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How to Build a Studio That Lasts

How to Build a Studio That Lasts

When you think about your studio, what comes to mind?  A list of tasks that stretches so far in the future you just want to focus on this week.  A studio that doesn’t feel like work, at least most days.  The first mindset leads to a short-term view.  But if you want to build a studio that lasts, the second mindset is the way to go.

But, how on earth can work not feel like work?  And, what does this have to do with the longevity of your studio?

The Game of Life

I love “The Game of Life”.  It brings back memories of being with family.  Trying to cram one more kid into the tiny car without everyone falling out.  The highs & lows of each spin of the wheel.  It was great!

There’s a theory that says the game of (real) life can be broken down into two types of games: finite & infinite.  Regardless of which type you choose, you need at least 2 players for a game … unless you’re playing solitaire.

Finite Game:

This is what we typically think of when we imagine a game.  All players are known, there are agreed-upon rules & an objective that everyone agrees will end the game. 

Think of any sport & chances are it falls into this category.  And, of course, “The Game of Life” (such a great game) falls under this category as well.

Infinite Game:

In an infinite game, there are known & unknown players.  The rules can change. 

The point is to keep the game going as long as possible.  Even if someone decides not to play, another player will end up taking their place.

You can see this in business.  There are multiple studios in any given area.  Over time, some of those studios will shut down.  New ones will start.  And, some manage to build a studio that lasts regardless of what is happening to their competitors.

They all offer the same service: music lessons.  But, the players (the studios) may change over time.

Why Your Approach Matters

This idea took me a bit to wrap my head around.  Especially when looking at how to build a studio that lasts.  So, bear with me as I explain why we should care.

Running a studio or any type of business is an infinite game. 

Our clients change over time. 

Rules & regulations, both the ones we choose & ones that are required from outside forces, change as well. 

And, hopefully, we all hope to keep our studios running for as long as possible.

Even when I first began my studio, I intended to build a business that would thrive for decades.   The idea that I could teach in a way that stayed true to my priorities & values was so inspiring it led me to continually stretch myself.  Attending conferences & workshops on a wide variety of topics.  Learning basic coding, graphic design & more. 

When I look at what I’ve learnt in the last decades, it is vastly different from what I expected to do after university.  And, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Finite Strategy

What happens if you choose to use a finite game strategy to run your studio?

You choose to focus on your “competition” rather than the client experience or building relationships with other colleagues.

Whether it is profit, the number of clients you have, or another metric, the bottom line is more important than anything else.

The idea of doing things a new way will be not only scary (that’s normal), but unthinkable.

Simon Sinek talks about how this approach leads to “a decline in trust, cooperation & innovation” for a business.

The downside of a finite approach

Years ago, I had to call about our wonky internet service.  Tech support’s first suggestion was to turn off my computer & modem, wait 30 seconds, then turn everything back on.  “But, I already did that 3 times.”  Contrary to what the tech support thought, the 4th time was not the charm.

If this wasn’t frustrating enough, the support call was dropped three times.  And each time I had to start the process all over again with a new person.  

By the time I got to the third call, I cut off the tech support person & said “I know you have a script & checklist.  I’m going to list off everything I have already done to solve the problem & I want you to check it off your list.  That way we can figure out what is going on.”  After listing all the solutions already tried … the person asked me to turn off my computer & modem, wait 30 seconds & turn them back on.

It’s frustrating dealing with a company that sees you as just a number in the profit line or that is so set in its approach any deviation is unthinkable.  And, chances are you will leave that company at the first opportunity.

The company that supplied our internet service all those years ago has tried to get our business back.  They assured us things have changed.  A quick look online while still on those calls showed that, no, things had not changed.  The last time they called, my husband told them we would never go back to them … regardless of what they offered.

A finite approach can damage your studio’s reputation.  Not just in the short-term, but the long-term as well.

Infinite Strategy

How does an infinite strategy help you build a studio that lasts?

“The only true competitor in an infinite game is yourself.” – Simon Sinek

If you are using an infinite strategy, you understand that your studio is not the perfect one for every student.  Sometimes another studio or teacher truly is the better choice.

