This week, we continue on our journey speaking with our valiant small business community to find out how they’re using their creativity and resourcefulness to adapt and keep going in defiance of Covid-19.
Through our Covid-19 #SmallBizHeroes series, we’re shining a light on some of these gutsy entrepreneurs who are finding a way through. Their approaches, attitude and ingenuity may serve to inspire us all, giving hope that we'll come through this together as best we can.
This week, we spoke with yoga entrepreneur Sara Smyth about her business:
Find out how Sara's inspiring us, below.
And don't miss out on her tips for running online classes, or her free yoga and meditation recordings either!
Farillio: Sara, tell us the story of Mama Love Yoga London. What was your journey to becoming a yoga entrepreneur and business owner?
Sara: Well, in my former life I was actually a lawyer, believe it or not! But I started my own yoga journey in 2007, initially practising Astanga and Bikram yoga before discovering Dynamic Vinyasa Yoga.
I started my business shortly after I had both my girls, as I was so passionate about the transformative effect of yoga in helping people feel strong, flexible and more balanced.
Initially aimed at keeping mums mentally and physically fit, Mama Love Yoga London now offers dynamic yoga group classes for adults and pre-schoolers, yoga workshops and 1:1 private yoga tuition.
There are a lot of yoga classes out there, so it can be hard to differentiate, but my USP is that this is accessible and informal yoga for everybody, with a focus on local mums and families. The key focus is on STRENGTH / SPACE & SELF-CARE.
Right now, with the world spinning as it is, I feel like it is more important than ever for us to have this.
Farillio: We hear you. Finding those moments of zen right now are a real challenge, but so valuable if you can. How was business before Covid-19 struck? How were classes going and what plans did you have?
Sara: Everything was going really well. My regular classes were busy. I recently launched new classes and my first weekend retreat for the summer.
I had ventured into the world of branded merch and had set up the Mama Love Yoga London online shop: a collection of organic cotton vests, t-shirts, jumpers and tote bags to celebrate the yoga love-in!
I had a marketing plan that was working and I was thinking about how I could grow the business, take on other teachers and offer more services to families. My plan was (is still) to create a relaxed community and social yoga space for families, with the whole spectrum of yoga classes, from pregnancy and post-natal, onwards.
Farillio: Sounds like things were going amazingly well. When did you realise that Covid-19 was about to impact all of this?
Sara: Once the initial advice on washing hands and less physical contact first became public, I realised that this could potentially have a serious impact on my classes. They are very social, everyone knows each other and I've always encouraged lots of chat and interaction.
I also offer hands on assists and short massages in Savasana. So, I sanitised all equipment and spaced mats over 1.5m apart. I stopped doing any hands-on assists during the class. However, it all moved so quickly that I actually had very little time to adapt classes before I decided to stop them altogether.
I think it was Monday 16th March, when the PM made the announcement advising against unnecessary public meetings. I didn't feel comfortable continuing at that point.
As soon as I made the decision to stop the classes in person, I knew my priority was to preserve the community I had built up over the last 3 years. The week before closing, I had thought of going online as a way to continue classes and had already ordered a webcam and tripod.
Although it was completely out of my comfort zone, I spent the next two days researching online classes. I watched several how-to webinars, asked a lot of questions on forums and took time to practice with my friends and family to iron out any tech issues.
I went live with my first class on Wednesday 18th March. Since then, all my classes have been live online, and also recorded in case people can't make the time or have a tech issue.
Farillio: You clearly reacted really fast to this situation. We bet there were obstacles though. What were these and how did you overcome them?
Sara: Definitely! It was daunting, like starting all over again in a way. I have never taught online before and I had no idea about the technology involved, or if anyone would want to pay to do my online yoga classes.
I was also extremely nervous about having to 'perform' on screen, and I was worried about the lack of social interaction, as it is such a big part of my classes.
There was so much to learn in an extremely short space of time!
After my initial research, I chose to work on Zoom, and there is a wealth of information on their platform about how to set up and what equipment you might need.
Taking the time to practice before going live was crucial. I am so glad I did that as there were tech issues that I hadn't even considered, like making sure people turned their sound and video on! I also had to buy a few extra cables and ensure the broadband was at max level, as this really affects the quality of video.
Farillio: Zoom’s been brilliant as a tool for us these past weeks too! We’ve experimented with quite a few tools, on top of the usual Slack and MS Teams video tools we normally use in our business. We’re even recording some of our own non-live videos over Skype and using a whole series of fab plug-ins to get a great video experience. It’s amazing what you can learn and justify the time to experiment with in situations like this!
