How Debbie Fung, co-founder of Yoga Tree Studios, found success following her passion

 

When Debbie Fung and her partner, Jason Lu, graduated from university, they both landed great jobs in their fields of study — but instead, they chose to follow their passion. Launching Yoga Tree Studios in 2007, they’ve grown the business to six locations, and have plans to open more. Debbie shares how the pair have found success — and balance — with their customer-centric plan.

 

by Shelley White

 


 

 

Debbie Fung says there are two things she and her partner Jason Lu aim to cultivate at their 13-year-old business, Yoga Tree Studios: community and value.

“We want to create community, in the sense that we offer authentic yoga classes, but also a space where you can connect and meet like-minded individuals,” says Debbie, co-founder of the Toronto-area chain of six yoga studios.

“And when we say value, we want to make sure that we’re definitely not the cheapest yoga studio, we’re not the most expensive, but we’re priced right,” she adds.

Debbie and Jason founded Yoga Tree in 2007 when they became disillusioned with their chosen careers. The couple had both graduated from the University of Waterloo and immediately landed high-potential jobs (Debbie as a buyer in retail, Jason in tech). But Debbie says that “mentally, it wasn’t very satisfying. There was a lot more in life that we wanted to strive towards, a passion that we always wanted to foster.”

The two travelled to India to complete their yoga teacher training and when they returned, they applied for a small business loan and opened a “tiny studio” in Thornhill, Debbie says.

“It was hard, but at the same time, in that situation, you get the most authentic live feedback because you’re there day in, day out — you live and breathe the business,” she says.

Debbie and Jason learned quickly that success was about listening to their clients. When yoga students asked about getting paraben-free soap to use after doing hot yoga (which is practiced in hot, humid conditions), Debbie and Jason made their own paraben-free soap to stock the bathrooms and showers. When clients said they couldn’t do hot yoga because of medications or health conditions, Debbie and Jason started offering reduced-heat classes.

“Conversations with our clients have led up to what we’ve evolved into today,” Debbie says.

It was a desire to deepen their relationships with clients that prompted Debbie to get involved with Cisco’s Women Entrepreneur Circle (WEC), which provides technology, education and expertise for women-owned and co-owned businesses across Canada. Debbie had learned about WEC a couple of years ago through her contacts at BDC. Known as Canada’s bank for entrepreneurs, BDC is a key supporter of WEC — specifically, the initiative’s Circle of Innovation program, that connects business owners with interns from Canadian universities for three months in the summer, to help them complete specific technological goals and projects.

At first, Debbie wondered whether they were the right type of company that would benefit from the program — were they too small? Not tech-savvy enough? But she decided to take the plunge and was paired with University of Toronto mechanical engineering student Chloe Macdonald this past summer.

Debbie says the goal was to explore whether they were leveraging third-party apps and software to their advantage on the Yoga Tree website.

 

“We want to create community, in the sense that we offer authentic yoga classes, but also a space where you can connect and meet like-minded individuals.”

 

“In the yoga landscape, we have all these different merchants approaching us, saying, ‘Why don’t you have this gadget or widget added on to your site?’ So what we hoped for from the Cisco program was that they would guide us to a new level of insight that we normally don’t have access to in the health and wellness space,” Debbie says.

One of Chloe’s primary tasks was to determine whether Yoga Tree should add a chatbot to their website.

“We have a lot of members and potential clients with questions and a lot of those might happen after working hours,” Debbie says. “They’re thinking, ‘I’m just putting my kids to bed at 9:00, and I now want to sign myself up and get motivated for yoga.’ So how do we make sure we don’t lose those leads?”

Chloe identified the different chatbot programs on the market and helped the company narrow down what programs could be a good fit. After Chloe’s research and analysis, Debbie says they determined that chatbot technology isn’t sophisticated enough at this point to properly answer the kinds of questions that clients would be asking.

“In the yoga world, it’s so customized,” Debbie says. “You might have a hip replacement, you might have a knee injury — the last thing we want is to upset the student, as opposed to making it more clear for them that yoga is a great choice.”

Debbie says having Chloe on board was valuable because she provided the kind of knowledge and understanding they likely couldn’t have gotten unless they had hired a consulting firm. “She provided a level of insight that was really fresh,” Debbie says.

It’s an experience that she thinks would be beneficial for businesses of all types and sizes. “Being a woman entrepreneur, you need to invest the time into tech,” she says. “You may not have resources for it, but I think Cisco, BDC, and WEC are great places to find that support.”

With six locations under their belt in Toronto, Debbie says she and Jason have big plans for the future. They are looking to open more locations in Ontario and then expand into Quebec.

Debbie says that while Yoga Tree is a passion that both she and her partner share — “We believe that yoga is something that benefits people; we’ve seen it change people’s lives,” she says — they are also careful to maintain boundaries in order to avoid burnout. While Jason handles the yoga side of the business, teaching class and training their instructors, Debbie handles the operations side, including areas like marketing and finance. Being busy entrepreneurs with kids (the couple have two young boys, ages 6 and 8), Debbie says she has also learned how important it is to delegate.

