Work Out From Homewith Aya Cook, Deborah Hirsch, and Chris Patton
Fitness studios, like many other businesses, had to scramble to change over from in-person to virtual operations almost overnight. In this episode, three business owners in the fitness and wellness industry share their stories of how they’ve pivoted and how they’re continuing to look after their communities’ well-being during a difficult time.
Note: After we wrapped editing on this episode, Haji Healing Salon launched two support groups that meet weekly with a clinical psychologist. If you’re interested in signing up, click on “Healing Services” on Haji’s website.
- Arts + Public Life residency program at the University of Chicago - 3:14
- Haji Healing Salon website | Instagram - 3:19
- "Haji Healing Salon Aims to be 'Oasis and Sanctuary' On Bustling 79th Street in Chatham" (Block Club Chicago) - 4:04
- Philly Dance Fitness website | Livestream - 7:22
- Take It Off Broadway - 8:43
- StreamingVideoProvider - 11:10
- Punchpass website - 14:21
- Punchpass webinar on getting classes online - 17:04
- Hot Yoga Burlington - 18:30
- "Zoom Rushes to Improve Privacy for Consumers Flooding Its Service" (New York Times) - 23:06
The Full Transcript:
[00:00:00] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:00:02] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is the all in one toolkit for working remotely. Because of COVID-19, your company is likely scrambling to figure out how to transition to remote work. It may feel daunting but Basecamp is here to help. We built Basecamp to run our entire company and we’ve been working remotely for 20 years. We know what it takes, we do it every day, and we built those learnings into Basecamp. You can learn more and sign up at Basecamp.com.
Aya: [00:00:32] The upstairs neighbors flooded their apartment and it caused the salon to flood downstairs so the whole ceiling fell in. This was a moment where I was like, wow are we going to come back from this? So we were closed for three months and we had just reopened, February 2nd, and now March whatever date it was, the universe fell in.
Deborah: [00:00:56] I was running around trying to get the studio set up and then I get a press release or email, like 2 o’clock on Monday, the 16th saying, the city orders all non-essential businesses to close to the public. And I was like, in tears. On the studio floor, what am I going to do?
Shaun: [00:01:19] Hello, and welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.
[00:01:25] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:01:25] And I’m Wailin Wong. We’ve been talking to small business owners about how they’re dealing with this global pandemic that has shut down cities and entire countries around the world. Stores, restaurants, and service providers have seen their business drop to almost zero seemingly overnight. And many are responding in creative and resilient ways that we want to spotlight on our show.
Shaun: [00:01:46] Today’s episode is about fitness and wellness businesses, especially those that are based on in-person classes and physical locations. They’re not considered essential businesses so they can’t stay open and they’re not the kind of jobs you can really start doing from home.
[00:01:59] Today we’ll hear from three business owners in the fitness and wellness industry about how they’re adapting.
[00:02:04] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:02:12] We’re going to start with the story of Aya Cook. She has a background in art and fashion design and she’s been teaching yoga for over a decade. A few years ago, she was recovering from surgery to remove fibroids which are benign uterine tumors.
Aya: [00:02:25] At the end of it, I had two dear sister-friends who cared for me for the first four weeks after the surgery and that was when it really became important for me to create healing space for others. At first my intention was just, let me just support women with fibroids. I took care of ten women at a time and it was a ten-week program and they would get access to all these different levels of care and different practitioners who would come in.
[00:02:52] And then as I was caring for these women, other people were coming forward, other women were like, oh, I don’t have fibroids but I have PCOS, or I have endometriosis and then men started coming, too. I have this knee injury, or can I come and get acupuncture and so the community started asking for it and that’s what lead to the wellness center experiment.
Wailin: [00:03:13] That experiment was a pop-up wellness studio that Aya created while doing a residency program in the arts and public life. She then decided to create a permanent space called Haji Healing Salon on the south side of Chicago. The studio opened in 2018 and offers yoga and meditation as well as more specialty wellness services.
Aya: [00:03:31] At Haji Healing Salon we provide acupuncture, reiki energy healing, sound healing, and then we have a whole segment of divination counseling sessions where people can have tarot, astrology, or they can have a session with a priestess of Oshun. So we’re bringing the African spirituality as well.
