Yoga and therapies on a Belfast interface is where Maitri Studio invites us to find our calm space with its bold and visionary entrepreneur founders Claire Ferry and Geoff Moore. Four years on, Claire and Geoff share their refreshingly honest experience of setting up a new business.
From overcoming mental health adversity, fusing a distinct ethos and business acumen to craft one of the most revitalising community spaces in East Belfast, Claire and Geoff’s journey sparks inspiration about leading life and work authentically.
What inspired you both to set up Maitri Studios?
Setting up the studio was one of the ways of trying to create a positive community.
Claire: There are probably two parts to this story. I had been a yoga teacher for a number of years. I also had a job which I loved in nature conservation. I had got to the stage where I didn’t want to move up the career ladder into management but I had done enough in my current job. I found then that I wasn’t very happy and was quite stressed which was unusual for me. I decided that the obvious thing to do was to leave my job and become a freelance yoga teacher. This was around the time that Geoff was starting to get better.
Even when I left, people had said about opening a studio. I thought that this wouldn’t be for ages. However as an Iyengar yoga teacher you have to carry around all the blocks, ropes and bricks. So, after lugging equipment around everywhere I began to think ‘Well maybe a studio is not such as bad idea!’
Geoff: Claire’s yoga teaching built up over the seven years had also been going really well.
Claire: Yes, I had a good clientele built up. So that was a very practical point. Then Geoff chipped in with always wanting to come back to Northern Ireland and doing something positive.
Geoff: Yes, that was partly what brought us back to Northern Ireland. I met Claire in England. One of the reasons coming back was to try not to be part of the brain drain. I understand why people left. They were part of a generation of quite high-achieving people who went away because understandably it wasn’t a nice place to be.
I thought that it was a good time to go back to Northern Ireland as there were positive things happening. I had an education and had seen the outside world and wanted to bring some of tha back as I think it’s good for Northern Ireland to have an outside perspective. We had moved back about ten years before setting up the studio.
Claire: We got back for a couple of years and all was fine then Geoff had his breakdown. I was working in nature conservation, we had made lovely friends and we felt very much part of the community.
Geoff: I had a previous career before that. I had worked in IT, corporate IT so I had been out there doing lots of stuff.
Claire: So then, when I started thinking ‘Well, maybe a studio…’ Geoff was very supportive. We started looking around together to find premises. We knew what we wanted. There wasn’t that much discussion on our part as we knew each other well and what we wanted. We had a very clear idea of the ethos for Maitri. There was also a practical element that I could not teach all classes myself and would have to start sub-letting the rooms. Our ethos was very definitely to create a welcoming, all-encompassing, quiet, calm, friendly place.
Geoff: We wanted to have a non-exclusive place. A lot of the studios would tend to just specialise in one type of yoga to the exclusion of most others. We did not want to do that. We wanted to have all traditions and all types of yoga and lots of other stuff. We have a lot of other things in the studio which aren’t yoga related.
Claire: That’s not a criticism of other places. It makes sense to have your branding that yes, we do this (deep flow yoga, tai chi, pregnancy yoga or whatever it is). There is an Iyengar focus at our studio as I am an Iyengar teacher and you need to have all the equipment there in a studio which other Iyengar teachers may want to use there.
Geoff: Our location was important. We wanted the studio to be central and not on the edge of the city.
Claire: Choosing east city centre was quite good as there wasn’t anything in the area. We ended up on an interface and for what we were trying to do, we thought that was quite appropriate! We knew what we would call the studio straight away as Maitri means loving kindness.
‘Find your calm space’ was our strapline for Maitri. Your calm space is already there, you just have to find it. Yours, because everyone has already got one. Calm, it was about not saying that everyone is happy or bright because you are not always happy. However, somewhere beneath, you can have a calm contentment.
Geoff: There is calmness in there already if you manage to just let yourself find it.
Claire: And space, this reflects the fact that Maitri is a space with rooms and also that you have space in you, in your heart and your being.
How much of a role do values still play in your business four years on?
Claire: They are written down in our business plan. We felt strongly enough about our values that they are actually written down in our terms and conditions for everyone who hires the rooms. I talk about them when I meet people interested in using Maitri as they are important to us.