Years ago, I had a conversation with a prospective adult student.  It was going great & we would have been a good fit in many ways.  Except he didn’t use email or tech, other than making calls.  As much as it hurt to say no to this student, I knew we wouldn’t be a good long-term fit since technology is an integral part of the tools I use when teaching & running my studio.  Instead, I offered to call him back with names & contact info for teachers that would be a better choice.  While he was disappointed, he appreciated that I had been honest.

If you are using an infinite approach, you innovate like a turtle so you, as a business owner & teacher, improve slowly over time.  Small changes can have the biggest impact when done thoughtfully.

And, you build your studio culture each year so parents & students alike always wonder how you knew just what they needed.

Part of innovating like a turtle means stepping out of your comfort zone.  The year I moved online, I asked former clients if they would be willing to recommend my studio to anyone looking for online lessons. I was tickled pink when I got the following response.  “Going online is a great idea. You are always so innovative with your business and ways of teaching. I will be sure to pass this along.”  

Even though we had gone our separate ways a few years earlier, this client was happy to hear from me & willing to share her experience with others.  

Innovating in my studio while also building a supportive culture has meant that even if a student moves onto other things, the relationship is not necessarily over.

I’m building a studio that lasts.

How to Build a Studio That Lasts

Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart.  It’s a constant series of decisions that are at times terrifying & exhilarating … sometimes at the same time.

The first time I made a Facebook ad, I walked out of my office shell-shocked.  I was excited that I had taken this step to market my business.  I was terrified I had made a terrible mistake &, honestly,  a little sick to my stomach.  

Part of building a studio that lasts is moving past the to-do list & focusing on what matters.  Even if it’s uncomfortable.

Your 5 Step Plan

1.  Have a just cause

A just cause could be called your vision.  It’s more than just a line on your website or marketing though.  It’s something you believe so deeply you are willing to give up time, energy &, at times, money (like when I turned down the adult student) to make it happen.

Great teachers are a perfect example of this.

Think about recital season. 

I have yet to meet a teacher who said, “My recital was barely any prep.  It was incredibly easy to put all those moving parts together.”

Even with my checklists, templates & years of experience, I still spend hours preparing.  I pour my time, energy & money into the prep so the recital comes across as effortless.   

Great teachers, great studio owners have a just cause. 

We inspire the minds & hearts of our students as we guide them in becoming better each year.

Because of that just cause, yes, we sacrifice at different parts of the year to reach that vision.  And, we do it over & over each year as we work toward that ultimate ideal.

As a caveat, you should not have to continually give up your time, energy & money to build a studio that lasts.  You need all three to successfully stay in business.  Otherwise, you become the player that dropped out of the “game”.

Make sure when you do give up more time, energy or money, that it is for a short time & there is a clear connection between your just cause & the activity.

2.  Have trusting teams

Even if you don’t have a team of teachers or employees working for you, this section still applies to you.

In my studio, parents & students are told that we are learning much more than how to play the piano.  We are learning life skills through music.

In any given lesson, you will hear me check-in with my students.  If a student is more quiet than usual, I will ask why.  If a student is struggling, I ask how I can support them.  And, if a parent emails/texts/talks to me about a concern, I thank them for letting me know.

My students & clients are my trusting team.

Without them, this studio would not work.  It requires all of us to work together to build a studio culture & improve year to year.

What is your studio environment?

Do students feel comfortable making mistakes?  Do clients feel comfortable coming to you with their questions or concerns?

Or, are lessons about making sure students play the songs correctly?  When you communicate with clients is it about showing them you are right?

“A leader’s responsibility is to create an environment in which people can work to their natural best.  In which people can trust each other.”

In each studio, this environment will look different.  And, ‘natural best’ is going to look different from student to student.

I’ve had students learn to read notes on the staff in a matter of weeks or months.  And, others that took up to 3 years to master the basics.  At any point in their progress, each student will have a different ‘natural best’.

