Blue Sparrow Pilates — Small Biz Stories, Episode 15

Holly Furgason is motivated by many things, but comfort isn’t one of them. As the owner of Blue Sparrow Pilates, Holly has learned how to overcome major challenges — from dissolving a business partnership to weathering a major financial crisis.

Listen as she shares what it takes to keep a business running for over a decade and how to build a loyal audience.

Find us on Stitcher

You can also read the transcript below:

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. You can be a marketer, all it takes is Constant Contact. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

Holly: I would say that I’m… first of all, I’m never comfortable. So far, there’s very few time periods, not even a month where I’m like, “Oh, this is so comfortable. I feel really good about where we are.” So I’m always looking at what can I improve.

When I travel, when I go places outside of the Bay Area and within the Bay Area, I’m always doing more education for myself. I’m reading books about business. I read online blogs. I’m looking to other masters in the field of Pilates, like what are they doing in their neck of the woods, and how might that influence what I’m doing?

Dave: Meet Holly Furgason, owner of Blue Sparrow Pilates in San Francisco, California. Like many of the business owners we’ve spoken with during our first two seasons, Holly is motivated by many things. But comfort isn’t one of them.

Today, in our season finale, Holly shares the story of her studio. From the initial inspiration to the trying moments when she wished she could skip town and leave it all behind.

More than fifty percent of small businesses fail within the first five years. These are the stories of those who beat the odds. My name is Dave Charest and I’ll be your host as we share the stories of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet, small business owners. You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.

Dave: Many of us are consumed with the thought of starting our our business. But what’s the difference between people who think about going off on their own and those who actually do it? As Holly describes the days before owning her business, listen for three important things: conviction, creativity, and commitment.

Holly: I grew up as an athlete, playing soccer, all kinds of things and then found dance and became really sort of pre-professional dancer and traveled all over to compete in dance-type conventions and competitions. And was convinced that I was gonna move to New York and dance professionally.

And somewhere along the way, I found Pilates and Pilates has always been associated with dance because Joseph Pilates’ original studio was really close to Broadway and a lot of dancers found it and realized how much it could benefit their dance career.

And so I found Pilates and completely fell in love with it and knew that I needed to become a teacher. And I’ve jumped back and forth across the country several times but came to California to go to grad school for dance at Mills College just here in Oakland and had started a studio.

Dave: A dance studio?

Holly: Pilates studio, yeah. I did my teacher training in Michigan and when I moved to California, I was already teaching Pilates and I worked for several different studios that had different focuses. One was a rehab-based, like post-hospital type rehabilitation and another was a teacher training center in San Francisco

And through the process of working in San Francisco for years, I just knew I was gonna have my own studio at some point.

Dave: Rather than wasting time on self-doubt, Holly dedicated time to learning her craft. Through extensive training, certification, and mentorship, Holly developed mastery in multiple Pilates techniques that set herself up for success when inspiration struck

Holly: In terms of inspiration, it was really simple. I had a client in North Beach that I saw at his house way up at the top of Telegraph Hill.

And for some reason, in the process of learning about North Beach and traveling there, because it’s one of those parts of San Francisco a lot of people don’t go to, I fell in love with the fact that it was sort of, there’s this bird, lots of birds there, like parrots and all kinds of weird birds.

And you walk through the staircases and you’re just like, “Wow, this is such a beautiful part of the city nobody comes to.” And there’s the ocean or the bay is like right around you. And there’s this sort of, I don’t know, birds like energy there and I started playing around with this name ‘Blue Sparrow Pilates’, ‘Blue Sparrow’, because of all of the things I was seeing and interacting with in North Beach, and ended up finding a space in North Beach shortly after that.

Dave: So when you started, like thinking about this, right? And like “Okay, I’m gonna open my own place,” did you start discussing it with people, friends, like did you get any pushback from anybody?

Holly: Yeah. Everybody kind of thought it was crazy because North Beach is, I mean, San Francisco in general, is expensive. But then, North Beach is like pasta and pizza and Italian, and nobody seemed to want Pilates there, but at the same time, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.

And certainly my closest family and friends were like, “That’s crazy. How are you gonna do that? How are you gonna get the money?” There was lots of doubt.

But then once… I think people that know me, they know that once I’ve decided 100 percent and I’m not talking about “Do I want to…” “Should I…” “Should I not…” it’s like, “I’m doing this.”

