Founder and CEO of fitBallet Julia Walsh

  • Copy by: Caitlin Brown

A year ago, Julia Walsh left her prestigious position as a litigation associate at a nationally ranked law firm. While Julia loved her experience at Harvard Law School, her career as an attorney was something else entirely—she was deeply unfulfilled and craving something more creative. A former dance major in college, Julia started a side project during her downtime, now known as fitBallet. When her training with friends started yielding major results, Julia went home and told her husband she thought it was time to quit her job. 

Julia found a way to successfully launch her business in one of the most expensive cities in the world and without securing a dedicated studio space. Currently, fitBallet rents various spaces around New York to hold classes until they secure a permanent home of their own. Julia is fueled by heart, creativity and passion and we love her outlook on building a business: “Each step you take to lessen a weakness is small and painful, but building on your strength lets you tap into the high-powered engine of your own potential.”

Keep reading to find more ways that Julia has launched her business organically, the best advice she has ever received (hint: if you think you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not alone) and how to overcome doubts and resistance when making a major career switch.

Name: Julia Schechter Walsh
Age: 29
Current Title/Company: Founder and CEO, fitBallet
Education: BAs in Global Cultures and Dance from UC Irvine, JD from Harvard Law School
Year you started your business: 2014

What was your first job out of college, and how did you land it? 
I worked for the AmeriCorps program, providing health and fitness coaching for preschoolers and their families. Coming out of college, I was convinced that I wanted to be a crusader, so I applied only to non-profit jobs. This one focused on kids (a population I’ve always loved) and there were so many issues to tackle: childhood obesity, nutrition confusion, lack of places to play. I had one interview with the nurses who ran the program and walked out fist-pumping the air, like, “YES. I will single-handedly revolutionize the health of an entire community!”

But of course, it didn’t really work like that. After a few months I found that I like to move really fast and see immediate results: try something, see if it works, and refine from there. Some agencies operate at a more measured pace, with more sign-offs and meetings required before anything can happen. That realization was what prompted me to go to law school. I figured that with a graduate degree, I’d be more effective. I could “approach from a position of power” (advice my mom always gives me) instead of trying to change things from the ground up.

Prior to developing fitBallet, you attended Harvard Law School and worked as a litigation associate at a nationally ranked law firm. What prompted you to leave behind and start your own company? What doubts did you have to overcome?
I loved law school, but I was deeply unhappy as a practicing attorney. The firm wasn’t the problem—everyone was pleasant and happy to help me develop; it was me. I soon discovered that creativity and independence are core to who I am as a person. I was also battling a bit of depression over the fact that I’d invested all this time and money into a career that was turning out (from the beginning, essentially) to be directly opposed to everything I wanted.

At the same time, I was starting to train some friends using the fitBallet curriculum that I’d come up with as a fun side project. They started to see results, which was so exciting. One friend, who was a mother of three and battling postpartum depression told me, “I’ve been doing this with you for two months, and now I can lift all of my kids at once! I feel truly powerful, like I’m really at home in my body for the first time in my life.” This friend was a former ballerina also and hearing that from her just lit a fire under me.

I’d created something that was actually having a tangible, positive impact in the world. I went home that night and told my husband, “So, I think I need to quit my job…” Thankfully, he was incredibly supportive and encouraged me to make the leap. But I definitely was terrified. We were giving up an income, and we’d just moved to one of the most expensive cities in the world.

But I actually worried more about the social aspect than finances. Everyone I knew was living the professional-in-a-pencil-skirt lifestyle and it felt so bizarre to exit that circle. I figured people would think I couldn’t hack it and that they wouldn’t take my new business seriously. It felt like giving up part of my identity to not tell people, “I’m an attorney” when asked what I did for a living.

Honestly, the way I got over my doubt was by deciding whose opinions I cared most about. So I asked my husband, my parents, and a few friends whose life philosophies I agreed with: “Should I do this? Am I crazy?” And every single one of them said: “Go for it.” No hesitation.

It was completely clear to them how unhappy I was; they all felt I would be able to land on my feet. So later, when other people would give me unsolicited advice on how I should play things a little safer, I had the safeguard of being able to tell myself, “There was a reason you didn’t ask for this person’s opinion. Carry on.”

