Wednesday, December 5, 2007

"You have to keep changing" -- Sondra O'Donnell on small business

Yoga practitioner Sondra O'Donnell is a small-business success who shows the power of starting where you are and building on what you know. Three years ago she opened Sun Moon Yoga Studio in Ann Arbor, a university town with almost as many yoga studios as coffee shops. With nearly 20 years experience practicing and teaching yoga, O'Donnell had a solid client base, understood her field and was ready to create her own studio.

She did just that and succeeded. O'Donnell has proven herself  in business and warns of the hardships of a start-up. "Small-business owners work hard. It's quite a juggle. You have to do everything, and you don't know what is going to come in."

Finding a niche bolstered O'Donnell's staying power in Michigan's struggling economy and in Ann Arbor's competitive yoga market. She offers the only teacher certification program in Ann Arbor. "My main goal has been to do teacher certification. That is really what my heart and soul are in," she said. Her students come from as far as Grand Rapids and Howell for the certification program.

O'Donnell stresses that businesses and the people who run them must be responsive to changes around them. "You have to keep creating and innovating. You can't sit and look at how things were; you have to keep changing." She has done that by creating classes to meet student demand and interest.

Her own family had to grapple with changes wrought by the declining domestic auto industry. Growing up in the downriver Detroit area, O'Donnell was aware of the auto industry as the lifeblood of Michigan's economy. Five years ago, after 30 years in business, her father's small auto-parts-packaging company was bought out by a larger competitor.

Bad economic news hits us daily in Michigan, and it is easy to feel demoralized. The mainstream media present economic news principally in terms of multinationals, yet millions of people across the country are self-employed or own small businesses. These small and micro-businesses strengthen local communities and affirm the human scale of economy as a path to a successful and satisfying life.

In 2006 about 10 percent of Michigan's work force was self-employed - 480,000 people in a work force of 5 million. The self-employed account for more than half of the state's 849,500 small businesses, according to U.S. Small Business Administration data.

O'Donnell advises people starting small businesses to work within their means and keep expenses low. "I didn't take out a single loan. We have kept the costs to a minimum. I got a lot of building materials from the Re-use Center," she said.

In fact O'Donnell single-handedly transformed the building she rents from a warehouse into a welcoming yoga studio -- installing a cork floor, insulation, drywall, lighting and more on her own at night after her children were asleep. "I would come here at 9 p.m. and work until 4 in the morning," she said. "The next day, I'd have to make sure the tools were put away before teaching classes."

If she needs to expand the business, her vision is to take the training program worldwide -- teaching on location around the globe. She is currently developing a second portion to her certification training for this purpose.

O'Donnell attributes her business resilience to her yoga practice and knowledge of the sutras, sacred Hindu texts. "What gets me through is nonattachment to the studio. I just take it as it is today, this moment, without expectations," she said.

Advising a balanced perspective for business owners, she said: "The bottom line is if you are so engrossed and attached that the business becomes everything you are, you are going to go crazy. You have to let the business be what it is."

Helping students find balance in the midst of difficulty is at the heart of O'Donnell's teaching. "We take our stress into our bodies and see ourselves as caged in our current situation. If we can create a sense of peaceful strength, we find a balance between release and strength."

She empowers students by helping them find their inherent wholeness. "People don't always want to hear that yoga is not about fixing you. As teachers we come here to teach you that you have the tools inside you. You are fixed; you just don't realize it."