Our website is still, by far, our largest source of new clients. It was especially critical once we reopened after our shutdown.- Melissa Makris, relaxblacksburg.com
What do you do if you run an offline business where remote working and social distancing are out of the question, and a pandemic happens? How do you survive a year of lockdowns and restrictions?
You need a lot of dedication, creative solutions and a low-cost way of communicating with existing customers and attracting new ones.
Melissa Makris has all of this, and more. She and her husband Brian not only managed to get their massage practice, Relax Blacksburg, through the crisis, they even hit their revenue goal of 2 million USD… without letting any of their employees go.
How did they do it? Melissa provides the answers. And of course our interview wouldn’t be complete without a healthy dose of “real life business lessons,” relevant to online and offline businesses.
1. In February 2022, Relax Blacksburg crossed a new milestone: Over 10,000 different clients had walked through your doors since your launch in 2015. What do you see as the main factors for your success?
I’ve said this multiple times before, and it’s still true — the main factor for our success is Solo Build It!.
I have always been driven and willing to work hard but, when it came to thinking about starting my own business, I was lost. SBI! provided the road map I needed to realize my potential. I will be forever grateful for that.
I wish you could see the big smile on my face as I read Melissa’s answer. 🙂
It’s this kind of feedback that fuels everyone here at Solo Build It!, today just as much as 20+ years ago when we first launched SBI!.
Melissa’s story is all the more exciting as she transferred what she learned about building a lucrative online business to her offline business — with incredible success!
That’s why this is our third written interview with Melissa. To get the full historical picture, read interview #1 (July 2015) and interview #2 (September 2017).
Prefer to watch? No problem. Here’s her story on video:
2. In a massage practice, social distancing is impossible. How did you manage not only to survive the pandemic, but even hit your revenue goal of 2 million USD, while keeping your staff employed?
The beginning of 2020 was an incredibly scary time for our business. As a biomedical research scientist, I understood the repercussions of the pandemic on the economy and knew what that meant for our business.
As the case numbers grew and spread across the U.S., it felt like a slow-moving disaster. I knew we would get hit, but when and how bad was impossible to guess.
I kept up on all the latest research and predictions from experts in the field, I reassured our employees the best I could, and I was transparent with our clients every step of the way.
Understandably, our once-packed schedule dwindled. Our employees were afraid. I found myself trying to strike a balance between the financial health of the business, the financial security of my employees, and the health of my community. It was hard to determine what the correct course was.
Then it happened — our governor shut down all “non-essential” businesses. I remember feeling a tremendous sense of relief followed by dread. Relief because the decision of whether or not to stay open was taken from me, and dread knowing we were going to be bringing in no income for an undetermined amount of time.
How would the business survive?
From a strictly business perspective, it made the most sense to lay off all of our employees, hunker down, and conserve our funds. From a moral perspective, I just couldn’t do that. The idea of my employees losing their income and health insurance during such an unprecedented time was untenable.
Thankfully, after an incredible amount of work, I was able to secure government funding. In total, we received two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program funding, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and other local sources of funding to help mitigate our losses.
We were able to keep our employees financially whole while my husband and I lived off of our savings.
When we were allowed to reopen, I focused all my efforts on making our clinic as safe as possible. We spent significant sums on high-end HEPA units, smart humidifiers, and other products that all worked together to scrub the air and contain respiratory droplets.
I used our website and newsletter to communicate all of these upgrades to our clients. It took another six months or so, but we finally had a full calendar again.
And all of our precautions resulted in no spread of COVID between our clients and employees, which makes me very proud.
Once again I am blown away by Melissa’s professionalism, resourcefulness and sense of responsibility for her clients and her staff.
She doesn’t have an MBA or decades of experience as an entrepreneur.
But she has what we like to call B-A-M in spades:
Melissa managed to do what many businesses in her industry couldn’t. She didn’t have to let her employees go. She didn’t have to wind down her business. She succeeded in securing the necessary funds to pay her employees throughout the whole crisis.
What an extraordinary achievement!
Throughout the pandemic — and especially when it was time to re-open their massage practice — their website and newsletter allowed them to keep customers and prospects informed. That turned out to be a big plus, as you’ll hear in the next section.
3. What role does your website, www.RelaxBlacksburg.com, play in your offline business success? Has this role changed over time, and especially during the pandemic?
Our website is still, by far, our largest source of new clients. It was especially critical once we reopened after our shutdown. We had lost a lot of regulars who were too afraid to come back. The website allowed us to refill our calendar with new clients who were less risk averse.
The website also helps us look like an authority in our field. Elite athletes, including three Olympians, have chosen us to help them prepare for the Olympic games.
My husband Brian was honored to be invited to the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine to teach first- and second-year medical students techniques in soft tissue manipulation.
We’ve also had local news outlets contact us about stories they were doing on the massage profession. They all found us through a web search that led them to our website.
