My interviewee for this post, Anne Simone Kensho, was clearly bursting with pride as she showed me the lovely home she is renovating in the mountains of Norway (only via Zoom video link sadly). Half way through the interview one of her Airbnb guests pottered down to make breakfast before grabbing his skis to hit the slopes. It was a real reminder of how running your own online business can allow you to live how you want, where you want.
However, as Anne emphasised, you need to be brave to realise that you can do it. She certainly was, by making the huge leap from a rigid life in the army to being an online yoga instructor with her website YogaFarm. Through eCommerce Anne managed to combine her experience in the army, her training in natural medicine, and her belief in yoga into a successful online business for subscription yoga videos. After being in a world that emphasised handling stress in a stereotypically masculine way she learnt the importance of female leadership. She incorporated emotion and compassion into her business while still having a strong direction. I was lucky enough to be able to find out more about this amazing transition.
Carolyn: Obviously your passion and business is yoga, so how did that interest first begin?
Anne: I started with yoga because I needed to stretch. I was in the military at the time, and I was on the sky diving team, and sky diving can really cramp up the body. So I needed stretching – it was very plain and simple!
Carolyn: What was your job in the military?
Anne: I was in the army, and in the cavalry, so I was doing long range reconnaissance and intelligence. I was very much a soldier out in the field for many years, and then more office work later.
Carolyn: Fascinating, that is quite a change to being a yoga teacher.
Anne: It has been a huge inspiration for a lot of my colleagues in the military, because many of them feel they have outgrown their job or their life in the military, but they haven’t seen themselves as an entrepreneur before.
Carolyn: Was it the military who first offered you yoga?
Anne: No, actually the military hadn’t seen the benefits of yoga yet. So it was just me and a friend. We realised that yoga was probably going to help us perform better in sports. So we started doing yoga and stretching, and it really helped. But then the practise of yoga showed me that yoga had other benefits. And that’s why I continued doing it.
Carolyn: So when was it that this personal interest developed into an interest in the teaching side of yoga. Were you doing it for a few years before you thought about going into teaching?
Anne: I did yoga for many years before I started teaching. But I had been teaching sports in the military, and I had been teaching in general for many years.
So I was already into teaching, and I really liked it. And as I saw how the yoga helped me in my everyday life, not only in sports, I really wanted to give that to other people as well. So that really encouraged me to take my teacher training.
Carolyn: Did you start with teaching in a yoga studio?
Anne: As I was in the military for many years, and I was moving around, it was difficult for me to be in a yoga studio and sign up for a course, because usually I would be away on exercises or travelling – I needed something else. I really like to do the workouts at home – if you have a spare hour you just do it. I also saw that a lot of friends really wanted to learn from what I had already experienced. So that’s what inspired me to form an online yoga studio.
Carolyn: What were the teething problems that you found when you first decided to start doing online yoga videos? Was it a fairly smooth set up, or were there some initial problems with bringing your idea to life?
Anne: It was both! Some things ran smoothly, and were a lot easier than I expected, but there were also some problems. When I first decided to do it I did some research on how I was supposed to do the videos, because in the beginning I did everything myself- from recording the videos to setting up the lights. I also needed to think how I was going to instruct on a video compared to having people live. So I just did some tests back home by myself to figure things out.
I also initially started YogaFarm with another woman, so there were two people at the beginning. That really helped, because although she didn’t know yoga before, she was good at business. She could also be my test person for the videos!
It’s different doing things online than doing it live, both the technical part of teaching the yoga, and also the recording of it, and how to market it. But there is so much information online, so we basically just googled our way, and used YouTube to find the answers for everything from how to use the video camera and set up the lights, to how to edit the videos and put them out.
Carolyn: And do you have many operational problems now? Or have you smoothed out the kinks over the years?
Anne: The main problems have been a couple of technical issues with the website. I now have a website company that runs the technical side, that was one of the things that I decided to spend money on. So they have been very good at finding solutions for everything. They were the people who recommended WooCommerce to me.
Before we had WooCommerce, we had another payment method, and that didn’t work, so we had to change. When we changed the payment system, we had to tell all our customers, Hey, we’re gonna restart everything. So we basically started anew, after one and a half years.
Carolyn: And have you found that it’s been helpful to grow your business using WooCommerce?
Anne: Yes, definitely, because it’s an easy way for people to subscribe. So when they want something, like when they want yoga, people usually want it right away – and the payment system makes it easy for them to get started immediately. So I can see that is one of the benefits that makes people want to do yoga online, that desire to purchase straight away and just start doing it!
Carolyn: And do many of them set up subscriptions?
Anne: Yeah, actually at the moment we only have a monthly subscription. We did try one year for awhile, but mostly people tend to want a monthly subscription.
Carolyn: People get scared of the concept of a year?
Anne: Yeah. And also, I think we had a handful of people altogether in these years that have been like, What? It’s a subscription? I didn’t know, and then they kind of want their money back for the last five or six months.
