Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
We are Athena and Maria, the mother-daughter co-founders of Kala Mobile Meditation Studio in Baltimore, Md. Our customized 35 ft vehicle has 8 meditation rooms or “pods” for individual audio meditation and sound therapy sessions. Each pod is equipped with comfortable built-in seating, noise-canceling headphones, and an interactive tablet where guests can view and select from our menu of original (and locally produced) meditation options.
Our innovative menu of audio meditations offers a wide range of themes, voices, and styles. Kala’s guided and unguided meditations feature healing sounds that are specifically designed to support the focus (or theme) of each meditation. Our mobile studio is available to rent for groups and private events; our clients include companies, insurance providers, and property managers looking to provide accessible wellness options to staff during the workday.
Our mobile studio offers a convenient and restorative space to calm the mind, reconnect with the self and return to the day’s challenges with renewed energy, awareness, and clarity. In addition to corporate wellness, Kala has brought the benefits of meditation to county health fairs, local universities, law enforcement, and staff from the Baltimore City Schools.
We are committed to supporting the health and wellness of our community through pop-ups and partnerships with other small businesses here in Baltimore. Since our launch in August 2019, our revenue is approximately $13,000 a month (Aug through Feb.)
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Athena (Tina) Stratakis, a massage therapist and life coach, in collaboration with her daughter, Maria Stratakis, mental health, and school counselor, created Kala. The inspiration for Kala grew from a desire to support the health and wellness of Baltimore by sharing the long-lasting benefits of mindfulness and meditation with the community.
We always knew we wanted to bring mindfulness to individuals who normally would not seek it out, whether it was because of time constraints or because of not having been exposed to it.
With Athena's background in massage therapy and life coaching, she gained insight into her client's everyday struggles, especially job-related stress. Between work and family, it was often difficult for clients to find time for regular self-care. She learned from her time spent at Tai Sophia Institute studying energy therapy, how the body positively responds to sound, and how it helps still the mind. With that insight, she felt confident that sound therapy and meditation brought to the workplace would provide a convenient and effective way to manage stress.
Maria holds a Master of Education in Mental Health Counseling from the Teachers College at Columbia University. As a counselor, Maria focused on preventative strategies and helping clients develop and practice healthy and adaptive ways to better cope with everyday stress. She became interested in the mindfulness-based approaches used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and the growing research supporting the benefits of mindfulness techniques and meditation. The transition from counseling to Kala felt natural as she grew frustrated with the lack of access to effective mental health care resources. For Maria, the inspiration to transition away from counseling grew from a desire to support healthcare providers as well. Kala, we can offer both exposures to the practice of meditation, the benefits of mindfulness in a way that’s realistic, accessible, time-efficient—regardless of age, daily schedules, neighborhood, background, or meditation experience.
Athena and Maria brought their complementary perspectives and experiences to the idea of helping individuals better manage daily stress with mindful meditation in a way that’s accessible, approachable, and convenient.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We had doubts that a traditional brick and mortar space would allow us the flexibility we wanted. Plus, we had a hard time deciding on a location. We decided to google mobile meditation just to see what would come up. We found Jackie Corwin, owner of Pause Now, in California, operating a shuttle bus that she had renovated into a mobile studio. We took a chance that she would be willing to answer some questions, which she very kindly did.
We flew out to San Francisco to see her studio and learn from her what worked and what she would have done differently. When it came time to purchase and design the studio, we relied on my brother-in-law's knowledge in that department. He played a big part in helping us decide on a Ford 550 cab.
The next step was to search for a company we could work with that could customize the bus. The Ford dealership in Nashville, TN, connected us with a company in PA. They had never built anything like this before, and they were super excited about the project. We flew out to PA and met with them for 8 hours to choose everything from floor to ceiling. Colors, fabrics, basic design layout, etc. before flying back to Baltimore that same day.
We felt they had an excellent understanding of our vision. We made the remaining decisions through phone calls, emails, FaceTime, etc. Next, we met with a local company to design a logo, branding, and wrap for the bus's exterior.
Once the design was underway, we were able to focus on the actual product we were offering. We wanted to "shop local" when it came to finding teachers to record the meditations. The sound therapy and audio meditations were created and performed by local individuals from the Baltimore wellness community. We spent weeks in the recording studio painstakingly editing each meditation until we were satisfied. We created eleven 15 and 30-minute meditations.
After getting our meditation and sound therapy audio content finalized, we needed a way for guests to enter the studio and easily use their provided tablet to select and start their meditation session.
We first tried a freelance website to find an app developer and worked with someone who helped us with a simple, approachable design for the app screens. This was helpful because we didn’t know much about the process—but it was an extra step we probably didn’t need since the team we worked with to actually develop the app was also able to design the screens.
After that was finished, we had to look for someone to develop the app and tried freelance sites again but had some trouble here. The concept for the entire business, the app, the fact that it did not need WiFi or to be made available in any app store seemed to be confusing to the few we connected with. We finally were referred to a local company and met with them, but they were way out of our budget—though the meeting was worthwhile because they actually referred us to another local team, The Founders Approach, who we ended up working with. They are wonderful and we continue working with them today to maintain the product and user experience.
