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I grew a multimillion-dollar massage business practicing ‘servant leadership’ — here’s how it works

Business owner Rachel Beider says servant leadership has made her business a happy and trusting workplace.

Rachel Beider

  • Rachel Beider, 38, is a licensed massage therapist and founder of PRESS Modern Massage.
  • She says ‘servant leadership’ has been key to making her business successful and fulfilling.
  • Servant leadership encourages company leaders to meet their employees’ needs before their own. 

As a young adult, I worked as a nanny, waitress, dog walker, and a photography assistant. While trying so many different things, I always felt a little lost in my pursuit of a career. 

At 21 I decided to do some soul-searching on a backpacking trip through India and Southeast Asia. One day, I found myself at WatPo Thai Massage School, namely because after sleeping on so many hostel floors I needed a great massage. I grew up with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that left me with chronic pain and discomfort, and massages really helped.

After one week of taking Thai massage class, I was hooked

I loved the flow of the movements, the calm pace, how connecting and grounding it felt to give massage work, and how gratifying it was to interact with people in this healing and helpful way. To this day, I still love working with my hands.

When I returned from my trip, I enrolled in the Swedish Institute in New York and became a licensed massage therapist. I began to work in a few different settings: for a chiropractor, a yoga studio, and a high-end spa.

I loved the clinical, site-specific work at the chiropractor’s clinic, but the cold paper sheet and bright lights weren’t exactly a relaxing work environment. I tried working for a high-end spa, but the low pay and back-to-back hectic pace didn’t feel good. I enjoyed the yoga studio, but found that it was disorganized, chaotic, and often dirty, which to me is a cardinal sin. 

I desperately wanted my own studio where I could do clinical style work in a warm and inviting setting, but I couldn’t afford to rent a space. 

Three months after getting my license, I found a physical therapy clinic in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I walked in and asked the owner if they offered massage therapy to their PT patients; they didn’t, so I offered to massage their patients for free two mornings a week in exchange for use of a treatment room. To my surprise, they agreed. I started my private practice, Press Modern Massage, and grew from there. 

Since opening our doors, we’ve done over $11 million in lifetime sales, but it certainly didn’t start out that way. My first year in business in 2008 I barely broke $20,000 in sales. Slowly, I grew from a solo practice to hiring my first employee and then my first dozen employees. From there I expanded from to a second location followed by several more. 

While scaling the company I often felt exhausted, burned out, and stretched too thin among so many responsibilities

Rachel Beider PRESS Modern MassageBeider says she turned to servant leadership while dealing with burnout.

Rachel Beider

I constantly felt like I was failing, which is a scary feeling. I knew I needed to learn to ask for help and delegate efficiently, but it was a painful and anxiety-ridden process for me. When you’re used to doing everything yourself and not relying on others, it can feel a bit like taking your hands off of the steering wheel to trust someone else with your company. 

To help, I learned about an operational style called servant leadership. This concept has been around for decades and was coined by Robert Greenleaf, a top management exec at AT&T in the mid 1900s. It eschews the traditional, top-down authoritative model of leadership for an employee-first approach. 

Servant leadership recommends that the company leader ensure their employee’s needs are being met first

With this, my role as owner is to make sure my team has everything they need to succeed, thrive, and feel good in their positions. 

I’ve found that servant leadership creates a warm work environment that results in high employee retention, phenomenal company culture, and a happier workplace. Our managers are accountable for their direct reports’ happiness and needs. I strive to make my company one where everyone feels impactful and never like a bystander in their own career.

Servant leadership helps empower my employees to make certain decisions without needing to ask permission from a manager

For example, if there’s an issue costing less than $200 to fix, our front desk is empowered to handle the situation without any oversight or authorization beforehand. This number increases as we move up the chain of command. It prevents bottlenecks from occurring on the management side and conveys trust and builds confidence. 

Another way I implement servant leadership is by having open feedback sessions where employees are encouraged to provide insight, advice, concerns, and pose questions. These sessions are geared towards making sure that our team has everything they want and need at the studios.

When COVID hit we had to close two of our four locations, which was devastating. I called deeply on my own resilience and resourcefulness to hang in and try my best to make it through. After we were allowed to reopen for business, in July 2021 we opened a new location in Union Square, a neighborhood we’d never been able to afford before. We just signed a lease in Columbus Circle, and I couldn’t be happier. It feels great to know that, even amid the pandemic, I can continue to build a business in the wellness space that is both successful and a fulfilling place to work.

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