Martial Arts Business Blunders

I had a really cool article about guard development that I was really excited to post.

But sometimes things happen or events occur that warrant me addressing them.

If you guys know me in real life. I make it a point to talk to and to keep in contact with the owners of the academies that I meet.

Even if it’s just in passing. You can learn a lot about the martial arts business from the ones that are savvy.

It’s no secret why they are successful. You can see it in their mindset and how they approach challenges.

So when they’re excited about another year of member growth or they expanded into a new location. It’s really no surprise.

But I’ve come into contact with a few academies that seem to be making blunder after blunder.

Even more well established academies that have been open for decades are making blunders that are mainly due to a lack of basic business principles.

Making mistakes isn’t bad. It’s not learning from them and continuing to do same things that is the problem.

When you’re in the martial arts business or any business really, you can’t afford to make blunders.

I’ve recently taken up playing chess. I completely suck (right now) but it’s crazy how you can relate that game back to the business aspects of Jiu Jitsu.

For those of you not avid players. In the chess world a blunder is considered:

“a very bad move. It is usually caused by some tactical oversight, whether from time trouble, overconfidence or carelessness.”

And I really want to emphasize the overconfidence and carelessness parts.

In a game like chess mistakes are expected. Especially during the beginning stages.

However, when you decide to enter into the martial arts business world. It’s very much like entering the black belt division.

If you have any major (or minor) holes in your game. They will be exposed for all to see.

And everyone is out to beat you. Even if it means hurting you to do so.

The same goes for the business side of Jiu Jitsu.

If you don’t have the right training.

You will suffer.

If you don’t have the right experience.

You will struggle.

When you’re the head of an academy you have a lot of people counting on your success.

Your family.

Your students.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen many martial arts academies not make it.

Not only does the owner feel like they let their family and their students down. But they often internalize those feelings which can lead to anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other bad stuff.

Common Blunders

Listen, you’re going to make mistakes over the course of managing your business.

Mistakes happen.

But you can’t afford to make mistake after mistake and hope to stay in business.

There’s just too much competition out there.

Pick the right location – it’s better to outgrow a location than it is to have a big academy right off the back.

Avoid the wrong instructor(s) – Find instructors that are a good fit and will represent your academy well.

Avoid joining the wrong associations – Join associations that make your business better and bring value.

Have the right credentials – If you don’t have the right credentials. You’re not a black belt (or soon to be promoted) or you haven’t differentiated yourself enough yet through tournaments, social media, etc. Then maybe you should hold off opening an academy until you have more experience. Otherwise you might do a disservice to yourself and actually limit your progression.

Investing back into your business – This is where I see a lot of academies drop the ball. You have to invest back into your academy.

Keep your academy looking good. Update your equipment and mats every few years.

Invest back into your students by bringing the right instructors.

Invest in your staff by making sure they get the right training that they need to be successful.

Academies are the center of the Jiu Jitsu community

The academy is the foundation of the Jiu Jitsu community.

It’s where student go to practice their techniques.

Where competitors go to sharpen their skills.

And where instructors go to master their craft.

Without successful academies their would be no Jiu Jitsu. It’s only through the success of academies, both small and large, that Jiu Jitsu will continue to grow.

Advice overload

I’ve spent a lot of time with the owners of academies throughout my career and I’ve seen that the ones that tend to struggle the most are often the same ones to turn down good advice or wise council.

It’s funny that in Jiu Jitsu we promote having no ego and being open minded.

But often these same people are less willing to take their own advice when it comes to business matters.

I’m not saying that you have to take every piece of advice to heart and that you have to implement right away.

That would be a terrible idea.

But you should keep an open mind when someone more experienced than yourself reaches out to you or when one of your students voice a good suggestion.

Feedback and how to filter

From Giving feedback:

Being receptive to feedback is an important part of Jiu Jitsu (business) because it is the only way that you will be able to improve.

Receiving Feedback
Actively listen. Respond and remember what is being said.
Say thanks. Regardless of whether the feedback is useful or not.
Evaluate feedback. Think about how you can effectively apply the feedback to grow your Jiu Jitsu (business).

These same steps can be used in receiving advice (aka feedback) on your marital arts business.

It’s telling that many of the best competitors and instructors are also some of the most receptive to feedback.

Jiu Jitsu and entrepreneurs

I’ve found that many of the business owners and entrepreneurs that I know love talking about their businesses and actively seek feedback and advice about their business.

That’s one way that I know that an academy owner will be successful.

It’s when I come across owners that still operate their business like it’s 1980’s Brazil or ones that consistently seem to struggle that I begin to worry.