Geoff: It’s partly how we choose what people are going to be in the studio. They have to be part of that ethos otherwise it’s not good for them as they would not feel at home there and they may not find an audience. We have that audience now there and it’s important to keep that core ideal.
Claire: Talking to our financial advisor they ask us to plan ahead over the next few years. It’s almost like you write a business plan for your life. You have an overarching ethos will drive the plan. It’s the same thing. We want to leave having made the world a better place in our tiny sphere. What else is worthwhile doing?
Geoff: Maitri as a project was instrumental in my coming to some sort of peace. It was a very important part.
What helped you most focussing on it as a project?
Geoff: It was the sense of being able to work with Claire on a very productive project. That instantly brings you together as it was a wonderfully positive thing to experience working as a partnership. It was also about feeling that what you are doing is worthwhile. That may sound very simple but it’s actually for us quite important. If you are having a bad day it’s nice to be able to go, ‘Just hold on and bring it back’. If you are having a really stressful day you then go into the studio and meet people and then remember why you do what you do.
Claire: Everyday we will get people who go ‘I love coming here, I feel so calm, I got a better night’s sleep last night, thank goodness you are here!’ We get that all the time which is lovely.
What have been your high points / proudest moments so far?
Geoff: For me it was that staff get together just last Christmas, getting the staff to introduce themselves to each other as there were quite a few people who had not met. I personally found it strangely quite moving seeing all the people gathered. That was also just a subset as there were a lot of people who could not make it. There was just this amazing sense that we are all in this together; it’s not hierarchical, it’s a real community. Claire teaches, there is a strategic role for her and me as well. However, we don’t have that sense as we see it as a community. Seeing everyone in the same room was special as often we don’t see everyone together.
Claire: It’s often unexpected moments sometimes. There can be really busy days when people are in and out of the studio and workshops and there’s a real buzz which makes me feel really happy.
When sometimes I am in the studio all day, we might get a random drop-in from the street to pick up a leaflet and would then have a conversation. The number of times that this has led to something serendipitous! I remember being in there one day helping John McKeever set up a taster session. Then someone came upstairs who happened to be a t’ai-chi teacher and knew John. They had kept seeing the studio and noticed that the door was open so decided to pop in. Julie-Anne now teaches four classes here a week! She had been looking for a base.
These little things are really nice. I often get little thank you emails after classes and I always love coming back to tell Geoff. Geoff is really good at saying ‘Write that down, keep that email…’
Geoff: I used to do that when I worked in IT since when you are working in the corporate sector, you mostly get contact from people when something is going wrong. You can be ground down by it eventually. So, I started keeping mails from a business or IT manager going ‘Thank you so much!’ I would keep it and go back to it on those bad days and go it’s alright, they are calling us for a reason, they need our help and it’s us just doing our job.
Making the decision to start up a business is a life decision. What has been the most valuable things you have learned in your journey date?
Claire: Right at the very beginning, making the decision in the first place was probably the hardest things as I was really stressed. Once I made the decision and articulated it to my previous employers, it was almost like a weight lifted of me. You then have the headspace to put in and decide what you are going to do. Because, when you are in the other job, no matter how hard you try, you don’t have the headspace or heart space or time or calmness to put all that stuff down. I then had the time to get my ideas together.
We were very lucky getting the space we got.
Geoff: Yes, it took us about six months to find which was pretty quick. There is definitely luck involved in finding somewhere. When we first viewed it, it was a dark space with drop ceilings, a dingy office with lots of partition walls everywhere. However, within ten seconds of being in it, both of us started seeing the potential and thought that this place could be incredible. We also got a really good feeling about our landlord talking with him. We felt trust with him.
Claire: That also gets me thinking about having trust in people. We had other people very much involved, like another teacher whose husband was an architect who then linked us with a builder who was wonderful. We had another yoga teacher who was also a project manager who acted as our critical business plan friend. Meeting the right people at the right time to do the right jobs has been so important.
Geoff: Time management has been really important too because sort of inevitably for the first two years it was just so full on. Almost too much, completely unsustainably crazy! You get carried to an extent by just the sheer exhilaration of a new project and seeing the potential of it.