How did you turn your idea into a reality? What resources did you utilize to help you launch your business?
I spent quite a while thinking about what I wanted the brand to look and feel like. I wanted the website to make everything clear: what the classes were like and also our identity as a company—we’re trying to change the conversation about female health and fitness.

Thankfully, Squarespace is an amazing resource. You don’t have to have any technical knowledge in order to build a website that’s exactly what you want; if you can drag and drop and pay $9/month, you can get something totally professional looking.

Tell us about you decisions in regards to studio space and what it means for your business.
We don’t actually have a studio yet; we rent space at studios around the city. It’s tough not to be able to provide the amenities that people are looking for—we’re competing with SoulCycle and other studios that offer showers and Kiehl’s lotion and pixie dust—but part of our story is that we have to be guerilla for a little while. There are definitely clients who come in and wish we had a different physical space, and I’m excited to be able to offer that when we open our first studio. But for now we’re focused on providing a world-class workout wherever we are that day.

How did you first get the word out about fitBallet? 
It’s all been very organic so far! We haven’t spent any money on advertising (other than a few Facebook ads). We’ve relied on word of mouth to grow the business. That means a slower start because we didn’t have the pomp and circumstance of a media launch, but you do get a core following of people who truly believe in what you’re doing and then they tell their friends, etc.

That’s what I’ve wanted from the beginning, really: a tribe of women who get it, who want support and community for themselves, and want to give it to others.

What surprised you the most about starting your own business? 
I didn’t anticipate the degree to which it’d be hard to mentally/emotionally separate my business from myself. I’d never been an entrepreneur before, so I had this idea that you create great content and then just release it into the wild to great acclaim, like, “If you build it, they will come.”

But of course that didn’t happen. The marketplace is noisy, and it takes time for people to find you. And not everyone who does find you will be interested in what you’re doing—that’s just statistics, not a reflection on how good your product is. So, you have to develop a thick skin about the process: pouring your heart and soul into what you’re doing and putting it out there, hoping that it will be a success and not letting any failures touch your core.

How did you come up with your initial business plan? 
To be honest, it was more trial and error than an articulated plan. I started out offering only personal training and found that women were much more interested in-group classes so we pivoted to offer those instead.

It’s been the same for every aspect of the business: We try something, get feedback, and iterate. Reading The Lean Start-Up before launching really helped me get comfortable with the idea that a company is an ever-evolving entity. You can’t plan an entire strategy without checking in with the real world where you’re going to market it.

Out of all of the exercise methods you’ve tried in the past, why did you feel the need to create your own program? 
I’ve been a dancer my whole life so constant movement is just part of my DNA. I was a dance major in college, so law school was a really jarring shift. I went from moving 5-6 hours a day to be almost completely sedentary because I was studying so much. There were dance classes in Boston, but there was no way I could go for multiple hours a day; I was lucky to squeeze in an hour at the gym. Dance is incredible for your body—it promotes muscle tone, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility—but the way dance classes are structured (there’s a lot of stopping and starting) one hour a day wasn’t going to be sufficient to maintain the level of fitness I wanted.

I tried a lot of other methods—barre, yoga, Crossfit, etc—but none of them worked for me. Each one was missing something crucial. I wouldn’t break a sweat or I’d build excess muscle. So, I built a program for myself. It incorporated certain elements I’d tried and loved during my exploration phase: circuit training (for a constantly elevated heart rate) and moderate weight lifting (a pathway to serious results in a very short time frame).

I based it all in ballet movements, which are responsible for elongated muscles and tackling parts of the body that are overlooked in almost every fitness routine (for example, the muscles along the spine). I also incorporated an extensive stretching routine after finding that most programs ran through a few cursory stretches at the end of a workout. Stretching’s really key, both for improving your flexibility and for preventing soreness. If you don’t fully stretch after a hard workout, you’re almost ensuring that you’ll be too sore the next day to go back.

I wanted fitBallet to be a one-stop, all-encompassing program, so that clients don’t have to do any meta-planning about how to balance the different workout routines they’re doing. I didn’t have the time or mental energy to do that, so no one else should have to, either.

