I found all of that at Willow, a yoga, pilates, and barre studio on Northcote Road in Southwest London. “I think by nature, Northcote Road is so community-focused and I definitely wanted to ensure that community was a core focus of Willow,” says founder Coco Fletcher. We speak about how she and her team go the extra mile to ensure clients get a bespoke and personalised experience at Willow. “I am constantly asking the community what they want to see more or less of at the studio through polls on social media, by email with our members. I'm also naturally quick to pivot and if I see something working with the community, I'll offer more of it!” she says. In this Women Who Launch interview, I speak with Fletcher about being a first-time founder and the importance of having a good accountant.
In the early days of the pandemic, I did something I never thought I would—I started joining online workout classes.
Before the lockdown, I enjoyed going to my regular classes at studios around London either over my lunch break or on the way home. I always thought that online workouts couldn’t provide me with that little bit of encouragement, in the form of peer pressure, that I got out of going to studios in-person. But beggars can’t be choosers, and I soon found myself following a number of fitness instructors who did Instagram Live workouts and I even subscribed to a few platforms to get exclusive live and on-demand content. But once things started opening up, I realised I really missed the feeling of coming into a studio where the instructors know your name, you get subtle corrections on your form to make sure you don’t hurt yourself, and you feel that incomparable sense of community that only comes with being in a room full of people struggling as you sweat through another marathon of squats.
What were you doing before Willow and what made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I was teaching yoga full-time for about two years before I opened Willow, but I always knew that a studio was in the cards for me at some point, I just didn't know when! In a past life, I was an Executive Assistant to the CEO and Editor-in-Chief for a newspaper back in Australia, but I suppose I've always been quite entrepreneurial. I've always despised working for others and once I was teaching yoga, I always knew I could never go back to an office role. But things really kicked into gear when I split up with a previous partner and was weighing up whether I should move back to Australia or stay in London. I promised myself that if I stayed, I'd commit to Willow and create the studio—so I did!
Tell me something not many people know about you.
I am such an introvert! I think being so involved with the studio and being people-facing all the time it might not appear that way, but I derive so much of my energy from quiet time, which is why my own personal Yin yoga practice is so important as I find it's where I can recharge!
What was the gap in the market that you identified when coming up with the concept for Willow?
I'd say it was being local myself, knowing the area around Northcote Road, and identifying what the community needed. Northcote Road is such a brilliant high street with so many lovely boutiques alongside some of the big names, but then I really noticed that there wasn't anything conveniently placed nearby in terms of boutique fitness. I also really craved a beautiful space to practice yoga in—similar to the many studios I was spoilt for choice with in Australia—and I struggled to find anything like that in this area in London. Pilates and barre were added to the schedule much later than yoga, and I'm so pleased I did that as the community has really loved those additions!
You're in a lift with five potential clients. What's your 30-second pitch?
Willow is a beautiful boutique studio space that offers yoga, pilates, and barre with a variety of classes on our schedule. So if you're craving something strong and sweaty or slow and chill, we have a class that suits that. Oh and pre/postnatal classes too!
Do you have any tips to share for hiring and retaining talent?
This is still new to me as I'd always been self-employed or an employee myself prior to owning and running the studio. In terms of hiring talent, I'm big on initial vibe—I’m naturally a quick decision maker, so as soon as a potential teacher steps in the studio, I notice my gut kicks into gear and I can generally tell if they'd be a good fit for the studio. We have quite a large team as we run over 50 classes every week and I'm beyond pleased with our team now. I think in terms of retaining talent, I always take a human-first approach, as opposed to thinking of someone as a 'staff' member, and keeping lines of communication open—I chat with most of my team regularly on WhatsApp and try to remain as approachable as possible whilst maintaining boundaries. I've definitely learnt my lesson with a couple of prior incidents where I just wasn't respected as the studio owner and it made me re-evaluate how I interact with my team. I'm very much an 'I'll give you loads of flexibility and freedom, but just don't take the mickey!' kind of person.
What has been the most challenging part of running a business?
The financial side of it for sure. I think so many entrepreneurs are creative and ideas-minded, but when it comes to the financials, bookkeeping, etc. it's easy to push it to the wayside and not focus on the numbers. But the numbers mean everything. I'm still learning, but getting on top of the financial stuff early for the studio has made such a difference in terms of understanding where I need to focus my attention. A good spreadsheet changes everything and can actually make the big decisions a little less scary when you can see the numbers. The people management side of it has definitely been a challenge at times too, but I'm learning!
For others who are interested in starting their own business, what's the one thing you always recommend doing yourself and what's the one thing you would rather outsource?
Do yourself: Be present. Particularly for the first one or two years. Know that the business is going to be your entire life and that's ok! I've done all of our marketing and community outreach myself, but that's where my strengths lie. So I would say focus on what you're good at and outsource the rest. Outsource: Get a good accountant! I can't say it enough. I honestly had zero clue what I needed to be doing in terms of accounting. A good accountant will make your life about a million times easier.
Are there any other founders you look up to?
To be honest, there's no one person that I particularly look up to, but there are people in my life or beyond who I have admired for their different qualities and have taken inspiration from. My partner, for example, I admire his work ethic. My dad, who sadly passed away in 2016, I admired his generosity and determination.
Did you do any persona mapping exercises when first trying to identify who your target market was and how to successfully reach them?4
I crafted a few 'people' to represent my target markets before Willow opened so I knew what I should offer and when. Our professionals who go to the office everyday for example, might love a 6:45 am barre class, a late evening 8 pm class, or mid-morning weekend classes prior to brunch. Our parents who drop the kids at school for 9 am might come for our 9:30 am pilates class, or if they have a baby, come to our 10:30 am postnatal classes. Knowing the area and the demographics around us was key in crafting my offering and where we are located is such an amazing spot we are lucky to get a lot of foot traffic, so I really optimised this early on with signage and simple things like a good flyer with our intro offer. Localised, targeted social media ads have helped a lot too.
For any fitness studio, getting repeat business can often be the key to success. Do you have any tips for how you’ve built customer loyalty?
It’s all about the little things. I make such an effort to try to learn everyone's names; it's not always easy as we have upwards of 70 people in and out of the studio everyday, but when that's not possible, a happy hello and a smile goes a long way. I want everyone to feel welcome when they step into Willow and our teachers do an amazing job of this too. A space that feels like a sanctuary away from the chaos of the modern world and day-to-day life is what a lot of our clients come back for—that and we have such a good team, their classes really are worth the visit and our regulars find their favourites and will be in their class every week!
Address: 135 Northcote Rd, London SW11 6PX
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