Michele Pernetta shares the story of her tryst with yoga after it cured her knee and how the serendipitous decision to leave her fashion career resulted in the launch of hot yoga franchise Fierce Grace
Trudging up the stairs of Fierce Grace, a hot yoga studio in Primrose Hill, London, I wonder if there’s really room for yet another chain offering workout classes. In a city ubiquitous with workout spaces – from bootcamps and boutique gyms to power yoga and CrossFit boxes – how different can this yoga studio be?
Very, if the interiors are any indication. There’s not a single whiff of the expected suffocating smell of incense. Tired yoga tropes like Buddhas and some odd mixture of capitalism and faux spiritualism are nowhere to be seen. Instead, I’m welcomed by a mannequin wearing a leather jacket. And as the doors open to the fitness space, a flaming 40 degree blast washes over me as I enter the room where 45 or so fitness enthusiasts are ready to sweat it out. As enthralled as I am by its edginess, little do I know my body will turn into a pretzel in a few minutes. I’ve never been flexible but the following 90-minute session has me going from trying to balance on one foot to giving up entirely.
While the others are doing gravity-defying poses, holding a perfect downward dog and transitioning into the eagle position, I stand, sweat dripping out of every pore of my skin, looking at their entangled limbs unable to even attempt to follow their example. My self-image of being a somewhat fit person is further crumbled by the woman in front who seamlessly stretches herself into ballon animal-like contortions. Her name is Michele Pernetta, the founder of Fierce Grace, the hot yoga franchise, and she’s the person I’m here to meet.
What I expected before attending the class was some deep breathing and stretching and definitely not a workout equivalent to a HIIT session. But that’s the misconception Pernetta is aiming to dissolve from people’s minds and make yoga more conducive to millennials. “It shouldn’t just be stretching, it’s about flexibility and strength – you have to do the two together,” she explains. And she ensures her classes welcome people of all levels. “The way I teach is from the ground up which means whether you’re a beginner or an advanced practitioner or you may not have even done yoga in your life, you can still come to this class,” she adds. “I won’t go ‘everyone into a handstand now.’”
For Pernetta, the aim is to make yoga synonymous with fun, hence the posters on the walls and the ambiance of the hot room. “I’ve been in yoga a long time and I would go to some of these yoga studios that play that game of lighting incense, you go in [and] you have to be serious, you can’t laugh – why?” she argues. Her yoga teacher in fact forbade these practices. “He said ‘None of that shit. You westerners have made all of that up, we don’t do that in yoga.’ It’s ridiculous. So I designed mine in a way that people felt at home.” It’s indeed what the market required and the proof is that today Fierce Grace has more than hundreds of thousands of clients worldwide with franchisees in more than 15 countries and 25 locations. And that’s despite having never advertised for franchisees or attended a franchise show.
However, Pernetta wasn’t planning on flying the flag for hot yoga in Britain. Having moved from the UK to California, she was content with her career as a fashion designer. She chanced upon yoga when she suffered from a knee injury. After getting trained by her yoga teacher Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram yoga and originator of hot yoga, she could avoid a knee surgery and was cured completely. “It was then that I really wanted people to know about it and I started teaching it just for friends and people I know,” she recalls. “Suddenly there were so many people that my living room was too small so I rented a room.”
But even then Pernetta didn’t expect her passion for yoga to become a full-time venture. A fashionista at heart, she wasn’t ready to let go of her career in fashion. After moving back to the UK in 1994 and being one of the few official trainers of Bikram yoga, she was shuffling between the two. “[Choudhury] trained me personally for five years and said to me that I should become a trainer and I said ‘No thank you, I have spent 17 years getting good at my job,’” Pernetta remembers.
