The Business of Life: Entrepreneurial Couple Makes It Work
Updated: Jul 22, 2019
Northern Michigan couple Mike and Korin Drilling recently celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary. Not only have they raised two sons, but successfully run, for decades, two well-known Traverse City business enterprises: The Dance Center and Windborne Studios.
Korin (Korky as her friends call her) started dancing at age seven at The Dance Center she now owns and operates. Interestingly, Mike also started working at the photography studio he would eventually purchase, rename Windborne Studios, and operate for 35 years.
The Drillings are aware it is no small feat to have a successful marriage while running two businesses. They attribute their success to hard work and blessings from above.
"I believe in grace," said Mike. "I believe in miracles. I’m grateful for everything. Spiritually, I believe we have been taken care of. I ask myself sometimes, what did I do to deserve this? Is God recognizing that I’m trying to do my best, I am trying to be a good person, and I’m being rewarded for it? If that’s it, I will take it. I am not going to argue."
"We have experienced the yin and yang of life," he continues. "When things were going good for me, things weren’t going good for her. And then when the digital era came along and my business started to tail off, hers started to pick up."
The easy part of their busy life, he said, is "understanding what the other person is going through, because we have kind of walked in each other’s shoes."
"I don’t know anything about her business other than people have to pay her for her product," he said. "And they have to pay me for my product, and we have to pay our taxes, make payroll and prioritize things."
The hardest part of their life? "Being stubborn to the point that we both feel we know what’s best," he said. "We are both pretty stubborn."
Korin sees things a little differently. During their marriage, she remembers them having only one disagreement about work. "And we decided never to do that again."
Mike admits his admiration for his wife. "I am a lot more flexible in my role than she is," he said. "She has a lot more staff to manage and responsibilities. I’ve probably had 10 total staff during my entire business history."
"You can’t be afraid to work hard, even if it’s something you don’t really know a whole lot about," said Korky. "You have to jump in with two feet."
"It’s always nice to know she is working hard for us as a couple, and I do the same," he adds.
"I was never afraid to work. That was one thing I always had in my back pocket. Korin is the same way, and so are our children. That’s one thing I think I am proudest of teaching my sons - a good work ethic."
How They Met
Mike and Korky met each other during their early 20s.
"I was dating Mike’s friend, so we spent a lot of time together," she said. "We had a big group of people who did stuff together. That was how it started. We were just really good friends."
"He was sort of an artsy guy with his photography, and he was funny. We liked the same things. We just enjoyed being together, and we could talk about anything."
Korky remembers looking at photographs of her friends from that time in her life. "I was always next to him (Mike), or sitting on his lap. And I’m dating his friend!"
When Korky and her boyfriend eventually broke up, she said her friends didn’t want to take sides. "Nobody would call me," she laments. "They felt like they were in the middle. So I would call Mike and say, ‘You have to take me to the movies, or out to dinner.’"
"She kind of made me go out with her," said Mike, adding with a smile, "But you can’t force the willing. She was just a person I really liked spending time with. She is kind, generous, and so beautiful. Why wouldn’t I want to be with her?"
"Dancing has always been a part of my life," said Korky. “I love it. I don’t know where it really came from, but it seems I have always danced."
During her youth, she dabbled in jazz and tap and gymnastics, but ballet is her real passion. When she was in ninth grade, she told her parents she wanted to go to Interlochen, a fine arts boarding high school.
"I started planning and taking extra academic classes so that during eleventh and twelfth grade I could go to Interlochen and spend most of my time dancing."
After studying for two years and graduating from Interlochen, one of her teachers referred Korky to a dance instructor in New York, where she also studied for a time. When she was 18 years old, she got a job dancing for the Cleveland Ballet, which she did for two years.
"I had a lot of back issues," she remembers. "So I left Cleveland and came back to Traverse City, and pretty much stopped dancing for a while."
"This was all before Mike," she adds. "I didn’t know what I was going to do. One of my former teachers called me and asked me to come and teach some classes for her at her studio. I was living with my parents, and mom said, ‘While you are hanging around, why don’t you take some college classes? If you are not really sure what you want to do.’ Her advice was to take some secretarial classes because you can get job anywhere. So I took some community college classes and that is where I took my first accounting class."
"I remember saying to my dad, ‘I don’t understand this accounting thing. It doesn’t make sense to me. But I am going to master it.’"
She took a year of accounting basics, and said it started to make sense. "I was pretty interested in it. So I just went on with that."