I’ve had parents who ask many questions, including follow-up questions to clarify, on almost a weekly basis.  And, others that rarely open their emails even when it’s important.  But, they all trust that they can come to me with questions or concerns at any point without feeling there will be repercussions.

The commonality between great teachers is they create trust with their students & parents.  They create an environment where students or parents feel confident asking for help, knowing they will get the support they need.

3.  Have a worthy rival

We have a wonderful opportunity to see & hear what other teachers are doing all over the world.

A worthy rival is a person you look at & think, “I want to be like that!”

These are the people who inspire you to become better.  To become more than what you currently are.

They’re not the people you are focused on beating.  They’re the people you want to emulate.

Some of my worthy rivals live in the same city as me.  I love hearing what they are doing in their studios & their approach.  They could be thought of as competition since we are in the same demographic area.  The truth is these amazing teachers are ones I want to emulate because I continually learn from them in their areas of specialty.

Some of my worthy rivals are online.  We don’t have epic social media battles.  Some probably have no idea they’re my worthy rival.  These are the people that I read/listen/watch their content & think “I want to be like that!”  

Both groups of rivals have been integral to my growth as a teacher & business owner.  They have knowingly & unknowingly pushed me to become a better version of myself each year.

Read more about Collaborating with Other Teachers

4.  Capacity for existential flexibility

Studios come & go.   Businesses come & go.

I used to teach in the school system.  After having our twins, I realized that the environment wasn’t working for me anymore.  Or, as one admin put it, “You don’t like the work conditions.  Leave.”  

When I left that work situation, it didn’t mean my students stopped learning or the school shut down.  Another teacher came to take my place & create a learning environment for my (former) students.

If you want to build a studio that lasts, you find new, better ways to meet the needs of your students & clients.

Existential means you understand that what you do is bigger than you.  It’s about inspiring others to take up your just cause as well.

Existential flexibility means making pivots or changes in the way you do things so you can stay true to your just cause.  

If you are investing in keeping everything the same, eventually other studios will surpass what you offer.  “This is the way we always have done it” ultimately leads to abandoning what was originally important to you.

How a pandemic incited flexibility

It was stressful moving online when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

In those first weeks, my biggest question was, “How do I support my clients & students so they have the same experience as we have during in-person lessons?”

Notice it wasn’t “how do I mimic in-person lessons” or “how do I keep things functioning long enough to get back to in-person lessons”.

I understood that creating the same experience was different from doing things the same way.  The experience in my studio is not based on specific activities, but an approach to learning & building relationships. 

The tools could change, but the overall experience & culture of my studio would stay the same.

And, it led to a fundamental change in my studio going forward.  To build a studio that lasts, I had to embrace new tools & make new systems … while keeping my ‘just cause’ in mind.

5.  Have the courage to lead

It isn’t always easy to do what’s right.

At the time I write this my province is looking at a massive recession.  I would be lying if I said that it didn’t affect how I look at next year.  Or that I worry if I will be able to grow my studio the way I hope to.

On the one hand, I need new clients to reach my growth goal & pay bills.  On the other hand, I won’t compromise on my priorities or studio culture to do so.

Why?

Because I know my studio culture.  And, I know having clients that don’t want that studio culture will lead to some negative things.

Parents will get frustrated with how lessons are going.  Students will feel torn between what they are feeling or getting told from their parents.  Group lessons will be awkward for everyone because students aren’t feeling connected to each other. 

And, in all likelihood, a few months after lessons start I will have a portion of those clients drop lessons … leading to marketing for new students to make up that income.

Sure there’s a short-term gain from having the extra income.  But, the probability that I will have sustained long-term income goes down substantially when I take on just any client.  Regardless of whether I am doing right by them or me.

Building a studio that lasts means focusing on what is best for the long-term.  Even when hard times have you worried.

How to lead during a major pivot 

I have had a travel studio for almost 10 years.  It has been an integral part of the marketing, communication, & identity of my studio.

Instead of going back to the “way it used to be”, my studio is staying permanently online.  My clients were rather surprised about this new direction because I’ve enjoyed going to their homes each week.

