Observe, evaluate, take action: Entrepreneur Dr. Julia Rahn takes the advice she gives her clients

When Dr. Julia Rahn founded Flourish Studios on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago on December of 2007, she set out to accomplish a lot of things. Her mission, simply put, was to encourage people to look at themselves, evaluate what wasn’t working, and take the next step.

“I had this idea that we’re all human, we’re all going to go through life bumping into things that tell us what our next direction is,” said the trained clinical psychologist. “I wanted a place to group all those resources together under one roof.”

Rahn imagined a “modern day Hallmark,” where lectures on topics like how to eat a vegan diet or how to promote community friendships by forming a knitting circle might coexist with art space, retail, and therapy space. She envisioned someone wandering around the store after attending a book signing and coming across a toy that would be perfect for their nephew on the autism spectrum.

But in trying to create a place that would help people navigate what Rahn refers to as “life’s potholes,” she encountered a few bumps herself.

Revenue was supposed to come from three different sources: retail, events, and therapy. Additionally, each category was meant to maximize potential crossover to other categories. The studio would charge non-profit organizations a minimal fee to use event space for fundraisers, assuming revenue would be recovered by guests wandering through the retail area during the event and making purchases.

“The event would happen, it would take lots of time and energy and the register really didn’t move,” said Rahn.

Relying on customers and clients to multitask when they visited Flourish, particularly in the dismal retail climate of 2008, proved futile, and Rahn found herself facing the same imperative she often posed to clients: look at the situation, evaluate what isn’t working, take the next step.

According to Prof. Renee Rottner, Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at NYU’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, Rahn’s situation was one faced by most entrepreneurs at the onset of a new venture.

“The business plan is often seen as an end in itself, but it really is just a starting point,” said Rottner. “Business model iterations are inevitable in early stage firms, because there are so many untested assumptions you have to make about customers, pricing, markets, financing, hiring, and on and on.”

To succeed, Rottner maintained, entrepreneurs need to minimize the time frame and maximize the learning gained from each new iteration of their venture.

To improve business and achieve what she had set out to deliver to clients at Flourish, Rahn let go of her ideas of what customers might want and returned to what she knew they needed.

“The two things I think I heard but didn’t heed were ‘Do what you know’ and at the same time ‘Do what would bring in the revenue,’” said Rahn.

She reinvented Flourish Studios as an enterprise with one goal: provide clients with excellent one-on-one therapy in a personal atmosphere. She kept the retail section, which promises “products that delight,” to reinforce an environment that feels therapeutic, but not medical.

The transition took place in stages. Rahn cut back on events and programs while adding more therapists. She initiated a rebrand and says that while articulating Flourish Studios’ many offerings could once prove a challenge, she now leads confidently with the fact that it’s a therapy center.

Rahn says that clients can better understand the vision, and she’s seeing high referral rates.

“The goal is now that I have the high-quality therapists, to connect that with our brand,” said Rahn, who has observed that client word of mouth has proven to be the best marketing. “Once people started to come and feel better they spread the word.”

Though Rahn is pleased with Flourish’s new direction, she still ponders what might have made her original vision resonate with clients, and how it could thrive in the future. But for now, she is satisfied with her endeavor being known for providing one excellent service.

“There is a peace that comes from just understanding my personal limits that I really can’t run four businesses at once,” said Rahn.  “That’s positive—no one can run four businesses well, why not focus on what you do best?”

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