Mention the words “martial arts” and you’ll have many people kicking back a pile of clichés.
They’ll imitate Bruce Lee jumping as high as the cruising altitude of a Piper Cub, slashing and chopping a battalion of attackers into ample pieces on a seeming three-minute descent back to the ground.
That’s a big misconception, and perhaps an unfortunate one for an entrepreneur looking to start a new work at home business. Martial arts are not only useful and down to earth, but a martial arts or self-defense studio could prove to be a rewarding small-business opportunity — particularly now that personal safety is an increasing concern.
But, if you think a dojo is Stephen King’s town-terrorizing Saint Bernard, it’s essential to push past inaccurate stereotypes and get a grip on the realities of running a martial arts business.
Get some experience. Running a martial arts school with no martial arts or self-defense experience is like driving a semi truck on a week-old learner’s permit — both can prove to be the express lane to a brick wall. But if a self-defense business appeals to you, get some experience under your belt. Take some classes and stick with them, so you get a sense of what’s involved. “It’s always best to have some experience with the martial arts,” says Kymberly Johnson, chief instructor at Villari’s Self-Defense Center in Scarborough, Maine. You can get a very good sense of what the clientele is looking for.
Look to locate near other studios. Unlike in other businesses — where little or no competition is an undisputed plus — it’s generally a good idea to site a martial arts business near other studios. Not only are competing studios unlikely to offer the same sort of program and instruction, they also hopefully have washed away much of the misinformation that can surround martial arts. “Often, it’s the case that more is better,” says Jim DiVirgilio, a Villari’s black belt instructor. “If they’re good quality studios, they’ve helped to educate your market.”
Hook up with a chain or go solo. One of the salient choices to make in starting a self-defense business is going out on your own or trying to hook up with a national chain. Although complete autonomy may be appealing, there are numerous advantages to being part of a larger group. For one thing, a chain can offer name recognition and legitimacy — that can help skirt consumer wariness toward self-defense programs with names like “Billy Bob’s Kung Fu Kastle.” Chain-based organizations also can provide individual businesses with a wealth of material, from advertising support to a predefined teaching curriculum. In either case, it’s essential to hook up with the support of a professional association such as the National Association of Professional Martial Artists. “Don’t reinvent the wheel,” says John Graden, NAPMA’s founder and chief executive officer. “It’s important to realize that what you are trying to accomplish has been accomplished by many people before you.”
Offer more than self-defense. The core of any self-defense business is, naturally enough, the martial art that it teaches, be it karate, Taekwondo or some other discipline. But one effective means of building up clientele is to offer adjunct programs to appeal to a broader range of prospective students. That could mean supplementing your core offering with a variety of programs, from Tai chi to kickboxing classes to women’s and children’s self-defense seminars. “Offering a broad range of programs really speaks to the completeness and diversity of the martial arts,” says Johnson.
Make it attractive to newcomers. This hearkens back to the inaccurate, if not occasionally intimidating, personal that a martial arts program can present to the public. Rather than forms of fighting pursued exclusively by the very fit or those with a penchant for violence (remember the loony instructor in “The Karate Kid”?), it’s essential to emphasize that the martial arts teach not merely self-defense but also discipline, respect and other worthwhile qualities. In particular, make sure your advertising doesn’t put off newbies in favor of established martial arts enthusiasts. “A common mistake is to run an ad with someone getting kicked in the head,” Graden says. “A black belt may love that, but the general public only sees a guy getting kicked in the head and says, ‘Ahh, that’s what’s going to happen to me?!’
Be open to a flexible schedule. It’s no state secret that most entrepreneurs are willing to put in endless workdays to nurture a business. But those looking for an unbroken dawn-to-dusk-only regimen may do well to bypass a martial arts program. Not only can classes pepper a schedule from early morning to mid-evening (and change from one day to the next), but the mechanics of running the business also have to be squeezed in as down time permits. That can mean overseeing a cardio class for one hour, then careening to the office to work out schedules and sign paychecks. “It’s very unusual from a time standpoint, because you often have to do business when no classes are being offered,” says DiVirgilio. “It’s not really your typical work schedule.”
Know that word of mouth is everything. Advertising and other marketing aside, the best salespeople a self-defense program can put out on the street are its students. So, make absolutely sure you’re giving your clientele every reason to sell others on the merits of your program. Recruit and retain top-notch instructors, make certain classes are varied and convenient and remain open to feedback and suggestions. If students leave satisfied, they’re likely to relay that satisfaction. “I would say 75% of our business comes from word of mouth,” Johnson says. “Our students tell others about the self-confidence, focus and awareness they’re learning here.”