In our latest episode of Founder Journey, a series of interviews highlighting the journeys of today’s most inspiring and forward thinking female entrepreneurs, we chat with Ava Taylor, founder of YAMA Talents, the first management and consulting firm nurturing the careers of some of today’s most sought after yoga teachers.
Starting a company is no easy thing, especially when it’s the first of it’s kind. There is no blueprint and no real example to follow. But this didn’t stop the Texas-raised, New York-based entrepreneur Ava Taylor to plunge into the unknown. Starting while still employed at one of today’s largest yoga company Ava worked day and night to help her yoga teachers manage their careers. She soon found herself overwhelmed by the demand for her services and decided to leave her job and launch her own company.
Ava, you studied intercultural communication and economics, how did you end up in the yoga world ?
I grew up around fitness. My mum was an exercise fanatic so movement was always part of my life. In 2007, while I was living in Los Angeles, my grandmother passed away. It left me in a lot of pain. One day I looked myself in the mirror and decided I had two choices, to either let myself go or to keep going on that funny little matt that seemed to keep me in line. The spiritual and mental benefit I was getting from yoga created such a profound change in me then all I wanted was to share the gift of yoga with the world.
“The spiritual and mental benefit I was getting from yoga created such a profound change in me then all I wanted was to share the gift of yoga with the world.”
Can you tell us how YAMA Talent started ? What was the opportunity you saw?
I was spending a lot of time with some of my yoga teacher friends and I started realizing that many of them were struggling to make a living. It was very surprising for me to find out that a lot of them were struggling to pay their rent even they led fully booked classes and retreats. Their difficulties came from the fact that most of them were handling their business all by themselves.
I noticed that there was something missing. Contrary to athletes and artists that had agents to support them, yoga teachers didn’t have any kind of help. That’s when I started offering my help to some yoga teacher friends. The demand for my services grew so much that I decided to do it full-time. I left my job at Lululemon and launched myself into entrepreneurship.
Do you see any difference between managing an artist or an athlete and managing the career of a yoga teacher?
I believe that there is a difference. Yoga teachers are very mindful of what they do. To yoga teachers every step they take professionally means something on a spiritual context. They make decisions based on slightly different criteria than actors or athletes. This is not to say that we are not ambitious or that we don’t want to be financially successful, but we’re not making decisions simply based on money.
How do you keep a balance between spiritual integrity and the competitive environment of business?
The business of yoga is an inflammatory subject. A lot of yogis don’t want anything to do with business. It’s almost like it’s a four-letter word. They want to stay away from it but at the same time they need to make a living doing it.
The most important thing for us at YAMA is that we continue to practice yoga. I think that the awareness that we’re cultivating as agents and managers helps us to stay in line with ourselves as business people. We also do a lot of envisioning and goal clarification with our teachers. Often people are confused about their career goals so we work together as a team to drill down their vision. The most important for us is to know their initial intent, the original passion and initial ‘Why’ that made them choose this path. That ‘Why’ is so important that we go back to it every time we have to make a decision with and on behalf of our clients.
What is a typical day as the founder of YAMA Talent ?
It’s difficult for me to answer this question right now as we are in the middle of a merger with a larger firm. At the moment my time is being spent on long-term strategy and planning. There is also an incredible amount of time spent negotiating, observing trends, developing new business and seeking new opportunities.
I also spend time on our day-to-day operations. That can comprise from tour scheduling, negotiating with venues and promoting touring. Our teachers are on the road quite a lot so there is a lot of maintenance to do.
I also spend a bit of time on finding additional revenue streams for them. To make a living and build sustainable careers teachers have to do more than just teaching live in the room. That’s why we are creating products that can help them generate income even when they are not teaching. That can be in form of an endorsement, merchandising, audio or video course. Some of these things seem quite basic in other industries but they are just starting to appear for yoga teachers.
Yoga is having a big success all over the world, with teacher training programs popping out like mushrooms. With so much competition what is your advice for a teacher just starting out ?
The first way to deal with competition is to not feel that there is any. It’s true that there is a boom right now, it’s really the Wild West for yoga. But the good thing is that everything is possible.
One of the main reasons that people aren’t successful is because they don’t believe in themselves. They think that they aren’t good enough yet. But trusting yourself, reaching out for help and treating your business as a business is essential for anybody wanting to make a living teaching yoga.
