How a School Can Go From Good to GREAT, part I

I am not a well-educated man. Most of what I know came from reading and then trial and error. When I read a book, called Good To Great, by Jim Collins, I understood something I only partially understood through my upbringing as a young man and as a young martial artist. This idea is the idea of focus on what you do best. There are several books and seminars that influenced me and Good To Great brought it all home. I will try my best to explain it here, and make it relevant to your experience as a martial arts teacher.

First, let me say that the Good to Great concept can be applied in either the philosophy of the martial arts for martial philosophy or in business as a businessman. In this article, we will deal with this subject as businessmens.

There are 7 principles to the Good to Great concept:

  1. The level 5 leader
  2. First the who, then the what
  3. Confronting the brutal facts
  4. The Hedgehog concept
  5. A culture of discipline
  6. Using technology
  7. The flywheel concept

I am going to only talk about one concept and skip directly to #4, the Hedgehog concept, because it is the one that is most important to me. In future articles, we will look at the others in order.

The hedgehog is an animal that can only do one thing to defend itself, which is roll up into a ball. No other animal does it as well, and when this animal does this, he is well-protected from his enemies. He does not try to do what the other animals do, like fly, fight with his teeth or claws, roar, stuff like that. When danger comes he does the same thing every time, and almost everytime, his ability does not fail him.

As a business owner, we must find what we do best–in fact, what we do better than anyone else in our local industry, and it must fit into all of three areas:

  • What we can excel in
  • What makes us money
  • What we enjoy doing

What is very important is that what we choose to specialize in as a school must fit in all three areas. First, what we do must be something we do exceptionally well, and no one in our industry must be better than we are. If there are experts far better than we are in a field, it is almost pointless to pursue this industry or specialty because we will be fighting the rest of our competition for scraps left behind by the ones who are good. Basically, we are the bottom of the food chain. Secondly, what we do well must also be profitable. I am not talking about something that brings in a little money, that we have to supplement our incomes with jobs and other things, like After School Karate and Karate for 5 years old kids. I am also not saying we have to make a million dollars at it. But it should pay the bills, pay us, and allow us to live the kind of lives we want. Lastly, we must enjoy doing what we do. In the late 1990s, my partner and I began a Tae Bo class at our schools, and even opened a location that only had Tae Bo. We made good money, and we were even pretty good at it. But we certainly weren’t the best–my partner and I are fighters–and we both hated doing it. If the only purpose for going in business was to make money, that was certainly it. But our goal was to produce great fighters, and we actually lost students because we could not accomodate their schedules due to Tae Bo being offered 4 days a week. I was miserable. I did teach Tae Bo when I first moved to Sacramento for about 6 months in order to generate income for my school, then when I was open for business in a commercial location, I dropped it.

So your Hedgehog is that which is something you are good at, makes you money, AND something you are passionate about. If you are anything like me, as a martial arts teacher, I’m willing to bet, that you are wasting time and resources by offering things you don’t like, or advertising services that don’t make you much money, or doing something you hire an assistant to do because you don’t like doing. I would recommend that you look at your school, and figure out what you can drop that is slowing your school’s success down. The great thing about the martial arts business, that a great TKD master once told me (Clint Robinson), that there is enough money in the field that we don’t have to do or chase everything that has a dollar sign on it. His schools are a testament to that. His school, Robinson’s Tae Kwon Do, offers just one thing:  traditional Tae Kwon Do. They don’t have all the Krav Maga, BJJ, and other things that martial arts schools add to improve their bottom line. And although his school is the largest chain in the area, he controls the quality of his Black Belters, and his students are pretty good.  Unlike other TKD schools, his guys are on the tournament circuit, as is his brother–one of the co-owners–and believe me, they hold their own. But when you focus on one thing for so long, you have to excel at it. Spread that focus onto 6 – 7 different things, you will never see any of those efforts reach their full potential.

I would like to add one more thing. However this is not in the book. If you have competition, or you want to eliminate competition, or prevent competition, start a trend. That’s right, create a hedgehog. Look around and see if there is a segment of the market that no one is pursuing, or a skill that you have that no one out there has, and make that your hedgehog. After all, you can’t have competition if no one else is in the same industry. Back to Mr. Robinson’s, I have been located near his schools for 10 years, along with (over the years) at least 5 other schools. To this day, Robinson’s and I are the only schools still here since 1999, and we talk business as acquaintances without suspicion because there is no threat. Besides the personality match, we are also not pursuing the same students. I am after the FMA market, he is after Tae Kwon Do. For years I did not teach children; he takes them as young as 5. When I first moved here, I was told that locating near a Robinson’s location was business suicide. By focusing on a separate industry, I eliminated all competition for my Hedgehog.


Take this lesson, and see how you can apply it to your own school. If you’d like, post a question, and I’ll try to answer it as well as I can. The Good to Great concept is a great concept, and if you can harness it and use it to your advantage, you’ll see a lot of success!

Thanks for reading my blog!