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The Thrill of Physics with Illana Gambrill, Founder of DanceBox

founder stories podcast unfinished business Apr 08, 2024

In this episode of Unfinished Business, you'll meet Illana Gambrill, Founder of DanceBox. Listen to her story to avoid her mistakes and replicate her wins.


Welcome to Unfinished Business, a new podcast where we sit down with entrepreneurs who have overcome the challenges of starting a company, and the secrets to keeping it alive.

In this episode of Unfinished Business, you'll meet Illana Gambrill, Founder of DanceBox.

Illana is the perfect example of when a creative tour de force unlocks their inner entrepreneur.

She started dancing at age 12 and by 18 was working as a pro, travelling the world with famous artists on tours and TV shows.

Yet, after years of shouldering the weight and pressure of being a professional dancer, Illana quit the industry to explore something new. And so, DanceBox was born.

What started as a simple idea, adult dance classes, grew into a smash hit.

But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Illana had to think on her feet and take a leap into the unknown.


In this episode you'll learn that:

  • Starting a business can be intimidating, but with support, you can navigate the highs and lows of working for yourself.

  • Utilising social media effectively is crucial for growing a business and connecting with potential customers.

  • Change can be difficult, but it's important to pursue your dreams and embrace a 'squiggly' career.

  • Balancing work, life, and personal well-being is critical for success.

  • Asking for help, prioritising marketing and finance, and focusing on your goals are all essential steps in starting a business.

Episode Transcript: The Thrill of Physics with Illana Gambrill


Liana: Thank you so much for joining us, Illana.


Illana: Thank you for having me.


Liana: Illana, tell me the story of your light bulb moment. Was there something specific that inspired you to change direction?


Illana: I remember teaching older women who had never danced before and watching them shine and feel bright. I stepped out of a studio one day and said, enough. I'm going to push for this. And that's how it started.


Liana: And how did it make you feel to start giving the gift of dance back to other people?


Illana: Mind-blowing and empowering. Seeing other people come alive through something I can give them was incredible.


Liana: How did you get the ball rolling after your light bulb moment?


Illana: I started a Facebook group asking friends if they'd be interested in taking a dance class, and I opened up a studio class at a local school. It started with just friends and family, but it was the best.


Liana: What were the first classes like?


Illana: They were nerve-wracking, but my friends and family came and supported me and gave me feedback. It felt like I was finally on the right path.


Liana: How did your career in LA and dancing with celebrities influence your decision to start DanceBox?


Illana: I felt a lot of shame attached to leaving the industry, but I wanted to change the narrative and give the gift of dance to others. Things took off when I opened up about it and released the shame.


Liana: How did your business grow organically?


Illana: A woman who attended one of my classes put me in a local magazine, which spread the word, and I learned how to utilise social media effectively. Eventually, my classes were fully booked, with a huge waiting list.


Liana: You mentioned that your career took you to LA, and you danced with celebrities.

What made you leave? Was there a moment when suddenly you were like, no, this?


Illana: Yeah, it was a big moment for me, and I wasn't honest with my dance friends about it.

My dance friends were my everything; we still have a close bond. But there was shame attached to leaving while they were all in their prime, doing something against what we'd been fighting and dreaming for.


Illana: I wanted to change the narrative because it stopped feeling like the beautiful, dream-fulfilling space it once was. It became massively competitive and negative.

I didn't want to be in that environment anymore. I worried I might never dance again, which scared me because dancing is my purpose.


Illana: So, I moved away from the industry, kept my social media private, and didn't tell anyone for ages. Then one day, I opened up my social media, and that's when it hit me—I released the shame.


Liana: I resonate with that. As a dancer, I also spent summers in LA attending dance conventions. I knew I wouldn't go pro, partly because of my flat feet and financial concerns.

Creatives often feel boxed in within the industry, and you inspire others to explore options outside of it.


Liana: Consider Brynn Putnam, the founder of Mirror, a professional ballet dancer who sold her company to Lululemon for $300 Million, or Tracy Anderson, the founder of the Tracy Anderson method.

