Building a business where people go to feel inspired and confident is much easier said than done. Replicating and franchising that concept, all while making the important things stick, is even harder. Jami Stigliano, owner and founder of dance studio franchise, DivaDance, managed to make it happen. This week’s Yelp reviewer, Emily A., shares her story of how the Austin studio gave her a sense of empowerment and community.
On the Yelp Blog: Hear from Jami on how she created an accessible, inclusive, and welcoming business for her target audience.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I’ll pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind it. This week as we kick off Women’s History Month, I’m excited to feature two incredibly strong women. 1) Today’s reviewer, Emily, who shares a personal story about how DivaDance empowered her, and 2) Jami our first franchisor and owner of the nationwide community dance movement, DivaDance, that started in New York and has popped up all over the country, including where we find ourself for today’s review—Austin TX. To top it off, Jami, our featured female entrepreneur, was technically still on maternity leave when we did her interview. Her first child was born in December of 2020. Women are so amazing.
Please note, in this episode, our reviewer Emily A. is a survivor of a domestic violence relationship and briefly touches on the experience as it relates to the positive impact the DivaDance community brought to her life. Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.
REVIEWER EMILY: The first time I went, I was a little bit nervous. Before that, I was not given the freedom to do whatever I wanted because of having been in that domestic violence relationship. So to be able to go to the dance class was a really big step because I was driving myself, taking myself wherever I wanted to go.
And once I got there, I was greeted by Natalia and she was “Ah! Welcome to the squad,” and everybody was high-fiving, everybody was hugging, and I immediately felt this sense of women empowerment and community that I really hadn’t had in a very long time having been isolated. I never felt judged. Once I stepped in there, I wasn’t nervous because they were just so welcoming.
EMILY: That’s Emily. I’m so honored that she was willing to share her story with me and the Yelp community when she wrote her review of DivaDance. According to the CDC, one in four women will experience what Emily went through in their lifetime. Fortunately in the wake of that, she found herself making friends and finding community in a group of dancers—a group that all started because DivaDance’s owner Jami had a vision to create an inclusive space where people could come together, move their bodies, and just feel good about themselves! First, let’s hear Emily’s review.
REVIEWER EMILY: DivaDance is everything I needed in my life after going through a domestic violence relationship. After that happened, I shut down mentally, physically, and pushed everyone away. After months of agony, I decided to get back into dance—something that I had done as a child and in high school. I was so nervous at first, but I was immediately welcomed with open arms.
I never feel judged or out of place. DivaDance is the most inclusive dance, gym, squad, and business ever. I always get a great workout and I can honestly say I made some real friends. They also offer assigned recitals you can be a part of, video shoots, lock-ins when there wasn’t a pandemic, a lot of other opportunities to grow in dance, and in your connections with both guys and girls. I’ll never dance anywhere else.
EMILY: This close-knit community Emily found through DivaDance is especially impressive as the growing company is now a franchise across 20 cities in the US. This sense of community and belonging is real, and it starts with the founder, Jami. Before we dig deeper into that, let’s hear about how DivaDance came to be.
JAMI: It wasn’t even called DivaDance at the time. It was really just Jami’s dance classes. I had gone to an awesome studio in New York City after work one night but it was really geared towards training folks to become professional dancers, folks who were broadway bound. So the class was stressful, it was competitive, and the instructor was only looking at themselves in the mirror. I just went to have fun, I walked out of there, and I was like, no, no, no, no—we need something for regular folks. So I started teaching my own classes and for many years, after work, working in the city, and over time, it was something where I asked myself: could I bring this to other cities? Like I’m seeing these great things happen. I’m having so much fun. And I really didn’t even do it to become a business. I did it because I wanted that experience and I wanted to create something that was accessible, inclusive, and helped people feel good because I remember that feeling when I walked out of that other class and I felt really bad about myself. And I was like people don’t want people to feel this way.
Now,we’re in 20 cities and I’m just really proud of being able to take something that started in that way and bring it across the country.
EMILY: Jami is incredibly impressive. This business she’s built has created so much strength and community across the country for people who want to dance, have fun, and sweat it out. Something that’s so cool to know though, is how this was an accidental business model. Here’s Jami explaining to me what the early days of DivaDance classes were like in New York.
JAMI: What’s interesting…I didn’t even think of it as a business model at the time. But what I was really forced to do because I couldn’t afford a big studio myself, you know, I was just doing this as a hobby business—so I would just rent existing studio spaces. One thing you could have expected at that time and by the way we’re still this way is that DivaDance was at an existing studio. In New York City, we would rent from Ripley-Grier, CAP Studios, and 440 Lafayette street. And we still rent from those facilities in non COVID times.
