Transcript Episode 069 – Angie Marianthi
Transcript: Episode 069 – Angie Marianthi
069 – Angie Marianthi on Building a Family-Owned Music Studio
Often when I interview studio owners, there’s one specific element of their business that I want to highlight and delve into, but I’ve gotten to know today’s guest over the last year or so and there were so many big and little things about the way they run their studio that are really cool and I wanted you to hear about.
We’ll touch on a lot of different topics from developing a unique teaching method and calendar, to branding, to building community partnerships, to having co-owners – we really cover a lot and I think you’ll draw a lot of inspiration from today’s episode.
Here’s my conversation with Angie.
Andrea: Hi Angie. Thank you for being here today. Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your studio.
Angie: Hi Andrea. Thanks so much for having me. I am Angie Marianthi. I am the owner of Boise Music Lessons. We’re a small family-owned studio located in Boise, Idaho. We teach adults, teens and tweens how to play music with their family and friends.
Andrea: Awesome. That’s such a great synopsis of what you do. How long have you been teaching?
Angie: Great question. I’ve been teaching for about 20 years now, just one-on-one lessons and then I have the idea to start our current studio Boise Music Lessons about five years ago.
Andrea: Alright. Before you started your current setup you were just privately teaching out of your home. How did that work?
Angie: Yup, just privately teaching. I started in high school teaching neighbor kids and then went to college and taught out of the practice rooms and then Marcus, my partner both in business and in life, we got together and I taught out of our apartment and now we moved into our house and have a designated space here.
Andrea: Awesome. So teaching for you has always been your full-time gig, right?
Angie: Actually, it hasn’t until about five years ago. I have a collection of degrees that I am not using and a bunch of day jobs that I have in various career fields that I thought that I would go into. So throughout my young adult life I don’t know what I thought I would be but I kept going to school to figure it out and always had a day job and just taught on the side. It just seemed that people once they find out you play an instrument they just want to take lessons. They just get really excited and so it was always something that I did two or three nights a week. It was how it worked and juggled school and family and everything and always had that as our constant.
Andrea: And then, what was the thing that made you decide to take it full-time and kind of make the changes you did five years ago?
Angie: So I had a kid and you know that usually is a big catalyst for things. So I was home with him and still teaching and thinking what’s my next move going to be. I was just finishing up my Masters in Health Science, in health promotion, and thinking what do I want to do? Do I want to work in a non-profit? How am I going to make an impact? I went to yoga teacher school too because I thought somehow that would help me kind of have this holistic background in music and yoga and health and self-care. I kind of feel there is a master plan in there but I just couldn’t quite find it.
Over the course of my baby growing up and being a toddler I realized that I didn’t want a day job like I really like teaching and I needed to figure out how to make it a full-time livelihood. And at that time, my partner Marcus, he was working full-time and we never saw him and that was really challenging. We were both musicians and we played in bands together through the years and so I knew that we could do something together but I didn’t quite know how. It just so happen it was right when David Cutler’s The Savvy Music Teacher came out and I saw that advertised somewhere in a music teacher software I was using at the time. It was just a random thing. I wasn’t thinking like “Oh, I need to look for resources for independent music teachers,” because I didn’t even know that we existed at that point. I didn’t know anyone who ran a music studio full-time. I didn’t know anyone who did it more than as a part-time thing, just kind of for fun.
I read The Savvy Music Teacher in one night and got very excited and then I read all the recommended reading that was in the back of the book and one of the books was The Dynamic Studio by Philip Johnston and I opened that up, I read the introduction and I just shut the book and I was like I know what our music studio is going to look like. I know what’s going to make us different. I know how this is going to be sustainable. It was fully formed. I’ve never had a moment like that in my entire life and I still haven’t since, but just you know one of those moments of complete clarity where you see what’s going to happen. So that book was all about what makes you different and like really leaning into that and having people identify with that and just really embracing that as your product, I guess.
What made us different through the years was Marcus and I always would have these little gatherings, house parties, and we eat and we’d hang out with friends. And then, at the end of the night we would always just start playing music. And sometimes Marcus and I were the only musicians in the room and sometimes there were a lot of us. Once we just kept inviting people over and we had like 40 people in our tiny little house in every room playing music and it was just such a wonderful experience. We call these our hootenannies. It was a really casual thing but we would just joke and say “We’re going to have a hootenanny this weekend.” We even called our wedding a hootenanny. We just really like it.
And so I read The Dynamic Studio and I thought that’s what lessons are missing. We can’t just teach lessons to no end like there’s nothing for people to hold on to. They need this community experience that they are not working towards because I feel like that sounds too capitalist but it gives them motivation and incentive to want to keep playing because they have that community element. So anyway, I read The Dynamic Studio and thought we’re going to have hootenannies. We’re going to have this model where it’s immersive and celebratory and we’re just going to have fun and play music together.
