Thursday, December 23, 2010

Open For Business

So, you want to open a martial arts school?

Big decision... maybe one of the biggest you'll ever make.
There is a massive difference between those teachers who go on to have successful careers running their own schools, and those that are back working for "The Man" 9 to 5 within a year (or less). What's up with that?

1) Why Open a Martial Arts School?
To be great, not just good, but GREAT at martial arts requires a sacrifice of time, energy, and discipline very few people can achieve. Becoming a great teacher goes even beyond the requirements of being a great martial artist. If you are someone who has invested (yes, "invested") that much of your life into mastering those skills, the only lifestyle choice that can truly satisfy you is to do that every day for the rest of your life. Since most of us are not independently wealthy already, it means we must work for a living.

Since you know from previous blogs that I equate a martial arts lifestyle with a religious/spiritual lifestyle, I would say making a decision not to teach your art is like spending your whole life studying religion, and then never actually using that knowledge for the common good by becoming a priest. To go even a step further, a master has a moral obligation to the art itself (and his or her own masters) to transmit the body of knowledge to the next generations, or risk losing it forever when he or she inevitably dies. Sadly, this has happened to many, many martial arts throughout human history.

I believe that a good master develops those students who will one day become teachers, and helps them grow into being ready, including sharing with them the practical aspects of running a school to encourage them to pursue this dream and become successful entrepreneurs themselves one day.

Even though many martial arts students and instructors daydream about opening a school, few will actually do it. This is a trend that can and should be reversed. The world needs more martial arts schools and more qualified, dedicated teachers.

2) It's Not Just About Martial Arts
Like all small businesses/start ups, running a business requires much more than just knowing the subject matter of the product. Owning and operating a hair salon means not just knowing about hair, but also about real estate, employment contracts, banking, marketing and sales, technology, insurance, and a host of other sub-skills. These skills are shared by every entrepreneur, and operating one successful business usually means switching from one to another is pretty easy. As a martial arts school owner, get ready to learn everything about everything else (except martial arts).

3) Dollars and (common) Sense
You have to be profitable. You deserve to be. Profitability equates to sustainability, and we all want to be associated with success. Students do not like to see their teachers on the dole, and we want to believe our teachers are professionals, preferably full-time professionals. This is what makes a school (full-time operation) different from a club (part-time operation). To do this, you have to have at least some basic numerical skills, be well organized, and fair.

A balance has to be struck between making the classes accessible and giving fair value for the knowledge received. The value of the knowledge itself cannot accurately be measured, since to the teachers it is priceless (based on the lifetime of investment they have put in it). It is also true that cost and value have a psychological connection. More expensive things are perceived to have higher value. I do not advocate being unethical by charging students exorbitant fees for voodoo. However, I do believe the classes should not be for free, and should fairly compensate the teacher for the investment of his/her time, energy, and knowledge, as well as provide a foundation to make the school sustainable.

4) Customer Service
As a teacher, you have to have skills. These skills have to be good enough to attract students and show them what they can achieve through dedicated training over time. However, what will matter most to the students is not how good you are, but HOW GOOD THEY BECOME. Successful teachers appeal to the psychology of the individual and the group, and must always focus on helping each student become the best that he or she can be. This means providing individualized guidance as much as possible, developing a personal relationship with each student, creating a supportive student community, and working hard to make the body of knowledge as accessible to the students as it can be.


While many misguided teachers do this, ultimately they are the ones that will lose their students and have nothing. Teacher/student relationships are like every other business relationship (doctor/lawyer/priest/accountant). They are based on TRUST. The moment that trust is undermined or results in harm to the customer, the relationship becomes irrevocably damaged. Good teachers focus on the students and their improvement EXCLUSIVELY and SELFLESSLY.

In practical terms this means that students must understand that they will progress and improve, feel firsthand the goal setting and achievement, be encouraged and supported by the teachers and other students, and correctly identify the improvement as being consistent with what they want for themselves. A feedback loop (formal or informal) is helpful for keeping dialog with each student about their training.

There can be a great temptation to be involved with students as close personal friends (or more).
Good teachers bear in mind that it is a PROFESSIONAL relationship, and keep it so. Teachers can be professionally close to their students (just as a good doctor or lawyer is often considered a family friend and trusted adviser over many years), but professional protocols should always be observed. Since the school involves a trust relationship, it should be bound by the same behavioral guidelines as any typical workplace or university as regards teacher/student conduct. Many a school (and teacher) have been ruined by failing to observe these important rules.

 Not an appropriate student/teacher relationship.

5) Products and Innovation
There is a lot to be said for tradition, especially in martial arts.
However, if we compare martial arts to religion, then we must acknowledge that religion's great failing has been to hang on to tradition at the expense of adapting to the needs of modern practitioners, which has resulted in confusion and disassociation among worshipers.

One of the things I like most about FMA, and specifically Kali Majapahit, is that a lot of time and energy is spent on perfecting the curriculum to make it as easy as possible for the students to absorb. The classes are very well organized, and bodies of knowledge for each sub-system are set up in a logical fashion to promote understanding. The drills and exercises are very carefully constructed to develop students' skills in the shortest possible time. Good businesspeople care about their products, and in making those products compelling and competitive. It is a common mistake for the teacher to think he or she is "the product". THE PRODUCT IS THE KNOWLEDGE, NOT THE TEACHER. The knowledge must have portability or it dies when the teacher dies. Students must be developing knowledge that they will take with them on their own martial arts journey.

Many teachers fail because they want to train "the old way", which may not be consistent with the demands of the market (the students) for how they need the material presented. Such hard training methods are usually best left to the advanced students and other instructors with a deeper understanding and commitment, and who are not prone to misinterpret that training as cruelty.

It is reasonable to expect the students to make some investment in the equipment needed to train properly. However, it is unreasonable to make the school into a sales platform where heavily marked up merchandise is flogged on them at every opportunity. This undermines the trust relationship and leads to an empty school. The goal must always be on developing the students' skills first and foremost, using every innovative tool and technique (ancient or modern) which can be integrated into the curriculum. Often times the cheapest equipment is the most effective.

cost? One chicken...

6) Keeping It Real

Good martial arts teaching is much more than just being a good doctor or a good lawyer.
Some of the benefits of the training are not immediately visible and take time to manifest in each student. Because good martial arts is a lifestyle choice, it stands to reason that all the positive aspects of this choice do not appear on Day one. I do not believe in "watering down" the arts, since I do not believe in watering down the benefits either. However, at the same time, I look with disdain on those schools which teach some psychobabble and delude the students into thinking they are gaining some real practical martial arts/self defense benefits. In short, keep it honest. Martial arts means exactly that. Students should develop martial skill and artistic expression (and I consider "art" to include lifestyle) in accordance with the school's mission and the student's unique balance. I personally can accept a wide range of "martial" and "art" combinations as long as they are not misrepresented to the students, and both teacher and student are clear on the goals and objectives of the training.

If you are a great teacher, please open a school. The world needs you.
If you are studying with a great teacher, plan to open a school yourself one day. Live the dream.

See you in class.

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