[00:03:53] We are pretty unapologetic about centering and prioritizing black and brown people and people who live on the south side of Chicago. Everything is very low cost so that the community is able to show up in a consistent way. And we call it a sanctuary for south side.
Wailin: [00:04:08] But not even the sanctuary could stay open during COVID-19.
Aya: [00:04:13] We have two blackboards in the space that are really large and I have an art background so it’s one of the joys that I get to write on the blackboard and put up our schedule, and different inspiring messages and things. So I took one of the blackboards and put up all these different ways we could protect ourselves, you know with the 20 second hand washing and gave some other wellness tips for the community to observe. I took a picture of that, I put it on our Instagram. People came in and out of the salon and know this and said, oh, this is so helpful. And I thought, okay. That’s enough. I’m doing enough.
[00:04:47] And then it just wasn’t enough, suddenly. I was really hoping to remain open but actually got some communication from one of my acupuncturists who felt very strongly that it would be irresponsible to continue doing community acupuncture at that time. Even then, though, I still wanted to offer yoga because I also felt that it was a way that people were able to manage the stress and anxiety that was mounting around the issue. And I thought, well, we’ll just make the class sizes smaller. I’ll just limit the registration online and I’ll tell people, only 10 folks can come to yoga this Sunday.
[00:05:26] And then I think by the time we got to Thursday, it was clear I just couldn’t be open at all. So things changed really rapidly. I thought if we close this early, who knows how long we’ll be down. I wanted to kind of wait longer but it just became really clear, no. You just have to take a seat and surrender to this right now.
[00:05:48] So the first thing I had to do when I realized we were going to be closed was contact all the members and offer them the option of suspending their membership because I understand that some people in our community are facing a big loss of income right now and I wanted to make sure the members knew that although their membership fees really help us sustain through this time, if they needed grace and wanted to suspend the membership that I would do that for them. I think about 10 members asked for the pause.
[00:06:19] For the first week, it felt very personal. I just needed to personally process what was happening and come to a place of acceptance about it. Really what’s required right now is radical acceptance about where we are.
[00:06:31] So that first week was all about that and then the second week was really about figuring out the tools that I would need to figure out this shift to online. For some reason I thought teachers would be able to go to Haji and just be the only person there at the salon, and I would have all of the equipment I bought set up. We could have these consistent, well-branded videos. And I thought I’d post them on a pay per view platform like Vimeo or something.
[00:06:58] But now I just realized this is not the moment to try to be perfect, to just have a need to curate every single aspect. It’s just a moment to be really present and to show up in the most consistent way that we can. And really that wound up being Zoom. So I surrendered to Zoom.
Wailin: [00:07:14] I surrendered to Zoom. We all surrendered to Zoom, our new video overlords, yes.
Aya: [00:07:18] Yeah.
Wailin: [00:07:19] Now we’re going to introduce you to another fitness studio owner. Deborah Hirsch is the founder of Philly Dance Fitness in Philadelphia. We actually went to journalism school together and she started teaching group exercise classes part-time in 2010 while she was working at a newspaper. Five years later, the paper where she was working laid off almost the entire staff so she left journalism to run her business full time.
Deborah: [00:07:41] So we started running classes April 2010. That fall, I think, I hired my first two contractors to teach other classes and then I just started hiring more and more. It made more sense in the last 10 years to shift my focus full time into my small business.
Wailin: [00:08:00] Early in March, Deborah was starting to think about her studio’s upcoming 10-year anniversary celebration. But then the virus happened.
Deborah: [00:08:08] We were already seeing numbers in classes just dropping dramatically. We basically were, every day, sort of checking in with my instructors and saying, listen, you only have two people signed up, I’m going to cut this class because it doesn’t make sense for you to come in and teach two people. We were getting that weird message that a lot of people were getting, which is don’t panic, keep supporting your local businesses, keep operating as usual. Just disinfect things, cover your cough, wash your hands a hundred times.
[00:08:35] That’s a really fine line, right? Don’t panic but act differently.
Wailin: [00:08:40] At the same time, Deborah and the studio were in the middle of producing a big show.
