Brad Groznik: [00:00:00] This is the Rediscover State College Podcast. On this show, we talk to locals about how they were able to find their happy place in Happy Valley. I’m your host, Brad Gronik. With us today, we have Leah Mueller and Jared Yarnall-Shane. Leah and her husband Jared are the new owners and directors of Singing on Stage, a longtime state college children’s musical theater program.
We’ll talk about how Leah was able to develop a passion and expertise in the performing arts and how the couple found a home and an entrepreneurial opportunity in state college. Alright, Leah, Jared, thanks for joining me today.
Leah Mueller: Thanks for having us.
Brad Groznik: Excited that you guys are here. ’cause I think what you guys have just done in the recent months has been really inspiring and something that you often don’t see.
So can you talk to us a little bit about singing on stage and how you became the new owners?
Leah Mueller: Yeah, so Singing on Stage has been [00:01:00] offering musical theater training for students age five to 18 for 20 years. It’s turning 20 this year. And the owners, the previous owners were friends of ours and knew they were gonna be moving to Wichita, Kansas for a job out there and called and left a message on my phone saying that they were moving and that they were looking to sell the business.
Would we be interested in purchasing it? So I went home to Jared and sort of jumped at the opportunity like, could we do this? This would be amazing. I had participated in singing on stage as a student, so it was really exciting that this was available, that I had the applicable skills, and Jared had the business background and so he started running some numbers and looking into whether it’d be feasible, and we decided that we wanted to go for it.
Jared Yarnall-Schane: Yeah, and State College was a place we talked about coming back to, and this opportunity just seemed right. Not only is this business turning 20 years old, but actually the prior owner’s mother [00:02:00] built this property and they have been teaching modern dance, um, for, for years prior. So this was such a great opportunity to be able to continue to contribute and give back to this community.
Brad Groznik: Yeah, I think you, you just bring up the point. You guys weren’t local at the time. I know Leah, you grew up here. Um, and Jared, you, you were a student at Penn State. You guys left and, and tell me, tell me a bit, a little bit about why you left and, and how, and why State College still kind of had, had a hold on you.
Yeah, so we left, I was, went to pursue my M F A in acting in Bloomington, Indiana at Indiana University. And that’s what took us away from the area and I. Nice to step away from state college because we were able to see everything that we missed about the community once we were away. And also gain a new perspective, you know, living somewhere else and seeing what they do there.
I think we were energized by a lot of the things we were seeing in Bloomington, which is a very similar community to state [00:03:00] College. Also a college town. But I think we also found when we were away, we are missing, you know, the hiking here is amazing and our friends and family that still lived in the area, so, To have the opportunity to come back was really exciting for us with a fresh perspective, a new energy reentering the community.
Jared Yarnall-Schane: As we were starting to search for what was next. After Leah finished grad school, we had a few options and a lot of them were taking us to cities. And as we were starting to think about the quality of life we wanted to have, um, buying a house, having a yard, raising a family, it just, it became clear that one would probably be financially out of reach or, or really have a financial strain on us.
And, and this. Made a lot more sense for us for a lot of different reasons.
Brad Groznik: Yeah. How did you guys meet?
Leah Mueller: We actually met at a friend’s 30th birthday party at a canoe camping trip. Spud Marshall was that friend, and so we both went on this canoe camping trip. Really hit it off. And, but Jared at that point was working remotely, [00:04:00] uh, and so he was traveling the world and so we had this, you know, Really great connection one weekend and he said, I have to move to South America for six months to a year.
And I was like, ah, bummer. But uh, we were messaging all summer and then he said, do you wanna come hike to Machu Picchu with me? I’m going to move to Peru in a few weeks. And I said, yes, which is crazy. Um, and then he moved back to State College with me and it was great.
Brad Groznik: Yeah. That’s really cool. Mm-hmm. And so, Jared, can you talk to us a little bit about your entrepreneurial background and maybe what it was like considering, like had you ever considered buying a bus, an existing business as opposed to starting your own, which I know you have experience in.
