Angie O’ Brien and Heidi Bell were both at a turning point in their lives when they decided to take a chance on opening their own business. With careers they were ready to leave behind and kids they wanted to spend more time with, in 2010, they decided it was time to finally take their idea of opening a yoga studio seriously.
Burnt out on making the commute to attend yoga classes downtown, they saw a need for a boutique studio in Dublin, and so they decided to fill it! With a dream, a friendship, and a new business partnership, their idea was hatched in August, and doors to Harbor Yoga Studio were opened in November.
Read more about how they’ve turned their joint passion into a thriving business for 11 years and counting.
Give us a summary of your business:
Harbor Yoga is a different brand of yoga. We offer a unique focus on strength and core training, with a mix of traditional and challenging poses set to upbeat, fun music throughout. We are devoted to promoting a place of strength and inner peace for each of our students. In our HEATED studio, we offer a wide range of classes for yogis at any level.
How did the idea for your business come about?
When we opened our studio in 2010, there weren’t any yoga studios in Dublin. We both enjoyed practicing yoga downtown and had been doing so for about 10 years, but with our growing families and activities, it didn’t make sense to make the drive numerous times a week. We knew the suburbs needed a boutique studio for those not interested in oversized gyms, so we saw the need and went for it!
What were the two of you doing before starting your business, and was it scary to make the leap?
Heidi was a Kindergarten teacher but also taught yoga a couple days a week, and Angie had been in Television sales for the past 13 years. Of course it was scary opening our own business, but we had each other to lean on, and it wasn’t a large financial commitment to begin with a small shop.
Angie had already decided she was leaving her television career behind to stay home with her two young children, and Heidi was still working as a kindergarten teacher during the day. So neither of us had the additional stress of worrying about what would happen if we didn’t “make it.”
What was the turning point for your business? Was there a moment you knew you had something special?
We did a LivingSocial deal, offering an insane package of 10 classes for $20. We were hoping to sell 50, and we sold 700…in two days! That package definitely brought people in to sample us, but we knew we had something special when they chose to stay and buy more packages. After 6 months open, we had already paid ourselves back for the investment we put into the buildout of the studio.
During moments of growth, have you ever questioned if you could step up to the challenge?
The first time we had a class that hit double digits in the room, we called each other screaming with excitement into the phone. We had 10 people..in one class..and that was HUGE for us. Then, within months, we had waitlists for almost every class with 30 people in each!
That being said, a new challenge was created: How do we grow with numbers? We had to shift our mindset towards scheduling more classes, hiring instructors who we felt could best represent the brand, and giving them the freedom to create their own reputation for being incredible instructors. We didn’t necessarily question IF we could step up to the challenge but rather HOW to grow without losing our connection with the clients.
What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur and business owner?
To be an entrepreneur you need to be brave, adventurous, and confident in your product/service. On the flip side, being a business owner means you have to be consistent, fair, and realistic. Sometimes those two entities conflict with each other.
Could you describe a situation when you found these two things were at odds with each other?
We’re constantly grappling with being welcoming and accommodating to clients while making sure we’re not being taken advantage of. Heidi and I have both made some incredible relationships and friendships through our business, and we try REALLY hard to make the studio feel like a home and safe place for everyone. That being said, sometimes clients forget we are trying to accommodate the schedules and needs of nearly 15,000 students. We have found that consistency and no “special favors” works best for us. Everyone needs to be on a level playing field, and sometimes we just have to say “no” (which is often difficult to do).
What does the city of Columbus mean to your business?
We may be located in Dublin, but we have clients that drive from all over Columbus to take classes with us. As far as New Albany to Grove City and Delaware to Bexley. We have clients from all over the city, and we couldn’t operate without the support of all these areas! Luckily, “everything in Columbus is 20 minutes away,” so people will make the drive when it’s worth it.
Are you from Columbus? If not, what brought you here and ultimately made you stay?
Angie is from Dayton and Heidi is from Boston. We ended up moving to Columbus not long after graduating from college to pursue careers in television (Angie) and education (Heidi). We stayed because Columbus has so much opportunity and growth, as well as being a great place to raise a family!
How would you describe Columbus to someone who’s never been?
Columbus has something for everyone! Whether it be the arts, sports, cuisine, music, or just a safe place with midwestern values where you want to raise a family, Columbus has all of that and more.
What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to start a business?
Start small and grow from there. For us, we found a reasonably priced location, we did the work for the buildout ourselves and focused on short-term goals.
What were some of your short-term goals early on? How did you know it was time to grow and expand?
Initially, our short-term goal was to make it through the first year being able to pay the rent without taking from our savings. We also wanted to grow our team to have at least 5 instructors.