Andrea: Wow! I didn’t know that part of your story before and that’s really interesting. I didn’t realize that the hootenannies preceded everything else. Okay, so we’re going to get into all of these things in more detail but describe what a hootenanny looks like and then maybe can you tell us what because you do your lesson structure not like within the lesson but your lesson format and calendar for the year is kind of different. Can you explain those things too?
Angie: Yeah, absolutely. We have what we call our lesson membership and that has two components. It has one-on-one lessons and then the group lessons that we call hootenannies because, really, they’re a class. We’re all about teaching. We’re not about performing. We have one-on-one time with our students to help build their skills on their specific instruments and then we come together once a month and have this group of nannies altogether. So we teach by the semester. We call it a season. That’s more fun. Its 18 weeks and then we have two lessons and then the hootenannies is how the structure works.
The thing that is really unique about it is we’re a multi instrumental studio so we teach about a dozen different instruments at any given time and we teach through what we call a song-based curriculum. Every month we’re taking a different popular song and we’re breaking it down into little digestible chunks and giving people on all these different instruments at any ability level something that they can play in this song. We’re teaching them our methods come from the songs and then we use books and resources to supplement that. So we’re song-driven. We want people to come together once a month and actually be able to play a legitimate song that they could play at their own jam session. We’re just teaching them through the act of jamming but giving them actual tangible things to do, lots of different options on all these different instruments.
Andrea: Okay. Does each student pick more than one instrument or are you signing up for banjo lessons or guitar lessons or how does that work?
Angie: Oh yeah. Most people pick one or two instruments to start with and we really encourage people to explore different instruments because we personally are generalists, which is funny to say because I started on the violin which is usually not a generalist instrument, but we think that instruments are really great toolboxes. You’re not going to play the drum set on acoustic song and you kind of have to read what the song needs and also what you need. If I want a challenge, play a technical piece on the violin. But if I want to take a mental vacation I’m going to strum a ukulele. And if I want to sing with a big group of people I’m probably going to play the guitar. So we encourage our students to explore all these different instruments and see what works best for any given situation. We also think that understanding how to play a variety of instruments helps you communicate with other musicians, understand where they’re coming from, and just be a better and well-rounded musician altogether.
Andrea: Yeah. That’s really interesting and I can imagine I know I started in piano in high school. I picked up guitar or something and I understood piano differently because I knew guitar and vice versa so each of those instruments add its own layer of understanding to other music education. That’s really cool.
Angie: Yeah, for sure.
Andrea: Okay, so you’ve got these seasons of teaching lessons, two private lessons and then the hootenanny and that cycle just repeats for the whole semester, right?
Angie: Yup, it just repeats for the whole semester. And so we have two semesters a year and then if our students decide to go with our annual tuition and pay by the year, they also get a free summer bonus session or it’s just like a fun one cycle through that.
Andrea: Alright. And then everyone and the whole studio is learning the same set of songs at the same time and they can all participate in the hootenanny together?
Angie: Yes, absolutely. So we post that on our music teacher software and then they have access to all of our recordings of the song, all of the chord charts, the riffs. Sometimes I write them out on staff paper. Sometimes we’ll change a key so it’s more accessible for people to play because we’re like playing this song last week and it’s normally in the key of C# minor. We pride ourselves in saying anyone can play at any level but no one wants to play on C# minor really so we put it in an A minor and adjust all the recordings and everything like that. People get a full on educational package for each song.
Andrea: Okay. Yeah. And did you start when you had that vision of what your studio is going to look like five years ago. Was this all part of it, this structure, or has that developed over time?
Angie: That has developed over time. I wish that it all came to me in a dream fully formed in that way. We had to transition our students and that was a bit of a challenge. People are very hesitant to play with other people so we had to get over that initial shock and also start finding people who did want that as their focus in their playing. So it was a combination of transitioning our existing students to this new model and also finding our ideal clients elsewhere. We had to start changing how we taught altogether but not shock them. It was a very gentle thing and we first just started getting really heavy in the scale theory and, to be honest, it overwhelmed people even though we were trying to break it down. It was a slow process and then we were picking songs that had maybe two chords in them and really just slowly going through them together or just doing loose jam sessions where we would play a chord progression over and over again.
And I remember we would do a lot of student surveys back then. We don’t do any now—a more confident shoot from the hip. We did a survey and someone said “Can we play real songs?” And I thought that’s out of the question. We could never get to that point. And then, of course, I thought about it a lot and I was like unless we did this or this and also this, and over the years we’ve adjusted our teachings so that is primarily what we do so I’m glad we did those surveys.
Andrea: Yeah, alright. Did you still have that cycle of a couple of private lessons and the Hootenanny at that time?
