Harlem’s small businesses are the backbone of our wonderful community and as we know the path of entrepreneurship can be filled challenges. So we are thrilled to chat with Bikram Yoga East Harlem owner, Stephanie Pope Caffey, whose business’ survival was seriously threatened, but she was able to overcome with the help of fellow business community members, family and friends. And she emerged on the other side a little stronger and a lot wiser than she went in. Kudos to Stephanie and Bikram Yoga East Harlem – as a friend says, we all fall down, but what defines each of us is how quickly we get up!
Please tell us about Bikram Yoga and how you got started in yoga?
Bikram Yoga is a series of 26 basic hatha yoga postures including 2 breathing exercises performed in a heated room. The heat is very beneficial and therapeutic. It helps reduce the risk of injury, detoxifies the body, thins the blood to increase circulation and helps to oxygenate the blood and muscles. The classes are designed for the absolute beginner to the most experienced practitioner. I have been practicing Bikram yoga for over a 25 year period, on and off, throughout my life. I was introduced to it by a fellow dancer in Los Angeles many years ago and fell in love with it from my very first class.
What sets Bikram apart from other forms of yoga?
The obvious difference is the heat, which helps reduce the risk of injury. But I think what really sets it apart is that the practice is perfect for everybody. Although it is a challenging practice, it is not an intimidating practice. You don’t have to change how you eat, how you dress or your religious beliefs to participate — unless, of course, you want to! And while you are busy improving your body and your mind, your spiritual life will automatically improve as well.
How long have you been in business?
The yoga studio has been open 5 years this November.
We know that you experienced a major challenge last year and avoided disaster in part with the help of some of your fellow Harlem business colleagues. Can you share some background on what happened?
As many small businesses do, we started out undercapitalized. We opened in 2008, right in the middle of the recession, but felt that if there was anytime that people would need yoga, this was the time, with so many people being “downsized” and laid off, we felt they would need a place to de-stress and re-group. We received the normal two months free rent from our building owners, but when construction took longer than anticipated, we began paying rent for almost 4 months before we were able to open. This set us back even more. Then, 2.5 years after we were open, we received a bill in the mail from Con Edison in excess of $45,000. Our electricity was turned off and was not restored until we paid $25,000.
We had been receiving and paying our Con Ed bills, however it turns out that Con Ed was estimating our bills based as they could not gain access to the meters through the tenant below us, nor did they contact us via phone or mail to inform us that they were estimating our HOT YOGA STUDIO’s bills for 2.5 years! This event pretty much sealed our financial downward spiral. We began becoming more and more late with rent payments and eventually, when the building owners switched management companies in January of 2013, we were shut down.
How were you able to secure your business?
We initially financed our start-up with personal loans and credit cards, which, of course, lowered our credit scores. After we were shut down, we went to traditional lenders and given the difficulty of the situation, they were unwilling to help us. When we felt we had nowhere else to turn, we turned to our students, fellow business owners, friends, colleagues and the Harlem community. We created a fundraising campaign and pre-sold class packages in anticipation of our re-opening. As difficult as it was for us to ask for help, we were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, encouragement and love we received from everyone. We would not be back if it had not been for the generosity and support of so many.
What is the greatest lesson you learned from this whole experience?
Although we try to operate with the spirit of a family-owned “mom and pop shop”, it is essential that we make sure every “t” is crossed and every “i” is dotted when it comes to running our business. We have learned, first hand, the importance of focusing on spending time working ON the business and not just IN the business. If there was anything we know we could have controlled and done differently, it would have been to immediately try to find a temporary location for our students to practice in. We got so focused on “operation re-open the studio” that we neglected this very important detail and we lost many regular students as a result. I think we also kept believing we would open much sooner that it took. We are now working hard to re-gain the trust of our former students and hope that they will eventually return.
What are some of your favorite Harlem hot spots?
Very hard to choose, but I do enjoy 67 Orange street and Melba’s. But overall, I am so thrilled with all the choices that Harlem now has. It was not like this growing up here.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
In addition to the wonderful time spent re-building BYEH, I am currently performing on Broadway in the musical PIPPIN. We are in previews and open April 25th. Bikram Yoga East harlem has a great campaign going at www.luckyAnt.com where you can get great deals on class packages including one that gives you a year of unlimited classes PLUS 2 premium tickets to PIPPIN with a backstage pass!! I am very excited about this campaign because it is a win-win for both us and our students, plus I get to combine my two worlds together..Bikram and Broadway!
We will never be able to thank our supporters enough for helping to bring BYEH back!