Breakout Capital would like to spotlight District Dance Company, based in the suburbs of Washington, DC in Germantown, MD. We recently sat down with the founder and owner of District Dance Company, Melissa Curling. She gave us great insight on her first-hand experience in starting her own business. Melissa also shared some of the challenges, important reminders for othernew prospective business owners, as well as why she decided to pursue this venture.
(Breakout Capital) When did you start your business?
(Melissa Curling) I started the business in 2010. It was a slow transition for me and the business. The first year we opened, I was only holding about 3 classes a week where I rented studio space from another dance company. In 2011, I moved the business to MD and leased my own studio space where I held about 15 classes per week. Just two years later, we have built a new 5,000 sq. foot location and hold around 50 classes per week.
(BC) How were you able to grow so quickly?
(MC) Our growth likely came through a variety of ways, but first mostly through word-of-mouth referrals. It was incredibly important to me to offer professional level customer service in a casual atmosphere. Through trial and a fair share of error, I also spent too much money advertising through the school system with seemingly little return. The second most attributable source of growth was our website and online presence. Although I’m no website designer and I never thought I’d be digging through HTML code, I spent a lot of time figuring out wordpress.org, learning about SEO (search engine optimization) and building automation into my website and online systems.
(BC) Why did you leave a great a job/position/career to get started in this?
(MC) Although it took me about 2 years to leave my job in the banking industry after starting my business, I knew my end goal was to be in a career focused around the dance industry, where my passion lies. I’ve always known my strengths lied in the operational and management side of business so I had no doubt running a dance studio would be an exciting, dynamic and attainable career choice.
Working two full time jobs was no picnic! I left my house in Washington, DC around 6:00 am to work 8 hours in Virginia. At 3:00 pm, I’d head to Maryland for another 7 hours of teaching, building relationships with parents, and managing the studio. I got home every night around 10:00 pm. It was a series of long, trying days. Did I mentioned I also worked weekends? I had to continue reminding myself to “just keep swimming”. After 2 years of working 90-100 hour weeks, I had finally built a sustainable business, which made the transition much easier for me. I knew there would be much less financial / family stress if I made sure the business was secure before leaving a steady source of income. The beauty of loving what you do is that you never feel like you’re working. Long, trying days quickly turned into exciting and rewarding days around children and their parents. It’s a good thing I was younger when I started the business because I can’t imagine that schedule today!
(BC) What are the top 3 hurdles you faced when getting started:
(MC) Only three…? Well, my biggest hurdle was finding good “people”. I needed to add a teaching staff that were not only top of the industry dance educators but also willing to work for a new, unestablished dance studio. Not an easy sell.
Luckily, the internet makes everything a bit easier. I posted teaching positions in a variety of online industry publications as well as Craigslist and dance network Facebook groups. I contacted the dance and theatre departments at local universities to distribute the positions to their alumni and students via job boards and e-mail distribution. I received plenty of qualified applicants’ resumes. I quickly learned finding the right combination of great, reliable teacher/dancer, with the ability to work well with kids in one candidate would take a very detailed interview process and a lot of trust on my part. I brought on teachers with a variety of degrees including Dance Education, Dance Performance, and Early Childhood Education. I’m fortunate to still have staff with me today that were with us in our first year in business!
Another hurdle was my age. At only 26 years old, I was asking parents to entrust me with their child’s few hours of free time. Dance lessons aren’t cheap and children are so overbooked these days. Between busy schedules and tight family budgets, I had to constantly prove our classes were worth the price and beneficial to their child’s development.
A third obstacle I faced was direct competition in the area. Although I did my research before putting down our roots in Germantown, MD, there are several successful dance studios within a few miles of my studio location. I respect these companies as several of them have been around for decades and are leaders in our industry. However, I also recognized the hole in the market. Dance studios tend to fit into 1 of 4 buckets. They are either a family-friendly recreational studio, a competitive / elite studio, a classical ballet studio or a innovative and artistic studio. I wanted District Dance to be (and successfully is) a combination of the 4. I offer ballet classes taught by ballet masters, a competitive program for dancers looking for a challenge, a recreational program for children who want to explore movement, and classes / teachers that encourage and explore artistic expression.
(BC) What advice would you give to other small business owners?
(MC)Trust yourself and have a strong and well-stated mission. There are so many reasons (and people) that will make you second guess yourself. If you have a mission you whole-heartily believe in, it will push you past the naysayers and make you that much stronger and focused on your goal!
(BC) What are the company’s plans in the next five years:
(MC) My goals are threefold: 1) To continue growing our student base so that I can offer additional performance opportunities to our dancers, 2) To develop a scholarship program for children of families who are not able to afford our classes, and 3) To expand our special needs dance program.
I believe in about 5 years we will be looking for a second studio location or building an addition to our current space.
(BC) Now that your studio has become a success, what’s the biggest challenge you now face?
(MC) My daily challenge is never resting on our laurels. Everyday we should question our methods and be open to change. The industry is constantly changing and we need to be ahead of the curve. My bigger picture challenge is finding ways to create a supportive and challenging environment where we can attract and retain highly creative and motivated teachers.
(BC) Although the first few years were very time intensive, now that your business is smoothly operating, what are some of your hobbies and interests that you’re able to catch up on again?
(MC) Outside of running District Dance, I love taking advantage of everything Washington, DC has to offer. My husband, Claudio, and I are avid baseball fans and support the Washington Nationals (go Nats!). We love visiting museums, local restaurants and breweries and walking along the national mall. The highlights of our year usually consist of traveling to our favorite beaches including Rehoboth Beach, DE and Key West, FL as well as embarking on a new adventure to a country we haven’t been before. This year we will visit Peru to explore both the Amazon and the Andean Mountains. After all our adventures, we are always happy to return home to our very sweet, yet pugnacious, pugs, Buddy and Zoe.
Melissa’s story encapsulates everything you see in a successful entrepreneur. The drive and passion to work 100 hours a week to pursue your dream. The ability to identify an under served portion of the market as an opportunity to build something special. And the willingness to skirt conformity to do what you love. As Women’s Small Business Month comes to a close, we are excited to be able to celebrate Melissa’s achievements and look forward to witnessing her continued success!