Focus 33 Photography Series | Women Entrepreneurs
Charlotte Foster Williamson – Atlanta Dance Central
Featured this month in our Women Entrepreneurs Series is Charlotte Foster Williamson, owner of Atlanta Dance Central. She graciously shared with us her entrepreneurial journey and tips for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Stick With Your Vision.
“Even though you want to make people happy, it’s important to stick with saying ‘no’ if it doesn’t fit with your vision,” Charlotte says. In the early stages, business owners can be pulled in many different directions. Charlotte had a clear vision of her studio and had to accept that not everyone would see things the same way. “Don’t be afraid to make it yours.”
Have a Flexible Plan.
Although a business plan can help guide entrepreneurs by giving a framework for the business, it’s tough to accurately predict the outcomes without real data. Charlotte had to be flexible and willing to defer from her plan if necessary. In the first year, she found that the business needed to scale back in staffing costs. It was difficult to make those decisions, but ultimately she knew she had to protect the business. “In the end you are the only person looking out for the business,” Charlotte notes. “Otherwise, there will be no business.”
Develop Collaboration and Teamwork.
“I wanted a place where teachers were collectively building students to be the best they could be,” Charlotte says. Faculty members at Atlanta Dance Central look at the whole student, rather than just what is happening in their own classes. Teachers are connected to each other and regularly share information. They meet weekly to discuss students’ progress, helpful tips, and to collaborate on new ideas.
Know Your Strengths.
“When you start a business, you have to be so much more. Suddenly, you’ve got to know marketing, finance, operations,” Charlotte notes. Her love and passion of dance was the driving force for starting the studio, and she is reluctant to give up the time she spends teaching, still managing to teach over 30 hours a week while running the business. Studio Manager and Dance Faculty Member, Andrea, has taken over many of the daily administrative, customer service, and marketing tasks. Charlotte’s husband Jeremy, who has a degree in economics, provides practical business advice and assistance with the business. “He really gives me the push to get the financials together,” she says. “Because that’s not my favorite part.”
Simplify Your Systems.
With substantial growth in her business, Charlotte had to find new ways to deliver the same experience to more people. “We had to maintain the same quality and experience for our clients,” she says. With that in mind, she and her team began working on refining and creating standardized business systems. The projects they completed included a detailed staff training manual and the development of new class lesson plans for the faculty.
Grow Into Your Space.
Charlotte took a risky approach when deciding to build out a 6,000 square foot space and sign a seven- year lease when launching Atlanta Dance Central. At the time, she felt so strongly about the potential for her new business and she loved the location, but the decision came with many challenges and a hefty expense. “I think it was the right thing for us to do, but if I were to open another [satellite] location, I would probably do it with one studio and then add on to it, because it would be less of an upfront risk,” she explains.
Know Your Clients.
“My goal is to know each of the students by name,” Charlotte says. Even with over 300 students at the studio, she puts high priority on getting to know everyone. Charlotte aims to make all of the kids feel welcomed and special while at the studio and during the recital. Faculty members also focus on the individual growth of each student, and provide a personal, detailed mid-year and end of year evaluation that includes specific recommendations for each child.
Charlotte’s goal for Atlanta Dance Central was to create well-rounded students. “We want them to be able to pursue any aspect of a dance career,” she explains. Charlotte decided to distinguish the studio from others by implementing high-quality dance instruction in a variety of dance disciplines rather than focusing on teaching just one. Faculty members teach classes in ballet, musical theatre, jazz, tap, acro, hip-hop, tap, aerial, and contemporary dance. Charlotte also chose not to emphasize a competitive dance environment like many other schools. Instead, her focus is on helping students to realize their full potential and teaching other important life skills through dance. “Our goal is to help them be successful people in the future.”
Just Run With It.
“I have the freedom to add, change, or eliminate anything I want,” Charlotte says. As a business owner, she can implement new ideas without delay, whereas in the past, she would need to wait for approval after presenting new ideas. Now the process is streamlined. “I really just wanted to get on with it. Just do it.” If there is potential for a project, she says she will run with it and see where it leads.
Take Advantage of Technology.
Since Atlanta Dance Central opened in 2009, technology has changed tremendously. “Social media didn’t really exist for businesses,” Charlotte says. Now, Facebook and Twitter are great communication and marketing tools for the studio, and they provide a place for parents and students to interact in an online community. Her team has also put effort into redesigning the studio website and implementing search engine optimization, making it easier for new clients to find the business.
It’s All Work.
“When you are starting, there is no work-life balance,” says Charlotte. The first year of a business is critical for entrepreneurs and it’s common for relationships and social life to suffer during this time. The priority becomes the business and getting it off the ground. “It’s important to understand how much time and work it takes, because there are just so many things you have to learn. And you’ve got to do it because there is no one else.”
In addition to The Foster-Schmidt Dance Academy for Down Syndrome, the studio continues to offer unique new programs. Charlotte’s husband Jeremy recently started teaching a new aerial dance class. The studio also offers a student-led choreography class, and a teacher training program for young students to learn how to teach dance. The studio also hosts conventions and brings in professionals to speak to students. Charlotte’s staff has been instrumental in developing and implementing new ideas. She stresses the importance of hiring people who are different from yourself. “We are all different from each other, but we all understand the vision,” she notes. “They will help you grow your vision beyond what you could imagine.”
To learn more about Charlotte’s dance studio, visit: atlantadancecentral.com
Slideshow: A Look Inside Atlanta Dance Central