Creatives can translate their skills into many different things.


Illana: Absolutely. Moving away from the expected path as a trained dancer in my prime was an important message to my friends. Many of them have since gone on to do similar things.


Liana: The journey through entrepreneurship is full of highs, lows, twists, and turns. They're unexpected no matter how hard or how much you prepare.


Illana: I used to try to run before I could walk. Things fell into place when I stopped trying to make my classes massive. About six months in, a woman who ran a local magazine came to my class.

She featured me in it, which helped spread the word. I also learned how to utilise social media effectively.


Illana: I moved away from Facebook and focused on Instagram to reach strangers who shared it with their friends. It grew organically to the point where, seven months in, I had to add another class because I had a huge waiting list. I still cry every single class, whether there's one person or hundreds.


Liana: I love this leveraging of free resources. I remember hearing Paul Linley, the founder of Ella's Kitchen, speak once. He said that because of his background in television production, he knew there was leftover space on TV ads.


Liana: So he phoned his old colleagues and asked if they had any free space for him to run some ads. Surprisingly, they did, and that's how he started.

It's essential to take advantage of the free opportunities that come your way and think laterally.


Liana: Social media, like Instagram, is excellent for connecting with people interested in what you're doing. They can share, and their connections can share, creating a beautiful, curated feed that's fun and attractive.


Liana: Can you discuss using social media to grow your brand?


Illana: I want to be clear that I don't have a business mentality. I have a gift and a passion that I want to execute. Social media allows me to put my work out into the world.

I wanted my social media to feel like my classes – free, unapologetic, sexy, and judgment-free. By filming class participants and showing their growth, I aim for freedom and growth in my social media presence.


Illana: I'm still learning the business and asking for help now.


Liana: We want to be transparent about building a business. How did you finance Dance Box in the early days, especially since you were alone?


Illana: Before starting DanceBox, I saved money from my professional dancing and side jobs. I used my rainy day savings to fund the initial stages of the business.

I rented a sports hall and charged a small fee per class, which I used to pay for the studio.

For the first four years, I put everything I earned back into the business and walked away with practically nothing each month.


Liana: How did you manage without taking an income?


Illana: I limited my spending and lived with my ex-husband, who helped with rent. I understand this isn't possible for everyone, but it worked for me then.


Liana: What was one of the first significant investments you made in your business? For me, it was branding.


Illana: Mine was also branding and a website. I hired teams for both and took a leap of faith in spending the money to take my business to the next level.


Liana: Where did you turn to for support initially, especially for the more tedious aspects like finance and tax planning?


Illana: My mom's accountant friend explained everything to me for five hours. He took me on as a client, and I learned from him step-by-step how to handle taxes and other financial aspects.


Liana: It's terrifying when you think about all the things that you don't know when you start. I'm a big worrier, and I tend to blow things up.

So this idea of, oh my gosh, if I don't pay this bill, and then it gets overdue, or if I miss a tax notice from the company's house or HMRC and it all goes into default, it's terrifying.

But with my ADHD, I can't keep up with everything, either. So it's just the stress of the stress.


Illana: Yes, it's a lot. And I think I went into this quite blind, thinking I would teach everyone how to dance and it would be amazing.

But then I realised there's so much more to consider. It doesn't go away; it gets more complicated the bigger you get. But I love learning, and I'll take it on and embrace it. I might drown in the meantime, but we move.


Liana: We move. How long did it take for you to start earning an income from DanceBox?


Illana: You know, five years. I remember at the end of one tax year, I was like, oh my God, I've earned that much money. It was the first time I had made that much.

Truthfully, it wasn't that much, maybe £10,000 that year, but I was doing local dance classes six days a week for the first five years.

I could only limit myself to the people in my area and the space my studio could hold, which was 20 people a night. But the pandemic did change things for me.


Liana: Let's get into that. It's March 2020, and you've got 50 people dancing several times a day, living your best lives. Then suddenly, everyone has to stay home. What do you do?


Illana: At the beginning of 2020, I thought my business would boom. I started doing events and opening up to the whole UK.

