When people hear the word “storytelling” in a business context, many think it’s about making stuff up. Of weaving tales to help sell a product or a service. But really, it’s the opposite.
Business storytelling is about being real. It’s about sharing the narratives about your company, your people, your customers, and driving home the messages that will help you achieve your goals.
But being real, and being authentic isn’t easy. It’s difficult. It’s scary. It’s risky. But despite all that, it’s the only way to go.
That’s something that Jen Jones, founder of New Love City, a Yoga studio in Brooklyn, knows very well. If you’re a regular listener to the podcast, you’ll remember Jen from episode 2. If you haven’t heard that episode yet, I encourage you go back and find it to get Jen’s backstory and hear what she has to say about knowing your customers.
Jen started New Love City because she didn’t find a studio that taught the free, unpretentious brand of yoga she preferred. She saw a need, and created a business to serve people like her.
But there is more to it than that. She also was disheartened by the business model that yoga studios followed, especially in how they treated, and paid their teachers.
Jen Jones: So I was working managing studios in the city and teaching at a couple different studios in the city and basically just got kind of frustrated with how things were working from a management perspective and also just the general treatment of teachers in the industry.
So Jen created New Love City. And from the beginning she wanted her business to be a reflection of her, and her values. She was in it for the long game. She wanted to build a business that would be loved for what it is. For having a purpose beyond turning a profit. A business that would attract and retain a long-term clientele.
That meant shunning some conventional approaches that most startups would follow.
Jen: So in building the studio I knew that there were certain practices that I could take part in that would grow the business well for my short term perspective, I'm like promotion, like paying teachers poorly, which is a pretty common practice in yoga studios in New York, which is such a bummer, but I have been doing a bunch of study on business design and the idea of human motivation for years and it just didn't feel right to me to design my business that way.
This was a risky proposition for Jen. There was a formula that, if she had followed it, she might have been quite successful at it. It was a formula that involved paying teachers less, and doing promotions that got more people in the door. In other words, paying less attention to the brand and what it stood for, and more attention to generating sales.
Forgoing those tried-and-true methods, and instead betting on the long-term success of the company would be too scary for a lot of business founders. I know it would be too scary for me. But Jen was unafraid.
Jen: So for me, the reason that I didn't do any of those things, and I think the lack of fear in terms of putting ourselves out there, drove from the fact that I was kind of like at rock bottom myself as a person. Um, I had split with my husband, I had split with my job, I used all of my savings to start the studio.
I had everything to lose, but I kind of also had nothing to lose. I was like, I mean, I only am getting one chance to do this. I think that the most important thing to do is to do it the way that feels, right, because I just felt so certain that that was what was important to these people and I am like, I don't know really whether I'm cut out to be a business owner, but I'm certainly down to take a risk, uh, for something that feels right and I'm stubborn as all get out.
So behind the decisions that I make and that, yeah, in this circumstance I was just like, I think this is the only way to do it. Um, and I know it's going to take a little longer, but I think that what we will build will be something to cure versus something flimsy. And that has definitely proven to be the case.
Jen’s approach to building her business is not unlike her approach to yoga itself. She feels that the yoga experience is in the eye of the beholder, and that a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.
Jen: Yoga is very specific to the student. Um, there are just never ending different variations on the way that yoga is taught in practice. I mean Yoga, the discipline overall is not like fitness class. It's like a mood and the lens with which you look at all decision making in your life.
And, uh, the way that you go about kind of dealing with what happens in your head, a yoga practice itself doesn't practice is meant to kind of take care of the body so you don't, don't worry about it and you can meditate or whatever it is that you are doing along your own yoga path.
And then, you know, over the years with the physical part of Yoga as we know it is fairly new, um, you know, there are thousands and thousands of years of yoga tradition and like a couple hundred years of these postures that like look anything like what Yoga looks like now in New York City.
This philosophy led her to build her business the way she did. She relies on the teachers she hires to follow their specific approaches and do what they believe in, letting students decide what works best for them.
Jen: There are a bunch of different teachers at my studio and I don't tell them what to do. I just kind of like pick people that I think are smart and then I let them do whatever they want and we do.
Although we all teach the same like general discipline, our classes vary pretty greatly from teacher to teacher. And from there the student will kind of like gravitate towards whoever is speaking to them. We have teachers that teach a very traditional practice that has like a nod to these years of history and a lot of yoga, like information involved.
We have teachers who teach, I'd say something that's like far more along the lines of movement inquiry. Um, you know, we're not physical therapists and we're not doctors and we're just kind of like studying this idea of if you move the body around and breathe at the same time, you'll have an experience that will make you feel better in your body as a person
Jen is able to get the best out of her teachers because she trusts them. And because she values them. To her, the teachers are, in a very large sense, her brand.
Jen: We focused instead on paying the teachers a lot, like two, three times the average of what to do as pay. We focused on letting them teach whatever they want, whatever they feel strongly about. Um, we tried to make our pricing accessible for students so that people can come and change their lives and we worked to make everything really transparent.
The other part of Jen’s approach, that she just mentioned, is transparency. She is not afraid to share her numbers with her students and teachers. She’s very transparent about what she’s doing and what she’s trying to build. She’s telling an ongoing story about the building of a brand, and inviting anyone who wants to share in the journey.
And that’s a scary thing. Not many business owners would be so open with their customers and with the world. But Jen felt it was important, because authenticity and realness is such a big part of who she is and what New Love City is all about.
Jen: I thought that I was already doing this thing. I might as well share what I'm up to with the community so that people could see what it does take to start a business. Obviously this business is not predictable of everything that our students are up to, but, you know, I think it's interesting to see the numbers and a strategy behind what goes into one of these things.