We knew it was time to expand when every class on our schedule was full with large waitlists to get in. We wanted to add more classes but needed more instructors to teach. The five of us on the schedule were tapped, and we didn’t want anyone to teach too many times a week and face burnout.
What do you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before starting your business?
Being an entrepreneur means you never actually have time off. If something goes wrong whether it be with a client, a staff member, or the utilities, you are always “on call.”
Have you found more work-life balance over time?
Absolutely. Seven years ago, we hired a studio Manager, Angie Moore, and because of her, we have been able to delegate some of the more time-consuming tasks. Whether it’s ordering supplies, organizing retail, answering phone calls/emails, we have complete confidence in Angie being the perfect “face” of the studio when it comes to initial contact with new clients. We both still check the scheduling app numerous times a day to see which clients attended, sales for the day, and overall performance of the team.
What’s the most challenging part of your business (i.e, what keeps you up at night)?
It’s always a challenge to keep things fresh and new. We never want to be a studio where clients become bored with classes because we are doing the same thing over and over. We are constantly evolving and encouraging our entire team to learn new things to incorporate into their classes because we never want to become “just another yoga studio.”
Do you have any consistent sources of inspiration for keeping things fresh and new?
Making sure all of the instructors participate in all kinds of workouts outside of yoga is a huge source of inspiration for our classes. Because we aren’t a traditional yoga studio, adding elements of HIIT training, pilates, and barre movements have always been crucial to our creative classes. Plus, with social media, it’s easy to find inspiration from fitness instructors all over the world.
Recently, we added a class called “Bands with a Burn.” It’s a HIIT platform taught in the heat using light hand weights as well as incorporating band work. This addition has been met with a lot of enthusiasm since returning from the pandemic closure. We offer that class twice a week, and it’s proven to be exactly what we needed to stay on-trend.
Every business owner has a flaw. What’s yours?
We have a hard time saying no to people. Before the pandemic, we would squeeze someone into a class when it was already completely full because we didn’t want to turn anyone away. We never charged people when they just “no-showed” and took the space of someone on the waitlist. After the pandemic, we were forced to analyze how those decisions were affecting our business and realized we needed to keep consistency and value our service more.
Why do you think most business owners fail? What has made you different?
I would say most business owners try to be too big too fast. Instead of starting small, they invest more than they need to on unnecessary things with too much emphasis on making a profit and less about the product or experience itself. To this day, we never nickel and dime people – we hand out free classes to people we meet like candy. We have a service that allows us the flexibility for potential customers to sample us without paying a cent.
What was your biggest mistake and what did it cost you?
When we opened our first location in Old Dublin, it never occurred to us that we would need more than 5 parking spaces. This oversight haunted us for the three years we were at that location. The biggest complaint we received from clients is that they “couldn’t find a parking spot,” so they just didn’t come to class. We will never know how many potential clients we lost because of that, so when we found our new location, parking was at the top of the list!
Have you had any other a-ha moments where seemingly small, simple shifts made a big difference?
Our early morning classes used to start at 6 AM. We started to realize that many clients would come to class but only stay for 45 minutes due to their work schedule. By simply bumping those classes M-F to 5:30 AM, we saw a huge spike in attendance. We aren’t early-to-rise girls, so we never imagined that those who are getting up at6 AM wouldn’t mind (or would actually prefer) to go even earlier.
What tool has helped you the most for your business (invoicing, accounting, shipping, plugin for website, etc.)?
Hands down, our MindBody Software, which does all of our class scheduling, payment, online streaming services, reporting, and bookkeeping.
When did you know it was time to expand your business, make your first hire, etc.?
We made our first hire prior to opening. We had one other instructor, besides ourselves, on the schedule for the first few months. Our first instructor was a friend who had practiced with us for years prior to opening. From there, we made a very conscious decision that we would only hire instructors who were students of ours first. This created an environment where there was already a “buy-in” of our philosophy and unique approach to yoga.
Hiring this way has helped us to build slowly and carefully. We didn’t necessarily want instructors who had the best form in the class; we wanted people who were approachable, welcoming, encouraging, and kind. Now, 10 years later, we have 26 instructors and a studio manager, and every single one of them was a client at Harbor Yoga first.
What was something you did that was a game-changer for your business?
In 2011, after being open for a year, we thought we needed to add a strength component to our vinyasa yoga classes. We both made a trip to Chicago to learn about a “Yoga with weights” class we had heard about, and we were hooked! Upon returning, we introduced our “Yoga Strong” to the schedule and it took off like wildfire. Now you see many studios around town using this concept, but we can proudly say we introduced it to this market. That class alone brought clients in who would never step foot in a yoga studio before. GAME CHANGER.
What was an idea that you spent a lot of time on or thought would make a big difference in your business that didn’t pan out?