Deborah: [00:08:44] We were preparing for a student show. It’s called Take It Off Broadway. It’s a really neat collaboration with the local burlesque community, and they’re always a ton of fun. So we had started rehearsals for it in mid-February and the show was March 14th. It was that first Monday in March. People were already starting to talk about disinfect everything, wash your hands. The following week, that Tuesday or Wednesday, the 10th or 11th, my husband was pressuring me. You probably should not have the show this weekend. And I’m sitting there going, I’ve got 35 students who’ve just rehearsed for five weeks. It’s impossible to coordinate that many people to reschedule. But then it was literally 24 hours. The city of Philadelphia was starting to say, we advise you don’t go in group gatherings.
[00:09:33] So I’m sitting here saying, well, I’m going to follow the lead of the government. The government’s saying no more than 250, then we’re fine. Because this show is small, right? We’re going to have 40 staff and performers and then we’re going to have an audience, at most, this show usually gets 115 people in the audience. At most. So, it was Thursday night that the city had said something about you shouldn’t be out in a public gathering of more than 100 people and I emailed my husband when he was at work, or messaged him, and I said, we need to livestream the show and tell everybody who bought a ticket, here’s the link. Please stay home.
[00:10:12] The show is Saturday, right? We started ordering equipment. I think we got the tripod in time. The cameras and stuff didn’t come until later, so we used our iPhone to livestream it. The livestream itself worked really well, except, here’s the thing. We sent out the email to everybody who purchased a ticket both the day before and then an hour before the show, so we were strongly encouraging them not to come. Well, guess what? They came.
[00:10:36] We had like, at least probably 60 people. I remember looking at my co-producer and we were like, what are we going to do? All these people are here and they came anyway? I felt pretty guilty and bad, frankly. We didn’t break any rules. We were within the guidelines that the city had set up at that time and no one that I know of has gotten sick.
Wailin: [00:10:56] Finally, in mid-March, Deborah had to close the doors of her business and bring her classes online. Thankfully, she had already gotten her livestream technology set up from her student show and had it ready to go. She ended up going with a different company, not Zoom, called StreamingVideoProvider. That’s literally the name. StreamingVideoProvider.
[00:11:15] Philly Dance Fitness is doing about 35 online classes a week now taught by instructors out of their homes. That’s about 75% of their pre-COVID schedule.
Deborah: [00:11:25] For the most part, knock on wood, it’s been working and the students are so grateful. And I am so grateful, because listen, not every business can do what we’re doing. Within a matter of days, we had to change our 100% in-person operation to a 100% virtual operation. That’s ridiculous. I don’t think anything would have prepared me for that. And doing that, simultaneously while being stuck in my house with a 20-month-old, a five-year-old, and a seven-year-old, and my husband who’s also trying to work full time. It’s been unbelievable. I’m not going to say nightmare, because we’re healthy, and that is the most important thing. But it’s been really hard. I’m not going to lie about that. It’s been so… everybody’s going through this. Everybody knows how hard it is. And the gratitude from the students is just fueling me right now.
[00:12:22] There was one moment where my husband and I got in an argument about it and he’s trying to wear five hats just like me, and I was asking him a question about, like, well, would it be easier if we did this for the pricing versus that. And he’s like, you know, it would be easier if you just closed down your business like every other small business. I looked at him, I was like, I don’t know what to say to that, but like. He understands. We’re trying to keep it going because it’s not just about me and the money that comes in as my income. It’s about the 30 people that we pay. It’s about the hundreds of people who take our classes who would like a little bit of joy in their lives right now when they’re stuck at home, whatever their situation might be. And trying to maintain a sense of normalcy for a really abnormal time.
[00:13:13] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:13:16] After the break, we’ll hear from the founder of a company working hard to help fitness studios get online. But first, how about a work from home tip from one of our listeners.
John: [00:13:25] Hi home-bound Reworkers. This is John in Indianapolis. I’ve been working at home since 2006, so this idea is not new to me. However, there are now three others in the home-bound spaceship with me, my wife, out 12-year-old son and a new eight-year-old pug. So after 13 days, we have some newfound rules. We all have our own office space, so stay out during work hours. Except the dog, she has lots of latitude. Exercise time is not to be interrupted and no trades allowed on the home chore chart. No one else is going to clean the dishes on your day. Thanks again for the Rework episodes.
