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The Studio Fired Me and What We All Can Learn: Part 2 Negotiate and Thrive

I readily admit that I am people pleaser, a good girl, and most definitely a conflict avoider. While these aren’t entirely bad traits they have not served me so well over the years in terms of being able to advocate for myself, and certainly not in getting the pay I deserve.

Six years ago when one of the trainers at my studio along with the studio manager approached me with their idea to build a big wellness center and studio. They asked me to come in as a partner. I was exhausted by having owned a studio for 15 years and the idea of being part owner in another, even larger business was not appealing. Since I wanted a way out of my business that wouldn’t leave my trainers without a place to work it seemed logical for me to transition my business into their new venture and then work for them for a paycheck.

I needed a physical space in which to base GYROTONIC® Ann Arbor for my teacher trainings, and a place to see my clients. They needed a GYROTONIC® and GYROKINESIS® Master Trainer and Pilates Instructor Trainer, and also would benefit greatly from the reputation and client list I had built for my business over the past 15 years.

We both had something the other needed, so it seemed a great solution, but I made a lot of mistakes in negotiating this transition. I’ll share these with you in hopes that you can learn from my errors, and so that I can remind myself not to make these mistakes again.

Mistake 1: On the advice of my MBA brother-in-law I requested 5% of the company in exchange for handing over my business that I had invested so much time and money into building. However, when I made this request I was met with a negative emotional response and claims of betrayal. In retrospect, I should have stood my ground and not let myself be played by emotional displays and appeals of “friendship”. Instead I relented and, I’m embarrassed to say, even apologized for being overly demanding.

Lesson: Do not let emotion enter negotiations, either on your part or that of your negotiating counterpart. Yes, we should respect people’s feelings throughout the process and consider emotional repercussions and how these might effect future success, but a friend or colleague responding emotionally should not intimidate you into to leaving money on the table.

Mistake 2: What I see clearly as I look back on the situation is that I had something pretty valuable that they wanted; my reputation, client list, and trainer allegiances. And they had something that I wanted; a way out of my business. But as a worn down studio owner, teaching long days and overwhelmed by administrative work, and with a small child at home, it was easy for them to talk down what I had built and devalue it in my mind. So I felt disempowered to stand for what I needed and deserved.

Lesson: Value your assets. Whatever it is, your studio, your training services, your money, your time, they wouldn’t be asking for it if it didn’t have value to them. So you need to value it too so you don’t end up giving it away or selling it cheap.

Mistake 3: When it came time to setting my hourly pay rate for the new venture I had a specific number in mind, based on a good bit of research. I’d spoken with numerous colleagues at my experience level, and also with those who owned studios and had negotiated pay rates with their trainers. But when I put this very fair number forward it was rejected. They said they couldn’t afford it. They then proposed a much lower rate, one that was less than my former trainer had said was fair for her to be paid when she taught at my studio, even though she had far less experience than me.

They said once they were established and had some more revenue coming in they would put my rate up. I agreed because I felt getting the new business off to a good start would be beneficial to everyone, and that a little sacrifice at the onset would help build a strong foundation for the long term success of all involved. This however is not how it unfolded.

Lesson: Don’t just get it in writing- get it in very specific writing. In my case I should have had a specific date by which my pay would go up to the full rate. This would have given them a bit of support at the beginning, but also would have helped them prioritize their goals if they knew there was an endpoint to the deep discount on my services. Instead of investing in more expansion, they would have known they first had to meet a financial obligation they had made to me.

Having set parameters for pay and raises is helpful to not only the trainers, but also to the studio owner. If there is a written requirement that a trainer obtain certain certifications or reach specific client retention goals before moving up to the a next, set pay level, this takes pressure off of both parties. If a trainer reaches these goals they are rewarded with their raise, so the steps and requirements to get there are clear. If the trainer does not meet these goals then the studio owner can give a clear answer why there’s no raise yet, and a course of action to get there soon. And it also helps deflect a trainer who is in fact demanding too much.

These goals should be specific and objective. Not based on “attitude”, or who is friends with whom, or on a “feeling” that an employer has. This is not just protection for the rights of the employee, but also helps the employer by laying out clear benchmarks that simplify decision making. It also can help keep the sneaky element of implicit bias, biases an employer might have subconsciously about race, gender, weight, orientation, etc, out of the process. These biases effect us all to some level, so having a consistent policy that applies to all can help bypass this potential issue.

Mistake 4: When I’d been at the studio for over four years and still wasn’t seeing the promised raise on the horizon I happened to stumble across the information that another trainer, with much less experience than me, had negotiated a higher pay rate than I had. I was pretty annoyed by this, not by her, as I admired her negotiation skills, but at how the studio owners had agreed to this before addressing the issue of my long promised raise.

Lesson: Compare saleries. Now if you’re a studio owner reading this that idea might make you uncomfortable, but if you have a fair system in place, based on clear goals and benchmarks, you have nothing to worry about. If that’s not the case then it might be an indication that it’s time to rework the way you manage your compensation structure.

