How GoYoga's founder built one of the largest such chains in the Midwest

Laura Newpoff

Alissa Rodgers won’t ever forget 2015, when her marriage fell apart. Not only would her three children suffer consequences, but the business she had spent four years building suddenly was in jeopardy. 

That’s because her husband at the time was her business partner and, as part of their divorce proceedings, he wanted to sell. Rodgers, the founder of GoYoga, did not.

“It felt like my baby,” she says. “I loved it and was just as passionate about it as I am my kids. There were people in my life saying, ‘Just let it go. You can start all over.’ But I had worked so hard to get it where it was. I fought for it because I didn’t want to start all over.”

To save it, she had to scramble. She asked her team if they could wait a little longer than usual for their paychecks. They could. Landlords were asked to give her extra time on rent. They did. And a former connection from Rodgers’ days as a Massage Envy franchisee was asked if she’d be interested in making an additional investment in GoYoga. She was.

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Today, the business is the largest yoga studio system in the Columbus region with eight locations, and it’s among the largest such operations in the Midwest. While Covid-19 has presented challenges, Rodgers and co-owner Carrie Downey are aiming higher. They’re taking steps to start selling franchises in 2021. 

“The experience (related to the divorce) made us stronger,” Rodgers says. “I’m somebody who has a hard time asking for help. I had to be vulnerable in that time and ask for help. In the end, it strengthened our team.”

The Great Recession foundry

Rodgers grew up as a cheerleader in Dublin in the 1980s and 1990s. She relished going to work with her dad, who owned a construction company. She answered phones, cleaned his office and helped him on jobs. At age 12, she started a babysitting service by using her neighborhood directory to send personal notes to families marketing her skills. She built up a clientele whose kids she watched for 10 years.

After graduating from Dublin Coffman High School in 1998, she attended Pennsylvania State University, graduating in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in health policy and administration. “I had a feeling I wanted to do something in healthcare, helping people,” she says. At age 22 she landed a job with a health care consulting firm, and her first project was in the New York City borough of Queens.

“I’m a Midwestern girl who grew up in a bubble in Dublin, and all of a sudden I’m in a position of having to tell people who have done the job for 20 or 30 years what to do,” Rodgers says. “It was humbling. I grew up fast and learned so much.”

Her consulting work involved what she calls process design for leading teams. The few years she spent there felt like earning an MBA and then some, she says. The work, however, involved extensive travel all over the country. After she became pregnant in 2003, she began considering another line of business and moving closer to home. 

Rodgers’ mom, Julie Kambeitz, had an idea. As a frequent traveler to Arizona, she had become a fan of Massage Envy, which was founded in 2002 in Scottsdale and has grown across the country through franchising. Kambeitz thought the concept would do well in Columbus. While Rodgers was intrigued, at the time she had never experienced a massage. Still, she joined her mom and stepfather, Steve Kambeitz, in becoming the first Massage Envy franchisees in Ohio in 2007. Their three locations consistently placed in the company’s top 10 percent nationwide in terms of revenue. 

“This was right at the beginning of the Great Recession,” Rodgers says. “I had to learn a lot about launching a new business and on top of it, and it was one where the services were considered a luxury for many people during a difficult time in the economy. We had to learn to survive and thrive. Looking back, I’m so thankful I had that experience.”

The family exited the business in 2017 when their franchise agreement expired. 

Discovering yoga

Rodgers was drawn to yoga as an outlet for getting into shape after she had her first child. 

“I had the same thoughts many people have when they decide to try yoga—‘I’m not going to be good. I’m not athletic. I’m not flexible. I can’t do those crazy poses,’ ” she says. 

After living away from her home city, in addition to the physical benefits, she wanted to find new connections through yoga, too. Her best friend, Jennifer Blake, was a yoga teacher who persistently nudged her to try a class at a studio in Dublin. Rodgers took her up on the offer.

They’d take the 90-minute Bikram yoga class in a room heated to 105 degrees two to three times a week. Yoga gave Rodgers a stronger body, more confidence and more energy. She also felt more focused from the mind-body practice. When the owner of the Dublin studio decided to move and sell the business in 2006, Rodgers and Blake tried to buy it. They lost out to another student who offered more money. 

“(After that), I hopped around trying to find another place, but couldn’t find anything that had that really strong community feel where it’s welcoming and where they really inspire you,” Rodgers says. “It’s more than just teaching poses. It’s inspiration, wisdom and lessons you can use in your life. After hopping around, one day at the end of a class at a studio I said to myself, ‘You know what? Maybe I should just do something on my own.’ I told my husband and he was like, ‘All right, I’ll support you.’ I didn’t have a plan, just a vision. Maybe a little divine intervention. My head was clear and my heart was open. Something inside said, ‘You need to open a studio. You can do it.’ I never looked back.”

Starting small

While Massage Envy took up most of her time and attention, Rodgers was able to launch GoYoga in March 2011. The studios offer a variety of yoga classes, from restorative yoga to power yoga and several styles in between. Rodgers says the Massage Envy experience proved pivotal to her new business. She remembered the stress of having six-figure loans hanging over the family’s head and decided not to take on that burden for her new venture. 

“I committed to starting as small as I needed to so I didn’t take on debt,” she says. “I had a tax refund of a few thousand dollars. I said, ‘This is all I’m going to put toward it.’ ”

Space in dance studios in Worthington and Powell and a martial arts studio in New Albany were the first locations. She rented by the hour, not by the year. Getting the spaces at cheap rates allowed her to test out her vision—an affordable and more accessible form of yoga than what was on the market. Groupon was a pretty big deal at the time, and Rodgers used the digital coupon provider for most of her marketing.

