Lucky at Losing
Nov 26, 2010
Michele Merhib believes it's the failures in her life that have pushed her to entrepreneurial success.
By: Michele Merhib
When I was asked to write a guest column and share the secrets of my business success, I immediately became excited about the opportunity to tell my story about being a great loser. I'm the founder of Elements Therapeutic Massage. It's one of the fastest-growing franchises in America, with 75 studios across the United States. I consider myself a winner because I have become one of the luckiest and most determined losers along the way.
I come from a long line of losers. My father's side of the family escaped a famine in Lebanon during World War I that wiped out almost a third of the country's population. My mother's side fled Germany after their home was bombed during World War II. My ancestors on both sides lost their homes and almost lost their lives. Yet they persevered. They had a determination not only to survive but thrive.
When I was growing up, both my parents owned businesses. But their entrepreneurial dreams were tested. My mother ruptured a disc in her back, wound up in the hospital and lost her business in the process, because it couldn't run without her. My father lost his business during the Oklahoma oil bust in the 1980s. I like to say that my ancestors and parents walked so I could run. The fact that my relatives were able to keep going in spite of adversity set an incredible example for me to follow. In fact, I followed along almost too well. The losing part, that is.
In the late 1990s I was a practicing occupational therapist and director of a rehabilitation department. I was in corporate America with a steady paycheck and predictable hours. HMOs and PPOs were changing the face of health care. But behind the scenes, I was changing, too. I decided to leave the health-care industry to pursue a certificate in massage therapy. I made this choice so I would have a more flexible schedule and more time with my teenage son and daughter. People thought I was crazy, and sometimes I thought they might be right, but I felt driven to become a massage therapist.
When I finished school, I went into business for myself. I rented a massage room at a local country club. I had officially arrived. I had my dream job. No more corporate pressure, red tape, unhappy employees and low morale. It was just me and a steady stream of clients.
Then, about a year into my bliss, my family's losing streak struck me when the country club was sold. The new owners did not want massage therapy, and I lost my first business location.
The cliché is true. Losing that location was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It did not feel like it at the time. In fact, I left kicking and screaming. I was comfortable, happy, and everything seemed to be clicking. But once I quit fighting my fate, I took a step forward. I secured a retail space and opened a retail massage studio. I was no longer a room renter. I was involved in the construction process, developing business systems and hiring employees. This was the first of many experiences that taught me a great life lesson: What may seem frustrating at the time is an opportunity to grow. Being pushed out of the country club opened a new door for me, and I ran through it.
My idea was to open a general wellness center. Therapeutic massage would be just one of many services. I could see it all so clearly in my mind. The clients, however, saw something different. Demand dictated supply, and therapeutic massage became my core business. Being a rookie business owner, I had to lose my vision of the business I thought it should be in order to grow the successful business it needed to be. I let go of some employees so I could hire more massage therapists. That's where the demand was, and I had to lose in order to win. And, boy, did I win.
Business grew. Demand grew. I opened a second location. And within a year, I signed a contract with Fitness Together Holdings Inc. to franchise the concept. Some might think I was giving it all away. But I knew I had to lose my tight hold on things in order for a good business to become a great national chain. I could only do so much by myself.
Our agreement was simple. As founder of the newly created Elements Therapeutic Massage franchise, I would share the business systems I had created with future franchisees. I would help with training and real-world knowledge.
I also remained an active franchise owner with two renamed Elements Therapeutic Massage studios during the network's growth. That earned me great credibility as the chain expanded. I got to share what I experienced at the store level -- the same experiences that franchisees experience in their markets. I might have a corporate title, but I've spent my time behind the front counter. And that has been invaluable to my peers in an ever-growing system.
In return for all that, Fitness Together has embraced a sister brand that has grown into a national chain. Despite the challenging economy, we continue to add studios, and studios continue to add clients. Not that it's been easy. In a tight economy, even I, the founder of a national chain, had to tighten my belt. These days, I have a great business partner and co-owner, and we now have three Elements Therapeutic Massage studios. We also oversee a great team of 45 employees. Our most important obligation as business owners is to make payroll for our businesses.
But when client bookings grew lean because of the depressed economy in 2008-09, I was faced with a tough decision. I could pay my studio managers, or I could pay myself. My partner and I agreed that we had to lose the studio managers and re-enter the daily operations of the business. I felt like I had lost again. Why did I have to go back and manage a studio again?
Once again, I learned that a loss can be a blessing in disguise. It had been a while since I actively managed a studio on a day-to-day basis. In the previous months and years, I had spent as much time traveling to association meetings for the massage industry and visiting with franchisees at their studios as I spent in my own studios in Colorado. Here was a chance to revisit the nitty-gritty. What I learned from this new challenge is that the systems work if we work them. I like to say that losing my studio managers was a way for me to gain back my confidence in the business and in our systems. They're as good today as they were when I created them. In fact, they're better due to the contributions of our amazing franchise owners.
We've weathered the economic storm nicely, and we're stronger today because of it. Now I'm back to planning my regular travel to franchise studios across the U.S. network for 2011. And I will share not only best practices from when I first created the business, but also best practices of today. We are all in this together, which is a lot better than trying to figure everything out on your own.
So for me, losing turned out to be a pretty great thing. Sure, I could have kept a successful business all to myself, stayed in my first location, kept a watchful eye on every aspect of my little domain, and never ventured outside that comfort zone. And I would have a small therapeutic massage studio with a limited number of people I could touch in positive ways. I would be owner and operator of an independent business. And everyone else would be my competitor.
But I decided to be a loser. I let go of some of that control in order to share the wealth with others. And today there are 75 other studios in my same business, with the same name, who are not my competitors. That makes me the luckiest loser in the world.
Michele Merhib is the founder of Elements Therapeutic Massage, based in Highlands Ranch, Colo. She owns three Colorado studios and has been franchising the concept since 2006. There are now 75 franchise locations in the U.S.