April 9, 2021 11 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
What does it mean to be Pilates Strong? We use the word “strong” a lot and it usually means resilience, passion for something, perseverance. The last 24 months of my life found me changing careers and becoming an entrepreneur. It required that I lived the motto I created: Pilates Strong. Here is my story of how an advertising sales executive from Long Island dropped everything to start a Pilates studio during the pandemic and created a Pilates apparel line that grew to over $160,000 in gross sales in the first year.
How it all began
In the summer of 2018, I was navigating a life change that I could have never anticipated. Divorce. Unfortunately, far too many people understand how overwhelming the experience is and I found myself engulfed in sadness. My entire life was about to change after knowing for 10 years who my best friend was and what we were going to do together on a daily basis. On top of that, I was saying goodbye to a home I loved from the moment I stepped foot in it. While I sat on my couch in a half-empty apartment, I watched happy New Yorkers pass by, enjoying the warmth of the summer. It was at that moment I knew the world wasn’t going to make me happy again; I had to take control of my own happiness and discover how to turn that corner to find it.
After 20 years in advertising, I thought “why not?” and began researching what I had always wanted to do — open my own Pilates studio. I began to think through and even pretended to understand the difficulties that came with going from the professional world I knew for two decades to a Pilates studio. It all was going to be completely new to me. The moment I typed into Google “Pilates Franchises in NY,” the heaviness that I was feeling started to lift. The world opened and now it seemed like a new beginning, a new life was ahead of me. This was my first step in making my dreams come true.
Opening a Pilates Studio has many questions. Build something from scratch or find a franchise? Where should I open the studio? What kind of budget can I afford? Where will I get the extra money from needed to open? Who is going to help me do this? As they say, it truly takes a village.
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I knew that becoming a franchisee was the right path for me, even though franchises in this industry are quite rare. A franchise has the playbook, the resources, and the community. The feat of finding a Pilates franchise in Brooklyn, specifically, was not an easy one. I first spoke to two companies; one was a large franchise that unfortunately was at capacity in Brooklyn (good sign as there was a lot of interest) and another was a company that I didn’t feel connected with (style, vibe was not who I was). Now some call this a personality strength and others might consider it a personality flaw, but once I put my mind to something, it’s all I can think about, so I was determined to make this happen.
I dug further into the search results, deep into the pages, and I found an Australian brand with a cult-like following called Studio Pilates International. I was surprised to see they had 30+ studios across Australia, New Zealand, and China, but none in the U.S. I knew I had nothing to lose by filling out the form to speak with them and soon after, on June 19, 2018, everything changed. I received a response from Studio Pilates asking to schedule a call and, after navigating time differences, we were able to make it happen. Luck would have it; the co-owners, Jade and Tanya Winter were going to be in New York the following month for their winter holiday. The weight I was holding on to for so long was being peeled away, layer-by-layer like an onion, and I realized my hard work and determination paired with blind luck was resulting in creating my own happiness. July’s serendipitous meeting with Jade provided me with an in-depth background of the brand, why it started, how it evolved, and where they envisioned it moving forward. Here is a quick synopsis of our conversation over brekkie.
Me: “Jade, I am in.”
Jade: “Marisa, you haven’t even experienced Studio Pilates as of yet, are you sure?”
Me: “I have never been surer of something than I am right now. Your passion for Pilates, your vision for the company is everything that I connect with. I am ready to help Studio Pilates expand into the US”.
The hard work com
All of this sounds great but now the real work was in front of me. It is like planning for a new job. The fun part is the research, but the hard work is making it happen. I immediately found people with areas of expertise that would help me. First was real estate. I spent the next four months looking at a variety of commercial spaces. There are a variety of topics to consider such as location, layout, overall size, and of course price. Like buying a house, you get to quickly narrow down your focus as you see more. It becomes easier to understand what location is going to make your dreams come true. For me, I found a brand-new building in Park Slope Brooklyn with a great commercial space that had never been touched. Exciting to have a blank canvas, at least that is what I thought at the time.