They know me well enough to know that they’re gonna get on board and just support that because it’s happening.

Dave: Holly’s conviction makes success seem almost inevitable. But the truth is she’s faced some serious hurdles over the past decade. From dissolving a business partnership to weathering a major financial crisis, there have been plenty of times when Holly wondered if she might be happier leaving her business behind.

Dave: What do you remember as some of the, or just the hardest parts of getting started?

Holly: There’s been a lot. In terms of the hardest part, starting with the business partner and realizing really early on that our goals and certain aspects of our partnership weren’t gonna work, and then figuring out how do we navigate our way apart, that was really hard and it required lots of legal support and a huge financial stress and at least a year of dealing with that.

And that really sort of reset the clocks, so it was like several years in, I was sort of starting all over again, both because of financial and because of… I mean, just emotionally being drained from that process.

It’s, at least for me, it was very much like getting a divorce, where it’s a very personal connection that’s severed. So that was very difficult.

And I would also say, right after that was the financial crisis of 2008. And so it was like business really dried up in a lot of ways. Before that, it had been sort of like, anybody that sort of had heard about Pilates and was kind of interested in it, would be like, “Oh, yeah. I’ll just try a class.”

Well then it shifted to, if people had really, you know, a serious back injury or some specific, really particular need, then they might try it. But then having that, it meant you had to have a lot of, even a higher caliber of instructor that could specifically target that exact thing that that person came in for or the people wouldn’t keep coming. And so that was challenging to get through

Dave: Do you ever find any time where you thought that maybe this isn’t gonna work?

Holly: Many, many times. Certainly, when I was going through a business partnership divorce, that was one time when I was like, “I just need to get out of town. I’ll just leave town.”

Dave: The old west…

Holly: It did feel that way where it was like, I’m just gonna ride out into the sunset and leave all my problems behind. And that’s probably not the only time I felt like that.

Also, when the economy within the financial crisis, it was not good. You couldn’t borrow any money. So I had no capital, I had nothing to work with. It was just like all I knew to do was dig in and work harder and know that it was gonna work because it had to work.

And then since then, I think it’s always sort of ebbing and flowing. I think of it like a big ship or something that sometimes the water is calm but that’s brief and then it’s just like you’re sort of trying to not basically fully turn over, I don’t know.

Dave: Well, you know, you mentioned like those tough times and then like you know you had to make it work. But why didn’t you just stop?

Holly: I mean moved here from Michigan. I’m totally… not that all Michigan people are the same, but there’s a certain amount of grit that I think I just have into like, just built into who I am.

My grandma always said, “Good, better, best. Never let it rest till the good is better and the better, best.”

And like that’s totally… I don’t know, that just stuck with me, that was always like, “Work hard. If you work hard, you’ll succeed. If you keep working at it, you’ll eventually figure it out.”

Failing or quitting, not that those are always related, but quitting really was never something I did. I can’t think of maybe more than one terrible job I’ve ever had that I quit. It’s just not who I am.

And then on the more practical level, it was like I had debt, I would have had to have declared bankruptcy, and it’s like that’s not something I would do, I had to pay back that debt, and I had to figure out how to make it work.

Dave: “Making it work” isn’t easy. To stay successful, Holly has had to build and flex her marketing muscles to promote her business, attract new prospects, and bring happy customers back to her studio.  

Holly: I mean one thing I’m doing is constantly updating my website. Every two years, I’d say, it’s a completely new website, and I don’t know if that’s everywhere. It might just be the Bay Area that it feels like that’s necessary, but trying to constantly make sure that online people can find us through searches.

Some online advertising, some advertising through social media and then always looking at what is the new technology, what things can help me to reach out to people?

Specifically, I think it’s easiest to reach out to the people that already are in your network or on your marketing email list because they are people that already must at some level want or like what you do and they might have just sort of fallen off the radar or at the time they came two years ago, we didn’t have a prenatal class, but now they’re prenatal and they need a class like that. And so to make sure that they’re constantly knowing the new things we’re doing and changes we’ve made.

Dave: Yeah. So besides, you do a lot of blogging and things like that, how did you get into that type of stuff?

Holly: I’ve always liked to write and I found that writing was sort of a way I could be creative within my business because as a dancer and having done graphic design and things like that, creativity is something I just have a need for.

And so I started to do that more kind of for fun to be honest. I was like, “We have a newsletter, I need this to be a good newsletter.” What are the newsletters that I like of other businesses that I’ve gone to? What don’t I like? And how can I try to do that as best I can with a limited amount of both manpower and resources?