But then, March 2020 came, and I didn't know what to do. I had only ever done classes, and I didn't know how to go online.

Many people had asked me to go online before the pandemic, and now I had to figure it out.

A woman helped me set up a private Instagram page to monetise my classes, and within four days, I had made all the money back and more.


Liana: In these moments, we often take leaps of faith. We may not know how to proceed but find ourselves without alternatives.

Our frames of reference and preconceived notions of what is possible can limit us. However, when circumstances change, we find ourselves venturing in new and unexpected directions.


Illana: Absolutely. At the start of the lockdown, I was giving free Instagram live classes every day, and I realised I had been limiting myself to 20 people per class.

Now, I was teaching 350 people from my mom's living room. It made so much sense to use the technology.


Liana: A healthy business is constantly evolving. Every entrepreneur has moments where they reflect and ask themselves if they're staying on this ride.

So let's look at these pivotal moments: your highs, lows, twists, and turns.

What was your biggest win in the past 12 months, and how did you get there?


Illana: My biggest win was successfully going online. Success is different for everyone, but for me, it means reaching as many people as possible because I want everyone to feel what I have to offer.

Within two weeks, I had 600 people subscribing, and that was huge for me. It's not just about the money; it's about making people come alive. The more people I can reach, the better.


Liana: The idea is not to become the next Jeff Bezos, but rather about the potential positive impact you could have on the world if you become that successful.

It's about the change you could create, and you owe it to yourself to aim for the most significant possible impact because of the bright light that you will radiate back into the world.


Illana: I'm here to raise the vibration of this world. So the more people I can reach, the more I can help.


Liana: Tell me about what I like to call your favourite mess-up or that moment where you're just like, oh my God, what am I doing?


Illana: My favourite mess-up is a personal one. As I expressed, I'm passionate about giving, but in the process, I completely forgot about myself and neglected my well-being.

Six years in, I was empty and couldn't give anymore. In October 2020, I had a mental breakdown and took time off, which was complicated as a one-person operation.

I sat back, learned how to heal, and poured into myself.


Liana: We need to talk more about the importance of work-life balance for entrepreneurs, especially solo business owners.

Illana: Normalising balance is crucial. People tend to think that being busier means achieving more, but balancing work, life, and personal well-being is important.

I now tell my clients I want them in my class only if they are resting. I can't watch them go through what I experienced. The trophy doesn't exist.


Liana: We must prioritise rest, self-care, and taking breaks, just like professional athletes. Entrepreneurs and people, in general, should think like that.


Illana: I get close to people who often share their struggles in my work. I used to take it all on as an empath, but now I've stopped that. I can't let their issues constantly come at me. I will support them on the dance floor, but that's where it ends.


Liana: Can you share a moment when you thought about quitting?


Illana: When I moved into a new studio, I faced challenges reaching a new demographic. For months, I was teaching classes with only two attendees.

I considered quitting but stuck it out for another two months. Another time was in October 2020, when I was emotionally drained from personal struggles. However, I knew I would feel worse if I gave up the business.


Liana: What's next for DanceBox and yourself?


Illana: I'm excited about creating a DanceBox app that will include a well-being section, dance classes, guest star features, and more. I'm trying not to rush the process and remember my mom's advice: "Rome wasn't built in a day."


Liana: Let's talk about the "Coulda", "Shoulda", and "Woulda". What could you have done, something you should have done, and something you would do differently?


Illana: I could have asked for help earlier; it would have made a big difference.

I should not have listened to everyone else and stayed in my lane, focusing on my goals. I would not have been so ignorant about the business side of things and would have prioritised it more.


Liana: Thank you for being open and honest about your journey. Entrepreneurs need to celebrate their wins and learn from their experiences.


Illana: You can find DanceBox on Instagram at @DanceBoxOfficial and on our website at www.dance-box.co.uk.


Liana: Illana's story is a reminder that anyone can be an entrepreneur with self-belief and determination.

Remember to subscribe to Unfinished Business for more inspiring stories, and check out www.theinspirationspace.co for help starting your own business.

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