While she wasn’t convinced to do so at the time, yoga slowly became her priority. “I accidentally opened a studio [in 1999] and my partner said ‘I’ll run it’ to which I thought ‘I’ll still have my fashion career and can always teach yoga a couple of times a week,’” she says. However, it soon became clear to Pernetta that her partner was no good at running the business and having borrowed £20,000 from her friends and family, it was time for her to step in. “I tried to do both for a while and eventually had to give up what I did with fashion,” Pernetta recalls. And thus began her journey of spreading hot yoga.
To be an expert requires tremendous amounts of research and Pernetta ensured she studied what the industry lacked. “Back in 1994 there was nothing great here in terms of yoga as everything was a bit boring and I wanted it to be more powerful and transformative in a way,” she says. And even though the entrepreneur had a unique concept, it was no less than a mountain to scale. “I started by teaching Bikram yoga and what was good about that was it was so different from anything here and made me learn how to promote something brand new that no one had heard of, had a difficult name and was a difficult thing,” she says. But as people kept walking through the doors, they started noticing the benefits and this gave her the opportunity to build a loyal following of yogis.
While Pernetta credits Bikram yoga for kickstarting her journey, she soon realised its flaws. “As a thing in itself it’s fine but just not enough as it doesn’t take into account all body types,” she says.
Pernetta then had her eureka moment of birthing Fierce Grace and she was aware it would be far from easy. “I had three studios and a business partner that I wasn’t going to take with me in my new venture so somehow I had to extricate myself or close the studios or buy him out to be on my own again,” she recalls. This process took five years during which not only did Pernetta create more sequences to launch her brand but also was in the midst of a lawsuit. “It was a terrible time – I had no money left as the lawyers had taken it all, I had to buy my partner out, I was building my brand – it was tough,” she adds. “Some people get an investor in, they get loads of money and start a business but I went through the hard route, I went through hell.” Despite these challenges, Fierce Grace was launched in 2013.
However, ensuring the business‘ success was hard. Pernetta also had the pressure of retaining her clients after the rebrand. “If you’ve paid me £400 for six months of yoga and I was to tell you ‘I am keeping your money but I will give you a different kind of yoga,’ you’re going to go ‘No, I paid for this’ so I didn’t know how I was going to do it,” Pernetta says. She was even fearful of becoming bankrupt, losing her house and her reputation. “In this industry if you have a couple bad months and you can’t pay your rent, you’re out,” she says, adding that she expected that day to come. “I thought the teachers and the students would leave. I don’t have a team of other owners, I am at the spearhead all the time so you just gotta be prepared to take the hit.”
To her surprise, reality was better than she expected. In fact, she still remembers the first few days of Fierce Grace. “I was in the studio, the music was playing and I could feel this magic happen and I thought to myself ‘It’s actually going to be okay, people are enjoying themselves,’” she adds.
Her main goal was to change the way people think about yoga and she tailored her marketing accordingly. “I wanted to throw away all the yoga cliches because they’re not useful,” she says. “The skinny girl, the white stuff, the namaste, the rest of it, it puts people off. Maybe not the namaste – I like that but not in your marketing.” Indeed, instead of having photoshoots of perfect looking people doing yoga poses, she got people who reflected her clientele – whether overweight or old – on posters and the website. That’s what attracted more clients.
Unsurprisingly, given her success, she started getting offers for franchising when the business was still in its infancy – albeit that wasn’t her initial plan. “When I converted to Fierce Grace from Bikram, I never intended to franchise,” she says. “Before I even launched Fierce Grace in November 2013, someone had already asked me if they could franchise. And I said ‘Well you can’t do it before me, you have to wait.’” And a few months later she saw studios open across the UK and Europe.
And as her client base grew, so did the number of teachers and, consequentially, franchisees and their businesses. This is in no small part thanks to Pernetta bending over backwards to support her network. “I don’t sleep at night if a franchisee has got a problem, I feel like that’s happened with my brand,” she says. As far as the training is concerned they’re constantly handheld from budgeting and marketing to operations and equipment. “If they’re in Europe, they come here, we train them in our studios and they can see how it works and teach them the systems and if they’re abroad, we send one of our managers to help and I go to run workshops,” she adds. “It’s very much like a family. It’s not like a big corporate thing.” Additionally, the franchisor even provides franchisees with trained yoga teachers if they so require.
