More than just a fitness center, Seven Studios' rapid growth is fed by owner Julie Wilkes' determination

More than just a fitness center, Seven Studios' rapid growth is fed by owner Julie Wilkes' determination to share her infectious positive outlook.

Julie Wilkes' unique job title says a lot about the upbeat message she tries to deliver to members of the Seven Studios fitness and life-coaching center she owns and operates Downtown along South Third Street.

"I'm the chief possibility officer," she says, explaining that "owner" doesn't sound right for a business that strives to be a community center where its members are encouraged to come together to improve their fitness levels and outlooks on life.

Wilkes, 38, saw the possibilities for a successful business a year ago when she opened Seven Studios in a 1,000-square-foot storefront that she converted into a center for yoga, Pilates and other fitness classes as well as life-coaching sessions. She made the move after winning free rent for a year and other assistance from the KickStart Columbus business competition sponsored by the city of Columbus and economic development groups.

Today, Seven Studios has more than 500 members and is growing at such a quick pace that Wilkes is planning to double the size of the center. The business also has satellite locations in Kaufman Development's residential complexes in New Albany and Grandview Heights. Wilkes also opened a life-coaching office in Grandview in April.

An optimist by nature, Wilkes expected the business to grow, just not quite as quickly as it has. Part of her success is due to her experience and training–she started as a fitness instructor when she was 18, earned a master's degree in exercise physiology from Ohio State University and has run wellness programs for Fortune 500 companies. But much of it is due to an outlook on life shaped by the adversity she faced from the minute she entered the world.

Born with a heart defect, Wilkes and her parents were given a grim prognosis from doctors. Her condition was so bad, she said, that doctors wrote "miracle" across her chart at age six months because she was still alive. But they also predicted she might only to live to be 12 years old, making Wilkes afraid to do anything strenuous that could affect her heart.

That changed in fifth grade when Wilkes' gym teacher in Grandview Heights told her the heart is a muscle and she needed to exercise it. It got her moving on a path of exercise and fitness training that she said has healed her heart and taught her the importance of sharing her gift with others.

"I made a decision to leave the world a little better than I found it," Wilkes said, noting Seven Studios is a reflection of that. "The idea is not just a fitness studio. I call it a community center where we really connect… and try to focus on the good things in life. It's definitely more than just showing up for a yoga class."

Wilkes had some business experience when she opened Seven Studios, having shot more than 80 fitness and motivational videos and regularly presenting workshops and lectures. But the venture was her first try at operating a bricks-and-mortar business and dealing with the challenges presented by that.

The KickStart competition helped in that respect since it connected Wilkes with the Economic & Community Development Institute, one of the KickStart sponsors. The Columbus nonprofit organization, whose mission is to invest in people to create social and economic change, helped Wilkes sharpen her business plan, including her financial forecast, and assisted on marketing and public relations. ECDI also gave Wilkes a small loan to help cover working capital and start-up expenses.

"They've been the cheerleader in my corner to be successful," she said.

ECDI's Marketing and Communications Director Douglas Craven continues to advise Wilkes as part of the organization's philosophy of helping start-up businesses succeed after they receive ECDI funding.

"We like to say it takes a village to raise business," Craven said, adding Wilkes has been a model client for ECDI. "I love her drive. It's really fun working with someone so determined to be successful and willing to put in the time on her business."

He said Wilkes also has a knack for promotion whether it's writing a blog on the Seven Studios website, delivering a weekly motivational message on a Columbus radio program or making speaking engagements. She has also written a book, The 7 Life Miracles, that debuted in February. It shares seven life-changing lessons that Wilkes has learned and invites readers to tear down the roadblocks they create for themselves and open up the possibility of what life can be like when "you share the gifts, talents and passions that are locked inside of you."

Wilkes also has advice for those starting a business. It comes from a lesson she has learned about herself since opening Seven Studios a year ago.

"I always wanted Rome to be built in a day," she said, "but my advice now is to start with one idea and make it really good. Then add on."

Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.