Claire: Geoff was on the mend at that point. So, in a way it was also a bit of a retreat for me when Geoff was down if I am being completely honest as I would just bury my head in work. That was good in a way. I was doing things that I loved, feeling productive and that also gave time for Geoff to establish routines which happened, routines which him stable. So that in the beginning was fine. As Geoff got better I realised that I couldn’t do this forever. I started monitoring with our business friend adviser how much time I was spending on doing the different things. I was forced into doing that but it was absolutely the right thing to do.
Geoff: We also started then putting social stuff in the diary again in advance. We didn’t leave it until Friday night otherwise we wouldn’t bother: if we didn’t we would get back and not do anything. However, it’s nice doing other stuff and just getting out and seeing people. If it’s not in the diary we will not do it as we might be too tired.
Claire: We re-established doing stuff we did in Cambridge which is where we started having home weekends in our diary. It’s a really good idea.
Geoff: It happens months in advance. We will pencil in home weekends. It doesn’t mean stuff can’t be planned for that weekend but it means that you have to give a very good justification for why something else is having to go into that weekend. So, there’s a bit of wriggle room but it makes you stop and think. We need to be able to have time to go off for walks, time together but it’s not a hard and fast rule. It’s instead a strong indicator to think about things and balancing time.
Claire: I have the plan that I have two home days per week and where I only work one weekend per month. Sometimes they are going to slip but it does really help you with that planning. We’re good at not talking about work all the time. If one of us wants to talk about work and the other one doesn’t, we’ll tell them!
Geoff: We don’t do the same thing and have complimentary roles so that really helps. I do a lot behind the scenes, the IT, the design work; lots of the invisible things which have to happen or it all falls apart!
How do you stay motivated and resilient as successful entrepreneurs?
Claire: I have to do my yoga practice. If I don’t do my personal practice, I can’t teach, end of! I don’t end up practicing every day because stuff happens but I practice several times a week. Every time, even though I have been doing yoga for decades, I will come down after a good yoga practice I come down and say to Geoff, ‘Ah, I wish I could remember this all the time!’ It’s that feeling I get from yoga practice.
Geoff: I’m similar. It’s keeping in place all the healthy habits I have managed to put in place over the last ten years and gradually learning what works for me. I am now on the right anti-depressants which took me ages to find. That in conjunction with playing the piano again. I am and have always been a big musician.
That used to be a signature thing that I would stop playing whenever I was down and stop singing and not wanting to do it anymore. That was one of the key breakthroughs really early on. When I was down at the bottom of the barrel working with a counsellor from East Belfast Counselling, that was the theme we came up with. We looked at it and said, well, you’re at the very bottom at the moment, let’s just find five minutes of practice a day. It was horrible at the start as I just felt I couldn’t play anymore and I catastrophised about it. But I improved from that small starting.. In conjunction with that I started feeling fit as I walked a lot…even in bad weather, I still walked.
My piano practice is now sacrosanct: that’s not an optional exercise now. It’s gradually increased to half an hour to an hour every day, sometimes more. Those two things for me now, my exercise and my piano are no longer optional. If something happens and I don’t do them, t hits my mental health, my resilience and my sense of self and happiness.
As I’ve got better, I am now able to deal with something happening where I can’t do the practice and that in itself is part of my own resilience building. Overall, I try to make it non-negotiable to miss it. I have managed to build my will power to the point now where if my mood changes, because it can still bounce and hit a low,I will still push through and do it. I might have a horrible practice one day but then the next day, I feel better and play better as I made myself practice the day before and have a really good session! The mind can be remarkably resilient.
All of it has made me feel intelligent again. When I was feeling down, I felt that my intelligence had dropped massively during that patch. When you are down, when you are tired and not just thinking straight, you feel submerged that you can’t breathe or come up to the surface. Now, I feel like I’m back to feeling like I am a relatively intelligent man again and it’s so reassuring! My memory’s better than it had been. It’s increased my mental function having all those things happen in conjunction makes doing the work so much more easy and enjoyable.
Claire: All of this has had a great knock-on effect as well. I have learned so much from seeing Geoff and how he has practiced. I talk all the time to my students about practice. Watching Geoff do his practice at close quarters really made me appreciate the value of my own yoga practice.
Imagine speaking to someone who has a passion and wants to start up their own business, what useful insights would share with someone starting out?
