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Bright Biz Ideas | School of a Different Stripe

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A corporate model with career-oriented employees lets one school thrive

By Julie Holt Lucia

Like most studio owners, when I first started planning to open a school, it was because I felt passionate about dance and teaching. And because I couldn’t find an opportunity working for someone else that fit just right, I decided to create one for myself. I began to plan how my school would be different from others I had known as a dancer and as a teacher.

Though I was sure the dance world was where I belonged, I knew I needed to learn about the business world in order to make my vision happen. I wanted to establish my business as a corporation so that it would be a legally separate entity from me, and I wanted my school to have an organized and well-tended office—something I’d noticed was missing in some of the other schools I’ve encountered.

Studio Dance Centre’s four-cylinder powerhouse: From left, Arrica Hackney, Jamie Williams, owner Julie Holt Lucia, and Michele Monaghan. (Photo courtesy Studio Dance Centre)

For a year, while I held an office job and taught dance part-time, I worked on a business plan, found a tenant representative, researched properties, took accounting classes online, and secured financing. Surprisingly, the business side of things drew me in. I found that I enjoyed learning how to create and run a business.

The plan
I had some grand ideas, I was also young, with virtually no reputation, a moderate amount of experience, and a brand-new school with a tight budget. Since I was starting from scratch, I initially hired all part-time staff, including four promising teachers and one office manager. Studio Dance Centre opened its doors in Frisco, Texas, in 2006, with two classrooms and an enrollment of 175.

During that first year, the office manager turned out to be fantastic and two of the teachers were great. The other two teachers—well, let’s just say they taught me a lesson in human resources. One “forgot” to show up for her classes and wore her blasé attitude on her sleeve. (She lasted only a few months.) The other repeatedly put on an act to cover up troubles in her personal life—and then, after a confrontation with me, she stood up her classes on recital day. I was wracked with anxiety and felt like a failure for letting those things happen.

Those problems were the early wake-up call that I needed, though, and proof that I had to change not only whom I hired, but how and for what kind of position. I had happy customers for other reasons (thank goodness) but I knew that settling for the status quo wasn’t a good business strategy. I wanted employees who would care about the studio as if it were their own and who were motivated to succeed—and while some part-time teachers are this way to begin with, I felt that as a new studio owner, I needed to do something more.

The only way I could think of to find that kind of dedication was to create a new kind of position, one that would be like a mini-me. Not only would that person be well equipped to teach dance, but he or she would also learn the basic skills and customer service needed in our small office. What I was thinking of, I realized, was a career-oriented position for someone willing to have it as a primary or only job. Though an entry-level position with hourly pay, it would offer someone a modest living. And though it would be more expensive for me as a business owner, I knew that it was a surefire way to find someone reliable.

Getting started
For that position, an assistant manager/dance instructor, I hired Michele Monaghan (who has since moved up to even more responsibility). After a three-step interview process, including a teaching audition, plus a background check, Michele started learning the studio’s office procedures as well as teaching classes. A big part of her position was customer service, both in person and over the phone, and she also dove right into assisting with computer work, such as processing registrations and payments and organizing spreadsheets for the recital.

Although Michele’s hours varied from week to week (usually 30 to 40), she worked a full-time schedule, teaching a little less than half of that time and working a five-day week (Monday through Thursday, plus Saturday). Her hourly pay rate varied with her different roles; I divided her timesheet into separate office hours and teaching hours. Because I use a payroll service, this was a fairly easy task each pay period.

Almost immediately I could tell that hiring Michele had been the right decision and that it was a turning point for my then year-old business. She was new to teaching but good at it, and she adapted easily to learning the office work. She was passionate about dance and about doing her job well, and she was a lot like me in personality.