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The lockdown changes everything
Over the months, I work on negotiating the lease, had legal calls, worked with architects to draw out every spec of the plan, spoke with the marketing team to think about how we draw new customers to the store, and of course headquarters going through the onboarding process. So, the lease is signed, the plans are signed off, now I had to find instructors and people to work. I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of people were interested in becoming certified. Just as they started their onboarding work (education session) the world would throw us a curveball that none of us were expecting.
It was March 2020 and everything I had been working so hard for had completely come to a halt. I had to tell headquarters that all construction was shut down, all permits were canceled, my training sessions were on halt, and to pause marketing. I was devasted simply because what if this was the end of my dream. None of us knew what to expect. It was three weeks into a complete lockdown and I felt lost without the Pilates community. That was when I thought of creating a Pilates-inspired clothing line to connect with the community.
But how? I am not a designer? I have never run an ecommerce business. I know nothing about the production of clothes. Just like the Studio I did some research and put everything into this. I found Shopify for creating my website, connecting ecommerce capabilities, and even connected with a print-on-demand company, prints clothes for me when a sale happens. No need for upfront expenses of buying products in bulk. I found Breaking Free Industries who I have now partnered with; not only do they have a great social mission of employing people who need a second chance, but their business model gives me a lot of flexibility for how we build products and ship them to consumers.
Pivoting to ecommerce
First, it was tees and tank tops, then it was sweatshirts and hoodies. After that, I launched into custom-made socks (I designed every part of the material and stitching) and most recently I launched a custom Pilates Reformer Mat that provides the ultimate in germ-free, no-slip and easily washable experience. Now from a marketing perspective, I had to get my name out there.
Having been in advertising for many years, we know every small business starts with two partners. Facebook to drive consideration for a new company and Google to be where people are searching for products. After the first two weeks, there were a few hundred dollars of sales. What a feeling to have designed a product and then all of the sudden people I do not know are buying them. After the first month, I just had eclipsed $1,000 in sales. Now the challenge was on, how do I grow this. So, I worked to optimize the site experience, added more products as mentioned above and worked on more engaging creative. There was a lot of testing that went on during these early few months. What is driving interest? What is driving sales?
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As the month went by the business continued to see growth, but a long way to go to be profitable. Each month I am learning more, building new products, optimizing the production cycle to improve profitability. I even started to get wholesale inquiries! A studio owner saw their clients wearing my apparel in their studio and wanted to personally sell them in their studio. This brought up new questions. How do I price for wholesale, how do I handle shipping and production cycles? What kind of customizations might I allow (unique combinations or style and design, what about their logos on the clothing? Before long, over 20% of my business was wholesale.
As of today, the business is almost 12 months in and has over $16,000 in total sales. For someone who has never done this before, the challenge and excitement of building this from scratch, and now seeing people post on social media every week with my clothing is incredibly rewarding. That does not mean there are not hard days (lost shipping, items not fitting well) but I take each comment in stride, learn from it.
In the summer of 2020, construction was allowed to resume. Construction and permits were all over the place because New York City has a lot of rules so every time you think you solved all the outstanding issues, more come up. It took 5 months for permits to be filed and approved, and for construction to be done.
In January of 2021, I was able to have all my instructors complete their final training. The studio was done, the lights, the plumbing, the music, the reformers, were all where they needed to be. However, something that my business plan did not account for, CDC guidelines. All reformers are now 6 feet apart. We have special cleaning spray. Everyone has to wear a mask at all times. In NY, we are even getting graded like restaurants are and I am very proud to have that A rating on my door.
I am now the owner of a beautiful Studio Pilates franchise in Park Slope Brooklyn. Nothing has been harder or more rewarding than this entire experience. You need to find a passion, people you can trust to help compliment your passion and finally put all doubt to the side. Being an entrepreneur means you are in control, so go make it happen.
A review from one of my Studio Pilates clients, “I have never done Pilates and let me say it is no joke! 100% recommend going here for the hard-core workouts. Everyone is so nice and welcoming. In these times of Covid, the way they have handled guidelines and respect everyone is amazing! I will keep going here as long as I can, will never go anywhere else especially because they are so nice there, I have never had the kind and genuine hospitality that the show!” This review has made all the hurdles of construction, permits and COVID all worth it to be able to open my doors to this amazing Pilates community.