The Business of Doing Martial Arts Business

When I opened my school, I was young and green and very idealistic. Unlike many of you who teach for a living, I spent a few years working for commercial schools, learning the ropes from how to teach a larger class to sales pitches designed for martial arts students. I saw many things I liked, and saw many things I did not like–and formed a martial arts “business” system, based on my likes and dislikes.

Also, apart from my personal tastes, I adopted many things I disliked because it was necessary while omitting things I did like because they were counter-productive to running a successful school.

The martial arts teacher, if he is to be successful in being able to teach for a living, must be willing to do the same.

I am of the opinion that teachers must be full-time if they ever want to elevate their art and their ideas to develop fully and master themselves. Day jobs and worrying about bills are major distractions to the teacher and it affects their ability to give students their all. This prevents teachers from being able to see their ideas and philosophies manifest into actual skill in their students. I don’t care what you think:  When you are only devoting a few hours a week to your art, you will never be as good as you can be if you devoted a full day, every day, to your art. If you think so, you’re just fooling yourself. And you are cheating your students by trying to convince them that it can be done.

Rather than argue that point I’d like to move on. I’m sure most of you would rather be able to train the art full-time if money were not an issue. If you could train students pretty much the way you’d like to, and make a decent living while doing it–where do you think your personal skill in the art be in ten years?

There are many books on the subject of how to sign up new students, how to market, blah blah blah. But let’s talk about the business of running the business– not for the McDojo teacher, but the traditional hard-core teacher. This will be just a few generic tips and summarized descriptions, but I’d like to expound on them in detail a little later:

  • Do away with the “trial” lesson.  That’s right, I said it. “Try it free first”, aka the “Puppy Dog close” is not good for the traditional teacher. I have an idea…. Go to Harvard University, tell them you’re thinking of going to Harvard for law school, but Princeton has a pretty good deal. You’d like to take a free class for a day before making a decision. Sounds like an idiot, right? Harvard will call security and have you ejected. Apply, young man, and we’ll call you.  Why are teachers tap dancing for students? When you do a free trial lesson, you are basically trying to entertain the student in order to capture his interest and impress him, over that other school. Start off that way, and you won’t be doing class the way you want to teach. No, you will be teaching classes you think will excite the student and get him to come back and pay tuition another month. So trial lessons are like meeting the parents for the first time. Instead of learning what the student SHOULD learn on the first day, you have him swinging nunchucks, doing disarms, takedowns and chokes. While you know darn well he should be learning how to hold his guard and perform a proper pushup. One day won’t teach him what your school is all about. If it does, then your school is very shallow.
  • Don’t allow spectators. Your current students are paying for your attention. They are not paying to be martialturbation fodder for martial art voyeurs. You know just as well as I do, that 90% of the people walking through your door may have a slight interest in the art–hell they might even stand around and talk about it for two hours–but they have no intention of ever joining a school. A few folks may come through who are really looking for a school, and if your school is the one for them, they will understand that you giving your students 100% of your attention is more important than trying to do a sales pitch while paying students are there to receive service. It’s bad business, period. Schedule times outside of class to give both the student as well as the visitor all of your attention. Again, 5 minutes of watching a class won’t tell them what you’re all about.
  • Have someone else answer the phone–like your voice mail. I have heard the saying that you don’t want to miss sales calls during class. If you do that, they might just go and join another school. Well, if that student is so petty that he won’t leave a message and will join the first place who answers the phone–I don’t want him as a student. Some students are best suited for commercial dojos:  they don’t do their homework, they are gullible, they want convenience and comfort, and they are easily impressed. Not the kind of student the traditional teacher will even want to teach. When the phone rings, let it go to voice mail; you will spend valuable teaching time giving sales pitches to curious looky-loos.
  •  Lose the contract. Is that the only way you have to keep a student’s attention and commitment? Force him to stay? I know schools hurt when people quit; I have that problem too. But rather than bind a students’ hands to your dojo, why not find out why people quit and try to modify what you do to prevent that? More on this later–but often it has more to do with the student not feeling like the is progressing or he is not very comfortable in your school.
  • Make money off tuition. Seriously. Not “testing” fees. Not “association” fees. Not from equipment they don’t need. Not extra classes and seminars they need to advance. Just do it off tuition. I am not a fan of the “maximize each student’s value” crap I read about every month in the MA trade magazines. That is not just unethical, it makes you look money-hungry, regardless of how you spin it. I throw occasional seminars and workshops, and about half of them are free. I charge outside students, and provide the seminars to my own students either for a discount or free. And NEVER make one of these “extras” a required activity. Your students may or may not have the budget, but trying to dig deeper in their pockets will drive them out the door faster than a good deal! Please value this advice; it is one of the main things separating the McDojo from the traditional teacher.
  • Make money off tuition, too. Yup, make money. Charge what you’re worth, not what you think people will pay. Trust me, the martial arts is a recession-proof business. If people want it, they will find a way to pay for it. Charge less than you’re worth, and you will need more people to pay your own bills. And after all, most of you have put more time into learning your craft, more time than your dentist, your lawyer, your mechanic. Why are you charging less than minimum wage for your services? $60 a month? If a student trained 3 hours a week, you’re only getting paid 6 bucks an hour to teach him! Charge what is fair, and then make sure the value of your classes make it worth the money.
  • Don’t get into a price war. Okay, so Ronald McSensei is charging 60 bucks a month, and you charge 100. But he is also offering fluffy martial arts, he takes toddlers as students, he will slap a black belt on an 8 year old who can barely give a good history of the art he’s an “expert” in, he is charging $50 for an exam every other month, $350 for the black belt test…. Rather, be prepared to tell potential students why your school cost more. Ma’am what kind of car do you drive? Well do you realize you can drive an 88 Honda for a fraction of the cost of your 2009 Land Rover? She’ll get the picture.
  • Stop teaching kids. If that’s not your thing, it’s not your thing. You start that stuff, and before you know it, you too will be awarding black belts in 3 years (or less), throwing karate birthday parties, even putting on a clown outfit to entertain the kiddies. If you are a serious teacher offering adult martial arts, then be that guy. Nuff said.

I have way more advice, but I’ve got to get to bed. Teaching a class at 7 a.m. tomorrow. Hold that thought, and we’ll talk more about it later.

Thanks for visiting my blog.