Angie: We did, yeah, but it was more like what our parties were like back then where everyone just kind of got together and we like say “Okay, we’re in 4/4 time. We’re going to do four strums,” and then we just kind of do that often on for an hour. Looking back, I think, “Oh my gosh. That was so boring.” We just kind of need them to ease people into it and say “Look, we’re making sounds together. It’s not scary. You’re having fun,” and then work our way through these songs because if you present a new student and say “Okay, in two weeks we’re going to be playing with a group and you’re going to have a part.” We’ve slowly worked our way up to that.
Andrea: And as you’re changing that structure, did anything change in the way you handled the financial side in terms of do you realize “Oh we need to raise our rates” or “We need to adjust it in this way,” anything going on there?
Angie: That was a good question. It was a pretty organic shift through the years as to what our rate structure looked like and things like that. I was noticing in the beginning when we didn’t have a really clear marketing tactic, I guess, or just strategy or a clear brand. We were just saying “We teach all these different instruments” and then we kind of have a jam session. It was confusing to people. We were getting just tons of emails of people wanting to take lessons but not really understanding what it was. It was just really tedious on my end because I had to do so much admin work. I was just responding to people like I remember one time I went to a coffee shop and responded to 30 different inquiries in one night and I don’t know if anyone even signed up from that. And I thought “Okay, this isn’t working,” like people are interested but they don’t know what they’re interested in and they want to dabble or dip their toe in, try some lessons, and then they weren’t getting a lot out of it.
It was kind of scary for me at the time to say I don’t want that many people asking about us or as many people signing up. I wanted people that were really good fit for our program so we raised our rates and we went from monthly commitments to seasonal. That was our big leap and when I hit “Publish” on the website, I remember just being so nervous that no one was going to sign up because who would commit to 10 lessons all at once and now we do 18 you know. We had to really hone in on what our actual message was and raise those rates to get people that were ready to commit so they could have that immersive experience instead of just like peeking into our living room and been like “That seems a lot” and then kind of back out. That has really helped our retention and just finding our ideal people
Andrea: Yeah. That’s going to be my next question was about retention and have you noticed just as you’re able to communicate what it’s about better, has your retention increased? Have you noticed that?
Angie: Yes, absolutely because we don’t have to sell people on why they should think that this is a good time. They see our social media post or they see the videos on our website and they think “That’s the thing for me,” and then they sign up through our enrollment form and then they’re already ready and excited to have this experience. And also just from our returning students that have been here with us a long time, we’ve noticed that when we switched and offered an annual membership it really helped the students relax into the process of what we were doing and also the parents too. We teach about 50% adults, 50% teens and tweens, so as you know when you have teens and tweens they have a set of parents that are your actual clients, so you have to be mindful of what the kids actually want and also mindful of what the parents want. You have two different things that you are managing there. So that can be kind of a lot of pressure because you want everyone to have a good time and everyone to see the value as opposed to adults who knows what experience that they’re having at the time that they’re having it and you don’t have to convince them anything.
So the annual membership let everyone really relax into the immersive experience and explore different things and not have to have an actual outcome from every month to say “Oh, we’re going to renew for the next month because so and so has been practicing,” or “I have been practicing and so I earned it.” It’s like “Oh I have my year. I can take a break here and there if I need it. I’ll come back to music when it feels good and if I’m busy I’ll take a few weeks off.” It’s just so much nicer to be able to meet people where they’re at instead of have to constantly prove your worth every month and have them prove theirs.
Andrea: Yeah, that’s a really interesting perspective too, and you know you’re talking about it had been a little bit scary at the beginning because you’re asking people to make this big change in the way you taught. I brought new method books into my teaching for instance and I know those first weeks of the first time I use a new book with a new student or it could be an old student but a new book, and I’m not very familiar with it, I had very little confidence just because it’s new to me. And in a way like the experience that I built up in other things actually works against me because I still have 15 years of experience as a piano teacher but just because this thing now feels 15 years newer. I can totally relate to that sense of intimidation or something when you’re switching to something new and not confident in your own assessment.
Angie: If I could piggyback on to that, we experienced that every three weeks when we teach a new song because it’s usually not until the end of the first week that I kind of see how it’s going to actually work with our existing students, their skill levels and that combination of instruments. So it’s like every three weeks I’m relearning how to teach, and not just me, relearning how to teach for Marcus, too, because we have different musical backgrounds that come together so we have to be, I guess, very fluid and just kind of open to the experience.
Andrea: That’s like what innovation feels like. It gets pretty scary.
Angie: Right, it’s a little uncomfortable. Have you heard that thing where you’re supposed to reframe discomfort with curiosity? That’s a challenge for me but I’m trying to do that like, “I must feel curious right now.”
Andrea: Awesome. Did you get any pushback from those students that you had before as you’re making that transition?
