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In this week’s edition of Founders Discuss, Krissy Jones and Chloe Kernaghan of Sky Ting Yoga talk to Leandra about the challenges of running a studio-based fitness brand and how they have been able to quickly and nimbly pivot to keep their business alive.
Leandra Medine Cohen: How are you guys?
Krissy Jones: My back hurts but–
Chloe Kernaghan: Alexa is talking.
LMC: That was so dramatic. She voluntarily turned on music. But onwards! How are you, really?
CK: I feel we’ve hit a nice enough groove right now with the offerings that we have, and there are sponsorship classes that are coming through, which have been great for us. We’re doing a lot of work on the backend, updating our website, because, of course, once you start to see more people come in, all of a sudden other little things that you didn’t really think about before become problems, and you’re like, “Oh right, this needs to be changed and that needs to be changed.”
In some ways we’re working more than we ever were, and it’s on our computers. Krissy and I used to teach for a good portion of our work week, so it’s a weird, interesting shift in our own work ethics.
LMC: Isn’t it so wild how problems arise no matter how solid the solutions are—life is like a game of whack-a-mole.
KJ: I feel we’re always in a state of, “Oh, when this happens we can chill and work less.” But it’s never been that way. I’m not complaining. We’re both pretty driven, and we’re lucky that we’re even surviving this mess.
CK: And that we have work to do!
KJ: But yeah, I am doing less yoga than ever. My lower back hurts.
LMC: You mentioned finding a groove in your programming. What is some of that programming?
CK: We have our live schedule, which we’re calling Sky Ting Live. It’s the daily live classes that we offer. So once a day, we have a full-length class. Right now we’ve hit the mark of 45 minutes, and it appears to be the sweet spot for home practices. If it’s longer than that, there’s a ton of drop off right around then.
We’ve also been doing a lot of IG Lives—that content has been fun and entertaining because it features some yoga, but then some not yoga. Last week we cut our business manager’s hair.
We did it as a split screen with Michael Gordon, who cuts both of our hair. He’s the founder of Bumble and bumble, and he was telling us what to do over video. He’s like, “No, up to where his nose is.” And we’re like, “Really?”
KJ: And then we made some ramen with Adam Rappaport [EIC of Bon Appétit], which was fun. Ours was a little mushy, but his looked great.
It’s fun because the Lives are not necessarily one thing. These types of things let us explore the breadth of our world—we’ve always had other things than just yoga, but it came out in different ways. We did the Sky Ting talent show at our space, and we brought in book talks in our space, and on our retreats there’s always an emphasis on food and wine and whatever. It’s part of our community and how we keep in touch with them. Yoga is not the end-all, be-all for us.
But we’re not doing Zooms. With Zoom yoga classes, you can have the videos of your students participating, and you can watch them, and critique them, but the way we’ve got it programmed [through Sky Ting TV], it’s embedded through a Vimeo player so you don’t actually see your students practicing. You’re talking out to the ether and telling jokes, hoping somebody at home is laughing.
LMC: What are average views on an Instagram Live yoga session?
KJ: It depends. If it’s a regular Sky Ting teacher, we get between 300 and 400 views.
LMC: But in studio, how many people can you have in a class? Thirty at the most?
CK: It’s a little bigger—like 55, 60. But yeah.
KJ: Chloe and I thought we were going to be traveling around America this whole spring to different markets, but because of the pandemic, we realized we didn’t have to go there. We could do Lives, and they could practice with us from wherever they are.
LMC: And the classes that you’re doing through the site on Vimeo—those are free?
KJ: One a day is free.
CK: And then they get transferred over to Sky Ting TV’s library, which is subscription-based. So if you have the subscription, then you can access them forever, whenever. We keep the free Vimeo 45-minute files live on the site for two hours a day, so that you have some time to tune in.
LMC: Are you able to track views on those?
KJ: We get about 1,200 views per video in real time. On Sky Ting TV, we have a map of the world that shows you where everyone is tuning in from, and we have 60 countries tuning in.
