Gymboree, on Building a Global Brand &
Finding Herself in the Process
In the realm of women entrepreneurs, Joan Barnes is one of the original success stories. She started Gymboree in the mid-70s as a young mom, looking for a way to connect with other moms while her kids played. Originally called “Kindergym,” the company began in a garden shed with just three thousand dollars. Little did Joan know she had tapped into a global billion-dollar brand that would completely transform her life.
Joan proceeded to grow her play center concept into a local chain and then a national franchise, eventually leading to Gymboree’s mega-successful IPO in 1993. Reaching that milestone, Joan made a decision to leave the company and spend some time on the woman behind the business. Her healing journey led to yoga, and soon enough she was running three studios in the Bay Area, which she later sold to YogaWorks.
Most recently, Joan chronicled her life’s twists and turns in her inspiring first book, Play It Forward. We knew we had a lot to learn from Joan’s incredible experience and were thrilled to ask her our biggest questions. Read our interview below to get Joan’s honest, down-to-earth perspective on business, success and making choices that line up with the lifestyle you desire.
We know you started Gymboree in a garden shed for $3,000. Did you ever imagine it would become this massive brand?
It’s a very classic entrepreneurial story. I was not trying to figure out how I could build a billion-dollar industry or looking for holes in the market. It was the early 70s. I’d moved 3,000 miles away from my home to be a part of the hippie movement in the Bay Area. I came out pregnant and barefoot in a Volkswagen camper with my then husband and I had a baby. I found myself in the “Me” generation. Nobody was interested in families, so I felt lonely and isolated and wanted to solve that problem for myself. So I started a children’s play program called Kindergym (which later became Gymboree) at a job share. When it opened, all of the other women like myself who had chosen to have families came out of the woodwork also looking for a like-minded community of people. So I opened another one for the Jewish community center, and then saw the commercial potential. I started opening them many miles away so that they wouldn’t compete. Somewhere along the way I had another child, and another five or six centers before I realized I had a little business on my hands and left the job share. Next thing I knew, I had about eight or nine centers up and down Silicon Valley and the peninsula.
How did the franchise opportunity come up?
When people started talking to me about franchising, I was painfully ignorant. I didn’t even know what a franchise was, except maybe I thought McDonald’s was one. (Sometimes it’s good to start a business when you’re young and ignorant.) So I simply went down to the Federal Trade Commission and filled out the application to start selling franchises in the Bay Area. I was probably the only person who was doing business as a franchiser in my own name—I wasn’t a corporation. Pretty soon I had sold out the Bay Area and I was supporting all these women who basically came from the program and said, ”I love this, I want to open my own.” I knew that it had expansion potential when I heard, “I know you’ve sold out the Bay Area, but I would move to open one elsewhere.” I thought, “Whoa—this is another deal entirely,” because at that point, I was personally helping the franchisees find their locations and hire their teachers. It had just been a big extension of myself, so I knew to expand further I’d need to build a real organization and get funding. So that’s when I sort of drank the Kool-Aid and said, “Yes, I want to do this. I want to expand.”
Were you panicking? Were you excited? What was the energy behind it?
I was naïve and excited and I didn’t know what I didn’t know—but I did get the right support. In the late 70s when I started to do the early franchising, I was introduced to a man who had worked for Midas Muffler, which was the granddaddy of all franchising, and then Arby’s. And I said to him, “Look at what I’m doing. What do you think? Does this have franchise potential?” He said, “Absolutely. I think this is such a great thing for women and I have a franchisee for you—my wife.” She became one of my first franchisees. After a couple years of him watching our success from the sidelines, I went back to him and I said, “I’ve got a fantasy. You leave Arby’s, join me and be my franchise director.” He said, “Give me six months and I’ll do it.” It buoyed my confidence to have this incredibly seasoned professional on my team to help put together a business plan, start the organization and raise capital.
Why was it important to you to have a franchise model that moms could operate?
I could see how this was really filling a need for all of these women and for myself as well. They were all like little bitty clones of me, maybe a few years younger, and they all had husbands who were locked into being the primary breadwinners, but were really supportive and helpful. Many of the husbands were probably closet entrepreneurs, wishing they could be the entrepreneur themselves—but essentially they could be because through the wife’s business they could contribute. And it was possible for moms because even though you work harder as an entrepreneur than you do at a job, you could do it on your own time. You never stopped thinking about it, but you could do it during naptime or while the kids were sleeping at night. So it was a really interesting way to get the passion and the commitment for someone to run a business. We were helping families feel good about the early years of raising kids and making it fun, and then we were a family of women supporting one another in building our businesses. I just loved it.
