By Jillian Gordon, contributor of The Underground Group
⏰ 6-minute read
Any entrepreneur will tell you that starting a business takes blood, sweat and tears. But for Sophie Chiche, founder of Shape House urban sweat lodges, sweating is the business.
Shape House has grown exponentially since its single-location launch six years ago to include five locations in Los Angeles and four in New York, plus a seasonal pop-up in the Hamptons. It has welcomed 50,000 total visitors and has roughly 1,800 members. Celebrities who have visited the lodges’ “sweat beds” include Selena Gomez, LL Cool J and the Kardashians.
Shape House clients enjoy sweat sessions under infrared-heated blankets. (credit: Instagram/shapehouse)
The draw is a chance to sweat out toxins and burn calories while wrapped in an infrared-heated blanket and watching Netflix. Regular sweat sessions are also said to support immunity, relieve stress and improve complexion by flushing out impurities.
Single 55-minute sessions at Shape House start at $70, and packages and memberships are available. The company has doubled its revenue almost every year since its launch, Chiche said, with no signs of slowing.
Chiche’s story isn’t as neatly packaged as her burrito-wrapped Sweat House devotees. With a background in journalism--she once worked with Arianna Huffington!--psychology and house-flipping, her journey to Shape House had a few twists and turns. But her entrepreneurial spirit combined with a passion for her product to eventually make Shape House a powerhouse.
The dress that started it all
Chiche discovered sweat lodges in an attempt to lose weight, spurred by a dress she hoped to fit into for an upcoming wedding. (She’s lost more than 200 pounds since her first sweat session about 12 years ago.)
“I borrowed a gown from a friend, and it fit beautifully except for the waist,” Chiche said. Determined to fit into the dress with just a month to prepare, she bought a coupon off of deal site Living Social for sweat sessions in what she refers to as an uncomfortable, “cone-like enclosure.” By the time the wedding arrived, the dress fit perfectly.
While she didn’t love the sweat lodge facility, Chiche loved how sweating made her feel.
“I could feel my body was really happy and I was doing something good for it. It was kind of like brushing my teeth,” she said.
She also imagined how she could improve the sweating experience by offering a cleaner space and more modern technology. So with help from an engineer friend and some capital from her boyfriend at the time, Chiche began work on what is now Shape House’s signature sweat bed. The beds feature “ceramic plates and infrared blankets that are made to emit safe, deep-penetration infrared heat waves,” per the Shape House website.
Sophie Chiche founded Shape House in 2012. (credit: Instagram/shapehouse)
Keeping up with media koverage
Many successful entrepreneurs have stories of a “lucky break” that grew their business exponentially. These breaks usually get their power partly from the entrepreneur’s ability to capitalize long-term on what might have otherwise been a simple moment of good fortune.
Chiche opened her first Shape House location in L.A.’s Larchmont Village in 2012. Thanks to her journalism background, she had experience talking to press and knew people who could spread the word about her new space.
But it was a chance encounter that gave Shape House its big break. Five months after opening the Larchmont location, Chiche got an interesting request.
“One of my friends was friends with a producer of the Kardashian show [“Keeping Up With The Kardashians”], and he was coming in for sessions a lot,” she said. “One day, he had lunch with his friend, and she was blown away by his results.”
The producer called Chiche and asked to feature Shape House in the show. It was all the motivation she needed to expand her franchise.
“When I found out the Kardashians were coming, I decided we needed another store. So we did what we could to raise the funds for a Santa Monica location,” she said.
Chiche became “obsessed” with the idea of opening the new location on the night before the Kardashian episode was set to air, which proved to be a brilliant PR move.
“The show aired on Sunday. And on Monday, I showed up to see about 50 people lined up in front of the new location,” she said.
Shape House caught a break when it was featured in "Keeping Up With the Kardashians."
Self-care, while cared for
With so many weight loss, wellness and health-focused businesses in L.A. and New York, finding a unique selling point can be tricky. And while burning calories without hitting the gym is certainly enticing, Chiche said it’s the culture that makes Shape House stand out.
“My staff makes all the difference,” she said. “You want to feel well-treated and that someone cares about you, and we care about the people in-house and our clients. I would say that’s our strongest focus.”
Shape House often hires staff with backgrounds in caregiving or nursing. Staff are trained to carefully look after every “sweater” and their all-around wellness without rushing them out the door, even if the location is busy. The facilities offer a “relax room” where clients are invited to decompress and enjoy a cup of tea after sessions.
“At the core, we are more interested in people being well than anything else,” Chiche added.
Clients hang out in Shape House's "relax room" after their sessions. Chiche makes it a priority to do the same. (credit: Instagram/shapehouse)
Living the brand
For Chiche, launching her first two locations in six months (with seven more in the pipeline) was no easy feat. She felt herself quickly approaching burnout in the business’s first year.
“I worked long hours. I had thousands of conversations with clients at the beginning to understand their needs and with my staff to train them. I had to talk to the press, and I had to network. It was a lot,” she said.
Eventually, she determined the pace wasn’t doing her or her business any favors.
“I was talking to a client in one of our relax rooms and realized I didn’t have the balance I’m always talking about,” Chiche said. “I decided that I was going to start taking care of myself, and I built a different routine.”
Chiche now prioritizes time for herself and gets her own sweat session in every four to five days. (Two to three sweat sessions a week are recommended for weight loss, and once-a-week sessions are recommended for weight and wellness maintenance.) It’s a choice that not only improves her wellness but also helps keep her head in the business game.
“Sweating puts things back in balance for me,” she said.
A cabinet of friends
The value of humility and admitting you don’t have all the answers is one of Chiche’s biggest entrepreneurial learnings, she said.
“Identify your own skills. Know what you can do and know what your limits are,” she said. “You can’t build a car from scratch if you’ve never opened your hood.”
Chiche surrounds herself with a group of talented friends she also calls upon for business advice when needed.
“Find out what your friends know how to do and do what you can for them—because you don’t know everything,” she added.
In the past, Chiche has traded her design savvy, PR expertise and friendly lunch dates for accounting tips or engineering insight from her pals. Having a support network that doubles as an advice center can help you avoid major business missteps.
Don't sweat the roadblocks
Launching wellness-based businesses in L.A. and New York’s trendiest neighborhoods was a risk, but Chiche remained true to her vision throughout the journey. As an entrepreneur, you’re likely to encounter roadblocks and naysayers, she said, but if your commitment to your idea is strong, they won’t deter you.
“[Launching Shape House] was not easy,” she said. “But I believed in the idea so much, that it would have been even harder not to do it.”
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