While Pernetta provides franchisees with the guidelines and marketing material, she also gives them ample creative freedom. The franchisor prefers the franchisees to be more quirky and individualistic while adhering to the brand philosophy. In many instances, they’ve had unique ideas. “One of them went ‘Do you mind if we put the Fierce Grace logo on bicycle seats as waterproof covers,’” she says. “I thought ‘Do we really want people’s arse on the logo? Why not? Let’s do it.’” Indeed the franchisor encourages franchisees to insert their business strategies into their spaces. “We don’t go ‘It’s gotta look like this, you gotta only do it like that, it’s got to be orange or blue,’” she continues. “They want the tried and tested stuff and your wisdom but they also want complete freedom so you gotta go in the middle and listen to what they want.”
But maintaining a balance between a laissez faire and a total control attitude proved particularly problematic when Fierce Grace went global. When launching a studio in Rome, the class material and the marketing literature had to be translated to Italian but that wasn’t the real challenge she faced. In this case it was the franchisee who failed to follow the instructions. “The lady wasn’t listening to anything we said because she just went into a hole,” Pernetta says. “It was stressful, just [as much] for me as for them. They were always loyal but they just weren’t running it very well. They had no sign outside, they did no advertising. You can give everybody the things but they gotta actually do it.”
This wasn’t the worst experience she had. A former franchisee in France did what many franchisors deem as a nightmare. “They did the bad thing of taking everything and then stealing it,” she claims. “I have basically 50% Fierce Grace studios under a fake name in Paris which is very annoying. She’s using my teachings, my sequences but not calling it Fierce Grace.”
Experiences like these made her take extra care when recruiting. Pernetta realised first-hand how being a franchisor requires a lot more than she expected. “Now we are a little more careful as to how we work with new studio owners,” she says. “They may say they’re good at business but I guess you can’t just trust that they are or they haven’t put their head in the sand because you get so busy with the building works that you forget to do anything.” Indeed, with the power of being a franchisor comes great responsibility. “Franchising is really hard and so much work,” she explains. “It’s a whole business in itself that you’re running. It’s not like you’re just doing it on the side. People have put their money on the line and my brand is on the line.”
Consequentially, she ensured her brand grew slowly and steadily, which she believes was the right pace. “We want Fierce Grace to be a boutique brand,” she says. “We don’t want to have a million outlets everywhere. We want them to be nicely placed, far away from each other in key places. I’m not looking to have a McDonald’s thing going on here. It’s got to be personal, run by people that are passionate about wellbeing.”
The main lesson she learnt was how important it was to be flexible when expanding abroad. “One needs to not just farm out the same kind of set of protocols to each country but has to understand the differences that a market has and listen to the franchisee,” she advices. For instance, the studios in New York demanded more one-hour classes as opposed to the 90-minute ones in the UK. While Pernetta wasn’t keen at first, she did what was needed. “I think a big mistake you can make is not to respond to what people want because there’s a reason they want it – I’d rather have somebody come in for an hour than not come in at all,” she says.
Looking forward, with a franchise studio coming in Down Under and with footprint across Europe and the US, Fierce Grace is only set to make people more fit. Additionally, as of 2015 it partnered with David Lloyd gyms which offers its hot yoga classes. And Pernetta is also planning to focus on online tutorials for those who can’t make it to a studio. She truly believes the sector is only getting hotter and hotter. “The general public today who are going to the office, taking care of their kids, going to the bar, spending ten hours on their devices – they need to feel relaxed,” she concludes. “You can’t become immortal by doing yoga so you must just enjoy this mechanism, keep [your body] healthy and not fuss about it.”