And so I started writing a weekly… well, I think it was monthly to begin with, monthly newsletter for our email list, and then it turned into weekly, and then I passed the baton of writing that to another employee who is really good at writing and really liked doing it so that I could focus on writing blog articles more for teacher training type and Pilates instructors and branched out in that direction as well.

Dave: Is there any particular channel or any type of mode of communication that you found that’s been the best for you, just in terms of marketing?

Holly: Yeah, I mean, I really do think a lot of people read our weekly newsletter and I think that every time we email that out, some of the times I’ve written a story or we’ve written a story several weeks in advance and people will come up to me and be like, “Hey, I really liked the newsletter about this one thing,” and I’m like, “What are they talking about?” I don’t remember writing that.

But then I realized, “Oh they’re talking about the newsletter.” People really do read that and I’m always surprised if we rotate kind of what the topics are that maybe a certain age client will relate to one topic and another age will relate to another.

Social media, of course, is a big component but social media tends to be towards sort of the younger spectrum of clientele.

And so our clientele that are say 40-plus that are doing private lessons, I mean they’re not really on our Instagram and checking out what pictures we posted. It’s just not their thing, typically.

And so, to build certain aspects of our business like group classes, we turn more to social media, whereas if we’re looking to develop more private clientele then it’s through those newsletter type avenues.

Dave: How do you justify the cost of email marketing?

Holly: I would say it just never, again, it was never a consideration. To me, it seems the most obvious cost to spend your money on.

I’ve tried all kinds of different advertising. And it’s a little bit hard to tell if it’s effective but with email marketing, you’re emailing the people that already like what you do.

We’re all busy, we all have demands on our schedule and so it’s like you already have a population of people that not only like what you do but like you are business and are close enough that they can come.

So spending money on reaching out to those people seems obvious to me, it doesn’t seem optional.

Dave: Repeat business is not an accident. Creating lasting customer relationships means offering an incredible experience and staying in touch with thoughtful messages to bring people back. But these relationships are about more than just profit. They’re the reason Holly gets out of bed each day, ready to tackle whatever challenge comes her way.  

Dave: What would you say is the thing that keeps you going and keeping you successful?

Holly: I mean, I think it’s the people that I get to work with both customers, and it’s a real community. I heard another instructor, a friend of mine, she called it her tribe, and it really is.

It’s like to have this community of clients and teachers that all support each other and share in each other’s lives, that’s really special, especially in a major city where community is not always easy to build.

And so, I’d say it’s those personal relationships that I get to cultivate and build and to see people. Now it’s been about 10 years, so it’s like I get to see where these people were, I know their kids, I’ve watched, I helped them go from getting ready for their wedding to prenatal, working out to they’ve had a baby and now their baby is like six or seven. And that’s pretty amazing to be able to share in people’s lives like that.

Dave: Community is the core of Holly’s business. Just as she shows clients how to build strength, flexibility, and balance — they help her do the same. Holly might not be able to say she’s comfortable every step of the way, but she’s ok with that.

Growing and learning what you’re really capable of — that’s something a lot of business owners value more than stability.  

I’ll leave you with Holly’s best advice for someone looking to start a small business of their own.  

Holly: I would say that even in small businesses, even if you start as an expert in your field that you still have to pay your dues and that owning a small business, it’s years of commitment.

I think sometimes people start a small business and they think after the first year or something it will be easy. I would say it’s not necessarily easy but that there’s opportunities to learn from every single day that you continue to be working towards whatever level of success you’re trying to get to.

But that the most important thing is that you have to stay true to your vision. There’s been many times when I felt like this industry was changing in the direction that I wasn’t… it didn’t speak to me and I was never going to be willing to completely sell out and redirect my business in a direction that I didn’t believe in 100%. And so staying true to your vision of your business and what it is that makes you passionate about what you do is the most important thing.

Dave: Thank you for listening to Season 2 of Small Biz Stories.We hope you’ve enjoyed  listening and would love to hear what you think of the show. Please go to iTunes or Stitcher right now and leave us a review. Small Biz Stories is produced by myself and Miranda Paquet with editing by TwentyFourSound. If you have thoughts or suggestions for Season 3, you can contact us at podcast@constantcontact.com

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. You can be a marketer, all it takes is Constant Contact. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

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