Welcome to All In, where we sit down with some of the most inspiring people in the wellness industry to find out how they got their start, their successes and their struggles, and their top advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. Up next: the co-founder of Modo Yoga (formerly Moksha Yoga).
Fourteen years ago, Jess Robertson was getting ready for a career in conflict resolution when she started teaching yoga. Inspired by the practice’s ability to heal not just physically but mentally, she had an epiphany that yoga was her true calling. Along with her business partner Ted Grand, she opened Moksha Yoga in Toronto which changes its name on November 1 to Modo Yoga, meaning “a place for all.” Fourteen years and more than 80 studios later, she lets us in on a few of the secrets of her success.
What were some of your early challenges running Modo?
What comes to mind is that we’ve always been challenged by this omniscient, accepted and somewhat predatory business phrase: “It’s just business.” We teach yoga which is a practice that fundamentally teaches not just postures, but how to be a good person. But in business “it’s just business” can mean – be a jerk, and that’s just the norm. As best as we possibly can, we try to apply the teachings of non-harming, truthfulness and other yoga principles to our business, even when it’s challenging.
Our early challenges involved coming to the realization that just because we were acting with integrity, didn’t mean that we would receive the same in return. The earliest challenges involved schooling ourselves to be kind and also keeping our eyes open to when we need to trust a little less, setting boundaries, and acting preventatively to protect against people taking advantage of our default-to-kindness approach.
What are some challenges you still face today?
I guess our biggest challenge is that we’ve been doing so much good for so many years at every level without talking about it at all. No one knows about our outreach, the six pillars we use to guide us. (Our pillars are: Be healthy, Be Accessible, Be Green, Be Community, Live to Learn, Be Peace). No one knows that our studios are designed and operated sustainably, or that there are 75 studios, all independently owned and operating a lot like community centers.
We charge low fees, so we’ve run a really lean ship, and we don’t have a huge budget to tell our story. But being more vocal is starting to feel more important these days as yoga becomes so popular.
We know that people really want to support ethical businesses and when people arrive at our doorstep they tend to love what they find. So our challenge is making sure that people know that when they buy a pass at a Modo Yoga studio, they are contributing to a much bigger mission. They’re contributing to a movement that is guided by our six pillars, and a shared desire to create positive change on the inside, as well as out in the world.
We have, since day one, reduced our energy consumption at every possible level. We’ve always had by-donation classes that have raised over $5 million for small and large scale charities that are local and international.
Modo Yoga studios work together much like a democracy. Unlike any corporation or franchise that I have ever heard about, every studio gets a vote on almost all large-scale decisions. We survey teachers once a year, and owners twice or three times a year, so that we’re always co-creating.
Were you also working a full-time job when you launched your business (as a side hustle) or did you go full-force into the new business? Would you recommend the approach you took?
I was a full time yoga teacher, and a very hands on studio owner and co-director at two studios when we started Moksha Yoga in 2004. What did this look like? Well, I was watching our toilet paper supply, giving feedback to new teachers, managing HR with students, writing our operations manual, reviewing license agreements with our lawyer and logo options with a designer. At the same time, I was teaching upwards of 12-16 classes a week sometimes (depending on who needed coverage!).
I have always been a hard worker trying to bend time, so mix that with feeling incredibly passionate about what I do and that equals some serious hustle! But the hustle is also a dance right? It’s kind of fun.
As the co-founders of the company, did you make a conscious decision to go into business without a partner? If so, why, and how has the decision to go that route been both rewarding and challenging?
Ted and I had a partner named Natalia Brajak when we first started. She’s an incredible woman that went on to work as a therapist, she’s also a wonderful mom.
I think our path as partners has been rewarding because we are honest with each other, and we view our working partnership as a place for practice as well. Instead of getting mad or reactive with each other, we try to bring yoga to our business relationship. We also try to take some time each year to have some friend-chats; that’s important too.
We are aligned in our devotion to the Modo Yoga community and we both really care about the environment. This is what drives us everyday and knowing that this is never a question is so key. I think a lasting partnership is built on shared ethics.
Did you seek outside investment and if so, how did you go about that process?
We didn’t. We started by using the funds we had earned from owning hot yoga studios. We actually didn’t even charge any fees to new owners for many years. We all shared everything we were working on. We’ve always made it clear that we’re not on a pedestal and none of us need to be. This means that mine and Ted’s role as directors is always a role of facilitating a co-creating force with fellow owners.
We haven’t sought outside investment to this day because we are part of a unique culture of sharing within the Modo group of owners. It’s less expensive to do things when you are willing to do the hard work together. Teachers and owners invest a lot of time on community. This could be why we haven’t looked outside for investors. In a way, everyone involved, even people just coming to do yoga, are investing and contributing to the whole.
Launching – and then running – your own business can be overwhelming. How do you stay focused and on track on a day to day basis? What are some of your top tips?
Start the day with a practice (could be 10-15 deep full conscious breaths, asana/posture practice, a walk). Take 10 minutes offline to design the day. What projects need to get done today in order to create momentum? Which emails need a response? Where can I schedule in a project in (like a writing piece that takes more time) if I won’t get it done today?
This is so key to keeping a clear mind. For five or even more years I would just wake up, practice, and then dive into my never-ending inbox. It wasn’t a strategic approach and I worked longer hours and had fewer demands on me than I do today. Taking time to prioritize and organize each day is so important. It seems anal, but it’s actually really supportive and calm-inducing!
Schedule shorter meetings. Meetings need to be strategic. No need to rush, just know the intention/why and set the amount of time. Some meetings need to be an hour if they involve vision/a new offering. But many meetings require no more than 5-10 minutes. I try to come to a quick understanding with the person on the other line so that we can all honour our time.
Meet Weekly with your team. Everyone that works at Modo on the international side is treated like they’re an entrepreneur. There is a strong emphasis on avoiding micromanaging. We don’t send a ton of emails to each other. We store questions in a shared group agenda where people can check questions on their own timetable, rather than being notified when they are mid-project.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given as it relates to running your own business?
Have fun! It’s so key. Surround yourself with people you like, people you trust and admire at the most fundamental, ethical, baseline level. It’s easy to have fun and work hard when you share a mission.
Work with people that are strong enough to give you feedback and respond to it. The ability to not only take, but also give feedback is a huge part of our interview process. Everyone has blind spots, even the boss. Developing a strong team is dependent on people feeling comfortable enough to point out the blind spots.
About Your Company:
One of the first things we learn about starting a successful business is that you have to relieve a pain point for the public. What was the problem you set out to solve with your company and how have you solved it?
I think the pain point we address is always shifting. When we began, yoga was assumed to be mostly a practice for older women. With the secularization of society, there was a real need and hunger for a second home, a place to feel and experience community. Studios now host athletes, business people of all genders and non-genders. Studios are a second home for people.
I think the pain point today is the collective trauma of living in a time where what used to be happening in the background (racism, sexism, etc.) is very much in the foreground. As a woman (yes, #metoo) this is such an important time; we need to ensure that there are safer spaces, and studios, in particular, that are focused on being ‘A Place for All.’ This is needed now, especially in North America, more than ever before.
You’ve expanded Modo yoga to an incredibly wide range of locations. Do you plan to continue expanding with new locations or with other forays into wellness, such as travel wellness or retreats?
We like to grow organically and our drive is to ensure quality over quantity, always in all ways. Our hope is to continue to support teachers that want to take their passion into new communities. We love the idea of wellness retreats and may respond to requests for that one day. We’ve also dreamed about a Modo Yoga festival or summit. We’d love to invite ideas from any of your readers – drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview has been edited for length