This was one of the harder parts of starting out but we’re really grateful to have ended up connecting and working with them. We recently made a few changes and updated the app with a new menu design.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Our start-up cost, which came primarily from savings, was about $60,000. We used that for the downpayment on the vehicle, the i-pads, App, and marketing.
We worked with Fiverr to create a short animated explainer video and also some content for marketing.
A few months after our launch, we were contacted by Baltimore Magazine and Baltimore Business Journal to do a story on our business, which was great exposure for Kala.
We did a lot of free promotional pop-ups and collaborations with other local wellness businesses, and we attended a few fitness festivals early on. We also participated in a few complimentary wellness events for the Baltimore City Police Department.
We invested in participating at a Regional Health and Wellness Symposium about a month before we were officially ready to launch. That put us in front of a lot of potential corporate clients, including major insurance companies. We brought the bus so people could try out the meditation experience. We set up a table inside with promotional materials and a drawing for an Amazon gift card. We had about 400 business cards of individuals who were Owners, Managers, and HR directors, responsible for health and wellness programs/employee benefits.
This symposium ended up being one of the best investments that we made. We still get contacted by people who attended and had a positive meditation experience.
We used Wix to create our website. Although it was a lot to tackle at first, we learned how to use it effectively, and it gives us control over our site and any changes we have to make.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Word of mouth is an excellent resource for us. We rely on existing relationships. Our relationships with a few benefits specialists from major insurance companies that we connected with at our first symposium have been a great source of repeat business. We also formed a relationship with a large property management company that handles a lot of office buildings in our area. Having lived in Baltimore all our lives and deciding to keep a lot of the elements local, we were able to build a network of new clients quickly. We also offer discounted rates for multiple-event packages.
Currently, we're generating our own Instagram and Facebook content. We've had some freelance help with a few email campaigns. Occasionally we'll boost a Facebook or Instagram post.
Most of our clients contact us through our website. We engage with them quickly to answer any questions they might have and work with them to develop a custom plan that best suits their needs.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We were just starting to hit our stride when COVID-19 caused us to shut down. We had solid bookings from March-June that had to be canceled. The last event we held was on March 5. We're currently working on ways to resume safely offering our services. Most of our clients are in large offices, universities, etc. It's unclear when those clients will be operating at full capacity. When they are ready, we want to make sure that we will be available to offer them a safe way to meditate.
In the meantime, we are designing and building a personal mediation pod prototype to sell to businesses for use inside their offices. We hope this will be a strong complement to our existing service.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Neither one of us had any background in business, so everything we did was a learning experience. We hired someone early on to help with our PR and Marketing Strategy. We only ended up working with them for three months leading up to the launch. They set us up with a local news station that did a story on us. In hindsight, it would have been more useful to focus more on digital marketing than PR so early on.
With the mobile studio being such a unique business, we found it very difficult to market. We realized the only way to explain what we offer and prove how beneficial our services were, was to drive the bus directly to the client so they could experience it for themselves. Once we get them on the bus, it becomes clear to them what Kala provides and when they're seated in the pod with the headphones on listening to our meditations, it convinces them even further.
Since meeting with Jackie in SF, we’ve connected with 4 other women entrepreneurs in the mobile meditation business. The newest addition has been from Canada. One positive that has come from the shutdown is our connection with these women. We’re now having regular zoom meetings to share ideas and support each other as we navigate this new landscape. This network of women has been helpful both professionally and personally.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Wix to build and maintain our website, we have a premium plan (business unlimited) for about $33/month. It took a little playing around at first but it was easy enough to navigate and design our simple website. We’re happy with the site and features and it’s nice to have direct and immediate access to it, especially if we need to add or change something minor.
We also offer online scheduling for some of our events through a feature that’s included in our premium plan. We have unique scheduling needs and it’s not a perfect system for us, but it works well for what we need. We don’t rely on individual bookings for our business, so it’s nice that we aren’t paying for an additional platform just for scheduling. We only need it for 2-4 events per week, so not every time but it’s nice to be able to offer this option to clients for their guests/staff. We do a lot of client management through Wix too and a majority of initial contacts come through a form on our website. We generate and send invoices sent through Wix as well.
Canva to create our social media posts and other print materials (e.g. educational/info handouts or cards for guests, business cards, postcards, etc). We like Canva a lot, very helpful! We have a basic (free) account and there’s plenty on there for our needs.
Fiverr for our explainer video and for 2 illustrations of our bus and the meditation experience.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Launching Kala was not something that came out of nowhere. We always knew we wanted to bring mindfulness to individuals who normally would not seek it out, whether it was because of time constraints or because of not having been exposed to it. Being in the wellness community, we both knew there was a need for this service, but we also knew that the market wasn't quite ready. It was a patience game for sure, but it all came together at the right time. In 2019 we felt that the market was now open to it, and we were both in a place where we could devote the time needed to create and develop the business.
We have a very diverse network of friends and family. At first, we were hesitant to call in any favors from our friends and family, but when we did, we were always met with enthusiasm and full support. Although asking for help was difficult, it came with the reassurance that we were working with people we could trust and who had our best interest at heart.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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