So, Sara, tell us, you’re now a few weeks down the line with your online classes, how is this playing out? How have your yoga students responded? Has your audience changed at all, in line with your new way of doing classes?
Sara: I have been surprised and grateful at how loyal my students are. The majority are continuing with their classes, I haven't really seen a drop off in numbers yet. I have had many messages of support from students, some of whom said they would be happy to continue paying the same price. However, as it is online and I don't have to pay for a venue, I decided to reduce the class price by half. Of course, this has meant amending my website (Wordpress) and booking platform (Acuity Scheduling) extensively; but luckily, I had set those up myself, so I didn't have to pay anyone else to do it for me.
I have seen a few new students actually, but mainly it is my current customer base who have been returning. It is early days though, so this could change as I market the new online offerings. I have already had friends in Sydney and New York ask to join!
I can see that it could also lead to other opportunities. However, it is too early for me to go down this route, and I’m not sure that coming up with a radically altered business plan makes sense right at this moment – plus I’m pretty busy managing what I’m already doing.
My priority is keeping my current client base, adding as much value as I can to my existing services, so my current students keep coming back.
Farillio: That sounds really logical, Sara, and good advice for us all. I think there’s a lot of unhelpful pressure on businesses to completely reinvent themselves if they’re struggling right now. We’re starting to detest the word ‘pivot’ – as it’s so over-used, and really inappropriate for lots of businesses. Moving into something that you haven’t tested, and might not be able to commit to, would be foolhardy. You’d probably do more damage than good.
So finally, what other words of advice or wisdom might you have for other small businesses who find themselves in a similar situation to yours?
Sara: If I was putting together a list, I’d say this – not necessarily in the same order!
- Don't panic and rush into action. Take a few days at least to consider your options, ideally longer.
- You don't necessarily need to throw money at a problem. I made a few hasty decisions in a panic at the start. I bought several microphones that I do not need.
- Be realistic about what you can do. At the start, I offered more than I have the capacity to actually do, so I have had to pull back a little there. I tell myself this often, but decisions made from a place of fear most often do not turn out well.
- Do your research. Take your time to consider the best platform for you. Read reviews and test your service before going live.
- Think about what your priorities are for your business. My main priority right now is to preserve the goodwill and community I have grown, so I am focusing on that: thinking about how I can add the most value to my classes for the current students and the existing community that I have worked so hard to grow. I would rather have four full classes than eight half-empty ones. There will be time later to set down a new business plan.
- Connect with other similar businesses and see if you can support each other. I have reached out to a few other local yoga teachers to see how we can pool our time and resources to promote each other's classes.
- Ask your customers what they want. I sent out an email to my regular students with a few options for payment. Most said they would be happy to continue paying full price – however, some mentioned a flexible plan would work better for them right now, which sat better with me ethically, so I decided to go down this route, offer cheaper classes and freeze their class passes in the interim.
- Be prepared to be flexible with your business model. I hadn't planned for this eventuality but, actually, I have learnt a new skill very quickly, and it may even open up new opportunities that I hadn't considered before. It has made me think about how I can future proof my business for the future and where my priorities lie.
Also, for me personally, I am thinking about what I can give back right now too, so I have made some short yoga and meditation recordings that I am sharing for free. If you would like to try, here is a 7-minute body scan to help you switch off and here is an energetic 1-hour dynamic yoga class to help combat stress and build resilience.
Finally, for online meetings and classes think about your backdrop and make sure it clashes with what you are wearing. For my first class, I wore an all-black outfit against a black wall hanging and l Iooked like a floating head!
Sara's technical advice for online classes:
You can find comprehensive webinars on Zoom here - https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/360029527911
To boost out internet signal, I bought a BT wifi extender that plugs directly into my laptop.
Farillio: Thanks so much Sara and Mama Love Yoga London for speaking to us about how you’ve so rapidly adapted your business. It’s so important right now for people to find that time and headspace to look after their minds and bodies, so it's wonderful to see you managing and thriving.
We wish you the very best of luck. Namaste.
More on Mama Love Yoga
Do you know about the #3hrPledge?
Sara is part of Farillio’s #3hrPledge movement. We’ve matched her to one of our amazing business mentors who has generously pledged their time to support small businesses looking for help and support right now. We’re looking forward to hearing how this goes!
If you’re a small business and would like guidance on any aspect of your business – from sales and marketing to funding and finance – drop us a line today and we can connect you with one of our pledgers who are donating their skills and experience for free to ensure we #LeaveNoSMEBehind. Find out more here.