Shayna Swanson is our second feature in the Women & Circus series ‘Entrepreneurs of Circus’.
Name: Shayna Swanson
School: Aloft Loft
Type of business: S-corp
Number of students: 250
Location: Chicago, IL
Women & Circus: How have you managed to succeed at running a successful circus businesses? What do you feel has contributed to your success?
Shayna Swanson: Luck. We didn’t set out to have a successful circus school, we just needed a place to train, and eventually we started teaching classes to cover the cost of rent. The school supported the performers not the other way around; we were able to take some of our money and fund our own work. We grew really slowly and organically and never tried to grow faster than we could afford to. We never took a big loan — when we could afford to expand, we did. We never had to go into debt, and kept a conservative business sense about us.
We keep a community focus and give students everything we have; we don’t hold knowledge back. When a student is ready to learn, we’re there to teach it to them, and people appreciate that.
W&C: What were the biggest challenges, and do you feel they have all been overcome? Would you be willing to share the tools and skill set you feel were helpful in overcoming these challenges?
SS: One of the biggest challenges is finding the time to do everything you want to do. Especially now, with a kid, there’s something that doesn’t get done every day. I either don’t have time to train, or do emails, or teach, so everyday I have to let something go.
One of the things that helps is that I only half wear all these hats – I delegate things. Every step of the way, I’ve tried to hire someone to do something. I’m not worried about the process of how something gets done, I just want it done. You can’t micromanage everything, otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy. We offer a work/study program for our students that helps us to get things done like keeping the studio clean while helping them to better afford their classes.
W&C: How have you juggled having a performing career while running a business?
SS: I used to just take off and go, but I’ve always had a school manager/business manager who helped keep things running while I was away. I would leave for 3 months, but never longer. That put a bit of a restriction on my performing career opportunities, but I’ve still managed to do everything I’ve wanted to do.
Recently, I started taking fewer contracts so that I could focus on nurturing Aloft and building my company up, and it’s been very fulfilling. With my family and my company here, it makes it easier to stay and focus on creating full length shows for the rest of the community. There’s not enough work like that in the US right now. So, Aloft is now offering residency programs and performance space for that reason.
W&C: What would be a true measure of success for your business, have you achieved it, and what type of future professional goals have you set for yourself and your businesses?
SS: Aloft has been really successful, so has El Circo Cheapo [a monthly cabaret circus show]… it has sold out every month for the last 6 years. The one area that we’ve struggled with is in is our full length shows going anywhere outside of our studio or self-produced events. My next goal is to start having success in touring the artistic shows. I’d like to be able to provide consistent work for the people in my company — that would feel really good. We’re not a non-profit we’re an s-corp, so it’s good in some senses; we can grow when we need to, and move with decisive action. But we’re not able to qualify for things like grants. That’s been a sacrifice.
W&C: How do you satisfy the recreationalists that come through your door and those who want to develop more of a dedicated practice?
SS: We offer steep discounted rates for people who take multiple classes, and we also offer full time training programs to help develop strong ensemble performers who can do everything. If we didn’t begin offering that, they were going to leave to go to other schools with a professional preparatory program and now, as we go into the 3rd year of the Full Time program we are attracting some really amazing students from around the country who have finished up at some of those other programs! It’s really exciting.
To satisfy the recreational students’ desires, we do student shows once or twice a year, and for the middle of the road students, we work on getting them into El Circo Cheapo. So, we try to find performances opportunities for everyone.
W&C: How have you assisted in and managed the development of students that want to take on a teaching role?
SS: We don’t do it that often. Occasionally, when students become really advanced, or have been through the full time training program, we’ll have them shadow a teacher for a few sessions. They’ll start assisting that teacher and can eventually start teaching a beginner class. I did an depth teacher training program a few years ago and got a few really good teachers out of that. I am planning on doing that again this summer.
W&C: What do you believe the mission of a circus arts studio in the US to be?
SS: For me, it is the mission of Aloft is to provide an incubator for the development of circus arts in the USA, at every step of the way. With an adult rec program that supports a professional training program, we allow people to supplement their performing income through teaching, and it pushes them to continue researching and developing to keep their students engaged. I think that the community would be better served if more schools took that approach, rather than a narrow local focus.
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