In Times of COVID-19, Fitness Entrepreneur Says Creativity Is More Important Than Ever

Jessica Rae owns a dance and fitness studio and a talent agency in downtown San Francisco. This is her story.

UPDATE AS OF SEPT. 14, 2020: Rae’s dance and fitness studio is still offering virtual classes that feature 50+ classes per week. “Our feet are heavy in the ground as we continue to push through week 27 of Shelter-in-place,” Rae says. Her talent agency does not currently have a re-opening date. She is considered both a plan to open at a scaled capacity following city guidelines or a plan to close the business. “This may be difficult to read by our community members, but it's important that we stay realistic with our financial model,” she says.

We had just hit our stride. We had expanded our studio from 600 square feet to 3000 square feet. We surpassed our revenue goals in February. March was expected to be our biggest month yet. 

And then the unthinkable happened. When COVID-19 hit, I was already home with bronchitis. I know … crazy. I didn’t want to go into the studio because I didn’t want to create additional fear if people saw me cough. So I went later in the day when everyone had gone home, and I sat in front of a whiteboard. I needed to come up with ideas.

Later that night, I sent out an email that we would shut down the studio. On March 16, my team and I had 10 hours to come up with a plan. We called every instructor, updated the website, and began testing a livestream. We would teach our classes virtually.

We wanted to be considerate of both our students and our instructors, so our classes cost $8. As much as we would love to do free classes, my mission is to create job opportunities for my instructors, and I have to stay true to my mission.

As you might imagine, it’s not easy to transfer a physical movement business into an online platform and blindly trust the technology to work seamlessly every time. Running a dance studio is completely different from running a software company. It’s extremely challenging to convince people that this could be successful when we’re having an enormous amount of technical difficulties.

I mean, yesterday, I taught a class, and we had a number of glitches. First, there was the audio. I would say, “Point to your ear if you can hear me.” Right when I think everything’s going well, people start doing a thumbs down and pointing to their ear that they can’t hear me. Then my video began freezing. We had everyone shut their video function off to see if the connection would improve. I ended up turning my audio off, so they just followed along with my movements. After all of this, it turned out that I was actually frozen on the screen for about 30 minutes. 

Of course it’s stressful — your devices are ringing, your emails are popping up, your camera’s open in front of you. It’s natural to panic, but I just knew I had to remain calm for everyone else even as all of this was happening.

But you know what? I actually think that at the end of the day, this virtual studio is just as important as being in person. After the coronavirus turmoil is over, I really believe the silver lining is that if you’re creative and you have ideas, there could be an opportunity to scale this in a meaningful way.

I have to stay optimistic. The way I see it is I have two choices: I can go the safe route and shut the studio, lay my people off, and keep all my savings intact. Or I can come up with a creative solution and take a risk for the first month in hopes of seeing added value for the long-term. 

I’ve always chosen the latter route, and I will continue to choose that route. 

— As told to Polina Marinova

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