Angie: Yes, we did get a decent amount of pushback. Mostly it was from a place of fear like we were asking people to do something that they didn’t really understand and that they weren’t really comfortable with and looking back, I think, how could we have navigated that transition more smoothly, given people more notice, things like that, but we’re doing the best we could at the time and to be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing either. I’ve never ran a business before. I’ve never managed clients. I’ve never rolled out a program. So now we have a lot more resources to navigate transitions like that. It helped us identify who was a good fit for our program because, to be honest, it was a lot of teaching kids that didn’t want to be there and their parents had a very specific idea of what they should be getting out of the experience, you know, as like a resume builder or things like that.
So it was kind of nice to be proactive with those families once we started to get a feel for who wouldn’t be a good fit or where are we spending all of our time and energy managing people’s expectations when the majority of the people are having a good time. We started to try to identify those folks and refer them out to other programs that they’d like better and even that sometimes took people by surprise. We’re just trying to learn from all those experiences when we roll our programs in the future.
Andrea: Is there anything that you’ve taken away like in terms of timeline for how you roll things out or the number of times you communicate something or any takeaways that you can share?
Angie: Yeah. So I started keeping an Evernote document throughout the course of a year as to when people were most communicative and this might sound a little micromanaging, but I have so many bungled communications that I was like “I need to remember when people are willing to have dialogue with us.” So the first time we rolled out the annual option for a program it was like super last minute and I thought “What if I just let people pay by the year and I give them 25% off? People might like that. That’s what I would do if I was offered a program.”
I sent that email out and a parent wrote back, “Stop asking me questions. I just want music lessons.” I was like my heart dropped and I thought “Oh man,” and we actually still taught that kiddo for another year and a half until we made another program change and it really didn’t work well. So I think of that whenever I am about to roll something out. So you don’t ask people things around the holidays. You don’t ask people things during the last month of school, like now, I check the school calendars, and I check the holiday calendars. You don’t ask people things around the time change. So this year we asked two weeks before Halloween because it was before the time changed but it happened to be the week before the election in the middle of a global pandemic, so I didn’t account for that even though I feel like I’ve honed in my document. Just keep track of when people are feeling good in your program and when people feel scattered because normally people are on the same wavelength when it comes to things like that. So if you can have a couple of years running of test and change when it comes to communications I feel like that’s ideal.
Andrea: Yeah. That sounds really good that blackout dates for communication. Do you send out a weekly or monthly newsletter? How do you kind of hone in those timeframes?
Angie: I struggle with knowing what’s enough and what’s too much like I feel like this fall we tried to ease off on how much we were communicating with people because as you probably know we’re filming this in Covid and people are feeling pretty overwhelmed but then at the same time when it came for us to ask people for renewals they were like “Wait. What? Have we even signed up for lessons lately?” It was a little bit out of nowhere so I feel like we need to be communicating with people outside of their lessons probably at least once a month. For us, that is usually sending out a little blurb right before a hootenanny scene. “Here’s where you can find your materials. Here’s where you can find your stuff.” “Here’s some upcoming announcements.” So it’s my takeaway from this fall.
Andrea: That’s actually helpful. You guys do very many things very well. One of the things that you do really well is branding, so I’m wondering, has that been there since the beginning? Has that developed over time? How have you kind of found your place there?
Angie: We have kind of let the branding evolve as we evolved. First I feel like I probably wanted to be really professional so we had a professional logo. And then we have this friend who is an illustrator and she always draws these cute little sketches of different little creatures doing funny things and we were just like “Hey Kate, can you draw us like a little instrument doing a funny thing?” And she drew a little banjo saying something cute and it was the best thing ever and we made stickers out of it and then we asked her to do some more for us. And then we have this whole sticker series that became this really fun thing where she would incorporate the bee in our voice and music lessons logo and we would leave them all around town and people had them on their water bottles and their cases and things like that. It was this fun thing that we kind of shared as a studio and kind of in the Boise area and we see our stickers around town.
There was this silent auction for a non-profit and I won this branding consult with a marketing person and I thought “That looks interesting. I would like to know more about that,” and we did a website audit. She said, “You know you’re trying hard, basically, but you’re telling me all these things about how you’re community-oriented and this is fun and immersive and all this stuff but your website looks like you have these photos of just you and Marcus playing together and I’m like are you like a band or like what? What are you exactly? I can’t feel anything from this other than the things that you’re like telling me through all this text.”
Well, first she had us read the book The StoryBrand to help us learn how to tell our story. Then she had us do a big photo and video shoot with our students to capture the actual group feel and people laughing and actually having fun playing music together. And then she had us incorporate those little instrument characters into our website, so like the instrument characters tell people how to sign up and things like that. So it morphed into like we’re telling people how much fun we’re having and then from there we were able to start incorporating that into our Instagram feed and learn how to do better captions and things like that to give people a natural feeling of what we’re doing instead of just telling them music is fun and you should play together.
Andrea: I told teachers that have your website in such a way that you don’t have to use the word fun for people to know it is fun. If you can’t show it through your pictures or I think having your instrument illustrations are so great because that also connects the real world, you know, the stickers that they’ve seen around town on people’s water bottles with what they’re seeing online. That shows like the playful atmosphere and things that are part of your brand.
