Melissa Wright is an Independent Pilates practioner and assistant educator with Polestar Pilates Australia. Melissa is the previous owner of MG Pilates in Erskineville, Sydney which she sold after 10 years.
This Week on So You Want To Start A Business Podcast:
MG Pilates is a highly successful studio that started out as a one man band and expanded to a team of 9 highly qualified instructors.
During that time she completed her Diploma re-qualifying as a Polestar Pilates instructor, a worldwide provider of teacher training. This consolidated everything she had leant over her 14yr career and added to her library of knowledge. Upon completion of her exam she was asked to become a mentor for Polestar Pilates students and then further promoted to assistant educator.
Melissa has seen many students coming through the doors of MG Pilates to be mentored by herself and other staff members assisting them on their journey to becoming instructors. This has been a highly valuable experience for her as a teacher of the Pilates method.
Melissa is now a freelancer and teaches private clients on NSW Central Coast. She has exciting plans including Central Coast Pilates.
Podcast Full Transcript:
INGRID: Hello, and here we are today with Melissa Wright of Pilates Plus, and we’re going to hear from Melissa about her start-up journey in starting up Pilates Studios because this is the second studio that Melissa has actually started, but we’re going to talk to her about her previous. Hello Melissa, and welcome.
MELISSA: Hi, Ingrid. Thanks for having me.
INGRID: Thank you, and it’s great to be here in your home recording studio because I know that your new business, Pilates Plus, is a virtual Pilates Studio, that’s really exciting, but here we are to talk about the previous business. When did you start that previous business?
MELISSA: I started that business in 2004.
INGRID: And it was a Pilates studio?
MELISSA: It was a Pilates studio, we offered mat classes and studio sessions. It started out quite small and grew to be a much bigger business with a couple of moves along the way.
INGRID: With a couple of moves, indeed. Why did you start that business back in 2004? What triggered that?
MELISSA: I was working for someone else, and I wanted the freedom to have my own business and choose my own hours. I also, back then, wanted to earn more; a better hourly rate as well.
INGRID: When did you realize that you were actually in business? When did it become real for you? Because lots of people have a different point. It’s really interesting at what point it feels real. When did you feel your business was real?
MELISSA: Yes, it’s a good question and it was really, I guess, when I employed my first instructor and administrator, and it became real for me I guess when my bookkeeper came along and pointed out some very valid things. [laughs]
INGRID: Let’s fess up at this point but that’s how we first met. [laughs]
Melissa: That’s right.
INGRID: That I actually came and did some of your bookkeeping in the very early days.
MELISSA: Yes. You helped me organize things financially, definitely.
INGRID: That’s right. At what point did you know that your customers wanted what your business was offering? How did you know that Pilates — because 2004, there wasn’t a lot going on with Pilates those days. How did you know that was going to work?
MELISSA: It was still fairly new, I guess, but I believed in the system of Pilates so much that I didn’t even think it wouldn’t work, it was just something that I believed everyone should do. And it made me realize that customers wanted what I was offering, I guess, when they kept buying 10 packs, and there was never a question about that or the cost. And then I guess the second point was when I introduced the direct debit system and people were more than happy to do that. It made it seem that they had a solid loyalty to the business and me.
INGRID: Was the business was truly viable at that point?
MELISSA: That’s right.
INGRID: Yes, that’s really viable. In the early days, how did you fund the business? Because that’s one of the big questions that people want to know is “Well, how do I actually – how do I fund the business?” in the early days.
MELISSA: Yes. I was a single mother back then, so I definitely had no funds. I was just lucky enough to have my parents help me start up and buy the equipment which was quite an outlay to begin with, and that’s really where I started with the funding.
INGRID: With a loan from family.
MELISSA: With a loan from family, that’s right.
INGRID: And one of the interesting things when we talk about money coming from family and money coming from other people is that sometimes there’s conditions that go with that: they want to be involved, but your family weren’t particularly interested in helping you run the business?
