Editor's Note: In honor of National Small Business Week, Inc. is exploring clusters of small companies around the country that share distinctive strengths, challenges, and characters.
A frozen waterfall is glorious to see, exhilarating to scale.
Colorado is America's ice-climbing capital. In parks around the state, athletes shod in crampons and wielding specialized picks hack their way through frigid temperatures up slick and brittle walls, some over 100 feet high. At the Alpine Training Center, in Boulder, owner and head coach Connie Sciolino has her ice-climbing clients perform exercises while gripping their picks and axes. "They do pull-ups and hangs, and we weight their bodies like the rock climbers," Sciolino says. "But the ice climbers hang from their tools."
Sciolino's workouts are more grueling than what you'd get from a typical personal trainer hired to improve general fitness. "I only have these people in my gym for two to three hours a week, and they need to get all of their strength, conditioning, and mobility in that time," Sciolino says. "They expect a lot from themselves, so they expect a lot from me."
Such expectations--that one can become stronger, healthier, calmer, more focused--are pervasive in Boulder, a self-improvement mecca. And small businesses, including many run by solo entrepreneurs, are there to help. Boulder ranks first among midsize cities for entrepreneurs in the health and wellness space, according to Thumbtack, a platform for hiring small businesses and the self-employed. Roughly 20 percent of Boulder's small service businesses nurture body and mind with offerings like massage, yoga, personal training, and acupuncture. That figure is 122 percent of the national average.
Alpine Training Center operates from a large garage in a row of warehouses in East Boulder. There are dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and a few machines. A water jug. A bathroom. No shower. "We are no-frills," says Sciolino, a former skiing instructor who launched the business 10 years ago out of a more traditional fitness center. "We are just there to get work done."
That work is typically training for some event: one of the marathons or mountaineering races or ski-jumping competitions that pack Boulder's calendar. More than 70 percent of Alpine's 160 or so clients (fewer in summer) are serious recreational athletes. Sciolino also creates personalized training regimens for some professional athletes who live elsewhere, like ice climber Aaron Mulkey, who's based in Cody, Wyoming.
Healing body and spirit in a co-working space
Boulder's association with wellness extends back to the 19th century, when John Kellogg, founder of the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, opened a similar institution there. Patients from around the country were drawn by the healing powers of Kellogg's regimen of nourishing foods and exercise and by Boulder's sunshine and dry climate. That climate--and the surrounding mountains awash in scenic trails and climb-worthy rock formations--have long attracted the outdoors set, contributing to Boulder's anointing by several publications as America's fittest city.
Boulder is also home to scores of tech companies and other startups that promote work-life balance and flexible schedules. As a result, its small wellness businesses are busy all day, serving people who in other cities might be chained to their desks. Morning classes routinely fill up at The Little Yoga Studio, which attracts many professionals in their 30s, 40s, and 50s--a full third of them men. "People in Boulder say, 'I can do a hike and a bike ride and go to yoga class and still get my job done,'" says the studio's owner, Kelly Elle Kenworthy. "There is a sense of freedom and space and time in our days. We believe everything is achievable."
Residents of Boulder are unusually open to more than just ice climbing and other extreme sports. The city is a hub for eastern religion and philosophy, home to Buddhist-inspired Naropa University and the first Shambhala meditation center. "People here know about chakra healing and aura cleansing and the benefits of craniosacral therapy," says Jessica Van Antwerp, owner of Jessica Lyn Bodywork. "Spirituality in general is part of the culture."
Massage therapists make up the biggest slice (22 percent) of Boulder's wellness sector, according to Thumbtack. But that's a reductive term for what Van Antwerp does. A Texas native with a degree in philosophy, she had a "profound spiritual experience" in Colorado on the way to a summer job in Yellowstone Park in 2003. Determined to come back, she moved to Boulder 15 years ago and opened her practice five years after that. "I had never wanted to be a massage therapist," Van Antwerp says. "That was even the opening line of my application essay to massage school."
