Meet the Circus Performer With a Big-Tent Approach to Entrepreneurship
Katherine Tesch followed her intuition as she built The Circus Academy of Tucson as a safe, inclusive place where anyone can learn the ropes.
Katherine Tesch never intended to start a business. But while Tesch was working at the circus, doing everything from aerial silks performances to stilt acrobatics to fire poi, people started asking for lessons.
Over time, she built a healthy client base from around Tucson, Arizona, and a “For Rent” notice outside an empty warehouse felt like a sign that it was the right time to start a full-time circus education program.
“It started to become my main focus, and I realized that this needs to be more of an official thing,” Tesch says. “At some point, we got a space, and I registered our LLC.”
That was in 2015. Since then, Tesch has grown The Circus Academy of Tucson to provide classes on the circus arts to kids and adults, including acrobatics, stilt walking, and juggling. Some clients hope to perform seriously, while others are one-off groups there for bachelorette parties.
Hello Alice caught up with Tesch to discuss finding the perfect location for your business, building a team, and tailoring your offerings to a wide range of customers. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into the circus?
I was a ballet dancer. I went to dance school in high school. Then I went to college, and I saw a circus, and I thought it was the coolest thing. I started following them around, and they noticed I wasn’t going away and started training me. I eventually started performing for them.
Have you had experience starting a business before? Were there any resources that helped you gain insight into owning a business?
I had no experience. Starting a business was a huge learning curve. I learned everything by Googling it, doing research, figuring it out, and talking to whoever I could. Over the years, I’ve realized that there are resources — I just didn’t know about them. There’s a Women’s Business Center here that has resources for learning more on how to do this the right way.
How did you build your student base?
Initially, I had a few people that reached out because they saw performances. Then it was a lot of word of mouth. That was the primary thing. We then started taking the kids to community events to do performances, going to places that were geared towards kids and families, and reaching those audiences. That was a major marketing push.
We’ve never done much marketing. When we moved into our building, it’s on a major intersection. So, we have a huge sign on a major intersection. That’s kind of our main marketing now.
Yeah, location is so important! What was the process in finding the right spot for your business?
For us, the right location is super key because we have specific needs. We teach circus, so we need to have a large open space with tall ceilings. What we have is a warehouse. I spent months and months searching. Since the building is on a major intersection, I’d always see this building, and I’m like, ‘Man, that would be such a cool place, but there’s no way I’m ever going to get it.’ Coincidentally, when I was looking, they put up a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window. I called, and it all worked out.
How did you fund the business?
I started with no funding. I had some personal savings of $10,000, and then my parents loaned me about $10,000. I had a student base already, so that was my strength.
When we found our building, I created a business plan and went to them. I essentially told them I have no funding, but I have a student base, and we are going to pay our rent. And they took the leap. That was the thing that made it possible. They believed in me, and they were like, ‘We like you. Your business plan was great. Yes, let’s try.’ They let me rent the building, essentially having no funding.
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How did you build your team?
My team is filled with my students. Right now, I have two full-time people. One of them joined me when she moved to Tucson for college. She had already been performing at a youth circus in her hometown. She came in, she took some classes for a while, and I realized she was really good, so she came on as a team member.
My other full-time person also was a student. She came in recreationally and started training, and she was super awesome and dedicated. She was a school teacher, so she has a background in education. Recently, this past summer, she was like, ‘I’m ready. I want to do it full time.’ So she moved into our full-time staff.
Other than that, most of our team members are youths who have graduated and teams that want to increase their participation.
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Circus training can be scary for a lot of people. How do you communicate to your students who are afraid or nervous that it’ll be safe?
A huge part of our mission is to have a really supportive environment. We move into everything really slowly; it means a lot of scaffolding. Everything starts close to the floor. If the student is experiencing a lot of fear, we always take a step back. If the kid is upset or fearful, I would never push them to keep going. We always take a step back and then start moving forward again, and usually, that works.
In terms of performance, again, I never make anyone perform. It’s only if they want to. If they’re super afraid of it, I don’t make them do it. But if I feel they’ll like it or something is holding them back, I’ll give them something really small to do at first or a low-pressure environment like a community event where it’s not like everyone’s looking at you, and try to build them up that way.
You also have workshops for groups, birthdays, and bachelorette parties. Does expanding your offerings help the business in any way?
Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to do that for the past year and a half because of COVID. But before COVID, it was a huge asset to our business because we were able to charge a lot more for those things. That was a huge part of our business. It helped us reach people that weren’t necessarily looking for a weekly class. But often, people would do it and realize they want to take classes.
How has the business been since the pandemic?
In the first two months, we shut down completely. We did have to shift our business model a lot. We used to do a lot of the group classes; we would have 50 people at a time in the space. After we were closed, we reopened with one-on-one instruction, which is really different than what we did before. Then we expanded into groups of four.
It’s been really different, but it’s actually been good in a lot of ways. We’re now going to try to have two groups of four at once. We feel pretty good about that, letting people social distance. Then we hope to resume some more recreational-use performing classes, so that’ll be a little bit bigger group, but they won’t use the apparatus. It’s easier to keep them farther apart. We’re trying to combine our old model with the new model — it’s the best of both of them.