I have nothing to hide in that department. So I have shared quite a bit of what we're up to with our students or our neighborhood.
Jen Jones took a risk when she started New Love City. Any time you start a business it’s a risk, but when you choose not to follow the beaten path because it’s not true to who you are, the risk is multiplied.
But knows she gave up a lot by not following that path, but she also knows it benefitted her in the long run.
Jen: I would have made a profit sooner if I was paying the teachers last would made profit sooner. Maybe if I was a capitalizing on every group on and whatnot that came through the door.
But instead we stock the chorus and focused on the slow steady growth in a way that felt organic and right and, and that really worked out for us in the end have been profitable since our ninth month. And our students will love us.
There’s a larger lesson to be learned here. At least I sure hope so, since that’s the point of the podcast.
Jen is uniquely qualified to share that lesson because, prior to opening her studio, she was a rising star in advertising, working at cutting-edge agencies in New York. She’s been around the block in the advertising world, and knows the different ways companies try to market themselves.
And she’s seen a lot of them do things completely wrong. Jen and I talked about how too many companies are not real, are not authentic and transparent, instead trying to be all things to all people, to capture as much market as quickly as they can. She says, and I agree, that the reason more companies aren’t more authentic is because often they’re afraid.
Jen: I would say that that is probably a, um, a response to fear. So it is my opinion that people operate on an emotional scale that runs between the spectrum of love and fear either operating from a place of love and trust or you are helpful in some way of what is to come.
And I think that either your communication is how you want it to be and that maybe the way that you do truly intend for it to be just feels inauthentic or um, if there's something that's truly in your way, it's probably like a fear response. And I'm thinking specifically of the things that I didn't do that to me would have been like a selling out, like participating in a group pawning, like doing a bunch of social media that didn't sound like myself.
I mean the point of either of those things would be to like try and grab a whole bunch of more people to come in that maybe are not necessarily the correct fit for us. Um, but you know, in that circumstance you end up with like some short term money in your pocket because you had people in classes and then you are role are kind of creating this feedback loop for yourself where in order to bring people in you have to be doing those kinds of things all the time. And also you end up in this situation where you're rewarding these trial customers rather than your regular clients, your students.
So by not being real, by sacrificing your authentic story to a more crowd-pleasing approach that gets people in the door, you’re gaining short-term success, but you become a slave to that loop of constantly having to attract new customers through discounts and gimmicks. At the same time you’re sacrificing your ability to build a relationship with the people who would really love you if you stayed true to who you are.
And here’s how it all comes back to this idea of storytelling. When your business has a clear purpose or mission, when there is a real passion behind what you do, your audiences pick up on that and respond to it. And, as Jen explains, it’s much more satisfying.
Jen: The upside to being authentic is that is what people are looking for. So when you're communicating in a way that's real. And I worked out a million ad campaigns over my career and there's nothing worse than trying to like create a bogus story and sell it to people who don't care about it. But I think that being able to communicate something that is real and relevant and feels right is a wonderful place to be.
So yes, being authentic and real, and putting yourself out there is a risk. But if you want to play the long game and build a business that’s sustainable and solid, and connects with customers, it’s really the only way to go. It’s far more risky to build your business on something as illusory as sales gimmicks and inauthentic claims, as you’re attracting a clientele that largely isn’t a fit for you, and won’t hesitate to leave you when they find what is a fit.
Jen: So to me it was worth it to just a risk. I know whatever you'd be risking with transparency and um, policies that I felt right rather than selling out and, uh, potentially alienating my population here. So that I think is the biggest element to authenticity that plays in my favor.
For Jen, one of they keys to her authenticity and her approach to telling her story is that she really loves what she does. She says that yoga truly changed her life, and she felt a need to do something with it. That, in turn, allows her to be an outstanding storyteller as she shares the journey of her business.
But most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to turn our passions into our jobs. It’s a point that Jen acknowledges.
Jen: I think that the thing that is going to set the stage for a really interesting story is to do work that you're really interested in. it's a hard thing to ask your passion to support you financially, but to be passionate about saying that you are offering to the world creates a story that then, I don't know, I mean almost just like rules right off the tongue. It's hard to contain it more so than like how exactly do we tell it?
I think if you're being true to the things that you care about and the things that your consumers care about and you do truly take the time to get to know them, the story just kind of happened on its on and you're not so much creating it as guiding it and giving it an outlet.
As Jen says, having that passion for your work is easier said than done. But still, I have to believe there are kernels of wisdom we can all take from her experience.
It’s very similar to a concept that Seth Godin is putting forth in his latest book, “This is Marketing.”
It’s the idea that we, as businesses and marketers, and even as communicators and storytellers, should be going after the smallest possible audience that we need to make our businesses viable. By focusing on such a small group, we make ourselves indispensable to those people. We make ourselves loved by those people. And then our audience, our customer base, our community grows. Gradually. Organically. Authentically.
And that growth is created by the stories we tell about our customers. And the stories our customers tell about us.
That’s exactly the formula Jen Jones and New Love City seems to be following.
Now, a little dose of reality, here. Jen is one of the lucky few who has turned her passion into her livelihood, something she admits is difficult. But that doesn’t mean her approach, and Seth Godin’s approach, doesn’t apply.
I am of the belief that every company, every organization, every institution has a purpose for which it exists. That purpose lies in serving people in some way. Whether they’re customers or students or patients or constituents or employees or whatever, your work’s purpose is to make their lives better in some way.
It can be in a simple way like changing their oil or mowing their lawns. Or it can be in profound ways like treating diseases or growing food.
Whatever it is, if you embrace that purpose and how you fulfill it, it becomes so much easier – and it seems less risky – to spread the word and grow your audience through the act of telling stories.
Real, authentic, human, emotional stories.