Just as there are lots of types of small businesses, there are lots of types of dance studios. Each has a unique story to tell and unique lessons to offer. Simply Dance Studio’s story and lessons are particularly useful, especially for those whose success depends on their locations. Established in 2003, Simply Dance offers ballroom dance lessons and social dancing on a weekly schedule. It has a staff of three people running the office, six main dance instructors, as well as two to three DJs and three to four dance assistants. It features a spacious second-floor ballroom with windows that look out on the historic Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane, Washington. Studio owner and head teacher Marianna di Lorenzo recently spoke about what to do – and what to watch out for – when running a people-oriented business. She also shared a surprise ending that she sees turning into a new beginning. Stay tuned.
How did you get started with your business?
I had lived in San Francisco, where some local families I was close to introduced me to good dancing. After I met my husband, moved to Spokane and had children, I began dancing seriously. I spent five years learning from top professionals, spending a lot of time traveling to Seattle to train and eventually compete. Here in Spokane, I had a small dance space in my home, but I needed to find a bigger floor space to practice. In 2000, I approached Janet Wilder, who was running a studio called The Academy of Dance, which taught ballet, jazz and other types of dancing. She said I could practice at her studio, and also immediately asked if I would like to teach there as well. I had to turn professional to do so, and I taught there for three years. After three years, Janet said she could no longer keep running the studio, and she asked me if I wanted to take over the lease. The building was privately owned, by the owner of Berg’s Shoes in the same building on the street level, and with Janet’s recommendation I was able to take over the lease. The owner kept the rent down.
How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
After I signed the lease, I had to come up with $1,050 within a month. So I called everyone I knew. I had a lot of customers and a dance team, and had hosted my first dance competition at a hotel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. After three days on the phone, someone on my dance team said she would come in as a partner. This was temporary, for only six months. So I filled the space with as much dance teaching as I could, including belly dancing, hip hop and break dance, splitting with the teachers 50-50. We put in some of our own money as well, so it was partly self-funded, and all the money from my private lessons went back into the business as well. I never asked for a loan. If I needed money I worked to get more private lessons and tried different types of classes and started to sell shoes.
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Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I learned by doing it. For example, we needed to change the atmosphere, since it had been a ballet studio. So we started to offer the top dances. We started to offer salsa on Saturday nights because a lot of older people wanted it. We charged $12, which was a bit expensive, but we found the dancers got tired, they had other things they had to do, so they would kind of peter out by Saturday. But then young people started trekking in who wanted a place to go out dancing, and they started texting their friends. So we dropped the price to $5 so it wasn’t too expensive for them. I learned very quickly, it’s easy to pull five dollars from a pocket, and teenagers/young adults are highly “synced up” and use their communication devices well and they have the energy to beat a path to your door come rain or shine. We went for a lighthearted spirit and for volume. Simply Dance Studio became one of the most popular dance destinations in Spokane. We branded it Saturday Night Salsa and the attendance hit an average of 70 to 100 people.
Who was your first customer?
The dancers I had cultivated in various and interesting ways. The students that I had been teaching at The Academy of Dance continued to be my students when I became the owner. For the first three months, I taught for free anyone that would take my free lessons. What I was doing was creating the visual of people dancing. Once that happened, people watching naturally asked me how much it cost to take lesson and I was able to roll it into a real business.
What was the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
Thinking it would all happen because of good dancing. Having too much ego because I had substantial training, and not being concerned enough with the students’ wants and needs. A teacher with too much ego and students with too much fantasy in terms of what they expect is a bad combination. The day I got over myself was the best day ever. That’s when room to really learn how to run a business became my gift.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
It actually took two or three years, but it was realizing that it’s not about you, it’s all about the people. Also, just not giving up, persevering. For example, if I advertised a class, I taught it, even if there was only one student. Sooner or later the word of mouth gets around.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
Starting to realize who I am. I love the challenge of creating events. I also love making people feel comfortable when they come to an event, treating everyone as if they are amazing, because they are. When they leave they have a glow. Also, the way this business opened up so many other opportunities, such as doing choreography for movies and getting into screenwriting.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
Analyzing yourself, and also doing all the mundane things. We have to get everything clean, bring in the bottles of water, do all this day in and day out. There’s no breaks and the business doesn’t wait for anyone. And sometimes you just have to make calls that you don’t want to have to make. Also working with artistic people and especially artistic teachers not so inclined to grapple with the business end of a dance studio. Sometimes they approach me with ideas for a production, and what they dream of doing often is a very wonderful idea, but in reality very difficult to attain. For instance; it takes quit a bit of effort, time and money to put on a production, and then when being on board with a small dance studio, one must personally sell the tickets of the production to customers. I have discovered that working with a personality such as this often wants their dreams to come true in an unrealistic way. I eventually learned to fix that by having anyone that wanted to put on a production with me, sign an agreement that they were responsible for half the cost, half the sales and that they must see it through to the end and not walk away if it isn’t going well. This approach has actually worked and I was able to weed out non-serious collaborators and bond with the ones that enjoyed the challenge. We have put on many successful productions at Simply Dance!
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
The doors that just keep opening as a result of the business. Also, that if you stay in the game long enough the business can start to run itself. I don’t have to call people, they call me. Of course, you don’t ever want to take it for granted.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
I have four. One is Gustavo Cardoza, a movie producer in New York. Hollywood is a closed system, it takes esoteric knowledge to get into the film business. Another is Emily Bozzi, co-publisher of [local monthly magazine] Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living. She’s not the kind of person who thinks "I have to just go get what I need," she considers every scenario and thinks "What does this person need?" and finds with this approach she ends up getting what she wants. Third: Ulrike Berzau, a successful hospital administrator and my personal “mind doctor” who wrote a book called "Imagine A Healthy You," which explains how important it is to understand and use the powerful forces of positive energy and eliminate all the negative forces from your life. And fourth, Madonna, for her genius in projecting her image or image in general. Image is everything, and she uses every medium and picture to project it. I plan to study and learn more from each of these role models and do the same.
What I’ve Learned
What advice do you have for others starting their own business?
After all these years, our lease is ending because an outside business came in and made a much higher offer. If you have a lease, be aware that there may be people watching you who want to take your space when your lease ends. But also it’s important to realize that the ending of one phase of your life is also the opportunity for growth and trying new things. On another notem if things are not going well when starting or while in the midst of running your business, start to physically move – really – it’s dangerous to become stagnant. Pace yourself and eloquently keep presenting your business. Do it with grace and charm, it stirs the energy your way.
What do you wish you had known before starting your business?
The importance of understanding people, and not letting your ego or get in the way.
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Robert Poe is a writer and photographer who divides his time between the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington State.