August 11, 2009

What’s Your Story?: Joanna Robinson

By: Elizabeth Nolan Brown

“Shed your stress, not your clothes.”

That’s the slogan for Lunar Massage, the studio opened by 28-year-old entrepreneur Joanna Robinson this past spring.

Tucked into the first floor of a rowhouse just a few blocks from the D.C. Convention Center, Lunar Massage offers no-frills massage in a relaxing but minimalist atmosphere. The lights are dim, the music is of the Enya school, but there are no oils, no scented sheets, and customers remain fully clothed.

This is all part of Robinson’s vision. Lunar Massage was started, in part, to appeal to D.C.’s busy, young, professional class, with services like “the twentysomething massage” (20 minutes for $26) and “the crackberry massage” (a hand-and-arm massage for those with BBM fatigue).

“I was trying to hit the sweet spot between $120 for a massage at a cheesy spa or some guy pounding on you at the mall,” she says. “D.C. has a really unique demographic of 20-something young professionals coming from college, working their asses off in front of their computers all day. I thought, why not make it more affordable and accessible for that crowd?”

When Robinson talks about the benefits of massage, she is animated and emphatic. It’s a convert’s zeal. In early 2004, she quit her job at a wealth management firm in Dallas, packed up her car, and came to D.C. with just a few job leads. She ended up falling into the libertarian policy network which led to fundraising and marketing gigs for various libertarian causes (including America’s Future Foundation, where she was membership director for two years). But Robinson always had an itch to strike out on her own.

“I really wanted to start my own business, but I didn’t have any particular widget I was burning to produce,” she explains. So Robinson began looking into franchises, and noticed an uptick in massage and spa franchising. “I’m generally interested in health and wellness,” she says, “and I found that massage was a big growth industry.” But she wasn’t satisfied with any of the brand models out there. “I realized what I could actually contribute to a business would be creating a product that would be just a little bit different than what people are used to,” she says.

Robinson began working on the business plan for Lunar Massage last October, eventually downgrading and accelerating the process because of the economic crash. She scrapped plans for private massage rooms (Lunar masseuses operate in a one-room, partitioned-off area), and cut back on decor. With a little money and collateral, she soon secured financing.

“The secret story is that, at the beginning of the crisis, people were pulling out of the stock market and liquidating all their money, pulling out of the big national banks and putting their money into smaller banks. So a lot of local banks became flush with money,” Robinson says. “My bank, BB&T, was more than happy to work with me because they needed to be putting this money to work.”

Lunar Massage officially opened in April and broke even on operating expenses within its first month. Thus far, business has “totally exceeded my expectations,” Robinson says.

Part of this success came from a lucky advertising break. Four days after the online group discount service Groupon launched in D.C., it featured a deal for Lunar Massage.

“I was expecting to maybe sell 150, 200 massages,” Robinson says. “I had to call [Groupon] at 5 p.m. that day to tell them to cap it at 500, because we were booked. I literally tripled my client base in one day.”

The studio’s location has also turned out to be a major plus in attracting customers. Robinson estimates business from walk-by traffic is probably 50 percent, while the rest of her business comes from “the holy trinity of Google ads, Facebook ads, and Twitter.”

“You wouldn’t believe how many people every day twitter, ‘I need a massage,’” Robinson says, “and I can just @-reply them. I’m on Twitter all day so I can drop right into the conversation. People on Twitter are my demographic.”

This kind of convenience and access is what today’s young professionals have come to expect, and reaching them on their turf can pay off. The massage industry is “years behind in technology,” Robinson notes. “People think I’m some kind of tech genius because I have a decent Web site and customers can do online scheduling.”

But a little tech savvy can only solve so many problems. One of Robinson’s biggest frustrations has been D.C.’s licensing requirements for massage therapists.

“I’m constrained to people who have a D.C. license, which really brings down the talent pool,” she says. “My best therapists have been trained overseas. And they have, unfortunately, had to invest thousands of dollars and months of their time to go through training all over again in America.”

Working through problems like this has dispelled any doubts Robinson had about whether running a business would be sufficiently intellectually satisfying.

“It actually is much more intellectually challenging than I thought it would be, because all I do all day long is problem-solve,” she says. “I’m constantly thinking creatively. By the end of the day, I’m physically and mentally exhausted.”

All in all, Robinson has found the experience “tremendously rewarding,” though she cautions other would-be young entrepreneurs that opening and running a business is an incredibly difficult, daunting, and time-consuming process.

“I envy the point where you’ve got the thing moving and all you’re doing is making sure it works well,” says Robinson, who hopes to open multiple Lunar Massage locations around town.

“I didn’t do this just to create a job for myself,” she says. “I am building an asset so I want it to be something that somebody else could manage and grow. I want to invest in other ventures, to use capital in the Randian way—where it creates value and enhances people’s lives and helps them be excellent.”

Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a writer and web editor currently bouncing between D.C., Ohio, and New York. She blogs at Katherine Ruddy is a freelance photographer living in Washington, DC. See more of her photos on