and positioning ourselves in a market that is (happily) becoming more crowded. We need to know about differentiating our studio and our culture from that of the studio next door. We need to know how to insure our space, and the employees within it- because the government is cracking down on incorrectly categorized independent contractors and doing pinpointed audits nationwide. We need to understand taxes, and accounting, and pricing our classes, as well as profitability and capex.

In short- there has never been a time when a studio owner has to wear so many hats, and have such broad expertise. But at the same time, the vendors and contractors and consultants that we rely on to advise us are also learning. They have yet to fully understand the complexities and peculiarities of our business. They are still figuring out what we do and how to help us. And this is perhaps the most painful, and slowest part of our growth.

The Symposium brought together 30 studio owners from across the country to share knowledge with one another- yes- and that was hugely valuable. The informal conversations and discussions that were opened up were super beneficial. As an observer it was interesting to hear about some of the gaps in knowledge and understanding that we have with one another and with “industry standards”. I can’t tell you how many times an owner volunteered information about what they do and how they deal with certain issues and everyone else said, “wait, can you give us all that info so we can do it too?” But, the Symposium also opened the door to conversations with consultants who can be our partners. Who can grow with us, teach us, and learn from us so that we are more informed, better at running our businesses, and ultimately, more successful. Accountants who admitted that they didn’t know answers to questions that were asked, but would do some research. Insurance brokers who wanted to understand better what our challenges were and answer our questions. And me! My goal was to educate owners to better negotiate their leases, red flag terms and conditions to look for, manage buildout and not get hosed… but most of all, to be armed with information. Because knowledge truly is power, especially when you are a female business owner trying to do well for yourself.

Because how many studio owners out there are turning a profit? How many are comfortable with their work-life balance? How many of them set hard boundaries around personal time and space? How many feel confident with how their business is growing? The goal is to grow out of this phase, and into one where running and owning a studio are desirable. Where it makes sense and is not just sacrifice. After all, I’ve been asked many times why I don’t own a studio. My answer? “Because I like to pole dance!” And while it’s flippant, it’s honest: I like having my time to pole. I like being selfish in that way. And I don’t want to get so burnt out that I don’t like it anymore.

I can’t say enough how much credit I give to studio owners. Whether they are making the “right” decisions or the “wrong” ones, whether they are doing things that I personally agree with or not, they had the bravery and balls to go out on a limb and create four walls with some poles in it. And while that space may not seem like much, it has the potential to change lives.

I’m super grateful to Summer for organizing this eye-opening, inspiring, and educational weekend. I know she has plans to keep the sharing going and is already planning the next one, which will incorporate learnings and questions that were raised here. If you’re interested in more info, please visit the USPSF Studio Owner Symposium website. I truly hope that events like this become even more of a resource in our community, because they only help us to iterate and grow.