Principal Owner, YOGASTUDIO and
Founder/Former CEO, Gymboree
The early ’70s found dancer Joan Barnes traveling to the West Coast in a Volkswagen camper with her then-husband and a baby on the way. Being a young mom was far from the norm in the free-spirited San Francisco of that era, which was just coming off of “flower power” and the Summer of Love, and Joan felt the need to connect with like-minded women. Enter Gymboree.
Joan launched Gymboree, known as Kindergym in its earliest days, at a Jewish community center as a place for moms to come together while their toddlers played. The business ultimately went public and grew into a national brand that today boasts play centers in 32 countries and nearly 600 retail stores.
Joan’s professional success came at a great personal cost, however. For 14 years she had approached her business with a dogged determination not to fail that she now says bordered on insanity. Faced with a failing marriage and a serious eating disorder, in 1990 she retreated to a long-term treatment center, left the business, and spent the next several years on a journey of healing. She resisted returning to Marin County, the land of (seemingly) picture-perfect families and entrepreneurial zeal, until she felt strong enough to be there again. It was after finally feeling called to come back that she found yoga.
Joan went to her first class at YOGASTUDIO in 1997 and was transformed. She wasn’t looking for another venture, but a partnership with the owner soon developed and Joan ultimately bought the business outright. Though YOGASTUDIO now has three locations in the San Francisco area and is poised for further expansion, Joan’s second go at launching a business is balanced by her internally driven pursuits.
What we learned from Joan: The truth of one adage (”Do what you love and the rest will follow”) and the falsity of another (”There are no second acts”). But what we most emphatically learned from Joan is the importance of hearing—and paying attention to—your own inner voice.
“From a young age, it was just in my nature to be entrepreneurial. I came from a long line of Jewish entrepreneurs, and even as a little girl, I enjoyed sitting among the men in the family, listening and learning as they talked about their businesses. Starting businesses came very naturally to me. I had the most heavy-duty lemonade stand in a 50-mile radius.”
Slow & Steady
“When we started Gymboree in 1976, the pre-pre-school concept was something new. Ninety percent of children were going to pre-school before kindergarten, but there were no ‘Mommy & Me’ type of programs for toddlers at that point. We were changing the way people did things, and I had an innate understanding that we needed to grow at the right pace rather than trying to impose something on the culture overnight.”
Not Mistakes, Just Milestones
“We almost died a million times, but when faced with having to either come up with a new strategy or fold, I just had to keep trying. The initial model of Gymboree as a play program was essentially flawed as a business. The customers were thrilled, but the revenues were too small to support the franchises and make a profit.”
“We turned to licensing to leverage the brand without a huge risk of capital. We partnered with Random House for books and Healthtex for clothing, and found toy and video licensees. But the problem with licensing is that unless you are a Snoopy or a SpongeBob, they will always move on to the next big thing. So finally we turned to vertically integrated retail stores. I wasn’t interested in retail, but I had to adapt.”
Having It All. Or Not.
“I was at the forefront of the idea that women can ‘have it all’. We were being told as women that we could be great wives, mothers, friends, and businesswomen. My investors were telling me that I could be the rare entrepreneur to take an idea from inception to end zone. I was in over my head, but I was determined not to fail and scared to leave the business. I developed an eating disorder, my marriage was in trouble, and I kept getting further and further from myself until finally I just crashed. Something had to give.”
Know When to Go
“After my time in treatment, I lost my appetite to return to the business. The company was preparing to go public and needed a seasoned board of directors, and I am more of a starter than I am public board material. I was in recovery by then and living a new life. I was in my early 40s but I wasn’t so different from the young girls I had been in treatment with. I had been so involved with the business that I had stopped growing as a woman. I was starting over just like a college girl starting her life.”
And Then Came Yoga
“My first class at YOGASTUDIO opened my heart more than all of the talk therapy I had done. I was not looking for a new business to start, but the owner had contacted me to offer classes to the members of a nonprofit I had started for women with eating and body issues. Our partnership evolved very organically, and when she decided to move back to Los Angeles I bought her out. Yoga as a business didn’t feel so far off from what I had done with Gymboree. Each is a service business, and I understood the business of enrollments and having people come to classes.”
From One Seed…
“It was just the one studio at that time, and I had no plans to expand. But after 9/11 we experienced 20 percent growth almost overnight. People needed the solace of yoga, and it felt right that opening another studio was something I could do. Our second location opened one year later, on September 11, 2002.”
“The third studio came about because I had attracted a young management team and if I wanted to keep them, we had to keep growing. But I’m not the best person to be running this business anymore and I am ready to pass the torch.”
“I’m not sure what my next phase will be. The most important things to me now are my daily yoga practice and my time spent outdoors, connected to nature. I want to develop a more interior, creative life; perhaps take up cooking or gardening, things that were not interesting to me in the past. Before, my inner voice was silenced by a belief system that was externally driven—I thought if I had the career along with the husband, kids, and house in Tahoe, I should be happy, right? But I wasn’t. I’ve learned that I am tethered to my inner voice, and now that is my compass.”
-”I will always think of myself as an outsider.”
-”My greatest strength in business is delegation.”
-”The key to being a great boss is believability.”
-”My favorite quote is ‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.’”
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron
This Featured Lady was profiled by Noelle Pechar Hale, a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.