When it came to balancing entrepreneurship and motherhood, was it challenging? Do you think it’s possible to have it all?
Well, I am not the poster child for having it all. I didn’t do a very good job. As I outlined in my book, I developed a very serious eating disorder. I just kept thinking that a little more success, and all that would go background. I had everything flipped over on its head. So I am not very qualified to give tips or advice or best practices for how to balance. For the hundreds and thousands of women I’ve talked to, I think that sense of when you’re at work, you think you should be home, and when you’re at home, you want to be at work—is just part of it. We all do the best we can and each one of us is different, whether you have kids or not. Just trying to be observant and mindful of all the things you care about in your life is a very personal thing, and nobody has the right answer.
Are there any decisions that you made in the process of growing Gymboree that you would make differently now?
If I did it all over again, I would probably do it just the way I did, because that’s how I’m built. There’s this great question that sages ask: “Are you a ‘love to win’ or a ‘hate to lose’ person?” I’m a “hate to lose,” so having the investors’ money go down on my watch was something I just couldn’t stomach. The fact that I would let my own marriage fall apart instead, that’s just how I was built and I’m not sure that I could be built any differently. I think that I’ve learned that I would try to identify the things that are super important to me and my values earlier, so that I wouldn’t repress those and end up completely lost and faltering in my 40s when I finally crashed and burned. Knowing who we are from the get-go is a very wise decision because it’s not just about running a business—it’s about running our lives.
Talk to us about the point in Gymboree’s growth where you and your closest executives became “obsolete.”
All of us who’d built the business and been strapped in the life raft for years—we were generalists. One day we had this hat on, the next half-hour we had that hat on. As you get into a specialty field, you need people who are experts in what they do. So when we took venture money and went into retail, most of my origin team (as I was fond of calling them) really didn’t have that expertise, including me. And when it became clear that it was not a good use of our funds to keep employing them, I had lost heart for the business because to me it was a family—it wasn’t just about the success. In fact, that was actually secondary to the loyalty and what I wanted. When the board asked me to let those people go, it was just a matter of time before I had to leave as well.
Did you ever imagine that you would move on from your first company?
You know what? I had to. When I was having nightmares of having to let these people go, I kept thinking, “I should go too.” But then the next voice would be, “Well, who would you be and what would you do?” I was so identified with the business, it was like a bad codependent relationship. In fact, when I do go on book tour, one of the questions I’m often asked is, ”Did you ever think about another career or about reinvention at that time?” I actually didn’t. It was impossible for me to imagine what else I could do because I was just the leader of Gymboree. I didn’t have any skill-set, per se. Nothing was transferrable. I couldn’t go get another job somewhere. I couldn’t do anything. Everybody in my office was far more skilled at what they were doing than me.
After you left the company and went into treatment, how did you end up building an entirely new business of yoga studios?
There was almost a six-year hiatus in between. I went away for 30 days and ended up staying for three years. So that was a long stretch of just trying to plant some new roots and grow a new woman inside of me. Then when I came home, I found yoga as a healing practice for myself, and I became a zealot about yoga just the way I’d been a zealot about yoga just the way I’d been a zealot about finding a community of like-minded moms. So I wanted to shout from the rooftops about how yoga was such a deep practice. At the beginning, I was very clear—I just wanted to be like a Gymboree franchisee, with a little location in my hometown so I could run a small business. So that’s what I was doing, until 9/11 happened. Then like all of us, I wanted to see how I could make a contribution to my community. I opened up the second studio on 9/11/2002, a year later. Whereas most businesses were imploding, we grew 20% overnight, so I could see that what we were doing was really needed. Although I thought I was just going to have this small business, the second studio was very grand. It was about changing the face of yoga from these little weird centers with purple walls and out-of-the-way locations, into a major retail mall, making it much more accessible. It was super successful, and before I knew it, yogis were coming to me and saying, “Oh, you’re the Gymboree lady. Let’s open up a national chain.” I replied, “I can’t do that again.” They said, “Well, how about a boutique Bay Area chain? We’ll invest.” Old habits die hard, so I took in some investment money and opened up a third studio. That’s when I started to see the patterns recurring—the anxiousness, the stress, the sense of wanting to build. So I said, “No, I want an easier, softer life,” and I decided that I was going to vote for me this time. Even though the business had not matured to a level where selling it would be a big hit for the investors, I needed to do what was right for me. That’s when I started to look for a suitor to take the business on.