“I can’t emphasize that enough,” she says with a laugh.

“I volunteer quite a bit at my boys’ school, and the only way I can do that safely and happily is to really let go at Yoga Tree. Not letting go in terms of quality, but letting go in terms of hiring quality people to help you manage.” It may not be easy to drop the reins when you’re the leader, she says, but it does pay off to loosen them a bit.

“I think as entrepreneurs, we always want to do everything. One of my biggest ‘a-ha’ moments was understanding that not everyone might have the way of working like you do as the owner. But if you can let go and allow the other personal aspects of your life to grow, that’s when you get the most reward.”

 

The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle — a program led by Cisco in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) — addresses some of the obstacles women-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. Are you a business owner? Fill in a short survey to register for free virtual training from the Cisco Networking Academy and fill in your knowledge gaps. Are you considering becoming a business owner? Access BDC’s free How to Start a Business module to discover everything you need to be a successful entrepreneur.

How Lori Sroujian transitioned from marketing exec to vegan cheese entrepreneur

Lori Sroujian first started experimenting with faux-cheese recipes after a family health scare led her to reconsider what she was eating. What started as a personal quest to find a nutritious but delicious replacement for cheese eventually evolved into a side hustle — and about a year ago, VegCheese became Lori’s full-time enterprise.

 

by Julia Lefebvre

 

 

Lori Sroujian never intended to leave the corporate world to start her own company — let alone a vegan cheese company. But that’s what she did.

Three years ago, Lori’s father had a stroke. That caused her tight-knit family to reconsider what they ate. Lori stopped eating animal products — including dairy. No easy feat for a self-professed cheese aficionado.

Thus began her search for the perfect non-dairy cheese. Lori wanted to find a faux-cheese that could hold its own on a cheeseboard and melt into dishes. But her hunt came up short. “I couldn’t find a product with the taste, texture and ‘melty-ness’ that I expect from my cheese. I decided to start experimenting in my condo kitchen… to find a recipe that would work.”

At the time, Lori was director of digital and multichannel marketing at Janssen Pharmaceutical in Toronto. On evenings and weekends, she made batch after batch of vegan cheese. After many failed attempts, she finally landed on a recipe that made her no longer miss the real thing. 

Soon, Lori was sharing her creation with family and friends. They all loved it. Even the meat-eaters. Then someone asked Lori whether she was willing to sell some of her cheese. “I didn’t know how to respond,” Lori says. “I was like… maybe I need to start a company.”

A brainstorming session with her family led to the name VegCheese (her brother’s idea). To build on her original mozzarella, Lori created new flavours, including Italian Black Truffle.

 

“If I can’t feed it to my family, I will not feed it to my customers. I want to stand behind the quality of what we’re creating.”

 

Then she took a chance. She signed up to exhibit at Mississauga VegFest, a vegan consumer show near her home in Toronto. Trouble was, Lori had nowhere to make the hundreds of cheeses she’d need for the show. She hadn’t even finalized the packaging for VegCheese yet. Quickly, she rented a commercial kitchen, got her food handling certificate and got busy making cheese. The response at VegFest was overwhelming. “We sold almost 300 cheeses in a day. It was crazy,” she recalls. Social media started talking, too. People wanted to know where they could buy VegCheese.

Lori has long had an entrepreneurial spirit. Her thirst for the next challenge is what drew her from traditional marketing to digital, and led her to earn her MBA at Smith School of Business. So when Janssen restructured her department last October, she took it as a sign to pursue VegCheese full time. 

Her timing couldn’t have been better. A recent Nielsen survey found that, in North America, consumers are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets (39 per cent of Americans and 43 per cent of Canadians). Nearly half of Canadians (46 per cent) and more than a third of Americans (38 per cent) associate plant-based protein with good health effects.

VegCheese’s line of artisanal vegan cheese is dairy-free, nut-free and gluten-free. It’s handcrafted in Toronto in small batches, with a base of organic soy milk and organic coconut oil.

Last December, Lori pitched VegCheese to a jury of experienced businesspeople at UPstart. The competition, led by Queen’s Venture Network, offers funding to budding entrepreneurs — and Lori walked away with $15,000. She’s using the money for kitchen equipment and packaging. She also hired a consultant to help extend the fridge life of VegCheese and streamline manufacturing.

VegCheese is now available in 10 specialty food stores in Ontario, and Lori has recently begun working with restaurants as well. The newest VegCheese product, vegan cheese curds, are now featured in the plant-based poutine at New York-based vegan restaurant By CHLOE’s first Canadian location (in the Yorkdale mall). 

As VegCheese grows, Lori says she will insist on maintaining the high product standards that she started with. “If I can’t feed it to my family, I will not feed it to my customers. I want to stand behind the quality of what we’re creating.”

 

The Accelerated MBA at Smith School of Business allows professionals with an undergraduate business degree to earn Canada’s most respected MBA degree in 12 months while continuing to advance their career or grow their own venture. Learn more here.