[00:13:58] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:13:58] If you would like to share your tips and tricks for working from home in these bizarre times, leave us a voice mail at (708) 628-7850. Or, you can record a voice memo on your phone and email it to email@example.com. Now, back to the show.
Wailin: [00:14:16] By mid-March it wasn’t just studio owners that were trying to get online as quickly as possible. Other parts of the fitness industry were racing to adapt, too. Like Punchpass, a six-year-old bootstrapped software company. Chris Patton is the founder and lives near Burlington, Vermont.
Chris: [00:14:31] We are a small software company. We help, mostly yoga and fitness studios manage their in-person, well, until recently, their in-person group classes. So we’re the software they use to take reservations, to sell passes online, post their schedule, sort of run their business. It’s their business management software.
[00:14:51] So our switch was the weekend of March 7th-8th, really thinking hard about what can we do to help our clients in this situation. Because, you know, one, we want to help them, but two, if, like I said, we manage software for in-person group classes. That’s not great positioning in this day and age. And so if they all go out of business, we got out of business, myself, and our six employees need to find something else to do. The obvious solution is going online. So around that weekend, sort of had that concept of really simple integration [inaudible]. By Thursday the 12th or so, we’d finished it. So Thursday it was done. However, you’ve got to go through the Zoom approval process.
[00:15:39] We had to go through one quick revision but by the following Tuesday it was approved. We sort of packaged up some quick documentation and our clients started using it. We’re letting them easily create a Zoom meeting that’s attached to that class, and then we have that information. So if you, for example, are registered for a yoga class that was online, the reservation reminder email, confirmation email, and then we send a special email, say 20 minutes before class starts. Has that Zoom link, right?
[00:16:09] So really the issue people are having is I can create the class and I can get the reservations but I’ve got to connect them. I’ve got to get people that link. It’s sort of in real time, because class starts when it starts. There are certainly plenty of studios coming who want to offer online classes and offer it quickly. Our trials have doubled in the last five days.
Wailin: [00:16:28] Oh, no kidding. So your business is up.
Chris: [00:16:29] I wouldn’t say it’s up. I mean, there’s certainly some studios we have that just can’t, for a variety of reasons, offer online classes. If you’re offering, say, private Pilates classes and it’s on the equipment, there’s nothing you can do. They’re either closing their studios down or they’re putting them on hiatus, and we sort of are letting them do that. The studios we’re seeing who have success are ones who are realizing okay, we can’t offer that class, but we still have a community so we need to offer something. So we’re going to offer a body weight Pilates class. Or, our normal class is an hour, but we’re going to offer 30-minute classes.
Wailin: [00:17:07] Punchpass started holding webinars to help customers get their classes online and give practical tips on lighting, music, and using the technology. Attendance for the webinars quickly jumped from 10 to 20 people, up to 300.
Chris: [00:17:20] I mean, the advantage that these studios have, you can get free yoga online. Easily. Or for $10 a month, some beautiful video shown in front of the Tetons. But that’s not what our clients’ customers want. They want that community. And that community is, it’s more important now than ever. Everyone’s stuck at home and the community is sort of what’s been taken away from people.
[00:17:47] Our clients are finding that their community is their biggest asset. They’re having a realization that they have a really important role to play. Exercise and meditation and yoga, all of that, is wonderful to be doing right now for everybody’s health and sanity. So they have a role to play in their communities. So that’s been their secret weapon.
[00:18:10] One of the things I like about small bootstrap business is you’re a little closer to your customers because of the smaller size and it’s really gratifying to see customers sort of take a tool that you’ve built and use it to literally, in some of these cases, save their businesses and save their instructors’ jobs.
[00:18:32] So there’s one here in Burlington, Hot Yoga Burlington Vermont, and he’s been a long-time client. Almost since the beginning. He sent an email to his regulars and had a class that night with 40 people. By Wednesday, he’d had over 500 different people take an online class. But some of the unexpected benefits have been all of these people have talked a lot about community. But people move away. But he posted this on his Facebook group and suddenly, he’s got people from all over the country in his classes. So that’s been sort of this interesting, unexpected result that I think a lot of people are finding, is that moving online lets them bring the community members they had back into their community.
Wailin: [00:19:12] Aya Cook at Haji Healing Salon has also been reflecting on the concept of community. It’s something she’s been thinking about for a while because she’s closed her studio twice in the last couple of years. Once to remodel, and once to rebuild after that flood she talked about at the top of the episode.