But most people really like subscriptions, and if for some reason their card isn’t charged or some other problem, they email us straight away saying, Hey, I don’t want to lose my videos, so what can I do to keep my subscription going?
So there seems to be a lot of people that prefer the subscription, and some that would have just bought one month or two months if they could. But that would be a very low percentage.
Carolyn: Do you have a good retention rate? Or is it quite a high turnover of people?
Anne: I think a lot of people do come back, and a lot of people also stay. We still have some subscribers that started their subscription in 2014- just when we opened the website. I know that because we gave them a special deal, and so I can see very easily who is on that deal still, and it is surprisingly many!
Carolyn: Did you find it hard to get an initial audience? I know a lot of people go to yoga studios for the interaction. Did you find it hard to attract people to doing it online?
Anne: That was one of the challenges I had in the beginning. So I set up a plan for how to reach out to people. I had a lot of friends that were ready to try my online yoga. So I got a lot of help from just my friends in the beginning, they would try it and recommend it to their friends, and post the link on Facebook. They really wanted to help me out, and they could really see that this was helping them as well. So it was a natural effect of that.
However, I saw that for me to get from having a little bit of income every month to growing it to be able to live from it, I needed to do something more.
So I looked into online marketing, and again, googled a lot, and I took some online courses in how to market online. That really made a big leap for my income, for the revenue.
Carolyn: Do you use a lot of social media strategies to advertise?
Anne: Some, but I’m not a specialist, and I can see that there are so many people better at this than me. Setting up an online business is a lot easier than you think, but you need to have some basic strategies – especially on using social media- that work really well.
Carolyn: What was the timeline between it just being a little bit of income to being able to live off it? Did it grow pretty rapidly?
Anne: I think from when we opened it until I really could make a good living out of it, it was almost two years. There were a lot of things happening in the online world from when I started off in 2014. In the next two years after that there was a huge growth and a lot of new things happening, like the way you were marketing. In Norway when I started off in 2014, people were not used to doing stuff online, but it has become more and more normal. I think Netflix burst the bubble and made it more common for Norwegian people to think, Yeah, I can find what I need online.
Carolyn: Is it still just two people? You said you started with a partner?
Anne: I started with a partner, but we were not making enough money to sustain the both of us the first year. As she had three little kids, she was like, I’m out of this. She had an education as a lawyer and could go straight into a very well paid job that she really thrived in.
So I continued alone, and I then did contracts with different yoga teachers. So some teachers would record videos several times a year, or some people would come in and just do a couple of videos, like a guest teacher.
I tried out different concepts and different ways of working with teachers. Some people would get paid, and some would get marketing. But I am still the only one who has done this as my full time job. The other ones mostly come in for a couple of hours a couple of times a year and do their videos.
Carolyn: How many instructors have you got at the moment? Do you use the same ones?
Anne: I have about ten or eleven. I mostly use the same ones, but there was a yoga studio that opened in Oslo that hired a lot of the teachers that I had on the website, and they said that they couldn’t film or do any work for other studios! So I lost a lot! I still do videos myself as well.
In the beginning that was one of the rabbit holes I fell into, I was just focusing on the other instructors, and making them happy with marketing them and trying to do a good job so they would be satisfied.
Carolyn: Do you have someone else to do the camerawork now that it has grown?
Anne: Both, sometimes I hire people, sometimes I do it myself. Now I have learnt how to do it it’s very easy. So when I have time, I do it myself. While sometimes if I’m super busy I will hire somebody. But I find you do need to educate people on editing the videos- If they don’t have any idea about yoga, they don’t know what area of the body to focus on!
I have several cameras, as time went by I bought more! Although I actually use the video on my phone more than I did at the beginning. When I started off in 2014, phone cameras weren’t that good yet. I just use my phone as an extra camera – but you can’t actually see the difference between the mobile and the good camera!
Carolyn: Do the people who use your videos, do they have their own community?
Anne: We have a little bit of a community on Facebook. But we haven’t actually put a lot of effort into the community side. At the moment I am doing the everyday running of the company alone. So I didn’t dare go into running a community thing because I know you need to follow up every day. I just knew that I wasn’t able to do that right now. That is one of the things that I miss about being online and not meeting people at the studio. But when the right people come along, I’m definitely going to open up the community side, because it’s something that I really want.
But we actually did some research – some surveys asking people what more would you like to have – and the community thing was not something that got a high score. It seems like a lot of people who do the yoga online actually have anxiety and they don’t want to go out and be among a lot of people. So we make a lot of yoga programmes for people who have anxiety and depression.
There are also a lot of moms that are home with little babies, and they have their own societies. They’re not a typical yogi that would go for the yoga community kind of thing. But they want to do yoga anyway.
Carolyn: Yes, and I’m sure that some people have traumatic injuries, and are using it as recovery, for them it would also be much easier to be able to do it from home.
Anne: Yeah. But still, I do want to communicate more with people to just know how they’re doing. People write us mail and we really encourage them to do that and ask questions.
