In business, change is inevitable. But the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a level of change that businesses couldn’t foresee or plan for. Our #SmallBusinessRedefined series showcases small businesses that have found ways to reimagine their business through new opportunities – whether it’s through a new product, a new market, or a new way to fulfill. Learn how these Canadian businesses have pivoted to adapt, innovate and thrive in a changing and uncertain environment.
Fitness is a passion for Sareena Nickoli. She opened Soul Studio in December, 2014 after the classes she was teaching at another studio became too popular for the space. On the urging of a friend, she took a leap of faith and struck out on her own. “I literally dove in and didn’t know how I would get anywhere,” she admits.
Five years later, Soul Studio holds every type of group fitness class going (Zumba, Yoga, Pilates, Spin, Barre, TRX), with twenty-one instructors and a loyal base of members. When COVID hit last year and lockdown was imminent, she knew she had to find a way to keep her business going and her members moving.
“People come here because it’s their happy place,” Sareena says. “I had people say ‘Please don’t shut the doors – this is the only thing keeping me going during this time.'”
When she had to close her doors in March of 2020, she cried. Mainly for her members and then for herself. “There is no way I can lose five years of hard work, she said.”
A Digital Life-Line
Fortunately for Sareena, she had implemented a digital model from the onset of her business. To make the studio as efficient as possible, she created an app where clients could check into classes online. This digital set-up was one of the keys to her survival through the pandemic.
Upon lockdown, Sareena put together a makeshift solution, learned about zoom, found a light, bought a video camera, and three days later did a test class for forty members. “It was magical,” she says.
After that first class, she tweaked sound, internet and a few other things. With that done, she reached out to her instructors and in no time had thirteen classes planned for one week – which clients could sign up for through the app, without missing a beat.
And every Sunday morning since then, she has led her Zumba class, with dozens of people from across Canada – and beyond – joining her virtually.
Soul Studio’s Silver Lining – reaching new clients around the globe
Over the past year, Soul Studio has been closed a total of six months on and off, during which time they have run over 100 classes per month. The studio gained members throughout B.C., across Canada and the U.S., and even had participants as far away as Australia and Brazil. In the months following her first virtual class, Sareena kept improving her digital offering. She invested in better equipment and recognized that virtual was just going to be part of her plan going forward. She also posted videos on TikTok, which has extended her reach and popularity into the U.S.
“We have 44,000 followers on TikTok, and the feedback we’re getting there has been mind blowing. TikTok has been one of the best business tools for us,” she says, explaining that she posts fun, inclusive workout videos. “ It’s been a great way to reach a completely different audience and has given me the kind of exposure I’ve always dreamed about.”
When her studio has been allowed to partially open over the past year, she and her instructors teach in-person with a live feed for virtual classes (yoga, barre, pilates). In a typical class, she will have a hand-full of in-class members and more than ten times as many participating online, from home. Higher intensity classes such as spinning and Zumba are run only virtually, and Sareena has nearly 100 participants joining some of her weekly classes.
The pandemic offered Sareena an opportunity for a business expansion she never would have imagined. “I have always dreamed big and wanted to do more with Soul Studio because I saw how it changed so many people’s lives. Virtual is now part of my business and is what’s going to expand my brand,” she says.
Tips for other business owners
Sareena Nickoli’s quick, creative thinking got her studio up and running online in no time. Fortunately, she’d had the foresight to go digital from the beginning. But this wasn’t the only factor to her success.
Sareena shares the following best practices to help other business owners get through tough times.
- Think outside the box. Virtual fitness classes were not a popular concept back in early 2020, but Sareena figured out a way to quickly make it happen. She also had twenty spin bikes sitting in her studio, which she leased out to members for extra cash flow. Since then, she has started selling her own branded bikes, and ships them across the province so her members can easily participate from home.
- Take action – and keep up the momentum. Sareena acted quickly to change her set-up, test virtual classes, and get her instructors on board. She then kept innovating, investing in new equipment, expanding her offering and leveraging TikTok to boost her reach.
- Make it about more than business. Sareena passionately believes that exercise is vital to both physical and mental health, and was genuinely concerned about the impact her studio closure could have meant for her members. Her priority was her members’ health, which kept her focused on her mission. Her size-inclusive environment has also led to a devoted fan base and following on social media.
- Continue to differentiate. Over the last year, virtual fitness has taken off, and Sareena’s competitive landscape has expanded considerably. But she created a differentiated experience where instructors and members can interact before, during and after the class. The authentic community feel of her studio has successfully carried over from in-person to the virtual environment.
- Give clients a reason to keep coming back. Sareena regularly runs fitness challenges through her studio that keep her members motivated and coming back. “People dress up, they earn prizes, perform acts of kindness. It’s an overall feel-good event,” she says. Her two-month virtual challenge in early 2021 was a team event that connected people from across the country.
- Seize the silver linings. By offering both in-person and virtual classes, spotting a future in spin bike sales and highlighting her unique experience via multiple channels, Sareena has been able to expand her business in ways she hadn’t thought possible. She turned big challenges into even bigger opportunities.
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