I didn’t want to take on the overhead of a studio and I didn’t want that to stand in my way. I didn’t want it to be an excuse as to why I couldn’t just get started, because I think so many young business owners are like, well, I have to fundraise, I have to have the perfect studio, it has to have, you know, lavender scented towels in the bathroom, but I wasn’t about all that stuff. I just wanted it to get to the nitty gritty of the dance class experience. So when you arrived at that time, you may have been a little confused because you’re used to fancy gyms and fancy pilates studios, but one thing that has not changed about the experience is being greeted authentically and enthusiastically by someone who is genuinely happy that you’re there.
EMILY: Do you have an excuse between you and a business idea? Do you have an excuse between you and your business’s growth? Jami removed the excuses, and grew her community with a feeling. Being greeted enthusiastically is a given. Her franchisees carry out the DivaDance values, because they’re shared.
JAMI: Well, it starts with shared values and us talking about inspiring confidence and building community. It’s not just something that we just tout as a marketing tagline. It’s genuinely and authentically who we are and how we show up in our day-to-day business. So we’re always asking ourselves, is the way we’re interacting with clients helping them feel confident? And I was so happy to hear Emily say that she wasn’t feeling good before she came to class, she was nervous, but as soon as she came in, she felt better. I’m like, yes, we have mechanisms in place to create that experience.
And then that comes across in training, right? So, you know, us using that value system and then looking at, okay, what are the behaviors? And what’s the client experience? What supports those values? That’s literally just like greeting someone with eye contact as soon as they come through the door. Which is such a simple thing to do, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been to places where they never even looked up at me, you know? I’ve signed in at an indoor cycling studio where the person behind the desk never even said hello to me or acknowledged me. I just signed in on a piece of paper.
All the behaviors that support those values are how we achieve that. And that’s really scalable if you can operate. We’re thinking about it from the values and what is the client experience that supports those? It’s pretty easy to replicate. And then it goes to finding great business owners. So me finding women who are just totally on the same page, they believe in that, and they want to put the hard work in to deliver that in their city. That’s how we’ve been able to do that.
EMILY: A simple but intentional practice. And it goes beyond greeting every customer as they arrive for class. These dance classes don’t use dance lingo nor look down on someone who’s at a beginner level. They’re created for anyone who wants to join, and they’re truly accessible for people at all dance levels. Emily shared that you can see this when you look at the diversity of their community. In her review she included a handful of photos, and to her they represented the broad range of people that she’s able to sweat, dance, and connect with through DivaDance.
REVIEWER EMILY: I think it was important for me to share the photos that I did because one, it’s kind of something we do after every class—they take a squad photo. And also I love that it showed diversity. I love that it showed both men and women. And it showed older women, younger women, and women of color. And just everybody there together laughing, having a good time, no matter if they’re 19 or 45, and we are all different shapes and sizes. I just wanted everybody on Yelp to understand that it’s a group of, not everybody’s a professionally trained dancer. We’re there to have fun and we’re all different and unique. And that’s what makes us such a great community.
JAMI: Well, on one hand, it’s very different in Austin than it is from New York City. But one thing that’s consistent that I love is people aren’t that different, especially women. You know, women want to feel good about themselves in their bodies. They want to form a community with other folks who are maybe like-minded or even different minded. They just want to feel accepted and received by someone, seen, and feel like they have community. And everyone wants to get a good workout.
One thing, even though the way we kind of promote the business is a little different in different cities and the spaces we use are bigger in Texas, as you can imagine than we have in New York City and other places. But the consistent thread are the clients. The folks that come to our classes and make up the community. And I love that about it, because I’ll visit our locations in Florida, Chicago, D.C., or even a smaller town called Tyler, Texas, and I look around and I’m like, yep, this looks like DivaDance clients to me. Everyone kind of looks, quote unquote, the same and have a shared goal of wanting that community and wanting to feel confident.
EMILY: And that sense of confidence that Jami has built and helps other DivaDance owners create goes beyond just confidence on the dance floor. Next, Jami shares a bit about how she supported and motivated her team and other franchise owners during the early days and months of the pandemic.
JAMI: Well, first I had to stay positive but realistic. I had to say to my owners: listen I know this sucks and I know that you’re eager to get back to in-person classes, but hey, in the meantime, how can we make the most of this time? It was really for me about being like, I know this sucks, I know this is hard, and I know this isn’t how we’re planning our year to go. That’s just the kind of leader I am where I’m going to keep it real, but I’m going to be action-oriented to move forward.