Angie: And with that for folks that have not seen our stickers around town, some folks have said stickers, you know, those are usually like for kids and so if you’re not marketing to kids then why do you have these little sticker characters. A lot of our stickers are like a guitar sipping a glass of wine or a ukulele drinking a piña colada out of a coconut so I feel like that gives it that fun but also for adults element to it.
Andrea: Yeah. And another way of showing its got this adult element without having to say that. Yeah, they’re really fun. I think you’re also very good in incorporating your values into the way you run your school. You can see that community value in the hootenannies but also with your connections to your own local community. Can you talk about some other values that you are trying to represent through your brand?
Angie: Sure. One of those values is family. We teach from our home studio. We have our two kids here with us and we encourage our families to play music together. Usually, we like to focus on the parent instead of the parent telling the child that they should be playing music, kind of the website approach where it’s a “show don’t tell.” If we show like look how much fun I am having learning and having this analog experience where I’m connecting with you then your family will join in and share that with you. So we try to model that through our own environment like we’re here in our home. We have our instruments hanging on the walls. We’ve got kids and we’re just having fun making it a part of our lives. So that will be one aspect.
Another aspect is we are a small family-owned business. We do our best to try to support other local businesses too. We do that by partnering with other breweries and wineries and we have what we call our Sip & Strum classes. We always try to feature a different local product during those classes and so a lot of our Instagram stories is just me being like, “Hey, check out this bottle of wine.” That’s kind of fun because we get to give local businesses a shout-out especially in times like this where we’re all trying to be creative and support each other. So, local business will be another aspect.
Another would be to support community organizations and non-profits, so we do a lot of fundraisers and things like that for a community and sometimes it’s just through organizations that we support personally like Marcus volunteers with a bicycle cooperative that’s a non-profit and I volunteer with an acupuncture cooperative that’s just down the street from us here and we just try to partner with places that promote strong community values and health in whatever way that is. And so for me, some of that is like public health like my degree and for Marcus it’s like city planning that creates healthy communities. And then beyond that, we try to focus on places that support local musicians. One place would be the Boise Hive. They do mental health care for local musicians and another is the Treefort Live Music Relief Fund. So Treefort is our big music festival that we have here every year and it was delayed for a year and a half with Covid and so they started a foundation to support out of work musicians and people in arts community to help provide them some relief funding.
Our Sip & Strum series has been going for a long time. We would go to different community tasting rooms and things like that and do a big party like a huge hootenanny blow out where we learn a song together. People will buy tickets and get a glass of wine and we’d all learn a song together. We actually did our biggest one ever a week before the lockdown. We were on such a high note and everyone was just so excited to learn together and the energy in the room was amazing. So when the lockdown happened we wanted a way to support our local musicians and so we started doing virtual Sip & Strums with donation and we’d meet up on Zoom and I’d teach people a song and they bring their own beverage kind of thing. It was such a success that we turned it into an ongoing series and it’s been really fun because people from all over are joining in. We’ve got folks in Hawaii and Portland and California and Seattle and things like that joining and not just Boise. It has been really exciting to see a lot of our students that have moved and now can join back in is really great, but we give a portion of the proceeds to those organizations that support musicians that are out of work right now. So that’s been our big community give back program there.
Andrea: Alright. So you’ve got some dedicated fundraisers for those things and then just the throughout the year partnership. When we can perform in live spaces with the other community businesses?
Angie: Yeah, so we have designated programs now that we’ve decided that we want that to be a part of our core value where we want a portion of our proceeds to go back to the community, which we’ve always wanted to do but we never quite knew how to structure it, I guess, and so Covid has helped us have some clarity there and find a program that actually worked for it. And it’s fun too because we share posts now with the Treefort Music Festival and so we can share some information through them.
Andrea: I can see through your Instagram feed and things like that. I feel like I know their community because I see all these things come up.
Angie: That’s great.
Andrea: You’ve talked about your target market and you’re primarily tweens, teens, and adults. What’s working for your studio in terms of marketing? What are you doing there?
Angie: Yeah, so most of our marketing has been word-of-mouth. In our early days we experimented with a little bit of Facebook and Google ads but it seems that people that are just like “I want a guitar lesson,” they’re not searching “I want an immersive community experience” so we’re best delivered from someone who has already been here and had a good time. So just through word-of-mouth and also through our community events has been the best ways that we market, and then through social media as well. It gives people more of a chance to warm up to what we’ve got going and watch it from the outside for a little while before they join in.
Andrea: I know you’ve been doing a lot of events in the park since Covid. Has that generated any students for you?
Angie: Since our enrollment is so far out, I don’t know if it has actually solidified any students but we’ve definitely talked to people in the park, given people our number. We don’t carry as many flyers or stickers on us like we used to but we need to start throwing some out on the picnic table or something. Yeah, it definitely attracts people and we get some onlookers.