When did you first feel like fitBallet had “made it” and was a success?
I’m not sure I’m ever going to feel like that! I have such big dreams for this company, so with every small success, I’m like, “Great! So, our next thing will be…” I think that’s when you know you’re working on the right project, when you can see the outline of something huge, and you just want to put your head down and tunnel toward it.

What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Build on your strengths instead of trying to mitigate your weaknesses. I think I’m a decently well-rounded person, but everyone has serious spikes and valleys in terms of their natural skills. My strengths all lie in what I call the koala zone—empathy, creativity, and inclusion—whereas I’m terrible with anything quantitative. I’m also comically bad at researching anything. My friends will be like, “Here…let me Google that for you, but actually, let me.”

I spent a lot of my early twenties assuming that my “strengths” were just the character traits that make up all non-sociopaths (because how can empathy be a skill?) and that I was seriously lacking in the analytical skills I needed to be a professional. (The fact that litigation associates spend about 75% of their billable time doing legal research might have contributed to this feeling.)

But when I started my business, I realized how wrong that outlook was. The more I played to my strengths—modeling the business on inclusivity and tribe-building, speaking to the struggles I saw in how women approached their own health—the more successful fitBallet became. Each step you take to lessen a weakness is small and painful, but building on your strength lets you tap into the high-powered engine of your own potential.

Julia Walsh is The Everygirl…

Best advice you’ve ever received? 
When I was starting fitBallet, my dad told me: “No one else knows what they’re doing, either.” It was the best thing I could possibly hear, because even though I know the concept of “faking it ‘til you make it,” I always assume everyone else has made it and I’m the only one “faking.” Which is crazy, of course, but it’s so easy to get caught up in and impressed by people’s public images.

When seemingly successful people surround you and are telling you, “Well, you have to do X!” or “No, you have to do Y!” it’s incredibly overwhelming…who do you listen to? But remembering that no one else really knows what they’re doing—that they’re just doing their best and reacting to circumstances and following their gut—makes you realize that you can do the same.

I needed to understand that no one else had the “one true answer” either before I could feel comfortable making decisions based on my own intuition.

Go-to snack? 
A hardboiled egg with avocado. Protein and healthy fat cures any headache! I’m on a mission to get coffee shops to stock snacks with fat in addition to croissants and muffins because sometimes I’m holed up trying to get work done and I just get hungry in a way that carbs aren’t going to help. (The mission is mostly me complaining to my friends at this point.)

Morning ritual? 
Stretching in bed. I think it’s so important to take a few minutes to just be a human before you get up and start whatever craziness you’re going to tackle that day—part of that is really acknowledging that mind-body connection.

It’s really simple, just pulling each leg into my chest and then extending to the ceiling, rolling my ankles around. But it really sets a tone; I feel calmer and more centered than when my alarm goes off and I launch out of bed.

Perfect way to spend a day off? 
My husband and I moved to New York from LA a year ago so the city still feels new; we’re constantly exploring. If I had a whole day, I’d spend it walking from brunch in Soho (where we live) up to the Upper West Side. There’s this gluten-free bakery called By the Way on 89th that I am completely obsessed with— I have to set a budget before I go in there, because otherwise I walk out 15 minutes later carrying a shopping bag full of cookies and being like, “Wait, what just happened?”

So, we’ll walk all the way up there, through Central Park, stop in and get a brownie and a lemon poppy seed cake and take them back down to Irving Roasters to drink coffee and have major life discussions. They serve their espresso with little glasses of sparkling water, which basically makes a person feel like Grace Kelly. And then Chinese foot massages (if this really is the perfect day). It’s sounds like it’s going to be bizarre until you try it (someone touching my feet?) but it’s the most relaxed I’ve ever been.

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia. She’s at the helm of a profitable business that also manages to be socially responsible and not participate in any of the over-selling and creepy behavior that mark most large corporations.

I have huge dreams for fitBallet (I want it to be a national brand) and I want to know how to get there in a way I’ll be proud of. I have a feeling she could spill some genius advice over a salad and sweet potato fries.

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