Starting a Martial Arts Studio – The Soft Start

So, you’ve been training in martial arts for many years, assisted teaching under the guidance of a mentor, and are now ready to take the big step of starting a martial arts studio for yourself.  Congratulations!  Now what?

You can’t just close your eyes, think hard, open them up and poof, you have a bustling group of dedicated students.  It takes a lot of planning, hard work, and course correcting.  It also takes time.

When starting a martial arts studio from scratch (with zero students at the start), you have two options: the soft start and the hard start.  Each method has advantages and disadvantages.  An overview of each method is detailed below.

Hard Start

Find a commercial space for lease and start filling up classes through aggressive marketing.

Advantages: You get your business up and running quickly.

Disadvantages: Requires a lot of initial start up capital.  High risk due to acquiring liability without any students.  Need a steep learning curve; not a lot of time to course correct.

Soft Start

Start a class at a YMCA, community center, school, church, or fitness center.  Grow the class over time until you are comfortable opening a commercial space.

Advantages: Lower risk due to building up a student base slowly without liability.  Time to course correct and fine-tune procedures.  Lower initial capital costs.

Disadvantages:  Takes time; typically several years before opening commercial studio.

While both methods can be effective in starting a studio, I prefer the soft start.  That is the way I started my studio and that is the way I would do it if I had to do it all over again (which I kind of am doing right now).  Which method you choose depends on your personality, current situation, and skill set.  

If you are a spur of the moment, risk taking, just do it kind of person with some discretionary income, the hard start is probably from you.  If you are a bit more conservative in taking risks, like to plan, and are patient, the soft start is your best bet.  Having a good paying job as well as a propensity for planning, the soft start made sense for me.

The following process is how I went about implementing the soft start to my studio.  There are certainly other ways of doing it so feel free to keep what you like, use it, and ignore what you don’t like.

In 2004, I moved to Seattle, WA to start a job at Boeing.  I had been employed as a martial arts instructor since 1999, working part-time throughout college.  I always knew that I would start a studio wherever I ended up working after college.  When I moved to Seattle from Michigan, I knew no one there.  There were no other studios affiliated with my martial art in the area.  I ended up meeting some people to train with but did not have the opportunity to join any established studios.

I arrived in Seattle in April 2004 and after a few weeks of getting settled, I started my studio planning.

Step 1:  Make a list of all YMCAs, fitness centers, and community centers in the area.  Being in Seattle, this was a huge list.  I then went through the list and researched whether they had a martial arts program.  Facilities without a program moved to the top of the list, those with a martial arts program that was different than mine stayed on the list, and those with a program close to what I would offer were removed.

First step in starting a martial arts studio is to make a list of all possible facilities
First step in starting a martial arts studio is to make a list of all possible facilities

Step 2:  Send a letter.  For all the venues on your list, send a letter introducing yourself, explaining your intentions, and outlining your proposed program.  Do not be specific with regards to cost, payment structure, desired class times, ages, requirements, etc.  All you want to know is if they are interested.  Include a personal resume with an emphasis on martial arts experience as well as any professional marketing materials you may have if you are a part of large organization or affiliated with another studio.  Do not put a specific name on the letter.  Address it to “Program Manager”, “Program Director”, or “Program Coordinator”.  You are likely not to get a response from this step.  If you do get a response, they are VERY interested, and you should jump on it.

Second step in starting a martial arts studio is to send a letter to the facilities
Second step in starting a martial arts studio is to send a letter to the facilities

Step 3:  Send an email.  For all the facilities you sent a letter to, send a follow up email.  In the email, introduce yourself once again, ask if they received your letter, and give a very brief overview of your proposal.  Again, do not get into specifics about payments, schedules, etc.  Do not include any attachments.  At the end of the email pose the question, “Is there a good time we can meet to discuss this further?”  Send the email to as many people at the facility as possible.  There are likely many people with different titles, and you never know who is in charge or if their position has changed.  You want to get it in front of as many eyes as possible.  If you get a reply, send the same information you did in the letter, answer any specific questions they have, and again push for a meeting.

Third step in starting a martial arts studio is sending an email
Third step in starting a martial arts studio is sending an email

Step 4:  Make the call.  For all the people you emailed in Step 3, you should follow up with a phone call a few days later.  This can be labor and time intensive, with lots of rejection so make sure you are in the right frame of mind when doing it.  When you call, briefly introduce yourself and say you are following up on an email you sent.  Try to get them to meet with you in person.  I also recommend doing a free workshop, seminar, and/or demo for them prior to the meeting.  I am not a salesman but I can, however, let my teaching do the selling for me.  If I can get a demo or seminar in front of the person in charge, I can show how confident, skilled, and qualified I am.

