Can you make it in Jiu Jitsu?

I know many athletes pursuing Jiu Jitsu as their career all over the world and the general consensus is that making it in Jiu Jitsu full-time is hard.

Even if you’ve made a name for yourself and established yourself as a skilled competitor and instructor. It’s still hard.

As much as I like writing about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a martial art and will continue to. It’s still a business at the end of the day and many athletes will still have to pay tuition to their academy, pay rent, tournament fees, nutritional supplements, health insurance, etc.

As Jiu Jitsu continues to grow, more and more people are going to look to make a career out of it, it’s only natural. In the U.S. we’re always told that you should follow your dreams and do what you love.

But what are the options for someone looking to make a career out of Jiu Jitsu?

The most obvious, and the one that I hear everyone say is that you should open up an academy.

Get a black belt, open an academy.

Win a world championship, open an academy.

No other skills, open up an academy.

I expect most high level Jiu Jitsu competitors have had this thought cross their mind at some point. But running an academy is a business, and just like you have to prepare your techniques before entering a tournament, you also have to prepare yourself to run a business.

Starting an academy takes preparation, patience and resources.

And if you foolishly rush into this it can be an expensive lesson.

I will save my views on opening an academy for another post. But for now I want to focus on those that are maybe not ready for this step or have yet to raise the capital to get to this point. Which I believe is where the majority of my friends and many of my readers are at in their Jiu Jitsu careers.

What can you do?

I think the best thing that you can do at this point is to learn about business in general.

If you are dead set on having an academy one day in the future then you should be learning about the business aspects of running an academy as soon as possible.

Easy test: If you had to work the front desk at your academy for one hour would you be able to handle everything without a hitch?

This could include answering the phone, dealing with unhappy clients, signing up new prospects, etc.

You would be surprised that many academy owners and instructors are completely lost when it comes to handling basic business operations. Let alone doing basic accounting, marketing, and sales. Things that make businesses successful.

All the Jiu Jitsu technique in the world won’t help you when it comes running your business.

However, you don’t have to confine yourself to just learning about martial arts businesses. Really, any business experience would be helpful and translate over well.

One summer, I was lucky enough to intern with a friend’s start up during a break in my training.

Of course, I did a lot of errand running but I was also able to develop an understanding for basic business principles by interact with clients, helping close deals, research topics, and doing whatever else that was asked if me.

I’m a big advocate of working for yourself and starting your own business but you have to start somewhere. You need a base of knowledge in some field to work with but this often takes time.

So you need a way to buy yourself time to develop valuable skills while also allowing time for you to train.

Work Part-time

If you are serious about pursuing a career in Jiu Jitsu as a competitor or an instructor you will need a lot of mat time. I’ve seen a few people manage this while working full time jobs and raising a family. But every year it gets harder and harder.

A decade ago you could train once a day while managing a career and still be competitive, but in 2016 you have blue and purple belts training and competing full time.

So you will need to maximize your time spent on the mat while also being able to support yourself financially.

Benefits of working part time

Working part time is a smart way to make money initially while also transitioning into a Jiu Jitsu career. Depending on the part time position, not being confined to an office for many hours will allow you the flexibility you will need in order to train Jiu Jitsu and improve your skills.

Know your finances

I have to write a little bit about finances. If you’re starting to pursue a career in Jiu Jitsu and you don’t already have other streams of income or savings. You are going to need to have your finances down. There’s just no other way. Things that normal people take for granted such as going out to eat, concerts, and most activities involving money won’t help you get closer to your goals.

Travel costs.

Tournaments cost.

Training costs.

There are ways to subsidies these things once you reach a certain level when you have access to sponsors and other entities helping to cover these costs. But for someone starting out, with no name recognition or major tournament success. Your entire focus should be on improving your skills.

There is money in Jiu Jitsu contrary to what many blogs, social media posts, and Internet memes might suggest. But you have to have the skills either in competition or marketing to gain access to that level.

Teaching Jiu Jitsu

Getting a part time position at your academy would be the easiest place to start.

Most Jiu Jitsu writers will suggest starting with the kids program and moving on from there but I would argue that teaching kids Jiu Jitsu is harder than teaching adults Jiu Jitsu and will take longer to get good at. Kids instructors also don’t start off making a lot so you will be doing a lot of hard work for not a lot of pay.

I started off teaching kids when I was just a seventeen year old blue belt and while I’m grateful for all the experience that I gained. I believe it’s better for new instructors to start out by assisting with adult beginner classes and gaining experience before moving on to teaching kids.