CK: It’s cool. It’s like a really new but interesting way to connect with community and to know that we’re all out there doing this together. As a teacher, you always end a class by taking a deep breath in with the students, and it’s really cool to think that as a globe, we might all be breathing a bit more in tune with each other.
LMC: How are you structuring the partnership classes?
CK: It depends. Some partners have underwritten Instagram videos, but mostly they are the Vimeos. It depends. We charge a higher rate for Sky Ting Live on our site vs. Instagram. But the nice thing with the Sky Ting Lives on site is that once they go to the TV library, they’re there forever with the brand’s name attached.
We’ve been really fortunate with the generosity of so many brands, and it’s kind of how Sky Ting has always worked. The organic word of mouth of somebody who works for a brand or a friend of a brand, seeing one of our newsletters promoting a sponsored class, and then all of a sudden we get a forwarded newsletter being like, “Hey, can we sponsor a class too?”
LMC: Did you start by actively reaching out, or did brands immediately come to you?
CK: Once we started those live classes during the first week of quarantine, two or three brands who have been friends of Sky Ting (Vita Coco and Recess) emailed us directly to ask if we could partner in some way. So we came up with the idea of sponsored classes as the best way for the brand to support us supporting our community. Then we don’t have to ask for donations.
LMC: It also lets you continue to pay different instructors.
KJ: We’re lucky it’s working for us. We know so many fitness studios that are failing.
LMC: Why do you think it’s working for you?
CK: Well, we already had Sky Ting TV. We launched in November, but we’d been working on it for two years, building up to its launch by recording videos, and thinking about how we were going to run it, and what platform we wanted to use. So having that built out, already on the site, as a revenue source that didn’t require a brick-and-mortar space was a major, major help for us.
And then we just have a scrappy team that literally within hours of the lockdown starting were running out to get webcams—our manager Patrick was able to go and grab one of the last ones on the shelf at Best Buy, and we have an amazing designer who does our web development, and they were able to create a process to embed the live Vimeo classes so they could be streamed. Our team and culture is rooted in being flexible and nimble. It’s important to be able to respond quickly, and I think has been our greatest asset in figuring out how to do this.
LMC: Just want to point out the flexible pun for a yoga team.
KJ: The other thing is, we were living in this crazy era of growth, growth, growth, more brick-and-mortars, go to LA, go to Austin, open in S.F. It was getting exhausting, and this experience has helped us hone in on what we are good at. We love teaching, and we love being part of our community, and we never want to compromise on that. We never want to go to our studio and not know who’s practicing—to not know the teachers for real, for real.
LMC: It’s not a franchise.
KJ: It’s not a franchise. So, I think that’s working for us.
LMC: How big is your team?
KJ: Five full time, and then me and Chloe, so seven.
LMC: It sounds like you’ve been able to retain everyone.
KJ: We did a 15% cut in salaries for the first month, including our own. We just got our PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan, so we’ve restored the salaries.
LMC: Are any of your instructors full-time?
CK: No, not at this point. We’ve tried in the past because we wanted to offer health insurance to our instructors, but it’s hard.
KJ: One teacher can’t really do 30 classes a week for us, and that’s what they would have to do to be considered full time.
CK: And [this way] we don’t have to prohibit them from teaching elsewhere or having corporate clients, etc.
KJ: So at this point they’re all independent, which is why we’re trying to keep mixing it up with our Sky Ting Lives. Every week we have six to 10 different instructors on the Lives throughout the whole week, and we pay them for those classes.
It really is working for us right now—well, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens when we go back to New York City with our physical spaces. But we realized that to continue our brand and to grow it, we just don’t need as much. We don’t need as many people. We don’t need as many spaces. We don’t need as many–
KJ: Simple is better. We were even talking yesterday about doing one teacher training a year instead of three.
LMC: Will you close any of the studios?
KJ: We’re thinking about having one studio for filming and just always keeping it set up for that.
CK: That’s where we’re interested in growing more with the brand, as opposed to more brick-and-mortar spaces. It’s so unclear what going back to live fitness in classes will be like, with the regulations and all.