MELISSA: No, they were very happy to set me up and get me started. My dad also worked for himself most of his working life so I think it made sense to them to support me doing that.
INGRID: Yes, so you’re quite entrepreneurial in your family, aren’t you?
INGRID: Okay. So, in the early days, how did you find new customers? So you put your sign up and– how did you find customers?
MELISSA: Because it was back then, we did a lot of flier drops and that seemed to work early on. There definitely came a point where that didn’t work anymore. Yes, it was flier drops and pamphlets out in the front of the studio.
INGRID: And your studio was very well-located at that point, wasn’t it?
MELISSA: Yes, we were in a very busy street with people working past overtime, so it could work pass traffic.
INGRID: Yes, and right near the news agent, and so where a lot of people — and a medical center I think from memory.
MELISSA: Yes above that medical centre.
INGRID: So, did you have a target customer in mind? Did you think of a particular person, who that customer was?
MELISSA: No. Back then, I didn’t think like that at all. I just winged it, basically. No, I didn’t. I absolutely didn’t.
INGRID: Do you think over time, you began to get an idea of who your target market was?
MELISSA: Yes, I did, and it was just through learning and speaking to people like yourself and working out. That’s really what you should be doing. Having a target person in mind, what someone else has known to call them as an imaginary friend.
INGRID: An imaginary friend? Oh.
MELISSA: Yes. I love that. [laughs]
INGRID: Who then becomes a real friend–
MELISSA: That’s right.
INGRID: –and joins the studio. So, how did you, without talking about the actual price, because you used a couple of different pricing strategies over the time, how did you go about coming up with a pricing strategy?
MELISSA: It was really from working for other studios previously, and then going and setting up here at Fitness First, and having a price structure there, and then I guess researching the studios that were close by to us and be to see what people were charging and what was the right sort of price to charge.
INGRID: So basing it on what the market could bear in terms of that?
MELISSA: That’s right.
INGRID: Did that change over time?
MELISSA: Definitely, prices had to change. I’m not sure– I mean, definitely, price changed over time.
INGRID: And I know at different times, well you had packages for different types of services so that people who wanted a more customized service paid more.
MELISSA: That’s right, so we had different prices for if it was more of a one-on-one session or a three-on-one, and then, of course, we catered to people that couldn’t afford that. And that’s where the mat classes came in and that just made it more accessible to everyone and students included.
INGRID: And students included. Now, at this point in our interview, for people who’ve been listening to other of my ‘So You Want To Start A Business’ interviews, you know that I normally ask about exit strategy. And I can’t ask you about your exit strategy because you sold the business. So, can we talk for a little bit about how that process went? Because at what point did you have that as your exit strategy? At what point did you believe that’s what you wanted to do?
MELISSA: I definitely didn’t start the business thinking I would sell. That wasn’t even a thought in my head. It just became really when– I guess, the business grew and so did the responsibility, and I had children, and that’s when I started to think, “Well, now it’s time for something new.” I felt in my body and in my being that it was just time to do something different and move on.
Ingrid: And so, did you– if you want to tell us as much as you like about that process, did you advertise it and sell it or that whole — to sell your business that you had developed from 2004 and about a topic that was very passionate to you and patrons/customers, what do you call them? Clients?
INGRID: Clients that are very personal to you. It’s not the same as selling a secondhand car.
MELISSA: No, it was a really hard decision, even though I really knew that it wasn’t right for me anymore. It was a huge decision to make because of the clients and because of my staff, because they were both loyal and I miss them. Out of anything in the business, I definitely miss that side of it. And so, it took a while. And for me, I guess, it meant finding the right buyer because I didn’t want anyone to buy it and I wanted to know that the clients and the staff will be really happy with the new person.
So I advertised on appropriate websites to do with Pilates, and even a physiotherapy association website, and through e-mail via this association called the PAA. And that’s really how I found the right person in the end.