Jared Yarnall-Schane: So, my entrepreneurial journey actually started when I was an undergrad at Penn State. Um, he had an undergraduate research project looking at urban agriculture. We decided to spin that out. I stuck around the area afterwards and, and tried to build that out for about a year. Ultimately decided that wasn’t [00:05:00] the path for me and I started to work in the startup support ecosystem.
So I took what I learned from both my engineering technical background, but also that business background and went and began to work with entrepreneurs from all around the world. Um, first with a group called Thought for Food. Now, more recently with a group called the Biomimicry Institute, both of which allow me to work remotely, but I’ve always been drawn to creating my own ventures.
It’s the creativity and the freedom that that brings. Course there’s a lot of other stress that that comes on top of it too, but, um, those two things really draw me to this space. And before this opportunity came up, I never considered buying my own business or buying an existing business, I should say.
Um, I, I always, you know, I’ve seen, oh, here’s how you buy franchises. I’ve seen some other opportunities that that have popped up, like buying restaurants or whatnot, but that just wasn’t something that ever appealed to me. Now that I’ve been in this space, I, I see a ton of value and a ton of need, um, and opportunity that that’s coming [00:06:00] up for, for other people like us.
Brad Groznik: Yeah. Leah, can you talk a little bit about your plan after getting your M F A and what were some of those plans? Were, were, was buying a theater company, uh, on that list, or is it something, you know, that surprise even surprised you?
Leah Mueller: Definitely not. Yeah. This was a, a big surprise, but after it all sort of came together, just the perfect fit.
I, I had left my teaching position to go back and get my M F A because I wanted to sort of transition from being a music teacher to teaching more theater. So I definitely wanted to keep teaching and that was still a goal while also feeding my own artistry for a few years. But I was thinking I’d be a professor at the college level or maybe a high school drama teacher.
And, um, as again, as Jared said, as we were looking at like, Sort of pie in the sky where we wanted to end up. We were looking at like DC and Boston and then ceiling, real estate prices there we’re like, oh, maybe that won’t work. Right. Um, so yeah, when Heidi called, and again, this was my second, Heidi was the [00:07:00] previous owner, my second, uh, year of my M F A, I wasn’t quite sure what I was gonna do after just, it was kind of brainstormy at that point still.
So having that opportunity to fall into place and then coming back to the area and kind of. Putting a few more pieces together. It’s just all really clicked and, and been really exciting. I never saw myself as a business owner, I’ve always thought I would work for someone else. But I think Jared, having that business background, gave me the courage to say yes to this, knowing that we’d be working as a team running, running the school together.
Brad Groznik: Up to this point, you guys kind of had your own career paths, um, and you know, were supporting each other. You know, in a relationship, but now you guys are business partners. So how, what, what’s changed and, and what are, what are the pros and cons of, of, of building a business with your, uh, significant other?
Leah Mueller: Yes, it has definitely changed some things and I think putting boundaries on conversations has been really important. We got a tip from friends of ours who are married and also own a business [00:08:00] to do a tapout. So like you sit down to dinner, you’re allowed to talk about the business for 10 minutes, but then once you do the tapout, then you sort of transition just to personal conversation, which I think for us has been really helpful, especially if we’re on a phone call talking about, you know, personal stuff and then we can check.
Is now a good time to talk about the business for 10 minutes? And so we can sort of check in that way. And if we’re like, no, I’m too stressed right now, or I don’t have the capacity, we can, we can check in on that. Would you agree, Jared?
Jared Yarnall-Schane: 100%. That’s, that’s been incredibly helpful. Um, one thing that’s been a little difficult during the transition is we both still have other full-time things that we’re responsible for in doing Leah’s, finishing up grad school.
