How to Start, Grow, and Maintain a Martial Arts Studio – The Full-Time Commercial Studio

Congratulations!  You have been running a commercial studio part-time and have been consistently growing to the point that you are considering going full-time.  That in and of itself is an incredible achievement.  Most businesses fail within the first few years.  In addition, the majority of martial arts studios have less than 50 students.  So, if you are at this point, you are doing something right!

Before storming into your bosses’ office and declaring you quit, you need to make sure you are making the right decision.  It is safe to assume that at this point you have been teaching and running a studio for many years.  Are you enjoying it?  Do you crave more?  

When I told my boss, I was quitting to pursue being a full-time martial arts studio owner he did everything he could do to keep me.  I declined his multiple offers.  What it came down to was this: when I was working at my job, all I thought about was martial arts but when I was doing martial arts, I never thought about my job. If this rings true, you’re ready.

I didn’t hate my job, but I also didn’t enjoy it.  I enjoyed martial arts.  A lot.  It was a pretty simple decision once I reached the milestones I set out for myself.

If you recall from previous posts, you did some analysis in your business plan to help you determine when to make the leap to full-time.  Before making the decision to go full-time, be sure to update this analysis.  It has likely been a few years and you undoubtedly have learned a lot since then.  As the old carpenter saying goes, “measure twice, cut once.”

Be sure you are making the decision based on income and not number of students.  Use your active student count to help gauge how well your overall growth and retention are doing.  Number of students and monthly income are obviously related, but it is not a direct correlation.  So, whatever you do, don’t say “I only need 10 more students and I am going full time.”  Base the decision on income.

How much income do you need prior to making the jump?  That is entirely up to you.  Remember to account for benefits you may be losing such as health insurance, pensions, and 401K company match.  The company I worked for gave a 7% company match to my 401K!

Your family situation will also factor into your decision.  Are you married?  Have kids?  Does your spouse work?  Do you have student or other forms of debt?  I can’t tell you if it is right for you go full-time.  That is up to you.  You need to determine the amount of risk you are comfortable with.  At some point though, you must stop finding reasons why not to do it and just do it.

For me, the income I generated at the studio during my first full-time year was about half of what I was earning at my job after all the benefits were factored in.  I was in my early 20s, not married, no kids, and no serious debt.  I could afford to take a lot of risk.  

Once I reached my monthly income goal, I didn’t quit right away.  I waited a few months to make sure this growth was consistent and not an anomaly.  From the start, there were minor ups and downs in revenue, but the overall trend consistently moved up.  It was also following the projections I made in my business plan.  These two things gave me tremendous confidence that I was making the correct decision.  I was so confident, that my boss offered me a 6 month leave of absence where I would keep my benefits and could come back after 6 months if it didn’t work out.  I declined this offer.  Sound crazy?  I didn’t want a safety net.  I didn’t want to subconsciously think that it was ok to fail.  I had to keep my eye on the prize because if I failed, it was game over.

Would I encourage others to do that?  No.  I cannot tell anyone to take that big of a risk.  I tell you this only to share with you just how confident I was in myself.  You need to have that level of confidence in yourself too.

Another important thing to do prior to going full-time is to map out your living expenses and see if you can make any cuts to help you in the first few years.  For instance, I moved from a downtown Seattle apartment to an apartment 2 blocks from my studio.  The rent was about half (and a nicer, bigger apartment) and I could walk every day.  Take a look and see if there are things you can live without temporarily or completely.

Once you go full-time, you are now just that, full-time.  If you think quitting your day job means you can sleep in until noon and just teach 3-4 hours in the evening, you are sorely mistaken.  You will need to work 8-10 hours a day, just like a normal job.  The upside, though, is that you are in charge of your time.  No one is telling you what to do.  

So, what do you do with the other 4-5 hours in the day?  The primary tasks should be focused on growth.  Growing your student count, revenue, and profits.  You grow your student count through marketing and retention.  You grow your revenue through sales and efficient systems.  You grow your profits through understanding statistics.  These topics will be the focus of a future post in this series.

You should also spend this time doing research and networking with other studio owners.  Read books and magazines about the industry.  Learn what other people are doing.  Reach out to people who you feel could be a mentor or coach.

The last big thing you should be doing in your non-class time is customer service.  Spend time each day calling or emailing students or parents.  Be a proactive communicator.  Try to contact people before they have an issue.  Is a student starting to lose interest?  Contact them before they contact you.  Did a student who usually struggles do a great job recently?  Contact them and tell them you noticed.  Is a student consistently late or has a sporadic training schedule?  Did a student miss an entire week or more without notifying you?  Contact them!  Most every student who quits can be kept if proper communication is established.

There are also, of course, other things such as cleaning, maintenance, or other mundane tasks that must be done.  These things must also be done but remember that your primary focus must be the overall growth of your studio.

If you fill your off the mat hours with productive work in these areas, you will see exponential growth.  My first full time year I made about half the salary I had at my day job.  The second year I made about the same as my salary was when I left.  By my fourth year, I was making more than double what I was making at my day job.

As you grow your new full-time studio, you will eventually get to a point where you cannot do it all by yourself.  You will need to hire a staff.  Who do you hire?  An assistant instructor?  An office manager?  Full-time?  Part-time?

I will go over this topic in my next post when I go over efficient systems and procedures.  You may find out, like I did, that you can still have a successful school without having employees, as long as you have quality, efficient systems in place.

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