Fourth step is to make the call
Fourth step is to make the call

Step 5:  The meeting.  Hopefully, you were able to secure a meeting through all the hard work in the previous steps.  To give you some perspective, my initial list was about 60 venues.  I down selected to about 25.  Each of these venues I had 2-5 contacts to email and call.  From all that work I got 3 meetings.  One facility I only had a meeting, one I did a demo and had a meeting, and one I did a demo, a self-defense class, and a meeting.  I will not tell you how to do a demo, seminar, class, or workshop.  If you are reading this, you are a skilled martial arts teacher already.  I will, however, tell you how to approach the meeting.

Last step is to have a meeting
Last step is to have a meeting

Introduce yourself once again and give a brief overview of your credentials as well as your program proposal (no class times, payments, etc.).  This is essentially the same information you have mailed and emailed.  A business card is also a good touch if you have one.  Now, here is the main selling point: offer to be a volunteer instructor.  What?!  Do it for free?  Yep, you heard it correctly.

When you offer to volunteer your time, show them how much money they will make.  For instance, if you have 10 students at $100 per month, the venue makes $1,000.  I put together a chart of how much money they could make over time.  When the manager/director sees that they can make tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a few months, the program sells itself.

You may be thinking, “I don’t want to do this for free!”  There are three things to consider regarding this:

  1. It is not that much money.  A 50/50, 60/40, or other split, an hourly rate, or other structure is only going to make you a few hundred dollars a month.
  2. The goal is to build a student base.  Think about the time you are volunteering as an investment in the future.
  3. You can still earn some income from uniform, equipment, and testing fees.  I made this clear to the facility that I would handle all these aspects.

Once you get them excited using the almighty dollar, you can start talking specifics.  Be accommodating to what they have to offer with respect to days and times.  You probably won’t get your preferred times as these types of places have lots of programs that try to shuffle around, and your program is unproven to be successful which won’t warrant prime times.

Are you focused on making money in your martial arts studio?
Are you focused on making money in your martial arts studio?

I would recommend starting small.  I started with 2 classes per week for an hour, ages 8 and up.  We always want to dream big and think about kid’s classes, teen classes, adult classes, advanced classes, etc.  But remember, you have ZERO students!  Start small, fill classes, then add more.  Since you are doing it as a volunteer, the facility will be a lot more accommodating when you approach them to add a class or change a time; it is more free money for them.  Easy sell.

I started with 2 classes per week for ages 8 and older then after a few months added a 45-minute class twice a week for ages 4-7.  After a year or so, I added another 1-hour class for intermediate/advanced students.  After two years, all of these classes were full at it was time to open the part-time commercial space (more on this in a future post).

Hopefully, all your hard work pays off and one of the venues agrees to take on your program.  In my case, two of the facilities wanted my program and the third just disappeared and never got back to me.  I decided on the facility that seemed like the best fit, in the best area, with the best management.

Once you get the green light to start, get moving!
Once you get the green light to start, get moving!

You got the green light, you prepared your curriculum, and it is now time to start classes!  It is all up and up from here on out, right?  Not really.  There will be ups and downs as you figure out how to manage the school, students, and area.  I started my classes in September 2004, 5 months after moving to Seattle.  My first session had 25 students.  I was ecstatic.  I maintain that number until the following summer when for one month I had…one student.  That was my first summer in Seattle, so I didn’t know that it was the only time of the year it didn’t rain so nobody wanted to be inside.  Lesson learned.  

If you are starting from scratch in a new area, I recommend giving it a good calendar year to understand student’s tendencies and behaviors.  Coming from Michigan, the people on the West Coast are also much different.  It took me some time to figure out the best way to teach them as well.

As you fine tune your procedures and skills, your studio will grow.  An advantage of being at a facility like a YMCA or Community Center is they will advertise for you.  There will also be a lot of foot traffic seeing you in action.  Try and do demos and have info booths at any events they host.

While you continue to grow your classes, work on your business plan (topic for another post) and start thinking about the next step which is the part-time commercial studio.  As a reference, I started my YMCA classes in September 2004 and grew it to a consistent 50+ students by the Spring of 2006.  I opened my part-time commercial studio in December of 2006.

Stay tuned for my next post when I go over the ins and outs of a business plan for martial arts studios.

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