No business loan, no blueprint: How Jazzercise became a multi-million dollar business by staying true to core values

What do you really need to start a business?  Most top 3 lists look something like this:

1. A business loan
2. A business plan
3. A detailed business model or structure

According to Jazzercise founder and current CEO Judi Sheppard Missett, her incredibly successful business didn’t require any of these to get off the ground.  I recently had the chance to talk with Missett as she prepared for the annual conference of the Women Presidents’ Organization conference here in San Diego, and learned quite a bit about what you really do need to start a successful business. 

First, the background:  After dancing professionally, Missett became a dance teacher in Chicago.  She taught students the way she had been taught- critiquing form, using mirrors, and practicing dance techniques.  When students began dropping out of classes, she asked why: as it turned out, none really wanted to be professional dancers- they just wanted the dancer physique.  Missett shifted gears, coming up with an aerobically challenging class that was fun, fast, and a great workout.  She continued to teach when she moved from Chicago to San Diego, and helped pioneer the “fitness craze” on the West Coast.

The rest is history- Jazzercise now has over 7500 franchises in several different countries, its own clothing line, and a video production company that is very successful in it’s own right.  As other fitness fads (Thighmaster, anyone?) have come and gone, Jazzercise has continued to grow.  What’s the secret?

Take care of yourself.

But it’s easy to stay fit when you teach dance for a living, right?  Well, sometimes.  At one point, Missett was teaching between 20 and 30 classes a week- almost to the point of burnout- when she realized she needed to train teachers to keep up with demand.  Missett claims that a balanced mind, body, and spirit connection has helped her stay successful over the years.

Practically speaking, it can be pretty difficult to carve time out of an already packed schedule to fit in a dance class, a run, or a yoga session.  Set yourself up for success by automating business processes and outsourcing when you can- you can shave about 15 hours a month by outsourcing payroll alone.  The body you have is the only one you’ve got- make sure you take care of it.

Find a successful pattern and follow it.

When Missett was growing up, her small Iowa town wasn’t exactly a professional dance hotspot.  Enter her own mother, who recruited dance instructors with the promise of help with studio management and marketing to the dance community.  In hindsight, Missett says she followed this pattern when recruiting her own teachers and building her business.

Your role model doesn’t need to be another company CEO or even someone who’s in business at all.  You don’t even need an actual person as a mentor- following an idea or technique often works, too.  Inspiration is everywhere if you remain on the lookout for it.

Lights, Action, Camera.

“I didn’t even get a business loan,” Missett told me.  And rather than adhere to a business plan, she let the business grow organically based on customer needs.  While this model might not work for everyone, there’s something especially honest and inspiring about a business owner who was so excited to bring a service to customers that she didn’t stop to plan out the “long range strategy” or how she would “monetize” her idea.

True, a task like purchasing POS equipment takes time and research, and having start up cash in the bank can be pretty comforting.  But realize that every business is different- there’s no set process for starting, growing, or expanding- if you feel like you’re not following any of the rules, don’t worry too much- sometimes making your own rules is the best strategy possible.

Make your own luck.

As the saying goes, luck is when preparation meets opportunity.  Be ready for those once-in-a-lifetime chances by honing your skills, but be willing to take risks when you need to. When Missett began teaching dance classes in San Diego, many students were military spouses- some who had moved to other cities wanted to continue the program.  Missett’s husband was familiar VHS video, then a developing technology, and Missett had studied similar subjects in college, so she taped routines and sent them to teachers, an effort that lead to the formation of what is now JM DigitalWorks, a division of Jazzercise.

Don’t wait for luck to strike- make it yourself!  As Judi Sheppard Missett says, “We are all in the right place at the right time, we just need to be aware of it.”