After nearly two decades of teaching for other studio owners, Jessica Kubat, soon to turn 40, decided “it was time to do something bigger.” Here’s how she pulled it off.
Jessica Kubat’s path to becoming a dance studio owner wasn’t typical or glamorous or the product of a family business, handed down. When she opened MJ’s House of Dance in Lindenhurst, NY, in summer 2019, she had just turned 40, was a mom of three, and had worked at two different studios long-term. Over the past two and a half years, she’d painstakingly saved up $25,000 and had gone to the Small Business Development Center at a local college on Long Island for help creating her business plan. (Here’s how to find the SBDC near you.)
Kubat’s area was moderately saturated with studios, so she spent considerable time planning what would set her school apart—live musical accompaniment, for one—and she hired a marketing director nine months before the business even opened. It was a methodical, careful approach—Kubat calls it “the old-fashioned way”—to opening a studio, and it’s paid off: She started summer classes with 75 students and is well on her way to reaching her first-year enrollment goal of 250 dancers. “When I turned 40, I decided that it was time to do something bigger,” says Kubat. “I always wanted to own a studio—it was just never financially available to me.”
The Business Plan: Getting Into All the Financials
Kubat was surprised by how detailed the financial aspect of her business plan needed to be. “You have to go into every little detail,” she says. “What your goal is (how many students you want to have), how much money is going to come in from those students, how much space you’ll need for that many students.” With real estate at a premium in her area, just 40 miles from New York City, Kubat knew that to fit her budget, she’d need to rent rather than buy. She chose a spot on a highway in a highly trafficked part of town.
Since she knew she wanted to create a competition team during her first year of operation, she needed a separate financial plan for that entity, taking into consideration that those dancers take many more classes than the average once-per-week student, at discounted rates.
Though she says it was easy to imagine what her studio and students would look like and what her performances might be like, it was much more difficult to figure out the nitty-gritty financials. “I knew I wanted to use live music, but how was I going to pay those [music] artists?” she says. “I wanted to bring in professional lighting, too, and stereo equipment, and to have high-end flooring.” These costs added up quickly, she says—and exceeded what she’d expected to spend. That’s why start-ups need a financial buffer. “There are so many costs you won’t have prepared for.”
Setting her prices required some reconnaissance. “Part of the business plan was that I had to look at three other studios’ pricing, and they had to be within 10 miles of my location,” says Kubat. “We created our pricing taking into consideration what theirs was and also what we thought would work for us.” (Kubat also decided to post all of her pricing on her website. “I felt there was a need to be transparent,” she says, “because everything today is so accessible online. For people to show interest, they need to see what they’re going to be paying for.”)
The Marketing Plan: Knowing When to Delegate
Kubat understood the importance of marketing in building clientele (and revenues) for the studio. And she knew she needed someone with experience to take the lead on that important part of the studio’s future. She hired Jacqueline Costello, who’d graduated from Pace University with a degree in communications and a minor in business administration, as her marketing and assistant director. Costello proposed a marketing plan modeled after that of a new dance competition she knew about.
“Originally, we did a lot of organic marketing,” says Costello. “We posted in local Facebook groups, because Jess is from the area. There’s one day a week where businesses from the area can post in the groups.” Costello also did a mailer campaign targeted to women in Lindenhurst, ages 18 to 55 (“We wanted to hit the grandparents, as well,” she says), and a Google Ads campaign. “I looked at our analytics and the people we’d hit organically,” she says, “and then created a lookalike campaign in Google Ads. With that, I’m hitting specific people in a 15-mile radius, and their calls are sent directly to Jess’ cell phone. She has a Google telephone number that she pays for, which allows her to actively answer phone calls [that are forwarded].” Costello and Kubat also invited the local radio station to come down during the studio’s grand opening and say a few words about the studio from on-site.
Her Marketing Strategy: Setting Her Studio Apart
From the very beginning, Kubat wanted to make sure MJ’s House of Dance had something to set it apart from other local studios. Every class has live musical accompaniment (ballet, for example) or an on-site DJ for hip-hop and adult fitness classes. “It’s really fun, and it adds so much,” she says. “You’re feeling the music, and not just [she intones robotically] dancing…to…the…music. There’s so much more to be said for a dancer who really understands that relationship.”
She was determined, too, that her studio would exist firmly in the 21st century. Kubat set up a YouTube channel for her studio so she could post videos of the dancers performing class combos or choreography. “Kids are so into their phones,” she says. (YouTube is the most popular social-media platform among Gen Z 18- to 24-year-olds, studies show.) “We’ll post the dances we do weekly so they can go back and practice and show their family members and friends: ‘Look what we did in contemporary!’”
Another unique marketing strategy of MJ’s House of Dance is its student-ambassador program. Members are student teachers for specific classes, for which they receive a stipend, but they’re also in charge of introducing themselves and the studio to new dancers. Kubat asks the 25 ambassadors to post pictures on their social-media platforms in studio apparel, highlighting their enrollment at MJ’s. At local events that the studio takes part in, the ambassadors may hand out “Wow” cards to encourage kids to join the studio. “The cards say, ‘Wow, we think you’re really special,’” says Kubat. “The idea is that the ambassadors introduce themselves to new people who they think would be wonderful to dance with us.”
Her Five-Year Plan
To begin, MJ’s House of Dance employs four part-time teachers and has brought in a few guest choreographers to help create competition dances. She and her marketing director, Jacqueline Costello (who also serves as assistant director of the studio), work the front desk. But despite this being only year one of MJ’s House of Dance, Kubat is already looking to where she’ll go from here.
Her five-year plan (which was a part of her business plan) includes owning her own building and having 10 to 15 teachers/staff members. But mentorship is perhaps her most important goal for the future. “My ultimate dream is to see my staff own their own studios,” she says. (She incorporated her business up front, to make any future expansion to additional locations easier.) “I wish I’d had more people support me on my journey. The hardest part for me was breaking away from working for someone else, but I knew it was something I had to do—because I knew I could be good at it.”
The Bottom Line
Having laid all the groundwork for a start-up, stay focused. “Keep the blinders on, and keep looking toward the future,” says Kubat. “That way, if anything comes up, you can bat it away.” And be kind to yourself. “When you’re asking yourself, some days, ‘Am I going to suck at this? Are the kids going to come?’ just trust yourself, and trust your process.”
Rachel Rizzuto writes the Business column for Dance Teacher and is a second-year dance MFA student at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.