When you have to pivot, & at some point you will, it doesn’t mean you leave all your clients & students behind.

Sometimes a pivot is sudden, like when the pandemic moved us online in a matter of hours or days.

Other times, a pivot can happen slower.  

Guide your clients.  Explain how the pivot gives them a better experience.

Listen to their concerns with an open mind.

And, understand that not everyone will want to take the same journey as you.

I’m okay with travel teaching for the one family in my studio that wants to stay with in-person lessons for the fall.  Especially if it means I don’t lose clients that are a great fit for the studio culture.

When clients choose to take that same journey as you pivot, make it an incredible experience.  One that surpasses what they had before.

Your choice 

To build a studio that lasts, you have to make a choice.  Regardless of the outside circumstances, you are the one with all the power.

You can choose to have a:

  • Cause greater than yourself
  • Group of people you trust & who trust you
  • Worthy rival(s) that inspire you to grow & learn
  • Existential flexibility that keeps you honest to your cause
  • Grit to lead, even when it isn’t easy

Simon Sinek’s talk on “The Infinite Game: How to Lead in the 21st Century” goes into this topic in-depth. 

Time for a little (more) honesty.  When my husband originally shared this talk with me, I said, “It’s over an hour & a half long!  What are you doing sending this to me?”  To be fair, the actual talk is just under 50 minutes, with a question period afterward. 

And, I can say it was worth the time listening.  Even if you are busy & need to listen to it in the background like I did.

In the comments below, share what your ah-ah moment was as you read this?  How will this influence how you build a studio that lasts?

4 thoughts on “How to Build a Studio That Lasts

  1. ….to build a studio that lasts, you find new and better ways to service your students and clients….This is what I have been able to do with the help of the online teacher community and finding like-minded colleagues. An article like this helps me be reflective and continue to service my families the best way I can. I’m very grateful for the ongoing commitment I have of families in my studio. Especially in these uncertain times I hope to be able to meet the goals parents have for their children in whatever form it may take this fall. With this Pandemic and switching to online teaching I certainly accomplished more than I thought I was capable of.

    1. Teresa, that is a wonderful ah-ha moment! Isn’t it amazing how we can accomplish more than we thought possible? I’m so glad to hear that your studio families have been so committed to lessons with you. I’m sure that you will meet their goals in the fall!

  2. Ah-ha moment:
    Notice it wasn’t “how do I mimic in-person lessons” or “how do I keep things functioning long enough to get back to in-person lessons”. (Well…for me at first that was what I was trying to do – but it was impossible for me to do this! I thought this pandemic was going to be very temporary…)

    I understood that creating the same experience was different from doing things the same way. The experience in my studio is not based on specific activities, but an approach to learning & building relationships.

    The tools could change, but the overall experience & culture of my studio would stay the same.
    —Last night this was really brought home to me. The culture of my studio is a very safe place full of learning, life skills as well as piano/music skills and building relationships. So many kind, encouraging words from parents – even when my Facebook Watch Party was not as smooth as I had practiced! One of them even said I “flawlessly” transitioned to Zoom….HA HA that could not be farther from the truth – but evidently Mom and student did not feel my angst. Last night, the “theme” from parents was that I made the transition and kept lessons as “normal” for the students as possible and they looked forward to seeing me each week. I only lost 2 students and those 2 I almost did not even try on-line – itty bitties and they were a handful IN studio!

    I also liked the “worthy rival” section. I have advocated for this my entire career. I have relationships with some teachers I have only met online and thankfully, some I have met in person. Even to discussion of digital pianos, just yesterday, or how to set up a studio to be safer for in-person lessons – so much wisdom.

    1. Marian, isn’t it wonderful when parents & students don’t see the frantic side?
      I know first hand that your studio is a safe place to learn & build relationships. Especially in the last few months I think that is exactly what parents & kids were looking for. Someone who guided them each step of the way so they didn’t have to figure out yet another thing on their own. Because you did that, the studio felt “normal” since this is exactly what you do each & every day.
      I’m glad you got an ah-ha moment from this, Marian!

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