Downtown Billings business owner Sharli Kiner is back to where she started—running her Limber Tree Yoga Studio at 212 N. 29th St.
On Monday, she pulled the plug on her second location, at 2710 First Ave. N., just about a year after she opened it. Since announcing the closure, she said, a lot of people have approached her to say how sorry they were to hear the news, more or less offering their condolences.
She’s been telling them, “Thank for your concern, but that’s not the way I feel.”
Kiner said she doesn’t feel bad about trying to go big, and she’s glad she didn’t shy away from the necessity of going back to one location. Yoga is all about finding a physical and mental balance, she said, and her life was seriously out of balance trying to run two studios.
She opened the first Limber Tree in 2012 after gutting and remodeling a sandwich shop. She was only 28, she had two young children and she was going through a divorce, but it was something she really wanted to do.
She had worked as a mortgage originator for five years and had a part time job pouring beer at Carter’s Brewing on Montana Avenue, but she wanted to work for herself.
“I don’t work well for other people,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t work hard. It’s just that I like to have the freedom to create.”
Eventually, she was offering a variety of yoga and meditation classes, plus belly dancing, pole fitness classes and aerial yoga, for which she had to build an elaborate steel support structure. Hers is still the only studio offering aerial yoga in Billings.
She decided to expand because she couldn’t squeeze all the classes for which there was demand into her 2,200-square-foot studio. She ended up leasing the former Sage Spa space in the Securities Building from Bill and Marcia Honaker, whose restaurant, Walkers Grill, anchors the building at First Avenue North and North 27th Street.
“The Honakers have been extremely gracious and very, very nice,” Kiner said. “They’re very inspiring for me as a young businessperson.”
The new space was a little more than double the size of the original studio and spanned two floors. Kiner originally had a partner who was going to run the spa section of the new business, but she had to pull out just after Kiner signed the lease.
Kiner had already had a crash course in running a small business. Now she got crash course in running a spa, in which she had no experience. She was soon spending all her time at the new location, neglecting the original studio.
At one point, she said, she had 25 people working for her, in full- and part-time positions and as independent contractors. The new studio had four parts—the yoga classes, the spa, a juice bar and a retail area. Kiner felt overwhelmed.
“When you take the thing you love the most and make it your source of income, it’s quite the”—here she paused to find the right words—“quite the interesting experience.”
She decided she had to close the new studio and focus on the original business. It was a tough decision, she said, but it also felt like one of the smartest things she ever did.
In addition to a bank loan she took out to start the second business, Kiner received a $32,500 grant from the city’s tax-increment financing district. All of that money went into improvements that will benefit future tenants, she said, including flooring, cabinetry, painting and other remodeling expenses.
Kiner said she is committed to the downtown and its “culture of people,” even though it can be more expensive to lease older buildings than to build on the West End, where yoga studios seem to be thriving. She said the downtown needs to work on cheaper rents and a “really creative” parking plan that will attract more businesses and make it easier for people to patronize downtown shops.
She said she has begun to realize that one way to strengthen the downtown might be through partnerships. During the transition from two studios to one she is offering evening yoga classes three times a week at the nearby Barjon’s Books, and she is investigating other venues where she can offer classes.
She is also using a space at the Billings First Church, 310 N. 27th St., to lead a training program for yoga instructors, which currently has 17 students. She has just seven instructors herself, “which is perfect,” she said, and she is teaching five to seven classes a week, of the 30 to 35 classes offered at Limber Tree.
Off-site, Kiner gives lots of private lessons, and among her clients is a girl with no lower limbs, one client with post-traumatic stress disorder and women at Passages, a community-based correctional facility run by Alternatives Inc. She recently taught a class for children and their parents at Head Start.
“There’s lot of ways we try to serve the community,” she said.
Kiner said Lisa Harmon, director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, has been a consistent supporter and a great resource. But her biggest debt is to Bill Honaker, who, in addition to being her accommodating landlord, has given her many hours of mentoring.
“I’m 32,” Kiner said. “I hope by the time I get to that point, I can be a mentor, too. I’m definitely going to pay it forward.”