Ever seen a TV or magazine ad that features a dancer executing cringe-worthy technique and thought, “Gee, would it have been so hard for that [insurance company, workout wear designer, air freshener maker, etc.] to hire a consultant who actually knew about dance?”
Austin Roberson knows dance. He’s been a student, a professional performer, and a dance teacher. But he hasn’t been a studio owner. So when Austin decided to take his immense knowledge of online marketing and create an all-in-one marketing and class management system, he rounded up some studio owners. Their suggestions, advice, and desires are the foundation of ClassKid studio software, launching in 2022.
In Austin’s words, ClassKid collects all the various management and communication systems used by a studio into “one ecosystem,” eliminating the need for multiple software subscriptions and integrations.
“It’s our mission to connect kids to a community of classes,” says Austin, who is developing the software in business partnership with Misty Lown. He grew up as a dancer at The Dance Factory in Topeka, Kansas, and “many times during difficult or dramatic times in my life I’d rely on the community at the studio.
“Our software gets more kids into the experience that Misty and I had growing up in dance—and also allows owners to run their businesses faster and smarter.”
Systems development is a road Austin knows well. After receiving a strategic communication degree from the University of Kansas he experimented with marketing at Point B Dance in Lawrence, Kansas (where he trained, taught and performed), building a website and running the studio’s online paid marketing. Good word-of-mouth generated similar assignments at other studios, and Austin grew confident in his ability to not only design successful marketing campaigns but teach studio owners how to do the same. He was also performing professionally, working gigs with Royal Caribbean, national tours, and in a Kansas City production of Chicago, when back surgery forced him off the stage for six months. During that hiatus, Austin decided to go all in on studio marketing services.
In short time he founded Dance Studio Desk (launched under the name Studio Owners Academy), an online studio owner marketing training program in 2016. He later launched Studio Suite, a marketing automation and sales CRM (customer relationship management) tool in 2019.
Through Studio Suite, which worked in conjunction with online systems already in place at a studio such as dance management software, Austin uncovered what he saw as the “real problem.”
“The average studio owner uses five to seven software tools to grow and run their business,” he says, such as Acuity, Trello, and Mailchimp. Because many of these tools require subscriptions, studio software costs can range from $300 to $2,000 a month. “On top of the pain of the multiple subscription costs, the platforms don’t talk to each other. Sometimes you need another software” to connect them—if the platforms integrate at all, he says.
With a mind to solve this problem, Austin created a founding advisory membership in late 2020 and began attracting studio owners. His goal was to glean insight into what they loved and didn’t love about their current marketing and management systems. Meeting online as a group, owners from 67 studios in four countries explained their needs feature by feature, touching on billing, dashboards, new student reporting, text and email communications, and more. Misty Lown was also consulted, with her suggestions for various features such as the timetable (schedule-at-a-glance) included in the design.
At this time ClassKid is well into its development phase, but Austin still actively seeks thoughts and suggestions from individual owners who booked a demonstration and/or placed their name on the ClassKid waitlist. (Participants receive perks such as discounts and early access in exchange for their time, he says.)
The result will be a system, he believes, that simplifies operations, works to attract and retain students, and provides owners with a quick and accurate visual insight into their business. For example, when studio owners log in they can see how many students were added in the previous week and the system can build its own reports on enrollment (or other areas). Other features will support task management, automation, email and text, landing pages, online store, website, pipeline marketing, parent/student portals, staff/payroll, billing, and class management.
Marketing and sales features will allow studio owners to follow potential customers: if someone books a trial class, the software will send an email confirmation, then track if that student showed up for the trial, signed up, or if a staffer has completed follow-up. Future revenue is projected for trial students who do enroll—a hard figure that also shows just how much revenue is lost when potential students slip away. “Never again will a potential student fill out a paper slip and it’s never talked about again,” he says.
One of the most exciting aspects, he says, was developing a visual flow chart of each student as a unique individual within the studio: to include each’s “family tree,” noting if a child prefers ballet or tap, if she is a sibling and to who, first and secondary contacts, and if her parents are separated (and, if so, which parent pays what part of the tuition). “It’s fairly complex and I know now why no one else has built this software,” Austin says.
ClassKid also tackles another studio bugaboo: communication. Owners can message (text or email) one-on-one with families, by class, by students in a specific program, or internally (with staff). But more importantly, they can see through an activity feed which messages were opened and read. Phase two (after the initial launch) will include an app with push notifications that will pop up on customers’ iPhones alerting them to important events (“Reminder: Adelaide’s recital is Saturday at 3pm!”).
For a personalized touch, the software’s online visuals will feature each studio’s logo and color scheme throughout: for example, customers shopping in the studio’s online store will only see the studio’s brand, not ClassKid.
Through his research, Austin asked his dance studio owner advisors to answer four basic questions concerning their software systems: What do you want us to keep? To improve? To start building? To stop building?
Their comments, based on years of hard-won, first-hand experience, were invaluable, he says. As an example, he pointed out how ClassKid’s schedule-at-a-glance feature—which allows owners to easily find gaps or available space in their rooms that could be filled with income-producing programming—sprung from Misty’s understanding of this complex relationship. “Studio rent (or mortgage) is one of the largest parts of a studio owner’s operating expense,” Misty says, “so maximizing scheduling is vital to overall studio health.”
The result, he believes, is an all-inclusive product that works for both the business and its customers. “We thought a lot about what studios need, but also what the end user needs,” he says. “The largest segment of buyers soon will be millennial parents, ages 28 to 45. This is built for the modern-day parent.”