She would eventually get her accounting degree through Ferris State, whose instructors would come to teach classes in Traverse City.
"But I always kept my hand in teaching. I did some coaching gymnastics. It took me a long time to finish school because I had lots of different jobs -- at a hotel and a dentist office."
All the experience she gained helped to shape her knowledge for the future. "You never know when you are going to use those things," she said.
Korky and Mike would marry in 1986. At the time he already had his photography business, and she started to help with his business accounting. Then she began working as the CFO for a local advertising firm, working there for 10 years.
"I learned a lot about so many things," she said. "We would lose an employee so I would go run the production department until we could get somebody. I learned a lot about advertising and marketing. I got to use a lot of my creativeness. They would have me sit in on the brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas, and I got pretty good at writing copy. I wore a lot of hats. All those things have helped me to run my own business."
Then the opportunity presented itself for her to buy into a partnership at The Dance Center.
"At that time there were three partners. I still worked at the ad agency for a year after I bought into the business, which was crazy because my kids were like one and three." Their son Clarence was born in 1992, and Mitchell came along in 1995.
After she became part owner of the studio, she said not much changed in her life, at first. "I was teaching and doing a lot of choreography and rehearsing with students. Not much where I needed to know about the business end of the studio," though she adds that she "already knew quite a bit. I had been teaching there for 15 years."
Four years later, she and another teacher, Tera, were offered the opportunity to take over the business, with the intention they would eventually buy out the older partners, something they finally did in 2002. The change-over was not without its issues.
"There were some rocky times working things out with the previous partners," she said. "During those two years they were making things very difficult during negotiations. They weren’t very realistic about the process."
After things settled down, Korky and Tera would relocate the studio to a new building twice its original size.
"Those first few years were pretty tough. We had to pretty much double our students. We had to fill all that space. And we had another satellite studio in Kalkaska at the time. I didn’t get to pay myself a whole lot, between buying out partners and paying my staff, meeting the mortgage and paying taxes."
Then Tera would be forced to take a hiatus from The Dance Center to care for her son, who was suffering from serious health issues.
"It’s not a situation you really want to have happen," Korky remembers. "She was literally with her child in the hospital for a year. I had to cover her classes, and another teacher was pregnant, and I had to find a way to take care of all that. It was really difficult."
She adds those years also were really good for Mike. "So it balanced out. But since then, his income has gone way, way down. And so now I make more money than he does, for sure."
She remembers her business started becoming profitable in 2010. During the years 2011 and 2013, The Dance Center had it largest number of students ever, nearly 400.
“Today we average between 280 to 300 students,” she said.
"I started having interest (in photography) in junior high school, and I saved my money and bought a camera, from JC Penney," he said. "It was just something I was doing, and I just kept doing it. It wasn’t a passion. It wasn’t a dream. It was just something that evolved for me."
"I wasn’t smart enough to do anything different," he said with humble honesty, in his usual matter-of-fact tone. "I didn’t want to go to school."
"I started working in a lab (right at the end of our street) so I could process all my film. That is where I met my old boss who I would eventually buy the business from."
Before that time, he moved downstate to work at a photography studio in the Clarkston, Michigan, area. But he continued to dream of owning his own place.
"That was when you were legit," he said. "You made it when you had your own place."
When he finally moved back to Traverse City and purchased the building from his former boss, the place that would become Windborne Studios, he admits he was “pretty young”.
"I was 25 years old. I certainly didn’t know completely what I was getting into." But things went well enough – in fact, so well that in 1990, he would build a new studio on new site.
"It felt pretty good," he said of his business which thrived for years afterwards. He carved a niche in the Traverse City area, photographing weddings and senior pictures. He also did, and still does, commercial photography, saying this has become most of his current business today. "I love cars," he mentions. "They are so artistic. I look at them as a piece of sculpture, and that’s how I approach them."
Mike admits he has grown to truly love his craft. "I really like doing it now. Even 42 years in, the easiest part of my day is going out with whatever subject I have for that day – a person, place or a thing – and getting to photograph it and record it for someone else’s memories. It’s fun. I continue to evolve as a photographer. Even after I retire, I will probably always side hustle it somehow, just to stay active at it."
During the first decade of the new millennium, things started to change for Mike and for all those in the field of photography.
"The last years of film I shot were around 2003-5," he said. "My film bill was around $28,000. That’s a lot of film. It was so much film, Kodak bought me two bicycles, and a television and numerous clothing items." (He and Korky saved the UPC tabs from the film boxes to collect reward perks.)