Van Antwerp practices "bodywork," an umbrella term for therapeutic touch that includes traditional massage but also more esoteric practices like shiatsu (application of pressure along the lines of energy flow), polarity therapy (balancing the body's biomagnetic fields), and craniosacral therapy (gentle palpation of parts of the cranium and spine). Her clients are increasingly receptive to such practices, she says, because "science is catching up to what monks in India and China have known for millennia."
Like many in this industry, Van Antwerp is a soloist, operating out of a co-working space for holistic health practitioners. She sees clients in rooms furnished sparingly with a plant, a salt lamp, a stool, a table with an electric warmer, and a speaker for soft music. Van Antwerp treats, on average, three clients a day in her private practice, targeting people in high-stress corporate jobs. Some of those she meets during weekly visits to one of the many Boulder companies offering services like massage and yoga sessions as perks. Wellness entrepreneurs in Boulder routinely patronize one another's businesses, so another source of clients for Van Antwerp is referrals from people in her network: a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, a Pilates instructor, a nutritionist, a practitioner of natural medicine.
Like many wellness practitioners, Van Antwerp also teaches. Unlike most, she owns a second business: Integral Travel. Another soloist venture, Integral Travel offers wellness retreats (think nature, organic food, meditation, massage) for groups of eight to 12 in places like Rocky Mountain National Park. In the company's first year of operation Van Antwerp led a 25-day trip through Thailand, a top destination for those interested in spiritual healing. She plans to return and hopes to take clients to China, Africa, and Japan.
The tour business "is a way for me to help more people learn to be healthier and regain vitality," she says. "It's also a way for me to get to travel without taking the hit of the expense of the trip."
From Whole Foods to whole body
Spiritual healing is a beautiful thing. But sometimes you just want strong fingers expertly kneading your tissues.
Bodywork Bistro is a more traditional massage studio than Jessica Lyn Bodywork, and substantially bigger. It employs just shy of 50 people and attracts not only locals but also crowds of tourists, visitors, and college students who spy the business while parking in the downtown garage where it is housed. The company also maintains a much smaller location in the Pearl Street Whole Foods, where it was born in 2002.
Dave Goetz moved to Boulder for the quality of life in 1998 after selling a natural-foods business--the Evanston, Illinois-based Oak Street Market--to Whole Foods. A student of shiatsu since 1989, he enrolled in the Boulder College of Massage Therapy. He also worked as a cashier at the local Whole Foods, not because he needed money (the sale of Oak Street left him well off) but because he liked being around the natural foods industry.
At the Whole Foods, another therapist was offering massages to tired shoppers from a single chair for $1 a minute. (Paid in advance in the checkout line.) Soon Goetz joined him, and for a couple of years they did good business, even as Whole Foods shifted them around the store.
In 2006 the two expanded into space in a chiropractors' studio called Café of Life and named the business Bodywork Bistro to align with their landlord's restaurant theme. In addition to clientele drummed up at Whole Foods, "we pitched the owners of Café of Life that we would give everyone who came in for their services a little five-minute, pre-adjustment massage," Goetz says. "We would go from table to table giving relaxation warm-ups."
In 2008 Goetz moved into Bodywork Bistro's current location, which he continues to expand, adding treatment rooms to meet demand for full-body work on private tables. Longer private sessions account for more than 60 percent of sales. The rest is from chair massages, shorter table sessions, and corporate visits. Bodywork Bistro also engages in barter, massaging employees of nearby businesses in exchange for food, coffee, and yoga sessions for its own workers.
Goetz positions his service as a source of human touch, much needed in a world where computers both isolate people and trap them for long hours in front of screens. "What I enjoyed about the natural foods business is it felt like we were dealing with the basic sustenance of life itself," he says. "Touch is also very important, especially as we get more technologically oriented. It reminds us we are part of the earth."
