Amy Lovat

This article comes to us from our newest contributor, the talented Amy Lovat AKA Amzlove. Amy interviews young businesswoman Peta Serras about her journey to opening her dream Pilates business and her experiences and learning along the way.

Everyone loves a success story, especially one built on passion and confidence, with a humble beginning.  Stumbling out of high school and into a Pilates instructor course at Polestar Pilates Australia, Peta Serras now runs her own successful Pilates studio.  She owns Pilates Evolution Now in Maitland, manages her own business blog and is working on releasing a range of Pilates DVDs.  Last month, Pilates Evolution Now achieved second place in the Hunter Region Business Awards.  All at the tender age of 23!

It wouldn’t be a success story without a few speed bumps along the way. During Peta’s year of Pilates training, she dislocated her knee, which resulted in a long and traumatic surgery and subsequent recovery program.  Notoriously optimistic, she cites this period in her life as the birth of her true passion for Pilates.  “The specialists ended up telling me that if I had been doing Pilates earlier on in my life, I probably wouldn’t have needed surgery on my knee.  The muscle strength I had built up from years of dancing just wasn’t enough.”  Determined to finish the Polestar course so that she could become a Pilates instructor, Peta completed her qualification exam and apprentice-teaching hours, just a few months after surgery.   It was the injury that prompted her to get serious about Pilates.  “I really wanted to get the course finished so that I could start sharing the Pilates knowledge with other people.  I just realised that I didn’t want anyone to have to go through the kind of pain that I experienced.”

Peta started with an idea for a business; she did her research, corresponded with Business Enterprise Centre and took that idea as far as she could.  “I don’t want to be mediocre.  I don’t want to do the same thing for seven years without developing or staying inspired.  For me, this isn’t just a way to make money.”  A few short weeks after doing her Pilates exam, Peta bought some advertising material and business cards at Vista print online and registered her business name: Pilates Evolution Now.

The business began humbly, with Peta running Pilates mat classes at East Maitland Bowling Club.  In her very first mat class, on 1 June, 2009, she had only one paying client.  “I rang all my friends and family and said: ‘If you love me, you have to come and do my class!’” she laughs, “and about five of them came along, so it wasn’t too bad.  But I was so nervous!”  So what made her want to start her own business, as opposed to the easier route, some would say, of shadowing other Pilates instructors for a few months and finding casual work at other studios?  “I did a lot of apprentice teaching at other studios,” she explains, “and whenever I was there, I would be looking around, analysing the business and thinking ‘I could do this so much better!’”  Confidence (and a touch of naivety, she readily admits!) was the key ingredient to getting her business started.  She notes the apparent divide between small business owners who are “in it for the money”, and those who are really trying to make a difference.  It was her goal to find the middle ground, especially in a niche area like Maitland, where the only fitness facilities are gyms and fitness chains.  “Pilates is a bit special,” she muses, “it’s so big in America but still quite small here.  And there are so many gyms with instructors that teach ‘Pilates’ without really being qualified, and I wanted to do it differently.”

Originally, the plan was to build a strong client base before leasing her own location, however Peta wasn’t satisfied at the Bowling Club.  Just two weeks after deciding to move, the “perfect” studio became available – a former dance school in East Maitland.  It was a risky move, but she was confident that running her own business was what she wanted to do, and passionate that she needed to do it right.  At first, the move came at a price: “I had about eight regular clients at the time and one night I told them there was a change of location for the class.  They all walked into this dirty, bare studio, and some of them started dropping out of classes.”  But she’s never looked back.  Peta spent the whole Christmas holidays setting up the studio, ordering new equipment and conducting initial assessments for her new clients, and now she teaches 40 classes a week at Pilates Evolution Now.  Twelve of those are Mat classes, which have a maximum of 10 participants, and the rest are all Studio sessions, on the Pilates reformers and equipment.  The Studio sessions have a maximum capacity of three clients, and the business has grown tenfold since her debut class two years ago.  “We have a long wait list now,” she tells me, “We’ve closed the books.  Which is a big struggle for me, because it’s great that I’m so busy but I don’t like turning people away.  All the more reason to expand the business!”

