Making a Living with Your FMA, pt II

For years, the Filipino Martial Arts had been marketed as the “ultimate add-on art”. This is not the words of men who thought highly of Filipino arts as stand alone systems. Sure, I have heard that it was a way to “convert” new students who already have backgrounds. But for the vast majority of new arnisador and eskrimador, Philippine arts were just that—add-on styles—incomplete, easy to learn and become certified to teach, and unworthy of 100% of a man’s martial focus.

This hurt growth for the Filipino arts, not because of the overwhelming number of unqualified teachers that came from it but because of the way the teachers treated the arts. Those who were certificate-carrying, directory-listed Guro did not feel the art could draw enough interest to support a commercial location unless they provided the art in bite-sized pieces and made certification easily within anyone’s grasp. The three major ways FMAs are passed on in this country (USA) are through seminars, video tape, and seminar and videotape-trained instructors. I admire the few full-time masters who taught the art full time, in a school:

  • Gaudiosa Ruby (The “Queen” of FMAs)
  • Dong Cuesta
  • Amante Marinas
  • Leo Giron
  • Angel Cabales (the first to do so on these shores, btw)
  • Bo Sayoc

They resisted the path of easy income to teach full-time, limiting their arts’ exposure to the masses. I dealt with this issue myself when I made the decision to become a full-time teacher. While I also was a qualified Jow Ga Kung Fu sifu, I did not have enough background in any easy-to-learn style to be able to teach the masses. Everyone tried to dissuade me from attempting a full-time traditional school. No one believed that my dream would work. On the contrary, today I own two schools (at this time, I am working on a third location on the East Coast). We do not accept children younger than 10. We separate the genders, and we separate the age groups. There is no “After School Karate” program. We do not bind our students to contracts. We do not charge promotion fees. My students do not receive their first promotion for almost a year after joining. In our FMA program, we do not teach forms or drills. In our Kung Fu program, students learn to fight first, and do not study forms until 9 – 12 months after they join. I’m not rich, but I am far from broke. We have been in business since 1992, and my location in Sacramento, CA has been a pillar in the local community since 1999.

I would like to share with you how I did it.

First, I began planning my school when I was 16 years old. I was teaching kung fu as a part time job for my Si Hing (older brother), Jow Ga master Raymond Wong. Jow Ga, under my late Master Chin Yuk Din, was a very personalized, informal process and the best information was taught behind closed doors—away from even other students. I decided then, that I wanted a more public school, and being close to my grandfather, wanted to teach his art. So, at the young age of 16, I wrote in the back of my spiral notebook, for French class (the best class for me to goof off in… hey, new languages come easy for me!), what turned out to be my mission statement:

I will make sure the whole community knows that the Filipino arts are the best fighting arts, and my school will be the place known to build the best fighters.

I kept this notebook all my life, as it contained almost all the ideas I formed at that age, notes from conversations with my Grandfather about his philosophy of how the arts should be taught how the Guro should conduct himself, and my own (rudimentary) marketing and operation business plan. It accompanied me through 5 States and 3 countries, and nearly every word I wrote in it is memorized (including the French). Your mission statement is going to be the commitment that drives you and the light at the end of the tunnel that guides and colors everything you do from your marketing, your curriculum, your image, your students, your teaching style, to your relationship with your community (local and martial arts community, that is). 1 to 3 sentences that can be specific or idealistic, but they will be the goal of your role as martial arts teacher as well as businessman. Without a mission statement, you will have no direction and no area of specialization.

This is a must-have, and is a must-be-first.

Once you have your mission statement, it must be plastered everywhere around you. On scribbles of paper, captioned in notebooks, on yellow stickies on your computer, mirror and the dashboard of your car. The goal is to keep you focused in only one direction, and to never forget.

Next, you will have to determine what you are best at, what you truly have a passion for, and who will be the best candidate that would be interested in that specialty AS LONG AS THEY FIT IN WITH YOUR MISSION STATEMENT. What you are good at must be included in your mission statement. Don’t arbitrarily stick something in there that you wish you were good at. Pick what you can really do—or make a commitment to develop what you would like to do into a specialty. And it must also be something you really like to do. Then, your target market must fit in with your mission statement. In my case, I wanted to produce good fighters, and for my school to have that reputation of the gym for fighters. Obviously, my target market won’t be the 7 year-old market, or stay-at-home moms. It is important to have three circles: All the things you are good at; your mission statement; and those things you love to do—and the people who will fit into the area where these things intersect. It’s no use recruiting Military types if your mission is to help the weak protect themselves. One thing you don’t want to do is to fall into the stereotype of an FMA guy and become an FMA cliché: tough-talking, weapon-hiding, drill master who aligns himself with ex-special forces and ex-con hand-to-hand experts. Trust me, these things are so dime-a-dozen these days, you will never stand out, unless you really were a Navy SEAL. Plus there aren’t too many people, other than 35 year old comic book readers living with their mothers that would really sign up for something like that. Remember, the title of this article is “How to Make a Living with Your FMA”, not “How to Follow the Crowd Pimpin’ Your FMA”. Trust me, it isn’t an easy-to-follow recipe for success… But it works.