Andrea: And then you’ve gotten some really great PR too over the last year. Can you talk about how that has come to be?
Angie: Oh yeah. That actually kind of relates a little bit back to our Sip & Strum program with our community give back approach. Our PR started with one of our students in our studio is the creative director for communications and marketing at our local university here, Boise State, and Marcus and I both graduated from there. We have four and a half, five degrees between us, so we’re like super alumni. And so our student, she takes lessons with our daughter and they were just having a really great time with the learning together because we also offer family lessons. They take their private lessons, you know, would be actually two-on-one or sometimes two-on-two. They come together and learn violin and guitar together.
They were just having a really great time, finally learning how to play together and she was like, “Hey, we’re doing these alumni features in the marketing department. Can we feature you on the website and we’ll do a video and then we’ll put you in the alumni magazine?” So right before Covid happened we had a photo shoot and an interview and it was really exciting. And then the lockdown happened and I was a little bit sad. I don’t want to bother people with this story about this experience they can’t have about how much fun we’re having while there is so much sadness and nervousness happening in the world, so much uncertainty. But the story came out and we just got so much great feedback like kind of the whole good news thing where people are just so happy to hear anything good. They were just so happy for us.
So we got this great feedback from the Boise State alumni article and then somehow Good Morning America saw it. No big deal. I’m not quite sure how that happened and they contacted us and I was mostly confused and also it happened really fast. They contacted us on a Saturday and interviewed us first thing Monday morning and so my head was spinning. They were trying to reach out to small businesses that had been adapting creatively during the pandemic that also had a community focus to them. They like that we were doing this Sip & Strum classes to support local non-profits and they liked that we were a family business and just really trying to adapt quickly and still keep giving people this quality experience despite the ever changing landscape. That happened and we had a Good Morning America feature and then from there, that turned into some local publicity. It has been really exciting and not what I had anticipated to come out of this year for sure.
Andrea: Yeah, for sure. And then, did you notice increases in website traffic or email list sign ups or anything that you were able to capture from that?
Angie: Yeah. So since our program is a long-term commitment it’s not like we get like a big boom of people. They have to be ready. But we did have someone after a local news piece aired. She called immediately and signed up for the fall Sip & Strum and then an annual membership for next year and I was like “Whoa! It’s happening.” That was quite exciting.
Andrea: Yeah. So with your new structure, you’ve been at this for five years, how long did it take to get the business to a place where it supported you. I know Marcus was facing out of his job. How did that transition happen?
Angie: It happened a lot faster than one of us had anticipated. So we started in January 2016 and by June we had some studio renovations that we wanted to work on so we kind of got the studio ready while we were teaching in it and then that June we went from three days a week to five days a week teaching. And then, by September, Marcus left his job and we were both full-time, so it happened in nine months. I’m thinking like we tore our carpet and put in hardwood and did all those kind of stuff and painted, and if we haven’t renovated I think we could have done it faster.
Andrea: Did you put together a financial plan to map that out or were you winging it?
Angie: That’s a pretty loaded question. I had no plan. I never thought this would work in a million years. It has all been a series of happy surprises and with each happy surprise like “Oh, we’re sustaining at this level. Okay, well then let’s try this. Let’s try longer commitments.” “Okay, we’re sustaining at this level. Okay, well let’s try outsourcing this and see if we can maintain that.” It’s been just a series of kind of leveling up really slowly and then it’s also been this process of me learning how to become a business owner, which has been my biggest journey because I have no entrepreneurial background. I’ve no business classes and a whole lot of other classes that I’m not using but through the years I had to learn how to manage our budget, how to just communicate effectively was a really big one, how to advocate for us, how to tell our story, so just us learning how to run a studio has been our biggest journey.
Over the years of me feeling like I am a business owner, part of that has been learning about financial literacy and your podcast has been really great for that and we actually started our SEP IRA right after listening to your podcast, so thank you.
Andrea: I love hearing that.
Angie: Yeah. So through the years we hired a great tax preparer and this year we hired an accountant, and then I still don’t feel like I have a full understanding because I don’t have a financial brain. I was driven by trying to keep this ship afloat but I feel like we’re finally at a point where we can make a legitimate financial plan, so last month we hired a financial planner. We’re currently crunching numbers. I know that things will change with Covid and also that was kind of a financial risk for us to hire someone at this point when we know that our income is probably going to drop, but at the same time, I think that it makes it all that more important that we have an understanding of where we’re at and where our priority should be. So we will have a financial plan the next time we talk.
Andrea: Is that more on the personal side or on the business side like business financial projections or personal like planning your retirement and things like that?
Angie: I think it’s going to be a little bit of both because we are an LLC and we own the business and we’re from home so many of expenses are mixed, so it’s kind of all our money but also not and we need to kind of figure out where that line is and our people are helping us understand that because I sure don’t, so outsource, outsource.