Was it difficult building that initial base of loyal clients?  “Yes,” she replies, without hesitation, “Because it’s so easy for someone to go and get a gym membership for $9.95 a week.  And obviously Pilates costs a bit more than that.  What I do is quite specialised.  And I’m tough!”  She laughs, “It’s my dancing background!  I work the clients hard and we see the results.”  She tells me about one loyal client who has been attending her classes religiously, three times a week for the past two years.  The business has mainly spread via word-of-mouth; clients see the results in their bodies and tell their friends.  “At the very beginning, I had one real estate agent coming to my classes, who eventually brought all her colleagues and then every single employee of that agency was at my studio!  Then another business happened like that, and it got the ball rolling.”

Peta also cites social networking as a major factor in the promotion of her studio.  She manages her own website, as well as regularly writing posts about nutrition, healthy lifestyle, posture, Pilates exercises and delicious recipes on her Pilates Evolution Now blog.  With the growing popularity of online shopping, blogging and facebook, the internet can provide small businesses with amazing networking and advertising opportunities.  “It’s been so great because it’s so easy to get on my phone or my computer and just write something, even if it’s just posting an interesting link or a recipe on the facebook page or the blog…something that clients will be interested in!  Social networking has worked so much better than advertising in the paper.”  These days, Peta is receiving 2-5 calls a day, inquiring about Pilates Evolution Now, and 2-5 new clients each week.

Peta’s weekdays start at 7.30am; she teaches until midday, then spends a few hours cleaning the studio, updating client records and squeezing in her own Pilates practise before beginning teaching again at 3.00pm, working until 8.30pm every night.  It sounds like she’s a workaholic, but this young woman is just striving towards her goals, of which she has many.  “The Pilates DVDs are the first thing, of course, I want them completed within the next six months.  Ideally, I don’t want to renew the lease next year.  I’m a bit anal, and I want something purpose-built.  I’m already looking around for land to build a new studio.”  A self-confessed perfectionist with a competitive streak, she finds it difficult to delegate, a weakness she freely admits.  “I’m working on it,” she says, and goes on to explain that she is training her mother to be a receptionist for her, a few nights a week at the studio.  “It’s a bit hard, because I’ve been doing everything by myself for so long and I like things done a certain way.  For example, if Mum uses a red pen, instead of a blue pen … I really can’t get my head around that!”

Peta plans to add more classes to the already-full schedule, find additional instructors, buy more equipment for the studio and even launch a nutrition-fitness program, which she will write and coordinate herself.  At the moment, she teaches all forty classes herself, updates her blog and manages her own accounts and book-keeping.  “At the end of each week, I analyse the income in versus income out of the business, and take the time to figure out exactly what’s going on.  Why did we have a good week?  Why was it a bad week?  I always make sure that I budget.  I always have a few months rent in the bank.  Because working for yourself, you can’t really take sick days.  You never know what could happen, and you still need to pay rent.”  No one could claim she’s lacking ambition.  “Sometimes, when I’m hard on myself, I just have to give myself a mental pep talk.  I already have my own business, I’ve won a business award, have DVDs coming out, and I’m only 23!”

What’s the best piece of advice she can give to young women wanting start their own business?  “Just give it a go!” she states, emphatically, “Know exactly what you want and don’t let anyone walk all over you.  It’s great to start with a big goal, then work your way backwards and do the research.  Figure out exactly what you need to do to get to that goal.  It helps to get things down on paper – I’m a notorious list-maker – and think ‘Okay, why do I want this?’  When I first started, I was so young and naive and I really thought that no one would take me seriously.  But you have to overcome that.  Be genuine; you have to be yourself.”  With infectious laughter, a bubbly personality   and a competitive streak – “I want to be the best!” – there is no doubt that Peta Serras is taking her own advice.  Rest assured, there are big things on the horizon for this young woman.

Peta will be attending the upcoming 10thousandgirl workshop in Newcastle.  She is looking forward to the opportunity for networking and seeking further advice about her business plans from professionals in the financial services industry.

Amy is currently completing her Honours thesis in Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle.  Then she will go and finish her Law degree … maybe.  She is also 10thousandgirl’s Local Ambassador for Newcastle.

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