Studio teaches dance and waltzes to the bank with $200,000 a year.
By Chuck Green
Janet Gray studied psychology in college and later worked for the United Way. However, earning only slightly above minimum wage and with a child for whom she was sole supporter, Gray knew there was no, well, dancing around the issue: she needed another plan.
Gray also had studied dance and taught and did choreography for a musical theater. So with an eye on recalibrating her career, Gray trekked to the mountains of Utah, near a ranch owned by her brother. She posted flyers at a small grocery store there. “The first day, I had two students and the second day I had four. It increased incrementally until, by the end of the year, I had quite a few and became profitable,” said Gray, owner of Janet Gray Studios.
Additionally, given that, back then, there were no social networks, Gray did some yellow page advertising. “But those tiny ads were expensive and didn’t bring in the students I needed. The junior high and high school have dance as part of their curriculum, so I’d contact them or go to schools and meet the dance teachers, and give them my dance schedule. I still draw a lot of people from that.”
She also notified the network of dance communities that she was preparing to open a studio emphasizing dance technique. “I received great response and pre-paid registration commitments. I had enough for the first three months’ rent.”
At the same time, her advertising budget is spent on a quarter page ad in playbill programs. “My advertisement is seen in every program for Broadway and National dance touring shows, local theater productions, and local dance companies. This has been a great source of new student referrals.”
Her first location was a rented room in a school building that had been turned into office space. She later hired an employee and rented more room in the same building. “The people underneath me complained about the tap dancing, so the owners of the building gave me a good deal to rent a 4,000-square-foot space that she converted into a gym. Soon, to become profitable, Gray, who has sales of $120,000 to $200,000, realized she needed to create two studios. So she sought a bank loan. Unfortunately, as a woman, circumstances at that time, around 1980, didn’t exactly work in her favor.
“Before then, women were required to have a husband’s or father’s signature on a credit card. They had no rights,” said Gray, who’d been through a divorce. “The banker asked me to lay my credit cards on the table and shredded them. He said I’d have to pay cash only for two years because I hadn’t built up a good credit rating. No bank advanced me any money without the loan being fully collateralized by CDs. “I had to put savings and CDs in their bank.”
Of course, it didn’t help that banks considered dance studios more risky than small restaurants, she said. “The men in charge didn’t get the concept of a studio specializing in training dance technique. I was treated like a brainless ‘sweet young thing.’ The bankers told me that business statistics suggested I would be out of business in less than five years. However, they were delighted with my purchase of their bank’s CD notes.”
She also had to deal with challenges inherent to her industry. “I had to make sure that my product—my students—were always at a high level. If the products would go out in the community and do well and make their auditions for companies they were auditioning for, or musical theater productions or colleges.
“As students progress and parents feel validated with their choice of studios, they also see that their children are successfully meeting their goals; then they speak well of our studio. Our students have great success in auditioning for their high school dance clubs and university dance/theater programs. The word gets out about our studio.” Each year, a number of her students are cast in local projects.
She said one of the most difficult aspects of her job is hiring faculty members. “I learned from my mistakes. Not every really cute, talented, dance team member makes a teacher. I defined and raised expectations for employees. Every teacher needs at least a bachelor degree in any category. A degree demonstrates dedication and the ability to follow through with obtaining a goal. They must also have had a professional performing contract.”
ANATOMY OF A STARTUP
Janet Gray Studios:
3065 Imperial Street, Salt Lake City,
UT 84106, www.janetgraystudios.com
Business description: Dance education, choreography, mentoring young dancers
According to Janet Gray, “My hourly wages teaching master dance classes, choreography and working for professional and university dance intensives were 4x higher than the hourly wage I was earning with my Psychology degree working with United Way Agencies. I needed to invent a business to support me and my infant son. I used the network of professional dance communities in Utah including Ballet West, Repertory Dance Theater, Ririe Woodbury Dance and the State universities. My goal was to focus on training precise dance technique for children and teens required for professional auditions.
“Because I had already worked for these organizations—I received great response and pre-paid registration commitments—thus began the business. I continue to take professional guest teaching/choreographic residencies and my studio business manager is able to run the Studio while I am traveling. One of these residencies in the mid-1990’s was at Interlochen Arts Academy, MI. While there I met and taught a 15-year-old extraordinary young talent, Mr. Richard Hinds. He is now the Associate Director of the Tony Award winning ‘NEWSIES.’ Stories of students reaching success in the entertainment industry happen frequently and validate what the Studio’s mission is all about.