I’ve read about studies in which job satisfaction is closely linked to how fair people perceive their pay to be in relation to their coworkers. And most of us have probably read about how, statistically, women tend not to negotiate as aggressively for pay, how people of color often get less compensation for similar work, and how women of color tend to get an especially bad deal on their pay.

One of the easiest ways we can address this in our own professional lives is to be open with our co-workers about our pay rates. This empowers us all to be able to negotiate for fair pay. It enables those of us who feel more empowered to unify and advocate for those who feel less empowered. And it benefits employers as well, because if they have a fair pay structure in which everyone sees clearly what they need to do to reach the next pay level, and everyone feels fairly compensated for their current level of achievement, the culture of the business is healthier and the morale of the employees is better. This seems to me like a great way to increase productivity, decrease trainer turnover, and increase revenue.

If having happy trainers isn’t enough incentive for employers to make necessary tweaks to their pay policies, it’s best to keep in mind that happier trainers make for happier clients.

When I Stopped Making Mistakes (mostly): After I’d discovered that a less experienced colleague had negotiated a higher pay rate something clicked in my brain and I realized I had to get over my conflict avoidance and people pleasing if I ever wanted to save enough for the retirement of traveling and respectable comfort I wanted one day to have. I was working so many hours that I was well into a state of burn out. I understood that the studio was still just keeping afloat financially, and that they really couldn’t afford to pay me what I was worth without some adjustments. I presented them with the idea of raising my rate charged to clients significantly, a big jump. This would cover bringing me up to my full rate, and they’d be making a bit more as well. I understood that by hiking my rates up some of my clients would drop down the frequency of their sessions, and some would have to move to less expensive trainers, but I ran through some numbers and figured I’d still be a bit ahead, while working fewer hours.

Initially they agreed to this, but as the time approached to make the switch I’d not heard anything. I checked in with them on it and was told that they would be raising my rates to clients, but would not be increasing my pay rate. Meaning, I would assume the risk of losing clients and they would pocket all the extra cash. I was livid. I told them it was unacceptable. That evening discreetly contacted a colleague who owns another studio in town and told her the situation. By the next day when I went into the studio my generous colleague had offered to rent me space to teach, and I calculated I’d be making significantly more an hour in the new situation than I would had I been given the raise I’d asked for. I was ready to leave.

The next day they offered me the full amount of my requested raise and asked me to stay. And I did stay. I liked my clients and my coworkers and thought that even though it wasn’t the best financial move, it was worth sticking it out a bit longer for the sake of the relationships I’d developed there.

Lesson: Be prepared to walk away. You always need a backup plan in this industry. Studios fold, colleagues fall out, and pandemics hit. We should always have in mind a plan B and a plan C, at least. Develop relationships with trainers outside your own workplace. Don’t fall into the trap of us-vs-them competition with other studios. Our community is too small for pettiness and in-fighting. One of the reasons I’ve been able to land on my feet without missing a beat after being fired from the studio is that I’ve always respected my colleagues outside the studio and have tried support them whenever I can. So when I needed them, what could have been a big fall was just a soft tumble into the open arms of a warm and welcoming community.

Try to tuck away a little cash for emergencies. I know that’s especially hard to think of during these tough financial times but, when you feel back on your feet after the COVID crisis is over, save what you can here and there so that you can buy some equipment, or rent a space, or a least have enough to cover your expenses for a few months should you need to walk away from a bad situation.

Lesson 2: Bring your own solutions. Studios have a lot of expenses and sometimes the trainers aren’t aware of the financial strains the owners are under. The solution I proposed to them was to raise the rate they charged for my services, which took the answer of “we can’t afford it” out of the discussion. Help them solve the problem and you’re more likely to get what you need.

Two final tips:

Prepare. You should go into any negotiation, or discussion that might involve some degree of negotiating, having done some homework. If you’re going to discuss your pay, first familiarize yourself with the industry standards for pay, hours, and expected responsibilities. If you’re discussing a partnership, selling your business, or some other big transition that needs to be negotiated, you’ve got to a good bit of research to do on the intricacies of studio valuations, and to get a clear sense of the value of your individual assets, such as your brand, client list, equipment, etc.

Bring a notebook with a list of all of the points you need to make, questions you have, and issues to be addressed. Take notes on all that is discussed. You and your negotiating counterpart might even agree to record the conversation for reference. Anything that is agreed upon in that conversation should then be put into writing and signed by both parties to acknowledge the agreement. Do this even if you are friends. It might sound cold, but having it all clearly in writing can help avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications that could damage your relationship, and also protect you should the friendship become strained under the pressures of the business.

Remember the goal. Ideally what happens in negotiations isn’t that one side wins, but that both sides come away feeling satisfied that a fair agreement has been reached. Each side feels like their needs were met and that their value is appreciated. You’re seeking a balance in which each party feels heard and respected, and no one feels the other has taken advantage of them.

When we can reach this point through healthy negotiations everyone can thrive.

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