Kids yoga – it sounds like an adorable concept and clients ask for it all the time. However, when we put it on the schedule, we were never able to fill the class. It took extra training for the instructor and a lot of time to plan a thoughtful class for that demographic. There wasn’t a great return on the investment, so we stopped offering it.
What is something that your business spends a lot of money on that’s worth it?
Our heating bill. When you advertise “hot” classes, you had better deliver on it. We offer 37 classes each week with a temperature of 100 degrees – that’s a lot of heat that costs a lot of money, and it’s totally worth it.
What is it about hot yoga that makes it special?
Hot yoga allows a person to be warm right out of the gate. In unheated classes, it takes about 15 minutes to get your body warmed up and able to take poses a bit deeper. In hot yoga, you are less likely to pull a muscle and more likely to take a pose to another level when the muscles are warm. Heated classes allow you to cleanse and detoxify as well.
What is something you’re working on now that you’re very excited about?
Before the pandemic, we would offer “Donation Based Classes” once a month on Fridays. These classes would be taught by one of our instructors who donated their time and all funds collected would be given to an organization or fundraiser. Over the past 10 years, we have done more than 100 donation classes raising over $50,000 for various non-profits and individuals from our community! We are looking forward to adding more of those in the coming weeks.
What form of marketing is the most valuable for you?
Word of mouth has grown our business more than anything else. Testimonials from friends/family who love their experience have been the reason we continue to crush our goals year after year. There is no social media post that could ever replace our client’s support outside the studio.
When we have merchandise for sale, it sells out within days. We’ve often said that clients are our billboards – when we closed during the pandemic, we offered tank tops that said #namastehome in order to keep active in the community. We sold 200 tank tops in just 48 hours!
Who is your best Columbus resource (accountant, lawyer, marketer, etc.)?
We buy all of our logoed merchandise in our retail store through Callard Promotional Marketing. Our representative is Jen Lewis and she does an incredible job with picking out quality products. She makes our creative visions come to life, and her turnaround time is second to none!
Who do you vent to when you have a business problem?
Luckily we have each other!
How did the idea to start a business together come about?
We would never have done this without each other. Heidi was already an instructor and Angie was getting certified. When we decided to open, Heidi was the only one who was able to teach and Angie worked the business side. Together, we made the perfect team.
Honestly, we always talked about how “fun it would be if…” but until one night over a few bottles of wine, we didn’t really take the pipedream seriously. We hatched the idea together and our husbands gave us a big push to go for it.
Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
We will still be rockin’ out in the dark hot yoga room with music blaring and sweat dripping off every limb.
Any plans to open more studio locations?
Never say never, but we love being a one-stop shop where we know all the faces and feel at home. Our dream was to make a space that exemplifies who we are as people… as moms, wives, friends. It was never about becoming a franchise and making tons of money…It’s always been about being a perfect complement to our current lives.
When you’re stressed or overwhelmed, what do you do to overcome this feeling?
Easiest question you could ask us – we do yoga!
What’s one component of entrepreneurship that’s much different than what most people think?
Before opening the studio, being an entrepreneur to us was someone who took all their life savings and put it into an idea and hoped for the best outcome. That’s not really true at all. Yes, there is a greater financial risk, but you don’t need to go broke to get started. You can work on your idea and still keep a more stable job until you are able to make the switch to full-time. You do not need to put all of your eggs into one basket to be an entrepreneur.
Is this how you did it? Was it a slow transition to opening your business, taking your time and getting a better sense of things before jumping in?
Not at all…We had the idea in August and opened in November with literally no time to question ourselves. Like I said before, we weren’t new to yoga and we certainly weren’t new to teaching or running a business, so finding the location was actually the most time-consuming part.
What’s your end goal with the business? Is this something you want to pass down to your kids or would you like to eventually sell?
Our end goal for this business is our current goal for this business: we want to bring people together who are looking to be healthy in mind, body, and spirit…to offer a place where people are comfortable, safe, and challenged all at the same time. We have always felt that we will know when it’s time to close our doors or sell Harbor Yoga depending on where we are in life…Only time will tell.
What other entrepreneur do you look up to most?
Mike O’Brien and Eddie Bell. Yes, they are our husbands, but both of our spouses started their own businesses years before we opened. Their guidance and support has made all the difference in our success. In the beginning years, they were incredible resources that we definitely took advantage of.
If you had to tell a visitor one thing to do/see/eat in Columbus, what would it be?
Head over to Bridge Park in Dublin. Stay at the JW Marriott. Walk to happy hour at Local Cantina then play some fun games at Pins Mechanical. After that, hit up Kilwins for dessert.
The next morning, wake up and sweat it out at Harbor Yoga followed by a walk over the bridge and into the Farmer’s Market. Now that’s a perfect weekend!