Not everyone is cut out for it

I’ve said this before but just because you’re good at Jiu Jitsu doesn’t mean that you will be good at running a Jiu Jitsu business.

You could be a world champion.

Or the best instructor in the world.

And that alone would not be enough to ensure that your martial arts business will be a success.

That’s the hard, uncomfortable truth.

The most successful academies weren’t started by Jiu Jitsu practitioners alone.

In fact they started off as a partnership between a high level competitor or well known instructor and someone with a background in business and ample resources.

The Mendez brothers and RVCA founder PM Tenore.

Marcelo Garcia and chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin.

And many more well known academies that you have probably heard of.

Get help

It’s hard asking for help but if your martial arts business is struggling. You have to look at the big picture.

It’s better to get help now and save your business than to not get help and slowly let your business fail.

This might seem so illogical to many of my readers but I’ve witnessed first hand the decline of an academy.

It wasn’t pretty and completely avoidable.

Don’t be another statistic.

Even if your academy is doing well. Is there a way to take it to the next level?

By having the right people looking out for you like mentors, other business owners, and even knowledgeable students, you already have a competitive advantage.

But you will also need to be receptive to what they say. Even if it’s not what you want to hear.

No ego.

Private Lessons

It’s funny but the majority of my posts come from conversations or questions that I get asked.

A lot questions about making it in Jiu Jitsu

How to make money in Jiu Jitsu?
How can you do Jiu Jitsu full time?

There are lots of ways to make money in Jiu Jitsu. Maybe I will do a later series of posts covering some of the other sources of income available to athletes and instructors.

Obviously, the majority of Jiu Jitsu practitioners won’t be in a position to do private lessons.

But for anyone considering a career in Jiu Jitsu. This is a major stream of income especially for athletes/instructors starting out.

It’s a relatively low investment, high reward situation.

Think about it.

All you need is your knowledge and a space to train and you can literally take in hundreds of dollars per hour.

Starting out

Starting out, no one’s going to take you seriously until around the purple belt level. Before this it’s just the blind leading the blind. So it’s best to be at the point where you have mastered the basic movements of Jiu Jitsu, fundamental techniques, and self defense. While starting to develop your own style and game.

I remember being really nervous the first time I taught a private lesson.

I’m serious.

I was nervous about what techniques I would show.

I was nervous if the student would like my teaching.

I was nervous about accepting (a lot) money for something that I love to do.

Even if you lack confidence in your abilities. At this point you know more about Jiu Jitsu than 99% of people.

That’s all you need to get started.

Breakdown

If I had to break down what type of students take private lessons. I could narrow it down to three simple groups (ordered from lowest knowledge investment to highest knowledge investment)

1. Belt test private lessons

Most students interaction with private lessons often start as a crash course lesson to help them prepare for their belt test/promotion.

These lessons serve as a refresher for techniques that they might have missed or need help on.

Depending upon the academy. Belt test privates are a good and recurring source of income and not very difficult.

2. General private

This level of private lesson is more complex than the belt test private. Where you have a fixed number of techniques that you need to cover.

While a general private is really a consultation.

A student will come to you with questions on how to improve their guard.

Or possibly assistance on a specific position that gives them trouble. Like passing a knee shield.

You will see general privates more at blue belt level (and sometimes even higher belt levels). Where students will start investing more time and energy developing their own Jiu Jitsu.

Once you have mastered the fundamental techniques of Jiu Jitsu and have a firm grasp of the techniques of modern Jiu Jitsu.

All that’s left for you is to create your own unique style.

Of course, you can emulate others techniques and movements. But at the end of the day you will still have to make them your own.

3. Style specific private

The highest knowledge level of private lesson.

Students actively seek out a particular instructor for a specific move or set of moves.

These are the ones that I really enjoy personally because as a student of Jiu Jitsu I’ve put hundreds of hours into my game and the techniques that I use. So I’m more invested in showing my own moves versus more general techniques.

Example: You want to improve your butterfly guard so you take a private lesson with Marcelo Garcia.

Academy Privates

Most private lessons take place inside of an academy.

If you’re an instructor at an academy then there is really nothing stopping you from having a thriving private lesson business.

In fact, I’m surprised by how many academies (big and small) ignore private lessons.

Academies with hundreds of students might have 2-3 weekly privates going on.

My advice to you is just to promote private lessons more with in your academy.

I’ve been to a lot of academies where they never once talk about their private lesson programs and then wonder why no one takes privates.

If you’re not an instructor at your academy but you are a higher belt or high level athlete/instructor then your ability to do private lessons may be affected.

Some academies only let instructors do private lessons. So you will have to find alternatives.