Working with adults will allow you the proper environment in order to develop your teaching ability and all the other skills you will need as an instructor such as the ability to speak confidently, logically conveying techniques, and commanding respect so that you will be ready to instruct kids.

Let me tell you this.

When you’re teaching kids your skills have to be on point. They can smell weakness or inexperience and will eat you alive.

It reminds me a lot of when a substitute teacher would cover a class in grade school and the entire class would descend into chaos.

I think many academies have this backwards. They often put their least experienced instructors to teach their kids classes. When I have observed that it’s often better to have your best instructors working with those impressionable minds. But that’s a topic for another day.

Front Desk/Manager

Even if your plan is to teach Jiu Jitsu or to compete. I think you should spend some time working or helping out at the front desk at the academy that you train at.

If you really want to understand how a martial arts business works this is where you need to be. I know so many really talented instructors, with great techniques and knowledge of all things Jiu Jitsu but never took the time to actually learn basic business concepts.

This is okay if you decide to partner with someone with actual business experience. But most academies start off small time and are self financed.

Take a look at just about all of the top academies and you will realize the world champion instructor was just the talent in the equation. Often there is an investor with way more business experience and financial backing that handles everything outside of instruction, at least initially any way.

Examples. The Art of Jiu Jitsu academy and RVCA or Marcelo Garcia and Josh Waitzkin.

The point that I’m trying to impress upon you is that the top academies, the ones that are really grossing six figures or more per year, all have a strong business foundation.

Things that you can learn working the front desk

  1. How to interact with clients
  2. Generating leads
  3. Converting those leads into clients
  4. Organization
  5. Following systems
  6. Talking to people
  7. Writing emails
  8. Responding to emails
  9. Negotiating
  10. Having uncomfortable conversations
  11. Dealing with past dues
  12. Dealing with special cases
  13. Getting shit done

Even if your academy isn’t in need of a front desk manager that doesn’t mean that you can’t discuss business with them or the owner or whoever is in charge of running the business. I’ve found that most times it’s as easy a just asking, especially if the person in charge is business savvy and actually enjoys talking about their business.

I’ve also found that less knowledgeable and less business savvy academy owners are less open to talk about their businesses.

What if there are no openings at your academy?

At larger academies there might already be a large supply of instructors on hand to teach and cover most of the classes.

Even smaller academies might not be able to bring on any supplementary instructors.

I still suggest finding a way to get experience even if you have to volunteer to do it. Think of it as an internship or an apprenticeship that will pay off largely in the future.

Alternatives

There are a lot of part time positions available. Your biggest resource will be the network of students that attend your academy. Many of whom probably have their own businesses or are in positions to hire.

Begin promoting your brand

For higher level athletes and instructors looking to make it in Jiu Jitsu now is the time to start building your own brand. Competing and winning in major tournaments will be the easiest way to get your name out into the collective Jiu Jitsu community.

The first step is the hardest.

I will never forget during my last year as a brown belt. I was working part time for a popular yoga apparel company and still uncertain of my future as a competitor.

I was visiting my former instructors’ academy after a few years of not seeing each other and he sat me down after the training session and we just talked. We talked about my goals and what I was doing to achieve them and he gave me much of the same advice that I’m sharing with you right now.

What I took away from this conversation is that we all have doubts but when you’ve poured so much of yourself into this art. You owe it to yourself to see it through and sometimes it takes someone to just say some motivating words to help you get through those rough patches.

It seems so simple now but having someone that I looked up to, someone that I trusted, say those words to me aloud really motivated me in a way that had an instant impact.

Have you ever had a lightbulb moment when something just clicked?

Well, that’s how I felt after this conversation.

Even if you haven’t had a lot of success there are ways that you can use to differentiate yourself. Competing and winning is definitely the easiest way to do this but I can name many others that were able to find their own unique niche in which they were able to promote themselves.

Alternative sources of income for high level athletes

  • Seminars
  • Private lessons
  • Professional tournaments
  • Online product
  • Instructional DVD/digital download
  • Association
  • Sponsorships

There are a lot of options out there if you have the skill and knowledge. Sometimes it just takes you putting yourself out there. Letting people know that you available for different opportunities and taking advantage of those opportunities when they arise.

Start small by teaching a few private lessons, even if you have to discount them. Just focus on building a clientele until people start actively seeking you for lessons.

The same concept applies to getting seminars. Offer to teach a seminar for a charity event and then leverage that into getting paid to teach.

Keep developing yourself

I think it’s important as athletes and martial artists that we continue to develop ourselves outside of just our techniques on the mat.