I still have a full-time remote job. So I think that has also caused some stress as, as we are, you know, full-time there, essentially trying to be full-time starting this job, but then also continue to maintain and grow our relationship. Um, that kind of all seeps into [00:09:00] each other at points. So it’s been a, it’s been a crazy year of figuring that out and we’re excited for that to, I don’t wanna say return to normal.
I don’t think it will ever be normal. We are excited to, to have some less responsibilities there so that we can really lean into each of those unique aspects.
Brad Groznik: Yeah. And I know to complicate things or to, or to benefit things, both, just even a little bit more, this business came with a residence, right? And so not only were you trying to buy a business, you were also buying a house.
How, how did that play into the whole calculus and, and was that a pro.
Jared Yarnall-Schane: So when this opportunity came up, um, as you mentioned, Brad, this is a really unique property. Um, we’re located less than a mile away from Penn State University, very close and walking distance to downtown State College and how the, the property set up is the ground floor, um, which is technically like a finished basement, is the studio space.
It’s a beautiful old historic studio space, um, with a room that’s [00:10:00] about 1400 square feet. And then upstairs is our living space. So we had to figure that out. What comes first? Does the business come first? Does buying this property come first? So we were able to work with some great local bankers and, and S B D C to and, and some other friends and real estate advisors to figure out that process.
We decided to purchase this property first. Um, so Leah and I own that as individuals. And then second came the business and we decided to buy the business assets after we already secured the, the property. I think if we were unable to secure the property, I’m not sure we would’ve had to get creative, but I’m not sure if this whole deal would’ve come through unless we could acquire both.
Brad Groznik: And so how, how did you figure all that out? You mentioned you, you talked to maybe the small business development center. I, I would say if I just got this phone call about somebody asking me to buy their business, even if I really wanted to, I, I just wouldn’t even know to where to start. So what is, how did you start?
Jared Yarnall-Schane: I [00:11:00] think the very first thing that we did was we talked to each other to see is this something we even want to entertain? So I think once we got to that point, yes, this is something we’re both interested in. In looking at farther, the next thing we did was I built out a, a financial, it’s like a, a simple kind of financial projections.
We modeled what we thought they made the prior year, and then we modeled what we thought it could look like going forward for a year or two into the future. And I did that. We did that first just to see if this was even feasible. Like, this could be an awesome potential, but we have to make money off of it so that we can live and, and survive.
Eat ourselves, pay, pay the property, pay, pay the mortgage. Once we confirmed those numbers, then we started to do some more due diligence with, with some of the local, um, stakeholders. So we, we contacted a lot of the local banks. We wanted to work with local banks because they already knew that this was an existing business.
We thought that they’d be more flexible, which we were, right? So we were able to work with some great local banks [00:12:00] who already understood the context we were coming into. And then I think the last thing that we did is, like you mentioned, Brad, we, we talked to the small business development center, and I think one of the things they were most helpful about was providing some reports forecasting.
The trends of student-based businesses, arts-based businesses, so that we could come prepared both for ourselves but also also for potential lenders to say, this is a field that’s growing and in an area like ours, it’s only gonna continue to grow. So there, there is a great investment opportunity here as well.
We also reached out to a friend who is a realtor. And she helped us sort of negotiate how to do a sale of a house. ’cause this is our first home that we’ve ever owned. So that was really helpful to hear from her and get many recommendations of how to go about assessing the value of the property and, and negotiating with the homeowners.
Brad Groznik: And so, are you guys, Lee, are you running the business now? Are you the, the, the owner of singing on stage?
Leah Mueller: Yes. So I’m the [00:13:00] director technically, and Jared is the co-owner with me. And, um, So we have teachers teaching our classes right now while I am away. Um, and I’ll, I’ll be teaching full-time starting this summer, so I’ll run all of our summer camps and then into the fall.