Some academies charge a fee for every lesson that you teach. I’ve seen anywhere between 10-30 percent.

That means if you charge $100 for a private lesson. Your academy could be taking $20-$30.

Again, you will have to find the best situation that works for you.

In Home Lessons

In home lessons is a good alternative to doing private lessons inside of an academy.

It allows you the flexibility of working during non-standard hours when your academy might be closed or unavailable and all of the proceeds go to you.

Pricing

Pricing your private lesson is very subjective. Traditionally, higher belts charge more for their private lessons than lower belts.

At the high end I’ve seen athletes, world champions mind you, charge anywhere between 250-300+ per lesson.

It all depends on your competition accolades, teaching skill, technique, demand and a whole list of things that is too many to count.

Group Privates

I’m a big believer in group privates. As an instructor it’s easier for me to show a move on one student while the other(s) watch versus having to walk a student through a technique solo.

It’s also more efficient to have the students practice their moves on each other versus having them all practice their moves on you individually.

Group privates are a great alternative for many students that are turned off from the pricing of one-on-one privates.

$200 might be a lot for a lot for a solo private. But split 4 ways is only $50 per person.

Private Packages

In most businesses you give a discount for customers paying in advance.

Sure they can pay full price for a one off lesson.

But say they want to take 5, 10, or even 50 privates with you.

At that point it’s okay to show that you appreciate them deciding to work with you.

Privates aren’t cheap.

But knocking 20-25% off of your usual pricing won’t kill you and can even help promote your lessons.

I know many academies that will nickel and dime their loyal customers. But that’s just a lack of business knowledge.

You reward those loyal to you.

Don’t be afraid

Private lessons are a great source of income that is often under utilized.

I even know world class black belts that still feel weird about teaching private lessons and worry about bringing value to the students each time.

These are guys that are high level and just by conversing with them about Jiu Jitsu would help grow your understanding of the game exponentially.

Ultimately you have to realize that you have a lot to offer and that people will spend good money to learn from you.

And that’s okay.

Bringing in 2017

2017 is quickly approaching and as with each new year this brings with it a rush of new potential clients looking for help in achieving their fitness, personal growth, and life goals.

This time of year can really set the pace for the rest of your 2017. Whether your academy will see real growth (in member numbers and gross income) or if you will continue to just get by.

I won’t lie.

Most Jiu Jitsu academies ignore the potential that the new year brings.

But I can assure you that other martial arts academies and the entire fitness industry are already preparing to take full advantage.

Think about this for one second.

People with cash in hand. Looking for a fun way to sweat and to release stress in a safe environment.

If this sounds like your academy why not help them and yourself?

From bring in the new year (2016):

“January is to the fitness and martial arts industries what black friday and cyber monday are to big retailers. If you’re not marketing your school for the influx of people looking to make good on their New Year’s Resolutions, then you’ll really miss out on the best time to grow your martial arts school.”

Systems

In 2016, I talked a lot about the importance of having systems in place. Specifically, in creating marketing systems to help you generate more leads. I plan on doing a quick review of that but I want you to think bigger picture.

You should have a system in place for everything!

There should be a system that you use in planning your classes.

A system for training new employees and instructors.

You should even have a system for how to clean your academy.

By implementing systems you make your business more efficient. Which means more time and energy for making money and doing what you love.

Examples of systems

Website

Your website is often the first experience a potential client will have with your business.

There should be a process by which visitors (new prospects) can go to your website. Leave you their contact information and you continue to market to them until they try out your services.

There are a few ways to set up a system for your academy that does exactly this but for now I will leave you with a simple checklist of things your website should contain.

  • Branded Items. Have your logo, image, and social media information available so that they know that you are a real business.
  • Contact Information. Phone and email so that interested prospects have a way of contacting you.
  • Schedule. Self explanatory.
  • Instructor information. Post about yourself, who you’re associated with, and of course your credentials.
  • Lead Generator. Have some way of collecting prospective clients contact information. At least a first and last name, a phone number, and an email address so that you can send them more information.
  • Address. Don’t underestimate the power location has in turning a prospect into a paying client. Place your address some where easily accessible and include a map and landmarks if possible.

Live Telephone Answering Service

It seems like common sense but you never know when a prospective client will call.

The worse thing you can do is let your telephone calls go to voicemail.

It’s like having an attractive girl text you late at night to see what you’re doing.

If you’re wide awake at that time and able to respond to her message. All is good.

But what if you happened to be really tired that night and end up sleeping through her message.

You can bet she’s going to be less interested the next time around!

That’s why you have to strike while the iron is hot.