At this point, some readers might be saying, “How did you know she wouldn’t run off with your customer list and open a school a block away?” I didn’t know. But I spent a great deal of time interviewing and getting to know her, and my instinct told me that she would be a great employee and did not have any ulterior motives. Also, in my area it isn’t so easy to open a new business—it’s expensive and time-consuming. Regardless, all of my employees sign non-compete agreements. Would that stop her or anyone else? No. But I did my homework thoroughly when hiring and ultimately trusted my gut.

At that point, Michele and I were the only ones working full-time (with a couple of trusty part-timers), but my goal was to promote her and bring in others like her. In that first year, Michele proved how capable she was, and I continued to offer her more responsibilities, little by little. I became invested in her success (since she represented me and my studio so well), and she in mine (presumably because she enjoyed her job and wanted to keep it).

The next step
Michele’s success in her position meant that I could consider hiring someone else in the same type of role the following year. One of my part-time instructors, Jamie Williams, was the ideal candidate, since she was graduating from college and on the job hunt. She had already proven herself as a dedicated teacher, and I believed she would make an excellent addition to the office staff as well. (By this point, I had lost my previous part-time office manager to a long-distance move and had only one other part-time teacher.)

Jamie turned out to be a natural fit, and after some training, she took on a twin role to Michele’s. Although Michele had become salaried and gained some responsibilities, the two positions were similar and held the same title.

Soon we had a highly efficient three-ring circus (and I mean that in a good way) on our hands. On any given day, two of us would be teaching while the other handled customer service and office tasks. We would rotate in the classrooms and office as dictated by the schedule, but we all had a full-time week of around 40 hours, a combination of office work and teaching. (At this point the studio offered 50-plus classes weekly, divided fairly evenly among the three of us.)

Although I had some grand ideas, I was also young, with virtually no reputation, a moderate amount of experience, and a brand-new school with a tight budget.

Because each of us had a hand in the daily operations and management of the studio, most of our 300-plus customers got to know us well. Through customer feedback, I learned that they trusted that we would be organized, professional, and consistent. In addition, they felt confident that they would always get the same high quality of service from each of us, whether in the classroom with their children or in the office handling their questions, paperwork, or payments. This set an important precedent that I never wanted to lose, because their feedback told me that I was gaining their loyalty.

Here and now
Over the past year, the studio became a highly efficient four-ring circus, adding a third classroom and a fourth career-oriented employee, Arrica Hackney. I have shifted around some responsibilities to better distinguish each person’s role and experience level.

Michele is now my communications manager/dance instructor, meaning that in addition to the 16 to 18 classes she teaches each week, she oversees basic customer communications (email blasts, announcements, and reminders). Jamie is now my accounts manager/dance instructor, and while she also teaches 16 to 18 classes each week, she oversees much of the customer invoicing and accounts receivable. Arrica is our assistant manager/dance instructor, filling the previous shoes of both Michele and Jamie, as well as teaching 14 to 16 classes each week. Michele and Jamie are now both salaried, based on their previous years’ work, and Arrica is paid hourly.

I am still the sole owner and director, and I also teach 14 to 16 classes each week. I handle the business accounts, budgeting, property management, payroll, and taxes. Although my employees share a great deal of office and classroom responsibilities, I still step in as needed for major customer issues and business decisions. For example, my employees are free to use their judgment on minor issues like waiving a late fee, but I prefer to be consulted if someone requests a refund.

All four of us spend a great deal of our office time doing simple customer service and computer work: assisting parents while their kids are in class, answering potential customers’ questions, processing registrations and payments, creating recital lists and documents, and researching class music and choreography ideas. The office is always open during the studio’s regular business hours, closing only in emergency situations, such as when one of us is sick. In that case, whoever is in the office covers the absent teacher’s classes.

I still have one part-time teacher, Ronni Young, who teaches four classes each week. She does not work in the studio office, but it’s easy to keep her updated on the latest news. I’ve known Ronni since I opened the studio, and she fits in seamlessly despite her minimal hours.