“One of the main reasons that people aren’t successful is because they don’t believe in themselves.”
Also, I prefer to talk about coopetition than competition, which means everyone helping each other to achieve their individual goals. I advise young teachers to be free from feeling like there’s anything standing in their way from being successful. I think it’s really important to carve time to think about how you want your career to look like. There are so many different ways to be successful. Everybody’s path is different, there is no cookie-cutter mold. Some teachers really love to travel so their career strategy is based on a really aggressive tour schedule. Other teachers have young families and their strategy revolves around digital platforms so that they have more time to spend with their kids.
“I think it’s really important to carve time to think about how you want your career to look like. There are so many different ways to be successful. Everybody’s path is different, there is no cookie-cutter mold.”
I also believe that it’s fundamental to build a team and a network. I can’t say enough for getting help. I’ll never forget when I signed my first client, Sadie Nardini. She knew she needed help, she was out of capacity and wasn’t able to focus on the highest use of her time. Building a team is wildly important to be successful. And, as an entrepreneur, I have to admit that getting help was one of the best things that I did for myself and it’s exactly what my business is all about.
“Building a team is wildly important to be successful. As an entrepreneur I have to admit that getting help was one of the best things that I did for myself and it’s exactly what my business is all about.”
What have you learned so far about starting your own business ?
I’ve learned so much and I continue to learn every single day. Being the first person to do this the learning curve is really steep. It’s like digging a tunnel with my forehead.
I would say that the first thing I learned is that relationships are King. No matter how fast or how busy we are, how stressful things are, we are still yoga people and we have to nurture ourselves and each other. I think that relationships are our biggest asset and I’ve learned time and time again that they are the foundation of everything.
“I think that relationships are our biggest asset and I’ve learned time and time again that they are the foundation of everything.”
I’ve learned not to take the first offer. To always negotiate, life is a compromise and negotiation is simply compromising. It’s not bad nor good. The idea is to arrive at a point that make both parties happy. I have learned to enjoy it, to not take it personal and to know that there is always a solution.
I have also learned what value is. I’ve learned how to place value and create value in the yoga space. We are in the process of collecting data and we have a lot of information about who is doing what, when and with whom. It has helped us a lot in understanding the value of our skills.
On a personal level I’ve also learned my own value. As a team leader I’ve watched myself learn how to stand for my value whether that means ending a conference call on time or making sure that I’m getting paid what I should be getting paid. It also means not being scared to speak up. It’s taken me almost 90 days to negotiate this merger. When there are 5 men 20 years my senior at the table and I’m all by myself, I have to remember my value and the value of what it is that I worked so hard to build.
“When there are 5 men 20 years my senior at the table and I’m all by myself, I have to remember my value and the value of what it is that I worked so hard to build.”
Career wise who inspires you the most ?
I’m a big Sheryl Sandberg fan and of her wonderful book “Lean in”. She’s incredibly inspiring. I’m obsessed with Michelle Obama and my latest obsession is Monique Davis. Any female character out there that is pushing the envelope to be great is an inspiration for me. And also my grandmother who his a daily inspiration, she had a lot of integrity and she believed that hard work always pays off.
My staff also inspires me. I’ve been blessed to have young women who are drawn to YAMA because they love yoga and want to see what they’re capable of. It’s really wonderful to watch them learn those lessons, take action and move forward.
How do you disconnect from work ?
I love art. I’ll hit museums, wander around for a while, have a glass of wine and be inspired by other people’s work and innovation. I’ll make my friends take me to the park and just lay on the grass. I also love taking baths, nothing beats a great tub and a glass of wine after a long day. And sometimes doing some home practice feels very luxurious and very private.
You talked about a merger, can you tell us more about the future plans of YAMA ?
The future of YAMA is to increase the capabilities. We have an incredible demand for our services and so we are building up the infrastructure of the company. Right now we are merging with a large firm that will give us a greater capacity to serve the yoga industry. We will be staffing up, hiring more agents and signing more teachers. We will be putting offices in other cities in a very near future and we should also have a TV show pretty soon. We have already signed with a production company to create a reality show based around YAMA and the core group of staff. It’s going to be all about women making their way in the Big Apple. It’s all so exciting and I’m looking forward to all of this.
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Image by Piotr Redlinski courtesy of Ava Taylor.