Melissa listed four valid reasons why building an information-rich website that follows SBI!’s Content > Traffic > PREsell > Monetize process is a much better guarantee for your offline business success. Your website…
- attracts new customers, 24/7, even when you’re sleeping, and without spending a dime on advertising
- allows you to stay in touch with existing customers, keeping them informed about new developments and offers
- gives you credibility in your field, which can lead to new, unexpected opportunities (like Brian’s teaching job or getting elite athletes as customers)
- makes media outlets come to you instead of you having to chase them
4. Do you still use social media as a way to build trust with your potential clients? Or are other methods (e.g., sending a newsletter, word of mouth) more important now?
Online reviews and word of mouth are probably the most important for us as far as building trust.
I certainly post a lot less on our social media platforms. Facebook especially has become problematic as they don’t show our posts to our followers unless we pay for advertising. I’m sure that our presence on these sites still matters to prospective clients, especially our reviews, since they’re third-party.
The main way we communicate to present and prospective clients is through the website and our newsletter.
This is ideal for us anyway as we have full control over both. Relying on other companies for promotion is often frustrating and unreliable, so I try to avoid it whenever possible.
Social still certainly has its place though. If we weren’t as busy as we are, I would probably spend more time trying to figure out how to drive more clients through the social networks. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about that.
You don’t own Facebook, Instagram, TikTok or any other social media platform. There are enough stories about accounts being shut down because they (allegedly) violated the platform’s rules or — even worse — because they were hacked.
Yes, it’s great to also use social media for business, but never rely solely on them for building your livelihood.
5. How do you find time to work on your business, considering that you have a full-time job at Virginia Tech?
In the beginning, it felt like I was only working at my job or on the business. I didn’t really have any free time. I was very excited about getting the business up and running though, so it didn’t feel like work.
Starting a business is in some ways like having a child. In the beginning, it needs constant care and attention. As it gets older, it becomes more independent and you get more and more time to yourself.
My business is seven now, and pretty independent. We have a great team of therapists and an office coordinator who takes on the day-to-day responsibilities. I just make the big picture decisions and all of the products. Eventually, I’ll have someone who can make our products, freeing up even more of my time.
I’ve had many people ask why I don’t quit my job and focus all my attention on the business. The main reason is I believe I would get bored quickly. I enjoy working in research and it stretches my mind in ways the business doesn’t.
Plus, as I just mentioned, the goal is to have the business run itself. It’s well on its way there, leaving me lots of time for other pursuits (like gardening and traveling).
What’s one of the main reasons why we start a business? Freedom, right? We want the freedom to live life on our terms, to be able to work when and where we want, to have more time for our family, hobbies or travel.
So we should strive to make our business more independent, like Melissa does. However, as “solopreneurs” we tend to work all the time in our business instead of on it. We struggle to outsource tasks or hire help, even if the business generates enough income.
I’m no exception. But the more I speak with our most successful SBI! members, the more I realize that, without hiring help and working towards having our business “run itself,” we’ll always stay employees — with ourselves as the boss. Which is already a step in the right direction. 🙂
6. “Putting People Before Profits” is Relax Blacksburg’s core value. What advice can you give fellow business owners (offline or online) to do the same and still be profitable?
I would advise them that it’s really in their best interest to do so, especially now that the pandemic has changed the way many people view their jobs. Perhaps on the surface it seems like it, but making the decision to put our employees first was not completely altruistic.
Our comprehensive benefits package is unheard of in our profession, which helps us stand out in a field dominated by corporate greed. Massage therapists are lining up to work for us. Clients want to give their dollars to businesses that are doing the right thing. Sure, it’s expensive, but so is employee turnover and replacing unhappy clients.
How do we pay for all of the benefits? A big help is that we pay nothing for advertising and marketing. Even when we were recovering from the pandemic, we did not need to spend money to get new clients in the door. The website does all of the heavy lifting — and it does it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Is it all worth it? Certainly. Happy employees are more loyal employees, and they give customers better service. The end result is what all businesses want — loyal customers.
By setting higher standards, their competitors might rethink their approach to how they treat their employees.
Overdelivering is at the core of SBI!’s teachings, along with keeping it real and adding value. These principles are as valuable offline as they are online.
7. And finally: If you could go back in time to 2008, when you started your first site, is there anything you would do differently?
The only thing I wish was different was that I found SBI! sooner. I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I couldn’t find the tools to make that dream a reality.
Not only did SBI! give me the tools, it gave me a low-risk way to learn with my first website. When the opportunity came to open a brick-and-mortar business, I felt confident enough in my skills to take the risk.
The result of that decision has created eight full-time jobs and over $3 million in revenue in seven years.
And we’re hoping to be able to expand soon. It’s been an incredible journey.
Starting an online business reduces your financial risk significantly. And if you choose the right platform for your website, one that provides the tools, the education, and a supportive community, you increase your chances of success significantly.
Of course, you can never be sure where that journey leads you. Whether it leads to a million dollar business or to a few hundred dollars per month in extra income.
One thing we know for sure though: if you don’t take that all-important first step, nothing will happen. Ever.
So, what’s it going to be for you?
Ready to begin your own journey to online success?