From web developer to circus studio co-founder
Alison Headley is a web designer with 20 years of experience. She’s no stranger to technology, but up until last year she didn’t really have any experience running a business. What she did have was a passion for aerial and circus arts.
Two years ago, Alison became a rigging apprentice at an aerial studio in St. Louis. For a year, when she wasn’t coding web pages, she was learning how to safely hang aerial hoops, silks, and trapeze equipment to hold the weight of a human. During that time, Alison and her rigging teacher found they shared a common dream: to open their own aerial studio, with fitness classes, practice space, and performance opportunities for adult beginners and circus professionals alike. Thus St. Louis Aerial Collective was born. As business partners, they spent 8-10 months looking for a space and working on their business plan. In September 2018, their studio finally opened its doors.
Start thinking about tech early
A crucial part of the early planning process was thinking about the Collective’s tech stack. It would need to include four components, standard for a small business in the fitness industry:
- Booking system
- Payroll software
- Accounting software
- Timesheet app
As a first-time founder with a web dev background, Alison knew the right online tools could help the business run efficiently on a tight budget. She also hoped they would provide some best practices to lean on, since neither she nor her partner had managed employees, payroll, or memberships before.
Alison knew she didn’t have the luxury of choosing the wrong tools and just making them work later on, since customization would get too expensive. Once their doors opened, she probably wouldn’t have the time to migrate everything to new systems if the technology they chose didn’t work out. She also wanted to make sure the products she chose would integrate smoothly. She and her partner didn’t have hours to spend copying information into multiple systems, or troubleshooting complicated employee logins.
So, how did she go about determining options, evaluating them against business needs, and making the final purchase decisions? By consulting a Facebook group of peers to crowdsource ideas, and using a combination of reviews on TrustRadius, free trials, and integration specs provided by vendors.
(Full disclosure: Alison found out about TrustRadius because her sister, Megan Headley, is our head of Research! She says knowing the inside scoop about how reviews are collected and vetted actually helped her put aside skepticism about fake reviews, paid reviews, and other “sketchy” practices present on other online review sites.)
Compare products & find the right fit
The first piece of software on their list was an appointment scheduling software (also known as a booking system). Originally, Alison talked to another circus owner who is also a web developer about the bookings system he’d built himself to run his business. For a while, Alison thought they could use his system at St. Louis Aerial Collective.
But as the Collective’s membership model developed over the first six months of business planning, it started to get fairly complicated, with different types of classes ranging from drop-in studio times to series classes and personalized lessons. Alison realized their vision had already become too complex for the homegrown bookings system to handle without, as she put it, a “bonkers” amount of customization.
They needed something more robust that could fit their membership model right away.
Based on an aerial instructors and owners Facebook group, Alison narrowed it down to a few bookings systems she wanted to evaluate. “That’s when I went to TrustRadius to look at reviews and compare the products. Acuity in particular had really good reviews. People said it was customizable, could handle multiple intake forms and release waivers, and worked well for series classes. Reviews also mentioned you could set it up to sell a package of different appointment types, and I thought, there’s our membership!” remembered Alison.
From reviews, she was able to determine that Acuity would check all of their boxes feature-wise. The reviews also gave her a good feeling about working with the vendor in the future, as the Collective grows and changes. “Not only did people like the product, they also said Acuity as a company is responsive about feature requests. They find a way to make it happen.”
Alison found the reviews of Omnify, the other serious contender, were also pretty positive. But it didn’t seem to be as good of a fit for the Collective, which she confirmed by starting a free trial of both products to see them in action side by side. “Omnify was okay, but not as suited to our purposes,” Alison said. It was also missing some key functionality, which Acuity already had built in. “Something we really need–a deal breaker–is to ask people to sign a release waiver. As a fitness studio, we need to know if they have any injuries or medical conditions, and as a small business we also want to ask for permission to use their image in promotional materials. A lot of aerial studios and fitness places will have to have a separate service for waiver signing. We didn’t want that. Acuity had a really good way to assign different types of forms to different types of appointments. It’s really nice not to have to pay for a separate service, or send people to a separate system to get that taken care of.”
Get feedback on usability
Next was payroll. Though both had worked for themselves as independent contractors or consultants, neither Alison nor her business partner had ever had employees on payroll before.
They were looking for a user-friendly system that would guide them through the process. Alison also wanted to make sure the payroll system was online so that employees’ social security numbers, bank accounts, and other sensitive information wouldn’t have to be kept on the premises in paper files, or even stored on the Collective’s computers. Ideally, Alison said, her employees would log in and fill out all of that stuff on their own, she and her partner would approve it, and then they’d be able to forget about it and just have everyone get paid on time.
“I was hoping for one with a fairly modern interface, not a dinosaur. Lots of financial software has just not been updated at all. I read a couple of articles about some good payroll companies, and Gusto kept coming up,” said Alison. “It really stood out.” Beyond basics like W2s and 1099s, Alison liked that Gusto would enable she and her business partner to take their owner’s draw through the payroll system as well, when the time came for that.
Before she moved forward, Alison wanted to make sure Gusto actually lived up to the press hype around ease of use. Alison turned to TrustRadius to read reviews of Gusto and get first-hand feedback. She wanted to hear from people who were familiar with the way contemporary web apps work–people who work at tech companies, or who have a lot of experience using online tools in their small businesses, not just people who are used to older, clunkier payroll systems.
“Based on how they described it, the website is very simple and clean to use, makes a lot of sense and is intuitive,” she said. She felt good solidifying Gusto as her payroll choice after that.
Look for social proof to confirm decisions based on logistical factors like integration
Once Acuity and Gusto were locked down, Alison moved on to shopping for time tracking and accounting software. The main priority at this point was integration with Gusto.
There were three prebuilt accounting integrations for Alison to investigate: Xero, QuickBooks, and FreshBooks. Since any of these three would serve her logistical need, she wanted to quickly choose the “best” option. Alison again checked TrustRadius for reviews, this time for overall sentiment.
“There were a lot of reviews for these products, so I ended up spending most of my time looking at the aggregate star ratings, and read just a few reviews,” explained Alison. “The sheer number of data points really played into trust. If five people give it on average four stars, I need to find out exactly what they’re saying, to see if I agree. But once the there are hundreds of people weighing in, I can skim and rely on the rating.” All three products had more than 100 ratings and reviews. Alison ended up choosing Xero–the product with the highest overall rating, and the highest number of full reviews.
In terms of a timesheet app, Gusto offered an integration with TSheets, and TSheets had an easy free trial. The Collective’s employees had already signed up for Gusto. All Alison had to do was import them into TSheets, and the system would send them an email prompting them to get started. Since it was the final piece in their tech stack and there were only a few weeks left until opening, she made the selection without using reviews. (There are plenty of reviews of TSheets and other Time Tracking tools on TrustRadius, though, in case you’re curious! )
To get started, find out what your peers in the industry are doing
Alison wishes the aerial studio community was a little bit bigger, and had more of an online presence with a culture of writing reviews. As she says, “the way aerial studios work is somewhat different than other fitness outfits, and it might have been easier to find clear feedback from people who are using these products how I do. I’m really glad I found that thread on the Facebook group to get started, with input from actual studio owners using those different bookings products. I made my list based on what other people were most often using, and how many people said they liked each one.”
Alison doesn’t know how she would have gone about building her tech stack without that glimpse into the tools others in the industry were using. Their feedback was really the first step in her journey, and the key to moving quickly along the way as a tech-savvy (but first-time) founder.
Are you building a tech stack for your small business? Let us know how it’s going, and how you’ve used reviews along the way! Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d love to hear your story.
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