Secrets of successful yoga studios, and tactics to examine ideas that suck

The title of this post should really be 5 Steps to Have a Career that Makes the World a Better Place. But the first thing about making the world a better place is that if you really want to do that, you’ll have to make some compromises. Like, I have to write blog post titles that will rank high in Google searches instead of writing the titles I feel most like writing.

I’ve been on a yoga rampage—going to yoga every day for two weeks. I have gone to classes in Madison, WI, Chicago and LA. And I’ve noticed that people who open yoga studios are probably going to fail. Here’s what they need to know:

1. Bringing peace is not a differentiator. Of course every yoga studio brings peace, harmony, and blah blah blah. That doesn’t make the studio special enough to compete with the 10,000 other yoga studios around them.

2. Personality is a differentiator. To a non-pro, most classes are similar, but either hard or easy. This means the differentiator is how the teacher talks during the poses. Are you calm and soothing? Are you funny and irreverent? If you just tell people the list of poses you’ll do, you aren’t special at all. Yoga classes are like blogs: the information is a commodity and the personality is the differentiator.

3. The real money is in workshops. Of course teaching 100 people over a weekend is more profitable than 50 over the course of a week. So do workshops. But you have to have your own studio to get invited to workshops. So the studio is marketing for the workshops and the workshop is marketing of your brand so you get big enough and don’t need to teach studio hours.

4. Yoga teachers are selling product not practice. You can’t sell yoga to people—the customers already know they should do it. You need to sell them something else, something only you have: the community you create with the studio, a special type of practice, or maybe exorbitantly priced clothes in the waiting area (which is almost like selling blue jeans to miners during the gold rush).

5. If you want to do yoga, take a class, don’t run a class. Yoga teachers are more about talking and marketing. They are not actually getting paid to do yoga. People do not get paid to do yoga. They do yoga for free, to get peace and harmony.

Okay. So you think the yoga stuff doesn’t apply to you, but it does. Running a business is about marketing and sales. If you want to change the world in a direct way, you should work for someone. When you have a steady paycheck, you can focus on helping people instead of drumming up business. If you work for someone then they can worry about sales and marketing and you can worry about direct action.

Direct action is a word people use in the nonprofit world, mostly to convey frustration with the fact that they sign up to help people but they are so far removed from the people they help, writing proposals, grants, research, and so on—everything but helping directly.

People who want to do good should do good. People who want to earn money have to find a good fit for them to earn money. If you need to earn a lot of money, you will need to do something that most people can’t do (write high-level code) or don’t want to do (give up their personal life to run a big company).

Most of us would benefit from a more broad view of helping people. For example, working at a company that sells widgets and being an amazing manager actually improves the lives of employees and their families.

Also, people who want to take care of people and can’t stand doing work that doesn’t relate to that should probably be parents. There are very few jobs that are truly just taking care of people. And most of them pay very poorly, if at all. So you may as well do it for your own family, where the pay is not so important. It’s ridiculous that we don’t think of taking care of a family as a career path. That’s a good path for some people. Just like earning a shit-load of money is a good career path for other people. In fact, those two types of people should marry each other.

Actually, this brings us to the real key to opening a successful yoga studio: marry one of those middle-aged divorced guys who hang out in the back of the room, struggling in downward dog, who have more money than God. You know who I’m talking about. Alec Baldwin is the Hollywood poster boy for rich-guy-marries-yoga-teacher, but he’s just the tip of the cliched iceberg. Keep your yoga studio running long enough to marry one of those guys and then they’ll fund it.

You think I’m cynical. But I’m not. I just know a good idea when I see one.

Here’s one: Kid Rock was trying to figure out how to compete with free downloads and he wanted to release an album with a cover that had a picture of someone snorting cocaine off the cover of a CD and the title would be You Can’t Do This On An MP3. Great marketing. I’d buy the CD even though I don’t have a record player.

Another idea: A guy was a bartender and people kept asking him if they could charge their iPhones behind the counter so they don’t get stolen. So he invented a charging station that works like a locker. You lock up your iPhone while it charges, but you can leave it there. How can you not love that idea?

