Online Yoga is a Blissful Business-Part 2

I recently featured My Yoga Online, a Vancouver startup that delivers subscription-based online yoga videos and content.  I had a chance to talk to the founders of the site Jason Jacobson and Michelle Trantina about how they got started.  Go here for a two week free-trial or download their media kit.

They launched My Yoga Online along with a third co-founder, Kreg Weiss, in August 2005 with their own money. Jason and Michelle had film backgrounds, having worked together as screenwriters and short film producers.  She was a certified yoga instructor and he had a business degree.  Merging the ancient practice of yoga with the modern technology of video online was something that hadn’t been done before.  They saw a niche in an unknown market and took the plunge.  There was some planning but most was learned and developed off the cuff as the online video industry grew around them.  Now My Yoga Online is the top international destination for practicing full length yoga videos online and one of the fastest growing startups in Canada.

1. How do you begin a startup, other than the idea? Background, partners, seed money?

Michelle: Know your s–t.
Jason:  Yeah, that would help.  Have a good business plan.  Research your market.  Be prepared to work long hours for no money.  But most of all, make sure you are doing something you love, because it is the passion that keeps you moving forward.

2. Do you have investors?

Michelle: We had a certain amount of money we put into the biz personally to start. But outside investors – no. This is a major advantage in so many ways. But in others a much more slippery slope.
Jason: We worked for free for the better part of two years.  But it gave us full control.  Although we didn’t grow as fast as we probably could have with outside investors, we had no debt and no higher ups to answer to.  We know of a couple of startups with millions in seed money, but they aren’t even close to breaking even, it’s a crap shoot, and then there’s the pressure of trying to figure out ways to pay back your investors rather than concentrating on the core business you so much loved and devoted yourself to in the beginning.
Michelle: It takes gumption.
Jason: Gumption?
Michelle: That’s the first time I’ve ever used that word.  You have to think quick on your feet to balance it all.

3. What is your ad-revenue model?
Jason: We don’t have an ad-revenue model.  We look at My Yoga Online as a premium wellness channel, like an HBO.  We offer high quality video and instruction with no commercials and our members are willing to pay for this service.  The price is less than one class at a yoga studio per month and you have access to over 200 premium videos you can practice at your schedule and experience level.  When we launched everything was free on the internet and it mostly still is now and people felt this model wouldn’t work.  For most sites it’s about creating as much traffic as possible so you can make ad revenue and hopefully sell to the highest bidder.  But you need millions of unique visitors to make anything substantial these days in ad revenue and very few startups can achieve this.  We have been profitable for the last two years and are growing at a rate of 20% a month based on our current model and making about 4000% more revenue from our subscription model than we ever would through advertising.

4. Did you know that you’d have a market that would participate? (There
are free online video sites.) Why are people going to buy memberships?

Michelle: Like Jason said, much of the internet is free. But for quality programming with no advertising – a small membership fee is part of the program. We had very high expectations in terms of what we wanted to create, and we felt people would value those things.
Jason: When we launched, Youtube didn’t exist. or was just starting, so people weren’t familiar with video online.  It was a risk but we saw the potential, especially in convenience.  For those that can’t make it to the yoga studio, for the beginner that wants to learn the basics before stepping into a studio, for the stay at home mom, for the constant traveler that wants to practice in their hotel room, or a quick stretch at the office to rejuvenate mid-day, and for the experienced yogi and teacher that wants to brush up on their practice and try new things... the list goes on.  We felt there was such a market out there for this service and frankly, we were right.  We now not only offer our videos through our membership base, but to universities such as Simon Fraser University, to Air Canada, for their in-flight systems, to corporate wellness programs, and we are now in the process of branching off into streaming to the TV with services such as Tivo.

5. What is the idea behind community?

Jason: We look at My Yoga Online as not just a video streaming service but as a wellness community, where people can come and learn and discuss everything from yoga to green living, nutrition to meditation and general healthy living.  Through our yoga blog and wellness community we encourage interaction between our members and non-members to better educate and expand awareness within the yoga and wellness community about the benefits of practicing yoga on a regular basis and healthy living in general.
Michelle: Wellness is a massively growing sector. Once a person starts practicing yoga regularly, eating better is inevitable, knowing when you need to relax, to do more, what you need to stay in balance; it all just happens naturally.  It is a lifestyle, and it’s catching on very quickly. It is so needed. People are burning themselves out at an alarming rate. Yoga is medicine for modern times.

6. Any advice for entrepreneurs?

Michelle: Know your boundaries. When to work. When to not be working. Time off is necessary and valuable. Decide which things are the most important and focus on those, don’t let things get distracted and askew. Work with people who you know are solid and value what you are doing (and are committed to it) as much as you are. Work with people who have different temperaments and inherent skills – they will complement each other and all are necessary ingredients. Practice yoga.
Jason: Yeah, practice yoga.  Stress is over-rated.  And be flexible. Environments and businesses change, employees come and go.  You have to be willing and open to change and trying new things because the first attempts may not work exactly like you expected.

7. What would you do differently or the same?

Jason: Ha.  Everything and nothing.
Michelle: There are so many things we have learned that would have saved us valuable time and headaches had we done them differently… So many. But  of course Hindsight is always 20/20. On the flip side, doing things the way we did them we have learned 1000% more than we would have.
Jason:  Yeah, the amount we have learned is substantial and such a growing experience.  Running your own business and having it be a success while providing a valuable service to those that need it is very rewarding.  There’s a lot of redos but I think we are better for it.

8. Most valuable lesson for others wanting to startup?

Michelle: Recognize that this may become your life in an all-consuming way for the next few years. Hopefully you enjoy what you are doing and have a personal passion for the content of your business. Deep inroads into that particular community are a huge plus.
Jason: I agree.  Be prepared for this to become your life so choose something that you are passionate about.  Don’t expect to make any money so that when you do begin to make it it is that much more rewarding.  And if you don’t, well, hey, you didn’t expect to make any money, did you?
Michelle: I wouldn’t go that far.