Rob Wrubel

Purist to Populist

May 06, 2005

Case categories include: Entrepreneurship   Marketing   Strategy & Planning   

By Robert Sher
The masses keep invading the province of the purist.  Once, only computer geniuses could help their kids learn to use the computer.  Then came Windows and Knowledge Adventure’s kid/parent friendly software that everyone could afford, install and use!  Once, only techies were smart enough to use Boolean logic to do Internet searches.  Then came natural language search engines (Ask Jeeves) funded by corporations placing ads.  Think you can find a purist haven in the practice of Yoga?  Willing to learn Sanskrit just to avoid the masses?  Sorry.  Yoga Works is a pioneer, making Yoga accessible to the masses – even overweight, middle age WASPs.

The Case
Maybe this is a bad thing for the purists that lost their havens – but it’s a good thing for the masses, and a great thing for the business prospects of Rob Wrubel, a serial entrepreneur who helped take Knowledge Adventure (educational software for kids) from a tiny startup to a the country’s largest educational software publisher with over $200 million in sales.  Then, he took a band of five software geeks up to 100 employees in the first year.  Then they went public, and even after the dot.com bubble burst, Ask Jeeves still had a market cap in 2004 of nearly $2 billion dollars.  Mr. Wrubel’s current venture, Yoga Works, is making the practice of Yoga accessible and comfortable for the 90 million Baby-Boomer Americans that are aging quickly, and in need of a healthier lifestyle.

But how did Rob go from search engine entrepreneur to Yoga man?  After two high-tech venture funded business, he found himself overweight, out of shape, and ailing.  He found Yoga amazingly healthy and beneficial, but not “user friendly.”  The culture of the studios felt very Eastern; it was hard to find a great teacher, and especially hard to find studios with people like himself.

He realized that Yoga’s wonderful health benefits were underexposed, and the purists that loved Yoga liked keeping it “special” and considered any mainstreaming of the practice to be “blasphemous.”  As Rob looked for his next entrepreneurial venture, he had two plans:  A Yoga chain concept to take Yoga to the masses, and another computer-related concept.  He was stuck between the two options.

At a meeting of his Alliance of Chief Executives group in May of 2002, he focused his peer CEOs on his dilemma.  By the end of the two-hour session, the consensus was clear:  Go with the Yoga idea. Yet later, at a brainstorming meeting with some venture capitalists, he presented his high-tech idea. It drew yawns.  They asked Rob if he had anything more interesting.  With trepidation, be presented the Yoga plan.  They loved it, and several in the group were practicing Yoga themselves.  Funding quickly followed, and Rob was off and running.  Today, Rob has 14 studios in three major cities.

The Analysis
The masses don’t create new things.  They discover things that smaller groups do (early adopters) then jump in.  When the masses do jump in, there is money to be made. 

Rob Wrubel has a natural curiosity about life, and likes to be on the leading edge of exploration into new things.  That lead him to frustration around getting his kids into multimedia-based education, and he found a big opportunity.  So, too, his interest in searching the Internet created frustration, and Ask Jeeves was his solution.  So, too, his own personal physical issues were a catalyst for his present business.

Push the limits in what you do each day.  As you move through life, go beyond the average and scout for opportunities to make it easier for the masses that may follow you.  It’s an easy and natural “screen” for seeing new opportunities. You’re living life anyway; you might as well make it profitable at the same time.

Remember that purists actually like the “exclusivity” of the club they created.  Bringing in the masses is not generally popular with the purists, and they are an obstacle that you must win over to be successful.  Add to that the need to educate the masses about an interest that they may have negative associations with is time-consuming and costly.  Mr. Wrubel cites that each time, it took a good three years and a near meltdown to turn the corner.

Don’t underestimate your ability to get outside funding.  While “normal” businesses are lower risk, VCs really aren’t into low risk, low-return businesses.  They know that the best successes often come from “crazy” new ideas and high risk ventures.  It’s true that Rob had two big successes under his belt that added to his credibility with VCs.  Still, the VCs were able to personally relate to Yoga, and loved it from the start.

Think you’ve stumbled upon a crazy idea that the masses would love?  Great.  Dive into researching it – talk to everyone and anyone about it.  Go on Ask Jeeves and start digging.  The purists can’t hide from you or Jeeves.  Thanks to Rob Wrubel.

Takeaways:
• Develop ideas around products or services that you’re genuinely interested in.
• Don’t be afraid of the “exclusive” nature of some business ideas.
• When it comes to attracting mass appeal, count on your instincts.

Robert Sher is principal of CEO to CEO, specializing in assisting CEOs and business leaders as they navigate critical passages.  He is the author of The Feel of the Deal; How I Built a Business through Acquisitions.  He may be reached at Robert@ceotoceo.biz.

Company and Case Facts:

Company: Yoga Works
Person: Rob Wrubel, Co-CEO & Co-Founder
Alliance Member since: 2001
Business Founded: Acquired Yoga Works independent studio in 2003
Annual Sales Volume: $10 million, FY2005
Growth Rate: 85% (2004 to 2005)
Head Count: 450
Product: Yoga classes, workshops, training seminars, retail products, retreats
Typical Customer: 75% women (45-65), 25% men, $85k+, college educated
Written: May 2005
Address: Yoga Works, 2215 Main Street, Santa Monica, CA 90405