#HOWSHEDIDIT: Meet Bonnie Lister Parsons, Founder of The School of SOS
Firstly, tell us a bit about you?
I live in North West London with my beautiful diva ‘dog daughter’ called Lola Elizabeth. I am married to my husband Jonny and we’ve been together for 14 years – he is also an entrepreneur, which is very helpful! I’ve dedicated my life to business for the past 11 years and before that, my life was dedicated to dance. I started dancing as a backing dancer professionally when I was 19 having trained in London, New York and LA.
Tell us about your business?
SOS Dance is a global dance empire on a mission to empower a generation of ‘Queens’ to believe in themselves using dance as a source of strength, power and confidence which they can carry through to every aspect of their lives.
We do this through 1. Our certified instructors, who are trained in our teaching method and licence our amazing routines which they teach to their local SOS communities worldwide. And 2. through our global on demand video subscription. All our routines both in-person and online are choreographed by the A-list dancers to the stars who work with Beyoncé, Lizzo, Doja Cat, Rihanna, JLo and to name a few!
Very excitingly, our in-person classes and on demand videos will become connected through one digital destination and dancetech platform very soon, which our CTO Leah is currently building for us!
How did you come up with the idea?
Going all the way back to 2010, I came up with the idea for my first business Seen on Screen while working as a professional backing dancer on the set of the X Factor Live Shows. I was sitting on the stage in between rehearsals thinking, I wonder if any of the 20 million people at home want to dance like the pop stars and dancers they see ‘on screen’?. Turns out they did!
Fast forward a few years, Seen on Screen had become the top fitness trend and the most popular dance classes in London for non-professional dancers.
As a result we’d get loads of press year on year and women all over the world asking me to bring SOS to their city. I’d also seen a huge opportunity online coming out of Los Angeles (the world's biggest dance hub) where choreographers would post videos of their classes to YouTube and get 10’s of millions of hits in a week. So it became clear to me that there was global demand for dance in person and online by the end of 2015.
It then took 3 years to raise the money to fund this new business concept, my second company that evolved into SOS today, and within those 3 years, I also refined the hybrid business model that we’re now building.
Just 1% of the billions of venture capital dollars which get invested into startups each year goes to female founders, which I had no idea about when I first began pitching, and had to learn first hand, pitching my business to traditional investors who were rich, white men that didn’t ‘get it’. When I realised that the reasons we weren’t getting traction with investors wasn’t because of my business, but in large part because of my gender and my non-traditional business background, I decided to flip the script and I banned men from investing in my business – which is when the magic happened.
The reason my fundraising journey is important for the business is because it played a major role in how I discovered the mission for my second business SOS Dance.
During those 3 years of pitching and getting turned down, the mission for SOS – of empowering a generation through dance – was born because I don’t think I would have been able to sustain that level of resilience if I didn’t have the grit and strength that my dance background had given me.
Of all the thousands of women I’ve taught and spoken to, from all different walks of life and ages, the one thing that connected everybody was that in at least one way, they didn’t feel enough. BUT – SOS had become a cure for this emotional pain which is why we were able to make such a huge difference to women’s lives. So I decided to find out exactly why SOS was such a powerful pill which transformed female confidence so I could replicate it like a science. I realised that if I had the power to give this experiential pill to one woman, I could give it to millions of women. And the SOS purpose was born!
What is your main inspiration and driver for your business and how do you create positive change in the world?
My main inspiration in my business is knowing that the world will be a better, safer, happier place when power is held equally between the sexes. I don’t believe we’ll be able to achieve that future if women don’t have the confidence and resilience to take that power. If SOS is a pill for self esteem and confidence, then I know that we’re making a dent, however big or small, leaving behind a better world for future generations.
My vision is that SOS is able to reach the lives of enough women that the combined butterfly effect across the millions of lives we’ll touch could have the power to tip the balance to building a kinder, more compassionate, feminine future. Bombs are so toxic masculinity 20th Century!
What was the moment that everything changed for you? Describe that moment when you decided to fully commit to your idea?
