Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating small business owners who have made the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer. Check back periodically for new installments.
Yoga teacher McKenna Rowe is very flexible indeed. In just six short years, she’s managed to stretch her Chakra 5 Yoga startup from a one-woman venture into a successful, multi-employee mobile yoga business that serves dozens of corporate clients across Los Angeles County.
And she did it mostly on evenings and weekends, all while holding down busy “day jobs” in Hollywood, Calif. (When she’s not in yoga-preneur mode, she’s a full-time lead user experience designer.)
Rowe, also a veteran music composer, first fell for yoga as a young girl, watching pioneering yoga gurus on PBS. Growing up, she toyed with the idea of one day starting her own yoga studio. She launched a career in digital marketing instead, working her way up the corporate ladder at the Walt Disney Company, Nasty Gal and several other big-name brands.
As the years passed, her passion for yoga remained strong, enough for her to pursue a Hatha/Kundalini yoga certification in 2009.
Not long after getting certified, she went all-in. Rowe created a business plan, secured a small business loan and funneled some of her own retirement funds and savings into her entrepreneurial dreams. While still working nine-to-five at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles, she started teaching on-demand yoga classes to students wherever they were — in conference rooms, in classrooms, outside in parks, on rooftops…you name it.
In 2011, she opened her own studio, but shuttered its doors less than a year later due to rising costs. Following the brief stint, Rowe quickly transitioned to a business-to-business (BTB) corporate mobile yoga model. The business, she says, has been chugging along nicely ever since, growing in staff and customer base.
Today, Rowe and her team of certified and insured yoga instructors help people say om at the office — or outside in corporate and hospital courtyards and exercise rooms — across Los Angeles County. Classes cost companies $120 per weekly recurring hour-long sessions. Among Chakra 5 Yoga’s current and past clients are ABC, Disney, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, New Balance, Paramount Studios and Pinkberry frozen yogurt.
We caught up with Rowe to find out how she successfully scaled so quickly, and to tap her for hiring tips on how to find perfect-fit employees. Here’s what we found out:
When did you know you needed to hire your first employees?
“After closing the doors to my physical yoga studio. I was burned out. Trying to keep up with the costs (rent, utilities, cleaning staff, etc.) and logistics of Los Angeles traffic, as well as the lack of parking around the studio made me think I wasn’t going to have anything to do with yoga again. But our presence in the community helped build the brand, and I started to get a few calls about doing classes on-site at workplaces. I started teaching a few of these myself, and as our clients increased and their requests for classes increased, I realized right away I was going to need to scale beyond myself to a team.”
What types of yoga teachers were you looking for?
“My immediate need was for more reliable, experienced yoga teachers to help service our clients. There are thousands of yoga teachers in Los Angeles, but not all of them are used to going into a space they don’t know, or working with various levels of students with all kinds of physical challenges.
I needed teachers who could assess the situation and people immediately, make a connection with students and provide a customized experience on the fly. Luckily, I had a handful of very good teachers I saw working in action every day at the studio, so I knew I could trust them to handle the remote assignments.”
How long did it take you to scale up to where you are today?
“In years two and three of the business, I would estimate that I expanded the team to around eight people. Five years later, we now have 12 people on our team, and have expanded our services to include a healthy chef who does cooking demos, a DJ, a Pilates instructor and a yoga teacher who specializes in sound baths.”
Having incrementally grown, how many clients can you now serve?
“We now have about 38 clients and around six to 10 of them are on a regular, recurring weekly basis. Some clients have one class per week, and some as many as three to four classes per week. One of the things we’ve had to prepare for, and I think handle well, is that clients will want to change things up every few months or so. They will request a different kind of class or a different class day or time than previously scheduled. So the amount of active clients and regular classes can fluctuate. But on average, I’d say at least half a dozen are ‘regulars.’”
What’s your secret to hiring perfect-fit employees?
“I think you really have to trust your gut feeling about someone when hiring. They could have thousands of hours of yoga teacher training or work at so-and-so ‘hot stuff studio,’ but it all comes down to the sense of presence they bring, and the sensitivity and intuition they have when talking to me.
I also like to observe how people teach. Some young teachers are excited to get out there, blast up the music, ‘perform’ and get everyone doing handstands. That’s generally not appropriate for our customers. We’re working mostly with people very new to yoga, who need an experienced and careful teacher to guide them through their own unique experience.”
Who was the best boss you ever had and what did you learn from them?
“There are more than one! But who came immediately to mind is my old boss, Marcia, my manager at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
What I admire about her is that, first, no matter how crazy the situation or people might become around her, she always kept a state of calm and grace, even though I’m sure inside she was stressed. And, second, no matter what, I always felt she was my advocate, and on my side. I try to display both these qualities in all my professional endeavors. I also learned that nothing is worth a ‘freak out.’”
What’s next for Chakra 5 Yoga?
“In the last few months I have been doing a lot more of the old-fashioned, organic business development, which is reaching out on the phone and via emails to potential clients like schools, museums, dot-com companies, architecture firms, retirement centers, etc. I’m already seeing some return on investment on this activity. It takes daily diligence and patience. But when you put that energy into the universe it comes back to you!”