A yoga teacher wants personal growth and peace and serenity and the yoga teacher wants to bring that to other people. But that’s not a great idea. That’s just being a nice person. Alex Stoddard is an eighteen year old who takes photos of himself in remarkable but oddly relatable positions.

(The photos on this post don’t do justice to Stoddard’s portfolio. Go to My Modern Metropolis to see more.)

His ability to balance remarkable and relatable in the context of serenity and loneliness actually meets the same goals that the yoga teacher has, but he does it in a way that is fresh and new and (in a moment of grand social justice) he can make money doing it, by selling the prints. That’s a good idea.

My point is that we know what a good idea looks like. It moves us in some way. We nod because we get it and we feel connected. A yoga studio that helps you have peace of mind is not one of those things. Do what you love, fine, okay. I think it’s terrible advice, but it only works if you also do what other people value. Better advice is focus on what you can do that is special.

And recognize when your ideas are stupid. A stupid idea is one that does not create value for people around you. It’s charming, actually. It’s the belief that we are here to help each other with our ideas.

So don’t be delusional about your idea. A yoga studio is generally a wish that your own passion is a gift to other people. But ironically, most yoga teachers who start studios are not paying attention to other people at all. And most entrepreneurs who are raking in money are paying very careful attention to what helps other people.

It’s very hard to evaluate our own ideas. It’s so hard to see when you’re a cliche. It’s hard to see when you’re special. So look for someone to respond immediately with a look of a light bulb going off in their head. Otherwise you risk being a non-differentiated yoga teacher, or worse, a middle-aged man chasing her.


68 replies
  1. Lynn Lawrence
    Lynn Lawrence says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Your post has all the basic components of a business tune up for a variety of businesses…I have some friends who are veterinarians in a small town. They built a state of the art facility during the last boom to do good medicine, but, in a small town, attracting clients is often just habit and word of mouth. they are getting ready to tune up their website, which is more than good enough. I think they should be busy differentiating, doing special procedures…they have a couple…and attracting folks from the metro areas about two hours away…they should plan for this,get some results and then update their website. Maybe my post belongs in your mailbag, but it got me thinking about my vet friends.

    Everybody who reads Penelope should search for and find her audio interview with the yoga teacher. It’s priceless..and I can’t wait for he next webinar…withthe Farmer too!

  2. Gwen
    Gwen says:

    I’ve been thinking something like this when I’ve seen so many people trying to go into business with crafty things. Thinking they can just put some of the stuff they normally make on etsy, or put a hat pattern on Ravelry for $3 and think it will automatically sell a zillion copies without them doing any marketing, or doing anything original with it. I can get lots of basic hat patterns for free. For $3, I want something with personality.

  3. D
    D says:

    As one of those middle-aged guys in the back of the room I approve of this message.

    Come 2014, here in Colorado I believe there will be a huge opportunity to combine yoga, massage and marijuana.

    • Gwen
      Gwen says:

      I need to move to Colorado, and also make friends with some pothead venture capitalists! (They must exist, surely…)

    • tj
      tj says:

      Damn it, D – this is MY back row! Go find another studio – you’re crowding my territory!

      Hmmm….franchising possibilities here…..

  4. Ruth Zive
    Ruth Zive says:

    Value proposition. That’s it – whether you’re selling yoga or widgets. Same thing.

    You should come do yoga in Toronto. My teacher is brilliant as a teacher, and also a business owner. In less than 4 years, he has established one of the world’s largest Mysore programs. Check it out –

    Life lessons and marketing lessons, all in one place :-).

  5. Karolina
    Karolina says:

    Interesting article. I have very similar feelings when it comes to online magazines and blogs. Anyone can start one but most of them lack differentiation. It’s very difficult finding good online content. Most of it is so trite and bland.

    Same applies to e-commerce sites that all follow the same formula. The only way they can “win” the sale game is by becoming big but that comes at a huge price in terms of quality, customer service, client experience. With scale eventually come expenses which lead them to raise prices which in turn is a turn off to the customers – on to the next!

