Jessica Schatz of Expressions Music Academy on the power of systems in growing a business

After Jessica Schatz graduated from Rochester College in 2009, she opened the Novi Piano Academy at her dad’s house, while also teaching three days a week at a music studio in Troy. She started her business with only three students, but by December of that year, the Novi Piano Academy had grown to 18 students.

As the business started to take off,  Schatz found herself between a dream of something bigger and fear of crossing “an impossibly huge chasm.”

She and her dad, Mark, were cleaning out the basement for a family Christmas party when they started talking about an idea for a music academy. He told her she should go for it, and she went all in on what would become Expressions Music Academy.

The first location opened in Novi, followed by another in Troy in 2014. In February 2017, Schatz opened a third location in the Plymouth-Canton area. She’s eyeing a fourth location next year at a location to be determined.

Today, Expressions reaches 1,400 students among the three locations, with 85 teachers who work as independent contractors. (Schatz personally maintains a small studio of eight students, “just to stay in the game,” she says.) 

Expressions also employs eight people including six front desk administrative/managerial staff, a designer, and her dad, who has been a big source of support and inspiration for her since the beginning. Lessons range from voice, piano, brass, strings, woodwinds, and more.

Schatz took some time out to talk to Metromode about growing her business, what sets Expressions apart, and the power of systems.

Did you have any entrepreneurial experience before launching Expressions?

No, none at all—other than running a small babysitting company with my friend when we were teenagers. I’ve always had a leaning toward entrepreneurship, though, even without knowing that’s what it was. 

Since I was young, I was always trying to organize my three younger sisters into structured activities, whether creating elaborate gifts for people, developing a show for extended family, or organizing an Olympic tournament for the kids in the neighborhood. I’ve always been a natural leader, and coaching and mentoring people has been one of my greatest passions ever since I can remember.

Because I didn’t have any actual formal business training, I read tons of books and went to a seminar to help me get things started. I also did a lot of research online and pored over hundreds of websites of other studios, studying their programs, policies, rates, and facility photos.

What sets Expressions Music Academy apart from typical music schools?

Our customer service and quality of service is light years above any other school I’ve seen. We have very strong organizational systems and structures, which allow us to deliver a consistent service to all of our parents and students. This is simply not the industry standard, unfortunately. Most schools or studios (with some exceptions, of course) are run by musicians who typically prefer to be teaching or playing music, and organization, scheduling, and structure is just not their strong suit or passion.

I am more of a type A personality and have enjoyed building structured experiences and programs since I was young. We also work very hard to hire top-notch teachers who are not only credentialed and experienced, but also have stellar personalities, which makes a world of difference for the student’s experience. 

On top of all that, we offer a lot of opportunities that other schools simply cannot—such as monthly, themed recitals, competitions, events, and of course our Level Up student motivation program.

Why did you pick the locations that you did?

Novi was a smashing success from the beginning, so when we chose our second and third location, we just tried to duplicate our success by choosing a community that had similar demographics, schools, and household income.

Who is your target student?

We teach kids as young as 3 all the way up through retired adults, but our most common age is about 6-10.

What are your plans for growth?

We are planning to open a fourth location in 2019 (exact city TBD). Beyond that, we probably won’t open any more locations in the Metro Detroit area. We may, however, open some off-site locations in other states. I am also currently very focused on expanding my Level Up company.

What were some of the challenges you faced along the way? Was it difficult to be both creative and a business owner?

What challenges HAVEN’T we faced? Everything from personnel issues to legal issues to landlord issues to facility issues. I remember when we opened our second location in Troy, I was setting up for an open house with one of my managers, and I got a panicked call from my staff in Novi saying a pipe burst and the whole 5,000-square-foot building was flooding fast right in the middle of a full night of lessons in 18 rooms. We had parents and students going to their homes and getting their towels and trying to control the flood.

I arrived and just cried when I walked through the halls and saw all the damage, thinking about what we would do on top of trying to launch the second location. That was such a difficult month, January of 2014.

What entrepreneurial lessons would you share with someone who is trying to open their own business?

Well, there are a lot of cliche things I could say (and agree with) like never giving up through the hard times, for example. But a more unique perspective I might bring to someone I was advising is the power of systems. From day one, even though I didn’t plan on ever opening a second location, I set up the business to run like it could. I always went above and beyond with my systems and procedures, and I always worked hard to integrate automation into them. It created for consistency of service and allowed us to grow. I think setting up any small business with that in mind is incredibly useful.