Small businesses in Palo Alto face a myriad of challenges to their survival, including sky-high rent, limited parking and competition from local malls. And in a world where it is possible to do almost anything online, Palo Alto’s brick and mortar businesses must not only attract customers but also convince them it is worth getting out of their living rooms to interact, shop and buy.
Given this tough environment, Palo Alto Pulse is focusing on the successful small businesses in our community that are engaging customers in innovative and unique ways. The first business in our series is uforia studios, a fitness facility located at 819 Ramona Street in downtown Palo Alto.
Sarah Lux founded uforia in 2011 to address what she found lacking in the fitness industry: a personal environment. As a competitive athlete growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada, Sarah was motivated by her connections to coaches and teammates. But when she moved to Palo Alto and was unable to find a place to work out that offered this sense of warmth, she decided to start her own fitness studio.
Although she knew it would not be an easy place to succeed, Sarah chose to open uforia in Palo Alto due to the vibrant mix of people and thriving downtown environment. She found a fantastic facility in a shuttered AME church but, even though it was a languishing eyesore, convincing the City to let her refurbish it required hours of extra time and paperwork. As Sarah negotiated a daunting 81-page lease agreement, she also conducted focus groups to learn what people were looking for in terms of exercise.
From these conversations, Sarah came up with a model of pay as you go classes taught by high quality instructors in a fun, welcoming environment. And on February 1, 2011, armed with a business plan and a green light from the City, Sarah opened the doors for her first clients.
Like any good Palo Alto start-up, Sarah’s approach to uforia combined fearlessness about trying new ideas coupled with an analytical approach to measure success and make adjustments. As a result, during uforia’s first few years, the mix of classes and schedules was a constant work in progress. At first it was the Zumba classes that brought mostly 40-something women into the studio, but Sarah listened to her customers and hired staff members with the expertise to create new choices that would widen her client base.
Today, the most popular classes at uforia were developed in house by instructors who found the right mix of elements to keep people motivated. Revolutions, a proprietary twist on spinning (taught 19 times a week to keep up with client demand), combines music, lights, weights and cycling in a high energy, fun and challenging workout.
With the right mix of classes and close attention customer needs, uforia has been profitable since 2012. So what is Sarah’s ‘secret sauce’? It’s all about community and connection.
“People need social interaction, no matter how much the world changes,” she explains. “I knew community building would be important when we began uforia, but forming relationships has become the essence of our business. Our instructors connect with their students, learn what they need and develop classes that make people feel healthy and positive.”
Uforia has a steady stream of dedicated regular clients who fill 1,000 spots per week in 50 different classes that range from dance to weights to yoga. The studio now attracts a diverse demographic, with tech professionals working out alongside parents, retired people and students. Uforia has also formed partnerships with downtown businesses such as Palantir and Survey Monkey to offer custom classes for their employees.
Rather than a traditional gym membership, uforia clients pay individually for each class they take, and can reserve spots ahead of time through the studio’s website.
Ask uforia clients why they keep coming to the studio and you’ll hear remarkably consistent reasons. Along with sweat, effort and fitness, they use words not usually associated with a gym, including fun, joy, friends and connection.
“Even after two years of spinning at uforia, I still find the workouts very challenging,” says Anne Frahn, a six-class a week regular. “But what I love is the people- we know each other, we make jokes and it’s a light-hearted atmosphere. The instructors are excellent and they greet everyone by name.”
Megan Lee, another uforia student who lives in San Francisco and works in Palo Alto, agrees. “The uforia community is a beautiful example of teamwork, support, encouragement and love. I feel incredibly happy whenever I’m there.”
Many of uforia’s instructors and staff members started out as students, and got ‘hooked’ on the positive energy of the studio. For uforia concierge Sabine Hoskinson, all it took was one class to shift her negative perception of working out.
“I resisted uforia because I hated to exercise and wasn’t positive about my body and fitness,” Sabine told Palo Alto Pulse. “I finally went to a Revolutions class and even during the workout I was telling myself, ‘I’m can’t do this.’ But when the teacher stood in front of my bike to motivate me, that moment transformed my workout mentality. Now I’m a changed person–physically and mentally.”
Instructor Jess Brooking has been so inspired by her experience teaching Revolutions that she left her job at a private equity firm to work for uforia as a senior program manager.
“Uforia is all about laughter and joy,” Jess said. “We have to get a workout anyway, so why not have fun? There are enough pressures and stress in life- uforia is a place where we can smile and forget about our worries for an hour.”
Uforia recently organized a friendly competition for its clients called ‘Embrace the Sweat’ that manifested the studio’s community spirit. For a $30 donation, which was donated to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, 100 students and instructors joined one of four teams that competed to accumulate points by taking classes and other activities. The idea came from staff brainstorming session and grew into much more than a simple competition.
“We planted the seed, but the challenge took on a life of its own that blew us away,” Sarah said.
Lisa Himmel, another uforia regular, explained what made the experience so unique. “The event provided an opportunity to not only challenge myself physically, but also to bond with other uforia clients. The whole studio came together in a display of great camaraderie.”
Uforia’s success is allowing Sarah to open a second location sometime in 2015. But Sarah, who just gave birth to her first child, is not looking to grow into a chain of mega gyms. “There is pressure to get bigger, but for me the people and the quality are more important than size,” she says.
Due to Sarah’s connection to the community, uforia will always have roots in Palo Alto. “Uforia fits well here,” says instructor Shane Combest. “As a repurposed church, the space is cool and unusual. Plus this town fosters an atmosphere where our clients are friendly and open to new ideas.”
When asked to give advice to other Palo Alto businesses that might want to emulate uforia’s success, Sarah has some simple suggestions. “Know who your clients are and listen to what they want. It sounds obvious but it’s really essential,” she said. “Hire great people who fit your culture and are committed to your vision, and empower them to improve your business. And have fun!”