    It’s difficult to build a sustainable, highly differentiated business these days with a long term outlook when VC funded companies can radically undercut you for short term gain. The temptation to follow the current model is so strong. I am launching my own company which sits at the intersection of luxury goods and philanthropy and everything about it is different then the mainstream model. I have designed the business model, website and marketing elements in a way that is difficult to mimic or replicate. It is so more work intensive and emotionally taxing but at the end of the day, I want to provide our clients with the most unique shopping experience online and grow a highly differentiated business organically for years to come.

  6. Greg
    Greg says:

    Haha wow, an opening link to John Chow… from John’s comments on that post:

    John Chow August 3, 2009 at 12:54 am

    That’s why you use All In One SEO Pack. One title for your readers and one title for Google. :P

  7. Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel
    Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel says:

    My titles are terrible. Thanks for the link. I like your message on differentiation. I am thinking a lot about your post and what I am working on and how I can be differentiated. I don’t have the answer but I am thinking about it. Also, am sending this post to my friend who quit his six figure job to teach yoga. He moved to the valley so I can’t go anymore, but I think he differentiates using a super hero metaphor. He is really into comic books. Great post. Need to re-read because there are nuggets all over the place here.

  8. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    I love how easy you make it sound. Which it is. But it also isn’t. Not one bit. It’s like this magic hat you have at the tip of your fingers but just can’t grasp it. I think my favorite part is: “But ironically, most yoga teachers who start studios are not paying attention to other people at all. And most entrepreneurs who are raking in money are paying very careful attention to what helps other people.” I think you have a great gift of pointing out obvious, which others still can’t see. You know – like saying: “It is fluffy, has a tail, whiskers, and likes to purr – it’s a cat.” And the rest slap our foreheads and go: “Aaaahhh! Right!”

  9. Angele Style
    Angele Style says:

    I read in one of your posts that the TLC network guys were very impressed with your coaching abilities. And WOWO!!! So am I!! I just listened to your radio interview with the yoga teacher and could barely hear it but I hung on every word!!! I am an INFP and ex yoga teacher because I could not market myself. One of my best friends is and INFJ and quit her job as a counselor that she was very good at to go into business for herself as a counselor. When we get together we cannot stop whining loud enough about how we HATE MARKETING!!! You say it all in that interview. It is priceless. And so are your posts because you give information that is straight. You were the one that I tell everyone helped me the MOST when I wanted to start my blog. My ex boyfriend who helped me get started putting myself out there as a yoga teacher was an ESTJ. He and you are extremely helpful to the INFP as far as how to “get real” in this world instead of wishing things were different.

    • Bettina
      Bettina says:

      Hi Angele,

      yes, I totally apologize for the poor sound quality, but I’m so happy that the interview helped you out with some revelations.

      Since then I’ve decided to quit teaching yoga and focus on my personal practice, since everything Penelope writes here about yoga marketing is sooo true.

      While I enjoyed marketing and thinking up business collaboration possibilities, it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the yoga industry.

      Best of luck in the yoga business!

  10. Hendo
    Hendo says:

    What you said about people working in the non-profit world is so true. I used to work in international development (in government and as a volunteer) and I always felt like, I want to help people, I am good at office work, I can help by doing office work stuff. Direct action is fulfilling but not always what’s needed. It’s not about you, it’s about what people want and need – and everyone in the position to receive help knows what they want and need.

  11. Arachna
    Arachna says:

    Eh. I actually have an opinion about this because I’ve been trying to find a yoga studio I like for months. Well, not a studio, most of those are fine but a teacher.

    A good teacher is a big plus. Most yoga teachers aren’t. They don’t explain well enough, they don’t pay attention to the right things, their pace gets messed up etc. etc. etc. The mix of poses makes no sense considering their audience etc.

    Just being a good teacher is IMO plenty to differentiate yourself. All the other stuff doesn’t matter.

    Use Yelp and run some promotions (first 5 class deals) and if you’re a great teacher you’ll have plenty of business. Most small studios I see have no trouble getting people in the door to come try it out – they have trouble getting them to come back on a regular basis because they just aren’t that good. Or don’t have enough time slots available.