One day you won’t be as fast or as strong as you once were. Even if that is a few years off, one day your priorities might change so that you are not able to maintain the same level of training. Whatever the case, you will want to have other skills to fall back on.

The worst case scenario is that you become a really talented competitor that has failed to develop outside of competing. What happens when you become less relevant?

I started writing this post as a guide for many of my friends grinding out there. But I think now more than ever they need encouragement to continue on the paths that they have chosen.

So many people in Jiu Jitsu are struggling. Many of them academy owners struggling to keep their doors open while trying to make ends meet. Others trying to make it as full time competitors in Jiu Jitsu while struggling to get their names out there in the Jiu Jitsu community so that they can do seminars and private lessons.

There is so much potential in Jiu Jitsu and it’s growing every year. It’s been a slower growth relative to MMA, but compared to many of the other combat sports/martial arts there are a lot of possibilities.

Just like how I saw that there was a ray of hope out there. I want you to know that there are ways for you to make it in this industry. No one’s going to lay it all out for you and sometimes it will be hard and you will be discouraged from moving forward. But there is a way.

One of my favorite sayings in Jiu Jitsu is that each person’s journey is a marathon and not a sprint.

Sometimes it takes just hearing that you can make it to actually inspire you to take action and continue on your path.

Joining a Jiu Jitsu Association

In my post instructor progression I talked a little bit about what an association head was and some of their duties.

So now I want to touch more on Jiu Jitsu associations because it is a big topic that affects all levels of academies. From the little academies starting out all the way to the bigger ones that have produced multiple world champions.

This article is going to be a little bit heavier on definitions and describing exactly what associations are since there aren’t many sources on them so I want to develop a base of knowledge and terms first before tackling associations more in depth in future posts.

As far as elevating the level of knowledge about Jiu Jitsu, it’s important that we study topics like this because it affects everyone in the Jiu Jitsu community. Many writers and blogs will post about the technical part of Jiu Jitsu but neglect the business aspect. Or when they do talk about the business part of Jiu Jitsu, it’s often a fluff piece designed to get the maximum amount of clicks and email sign ups.

The more I write, the more I come into contact with academy owners, students and others in the Jiu Jitsu community and there is a large need for discussion on many subjects like this one that involve each and everyone of us.

But back on topic.

Most academies are under some type of association or have their own association. Some major ones that come to mind are:

  • Alliance Association
  • Gracie Barra Association
  • Gracie Humaita Association
  • Pedro Sauer Association
  • Royce Gracie Association
  • Checkmat Association
  • Atos Association
  • Rilion Gracie Association
  • SBG

I missed a lot of associations too but that just shows you how widespread  association are within the Jiu Jitsu community.

Many martial arts academies have ties to their head academy or the academy of their instructor and it is the same in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with a few key differences that I hope to cover in this article.

What is a Jiu Jitsu association?

There really is no set definition for what exactly a Jiu Jitsu association is but I will do my best to describe my observations from being a part of one of the largest Jiu Jitsu associations in the world and interacting with several other associations and affiliated academies.

This is a topic that is really important if you decide to have your own academy one day but we will get to that later.

A Jiu Jitsu association is the head or governing organization of a group of closely connected or affiliated academies.

How closely these academies are depends solely on the leadership of the association. Some associations are deeply involved in the affiliated academies in its organization. Giving strict guidelines over everything from how academies structure their business and graduate their students. While others are more informal and leave all the decisions to the individual academies.

Informal Associations

Informal associations are what I would describe as the traditional model found in most martial arts. Usually serving as a way of honoring one’s instructor and their lineage. Often there is no form of payment or dues paid to the head academy or association. Instead relying on the sacred relationship between student and teacher.

Think Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san from the Karate Kid movies.

A few academies still operate in this manner and I really respect that. I write this all the time but Jiu Jitsu is more than just a business. No matter how hard many instructors try. You just can’t force it into that mold because you’re dealing with people in a very intimate and nurturing environment.

Of course there will be a McDojo here and there or even a fake black belt or two. But they never last, because Jiu Jitsu weeds them out in the way that it’s structured. You can’t fake Jiu Jitsu.

I’m all for academies making money and being profitable. Their success means that there will be more opportunities for instructors and competitors to teach and make a living. But when schools begin to put profit above the martial art and even their students, something is wrong and something often goes wrong.

This isn’t an attack on associations by any means. Associations are very important and ingrained in the fabric of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. But Jiu Jitsu is all about accountability and we have to keep any governing body accountable for its actions.