Aya: [00:19:28] I have had reason to say over the last couple of years as we were forced to close a few times, Haji’s not about the space. It’s a whole vibe. It’s a whole orientation and it’s community. So it’s an opportunity now as we shift to online offerings to really focus in on the things that are not space-related that make us Haji. And I think there’s plenty there. And I think folks know and feel that they’re still here for us in the same way that we’re still here for them. That’s the message I really want to get across right now, is like, yeah, things look different but we’re still here for you and we can still heal together.
Wailin: [00:20:07] Deborah’s also thinking about her community of instructors, staff, and students. And how she can stay viable month-to-month through an uncertain time.
Deborah: [00:20:17] We can’t charge the same exact amount for it. It’s less. People won’t be able to afford what it costs for the in person versus the online even though we might be paying the same amount out. Unless my landlords are going to excuse my rent, I have the same expenses. That’s the hardest part. I’m looking at this livestream which has been wildly successful in some ways. Far more successful than I anticipated. But it’s still half as much revenue as we would normally be making right now in March. Half as much revenue is better than $0. I will be able to pay my rent this month. I will be able to pay my teachers this month.
[00:20:55] Next month? I don’t know.
Aya: [00:20:57] Now the struggle is, or the challenge, I don’t want to call it a struggle. I don’t want to affirm struggling. But the challenge that we’re navigating now is creating content to keep our members engaged so that they don’t leave.
Wailin: [00:21:11] You said you didn’t want to affirm struggle, and so you went with a different word. Can you talk a little bit about the language that you use with yourself and with others during difficult times?
Aya: [00:21:25] So I’m an affirmations person. I’m very conscious of the way that I speak. And even when I’m not, I catch myself and bring it back and I reframe. There’s a certain kind of language that is conditioned in us, in a way, and it takes a lot of work and training to regularly reframe that language. My word is my wand. We are magical beings. We have the power to create things and we’re always creating with our mind, with our words, with our deeds.
[00:21:57] Part of a mindfulness practice is really about understanding that. And being able to bring mindfulness to what it is that you think, say, and do. And actually, one of the online offerings we’re going to have, I’ll start a class called Morning Rituals with Aya. And it’s actually mantra, movement, and meditation. That’s something new that we didn’t have at Haji before and it’s one of the things that I realize this new online, virtual salon gives me actually a lot more opportunity to create and to innovate. And to stay connected to the community.
Deborah: [00:22:30] I miss the human contact so much, so much. But knowing that when I’m teaching to that camera, at least 15-30 people are out there watching at that same moment trying to do what I’m doing. That gives me a little bit of, I don’t know if satisfaction is the right word, but it makes me feel a little better. Makes me feel like I’m not alone.
[00:22:52] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:22:58] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art.
[00:23:03] One quick note about this episode. We recorded our interviews before all of the news coverage about Zoom security issues. At Basecamp, we’ve decided to stop using Zoom for video conferences. If you’re curious about how Chris Patton and Punchpass is handling these issues, his company’s Zoom integration has always required a password for meetings, and customers can’t disable the security feature.
[00:23:23] He said at first his clients didn’t like it, but now they’re glad it’s there.
Wailin: [00:23:27] You can find Punchpass and watch its webinars at Punchpass.com. Haji Healing Salon is on Instagram at @HajiHealingSalon, that’s H-A-J-I. And you can sign up for virtual sessions led by Aya Cook and her staff at HajiHealingSalon.com. If you want to take a Philly Dance Fitness class, go to PhillyDanceFitness.com/live. That’s P-H-I-L-L-Y Dance Fitness.com/live. You can access live-streamed classes and watch recorded videos.
Shaun: [00:23:57] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is the all in one toolkit for working remotely. Remote work is especially challenging when stuff’s spread out across emails, file services, task managers, spreadsheets, chats, meetings. Things get lost. You don’t know where to look for stuff. And people put the right information in the wrong place. But when it’s all together in Basecamp, you’ll see where everything is, understand what everyone’s working on, and know exactly where to put the next thing everyone needs to know about. Check it out for yourself at Basecamp.com.
[00:24:28] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.