I had my ‘Eureka moment’ after I’d been running my first business for about 5 years, and that particular day, I had been mentoring at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank for the Women of The World Festival. Having listened to all of these women’s stories over the day, along with all of the letters I’d received and people coming up to me after class to tell me how SOS had changed their lives over the years, I started walking home and it hit me – there was a far bigger problem that I was solving, that just happened to come in the glamorous package of an SOS dance class… It was that across every woman I had ever encountered in my life, the one thing I could guarantee we had in common was that in at least one aspect of our lives, we didn’t feel enough. It was this emotion that linked every woman I’d ever taught, and I had (somehow!) stumbled on the solution!
Our mission of empowering a generation of women through dance was born from this realisation, and our vision became exponentially bigger as a result. This wasn’t just about making money, or providing amazing dance classes. This was about making a difference in a big, deep, transformational way, on a global scale.
…and the first few steps you took to make it possible.
I was already on my way to making it possible as I already had a business teaching thousands of people. The thing standing between me and making it possible on a global scale, was capital. So I continued to pitch, have conversations with new investor leads, evolve the pitch, refine the business model and evolve my team until that resulted in the world’s first all-female investment round.
What were the initial challenges you came up against and how did you overcome them?
I announced the idea for an all-female investment round at a really well known all-female networking members club. I pitched to 100 people and after announcing my intention to do an all-female investment round, I was told by the founder privately after the pitch that raising money from all-female investors would ‘hold my business back’ and that ‘women didn’t invest’. She’d also told me that she tried to do it and failed and that if she couldn’t do it then, in effect, I didn’t have a chance.
A couple of months later I met with our new marketing consultants Rachel Chatham and Chelsey Fox – who I’d been working with for years because SOS had been running classes at their hugely successful festival ‘BeFit’. I told them what had happened at this pitch and they said “prove the b**ch wrong!”. We had a bit of a giggle about it, but I was also so relieved that they thought it was an excellent idea and they backed me 100% to do it.
We then went on to plan a tour and by the end of that tour we were ready to go live on social media with the all-female round. Rachel helped me draft the post and posted it for me because I was too scared! My phone then died, I got the tube home and turned my phone on to a full inbox of SOS students wanting to invest.
What was the first win that made you feel you were onto something?
It was all the press we got in the early days of running Seen on Screen, my first business, and the resulting sold out classes with waiting lists and not being able to find enough studio spaces to fulfil demand. Being invited on Sunday Brunch & This Morning, influencers and major brands loving our classes, and overcoming the anxiety in the lead up to every ‘new year, get fit’ season that this year had to be bigger and better than the last. I realised that actually, our growth would happen pretty naturally. All our biggest brand partnerships and opportunities came to me, I didn’t reach out to them. I could trust in my hard work and the excellence of our product without having to fight and compete against myself so much.
Plus, of course, getting the emails year after year of people asking for SOS classes across the world, people coming up to me and crying because they were so moved they got to tell me their story about how their lives have changed because of SOS. Then more recently, seeing how dance has exploded across TikTok and just generally during the pandemic.
It’s a no brainer!!
Did you take the investment route for your business or are you self-funded? Can you share some insights on your decision and the process?
For my first business I funded it with small bank loans and then reinvested any profit that I could into the business’ growth and never taking out a significant salary for myself, always putting it back into the business.
When I realised the scale of what we wanted to achieve and how we wanted to do it through a licence model, innovative technology and taking our classes online, I knew that I wanted to raise much more significant capital and I didn’t want to use debt to do it. I also love that when you raise money through investors, not only are you taking on capital but you’re also gaining an extended team, support and advisory network which you certainly don’t get from your bank!!
What has been your best investment?
My best investment is my relationship with my husband. Through all the ups and downs of building two companies and through the wins and the losses in the process of that, the one consistent thing throughout it, is that he’s had my back. I couldn’t do it emotionally without him. Especially because he’s an entrepreneur too so he understands. When you’re going through it, there’s nothing more healing than someone you respect saying ‘oh yeah, that’s happened to me’, then empathising with your war story. At the end of the day, having that person to make you laugh through the rollercoaster, a shoulder to cry on and your biggest fan to cheer you on – what ROI could be better than that!
Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? If so, can you share with us?
I did the classic female thing of putting everyone before myself and built a business around instructors and studios and kept myself predominantly in the background with the exception of press articles that journalists would want to specifically interview me for. It made me really fearful that if a really popular instructor left, a studio didn’t want to hire us or Beyoncé didn’t release a new album - no one would want to come to class because I was my own blind spot.