Formal Associations

Formal Jiu Jitsu associations have a far more hands on approach. I mentioned earlier that the leadership of the association or the head academy can involve itself in how it’s affiliated schools run their individual businesses.

This is very true.

Association can and often do set policies that academies affiliated underneath them have to follow. My favorite and the easiest example is the official uniform that many associated academies often implement. You know the ones where you can only wear the official association’s gi. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, I find it makes most academies look more professional than the old school hodgepodge of people wearing mix matched gis.

I used to rock a red gi back in the day so I know a thing or two about mixing it up.

While cool, its better for academies to have an official uniform to keep their business looking professional.
While cool, its better for academies to have an official uniform to keep their business looking professional.

But this just goes to show the power that the association leadership has over the academies in its associations. Outside of its ability to effect the policies of individual martial art businesses. There are many upsides which include giving academies  access to top level athletes that they normally might not have access to. As well as usage of marketing tools, training, and certifications.

Common Benefits of Associations

  • Training programs
  • Certifications
  • Marketing tools
  • Mentorship
  • Access to instructors
  • Networking
  • Wholesale product pricing
  • Belt testing
  • Competition training

What is an affiliate?

An affiliate academy is an individual martial arts academy that chooses to associate itself under another academy or organization or individual.

Affiliate schools often have to pay a membership fee to the association that can range in the $$,$$$ per year.

In exchange, the affiliated academy gets access to the resources of the association which often includes it’s staple of instructors and competitors, business management training, and wholesale access to products and gear leveraged by the size of the association.

When to join?

This isn’t a simple question. Each academy is a unique and individual business.

I suggest that all academies take their time in deciding on when and with which organization that they decide to affiliate themselves with.

Of course, many academy owners and head instructors will want to affiliate with their instructor but more often than you think this is not a viable option.

Regardless, do your research!

Talk to others academy owners that are members of the associations that you are looking to join.

Find out the association’s policies. Are they very hands on or will they allow you the autonomy to operate your business the way you want?

There comes a time when it makes sense to affiliate your academy. Especially when it’s time to graduate your students to higher belts or if you decide to compete in major tournaments.

If you are a lower belt operating an academy or a black belt without two stripes. You will be really limited in your ability to promote students without the backing of a more seasoned instructor.

Reasons:

  • As a lower belt instructor you need a higher belt instructor to graduate your students.
  • You have students that want to compete. Often, you will need to be registered underneath a team.
  • Affiliating lends credibility to your program. Many people know Alliance and Gracie Barra. While they might not necessarily know who you are as an individual.

Even if you have access to unlimited funds and the association is offering a completely turnkey solution to operating your academy. Still take your time.

If you think jumping teams is frowned upon. Changing affiliations is even worse since there is a lot more money involved.

When not to Affiliate?

If you’re starting out and you’re bootstrapping it, or short on resources.

Don’t affiliate!

Instead focus on building your academy and your business.

Differences in affiliations

There are lots of differences between the associations. The larger associations have more systems in place and resources. While smaller associations can be more personal and easier to communicate with.

It’s a preference really. Do your research, see what the association offers you in exchange for membership, and most importantly if their values and vision fits with your business. Many instructors and academy owners can let their loyalty to their instructor or association blind their judgement, but ultimately you need to insure that joining will be in you and your students best interest.

P.S. – If you would like to learn more about topics that involve owning and operating a Jiu Jitsu academy please join my newsletter for more knowledge bombs.

Knowing your financials

A few months ago I wrote Is 50k enough to open your own academy? And I was really surprised by the amount of comments and feedback that I received.

Short answer: Yes, you can open your academy with $50,000. In fact many people have done it with far less.

Having this much money or more will not only afford you better facilities in a better location but also access to highly skilled instructors.

Being able to bypass a lot of the physical hands on work that many martial arts academies with less resources go through initially. Letting you focus on developing systems and people.

But there is a catch.

With more resources there is a tendency to think that most problems can be solved by throwing money at them.

In fact, sometimes too much money can be a bigger problem than not having enough money if you can believe it.

I wish I had 50k when I cofounded my first martial arts school. It would have made a lot of things easier.

But because we didn’t have a lot of money. That forced my business partner and I to keep track of where every dollar went. Keeping costs as low as possible

I’m going to ask that you take the same diligence and self discipline that you use everyday in your martial arts training and try to apply it to your business.

No easy task.

We are going to go over a few technical terms but stay with me.

My friend Charles brought up some important topics that I did not mention in my first post that I am going to address in this post. Charles writes:

I’d add financials: knowing the numbers. How many students to break even? Churn rate. How many students in Marketing gets people in the door, sales is what turns them into students. What other ways can you monetize besides the $100’ish a month?