At the beginning of the pandemic, when we didn’t know how long it was going to go on, I basically issued a here’s how to make the most of your time kind of memorandum. Basically like setting up email filters or all things you can do to get ahead in your business so that my gals still felt productive, they still felt like they were in motion, and they still felt like they were making the most of their day and helping their business when they couldn’t get into classes. Because the main way that we sell our memberships is through face-to-face interaction. You know, we’re not an online business, we’re an in-person business. So all my franchisees were used to being able to drive revenue through in-person interactions with clients. So to cut them off from that was hard on their mental health and hard on their bottom line financially.
We were just trying to empower them to feel like they were still in motion. But a few of my gals just said they felt really frustrated. They felt, you know, I hate to use the word defeated, but it is a defeating thing we all went through last year and was continuing to go through. I let them take a break. Because it’s also like, you know, what? Be with your family. Some of them had to go through extenuating circumstances with their families and some of them became homeschool teachers because they had little ones that needed to be educated at home. So, you know, it was really about empowering them and also giving them permission to take a break if they needed to. And that’s really how we did that. And then as time went on, it was really about like, all right girls, let’s pull our bootstraps up because this is going to go on for longer than we thought. We still got a business to run. Let’s get to it. So we’ve given them tools and we’ve given them support. And every single one of my owners, it’s just really about empowering them to know what the local regulations are. Basically, how can we get clients? How can we start driving revenue again in the safest way possible?
And for some of the markets that has meant you can’t have in-person classes, it just does not make sense. Chicago has been one of those markets, but then, some of my other markets, you know, it was about like, okay, you can get back in person. You’re going to have to have reduced capacity, wear masks, but let’s put a plan together for that. Luckily we’re still small enough where I feel like I do have a good grip on every market and what their local regulations are but we’ve been able to just empower them to keep going.
EMILY: So many valuable takeaways just in listening to how Jami navigated those early weeks and months with her franchisees. Accomplishing or taking time to do things and create systems you maybe wouldn’t have otherwise built—like organizing your email and communications methods. I also really thought it was important to note that for some of her owners, a break was what they needed. Taking time to step away from the business and address things closer to home like virtual schooling for their children. Which gives them the power, control, and connection to be flexible, but also be the best version of themselves for the business. Let’s hear a bit now on the operational side of things, how DivaDance pivoted, and continues to prioritize safety for their members and team.
JAMI: I’ll never forget it. It was March 13th. We had our first online class and we did move really quickly. That date I’ll never forget because it was really early in the days of stay at home orders and quote unquote lock-down and things like that. I knew we had to do right by our clients by killing in-person classes, because there was so much about the virus at that time that was unknown and we all had so much fear. As a business owner, you have the fear of the virus, then you have the fear of losing your business, you have the fear of going out of business, or the fear of not being able to meet your financial obligations.
Our goal immediately was how can we keep our clients safe but stay in business? And online classes were really the only way we could do that safely. Again, we didn’t know a lot about the virus at that time. So, now we’ve moved to in-person masked classes, outdoor classes, socially distance classes, reduced capacity classes, and not in every city, but just in the ones where it makes sense to do that.
At the beginning our number one goal was for me, as a franchisor, to keep my franchisees in business. And because we’re a membership model, I knew the best way to do that was just to continue to deliver awesome classes that people could take in their homes. We started off the first four months of the pandemic live streaming every class. Live streaming twice a day from my headquarters, which was exhausting. And, we became a live streaming company, really fast and I never intended to. And when you become a live streaming company, you’re also a technology company, and you’re also a customer support—I don’t know how to cast this to my TV, how do I, it’s timing out—you’re a tech support company. And that’s not what we do, but we pulled it together and we’re able to deliver that. And we were able to keep people, you know, consistent with things that they wanted to do at home like dancing and sweating.
At the end of those first few months of COVID and then we should have had to pivot our business to, all right, well this is going to go on for a while. So now the plan is not, how do we save our business but how do we grow? Because, it’s really now this is what we’re dealing with. So we can’t make excuses that we can’t find new clients, that we can’t grow our business, and so we were successfully able to do that kind of the second half of the pandemic thus far. It was a huge challenge. It wasn’t how our year was planning to go. We had grand plans to grow quite a bit of franchise units. We still did grow thankfully, but not as big as we had planned. But we rose to the challenge and I feel really good about what we were able to deliver to clients at home who said, “These classes kept me sane, these classes kept me active, and these classes helped me stay plugged into the community.” Now we have online classes, so it helped, it forced us to grow, and push ourselves to add something new to our business.
EMILY: Jami’s mentality was successful. She was realistic, but at the end of the day she’s aware of what her clients get from DivaDance, and she knew what they were going through when the pandemic hit. All they could do was adapt and then make changes and accommodations as they gained more information and knowledge. The biggest factor—everyone’s safety.