I’m a therapist as well, I’m educated in biological medicine, with four and a half years of education in natural medicine. So I try to combine the yoga and the health aspect, that is what we have focused on.
Carolyn: One of your concepts is ‘office yoga.’ Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Anne: I used to need to do therapy once or twice a week for many years, or else I would just be in bed. When I started doing yoga I could feel it got so much better, so I didn’t have to go to therapy anymore.
But as I started my own business and I was no longer a student, I didn’t have those one and a half, two hours in the morning to do yoga. I needed something that would be really quick, but still work.
So that’s when we developed this type of yoga we call ‘office yoga’, and it’s just five or ten minutes with a little bit of stretching. We have had clients telling us that they get so cramped up with sitting at a desk that it makes a big difference. People tell us that even their therapist told them to go home and rest for a week because they weren’t able to physically work on them. Then they did three or four days with office yoga, with our basic ten minute programmes, and they cancelled their appointment with the therapist.
I really spent time on developing this concept and understanding, bringing in all the knowledge I had from all the workouts in the military, and my education in natural medicine – just understanding how does the body recover naturally? And how can we help it easily? So I started doing that myself, because I needed to, I didn’t have the money, and then I started off as an entrepreneur to help bring this to other people.
Carolyn: Your videos are all in Norwegian. Have you considered expanding to other languages?
Anne: We did have this big plan with going into English as well, but it hasn’t happened yet. I can see there’s a huge audience the moment you do stuff in English compared to Norwegian. We’re about five million people in this country, so we’re a small country.
But for a lot of people in Norway, even though they know English and they can speak a little bit of English, they relax more during a yoga class when they are hearing a voice in their own mother language.
Carolyn: What is your favourite part about running YogaFarm?
Anne: I think probably the feedback that I get from people mailing me – especially when it’s people that I never thought would be attracted to yoga.
I like that we have helped people. We have focused a lot on health issues – either physical or psychological traumas – and we have specific videos that probably nobody else has because of my background as a therapist and as a yoga instructor.
One of the other reasons I wanted to continue doing an online business was because I wanted location freedom – I can work from wherever I want. I’m going to show you out of my window, because I moved to this part of Norway where there are mountains, because I love skiing and hiking the mountains.
Carolyn: Oh beautiful!
Anne: And also, I had really strong burnout a few years ago. So sometimes I lack that little buffer, so when I get really tired, I sometimes collapse a bit. So not having to work a regular 9:00 to 5:00 job really helps me.
Carolyn: What is the future for YogaFarm?
Anne: I definitely want it to grow, and I definitely have some plans. I have plans to grow it in Norway, and to grow it in English as well. I can see so many possibilities with growing online. I’m really happy that I chose an online business. When I first started I was a bit concerned about it as there was so much computer work in the military. I thought I would just want to go out and do practical work – be a ski instructor or a hiking guide, something like that. Now I’m like, give me my laptop and I’ll be free!
Carolyn: What advice would you give to someone who is considering their own online business?
Anne: I would definitely recommend an online job for anyone, there’s so much happening online, it is connecting the world in a whole new way that wipes the borders between countries.
But if there’s something I would recommend looking into more before starting, it would be training. There are some really good entrepreneurs who run online courses in how to do an online business, and even online courses in how to set up an online course! I did some of them and it really helped me to make decisions faster, and to be on track the whole time and not try too much stuff.
Courses can save a lot of time and money. In the beginning, I tried so much, and went back and forth. My learning curve was steep. If I had jumped into these online courses earlier and just learnt how to put up an online business, then learnt how to market it, I could have saved myself a lot.
Carolyn: Any other pitfalls to avoid?
Anne: When I started off, I probably made all the mistakes possible. But there’s a solution to everything, everything is figure out-able. Don’t let yourself get put off by something you think is not possible. And sometimes just go with your intuition. That has been one of the things that has given me the biggest breakthroughs, when I’m doing my yoga and feel aligned and just go with my intuition. Sometimes that would create ideas that I have just gone for, with no customer research or anything, I’ve just done it, and it has really worked.
In the military we needed to handle stress in a certain way- a very male typical way. We used to call it, turn the switch, you turn off your feelings or emotions and you’re just being reasonable, and you’re handling from the left side of the brain. Yoga has taught me more female leadership, how to incorporate emotions and compassion and the love and still be a strong leader.
So as I see it now, I feel very grateful for having had this opportunity in life to do something as diverse as these two careers, because I really can see how I can bring the best of them out in the life that I have now.
Anne has proved to be a successful leader by embracing her creativity and intuition. She has stepped away from purely using the logical approach taught to her by the army, to encompassing all of her different abilities.
She has also demonstrated how you can put your ideas into action by ‘just googling it’. From googling, watching YouTube videos, to eventually doing online courses, she taught herself to run her own online business. In doing so, she is using her skills to bring much needed therapy to people who, through anxiety or other issues, may not have had access to it otherwise. For herself, she has created the work/ life balance that she needs – with the ability to nip up the mountains at any opportunity!