Tell us about the process of selling the business to YogaWorks. How did you navigate that transition?
I’d been doing this for about eight, nine years, and it took a couple years to find the right buyer. I had a lot of different interest from local individuals and I had a business broker working on it. YogaWorks had been sniffing around the Bay Area. They were in the business of both building new studios under the brand of YogaWorks and “grandfathering” them in—acquiring key studios in certain markets where they could gain a foothold. So that seemed to me like a great way to keep the legacy of what I’d built. This was my community and I wanted it to carry on. I negotiated a lifetime membership for myself and I still practice there everyday. I had a lot of confidence in the management at YogaWorks. I’d seen what they’d done. I knew the legacy of the brand. I knew their goals. I think it’s unrealistic to think that you’re going to sell your company to somebody larger unless they’re in acquisition mode and you’ve built something substantial enough. You have to walk across the table and see what that company would be looking for and if you fit their criteria. I may be visionary about certain things, but I’m ultimately super practical. I knew that YogaWorks wanted to be in the Bay Area. They had two choices. They could either start from scratch or they could start with a company that had good roots there, great teachers and a great reputation, so they’d be off and running, with three studios to roll with.
What would you share with your younger self about making decisions?
I think we have to really take a look at what the word success means. Anna Quindlen has a quote that’s sort of a new talisman for me. “If success is not on your own terms and it doesn’t speak to your heart, it’s no success at all.” So while Gymboree was a monster success—it was one of the darlings of Wall Street and made many multi-millionaires—it took my personal life. I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I would not be the woman I am today had I not gone through this, but I put my business before everything in my life and I don’t think that was a successful way to live. Gymboree survived. It’s going to be an enduring brand. It’ll outlive myself, my daughters and probably my grandkids, and that’s a wonderful thing. But in terms of defining success, I think it’s a very personal choice and it’s not necessarily about building a monster, global brand. Success might be having a little art studio in your backyard where you sell a few things on Etsy. Success is a very personal goal that lines up with your own value system, and that’s the journey of life—really knowing yourself and standing for what’s important to you and making sure that what you do professionally also lines up.
What advice do you have for all the young women entrepreneurs out there who are dreaming big?
Well, I think it’s best not to dream big, actually. Peter Sims has a really nice perspective on it called “little bets.” A lot of entrepreneurs, we had a hunch and we did something and it worked. We thought, “Oh, wow. Let’s take another hunch.” We were just playing skipping stones, going a little further each time. We didn’t all of a sudden sit back and think, “Oh, my God. This could be a global brand. I’m going to be in 50 different countries.” I just didn’t think like that. I didn’t have those big dreams or aspirations or delusions. It turned into that, but it just kind of happened little by little until it was happening. I think that dreaming big can sometimes cloud the vision of moving forward little by little. Make something work. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Just be sure that you’re practically making things happen in your budget. Then do the next thing.
Are you still involved with either YogaWorks or Gymboree at this point?
After I sold YogaWorks, I consulted for a year, and then it was sold to another private equity firm. So I’m not, on a business level, involved at all, but they’re still great allies and pals. They’re very helpful in promoting my book and whenever I do signings, they’ll give away a free week of classes and things like that. Meanwhile Gymboree has gone through another transition. Gymboree Play and Music, the original play franchise program (not the clothing retail), just got sold to a Chinese company, and that company is very avid about building the brand. It’s rebuilding here in North America and it’s on fire in Asia. I’ve just taken a contract with them, so I’m now back with the company I began after 22 years, as an advisor.
Amazing. What else are you up to these days and what should our readers look out for?
Well, it’s on my website. I do some mentoring. I’m pretty cautious about who I take on, but I do some minor mentoring and advising with young women entrepreneurs and even older women entrepreneurs who are ready to reinvent into something else. We’re all in the reinvention stage. That’s a thrill for me when there’s good synergy. I don’t do long-term things, just a few sessions to help women. I’m a very good sideline listener and coach. Not so much with advice, but in helping people find their own voice.