It wasn’t until those early instructors from Seen on Screen left, and the studios I relied on told me for various reasons I couldn’t hire from them anymore (e.g they’d close, needed the slot for something else, changed their policy etc) that we moved to new spaces and my classes became the busiest ever. I realised that my customers would travel anywhere in London (and outside!) to take my classes which was a really pleasant surprise! Because of everything I’d learnt about teaching over the years, I’d actually become the ultimate instructor.
That was around the same time I was realising how much I’d learnt as a business person. Having my worst fears happen and overcoming them, gave me a renewed sense of confidence and independence - I was enough by myself.
What’s your experience of being a woman in the start-up ecosystem?
Despite it all, I love being a woman in the start-up ecosystem. I’ve always been one to think differently and being a female founder means that you have to overcome more, which is an opportunity to stand out and be creative in how you do that.
It also means that when you do find women that have your back, you build an almost immediate bond that is ironclad. You realise that while yes it’s harder, you’re certainly not in it alone and you’re a part of a bigger team that’s in the right place at the right time to break the wheel (as Daenerys would say). Myself and my fellow female founders are on track to divert billions of dollars of growth capital previously reserved for 99% wealthy, cis gendered, privaleged white, male founding teams to hugely gifted, diverse female founders who are solving huge problems in new, innovative, femine ways. Watch this space!
What in your mind needs to change?
Investors need to start writing cheques to women and stop giving them advice they don’t need.
What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt since starting your own business?
You have to be a bit crazy to do it. It’s totally OK to be different and to think differently and to see a world that other people can’t imagine yet. Find other people who think as big as you, even if they’re not in your families, local communities - go out and actively find them. Don’t be swayed by other people's opinions - it costs them nothing to have an opinion and it can cost you everything to listen to it.
Have you had any role models or mentors along the way?
I’ve had so many role models I’ve never met like the Spice Girls (in fact I did meet the Spice Girls backstage once!), Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys - growing up in a generation surrounded by strong women in pop culture were my first role models for sure.
IRL role models… my big sister Lauren Parsons who taught me how to roll with the big shots and be myself, Romi Savova who’s on the SOS board who took her business PensionBee from idea to IPO in 7 years and the women I trained with at performing arts school between the ages of 16 to 18 who are now my best friends. They taught me that ambition and hard work was cool and they were the first people in my life (after my Mum) to believe in me.
What has been the biggest learning throughout your entrepreneurial journey so far?
Cash flow is Queen! Doing your accounts isn’t anywhere near as hard as accountants make out. You’ll never truly be the boss unless you’re the boss of your money. Business finance is really empowering rather than something to be afraid of.
With the future in mind, where would you like to be/where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Living on a farm in Oxfordshire that’s like a private Soho Farm House for myself (lol) with my husband, my dog and probably some kids, running a global dance empire that’s taught around 2 million women by that point.
What books, podcasts or resources would you recommend?
- Books: Any biography about Elizabeth l by Alison Weir who was the ultimate Queen (before Queen Bey!) and made today’s female leadership challenges look easy.
- Podcasts: Any podcast by Brene Brown including her Ted Talks. They taught me so much about rising strong from a fall. I really enjoy Meghan Markle’s new podcast too.
- Finally, the book - The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself which is a deep dive into understanding your emotions and finding a sense of peace.
What advice would you give anyone about to start a business?
Know WHY you’re doing it. In my opinion, your ‘why’ needs to be bigger than making money because it’s way easier to get a reliable pay cheque (and not have to worry about everyone else's!) if it’s money that you’re after. If you want to make millions and millions, then you also risk making none of it because that’s the bet you take when starting a business. As a result, there needs to be a larger purpose and reason as to why you want to start an enterprise from scratch. So, in the early days, and throughout your business journey, find ways to tap into your gut feeling and intuition because the money will come as a result of having a thriving business. I really believe you need to thrive in yourself to have a thriving business otherwise you’ll burn out before you cross the finish line. So, as hard as it gets, do put yourself first (even though I haven’t taken that advice myself) and do what makes you happy. After all, what’s the point in being rich and miserable?
Finally, where can we find you/how can we support you?
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