A “corporate” culture
Although my studio is traditional in its class offerings and annual recital, it is at heart a small corporate business. Everyone who works for my studio (including me) is an employee; only guest teachers are contractors. I revise returning employees’ offer letters each school year to reflect any contractual changes, such as a raise or a change in responsibilities. Essentially, each person signs a one-year contract that specifies that year’s start/renewal date, job title, wages or salary, and time off.

I am as transparent as I can be with my employees so that they know why I make business decisions the way I do. Once or twice a year I show them a watered-down profit-and-loss statement to explain why I have certain goals for the studio. I think they appreciate the insight, and they say they value the behind-the-scenes glance at the complexities of the business. I feel that they support and respect me more as their director because I am honest with them (never condescending) and welcome their ideas.

But the setup has its drawbacks. The school has been open for less than five years, and though it’s been increasingly profitable during the last three, I’ve had challenges financially—particularly with the lightweight summer months. In addition to always having a summer session, we also build in summer planning time, to rev up and get ready for the next school year. It helps us reorganize and get on the same page with curriculum and classroom management.

Having salaried employees is more expensive than hiring contractors, and it can take some creative budgeting. I offer a health-care stipend and four weeks of scheduled time off (paid for the salaried employees but not for the hourly ones). But it is well worth it for their job security and my peace of mind. Like a lot of small businesses, the biggest expenses are rent and payroll, and since those are stabilizing, I feel like things will continue to improve from here.

Although we don’t struggle with Ronni being the only part-time teacher among full-timers, a previous part-time teacher left because she felt insecure within our tight-knit group. The compatibility problem was mutual, but I never wanted her to feel deliberately left out.

It almost goes without saying that my school is like my second home. The people I’ve chosen to work with are my employees, yes, but they are also my co-workers, my friends, and my extended family. I would be sad to see any of them leave, but I would take solace in the fact that I have helped them gain new knowledge and skills, and that they in return have taught me a great deal about working as a team and building solid relationships.

Together we have shaped a unique and successful working environment, and the studio is thriving because of it.

Sample Job Description for Assistant Manager/Dance Instructor
School owner Julie Holt Lucia posted this job description with a few local university career services offices and dance departments, as well as on Craigslist.

This is a unique small-business position with the opportunity to grow. Responsibilities include both dance instruction and studio management. Position is based on the academic school year and summer sessions. Immediate availability a plus.

Dance and/or teaching experience needed. Candidates must be self-motivated and flexible, with some business, accounting, and/or customer service experience required. A positive attitude and outgoing personality are musts! Candidates must be interested in working with children and willing to learn and grow within a small business environment. Two- or four-year college degree required.

Position is hourly, up to 35 hours per week to start. Hours will include some evenings and Saturdays. Prior to hiring, candidates are subject to a background screen and reference check. If you are interested in this position, please forward your resume/CV and letter of introduction by email to be contacted for an interview.

Negotiable hourly rate commensurate with experience and education.

Sample Interview Questions
Tell me about yourself. What interested you in this type of position?

(Someone who is working toward a teaching certificate, for example, wouldn’t be the right fit for a full-time, long-term position.)

What are your goals in dance? Where do you see yourself in five years?

(Someone who is auditioning for professional companies or wants to own a studio one day might not be the right match.)

Describe a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer. What happened, and how did you handle the situation?

(This answer doesn’t have to be dance related, just a good example of working under pressure with a challenge, and preferably with a good outcome.)

Describe a time when you had to deal with a difficult child. What happened, and how did you handle the situation?

(Again, this doesn’t have to be dance related, but it shows how the candidate relates to kids and uses problem-solving skills.)

Let’s say you are working in the office and you hear parents gossiping in the lobby about the studio’s policies. What would you do?

(You want to know that the candidate would be forthright but not abrasive with studio families. It’s also important to note how the candidate answers this question; for example, uncomfortable and shy or confident and clear-headed?)

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January 2011
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