For Nini Gueco, life is about movement. Dancing since the age of five, she always loved the freedom that came from exploring the lines and angles of the human body. Inside dance, she found energy, stories, and new dimensions. She found change.

After Gueco graduated from college, she took a break from the dance world and entered a career in finance. But something was off. Sitting in conference rooms all day was stifling and unfulfilling. She wasn’t doing what she was meant to do. “I couldn’t live without moving to music.”

So how did Gueco find her true calling and open Avant-Barre, one of the most popular barre studios in San Francisco? She turned, 180 degrees.

“I had a vision, but it took a lot of steps to get there.”

These are the steps Gueco took to launch the business of her dreams.

Step 1: The pivot

“My husband and I talk a lot about what our purpose is in life,” says Gueco. After one of those conversations, it started to become clear that her finance career wasn’t taking her in the direction she wanted to go. Through barre exercise, she found an outlet. It was the perfect mix of intensity and arabesques — she could work out while dancing her heart out.

In the span of those classes, Gueco quickly saw that the choreography wasn’t capturing the dynamic quality of dance. There was no heart, no kinetic magic. While rooted in classic disciplines, dance is all about movement — it’s about change. So she began teaching at the studio after work. By fusing fresh choreography with popular music, she made each session addictive. One day, her husband dropped in on one of her classes. When they got home, he looked at her. “I think you can do this on your own.” At first, Gueco didn’t think she had it in her. But the more she imagined it, the realer it became. Her husband was the one who finally tipped her over the edge. “If you don’t try it now, you’re going to regret it,” he said. “You have something special, so take it all the way.”

Step 2: Make everyone feel welcome

When she first started out, Gueco didn’t like how competitive other barre studios felt. One of her philosophies is that a dance studio should exude warmth and acceptance, and that it’s everyone’s role to make that feeling come to life. As soon as a customer walks through the doors, Gueco and the Avant-Barre team roll out the welcome wagon. “It’s something we do that’s really different.” The entire staff memorizes each student’s name so they can encourage and support them during class.

“Feeling welcome is how people identify with a space and make it their own.”

Step 3: Build a values-driven team

As a woman-owned business, it’s really important for Gueco that people take pride in who they are. That feeling is intensified by each teacher on the team. Every class is designed around Avant-Barre’s values of positivity and acceptance. As a result, people feel free to be themselves during class. When Gueco finds that a candidate is not a culture fit, she listens to herself.

“That’s the biggest thing — the culture has to stay tight.”

Step 4: Run your small business like a startup

When she first started out, Gueco’s husband bought her a stack of startup books. “But I’m not a startup,” she told him. After reading, she realized that in many ways she actually was. Gueco points to that growth mindset as to what has made her more open to taking risks. “Being able to change and act quickly really hit home for me.” Staying fluid has also helped differentiate Avant-Barre in the fitness community. By experimenting with new choreography and ways to make the studio feel special, she is pushing the limits of what exercise can be.

Nini Gueco spun herself a new life. She created a community where people can strengthen their bodies and their connections with others. Today, Avant-Barre is the top barre studio in San Francisco, and its owner has never felt more fulfilled. “I had a vision that was different than anything else out there,” she says. “When it came down to it, I just had to do this. I had no choice.”

Kira Deutch Kira Deutch is a former Gusto editor. She has a background in publishing and content marketing for startups.
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