I’m hoping we can continue to keep hiring other people as well, um, and grow the business. But yeah, so that’s, that was a big adjustment for me because although I have many years of teaching experience, managing people was a new skill for me, and it was especially difficult to manage people from another state through the two semesters that we had to do that.
So it’s been challenging, but also a great way to learn. It’s been, it’s been a great process.
Brad Groznik: So tell me a little bit about what you’re looking forward to most this summer. Where do you hope to take singing on stage? What can people look forward to?
Leah Mueller: Yeah, I am most looking forward to just working with the students.
I mean, we have so many talented students and. Seeing their growth through [00:14:00] their time at singing on stage. I love, you know, seeing a student who’s maybe a little shy or not sure if they wanna try it, and then shining in in the final performance is always a, an amazing experience. So yeah, just getting back in the classroom because during my graduate school years I’ve been teaching college students, but I really miss the energy and enthusiasm of, of young students.
And I’m hoping you know, right now our model is sort of, we just, every class does a show that’s a licensed show that we do at the end, and I’m hoping to continue to build out different curriculums so we can have some more skill building classes for the, for the younger ages to prepare them. I’m also hoping to use some of the things that I’ve learned in my time at iu.
Like I took a clown and edia class, so finding ways to weave that in and just some fun physical comedy and maybe some Shakespeare based on student interests, but also my own teaching interests. And [00:15:00] I’m really encouraged by how many art space businesses are in the area. So I’m hoping we can build some partnerships, maybe offer some classes with some other theater groups and, and work together to just.
Continue to strengthen the community.
Brad Groznik: Yeah. Can you tell me, talk to me a little bit about the theater scene in State College and what was it like participating in it growing up?
Leah Mueller: Yeah, so I was fortunate, um, the State College Community Theater, which is still around, but when I was a kid, they were housed in the, the Bull Barn in Bosberg.
And so I would do shows there every single summer. And it, you know, sort of raised me as a theater artist. There was also a group, um, which is no longer around, but it was run by a, a Penn State professor called Meta Stages on the Penn State campus. And so as a child, I got to take mime there from a professor who now works at Julliard.
And I look back at those experiences and I just think, how lucky was I to have those as a child? So, My motivations for, for wanting to come back to the community [00:16:00] was to keep providing those experiences for students. And now, yeah, there’s Sock and Kin, which is just Open, which is another community theater group.
Happy Valley Improv has been a huge boon to the community to really bring improv to, to our community and also different comedy things and they’ve brought in big names and I’m just so excited to see their theater continue to grow. And Tempest is another organization that just got a physical space.
They’ve been around for a while, but got a physical space downtown and of course oodles of dance studios that we can definitely partner with, um, to hire choreographers and just enhance our productions. So, I’m really excited about all the possibilities. Um, and of course there’s Penn State and the Penn State School of Theater is, is really strong too.
So seeing how we could collaborate with them potentially in the future. So the landscape is good and I’m excited to see it keep growing.
Jared Yarnall-Schane: We think that a sign of a really robust community is a strong arts scene, and even since the past two years, um, [00:17:00] post Covid, since we’ve been away. There is so much new things that have popped up and so many people that are, are stepping up to bring arts and performance based, whether that’s productions or education training like, like we do.
To this community, and we’re so excited to see how that continues to grow and see if we can try to bring some of that together and strengthen that ecosystem. Yeah.
Brad Groznik: Well, as a father of a four year old, I’m excited having you guys, uh, in town and I would send my daughter to clown class anytime you guys start to offer that.
So, Jared, we talked a bit prior to getting on about the opportunity for, for younger people to buy businesses, especially ones that are owned by, uh, baby boomers. Can you talk a little bit about that trend in, in, you know, maybe the opportunities for, for younger people looking to follow in your footsteps?
Jared Yarnall-Schane: One thing about our business, they approached us, which I think was fairly unique. Um, they approached us with this opportunity. And in the process of, of doing our, our vetting and due diligence on if [00:18:00] this is something we wanted to do, one of the facts that came across was, was mind blowing. And that was that 40% of all US small businesses are owned by baby boomers.