In case you are having a Brain fart, here are a few ideas you can kick around:

  • Street fighting for professionals
  • Gentleman’s fight club
  • A TRUE women’s empowerment/anti-mugging/anti-rape specialist
  • Pure, unadulterated traditional FMA for enthusiasts
  • Tournament stickfighting technician
  • Martial arts and fitness alternative for adults with knee/back/joint problems
  • Blade experts for street survival
  • Urban self defense

Can you combine several elements? Of course you can. The idea here is to identify what you are good at, what you like doing, and what you are going to do. My FMA brothers and sisters, there is no way around this step. If you like hustling videos and seminars and don’t care about molding and cultivating martial arts students, then skip over this article. But if you love the Filipino arts, and want to find a way to teach at the level of a Mas Oyama or Wong Fei Hung, you need to do it full-time. Not one day a week in your garage. Not bouncing from location to location because you can’t pay bills. Not part time after your job with the county. But full-time, with an unlimited portion of your day dedicated to perfecting the arts, and the peace and calm of knowing you can feed your family by doing something you love.

In Making a Living with Your FMA, part III, we will discuss developing your image and devising a teaching plan.

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Making a living with your FMA, part 1

As a child, I never had a chance. I was destined to become a martial arts teacher. There were a few interests: politics, football, boxing, magic, even journalism. However, the one thing I have always said was that I would be a martial arts teacher.

When I got older, all the masters I knew were poor and I started to doubt that a real martial artist could feed himself off of traditional martial arts. Sure, there were some making tons of money, but those guys had lousy students, short classes, easy promotion exams… and I would never do that!

Then I discovered the tournament prize.

I learned that if I trained really hard, I could make between $100 – 500 per tournament for a first place or grand-champion placement. Following the footsteps of Sifu-Guro Billy Bryant (and many other great martial artists), I passed up the opportunity to get a “real job” and made the martial arts my full-time job. And it was a hustle. In order to make this work, you have to compete at every tournament that comes your way. Sometimes, you don’t make enough to pay rent, buy groceries, or even have gas money to get to the tournaments. We even paired up to attend tournaments with friends–with the agreement that if either of us won, we would split the prize. We had to endure the displeasure of our family and friends, who saw us as “karate bums”. We did it, and reaped the benefits of pursuing a passion with a level of skill many of our peers wished they had. Some people simultaneously achieved skill in the arts and finished college degrees. The rest of us just stuck with the martial arts.

The great thing about the tournament was that it was great for networking. I met Apolo Ladra, who introduced me to Jae Kim (owner of Kim’s Karate), who introduced me to Han Kim (owner of US Tae Kwon Do College). All these men taught me that one could make a living from teaching good, pure martial arts. Apolo taught me that teaching kids was not tantamount to pulling your own teeth. Jae Kim taught me how to handle large classes, quality control management, and development of a good teaching plan. Han Kim taught me how to sell, market and operate a martial arts school.

Around the same time I learned from these gentlemen, Billy Bryant introduced me to the seminar. A product of the FMA seminar, he learned how to “hype” oneself and taught me just how lucrative the seminar was. I did a few on my own, made a few thousand dollars, but learned that I hated teaching this way. There is no skill development, quality control, and dedication demanded from the students. Yes, you can reach large audiences, but mass consumerism never resulted in good martial arts. Sadly, Billy, as talented as he was, never made enough to feed himself off his full-time school, and had to sell certificates through seminars to make his living. I walked away from this experience committed to prove that traditional Filipino Martial Arts is marketable in its pure form, and that it could support a full-time school.

Let me add this note: In order for this to work, you must have a high degree of skill and accomplishment. By “accomplishment”, I am referring to a reputation built in combat with other martial artists. Combat is through tournaments, or friendly or unfriendly sparring. You must be known for good skill and your students must be known to possess above-average skill. In this, my first rule of marketing your martial arts:

#1. good marketing spreads the word. good skill signs them up

Without good skill, all you’re doing is talking a good game, and you will have to constantly keep new students coming through the door because there is nothing motivating people to stay. And remember what I mean by “skill”… I am talking about fighting ability and all its attributes–power, speed, sparring ability, knowledge. Part of your work week will need to be, at a minimum, enough training sessions to keep your skills functional. High reps of strikes, strength training, shadow boxing to keep techniques ingrained into your hands’ muscle memory. Without decent skill–good skill–your school doesn’t have a chance.

Where you find martial artists with poor or mediocre skill, you will see things that barely matter being emphasized:

  • lineage
  • rank
  • easy, frequent promotions
  • entertaining drills (that distract you from the fact that this guy hits like a woman)
  • tough talk and posturing
  • addition of “bulletproof” arts that they hide behind–BJJ, Krav Maga, blade arts, etc.
  • Kiddie Classes, afterschool karate, Tae Bo
  • memberships and organizational affiliations–i.e., strength in numbers
  • de-emphasizing the importance of fighting skill

The bottom line is that in order for your school to grow without the use of fluff and bells and whistles, you will need to make sure that your own physical martial arts skills are above average. Now, I told you about my pre-teaching experience because I believe that the best martial artists are full-time martial artists.

Some of you may be saying, “Not everyone can do this full-time.” True that, but teaching and mastery of the art is not for everyone. So you will have to make up your mind–are you put on this earth to be a great accountant/government worker/whatever, or a career martial artist? Just because you wish you were master material doesn’t mean you can just do it part time and think that you’re equal with those who have made this their life. I do believe, however, that anyone who wants it and is willing to do what he has to do to pursue it can achieve it. But you will have to decide whether you will truly make the martial arts your life, or will you just make it an exaggerated hobby?

In closing, the first key to making a living with your FMA is to be good at it, and dedicate your life full-time to teaching and practice of the arts.

In Part II, we will discuss your mission statement and building your organization.