Akasha Wellness: Best friends who quit the corporate life have found their 'space in which to shine' in a farm barn in Bishop's Stortford
Taking what they describe as "a leap of faith" has paid off handsomely for two best friends who swapped the corporate City world for helping people to strengthen the body, improve their fitness and focus the mind.
Jo Webster and Nuala Barrett, who had been working as head of UK marketing for McDonald's and as a corporate lawyer for US firm Reed Smith LLP respectively, decided to go into business together in 2014.
Having a shared love of yoga and Pilates, they opened Akasha Wellness at Wickham Hall in Bishop's Stortford in the October of that year, creating "a uniquely inspiring space which can be as energising as it is calming".
And the friends, who have known each other for 24 years after meeting at Newcastle University, have already expanded the business with the opening of a Ware studio in September 2019 and are keen to take their brand even further.
Jo, 42, grew up in Middlesbrough and was studying business when she met Nuala, 41, who hails from Nottingham and was studying law, in Newcastle.
The pair came down to the capital together after university. Jo worked in marketing for Cadbury and Pizza Hut before a nine-year stint with McDonald's while Nuala's eight years with Reed Smith came after being a senior associate lawyer with Travers Smith.
They had already moved out of London – Jo lives in Bramfield, near Hertford, with partner Angus and children Olivia, 10, and Oscar, 3, while Nuala lives in Albury with husband Paul and kids Caitlyn, 11, Luke, 10, and Kristian, 3 – when they decided it was time for a change of direction.
"We both loved yoga and Pilates and had been doing it for many years, and when we moved out here we found it difficult to find good places to do it," said Jo. "When you're in London you've got everything on your doorstep and so much choice.
"We just stumbled across this place and absolutely loved it. The idea was there and we just did it – we retrained as Pilates instructors and Akasha was born."
It was Nuala who discovered the barn premises at Wickham Hall, which was just a shell when they took it on. The friends quickly realised it would be the ideal place for the business and the atmosphere they wanted to create.
"We'd talked about running a business together because we thought we had good skill sets between us," said Nuala.
"It was really finding the right location that was a sign because it's just the perfect setting for yoga and Pilates. That gave us the push."
Having never run their own business before and doing something very different to their previous careers, they were able to convince Wickham Hall owners David and Suzy Harvey that they could make a success of things.
And a success it certainly has been. They run 80 classes a week across both of their sites, have around 2,000 clients a month being given expert tuition by 20 freelance instructors and employ six receptionists, including "the face of Akasha", studio manager Zoe Baxter.
"I think that's where our corporate background really helped because we could go to David with a fully mapped out business plan just as we would on any project we were working on in London," said Jo.
"He got that we were professional people that knew a lot about business. But sometimes I do look back and think 'How did we do that? We're not risk takers!"
Nuala agrees: "I remember the weekend before we opened, I was away with some friends and I didn't sleep. We were taking on the overheads that come with the building and I was thinking 'Where are all these people going to come from for these classes?'
"It was such a leap of faith, but we did a lot of research and went about it in a very professional and systematic way. And pretty quickly we were filling up."
Wickham Hall provides a tranquil backdrop for Akasha's classes and therapies. Mat and reformer Pilates, yoga and barre sessions are offered alongside reflexology, acupuncture, reiki, sports massage, physiotherapy and osteopathy.
The reformer Pilates classes, using state-of-the-art reformer beds imported from California, are one of Akasha's unique selling points. Reformer targets every muscle with an innovative, intense and highly effective full-body workout, helping you to gain core strength, fitness and flexibility in a way that is gentle on the body regardless of age, weight or fitness level.
"We love it so much and I think one of the keys to our success is offering reformer Pilates because it's different to what you can get elsewhere," said Jo.
"A lot of Pilates and yoga can be done anywhere because you just need space for a mat, but when you need the equipment it requires a lot of investment because they're not cheap.
"It's something different and then you put it in a building like this. Akasha means 'a space in which to shine' and that's what we wanted to create. There's something for everyone."
Nuala added: "One of the secrets of our success is creating a real community here. We make a real point of making whoever it is feel welcome. Our oldest member is 94 and there's a real spread."
The friends are pleased with how their Ware studio is doing, offering reformer Pilates only in a courtyard setting in Sucklings Yard.
Opening three more studios in the next three years is a possible plan, with Chelmsford, Brentwood and Loughton in Essex as well as Radlett in Hertfordshire potential locations.
"We went into this thinking we wanted to create a brand and create more than one [studio]," said Jo.
"We're quite picky on the space and we probably would have done it sooner had we found some space. Ware came up – it's different, being in a nice courtyard and smaller, but we're just doing reformer Pilates and it's working brilliantly."
The pair, who also met their partners while on Tyneside, admit some people urged them to be cautious before going into business together in case it put a strain on their friendship. But taking the plunge and realising their dream has proved to be exactly the right decision.
"I think a lot of people said be careful because it can ruin friendships. It's one thing being best friends but it's another thing actually working in business together," said Jo.
"From a business perspective, because we have different corporate skill sets that aren't overlapping we have different areas that we own within the business."
Nuala added: "We've also both got a very strong work ethic. We both give it our all and we trust each other.
"We're very much a team and, if anything, it's made our friendship stronger. I don't think we've had a single argument – we're not that type of personality."
Go to www.akashawellness.co.uk for more information, including an introductory offer of a £5 taster class and flexible memberships.