What happens when your business model relies on people being able to get together in larger groups to be successful or to even exist? What happens when the places that host the events like county fairs, shows, and even Disneyland are closed? The answer? You change your business model, or you fail.
Brian Bon is the owner of Bon Family and California All Star Cloggers and Powerhouse Dance located in Anaheim, CA. What does he do? He is a professional “clogger.” “I know that sounds weird because there are not a lot of us, but it’s really a multifaceted business,” says Bon. His corporation is a diverse service company. “We provide entertainment, we provide arts education, we provide virtual content online, but basically, the core of what we do is the American folk dance of clogging.”
I met Brian in 2016 when I became one of his students in his clog dancing class. It was a lot of fun and while I danced with his group, I performed at Disney’s California Adventure, Calico Ghost Town, as well as We Give Thanks the annual food drive at the Honda Center.
Brian has been clogging for over 37 years. “I love what I do, I really truly love it.” “It changed my life.” Bon started clogging when he was young because his mom made him, “I was very insecure, I didn’t have hardly any friends, and felt very bad about myself.” When his mom originally made him start clogging, he hated it. “I hated it, but within a year, a light came on in my head and I started to love it.” “I started to love the music and love the dancing.” “I became one of the best in the country.” “It just changed my life,” says Bon. One of the things he loves about teaching clog dancing, is that he is able give that same opportunity and feelings to both kids and adults that he felt when he was young.
Brian became a professional clog dancer on the TV show Hee Haw back when he was a teenager. After doing that for about 5 years, he got his degree in theater and English, moved to California to be a performer, but he kept finding success with clogging. He eventually started his clog dancing business back in 2000 to pass on his love for clog dancing to others. He has taught over 40,000 people how to dance. “People wanted me to teach them to dance, and I think that comes down to because I love it,” says Bon. The Bon Family and California All Star Cloggers have performed at The Stage Coach Festival, Knotts Berry Farm , Disneyland, and countless other places over the years. It is a family business and many of the dancers are either siblings or even mother and son/daughter.
When I asked him if it was hard to start his business, he said that sometimes it’s hard to talk to the “corporate” people. “When I talk to my accountant, I feel like I’m speaking French, or they are, and I’m speaking English, because I’m a creative type.” “I’m not good with a lot of technical jargon or accounting dynamics and legal aspects, so, I have to trust them with those things.” He has to trust his people and when they tell him there’s a hoop to jump through, “I do it and I just trust them,” says Bon.
But overall, Bon does not feel like it is difficult, “I think it’s not as difficult is because I have a good product.” “So, for me to keep the business going, even during quarantine right now, it has been going, and it’s been different and not quite as financially lucrative, but it’s still good because I have a quality product.” “The clogging I do is exciting and fun,” “the classes are exciting and fun.” “There are a lot of aspects to it,” says Bon.
I asked him what type of struggles he has had to deal with in the past. “You know, I think the biggest struggles are all the legal red tape that people, especially in California, that we have to jump through.” “I mean, I pay so many fees just to be in business.” “I paid over $7,000 in federal taxes last year, I paid $800 just for the pleasure of being in business in California before I even made a dollar.” “Then there’s insurance and there’s business license and all of that kind of stuff.” Bon teaches classes in multiple locations and performs all over the country, this means every location has its own insurance. “Everywhere I go has to have a different insurance certificate or a different type of insurance, so it is that kind of paperwork stuff and costs, that’s the most difficult part for me.” But even with the challenges, he has made a successful business for himself and brought clog dancing to thousands of kids over the years.
And he was doing well for himself and the clog dancing community, until March 2020.
What happened to your business when COVD hit and California went into a lockdown? “I lost about $100,000 worth of work,” says Bon. Just like many Californians, overnight he had no work. All his classes had to be cancelled, and every show that he had planned for the next few months was either cancelled or postponed.
“I feel like I don’t want to get political, but I just feel like every time I have friends who have their small business that are barbers and stuff and they just get ready to open and then it gets shut down again, get ready to open, and shut down.” “My personal feeling is essential business is any business that provides your lifeblood money, right?” “It’s what pays your bills.”
Bon had to get creative and restructure, do private lessons, and do virtual classes. “The hardest part is not just losing all of that work, I had to emotionally mourn the loss of that money, because one day would be up, I’d be like, that’s still happening,” “and the next day, one would cancel.” “Then one went up, and then one would cancel, and then cancel, cancel, cancel.” “By the end, I just kind of assumed everything was gone.”