  12. Heidi McGall
    Heidi McGall says:

    Finding that magic is indeed a needle in a haystack. And you can’t just mimic what is magic for another teacher, because it won’t be true to you and it will flop big. I find when I’m really true to myself and just BE MYSELF while teaching – corny jokes, irreverent attitude, whatever – people respond because they know it’s me, right there in front of them for all to see.

    You are right again with the business in the front, party in the back attitude that works for studios: sometimes taking care of the business doesn’t leave you to teach, and you should let the people who don’t have to worry about cleaning toilets do that. I wonder if now that I’m teaching more, is the business end suffering? Am I a worn out teacher with too much time spent worrying about whether the floor is clean? Things to think.

  13. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Ugh. I love this post, and I hate this post. I have been blogging for 6 months now, and feel like I just started to find my writing voice. But reading this makes me feel like I’m climbing a staircase Escher painting…and just realized I have infinite stairs to climb before I actually differentiate myself and provide something sustainable and unique. But I’m gonna get there, Penelope. You mark my words!!!

    PS – Thanks for linking to the SEO tips. I need to do this right now.

  14. Dana
    Dana says:

    You are the embodiment of what you are writing about. Thank you for being clear in your thinking, your writing and your world view. I hope to be half as clear and focused in at least one area of my life.

  15. Jenifer
    Jenifer says:

    This is a great little article that I shared through FB. It’s so nice to see people talking about yoga as a business, something that I spend a lot of time doing/thinking.

    It is so vital to think about clients as individuals and client experience as an idea. It helps you hone what you offer and *how* you offer it. And that creates a point of difference that defines the market and keeps the client happy in the long term.

  16. Jane Dolan
    Jane Dolan says:


    Finally, after years of reading your blog and not leaving a comment – I have it! I know why I keep coming back: you are like the mother I wanted to have – you have the guts to tell it like it is – not what I might want to hear – but what will serve me in the long run.

    I sense that the best kept secret about Penelope Trunk is that she has a huge heart and for whatever reason, cares about her readers. PT is generous with links to wondrous works of art and information – she does not hold back in fear we will click away and keep following other shiny objects.

    The least I could do is sign up for the writing workshop – you have given me invaluable advise over the years!

    xo Jane

    • Simone
      Simone says:

      Jane… I so agree and wanted to second what you wrote. I’ve been a long time reader of Penelope’s Blog and trust me I read hundreds of blogs everyday and there are few quite like hers. Penelope’s honesty and compassion is definitely what differentiates her from the bunch. Its been such a pleasure since the first post watching her grow and gain in confidence (which I think took off when she started writing about her divorce).

      Her honesty is what makes me trust her advice and listen to her opinions even when I don’t agree with her.

      Over the years, hers is the only blog that I refer friends to…just the other day, when my therapist mentioned she was starting a blog, I told her to check out Penelope Trunk and if she could be half as honest and brave as Penelope then she’d be successful and would attract readers.

      Nothing else matters besides that honesty and creating a common thread of humanity in your blog to differentiate yourself which is something sorely lacking on the web.

      • Jane Dolan
        Jane Dolan says:

        Simone – ditto on having read hundreds of blogs and only referring Penelope Trunk’s articles (now, if only other’s would listen :) – okay, I only physically send articles to my 25 year old daughter – and talk with friends about PT, as if she is a friend, “Penelope wrote a fascinating article about Happy Life vs. Interesting Life – I never thought about it that way, but you know what – I agree with that statement – I have always wondered why Happy Goal kind of bugged me”.

        The only other blogger to come close to her honesty, guts, and brain power is Richard Nikoley of Free the Animal – maybe not a coincidence they share the same publisher, HyperInk.

        Best, Jane

  17. J.E.
    J.E. says:

    My question is what to do if you want to work taking care of people, but don’t want to be a parent or a nurse? :-)

  18. Francis Miosis
    Francis Miosis says:

    The most influential people in my life have been the teachers I have had in many different disciplines who emanate in their personalities their enormous love and desire for what they do. To me, this list includes middle school teachers, tennis instructors and lecturers. Their enthusiasm flows right out of them and right into anyone who is interested and paying attention to them. It has been their own personality that has made the discipline stand out and not solely the discipline itself.

