T he clean white walls and tranquil halls of Collective Studios, a new boutique gym in Londonderry, belie the year of frustration and uncertainty it took for owner Ashley Iwanicki to open her doors.
Now that the gym is open, there are hard, long days, Iwanicki said. But she said the longest day of operating the studio does not compare with the struggle to open.
“We got through that,” she said. “We can get through this.”
The pandemic put life on hold for people around the world. Businesses were forced to close, then faced capacity limits to keep people safe. Getting a loan became difficult. While established businesses got help from the three federal stimulus bills, little aid was available for entrepreneurs just setting out on a new venture.
But Iwanicki could not have foreseen any of that when she decided to move across the country and open her gym.
In 2019, she was living in San Diego, running a marketing business that worked with high-end fitness businesses and thinking about the next step in her professional life. Iwanicki, a native of Chelmsford, Mass., and her husband, who grew up in Litchfield, wanted to come home to New England to be closer to family.
The idea for a high-end fitness studio, where she could help people work out and create community, came to her in a dream, she said. Researching the market, she found New England had few of the small studios she loved in California, focused on just a few kinds of exercise classes offered in luxe surroundings — a very different kind of experience than a big gym with rows of machines, or a spartan weightlifting gym.
Iwanicki said she missed that kind of experience when she would visit home in Massachusetts and her in-laws in New Hampshire. She figured there was a market of other people feeling the same way.
“I couldn’t be the only one who lived or came back to New England, especially in the suburbs, and wanted an experience like this,” she said.
Iwanicki drew up a business plan. She and her husband boxed their California life, and moved to New Hampshire in February 2020. Iwanicki soon found a space for the studio in a strip mall off busy Route 102. She signed a lease in the second week of March 2020.
Days later, the coronavirus state of emergency was declared.
Optimism meets pandemic
Iwanicki hoped COVID-19 would just mean just a few weeks’ delay, and she could open by the summer of 2020.
“Well, I’m very optimistic. I’m a Sagittarius,” she said. But the pandemic put her fledgling business in limbo for a year, along with the rest of the world.
Iwanicki spent most of the year trying to get a loan for the business. She met with some 40 lenders, she said, taking rejection after rejection. She and her husband lived with his parents to save money, Iwanicki said. She had to keep paying rent on the empty Londonderry space. And there was no pandemic aid for Collective Studios, or for any businesses that had not opened by early 2020.
Pandemic aid was targeted businesses that had opened by early 2020, said Amy K. Bassett, director of the New Hampshire district of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
“Most of the programs did not help anybody who was not in existence prior to the pandemic,” Bassett said. Starting a new business is hard enough, she said, but entrepreneurs faced an especially steep climb last year.
“Anybody that did start up was at an extra disadvantage,” Bassett said. “We admire anybody who tried.”
It took all Iwanicki’s optimism to get through the year. She said her yoga training also helped her to feel steady amid the uncertainty.
“There were a lot of moments when we didn’t know were we making the right choice by continuing to pursue this,” she said. “Are we ever going to be able to open? Are we ever going to get funding?
But one day, a lender said yes.
That was all it took, Iwanicki said — that one yes. The year of holding her breath was over.
Renovation finally began this spring, and Iwanicki and her husband hauled in six 300-pound Megaformer machines, which she explained are like Pilates machines with extra resistance.
Iwanicki hired a team of eight part-time staff — she said she had little trouble hiring even now, she said, because she drew on like-minded acquaintances and friends of friends. Iwanicki developed relationships with food and wellness-product vendors with a focus on working with companies owned by women or people of color, or small local businesses, including the smoothie shop next door.
Collective Studios opened earlier this month.
The studio sits in a slice of a bustling strip mall off the busy Route 102. But inside, the strip mall surroundings fade from view. The lobby spaces are peaceful, but during classes, Iwanicki and the other instructors turn the music up loud, and switch on lights that pulse in time to the music. It feels a little like working out in a nightclub, Iwanicki said, as instructors run through different kinds of yoga, and the Megaformer classes.
An average weekday schedule of classes has drawn between 70 and 80 people, Iwanicki said, which she said exceeded her expectations for the first week in business.
She said people have been excited to get back into group fitness, and to experience a new way of working out together in a new place.
“I think people are thirsty for interaction and community,” she said. “If 2020 taught us anything, it’s the importance of community.”