Yoga classes without the add-ons
Kelly Elle Kenworthy likes to compare a yoga class to the archetypal hero's journey. You cross the threshold and--putting down your mat--accept the call to adventure. You undergo a series of tests--like holding a pose for five minutes--that moves you toward transformation. You achieve apotheosis--the bliss that comes from meeting challenges--and cool down in preparation to cross the return threshold. Then "you put your armor back on--maybe not as tightly," she says. "And you walk back into the world."
Kenworthy started practicing yoga as a college student in Houston to help herself heal from a traumatic experience. "It was the last resort for me to pull myself out of that victim mentality," she says. "On that two-by-six mat I felt really safe." She worked as a counselor and corporate recruiter and then moved to Boulder where, in 2011, she started teaching at The Little Yoga Studio, a brand-new business in the Village Shopping Center. Six months after the studio's launch, Kenworthy became a partner and is now the company's sole owner. She is hunting for a second location.
Unlike most yoga studios, which rely on memberships, "The Little" as it's fondly known, is drop-in only. The cost per class "was, is, and will always be $10," Kenworthy says. There is no retail offering of branded apparel or water bottles. No post-Namaste solicitations to sign up for teacher-training workshops and events. "At a lot of studios as people are coming out of this beautiful sacred practice they are being inundated with all this bullshit," she says. "We don't do that."
Roughly 700 people a week take public classes at The Little. Kenworthy also teaches a half dozen or so private classes and runs a teacher-training school that offers a 200-hour program created by the Yoga Alliance, a professional organization.
Since this is Boulder, "people come in and want to sweat," Kenworthy says. But the physical yoga practice was designed to prepare people for meditation. The best teachers not only exercise the body but also the mind and spirit. "This is real work on what the human psyche needs," she says. "We are tapping into these very dark places so we can sit with ourselves and see clearly."
How to get into hot water
Holding a downward dog isn't the only way to work up a sweat. Lolling around in a copper tub fed by water enriched with minerals and heated to 104 degrees is another option. Among other benefits, soaks and saunas have been shown to stimulate blood flow, increase metabolism, stimulate the immune system, and relax muscles. "It helps release toxins from your body, can help you lose weight, and keeps your skin looking young," Alexis Valentine says. "It is kind of the key to life."
Valentine is co-founder with Corin Blanchard of Soak Boulder, a saltwater bathhouse opening this winter. Valentine is a consultant for small-to-midsize businesses; Blanchard has a private bodywork practice. Nine years ago they met playing sand volleyball ("we call it that because we don't have beaches here," Valentine says) and began seeking opportunities to work together.
In 2017 the friends took a trip to Glenwood Hot Springs, a three-hour drive. "We were soaking in one of their beautiful outdoor tubs overlooking the river," Blanchard says. "And we started talking about creating a soaking space in Boulder."
Urban bathhouses are common in Europe but largely unfamiliar in the United States. Valentine and Blanchard knew of one: Soak on the Sound, founded five years ago by Wren Farris in Port Townsend, Washington. After visiting Soak on the Sound, Valentine and Blanchard knew this was it. Farris licensed them the idea and signed on as a consultant. The partners raised $750,000 from investors around the country and made plans to crowdfund another million dollars.
Today the co-founders are finalizing the lease for a space downtown and designing an ambitious build-out featuring local wood and rock. Soak Boulder will use city water filtered through a proprietary rock-salt purification system, designed by Farris.
Customers will be able to choose between soaks in a community space--where they can circulate among tubs, steam rooms, and immersions in cold water--or in smaller, private rooms. A bodywork session is complementary. Soak Boulder will sell memberships and also accept drop-ins. Pricing is not yet finalized.
While doing research, "we learned there have been bathhouses here in the past, but it is 40 years since the last one closed," Blanchard says. "Given the lifestyle of people in Boulder--all the sports and activities they are passionate about--we're just surprised this doesn't already exist."