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Brush Aside the Obstacles Fitness and weight-loss guru Suzy Prudden has gone from famous to penniless--and back again.

By Eve Gumpel

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

"An entrepreneur is someone you can't keep down. If they end up in the mud, they'll figure out how to make mud pies and sell them."
--Suzy Prudden

Suzy Prudden knows what she's talking about. She's a fitness guru, weight loss expert, hypnotherapist, author and speaker. She's been featured on Oprah--and she's landed in the mud, penniless and homeless. Still, she figured out how to make mud pies and came back stronger from the experience.

You might have heard of Prudden. She's been a brand in the fitness/weight-loss/personal development field since the 1960s, when--as a matter of necessity--she opened her own fitness school in her New York home at the age of 22. "I was putting my husband through school and going to have a baby," she says, "I needed income, and I couldn't do it working for someone else."

She was following in her mother's footsteps at the time. Bonnie Prudden was the catalyst behind President Eisenhower's President's Council on Youth Fitness (now the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports). Bonnie ran some of the first exercise programs in the nation and, even today at age 95, runs the Bonnie Prudden Myotherapy Institute, which specializes in a method of relieving muscle pain.

"Bonnie was my mentor and she trained me," Prudden says. "I think I got the best training in the world."

But Prudden hasn't followed anyone since then; typically, she's a couple of steps ahead. People were astonished when she started teaching fitness to toddlers in the late 1960s. She was equally ahead of her time when she started teaching mind-body connection in the 1980s. Her latest venture is a weight-loss company called Pounds Off. "It's a licensee company, so people can do it all over the country. I'm training people to be Pounds Off coaches," she says.

Prudden is relentless on the topic of fitness, weight loss and mind-body coordination. "Weight loss is the No. 1 problem in this country, and people are going about it the wrong way," she asserts. "You have to love your body; you can't hate it. And you have to treat it nicely; you can't be mean to it. You only get one--you can get parts, but only one body."

She borrowed her mother's maiden name of Prudden early in her career, which she admits "got me into many doors I would not have gotten into." After 18 years as a fitness expert, she sold Suzy Prudden Studios in 1983 and moved to California. She was at the height of her career. She had toured the country several times and written several fitness books. "I just didn't want to do it any more," she says.

Her interest at that point was body-mind integration. "I made up processes to teach people how they could understand more about their body using the power of their mind," she says.

"You can't heal the outside if you don't heal the inside," she insists. For example, she says, if you have a pain in your shoulder, ask yourself what responsibilities might be weighing you down. "You might need to lighten your load," Prudden says. When you do, "The pain in your shoulder goes away."

Having switched careers, Prudden's inclination was to stop using the name she made famous in her new business. That is, until she attended a branding workshop with her sister, who had advised her to continue using the Prudden name. When the speaker asserted that a brand has to become a household word, to be synonymous with what you do, Prudden realized her sister was right. "I gently nudged my sister and said, 'Please don't laugh too loudly when I tell you this. I am a brand.'" Her sister, predictably, "totally lost it," Prudden says.

Undaunted Drive
When Prudden gets an idea, she brushes aside obstacles and makes a business out of it. When she wanted to summer in the Hamptons, she opened a summer camp there. When she wanted to go to Europe, she created a workshop.

When she needed an audience for a workshop called Women in Change, she said, "OK, God, how do I fill the room?" And God said, "Give it away." Prudden couldn't afford to do that. After all, it costs money to put on a workshop. So she charged a minimal fee of $25, marketed it to the various networking groups she belonged to and gathered a crowd of 100 people.

Another workshop was called "Permission to Dare; Dare to Live Your Dreams." That's when Prudden realized she had to realize her own dream--a one-woman show.

Using her connections, she found a venue, booked the room and filled it with 107 people. What did she do? "I just did me," she says. "I just had all different outfits. I did me as a fitness expert. I did me as a presenter. I came out on stage in my bathrobe and I said, 'Have you ever had a day when you couldn't find anything to wear?' I proceeded to talk about negative beliefs and got the audience involved in yelling negative beliefs.

"I was on stage for an hour. I had a good time--and I made $700."

There were tough times, too. "I was not smart. I did not pay attention to my money and I spent it." She was living in Topanga, Calif., in February 1990 when her rent check bounced. That same day, she says, "every job I had lined up for the entire year called up and canceled."

Prudden says it was scary, but she took the situation as God-driven. "I remember looking up at the ceiling and saying, 'Thank you, God, you must really love me to give me this experience, for it will change my life.'" Realizing she needed a job, Prudden was grateful when an instructor hooked her up with someone who needed a personal assistant. The woman hesitated. "She said, 'Suzy, I'm not going to be comfortable asking you to get my cleaning.' I said, 'Helayne, I need a job.'" They settled on $10 an hour for three days a week of work.

When Prudden arrived on her first day, the office was a mess. The secretary asked Prudden, "Do you know how to organize an office?" When Prudden said yes, the secretary asked how much she would charge. Prudden decided on $25 an hour. "So the first day, I got a raise," she says.

In May, the job and her lease both ended. But companies had begun hiring her again for seminars and workshops. So a booking at Sharp Hospital in San Diego, Calif., came complete with an all-expense-paid stay at the Hyatt. And several other bookings materialized, each with lodging for a number of days. She spent three months in a friend's loft, and eight months overall before she dug herself out of the hole.

Prudden admits she was arrogant, and she explains why: "I was famous at 26. That does something to you. So I learned how unimportant I was."

She counts it as a major turning point in her life, and she shares some of the things she learned:

  1. How to trust
  2. How to look at others differently. "If someone were driving a car that I thought was 'less than,' I thought they were 'less than.' So I had to learn that it wasn't the car you drove, it wasn't the neighborhood you lived in, it wasn't your bank account. Because I ended up driving a truck, and I had no money in my bank. It was an amazing experience."
  3. How to listen to other people
  4. How to let go of judgment
  5. How to be kinder
  6. How to have compassion

Prudden also has advice for would-be entrepreneurs. "Where I'm speaking from is the mistakes that I've made. I could have had an easier time if I'd done it differently," she says.

  1. Have a business plan: "I actually for the first time ever have a business plan," she says. "I've never had one before. I just had an idea and did it."

    She's now working with business coach Bobbie Leonard. "She looks at all the things I've done and she said she doesn't understand why I'm not more successful in the world."

    Prudden knows why: "It's because I don't plan, I just do."
  2. Find people to help you. "Getting a business coach is paramount," she says. "A lot of us think we have to do it ourselves. We think we have to know everything. We don't know everything. There are people who know much more than we do, and we need to get hold of them."
  3. Make sure you have money. "I suggest people keep their day job or make sure they have some kind of income. If you don't have money, it's too hard."
  4. Go for it. "Now is the best time to start a business because everybody's a mess. The playing field is more even. And if you can make a business successful at a time like now, then you've got it made when things start turning around."
  5. Make sure you fill a need. "When you start a business, you have to look at what is needed, not necessarily what you want to do. People get a good idea, and they think everyone wants it. You've got to find out if they want it before you take it out there."

    Says Prudden, "It has not been an easy road; it's been a fascinating road. There are times that have been very, very scary. What I've learned and what I try to teach others is that you're not falling off the planet; you can fix this. Everything is an opportunity."

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