Five years ago, Marla Peoples made a casual remark to her husband, Dan, that turned out to be a life-changing declaration.
It was an ambitious plan to open a wellness spa with fellow acupuncturist Tori Paide that tumbled out as an “oh, by the way” remark — one that would culminate in the opening of two locations of The Still Point and the launch of a skin care line.
Four months later, the friends and partners had signed a lease, and by May 2011, their Clarksville spa was open.
Their second spa, at Columbia’s Haven on the Lake, debuted in December 2014, and between grand openings, they launched Toma, a gender-neutral line of personalized skin therapies.
As a pair, Paide and Peoples have become a veritable powerhouse on Howard County’s wellness scene, gunning for shelf space in competing spas, searching for bigger office digs and dreaming of possibilities for expansion. But it’s not dreaming that’s gotten them this far.
Paide, who is 43 and lives in Ellicott City, boils it down this way: “Our common denominator isn’t acupuncture or making jewelry,” which they sold together for a while. “It’s having the guts to take entrepreneurial risks. A lot of people have creative ideas, but that fearless step has to happen in order for an idea to become a reality.”
“We both gravitate toward people who think big and out-of-the-box,” says Peoples, a 46-year-old Elkridge resident, of the partners’ affinity for boldness in personal and business relationships.
Explaining their dynamic as partners, the pair launched into their natural rhythm, a verbal pingpong game between equally matched players.
Peoples: “I’m the yin to Tori’s yang. We have different strengths, but we never talk about failure.”
Paide: “If it’s not a ‘hell yes,’ then it’s a ‘hell no;’ we’re not wishy-washy. If there’s a challenge, there’s a solution.”
Peoples: “And we’re not afraid to challenge each other.”
Paide: “People chuckle at us and how we get from disagreement to solution in five minutes. They think we’re intimidating, but we’re really not.”
Before they met, both women had discovered the benefits of acupuncture when they sought relief from work-related stress — Paide as an international development consultant and Peoples as an executive recruiter and trainer.
They were so impressed by its healing powers that they left their high-powered careers in 2002 to study acupuncture at the former Tai Sophia Institute in North Laurel, now known as the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where they met.
After earning master’s degrees in 2006 and working as practitioners, the friends wanted something more. Paide, a Montgomery County native, had opened the first location of The Still Point in Takoma Park on her own in 2007.
“But we asked ourselves, ‘Why are we not doing this together?’” says Peoples, who originally hails from Baltimore County.
The Still Point currently employs 75 practitioners who work as massage therapists, acupuncturists, nutrition coaches and Reiki masters.
“If you walk into the Clarksville location, we have the phrase ‘wellness spa’ on our wall with our definition, which is a place that offers wellness services in a relaxing environment,” Peoples says.
Rob Goldman, the now-retired Columbia Association vice president who was in charge of opening Haven on the Lake, chose the co-owners to provide spa and integrative health services in the luxury waterfront wellness retreat.
“Tori and Marla stood out because they are not only creative and innovative experts in their fields, but solid business professionals,” Goldman says. “I was impressed by their energy and enthusiasm.”
Aside from the spas, the pair sold a yoga studio they’d opened after operating it for a year and deciding it wasn’t their niche. But Toma, their line of natural skin care and wellness products, has become one of their most promising business ventures.
“We used to customize our products on the spot,” blending ingredients in front of clients, Paide says of the line’s launch in 2013.
That made-to-order approach ended as demand for Toma grew, but many of the 30 products in the line — which also includes candles and beauty teas — can still be customized by incorporating a proprietary essential oil tonic, Peoples points out.
“The big thing about skin care is there are no FDA regulations for ingredients,” she says. “Despite that, we wanted cleaner, better products” than what were widely available. “People worry about what they put into their bodies but should also be mindful of what they put on their bodies.”
If the industry were government regulated, they’re confident Toma would “come out smelling clean and looking good,” Paide says.
“Even if certain chemicals aren’t absorbed by the body, we still don’t use them,” she says. “When we’re a multimillion-dollar company, we may be faced with finding a natural preservative that allows our products to have a longer shelf life so they can be made in larger batches. For now, they’re good for a year after they’re opened, and we think that’s long enough. We want you to use them up and come back for more.”
Kristen Rockenbach, a Silver Spring resident who first met Peoples as her acupuncturist eight years ago, is attracted to Toma’s natural ingredients, especially now as she battles breast cancer.
“Their products are soothing and wonderful and good for you,” she says. “Whatever is going on with me, The Still Point is the place I go and that I recommend.”
Since the partners view Toma as a freestanding line, not just a Still Point spa product, it’s also sold at the Columbia Whole Foods, Cloud 9 Salon in Clarksville and Potomac Massage Training Institute in Silver Spring. They also hope to add more products this year and to place the line in competitors’ spas.
In preparation for such an expansion, they are searching for new corporate offices and warehouse space in a mixed-use facility after outgrowing their Sterrett Place location in Columbia in two years.
Brick-and-mortar Toma shops — which would be specifically aimed at clients “who don’t have hours to spend at a spa and just want to get in and get out” — also hold appeal, Paide says.
As for what else the future holds, they say they don’t have a formal 10-year plan but opening more spas or franchising The Still Point aren’t out of the question, nor is finding the next big thing, whatever that may be.
While their innate rapport and business acumen have served them well, so has the backing of a local institution committed to helping entrepreneurs.
“Being two women business owners isn’t easy,” Peoples says. “The Howard County Economic Development Authority not only gave us a loan, they have been very supportive.”
Larry Twele, CEO of the development authority, says he’s glad the partners decided to become part of the redevelopment of downtown Columbia: “Their passion and drive are a great example of the entrepreneurial spirit that thrives in Howard County.”
Paide and Peoples — who regularly attend baptisms, weddings and funerals of clients and are known for sending handwritten notes — take their obligations to employees equally to heart, they say.
“We want to be voted one of the best places to work by providing viable incomes for our practitioners; we wouldn’t be where we are without them,” Paide says.
As purveyors of wellness, the women also hold each other accountable for practicing what they preach by eating healthy, exercising regularly and maintaining outside interests.
Peoples enjoys yoga, running, hiking and reading. Paide does CrossFit and interior design, and she and her husband, Andy Chapin, are considering flipping houses (buying homes to renovate and resell at a profit).
So closely aligned are their approaches to life that the pair decided to take their families to Jamaica last year and to make shared vacations an annual tradition.
“I know, right?” Paide remarks of their excessive togetherness.
They also got married five months apart in 2002, and their first children were born two weeks apart. Peoples has two sons — Grayson, 9, and Asher, 6 — and Paide has two girls, Addie, 9, and Ema, 7.
While the partners embrace the day-to-day responsibilities of running a business, they recognize they don’t always get to concentrate on the creative side of entrepreneurship as much as they’d like.
“We just brought in a head of operations, so we’re not directly managing the managers,” Peoples says. “We don’t have what I like to call ‘owneritis.’”
Interjects Paide, “Until we’re a huge business, we’re still going to be worker bees.
“Work doesn’t have to be a four-letter word, though,” she points out. “When people talk about work-life balance, that denotes that work is the opposite of what you want to do. Why can’t you make money doing something you love?”