GoYoga built a following fairly quickly, which gave Rodgers the confidence to sign her first lease with a local landlord for space in Powell in September 2011. More locations would follow in low-overhead spaces, like an unused fitness room in a gym, so prices could remain affordable for clients. 

As the business grew, Rodgers stuck to the plan of making the studios comfortable for everyone, from the curious first-timer to the hardcore yogi, by fostering a sense of community in a warm, welcoming environment. Unlike other studios where instructors teach from the front of a room on a mat, GoYoga’s instructors would intentionally move throughout the space to give assists when needed. Customized plans were designed to meet every kind of budget, from a single class drop-in to monthly memberships. 

Also pivotal to the early success was Rodgers’ relationship with Downey. They met in 2007 when Downey worked for Massage Envy’s regional developer. At the time, Rodgers was the director of operations for her family’s Dublin and Powell locations, and the two worked throughout the region to open clinics together and make sure they were operating at peak performance. Traveling together allowed them to forge a bond, try out different yoga studios and talk about their aspirations beyond the massage franchises.

By the time Rodgers was getting GoYoga off the ground, Downey had fallen in love with the practice. Downey had a small inheritance from her grandfather, who was a small business owner in Michigan. She invested in GoYoga to honor his legacy. Years later, as the divorce rattled the business, Downey helped Rodgers navigate the challenges. Then, she and Rodgers together bought out Rodgers’ ex-husband’s shares. 

Downey remains a minority owner, manages the New Albany studio and handles the finances and human resources.

“Alissa is tenacious,” Downey says. “She’s someone who is able to get 30 hours out of a 24-hour day. From a work perspective, there was no doubt in my mind this was going to become successful and, through Alissa, a business that was run with a lot of heart.”

GoYoga’s members agree. Jim Edwards, a Powell resident who works for JPMorgan Chase & Co., is a GoYoga member. He wandered in seven years ago not knowing a thing about the practice and now considers himself proficient. 

“The studio is really accessible and offers classes that are simple and straightforward,” Edwards says. “Alissa has also taken great care with all the different instructors she’s brought in. I can’t say I’ve ever had a bad instructor there.”

Josh Prati, president and CEO of Right Way Medical, says there’s no sense of judgment at GoYoga. He and his wife, Christa, have been taking classes at the Powell location for about five years and feel their yoga experience has been taken to another level.

“We like that it’s owner-operated,” Prati says. “Getting to know Alissa, you can sense how much she cares about the business. She really lives her passion through it.”

The road ahead

GoYoga’s newest location opened in Dublin in March just as awareness of Covid-19 was increasing. The business quickly launched a digital component that will continue going forward. Forty livestream classes are offered every week, and there are hundreds of pre-recorded classes so members can do yoga from anywhere. GoYoga also is offering hardship memberships to people experiencing financial challenges because of the pandemic. 

When the studios closed in the spring because of the health crisis, Rodgers and Downey got serious about getting their ducks in a row for a franchising push. “We believe [it] can be really successful,” Downey says. 

While an economic downturn might not seem like the ideal time to launch a new venture, business applications actually have surged during the pandemic as people who lost jobs look to create opportunities of their own, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Steve Kambeitz, Rodgers’ stepfather, a retired CFO and former business partner in Massage Envy, says franchising will change GoYoga’s business model. “I describe her now as a yogi that runs a business,” he says. “If she takes it to this next level, that’s a whole new ballgame. It’s really going to become a business that is yoga.” 

Rodgers has the attributes to pull it off, Kambeitz says. She has a glass-half-full attitude and can handle frank conversations about business challenges. 

“I remember the first time she put a budget together for Massage Envy—I looked at it and laughed. The budget was very optimistic,” Kambeitz says. “I asked her, ‘Do you want to bet your bonus on it?’ She said yes. She didn’t get a bonus that year. 

“I helped her get into a more realistic mode,” he says. “It shows that she’s smart and a fast learner who doesn’t take things personally. She doesn’t worry about the small stuff. Her tendency is to plow through and make things happen.”

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Q&A

What was the yoga landscape like 10 years ago when you launched GoYoga?

There were only a handful of true yoga studios, and in many places you wouldn’t feel super comfortable because they weren’t welcoming and were cliquish. Instructors taught at the front of the room on mats, and students often felt disconnected from them. We wanted to make it easy for people so the person coming in who has never done yoga before is not intimidated. 

How did you differentiate your studios from the others?

We don’t have all the bells and whistles. We don’t try to be the fanciest, but we do well with the essentials. Having a warm, welcoming environment focused on building relationships and connecting with students is our focus. Our teachers walk around the room to create a more personalized experience. It’s not just someone yelling out instructions from the front of the room. Of course now, we’re a little more limited in movement because of Covid-19, but we hope our approachability is still apparent. We also built the business being mindful of our cost structure to keep it accessible. 

How has GoYoga weathered Covid-19?

When we had to close in March, we didn’t know we were going to be shut down for 70 days—We [got online classes] up and running in a matter of 24 hours. We reopened in May after Memorial Day and did some outdoor classes during the summer. 

It’s been a mixed bag with some people coming in and some people still staying at home. We had a few cancellations, but 90 percent of our members kept paying even in the early days of Covid-19, which was a testament to the relationships we’ve built. Truly, that’s how I felt about it—like wow, all of these years we tried to build a strong community, and it’s shining through right now.

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.

GoYoga

goyogausa.com

Address: Studios in the Brewery District, Dublin, Grandview, New Albany, Powell, Upper Arlington, Westerville and Worthington

Business: Yoga studios

Founded: 2011

Top officer: Alissa Rodgers

Employees: 60

Revenue: $1.8 million 

Clients: 700,000 visits since inception

GoYoga founder Alissa Rodgers leads a class at the Brewery District studio.

 

Alissa Rodgers in GoYoga's Brewery District studio