After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.
The invitation to teach wasn't completely out of the blue. McCabe had grown up dancing in Southern California and had a great reputation from serving as her church's dance teacher and team coach the previous three years (stopping only to take a break as a new mother). She agreed to teach ballet and jazz at the preschool on Fridays and from there created an age-appropriate class based on her own training in the Cecchetti and RAD methods. It was a success: In three months, class enrollment went from six to 24 students, and just one year later, McCabe's blossoming Lovely Leaps brand had contracts with eight preschools and three additional teachers.
In April 2019, McCabe and her husband, Ricky, rented space to open a small brick-and-mortar operation in San Marcos, California, for Mommy (and Daddy) and Me weekend classes, though Lovely Leaps remained primarily focused on the in-school model. "The studio started as a labor of love, really," says Lisa. "It was a way for me to connect with other moms, and a way for my daughter to take part too. There weren't other classes in the area for 12-month-olds, so I just created it."
That can-do-will-do, enterprising spirit is a cornerstone of McCabe's business success, along with her knack for identifying and filling holes in the market. Because when COVID-19 hit and the pandemic forced studios—and preschools—nationwide to shutter, McCabe not only figured out a way to keep her small venture going virtually, she transformed it into a brand with national appeal and reach. Lovely Leaps' database now has 400 active students, and 3,500 additional students ages 0 to 10 have participated in the brand's virtual classes by signing up through third-party platforms like KidPass and Outschool. In the month of August 2020 alone, Lovely Leaps' revenue from virtual classes was $32,000—10 times the income from the previous August.
When preschools and their studio closed in March, Lisa and Ricky—a CRM systems specialist by day who manages the tech side of Lovely Leaps—followed the virtual trend, completing all of their students' remaining sessions (for preschool and studio kids alike) over Zoom. "In that process, I started learning what communicates well through screens," says Lisa, who notes that keeping little ones' attention was the biggest challenge. She also rethought performances: Instead of a showcase for parents, Lisa invited a "princess" to watch students dance and chat with them afterwards. "The kids loved it," she recalls. "After that first session ended, I realized we had something. And since everyone was stuck at home, I said, 'Let's continue this.'"
As contracts with area schools had been her primary model and the schools were not operating, McCabe looked for other partnerships in her area to gain exposure. She knew about fitness-focused and mom-centered meetup groups, like Fit4Mom and Pop-Up Playdate, and decided to offer free virtual classes to those groups several times a week in addition to Lovely Leaps' ongoing Zoom classes. "I really just wanted to keep my name out there, so that Lovely Leaps didn't disappear in the pandemic," she says. But free classes also proved to be a workaround in marketing across Facebook mom groups that prohibited advertising. "When moms would sign up for a free virtual class, we'd get their names and contact info so that when my studio could reopen, I could talk to them again," she says.
Of course, in-person classes didn't start back up, and there was no end in sight to virtual learning and staying at home. The McCabes added Lovely Leaps to two third-party platforms: Outschool and KidPass—through which teachers advertise small-group virtual workshops for kids in topics that range from math and science to songwriting and animation. That's also when Lisa took a leap: She hired a PR professional. "I'm a female African-American business owner, who went from engineering to dance," she says. "It was the perfect storm for media coverage." Popular mom-blogs like Motherly and Red Tricycle included Lovely Leaps on their lists of Black-owned businesses, and Good Morning America even picked up her story in late June (in a roundup of businesses that had pivoted in the pandemic). Business boomed: Lovely Leaps' initial virtual student base of roughly 65 expanded to more than 3,500.
To accommodate the growing clientele, the McCabes hired three additional teachers (for a total of six plus Lisa) and added classes to their formerly once- or twice-a-day schedule. They now offer 10 virtual classes daily, Monday through Friday, and each class has an average of seven to 14 students (the maximum they allow so they can see all students on one screen). For students who sign up directly on the Lovely Leaps website(as opposed to booking a class through Outschool, say), there are four payment options: per class, which is suggested for students under 5, or set membership fees to access one class, two classes or five classes each week. They continue to offer two free classes each Thursday (ages 10 months to 3 years and ages 3 to 6).
While operating costs remain low for virtual classes (teachers' fees, uniforms, and the cost of website hosting and maintenance), third-party platforms take a sizeable cut of sales to advertise the classes on their sites. Outschool, for instance, takes a 30 percent service fee from the bookings made through its site. Still, it's a valuable partnership, says Lisa, as the platform markets the classes and brings in customers, so she and her husband are okay with students repeatedly booking through Outschool instead of on Lovely Leaps' website.
Whether a student books through Outschool or directly through Lovely Leaps, repeat business is key. Enter Ricky's expertise in customer-relations management. All new participants are encouraged to take a survey after class (sent via Zoom chat or email), with questions including preferred times for classes as well as what kinds of classes they are most interested in. (Many classes have themes—i.e., Trolls, superheroes, or Disney princesses—and while technique does factor into each session, Lovely Leaps' classes aim to instill a general love of movement in a fun and age-appropriate environment.) "I put all answers into a dashboard to generate leads, and I can look at what classes we should create," he continues. Once a participant completes the survey (which asks for contact info at the end), they receive an email with current classes that fit their profile and a discount code to sign up.
Lisa knows that about 70 percent of Lovely Leaps' student database is made up of San Diego locals, but the third-party platforms cast a much wider net, with 70 percent of those consumers tuning in from outside the area—including about 30 percent from the Northeast and another 10 percent overseas. To track their own students, the McCabes have relied on Jackrabbit, but they are transitioning to WellnessLiving, a cloud-based management software like Mindbody, but one that also allows constituents to be lumped into households—perfect for dance siblings. (The McCabes also use inbound marketing software HubSpot for their contracts with preschools, Mailchimp for all mass email marketing, and Typeform to link the surveys and the emails.)
Courtesy Lovely Leaps
Lovely Leaps reopened its real-life studio on October 12 with three in-person classes (and has since added one more). Twenty students attended the first week—including two students from Lisa's early partnership with Pop-Up Playdate. And while they're not back in schools yet, 14 preschools have expressed interest in welcoming Lovely Leaps into physical classrooms in 2021. Still, the McCabes aren't shutting down virtual operations—at all. "I look at brands like Beachbody, or Peloton," says Ricky, citing their existence pre-pandemic, ability to scale during it, and plan to thrive going forward. "There were all these membership-based, virtual physical-activity programs for adults, but not so much for children. We've looked to those brands to help us scale." Adds Lisa: "There will always be a reason kids can't go outside—maybe the weather is bad, or their parents have to take a work meeting. I want to be the premier online studio that parents can utilize in those times, too, pandemic or not."