Couple achieving balance in wellness business with SBDC coaching | SBDC

NEWCASTLE, Wash. – As sole proprietors of their own businesses in 2016, Kristina and Michael Orille had saved their money for … something. To buy a house? To buy a house that included a spa business where they both could practice their vocations – hers as massage therapist and his as personal trainer? Or perhaps to practice their professions together in a commercial space? That could boost their income into six figures – essentially the minimum necessary for families in their Seattle suburb neighborhood.

The Orilles chose to start a business together and contacted Steve Burke, business advisor in the South Seattle office of the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The Washington SBDC is a network of more than 35 advisors in more than two dozen communities across the state working to help owners and entrepreneurs who want to start, grow or buy/sell a business. Advising is confidential and is provided at no cost to the client through a partnership between the U.S. Small Business Administration and Washington State University. Additional support is provided by funding partners including other institutions of higher education, economic development agencies and business and civic organizations.

“Steve helped us clarify what we needed to do to achieve our goals,” said Kristina, financial and creative director of Verde Organic Body, a holistic health, personal training, massage and yoga studio that she and her husband incorporated in November 2016. Burke provided direction and support as Kristina developed data-rich spreadsheets projecting costs and income, area demographics, staffing requirements, and customer and growth potential.

Pushing through despite setbacks

With the groundwork in place and figures in hand, the couple arranged to lease a 4,000-square-foot studio, hired an architect, lined up contractors and applied for a bank loan.

Kristina Orielle, co-owner (left)

However, “The bank considered our work a ‘hobby business,’” Kristina said. “They didn’t see us as viable for a loan.” Instead, she said, “We needed to get creative.” The Orilles used their savings, sold founders packages to their longstanding clients, and found other private lenders, including their parents, to fund the start-up of their business. They found resources, with Burke’s guidance, so they could learn to negotiate a workable lease with their commercial landlord at Avalon Newcastle Commons.

Verde Organic Body opened in April 2018. The couple worked their business plan well – “we let it grow,” Kristina said, “we opened one treatment room at a time” – and they worked it hard – “we worked the hardest we’ve ever worked in our lives, 14-hour days, six days a week for two years.” And they succeeded; the business had 15-20 employees and was profitable by the end of 2019.

But that all disappeared with the 2020 advent of the pandemic, said Kristina: “Covid changed our business.”

Taking a breather to renew their strengths

The change was traumatic and, at first, dire. The business closed, employees were laid off, the Orilles faced the possibility of losing their business. When Verde Organic Body could reopen, both customers and staff were slow to return, largely due to fears about Covid exposure in up-close massage and personal training situations.

But Kristina had learned to call on Burke. “In the beginning, I would send him multiple emails in a week, and we would meet once a month to work through my list,” she said. “He gave me information and resources from the SBA (U.S. Small Business Administration) and also from his years of business experience. His counsel often is, ‘Go back to the data.’ During Covid, that helped me not to crumble and feel like a failure. Steve coached me through it.”

Burke’s counsel that customers will vote with their pocketbooks helped the Orilles focus on those services or products that brought in revenue. “We had worked so hard for success in two years, we really were in survival mode,” Kristina said. “In a way, Covid gave us a break. We could step back, do a big financial analysis, refine, reposition.”

Recovery a process for customers, staff, revenue

Reacting to customer Covid concerns and demand, Verde Organic Body went from about 20 group fitness classes per week to just two weekly yoga classes. Eliminating most classes has streamlined hiring and payroll, and increased profitability, Kristina said.

The personal training and massage therapy services are drawing customers, but the business is not yet where it was pre-Covid. “Hiring is a struggle now,” Kristina said, “especially hiring massage therapists. Covid closed massage schools and businesses. We have to pay more since Covid, and we launched our employee benefits package earlier than we planned in order to attract top candidates.”

Revenues have exceeded $50,000 per month but should be $80,000 to $100,000 to scale Verde Organic Body to capacity by 2023, Kristina said.

Gaining flexibility to improve, grow

Though that’s not where they expected to be by this time, Kristina said, the Orilles are pleased to be progressing. “We are continuing to add staff, and we are getting many new customers for massage and personal training every week.”

Michael Orielle, co-owner and personal trainer

“Once you are in a business, the business teaches you,” she said. “I feel confident that I understand my business now. We have figured out how to reposition, how to monitor cash flow, how to build a client base and do marketing and promotion – pre-Covid, we didn’t seem to need to advertise as much as we do now.”

Emerging from the trauma of Covid, Kristina understands that as long as her business management is firm, she can envision the future and proceed with confidence – perhaps even with a bit of the “chill, island-vibe” perspective of her Philippines-born husband, who “takes it all in stride.”

The couple intends to open a second location of Verde Organic Body by the end of 2023. Kristina continues to meet with Burke quarterly as well as via occasional emails. “We are headed there,” she said, grateful for the ongoing Washington SBDC partnership. “There hasn’t been an element of our business that hasn’t been supported and advanced by Steve.” Having worked closely with him the past five years, she said she refers to his repeated wisdom as her ’Shoulder Steve’ – “like the voice of confidence on my shoulder, giving good advice in my ear.”

Learn more about Verde Organic Body at https://www.verdeorganicbody.com/

Learn more about the Washington SBDC at https://wsbdc.org/

By Cynthia King, Washington SBDC