Andrea: It’s very hard to separate those when the business is, yeah, especially when you’ve got both partners involved in it and everything.
Angie: Yeah, we’re so integrated. It’s basically everything in our house except kids’ stuff. We’re a business. That’s the only reason I know what credit card I should be using when I buy things, you know.
Andrea: And you mentioned that you have a tax preparer and an accountant. Can you talk about how those people do different things for your business?
Angie: Sure. Our accountant just keeps track of our expenses, basically, like keeps track of our purchases and keeps track of the income coming in and they send us a monthly report of how we’re doing. But since the tuition that we get comes in these big lump sums, like right now we’re in our annual renewal season so we’re going to get all of our annual payments in the next few weeks here. It looks like November is when you make all your money, so it doesn’t give us a clear report of kind of how our finances are doing. That’s more our tax preparer goes through and gives us a legitimate report for the year and shows us the big picture kind of with like studio depreciation and the big purchases we made for instruments or equipment, how much we spent on rent and what that looks like because that came from our personal side of things. He kind of blends that stuff, the information from the accountant, just the numbers, with how we did as a family and then gives us the actual number of how we did.
Andrea: Yeah, I think a lot of times people think accountants and tax preparers are synonymous and they can be the same person but it sounds like in your situation the accountant is there throughout the year, bookkeeper, and then tax preparer is the person that puts it all together at tax time.
Angie: Yeah. That’s always been really confusing to me so I’m learning that as well. But if I could say that having a good tax preparer has been the single best thing we’ve ever done for our business, I would say, so like keep looking in until you find someone that really answers your questions and is willing to spend the time to workshop different ideas with you. That would be my unsolicited advice to other business owners.
Andrea: There’s a lot of strategy in tax preparation and you can learn a lot by talking to your tax preparer.
Angie: It goes from scary to empowering, I think.
Andrea: And then, talk more about the management, so you and Marcus are both involved. What are your roles? Are they very separate or are you both doing everything? How does that work?
Angie: Well, like most things in our business, it’s been an evolution for sure. We kind of divide things by like I take pretty much all of the business management stuff and then I run it by him and then he gives me a thumbs up, a thumbs down, thumbs medium, and then I proceed. He does, just in our relationship, he does most of the child care like he has the kids out at the park right now and manages our oldest child’s online school and all that good stuff, so that gives me time to work on the business end of things. And then, for teaching, we kind of divide the teaching down the middle. We trade back and forth depending on who feels like teaching, who got the most sleep with the baby, who plays what instrument, who’s most excited because sometimes one of us will read about a different technique and be really excited to share it with the studio, so that we let kind of be really fluid and see who is most inspired to do face-to-face interaction with our students. That’s how we divide the labor but it’s been a journey through the years because I used to think that I needed just 100% and equal partner in the business. And to me that looked like him understanding everything that I was doing and being able to help me with each and every task, and that was just too much pressure for our relationship to handle and that’s not how people work.
I was talking about my biggest evolution has been as a business owner when we realized that we would do better as a partnership if I could outsource things. That’s when we really started to thrive. He used to be our accountant and entering all the stuff on the spread sheet. When we outsourced that to an actual accountant that freed us up for so much. When we hired cleaners. That was a big moment for our relationship and for our studio when we hired a website designer. That was amazing when we hired different people to help me edit. That was even better because it left us with what we did best and Marcus does best when he’s researching curriculum and teaching and then hang out because he can strum a ukulele while he watches the kids in the backyard. And I do best like skimming and standing all night reading books and visioning for the studio and then executing these campaigns and such.
Andrea: Yeah. It really can be such a case by case thing what makes sense for that division of labor and it sounds like you’ve found something that works.
Angie: Yeah. It takes a lot of communication.
Andrea: Yeah. And then on the communication thing, do you have any regular like these are the things we touched in about or make sure we’re reviewing our reports once a month or what kinds of things? Do you just make decisions on your own and where are you making decisions together?
Angie: Right. We worked up a level of trust over the last couple of years where one I’m trusting myself more. I feel like we have enough checks in place where I can’t mess up too much and he’s just always like, you know, we have the same values. I trust you to make decisions in the moment, so I do most of the business decisions during my office time. If we can, I love to have regular check ins with him but oftentimes that happens now with Covid and both kids home, after the kids go to bed, so neither one of us are best. Before the lockdown happened we hit our stride finally and we had a babysitter three mornings a week and our oldest was in school and we started having regular meetings and planning and visioning and writing down goals and such.
And that all definitely changed this year and we’re kind of back to the early days of just trying to make it happen where we can and just being adaptable and also hoping for the best, because all those goals and such that we wrote down to implement over the next few years back in February-March, those aren’t feasible anymore anyway so we just kind of have to play it by ear and I guess trust each other.