KJ: It’s like a restaurant model. The fitness industry is the same. In order to make it work you have to pack in your classes. So the model is totally broken. We can’t have 60 people in a room anymore.
CK: I hope that we don’t have to go back to relying on those packed classes and the stressful moments of having to make decisions like, “Oh, this teacher isn’t doing numbers well enough and dah, dah, dah.” We don’t have to be such a Yoga Factory, because that definitely wasn’t our intention going in. But it’s funny how quickly you can fall into that mode when you start to look at your books and think, “We need to make ends meet.” I feel we’ve got this opportunity for Sky Ting to come back a little bit more to our quality. Not that we weren’t quality-driven before.
LMC: Is there a level of relief when you think about all of that stuff you were going to do that you’re now not going to do?
KJ: It’s mixed for me. I’m relieved that we have the time and space to reevaluate and work hopefully smarter and not grind as much.
CK: I think also there needed to be a shift, especially in New York — the bubble of how our world was functioning was just too ridiculous. It didn’t make any sense.
You know that Sinatra song—“If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.” It’s so true because you can. Living in New York, there’s blood on your knuckles, you’re gripping to keep things alive. But I hope there’s a little bit of a loosening of that grip, and life doesn’t become quite so strained in the city. The feeling of always needing to be so ahead and go, go, go all the time. It has been such a gift for us to have space to see how you can work in a way that’s maybe more conducive to your mental health.
KJ: And we don’t even need to do as much. We’ve been modeling our own merch and shooting it on our iPhones. We’re not doing a launch party for our new line of Sky Ting things. We don’t need all of that.
LMC: Although it does create jobs! But this has been and continues to be an eye-opening experience for all business owners and frankly everyone—the excess we create has never been so apparent, and you can’t ignore it. In the past, I think we were able to distract ourselves from it but there is no distraction now. So there is just a wild trimming of the fat going on. And I mean, I’ve seen it on my side too. Although I do feel a little bit like I’m in a rat race. I don’t know that I’ve yet found the same balance that it sounds like you guys have.
CK: Your business has always been online.
LMC: Yeah, totally. In some ways it feels we’re busier than we ever have been as a media brand, and working harder than we ever have worked to connect our content to partnership dollars, whether it’s for our “Too Many Cooks” video franchise on Instagram, our new texting service (Thoughtline), or sponsored posts on the site. It has not been easy but it does seem like the industry interest in working with traditional influencers has not really waned.
KJ: Yeah, it’s definitely about the lifestyle. For us, brands want both. All of the jobs we’re getting are asking that we post on Sky Ting and our personals.
LMC: It’s funny—there are so many parallels between our models to the extent that fashion is the language of Man Repeller, but it’s just the entry point the same way that yoga is for you. And as you’re talking about the way that you work with instructors, I’m thinking writers are teachers, too, and maybe they don’t all have to be full time. Especially the ones of Man Repeller, who are entertainers, too! And they earn loyal, cult followings the way a lot of your yoga instructors do.
And I’m sure that sometimes it’s painful to lose them, right?
KJ: Yeah, totally. When we first started these online classes, we wanted people to sign non-competes, but then again, teachers don’t make enough anyway, and we want them to make as much money as possible.
And you know what it’s like being a freelance writer, we know what it’s to be freelance teachers, and we know that unless you’re making a huge salary and have health insurance and all of that… we can’t expect everybody to stay with us forever and ever.
LMC: Even when you offer the health insurance and salaries, though, you can never really expect someone to stay forever. How important do you think video will become for your business?
KJ: I don’t think group fitness is ever going to go away. There’s something that cannot be replicated out of a classroom. But probably classroom size is going to be limited, probably everyone’s going to bring their own mats, probably no adjustments from teachers.
We’ll continue to do live streams to keep up with the global audience. We want to continue to offer something for everybody, but I think for us, the studios will be less of a way that we make money, and more of a way just to support our community and continue our community, and have physical space to do fun things like our talent shows. More of our money will be made coming from online.
LMC: So the studio becomes a church—that’s where you go for your Sunday mixer.
CK: Totally. But really, sky’s the limit.
Graphic by Lorenza Centi.