Sarah Larson Levey, the CEO of Y7, tells Moneyish how she afforded to quit her day job to start a yoga empire
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Flow on your own.
That’s the mantra behind Sarah Larson Levey’s multi-million dollar fitness concept Y7, a fleet of hot, hip hop and candlelit yoga studios she started with just seven yogis in a tiny, 300-square-foot space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn while working full time.
“This was never supposed to be a business,” Larson Levey, who quit her day job in 2013 to pursue Y7 full-time, told Moneyish. “This started as a pop-up five years ago. It was just for fun on the weekend. We put up flyers around Williamsburg and it was free, that was it.”
Larson Levey was inspired to start Y7 after being let down by her own yoga experiences in studios with tons of light, mirrors exposing every flaw — and fall — and bad music during class.
“I left feeling bad about myself and my body,” Larson Levey admitted. “I wasn’t happy with the experiences I was getting around me, but I loved the idea of yoga; I love the idea of mind-body connection and using the things you learn in yoga in your everyday life.”
That’s where the Y7 concept was born. In 2013, Larson Levey decided to start hosting yoga classes in candlelit studios in windowless rooms with 90-degree infrared heat blasting and music from the likes of Drake and Cardi B in the background. The class is taught vinyasa-style, so yogis move in tandem with their breath, inhaling into a plank pose and exhaling into downward facing dog, for example. The class is broken up into three different sequences of vinyasa flows done three times each. Then there’s a “flow on your own” part of the class where yogis can freestyle in extra poses.
“There’s no shame and no holding back,” Larson Levey said. “Everyone is unapologetically being themselves. There’s no front row culture — it’s just you, and your mat, and the music, and the poses; and that’s it. That’s what I want people to understand and really experience.”
Today, classes are $25 each or $179 a month for an All-Access Membership. There are 10 studios throughout New York City and Los Angeles with an 11th studio opening in the East Village of Manhattan later this year, and expansion plans slated for D.C., Philadelphia and Chicago.
Larson Levey said she saved $15,000 of her own money before opening up her first studio in Williamsburg. She paid around $1,000 per month for the 350-square-foot space, including electricity, and charged $20 per class at the time. She ran four classes per day while still working her day job in the fashion industry. She hired yoga instructors she found off of Craigslist, some of whom taught for free at first to get experience, and initially paid them by the amount of people they bought into the studio.
“It was a month-to-month lease and if it didn’t work out it was no big deal,” she said, of being able to afford the added cost.
Getting after it
Larson Levey would wake up every day at 6 a.m. before going to her day job as an executive assistant in fashion to open up the studio and check yogis in at 7am before leaving for work.
After gaining a small following in Williamsburg, she and her husband started hosting Y7 classes at a Monster Cycle studio in Manhattan, renting out a ground floor studio space that cost $10,000 for the month. With little to no equipment costs — just yoga mats, towels and water bottles they sold — they were able to do it for six months.
“We didn’t go on vacation, we ate a lot of mac and cheese $1 pizza and we were able to afford it on our salaries,” Larson Levey, who paid the first and last month’s rent with savings bonds, explained, adding: “We didn’t have to sign a lease so there weren’t huge risks. Everything we made we put back into the company.”
She opened up her first studio in 2015 and quit her day job with a staff of about 15 teachers. Y7 stayed self-funded until its sixth location on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Larson Levey says growing the company was the biggest challenge because she had to learn a lot about the real estate market and proper permits needed in buildings.
“I had no idea about architect fees, permit fees. I kind of thought you just signed a lease and moved in,” she admitted.
For other aspiring entrepreneurs looking to quit their day jobs to pursue a profitable passion project full time, Larson Levey says to start small, like she did, by pursuing the business as more of a side hustle before making it a full-time gig. She knew it was time to leave her day job when she was able to raise enough money and grow her team to a staff of 15. That’s when she realized she couldn’t do two jobs at once.
“Always remember why you started,” she said. “When things get scary, remember your why and trust that you can push through any barriers if that authentic why comes across.”
Networking with fitness folks like ClassPass co-founder Mary Biggins — who became a regular attendee of Y7 when it was first starting out — also helped the studio gain a following. Biggins recruited Y7 on ClassPass, a service that allows users to sign up for a number of different boutique fitness classes, and a year later Larson Levey’s classes were selling out.
Y7 closed its first private equity round in November 2016 and in total has raised $6.5 million to-date.
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