Thursday, July 7, 2011

Budo Business Blog

Moore Sensei, my first Aikido Instructor told me, “Never trust anyone who teaches martial arts to pay their bills.”  I have seen a lot of truth in that statement over the years.  Now don’t get me wrong I’m a devout capitalist.  I begrudge no one who makes a profit from the fruit of their labor.  But I have noticed that the Instructors I admire and seek out are not commercially successful, and the Instructors that are commercially successful, I wouldn’t even bother to walk across the street to train with.

I wonder why that is?  I have been thinking about this for awhile.  And while I have yet to find the answers (If I did I would be running multiple 500 student Dojos and making it rain) I think I have begun to see the root of the problem.

Marc MacYoung and I have discussed this.  You can get some of his thoughts on the subject here
Big circle vs. little circle
and here

Ok before we get much further let me define how I use a term I stole.  When I say commercialized school I mean a school with the primary purpose of making the owner rich.  The owner / operator / Instructor depends on the school’s income to make his house payments.

When I say Dojo I mean a school where the primary focus is improving the skills of the students, and passing information onto the next generation.

What I have noticed is that commercialized schools rely on advertising that appeals to base human wants.  Like any good business they see, or create a want and find a way to fill that want.

Examples of what people want out of training adjacent to actual martial art skill:                           
Ego boost                                                       
Self Worth                 
Self identity
Reconfirming your beliefs
Rewriting your history
Fear management
Social status
Telling yourself you’re not afraid
General studlyness

What is needed for martial art skill
Training for application:
  • Bunkai (internal mechanics)
  • Ouyou (application) Also spelled oyo
  • Other (all the other things you have to know.  Practical information like use of force law)

Commercialized schools identify 5 income generators.  New student enrollment, “upgrade” programs / courses, testing fees, school events, and pro shop sales.

Commercialized schools focus on the wants to the determent or outright abandonment of the needs.

For example BJJ is cool.  It’s the current buzzword.  You run a Tae Kwon Do school which you call American Karate (because Karate already has brand recognition) and have absolutely no grappling knowledge or experience. 
There is no way you can provide Bunkai, Ouyou, or all the other stuff you need to know for the application of BJJ. 
A Commercialized school won’t let that stop them from making money off the cool factor of BJJ. 
They will start a special advanced American Karate BJJ class that meets the wants. (“upgrade” program only an extra $75 a month) 
Thrown on a BJJ instructional DVD, then do a bunch of push ups and cardio drills. 
After the students finish this special class they get an extra patch on their gi ($20 at the pro shop), a rank in American Karate BJJ ($100 for official certificate), and are eligible for their next test (only $75 testing fee). 

So the commercialized school just made nearly $300 per student with out any work.  You get 10 sucker…I mean students to fall for that and that goes a long way towards your mortgage payment.

Compare that to all the time, effort, money, blood-sweet-tears it takes to actually learn BJJ, apply BJJ and be able to teach it to others.  I believe the minimum time for most BJJ schools is 10 years to reach Black Belt.

By the time the students attracted to commercial schools are done (say a whooping 8 weeks) BJJ might not be so cool anymore because they already know everything from the DVD.  That’s fine because Krav Maga is super cool now.  Just in time for the new American Karate Krav Maga upgrade program. 

Students attracted to a commercialized school will never last more than 3 months at a Dojo

A Dojo Sensei will be morally and ethically repulsed by the practices that make commercialized schools so financially successful.

That is why some of the best martial arts Instructors in the world teach out of a YMCA, or a basement, or a barn.

My focus is practical application for Law Enforcement.  Not a huge market.  I could never teach in a commercial way, because if I did people who trusted me would die

It saddens me to see martial artists who have never controlled a violent person much less arrested an assaultive felon approach the small practical application for Law Enforcement market with commercialized school tactics.  Offering a one size fits all answer that fulfills all the wants but at best barely scratches the surface of the needs.

So how does a Dojo become commercially successful with becoming a commercialized school?

Hell I don’t know.  If I did I’d be on a beach somewhere smoking Cuban cigars and drinking 18 year old single malt scotch.

This whole blog started with the idea that I need some more students.  Not so much for the revenue (although that is awesome) but because we need more people to train with.

I read a magazine lying around the Dojo “United Professionals” a martial arts business magazine.  I figured they might have some insight I could use.  The whole magazine is one huge pyramid scheme bordering on cult indoctrination.

Not very helpful to me.

How do I attract students to train in Taiho Jutsu. Something they have never heard of.  Something that focuses solely on application.  Training that is hard work, hurts, and takes years.

I have some ideas, some irons in the fire if you will.  If they pan out I’ll share them with you here

If any of you have ideas you would like to share / suggest please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Or if you know a Dojo Sensei (not a d-bag sell out) that has a successful business model please let me know.

Train hard, train smart, be safe


  1. Excellent post. Most successful MacDojo in my view are due to a person who is business savvy and charismatic.

    Charisma can achieve great things - good and bad.

  2. My judo teacher is a 9th dan. Over 50 years in the martial arts. He has trained olympians...etc. He typically has a class of 4-6 people. Often 1 or 2. A new MMA school opened up up the road from me. The owner is a blue belt with 4 years in the arts. His own uniforms, shop etc...A month later and his classes are overspilling. Weird man.

  3. Not weird, not surprising.

    Flash attracts people. People lack lengthy attention spans. Flash caters to short attention spans.

    GOOD training (dojo training, as you put it) isn't flash. It's practicing a technique 1000 times to "learn it", then 10000 more until you internalize the motion and principle.

    For DT training -- the criteria don't mix with flash, except in one point. You need training that quickly develops competence (that's the part that's flash) with a high degree of retention even with little refresher/practice, and that's highly reliable to work. Training for that isn't "fun" and can't be a family enterprise. That dumps most of the flash folks, too.

    Those criteria do meet with what you call dojo training... though it can then add much more in-depth training and analysis of the principles.

  4. I’m not sure I have any good answers; one of my instructors has a successful coaching business, teaches military and LEOs, and generally seems to be well-received, at least in some quarters (everyone’s got haters). I honestly don’t know if you’d classify him as a “d-bag sell out” or not.

    My Muay Thai coach has a moderately successful business, but honestly, even with the MMA boom, and a lot of successful fighters coming out of our gym, we’re not exactly packed to the gills with students. Maybe it’s because we train in a basement and make people work hard. I dunno.

    I do think it is possible to achieve a certain level of financial success while still offering good, honest training, but it definitely ain’t easy.

    Curious to read other thoughts.