REVIEWER EMILY: They took amazing precautions with COVID. I was a part of the recital, which is something extra you can do and you learn longer dances, and then you have a recital. And in the middle of that, COVID happened. And I remember they immediately were like, we can’t have a walk-in. We’re not going to have a recital. We’re going to have to put everything on hold. And then they moved quickly. They moved to virtual classes and the virtual classes are just as fun. They still hype you up and give you a compliment through the camera. And they also recently started outdoor classes where they found different places where they can do the classes that are socially distanced, and everybody has on a mask. You can dance within your area to make sure that everybody is COVID safe. So every time I go, I feel safe.
EMILY: To close out, let’s talk about reviews. We’ll start with Emily. She was so incredibly brave to share her personal story and connection to the business.
REVIEWER EMILY: I work in marketing and I know how important reviews are for the company that I work for. I am constantly trying to give reviews to local businesses, and small businesses, because I know how much a review can really impact a business.
EMILY: And they certainly impact Jami, she even saves them to her phone and shares them with her team at large.
JAMI: Well reading Emily’s story, it just really touched me. And as a business owner, you need feedback like that because it reminds you to keep going. Especially for me where I’m not in all the classes all the time anymore. And as we grow, I’m not personally teaching every class and not getting to see the outcomes, seeing the sweaty and smiles, and the juice that the gals are feeling in the classes. So to read that on her review…I have a little folder on my phone where I screen grab anything like that. Any personal story where they post on their Instagram, on their Yelp review, or anywhere else online. I keep those because they’re like little reminders to keep going. And that what we’re doing is important. We’re changing lives and you never think of a dance class that’s changing someone’s life. But when I read Emily’s very personal, vulnerable story about her why for coming and for how it affected her and impacted her, man, that is huge, to read that about someone. Definitely we were changing lives.
And so what I do frankly, is I share those stories with our whole company. Anything that’s put out there publicly, I want to make sure the company sees it because it’s very easy to not think of what you do day to day, to not think of making eye contact from someone when they come in the door, introducing yourself, or the way my instructors teach classes, you know, about making it accessible and not using—one thing we don’t do in our classes, we don’t use dance terminology. We don’t use dancer speak, we use regular person speak. We use, you know, point your toe, pop your booty, things that normal people know. So that’s a little thing that we do to help folks like Emily, feel good when she’s there.
It all adds up on top of each other. I share those stories with our folks all across the brand, because I want them to just remember that what they’re doing matters. Every little piece matters. It makes a difference to someone. And don’t just take my word for it. Here’s someone telling you in a public forum that they were in an abusive relationship, they came to our classes, we help them feel good, and we help them feel empowered because what that means is that Emily then went on to the world and she was a better sister, daughter, friend, colleague, executive, neighbor, driver, she’s a better person in all those ways because of the way we impacted her. So, that stuff is huge. It’s everything. It’s truly the why behind what we do. So it’s important to me to share those stories so that folks across our company can recognize those types of things in their day to day, in what they’re doing with us as well.
EMILY: Lastly, I want to leave you with Jami’s approach to both good and bad reviews.
JAMI: First of all, I’m really confident in what we do, how seriously we take what we do, and so I’m not insecure about reviews. For me, reviews are an opportunity to celebrate, to improve, or grow. Sometimes it’s really just a matter of a miscommunication or they had a bad experience one time and it doesn’t represent a systemic problem within my company. They just happen to have a bad experience that day. So it’s an opportunity for me to reach out to them and make a correction or invite them back to experience the real thing.
I think that some business owners, they get very, they operate from fear. Well, if I get a bad review, I’m out of business. And sometimes that, you know, for restaurants, especially, I’m not in that world, you know, I can imagine that that’s pretty overwhelming and stressful. But for me, you know, I definitely have read some reviews that I’ve been like, ah, a little cringy. I’m like, oh, that’s just not what was supposed to happen there, you know?
Or I’ll read reviews on other platforms as well. And sometimes I feel bad for the reviewer, cause I’m like, man, you’re really angry. Right? Or something will happen, not even just about my brand, but other people’s brands. So I know that with the review there comes so much with it. Sometimes they’re very casual. Sometimes they have real vitriol, like they really want to get somebody’s business, or they just are trying to be helpful. Like this was my experience and so I try to just chalk it all up and hope that all the positive reviews far out shine any negative ones.
But you know, we’ve gotten some feedback from folks directly that weren’t published in a public review. And I appreciate those too, because it’s definitely given me the chance to respond back to them. Thank them for their thoughtful feedback. Give them an invite back to have another experience. And it’s an opportunity for me to go to that market or look at our training and say like, what can we do better?
I know that sounds a little earnest, but it’s really how I approached the reviews. They are important and I like to share them with the company, without any insecurity, and just say here’s the feedback we got and what can we learn from this? Or how can we celebrate it?