So many little girls dream of becoming ballerinas, and Julia Erickson was no exception. But unlike most of us who eventually shed that dream, Erickson trained from the age of seven and worked her way up to become a principal dancer with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Unlike many of the stories we share at Career 2.0, this one is not about leaving a job to pursue a passion, because dancing is Erickson’s passion. “Ballet is the love of my life,” she explains. “I would not leave my dance career for anything at this point.” Unfortunately, a ballet career is a finite thing, and there will come a time when Erickson will have little choice but to hang up her pointe shoes. So when inspiration struck, she was not about to look the other way.
Dancers keep a grueling schedule, and Erickson, like many dancers, often turned to nutrition bars for a quick snack. But she was frustrated by what was available in stores – bars filled with additives, preservatives, unpronounceable ingredients. So on a whim one day she went into her kitchen and, using only ingredients found in her cupboards, created her own nutrition bar. She was so pleased with the result that she shared it with a few fellow dancers. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
She and her fiancé Aaron Ingley, a former dancer who was in business school at the time, knew they were on to something. “Aaron and I began making larger batches of my bar in our kitchen and sold them to the students attending the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. When that was successful, we decided to go bigger. And that was the beginning of Barre. We wanted to produce a product that has legitimacy and is used in the elite dance world, but could also cross over to the non-dance sector and be appealing to anyone who is looking to apply these tenets of good nutrition to their daily life.”
There is, however, a big difference between baking for friends in your kitchen and marketing your product to a national audience. Julia’s first step was to speak with a sports nutritionist at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, who suggested they get their product tested in a food lab. The food lab was able to point her toward a manufacturer who was willing to do a small run. “It’s hard to glean this kind of information from a Google search, but there is a network of connected people who can help you.” A friend helped write a business plan and do some financial projections. They found a few investors, mostly family and friends.
Erickson and Ingley began by marketing Barre among dancers. They sold to dance studios and retailers and went to dance trade shows. “We wanted to establish a foothold in our world before we stepped out into the general marketplace.”
Balancing a dance career and a small business is not without stresses. “It’s tough, but we find ways to do stuff in the margins; on my lunch break, nights, weekends. Of course when you’re in rehearsal, you’re in rehearsal; there’s no taking a phone call. I basically built this business on my lunch break.
“I know that Barre’s success is partially determined by how much energy I put into it. But I have to respect myself first and foremost, and my body. If I’m stressed, everything will suffer. Still, I thrive on challenge and healthy stress.”
Erickson has found a few surprises in building a business. “It isn’t linear in the way I expected; there’ve been a lot more twists and turns in the road. Another thing I didn’t expect is that this has opened so many doors, in terms of meeting people, networking, idea sharing. It makes your world so much bigger. And that’s very cool; I love that.”
Eager to build on the success of Barre, Erickson and her partner have looked for other ways to bring the knowledge of the dance world to the wider population. They are using RocketHub, a crowdfunding platform, to help raise money to develop and market three new products: a water supplement, a muscle balm, and therapy balls. Erickson explains, “Our bigger mission is to create an entire wellness line, bringing the best practices of elite dancers to anyone interested in a healthy lifestyle.”
While Erickson says there have been some sacrifices involved in starting a business – mostly money and free time – she has no regrets. “We had a great idea and we did it – we didn’t just say we were going to do it. It’s both scary and exhilarating when you have to write a check or sign papers; there’s no going back. It’s a very, very empowering thing to do. We’re proud of it, and it’s made our lives much richer.”
You can contribute to Barre’s RocketHub crowdfunding campaign here and watch the accompanying pitch video.
- Use the resources around you. Local colleges may have small business institutes, and there are mentorship programs. Initially we didn’t realize that all these resources were out there and we wasted a lot of time.
- Find a mentor, or call people and ask questions. Talk to as many people as you can; cast a wide net. There are people out there who can easily answer the questions that you’re spending hours trying to research on the Internet.
- I say just go for it. It’s all value added – if it doesn’t work out that doesn’t mean it’s a loss; it’s all adding up to something. If it fails you’re not back to square one because it’s all part of your life experience, and your connection to the community.