With an automated telephone service, new prospects will call your number and speak to a virtual receptionist available 24/7 when you’re not able to get to the phone. This works really well because they can forward calls to your sales staff to close the deal, or they can collect the prospects contact information and even input their email address into your other systems.

Once you get a prospective student’s email or phone number you can gauge their level of interest and react accordingly. If they’re really gung ho, go right ahead and sign them up, but if they’re not quite ready to give your program a try, use email to build a relationship with them. Inform them of the benefits that you offer, tell them your history, offer them free guides and videos. Whatever it takes to build interest and eventual get them in your doors.

Lesson Plan for Fundamental/Beginners

Coming up with a lesson plan each week from scratch is really time consuming and it sucks.

I’m talking from experience here.

With more advanced classes you have more freedom in planning classes and working different concepts.

But when you’re dealing with with beginning students it’s best to stick with the basics and have a structured game plan.

At my academy we implement a system of lessons for our beginner (white belt) and intermediate level (blue belt) students. That’s designed to teach them the basics of Jiu Jitsu without overwhelming them.

If your academy is smaller and just starting out then it doesn’t make sense to divide your members up. But as you continue to grow and you have students at all levels. It will become increasingly harder to add brand new students to your (mixed) classes without the higher belts feeling like they have to slow down in order get the lower belts up to speed.

At that point, it becomes more effective for the newer students to work on techniques that are appropriate to their experience level (i.e. learning how to shrimp before learning heel hooks).

Eventually you will need to have a system in place that will help your beginner students learn the fundamental techniques of Jiu Jitsu and prepare them for more advance techniques/classes.

Again, developing systems creates less headaches and worry for you. Which means that you can focus you energy and attentions to other areas of your business.

Marketing Your Academy

You should be marketing your academy and your services year round. Especially during the first quarter of the year (January to March).

This time is great because people are actively seeking solutions to their health and fitness goals.

I know a lot of Jiu Jitsu academies have a negative view on marketing.

Why do you have to market your academy when you are the best in the city, or you have the best competitors, or the highest ranked students?

While this is all good. I can tell you right now that the average person off of the street or visitor to your website has no clue how good your academy is compared to the academy down the street.

They don’t care about how many tournaments you’ve won.

They don’t care about how many champions you’ve produce.

But I do know what they do care about.

They care about themselves and how your business can help them reach their goals!

“Our job is to connect to people, to interact with them in a way that leaves them better than we found them, more able to get where they’d like to go.” – Seth Godin

An easy way to get started is to research the local academies in your area.

Check out their websites.

See what they’re offering prospective clients to try out their programs.

Then use that information to create your own marketing strategy.

A strategy that will set your apart from all the rest.

“Think different” – Apple Computer, Inc.

Online Marketing
This is a fairly broad topic but it includes all of your online marketing efforts and social media, digital products, etc.

We talked about setting up your website earlier. Above all else, it should be informative and simple to use and share.

A few questions to help you get started

  • How is your social media presence? Are you posting new things about your academy and programs daily/weekly/infrequently?
  • Are there any videos of your classes, you teaching, interviews, etc?
  • Are your clients sharing your posts, pictures and other content?
  • What comes up when someone searches your name or your academy? How can you use that to promote your brand.

Direct Mail
I’m talking about good-old fashioned physical marketing tools such as flyers and mailers. It may seem old school but it’s still effective and relevant for a physical location. A well designed mailer, with a modest list depending on the population in your area could generate massive returns.

For example if you purchased a list of 10,000 lead addresses and only had 5%(0.05) of those leads contact your academy. That’s potentially 500 new clients.

Referrals
Your biggest resource and best ally is going to be your loyal clientele.

Do you have a system by which your clients can refer their friends, family members, and coworker’s?

A free trial pass.

A business card.

Even a brochure that your clients can give out would be a low investment -> high reward tool that you can easily implement.

Improving Your Academy

There are going to be a few days during the holidays when you’re academy will be less busy or even closed.

Why not take this time to make some minor (or even major) improvements in and around your academy?

Little touches like:

  • Deeply cleaning your entire academy
  • New coat of paint
  • New/different furniture in your reception area
  • New mats
  • Adding more fitness equipment
  • Wifi for members
  • Complementary body wash

Show that you value your current clients as well as helping you sell your brand to prospective clients.

There is no shortage of things that you can do that will help prepare your academy for the new year.

Having systems in places to help run your academy and focusing on those little touches that will set you apart from those other martial arts/fitness businesses in your area is a good step in the right direction.

The more value you give in terms of the programs you offer, the amenities, and instruction.

The easier it will be to market and sell your services.

This could be the difference between running your academy like a side hustle that barely covers your living expenses versus a business that can generate wealth for many years to come.