Andrea: Yeah. I could see how it would be really helpful to have a partner in business to just say, “Hey, I’m thinking about this. What do you think? Am I crazy?” and have that gut check. And I could also see it taking over your entire life. I’m always curious how that works. I haven’t had any other music studio co-founder/owners on the show yet so you kind of gave us a glimpse into that.
Angie: And I can see how it would take over but I will say that we both really like what we do which is an awesome thing, so when we do get to talk about it, we’re really excited. We’re going to be excited like “Check this thing out.” “Let’s try this song.” We’re excited when we do get to work together.
Andrea: You already mentioned a couple. Are there any other business books that have had a strong influence on you?
Angie: There are so many. I think of course as a studio owner, obviously, The Savvy Music Teacher and The Dynamic Studio. I talked about how I need to find my strength as a business owner and so just general business owning books geared at female entrepreneurs have been really helpful to me, so Being Boss by Emily Thompson and Kathleen Shannon and also Playing Big by Tara Mohr has really helped me reframe and be more confident in my decisions, so that one is a good one, and StoryBrand also, yeah.
Andrea: Alright. We’ll include this in the show notes. And what goals are you working towards right now?
Angie: We’re just working towards sustainability, I would say. That has always been our goal. We want to have just a studio full of people that are a joy to teach and play music with that trust our vision and are having a good time. We want to be able to spend time with our kids simultaneously and we want to someday be able to work on programs together. So our goal right now is sustainability and adapting through all the changes that are happening in the world right now. And we’ve always tested and changed different programs and we’ve always been adaptable and so I feel like we just need to really remind ourselves that we’ve been here before and we’ll keep rolling with it and just keep trying to deliver the best experience that we can for our students.
Andrea: And where can listeners get in touch with you and watch how you’re doing?
Angie: They can find us through our website Boisemusiclessons.com. You can find us on our Instagram @Boisemusiclessons, Facebook/boisemusiclessons and I think that’s it.
Andrea: Well Angie, thank you so much.
Angie: Thank you so much for having me, Andrea. It’s great to see you.
[00:54:23] [End of interview]
I just find Angie’s and Marcus’s studio to be so interesting. I love how thoughtfully they’ve designed it, from the three week lesson cycle to the song-based curriculum, to how they’ve integrated the business vision with their family vision.
Angie described the process of building the business as “leveling up” gradually. They make an adjustment or take on a risk and then let the business and their student base acclimate to the changes and then level up again. This iterative approach is such a good reminder that making changes doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. It’s perfectly ok to make a small change. Let things settle. And then take the next step.
Over and over again in these interviews, we’ve heard teachers talk about transitions they’ve made in their studios and, over and over again, we’ve heard teachers talk about how nervous they were or scared about sending the email that would announce a change or pressing publish on a post that represented something big.
I hope these stories show that it’s normal to feel this way, but there’s also hope on the other side of doing these hard things.
I think we naturally anticipate all the things that could go wrong or be lost with a change, but often we have no way of even imagining what unexpected positive outcomes might come from making a transition.
When Angie talked about raising rates and switching enrollment to 18-week seasons, rather than monthly, and all those things that would hopefully help them attract more of their ideal students, she talked about the totally relatable fear of losing students. But when the change had been made, there were the unexpected benefits of students being able to relax into lessons. They stopped evaluating on a week-by-week basis whether or not they had made enough progress to warrant continuing lessons the next month. The seasons prompted students to consider a more long-term and, quite frankly, a more realistic time horizon when evaluating their own progress. And I imagine they’d consider more broadly how music functions in their lives, socially and personally, rather than strictly quantifiable measures, like how many songs they learned or number of hours practiced.
Since COVID, a lot of teachers have reflected to me a similar experience about teaching online lessons.
They could anticipate the downsides to online lessons – duets are more challenging, we can’t just move or reshape a student’s hand, our go-to games don’t necessarily work online, – but it wasn’t until these teachers were forced into online lessons that they realized the positives – students have to be more independent taking their own notes, teachers have become stronger communicators and honed the way they explain concepts, online teaching even gives us a window into our students’ practice environments!
I’m not sure I can think of a single change or transition in my own life or business that has been strictly positive or strictly negative. It’s a good reminder that everything has trade-offs and sometimes we have to actually make the transition before we can see the positives.
I admire Angie’s and Marcus’s approach to experimentation in their studio and how they evaluate and learn from each experience and apply it to the next leveling up. They don’t shy away from making the hard changes, but they also make each one with care and thoughtfulness. They’re doing really good work in Boise.
As I wrap up, remember that I’ll be starting another live session of Business Building 101 next week! That’s January 18.
This is a 12-week course to help you structure or restructure your business so that it will be financially sustainable in the short-term and long-term. Being able to pay your bills now is one important thing, but I also want you to be able to retire someday or take a vacation or support a family! All things that are possible and accessible for self-employed music teachers, but take some planning.
You can find all the details for that program at musicstudiostartup.com.
That’s all for today. Thanks for listening! I’ll be back next week.