With more than four decades of experience, he recently led a workshop for aspiring photographers, but noticed a distinct difference in the way these young men and women see the business. "I don’t think they have the same sense of values," he said. "When I was their age, all I wanted was to own my own place. They felt like they could meet their clients at a coffee shop or a park for a consultation. They didn’t see the value of a facility."
"They are not as caring about customer service because they had nobody teach them how important it is," he notes, with a bit of sadness. "I am painting with a pretty broad brush here. I’m sure there are exceptions. But that is what I see, and what I’ve heard. They have not embraced customer service as part of their business structure."
He admits young photographers probably regard him in the same way. "They might look at me and say there are certain things I haven’t embraced, like technology and social media. They are much more skilled at it than I am."
As Mike reminisced, Korky quickly adds how Mike took classes at the local community college to learn how to use Photo Shop and the other digital resources that have come to define today’s photography landscape. But Mike plans to continue to practice photography as he always has done, valuing the artistry of the medium, and serving his customers.
"I have other things that are important to me," he adds, saying he always valued time with his wife and family.
"We do like to travel," he said, looking at his wife.
"We don’t spend a lot of money overall," Korky corrects. "We eat in a lot, pack our lunches every day. But we save so we can go on a nice vacation. If we go out to eat, we want to do something really nice."
In 1995, Mike and Korky invested in a house on the Bordman river - a property they have owned for 27 years now, gradually improving it ever since. Today it is their primary residence.
"I thought he was crazy when he said he wanted to buy it," said Korky.
“I have no regrets," he said.
Mike enjoys doing maintenance on their home and the building that now houses both their businesses. In 2017, Mike finally sold his Windborne studios building. He doesn’t say much about that recent development, so Korky fills in the details.
"He had been trying to sell it for a while. The opportunity came up fairly quickly. We thought it would happen quicker than it did. I asked Mike, ‘What are you thinking about doing? Why don’t you move into my domain? Because nothing really happens during the day. Most of my classes are at night.’ So we consolidated to one building, which has been really nice. We had to get a storage place to put a lot of things. Mostly sets and costumes and stuff that I use, and sets he uses."
When asked how long they intend to keep the dance studio operating, she is evasive. "It’s up in the air for now. I would love to be able to pass it on to someone. It’s been in business 52 years, and been mine for 24."
She remarks the Traverse City area has lost a lot of children during the past decade. "It has affected both our businesses right now. There aren’t that many children and people are having fewer children overall and there is more competition. There are now four studios in Traverse City. A new one just opened up last year."
Sharing Their Knowledge
The Drillings took time to consider what they would say to someone considering starting their own business today.
"If they are young they probably wouldn’t listen to me," said Mike finally, with a shrug. "But I would say, outwork the other guy. Be the first one in, and the last to leave. Respect the people paying you. Be sure to make time for yourself."
He stresses the importance of one’s personal interests. "Whether you are an employee or you own your own business, you really have to make time for yourself. It is important to stay grounded."
Being present to your family is paramount. "Whether you are coaching a kid’s baseball team, or taking your kids to soccer, dance class, or sitting down and eating a meal together…I always worked hard to be home every night for dinner. That’s really important."
He admits during his career, he missed a lot of his sons’ lives. "Especially on the weekends, when I was younger, because I would be working at weddings or events primarily. I tried to make it up to them in other ways by taking extra time off in the summer, going on hunting trips, things like that to try to make it up to them."
Korky believes their extensive experience has shaped them into who they are today.
"When we both started, computers were really new. Today you can do more with your phone than we could ever have imagined. You have a computer in your hand."
She remembers when she was young, how she got on a plane and arrived alone, suitcase in hand, in New York and in Cleveland. "I had never been there before. No cell phones. No internet. No way to look things up. It was different. There were pay phones and phone books. I just showed up with my suitcase. I went to the ballet company and said, ‘I’m here and I don’t have a place to live.’"
She tries to impart some of the wisdom she has learned to her sons and students. "I was talking with a young college student the other day about my (life’s) journey. She was saying she couldn’t have done what I did. I said, 'You can do anything you want. Don’t be afraid. Be smart. Plan out what you are going to do and make good decisions.'"
Looking at Mike with a smile, she adds, "And surround yourself with people you know who are going to care for you. Don’t stay in a relationship with someone who is not supporting you and what you do."
For more information on The Dance Center, go to www.dance-center.net
For more information on Windborn Studios, go to www.windbornestudios.com