INGRID: But it took a long time?
MELISSA: It took a long time, really, took about probably like a couple of years and a couple of goes and backing out and coming back in, because it’s not easy.
INGRID: Yes, and how did you know that this was the right person? What were the characteristics or what were the things you were looking for?
MELISSA: I was looking for someone that was caring and friendly and that wouldn’t change the business too much, and then understood what a Pilates studio is and know how to run it and what it is to manage Pilates instructors. And the person that came through I actually knew, so that was a bonus, and she already had her own Pilates studio. So, that made it really clear to me that that was the right person for my business.
INGRID: Lovely. And it has worked out really well, hasn’t it? And the business continues and continues to grow and–
MELISSA: Yes, we’re friends.
INGRID: And there’s a lot of stability around the instructors and the clients, so it’s been a really lovely transition. You sold and stopped. You didn’t stay around for long afterwards, did you? You didn’t have to have an own out year or three months or anything like that?
MELISSA: No, we did do a short handover because there were a lot of systems in place in the business there, and it was running without me, always managing distance. And I had a great manager/studio manager in there and it made it straighter, so I didn’t have to stay in and keep going at the end.
INGRID: Because you actually had been remotely managing it. It had been standalone for sometime with just your input with that? You weren’t actually teaching in the studio at that time?
MELISSA: Yes, for about a year. Yes.
INGRID: That’s great. So, if we’re going back to when you actually were starting your business, what is one thing that you really wish you had done differently?
MELISSA: I wished I’d introduced the direct debit system from the start, that was a really key turning point for the business once I do that.
INGRID: Yes, it was. So really, from the start, it would have been good if you’d known the impact that was going to have. So, could you just briefly say what that was? Because people listening might not quite understand what direct debit means.
MELISSA: So, instead of people, traditionally, most people buy packs of ten in the Pilates studio, and that’s definitely how I learned and how I grew up in the Pilates world. And it was mainly, say, maybe yoga studios or personal trainers that were charging by direct debit. So, I decided that if people were paying by the month for their sessions ahead, it would really help with cash flow. And I guess if I’d have known how difficult managing cash flow would have been from the start and I was a little more gutsy, I would have introduced the direct debit right from the beginning
INGRID: Because there are times, and lots of businesses have this, where there might be a month or two of the year where the income drops because of season or time of year or some other– there’s times of years where income goes up and down, and you had a particular month or two where it was limited income.
MELISSA: Yes. December/January were really tough months every single year, and then that kind of put you on the back foot for a couple of months after that. And then you’d have a bit of — winter would come along and lots of people get sick and they don’t come, or instructors get sick and they have to cancel sessions, and so there’s another dip there. So, the direct debit really just made things even out a whole lot more.
INGRID: For every month that money comes in on the first of the month, and you’ve got all your expenses covered. And obviously, your people feel that they get good value for that monthly charge.
MELISSA: That’s right. They definitely do.
INGRID: That’s great. So, some questions about who, apart from you, and yourself, in building the business, has been of the greatest assistance to you? Now you mentioned your parents lent you some money, you mentioned that you and I worked together but apart from that, who has been of great assistance to you?
MELISSA: Yes, as I said, my parents, my husband, you definitely.
INGRID: Thank you.
MELISSA: My accountant as well. My bigger tax accountant. And, of course, my staff, they were just so wonderful and having good staff is so, so important, and it does take a while to find the right staff.
INGRID: So in terms of that, I haven’t said that that would be a question I’d ask you, but what do you think the keys are to finding the right people to work with you?
MELISSA: If I had to employ anyone else again, I would listen to my gut. And sometimes when you interview someone and it doesn’t seem right but you can’t put your finger on why, you really need to go with that. And it’s– and I guess, too, it’s not from my business, it’s not just about how well you teach Pilates, there’s turning up on time, there’s being responsible for your clients, there’s working as a team player so they cover for others, yes. It’s actually finding out what their personality is like as well.