  19. Mendel
    Mendel says:

    Useless fact:

    “Low-level” code is harder to write than “high-level” code. (“High” in this context means abstracted higher than the binary machine code that the computer actually understands but is utterly incomprehensible to all but the geekiest of mortals)

  20. Nick
    Nick says:

    Very true! There are so many lessons here not only for business brands but also for individuals who want to differentiate themselves from a zillion other candidates. Thanks for the post and for the analogy. Oh yes — and Namaste!

  21. Filio
    Filio says:

    One of the best posts I’ve read in a long time. You touch on something that I think many people struggle with – finding value in life and work by offering value to others. Your post applies not only to a person driven by success in business, but also someone that is content to work for others when it allows them to use their uniqueness in a way that provides value. Differentiating in life and work is no easy task to figure out, though I think you’ve presented information in a way that makes it a little bit easier.

  22. bour3
    bour3 says:

    When we get together we cannot stop whining loud enough about how we HATE MARKETING!!!

    On these shows that fix flagging restaurants, Robert Irvine’s Restaurant impossible and Ramsay’s Nightmares, they point to this explicitly, the restaurant’s own web sites, the feedback they get on other websites, community situation awareness, and with a fresh menu, they take their items out directly to their customers and market directly to the people they seek to connect with, just go out and connect directly by giving them food, and those turn out to be the most fun portions of those episodes. As a group, not individually. You can tell the whole staff enjoyed going out as a group and pimping their food for awhile until it was gone. They have the advantage of the show’s influencing curiosity, so there is that, but it always seems like a great idea and fun.

  23. Cathy Taughinbaugh
    Cathy Taughinbaugh says:

    Hi Penelope,

    First time comment here. Your post is right on and the yoga studio I attend is doing very well after only a year because of many of the things you mention. Good advice for any business.

    I know you are being flip, but feel the need to bring up this – “would you buy a picture of someone snorting cocaine off the cover of a CD and the title would be You Can’t Do This On An MP3. Great marketing. I’d buy the CD even though I don’t have a record player.”
    Why is this good marketing?

  24. Richard Brown
    Richard Brown says:

    Yes, This is an interesting blog. I am one of those rich guys in the back of the room that has been supporting a yoga studio for 4.5 years. Of course it is my wife’s studio and we married 35 years ago, long before “we” made any money. Her studio grosses over 12k a month but always seems to fall a thousand or two short. We own a three million dollar a year manufacturing company that is easy to run compared to this studio. We have some great instructors, some better than others, spend a lot of time on marketing and retention efforts, it is really challenging. I admit, I am a loss on how to proceed and become profitable for 3 months in row.

  25. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    So you are advocating prostitution? Wonderful advice, thank you very much. I will sell my companionship and marry someone just so I can open a yoga studio. Its this kind of immature thinking that is holding women back and perpetuating the destructive paradigms we continue to hold regarding relationship with other humans and our own innate value.

  26. Massage København - Jaleel
    Massage København - Jaleel says:

    Thanks for a good read and great advise.
    In some cases one might even be able to apply some of your advise to the massage industry.

    I currently run a massage clinic in Copenhagen, called MassageKompagniet (you can probably guess the translation). One of my key elements is the few minutes extra that I invest in talking with the client. Both before and after the massage.

  27. linda white
    linda white says:

    I’m not sure why any one thinks this post is brilliant. The author starts off by saying she has attended many yoga classes but then goes on to say how doing something you love is worthless. Why has she shelled out some of her hard-earned cash on yoga? Purely for research purposes? The article is trite,ill-informed and contradictory. If we all devoted our time to earning the maximum amount of money, there would be no aged care nurses, child care workers and yoga teachers. How does that sit with you Penelope? I assume you will get old one day… will you give the nurse that is bathing you advice to get a job that pays better?

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