The first 30 days of the lockdown were scary, but because the people that were in his classes were so supportive of him, he felt confidence. “I’ve had people drop me off anonymous donations on my front porch.” “I’ve had people sign up for classes that aren’t taking the classes, and they have kept the food on my table,” says Bon.
Trying to make his business virtual was a challenge for Brian. “I’m not social media savvy, I’m not on Snapchat, or other things, so, I had to make myself a little more social media savvy to succeed.” “I had to figure out how to do YouTube live classes.” Eventually, he was able to figure it out and switch his students to YouTube live every Tuesday night. If you want to know more about his classes message him at powerhousedance.net
Next he had to figure out ways to use social media to let more people know he is still here. He found ways he can make himself a little more of a social media influencer in the American folk-dance community, researching old TV shows, posting those, doing interviews, documenting the history of clogging. Instead of it just being performance and classes, and getting more information out about his business, he wanted to educate people about the history of clogging. He has been trying to get out the message that clog dancing is a “dance of the people.” “It’s not an elitist trained dance, it’s not like you go to ballet intensive camp at the Bolshevik Ballet or whatever it is.” “Right?” “Clogging is the dance of the real people.” “Most of us are self-taught, there is not a specific one technique training.” “Every region is different, and it really is an American cultural phenomenon unlike any other folk dance we produce,” shares Bon.
Bon has been part of the industry for a long time, he has been on Hee Haw, America’s Got Talent, Fast Track to Fame, Destination Stardom, Let Me Entertain You, FX channel’s Justified, ABC’s Culture Click., The Gong Show, and many more. He has been on more TV shows than any other person in the country that clog dances.
He is very concerned about the future of the entertainment industry. “Live entertainment won’t be back for a year-and-a-half at least. I just think that number one, even if they’ve suddenly decided tomorrow that COVID is gone, people are still very tentative about going out, Right?” “Even if I started my classes up next Tuesday in person, I bet only half would come back, because they’re scared. People are scared.”
“Entertainment is hit hard, hit hard, whether you’re big or little.” “Luckily, the people that are big, they have millions of dollars of cushion.” “But those of us, most entertainers live at my level where they’re a functioning entertainer, but they don’t have $20 million in the bank because their last movie was The Avengers. Right?” says Bon.
When I asked him if he was going to continue to do virtual training after we are able to get together in person again, he said yes. “I’m just going to move my virtual classes to Thursday, having an in-person class on Tuesday and see if I can do both.” One thing he realized, is that he can reach people all over the country doing it virtually and not just in Orange County. “I have students from Texas, Wisconsin, and several other states, taking my classes, which is exciting,” shares Bon.
Another thing that Bon has been building is his YouTube following. His channel BriCLOGGER is growing and growing. There are lots of great clogging videos, interviews, and lessons. “Just in the last six weeks, I’ve gone from 170 subscribers to almost 600,” says Bon. “My goal is to hit a thousand by October and then keep going.” “I’m having fun sharing the way clogging has… what I’ve seen it, how it’s changed and influenced our culture, sharing that with people, whether they’re cloggers or other people.” “I’m going to keep that going too. I’m really enjoying that.”
When asked if he would do it all over again, he said, “that’s such a hard question. I mean, yes, there’s easier routes that I could have taken to make money, but I love what I do.”
What advice would he give to someone else who is thinking about opening their own business, “do your research.” “Make sure that you’re going to make enough money so that it’s worth all the hassle and fees, you need to make enough money so that is worth the difficulty.” Bon says you also need to remember that it takes all your time. “I work from home. I work away from home, but whenever I’m here, my work is with me.” “It’s one of those jobs that I don’t leave it at work and then come home, so as a business owner, you have to love it and you have to educate yourself.”
But overall, he wants to encourage people “I think a lot of people feel kind of hopeless right now, but I’m seeing businesses in my neighborhood that just opened this week, like a pizza place that just opened, and it’s horrible timing, but they had already committed to open, and, man, they’re going for it.” “I’ve seen another place, this deli, they keep getting closed down because of this rule and that rule, and what do they do?” “They keep reinventing themselves.” “Creativity, no matter how technical you think your job is, is key to keeping it going. “You have to go with the flow, you have to adjust to the times, especially these days,” says Bon.
“Creativity is the key to keeping it going”
August 16, 2020, Melissa Tompkins, BS, CVPM, PHRca, CCFP
About the author,
Melissa is a small business owner in Southern California, she owns South Coast Veterinary Management Solutions. She works as a veterinary management consultant focusing on helping veterinary hospitals, practice owners, and their team members be successful.