April 25, 2014
By Julie Foster,
Cooperative Development Specialist
Montana Cooperative Development Center
Simple Yoga & Wellness Cooperative began as a sole-proprietor yoga instruction center in Hamilton, Mont., in 2007. The founder, Meg McCracken, had a passion for the art and benefits of yoga and soon developed a loyal customer base and a staff of talented instructors. She ran the Simple Yoga studio for six years.
Hamilton, population 4,100, is the Ravalli County seat. The rural county is 90 miles long with communities nestled between the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains. Businesses tend to be small here – 51 percent of businesses in the county have nine or fewer employees.
Montana ranks 38 among the states for average per capita wages. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Ravalli County’s per capita personal income is $30,955, just 74.5 percent of the national average. About 15.3 percent of the county residents fall below the poverty line.
When “life’s changing tides” took the founder of Simple Yoga to new opportunities in California, many of the practitioners’ and instructors could not bear the thought of losing their yoga studio. However, there wasn’t much time to consider the options.
Two of the yoga practitioners – Marilyn Morris and Alla Brooks – decided they had to try to save their studio, so they made a deal with the owner to buy the business.
Co-op viewed as best business structure
The new owners, the customers and the instructors knew that they wanted to form a cooperative.
They had done Internet research and found that the co-op model seemed to best meet their needs. They then sought professional assistance from an attorney and a certified public accountant.
They found professionals who wanted to help, but didn’t know the first thing about starting a cooperative. That led to the beginning of what could have been ongoing, costly research into how to incorporate a cooperative.
Fortunately, an article in the local newspaper pointed the fledgling co-op to the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority (RCEDA) and a cooperative development specialist with the Montana Cooperative Development Center (MCDC).
“Without the technical assistance made possible by the Montana Cooperative Development Center, we would have spent a lot of time and money trying to create our cooperative,” says Morris, now a co-chair of the co-op. “We sought help from a local attorney who specializes in assisting nonprofits, but who was not familiar with the cooperative business model. One hour’s time for research into forming a cooperative cost nearly $200.”
Mounting legal costs such as that would have soon exceeded the financial resources on the start-up co-op, she notes.
A PERFECT FIT
RCEDA has been part of the MCDC team for nearly eight years. MCDC provides training and continuing education for a statewide network of cooperative development specialists. Assisting the Simple Yoga & Wellness Cooperative was a unique, rewarding experience for RCEDA.
The co-op organizers said they had goals even beyond running a yoga studio, describing what the co-op world knows as the “seven cooperative principles.” These principles include goals such as a commitment to improving communities and to work to help other cooperatives.
The co-op organizers had no knowledge that the seven core co-op principles even existed. It was that kind of perfect fit during the entire process that made working with this co-op so memorable.
The cooperative is a source of jobs, contracting with six regular instructors, two substitute instructors and a part-time bookkeeper. An additional yoga instructor will likely be added to the staff this fall. The facility is in a leased location, with the co-op being the “anchor” tenant. The customer base and revenue are growing.
Co-op co-chair Brooks stresses how important the member/owners’ volunteer efforts have been in making the business work. Through donation of seed money and time, many have stepped forward to help. Volunteers clean the studio, water plants, build studio accessories and help with fundraising. During a recent workshop, one member provided housing for the guest instructor.
While many people and people agencies – including USDA, Montana State University and MCDC — have helped the co-op succeed, co-op founders Marilyn Morris and Alla Brooks have played the biggest role by stepping up to save the business, taking the risk and making the substantial initial effort to turn this in to a story worth telling.