INGRID: You’ve had mostly successes, haven’t you?
MELISSA: Yes, yes. Early days were harder but definitely–
INGRID: Once you got that–
MELISSA: Once I got that, it was– yes, it definitely made things a lot easier.
INGRID: A lot easier for you. So you’ve sold your business and set up something completely different but sort of the same. So you’re obviously an entrepreneurial person, and your siblings have their own businesses and your parents being in business, so it’s in your blood. So, what would you suggest or what would you tell or recommend to someone starting a business?
MELISSA: Hindsight’s wonderful. I definitely went into the MG Pilates business without really being prepared, and I think this time I’ve re-educated myself a lot more before I’ve launched this business. So I recommend being prepared, get systems in place, and talk to other people in your industry about what it’s like to run a business and what are the things that they find hard, and get their advice because it’s valuable.
And just to look ahead and crunch the numbers. What sort of potential has your business got to make money and do you have enough hours to make the sort of money you’d like to make in your business? Especially if it’s one hour in equals one hour out kind of business.
INGRID: Yes, so you’re actually trading your time for the money. Can you sell it at the right price to make enough money?
MELISSA: That’s right.
INGRID: Because that’s ultimately what you’re doing.
MELISSA: Yes, yes.
INGRID: So what three characteristics do you think you have that makes you successful in business? So, what is it about you, and you can– two or three. What do you think makes you successful?
MELISSA: I think I’m driven. I think I really enjoy the creating and the set-up. I think what people liked about the studio, which I guess is a characteristic of mine, is that it was friendly and approachable. And, I guess, we just try to keep things real. We were dealing with real people all the time.
INGRID: Yes, that’s a nice summation of you. Now, if someone came along to you and said that they were wanting to start a business, what characteristics do you think they need? Because the ones that made you successful might not– and you’ve talked about them crunching the numbers, and being clear about what their business actually is, and doing their research, but what do you think the characteristics of someone starting a business are?
MELISSA: I think practicality. I think you have to be quite practical, like you have to have endurance because you have to be able to ride the waves and you have to keep going through those waves. It will be quite strong. And I think you have to sort of be quite calm, so– just to keep going through, and of course driven.
Ingrid: You have to be driven. So, obviously, you love Pilates. And I’m going to ask you another question that I know I haven’t told you I’d ask: What do you love the most about being a Pilates instructor?
MELISSA: I love seeing the journey and how people change their bodies. And when they’re struggling with the movement or they’re struggling with pain, and they’ve been at it for a while and suddenly, something we say or the way you touch them or a certain exercise is delivered differently, and they just have a light bulb moment. And for them, it is a bit of a release emotionally as well and it helps them shift other things, so that’s what I really love about teaching Pilates: it’s helping people to change things in their bodies. Ultimately changes their emotional state a little bit too.
INGRID: And you’ve been very proactive in teaching other teachers, haven’t you? You’re very involved in the Pilates as a movement.
MELISSA: Yes. I teach for Polestar Pilates Australia, so training and mentoring students through their journey to becoming an instructor. And that was a great thing to add on to my career because again, that was just really inspiring because it’s quite intense, the training, and they they come in and they don’t really realize how much physical work there is. And to see them again start in that beginner phase, and then become advanced movers, and then be able to teach and overcome the fear of teaching is really rewarding and inspiring.
INGRID: And you’ve had some real successes as well? And the joy that brings, of people who have learned to be teachers and to go on and be teachers, so it is quite wonderful.
MELISSA: Yes, there’s been five clients turned into instructors which I think is pretty good.
INGRID: It is pretty good. And we look forward to talking to you maybe in another year or two when your new venture goes from being an embryonic startup to being something more than that. Thanks so much, Melissa.
MELISSA: Thank you.
INGRID: It’s been a pleasure.
MELISSA: Thanks very much.
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