There can be a lot of nervousness around money. Have budgets, do a budget. Know what you need and work out the worst-case scenario. Know what you actually need to live on; that was a fundamental thing to know. How much do you need for the mortgage, to live on, for food and to pay the bills? Even if there is nothing else, know what you absolutely have to earn.
Claire: You can do ad hoc calculations. And, if your business doesn’t cover costs, well then know you will have to work somewhere to help cover the basics. Know that to start with otherwise it’s all just pie in the sky. You have to put something down on paper.
Geoff: Also, be prepared that at the start it’s going to be difficult financially. I compare it to threading a needle: you’ve got all of the start up costs, your household budget is running on zero. Basically, you have to get through that needle and out the other side. That might take at least a year or a couple of years and then things start to come back. Don’t freak out unnecessarily during that phase as that’s pretty universal.
Claire: At the same time, it’s about being sensible. We had debts and loans but they were very controlled. We knew how much we were paying back each month and did not stop paying back, we had it planned.
People can say that they are passionate about something starting a business in an airy-fairy kind of way but you actually have to nail the numbers. You need to be quite specific about what you are going to offer. What is this thing you are going to offer? We initially thought of lots of offerings in our original business plan then thought that we were never going to be doing that.
Geoff: Yes, it’s what they call in IT ‘feature creep’. When people are writing software, it’s the tendency to want to add more bells and whistles as you go along. So, by the time you get to the end of it, it’s a piece of software which doesn’t do anything particularly well, is impossible to find your way around and runs massively over budget. That’s what you have avoid. You have to be super focussed. Don’t let your business suffer from feature creep. Think through things carefully. Do you really need to add this something to your business or are you just diluting your brand and losing what little time you have as you need to keep that core?
Claire: Geoff is great at keeping me in check. I’m an ideas person and he will question me, ‘Do you really have to do that? There are many things you could do but what are you actually going to do?’
Geoff: Yes, there’s also a right time to do things. We might do that thing in three or four years’ time or down the line but now isn’t necessarily the time.
Claire: Another thing I would highlight to people starting up their own business. Our business also gave us a different appreciation of value. Part of it as a freelancer, I was initially getting paid in cash and I could actually see what I was earning. Then you start to know how much you charge yourself out at and what you rate is. It makes you think then, OK, am I going to do two hours of housework today or pay someone else to do that? Because if someone else likes their job and doing something you don’t, think about how you use your time in business.
Your time does become your money and you can actually see the value of your time which I think is so useful. By paying other people for things you want done, you start making the world go around in your little corner.
Geoff: One of the other things that comes to me is that we come across younger people who are stressing out about what to do in their lives. Our experience at our age, looking at our friends with similar experiences is that it’s actually almost the default now to have multiple careers. And that’s OK, you don’t have to freak out if you have to change careers. There is plenty of time for anyone to change course if they find themselves doing something they don’t like. You can find something else. I’ve probably have had four careers so far, roughly. That’s not unusual nowadays.
Leading your life, what sparks a sense of real personal fulfilment for you?
Claire: Everybody else being happy! For me it’s also the outdoors, open sky, trees, birds!
Geoff: Being with friends and being with the community in Maitri. Getting out, meeting new people. Also, making time for my music.
Geoff: Food is a shared passion!
Claire: It comes down to the basics doesn’t it? Your environment, the people you are with and somewhere nice to live and eat… I know what I like doing and have made a life doing it!
How do you think coaching could assist anyone to realise live and lead their lives to be true to themselves?
The power of somebody else listening is that: a skilled coach or friend who asks the right questions, doesn’t give you an answer but helps you realise by questions what is it that you need to do.
Claire: We had met people and had friends who we went to for help. That was great, almost like mentoring. One, it was good to have someone to talk to and then two, to hear yourself say something out loud.
Geoff: In our partnership I fulfil that role as I am the one asking the really annoying questions! It’s annoying but it’s really important.
Claire: A coach will give you a balance of the kickstart but also help you find the confidence to get started. Like Geoff’s counsellor by listening and asking acted as a great reflection to him of himself.
Geoff: Yes, you do sometimes need someone to come along and say to you what you have said yourself already. Having a bit of distance from things is very beneficial. Like coaching, to have a critical friend for the business plan has been very helpful. That distance and professional mindset is so useful for looking at a problem analytically and asking awkward questions which you may not have thought of or asked yourself.
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