And most of those baby boomers are looking for exits. They’re, they’re looking for, um, they’re looking forward to retirement. At the same time, they wanna see this, this entity that they’ve raised and, and have cultivated for 20, 30 years continue to exist. Even just since we’ve been back, I’ve, I’ve seen some fantastic opportunities for those of us that were Penn Staters.
You might know the Waffle Shop. The Waffle Shop was for sale because the owners, uh, were retiring and they were looking for someone who loved the Waffle Shop to come in and, and buy that and take that over to continue that legacy. So I, I think there’s a tremendous opportunity here. And one thing that I think we learned and, and that possibly some other folks could take with them is to really think about the networks that [00:19:00] you have Leah participated in, in these productions since she was young, but also then participated as a, as a college student and later as a young adult in some of their professional theater productions.
I think if we think about the networks that we hold and the people who are running some of these institutions that we really hold dear, if we think about what, what are these, what are their end goals? What is their exit strategy? Um, these owners, that’s how I think you can start to tap in and identify these opportunities.
Brad Groznik: Now, we’re going to enter our segment called How to Do the Thing where we ask you to briefly lay out for us in three actionable steps on how to do the thing, or at least how to get started doing the thing. The thing in this case is buying a small business from a small business owner in state college.
What would you say are the three actionable steps our listeners could take toward achieving that goal?
Leah Mueller: I think one is sort of considering your own strengths, experience, and interest. So one thing that really helped us with this business is that I had [00:20:00] experience teaching and a love of the performing arts that.
Well to this particular business. So if you can identify. What you do really well and what you know inside and out, and you can find a business that aligns with that, it’s really helpful.
Jared Yarnall-Schane: Another thing to do is think about the network you have. What activities did you participate in? Where? What places did you go?
What restaurants did you like to eat at? Think about the network you have and start to explore to see who might be thinking about retiring. And the last thing is that we think everyone should, once you have identified an opportunity, create that mock financial statement. As a business owner, it’s really important that you know what your cash flow is gonna be, and that this is something that can financially sustain you.
So before you start to pursue things too much farther, I would really encourage everyone to create that mock financial statement to prove to yourself that this is something that you might be able to take on.
Brad Groznik: Let me ask you this as a bonus question. What’s [00:21:00] your favorite thing to do in State College?
Leah Mueller: My favorite thing, our favorite thing, and Jared, you can add to this if you want, but we love hiking.
It’s one of the things you really missed when we left the area was having great hiking trails that were so immediately accessible. Sometimes you have to drive really far to find a good hiking spot, but in state college, 10 minutes away, you’re in, you know, Roth Rock and you can hike at Shingle Town Gap, or we love going to Joe Hayes Vista or WL Dam State Park, and that has been the place you’ll see us every weekend with our dog Rio, who is currently whining right now.
Jared Yarnall-Schane: Yep. 100% agree. One of the things we really considered before coming back here was. We value time outside, and if we have to travel an hour or two to get there, that’s just less time that we can be there. So right now we can leave our door and drive to beautiful shingle town gap within five minutes, go on a quick 30 minute walk and come back and we haven’t even spent an hour.
And it’s, it’s [00:22:00] a game changer. Um, it makes us happier and we just love being here.
Brad Groznik: I absolutely love Shingle Town. I almost wanna edit that out just so people don’t know how good it is, but it is. It’s so great.
Leah Mueller: Best kept secret.
Brad Groznik: Alright guys, I will let you go. Thank you so much.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Rediscover State College Podcast. If you like what you heard and want to hear more, Please subscribe to the Rediscover State College Podcast. Wherever you listen to podcasts. Episodes will be released every month. If you want to connect with Leah or Jared about anything we just talked about, or you just have some thoughts about owning a small business in State College that you’d like to share with us, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.