Breaking Even

Breaking even is an accounting term that means that your martial arts business is able to meet all of its financial obligations and total costs including: rent, utilities, payroll, insurance etc.

This means that you are not losing money in your business but also not making money.

But that’s okay!

You would be surprised by the number of companies that haven’t made any profits. A number of tech companies come to mind.

Instead focus on knowing your finances.

It’s important that you have your finances down because when you decide to open up your martial arts business you are no longer just responsible for yourself and your family’s well being.

You are also on the line for those that you employ and their families, as well as all of your clients and their families.

I’m not saying that you will have to be a math wiz or a CPA, but you will need to know some basic accounting and little bit of financial literacy too.

Of course being a business owner, profiting is the next step once you break even. But your profit will be determined by your expenses.

For academies starting out, keep your expenses as low as possible. This might mean that you will have to do a lot of the hands on work yourself at first, but that’s okay.

Find the best, most efficient way to go about running and operating your program and then use this experience to create systems for your future employees.

I put together a sample of a small martial arts academy’s monthly financials. Just to see the how the cost of operating a school can easily add up.

Everything is pretty self explanatory but for now I just want you to focus on the part that says net profit. This is where you will see if your business is making money, losing money or breaking even. In this sample plan the net profit is zero, so that means that the monthly income that this fictional business was bringing in was enough to cover all of its expenses for that month which is great!

Do you know the financial details of your martial arts Business?
Do you know the financial details of your martial arts
Business?

Even if you have a lot of resources and cash saved up, keep your expenses small.

You will thank me in the long run.

New Students In

Bringing in new students will always be the lifeblood of a martial arts business.

For newer schools, your initial income will come from acquiring new students (marketing) but as Charles brought up earlier. It’s what you do when you get them through the door that really matters.

Knowing your breakeven point will allow you to calculate the amount of students you will need to obtain, and retain in order to keep your business running.

Once you have that figured out then any number over that will be pure profit for you to invest back into your business systems (marketing and sales) so that you will be able to make even more money and make your service better (premium equipment and amenities).

The important link here is your sales system. Sales is the process of turning those new prospects into paying students.

I will go into more detail in a later post but for now just know that you will need a system.

Have a system for when prospects walk into your academy.

Have a system when prospects check out your website.

Have a system for your existing members to refer their friends.

If you don’t learn anything else from me, the importance of having systems is key.

Churn Rate

Churn rate is the percent of students that no longer pay for your service.

This also includes employees leaving as well.

No one likes to talk about this in the martial arts industry but most students will fall off of training at some point. Only a few will stick with it all the way to black belt.

Of course some students do find their way back. I have a friend that completely stopped training in 2008. Right before getting his purple belt.

Only to find his way back to Jiu Jitsu in 2015.

That’s a seven year lay off!

But it’s not the norm.

If you have your own academy you will become really sensitive to this.

You will notice when certain people begin attending classes less frequently.

That’s when you will need to motivate them to keep training.

I know that life happens.

But Jiu Jitsu is capable of so many positive life changes. That to let people quit. Only to regret leaving and to take years to get back into, seems like a big mistake.

Once you know your churn rate you will have a better picture of your business.

Use the churn rate to see where people are falling off in your business pipeline.

For instance, many students drop off at or before blue belt.

Can you develop systems to help you identify this drop off?

Can you develop systems to help you retain those students?

And for the students that you aren’t able to motivate to keep training, will you be able to replace them with new students and through other means.

Monetization

When you first start a martial arts academy. Your students will be your livelihood.

Through acquiring new students you will begin to break even and hopefully become profitable.

As you gain more students it’s unavoidable that a few of those students will drop off (churn rate). But as long as you are able to replace those students with new students at a rate higher than the churn rate. Then you are in business.

Once you have a client base of over twenty students you are ready to monetize your martial arts business in other ways.

Producing your own brand of gear.

Adding additional classes such as kickboxing and conditioning classes.

Instructor training programs.

If you can dream it, you can do it.

Most businesses fight tooth and nail for the level of brand loyalty that is built in to martial arts.

But it does come at a price.

The price of having integrity and building, and developing relationships.

Don’t underestimate the power of relationships.

Especially in this industry. Relationships are everything.

If you try to monetize before you have grown a loyal client base then you may risk alienating your existing clients. Many of which could be among your first students that believed in you enough to entrust their martial arts study to your hands.

Know your students.

Know your finances.

Grow your school.