Monday, April 23, 2007

Marketing Allongé

One of the biggest hurdles I face in moving forward with my small enterprise is thinking that I'll be crushed by all the competition that's out there, and that my idea isn't original enough.

But here's the thing - Olimpia's idea for a dance school wasn't original - there's so many of them everywhere. She did, however, have a secret weapon: herself. Her 15 years plus of experience teaching and performing (see her bio here) gave her the know-how to offer a high level of course offerings and instruction, and that gave her an edge.

By bringing our unique background and abilities to our endeavors, we make them different from what others are offering. The key is to focus on our strengths. Like these female entrepreneurs that won the 2006 "Make Mine A Million" contest. We've seen most of these businesses before: dogwalker, jewelry maker, baker, vineyard operator, professional staffer. I'm pretty sure that they chose their particular field because they were passionate about it - that's what gives us the drive we need to execute our visions.

Getting the word out
But back to Luis and Olimpia. As the deadline for the first day of operations loomed, the two fledgling entrepreneurs racked their brains for ways to spread the word about their school. They had put together beautiful brochures and needed to come up with a creative way to get them in people's hands. They took a multi-pronged approach: first they figured that kids like to eat pizza so they found a local pizzeria and convinced them to include a brochure with every pizza delivery in exchange for an ad in the back of the brochure. Secondly they placed stacks of brochures in stores that catered to kids: clothing, shoes, pet stores, ice cream parlors. Olimpia also hit the pavement and visited all the private and public schools in the area handing out brochures herself, and finally on weekends she stood at a busy intersection near the school and attracted kids by giving away balloons - an brochures of course! They ran a promotion giving away the first two classes for free to whoever brought in a brochure. That's how they were able to measure what marketing method was working best. On the back of each brochure was a little mark indicating how it was marketed. In the end, they found that the ones that worked best were the handouts at the schools and on the street, so they stopped using the pizzeria. After the free classes a total of 3 girls had signed up - they were in business! Now it's one and a half years later and Allongé Dance Center has a total of 36 students...and growing!

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Anatomy of a Startup: Allongé Dance Center

We recently had two full-fledged entrepreneurs (as opposed to aspiring, as most of us are still…) come visit our ever expanding Mogulettes meeting (we now have 36 members!) to share how they got started. Olimpia Hernández and Luis Blanco launched the Allongé Dance Center almost two years ago. Here are a few highlights of their story.

Trained as a dancer since she was a child, Olimpia had been dreaming of opening a dance studio for a long time. She had actually tried to do it on her own in the past but it hadn’t worked out. Then she met Luis, who has a background in finances, and decided to ask him to be her partner. From a business perspective, they complemented each other quite well. Luis could focus on doing the numbers-crunching and researching their target market, while Olimpia's expertise as a dancer and instructor would help them formulate the curriculum for the school, and give them a competitive advantage.

Luis and Olimpia share their startup secrets

Once Luis agreed to come on board, they decided to set a start date - that way they had a deadline to work towards. They gave themselves 9 months to prepare and immediately started looking at possible locations for the school. Their target market was parents with enough disposable income to pay for their children to attend dance classes, so they went into the census website and searched for neighborhoods with annual household incomes of $80,000. After that, they checked to see if there were any cultural or religious components to the area that might make a dance school unpopular with its residents. Competition was also a consideration, so they looked for places that didn’t have a lot of other studios operating there. Forest Hills, Queens, was their eventual choice. They even found a space that had just been vacated and had previously housed a dance studio.

With a little help from your friends
Luis quickly sat down and made some projections of how much they would need to "set up shop". He calculated it would cost $20,000 to renovate and rent the space for the first three months of operations. That was a huge chunk of change, especially since they didn't have it! They would also be losing money when the space wasn't being used, which would probably be most of the time at the beginning. But what else could they do?

Olimpia was able to find help in an unlikely place: she asked none other than her old boss for advice, who came up with a much cheaper alternative. He owned a dance school in Westchester where she had been teaching classes, and since she planned to open a studio in another county, she knew he wouldn't feel threatened. He suggested they do what he did when he started out: find a space they could rent by the hour, and only pay for the amount of time they needed it. Brilliant! (Another reason why we need mentors: to avoid costly mistakes!)

Howdy partner!
So they switched gears and looked into health clubs, karate schools and other options, until they found a yoga studio nearby that fit their requirements: a hardwood floor and a few open slots of time in the afternoons. However, when they got down to negotiating the rent, the owners wanted too much. So Olimpia and Luis came up with the idea of partnering up with the "yogis". They offered to give them a percentage of their profits in exchange for paying less rent, and the deal was sealed. Another hurdle overcome!

Coming up next: How Allongé found low cost ways to advertise