By Kim Lyons Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
When her son was a toddler, Deena Blumenfeld started teaching yoga, partly out of a need for adult contact. When she started branching out to prenatal yoga, a funny thing happened.
"What I found from the mothers -- because I started seeing them regularly -- was they started feeling comfortable asking me questions that they didn't feel comfortable asking their doctors," she said. "But they weren't things that were within the scope of the practice of yoga."
The mothers-to-be wanted Ms. Blumenfeld's guidance for a range of childbirth and baby-related things, such as Lamaze and breastfeeding.
"I came to realize that women needed more than prenatal yoga or a childbirth class. They needed continuity, a community with a consistent message of support," she said.
After conducting classes for a couple of years, she opened Shining Light Prenatal Education on Butler Street in Lawrenceville in 2012 as a place to help educate and guide women through pregnancy, childbirth and beyond.
Her motivation came from her personal experiences. Her son Owen was born via Caesarean section, which was not what she had planned. While she was still earning her yoga teacher certification, she discovered she was pregnant with her second child.
At that point, she enrolled in an intensive prenatal yoga teacher training, and has since become a certified Lamaze and prenatal yoga instructor. Classes at Shining Light now include pre- and post-natal yoga, family yoga, and baby sign language. There also is a support group for new mothers.
She said there are about 25 or 30 similar centers like hers around the country, and there are other places in Pittsburgh where pregnant women can get childbirth classes, Lamaze classes or even prenatal yoga. "But this is the only place where they can get all those things together," she said.
Even the type of yoga she teaches is a niche within its field. "It's very tailored to the pregnant body," she said, "no abdominal work and you're not going to sweat bullets. We're indirectly preparing the moms for labor, so we do a lot of positions that will be helpful, like squats. Even the breathing and relaxation skills can carry into labor with them."
She has even been called upon to teach other yoga instructors how to accommodate pregnant women into traditional classes, Ms. Blumenfeld said.
When she was getting her business started, Ms. Blumenfeld sought help from Duquesne University's Small Business Development Center. She attended a free introductory seminar and signed up for regular one-on-one sessions with one of their consultants.
"Their support network is amazing," she said. "Every other week, you have a consultation and get help with your business plan and your pitch."
That proved crucial, Ms, Blumenfeld said. Hers is such a niche business that she needed to be able to clearly explain what she wanted to do, especially when it came time to approach banks for loans.
"I learned how to take what I do and whittle it down to a couple of sentences that would be easily understandable to someone who was not pregnant," she said.
Even with that clearly defined focus, she still had a hard time convincing lenders. "I do have a small line of credit, but a big source of my funding came via an inheritance," she said. "Because the business is so specific, I ended up relying more on the inheritance than I was hoping to."
As of last year, Shining Light had reached profitability, she said. But that's not her only measure of success; she keeps track of the number of students she has overall and class attendance, and she adjusts classes and schedules accordingly.
Since her clientele is only part of her niche demographic for about nine months, Ms. Blumenfeld works to retain students after they've given birth. She also is always networking to develop new clients, unlike a a traditional yoga studio that can have clients returning over 10 or 15 years' time.
"We do have a fair number of students who follow the entire program, then come back six weeks after birth for postpartum yoga and infant massage, but some take one class and don't return," she said. "We have started adding more classes, like family yoga and toddler yoga."
To avoid having to teach every class, Ms. Blumenfeld contracts with other instructors, each bringing their own techniques but all with the same philosophy on educating pregnant women.
She decided early on she wanted to open her storefront in Lawrenceville. One piece of advice she would give other entrepreneurs when looking for a location: Don't just think about the dimensions of the space, consider the social environment as well. Her 1,600-square-foot space has one large room and a smaller classroom for private sessions, and is housed in what used to be a gift shop.
"This is a business community and it's not just a place where I pay rent," she said. "You have to ask yourself: 'Does my business fit here?' "
In a bit of serendipity, one of her prenatal clients was Maya Henry, who is director of special initiatives at the nonprofit Lawrenceville Corp.
"I was pregnant and looking for a prenatal yoga class, but not finding a good fit," Ms. Henry said. When she took Ms. Blumenfeld's class, she felt a connection right away. "She has a very nice balance between directness and authenticity and also warmth. I don't connect well with touchy-feeliness, and she respects that."
Shining Light and Lawrenceville also proved a good fit for each other, Ms. Henry said. "What we seek in Lawrenceville are businesses unique and authentic to Lawrenceville. No chain stores. She really fits that ethos."
Ms. Blumenfeld's plans include adding a second Shining Light studio in a suburban location, with the potential for conducting satellite classes. The experience of opening her first location helped her hone in on how to effectively convey what her unique business does.
"I learned there is no check box that my business could be in, which is a challenge," she said. "But I can explain what Shining Light does, even when there is no other business like it."