A Martial Arts Academy: Dream versus Reality


Anybody that loves martial arts at some point dreams of having their own gym. This has been the case for me ever since I was 15-years-old with many of my friends following the same path.

But where are they now? How are you doing in your business?

Unfortunately, there are few academies still in business today and there are even fewer people who have managed to transform the dream they had when they were younger into a business, living a comfortable life with free time — ‘time’ the only irrecoverable asset, a luxury for very few today.

Of course, this is not just a reality for Jiu Jitsu or other martial arts, it happens with all kinds of businesses. The reality of failing businesses is also not just confined to Brazil  (there is no excuse for our economic problems here), it’s a common occurrence worldwide. In Michael Gerber’s book, “The E-Myth” he explains that 1 million new businesses open each year in the USA, but 80% also close in that first year.  The reason why this happens in our reality is very clear and that is the reason I wanted to write this text.

I want to explain why people fall into this trap and to help you so you don’t make the same mistake.

Every small business starts with a coach, in our case we will consider that person a Jiu Jitsu teacher. This teacher was at one point a practitioner, someone who fell in love with the art, persevered and finally graduated to earn the long-awaited black belt. In most cases he wouldn’t have been taught how to teach, but let’s ignore that for now, let’s assume that he is a competent teacher.

He loves teaching and takes good care of his students. One day without much explanation he feels the desire to have his own gym which can happen for several reasons: maybe because of the admiration of the lifestyle that he imagines it will bring, because he thinks he will be able to earn good money, family pressure, or perhaps he sees it as the next logical step — there are many reasons.

So, the big day finally arrives, and he starts his small business, catering to all his new students. He teaches all the classes, opens the gym early and closes it at night.  He works many hours a day teaching all the classes, but now there are other things to take care of. He has to take care of the financial part, maintenance, cleaning, marketing, worrying about retaining students, the team of teachers — the list is endless. He also needs to hire a lawyer to write the student contracts, he needs to pay rent, water, electricity. The day has few hours and so much work. He is exhausted and money is short, but in his mind it’s still the beginning so he continues striving to attract more students. He doesn’t have the time to study marketing, or the money to hire someone so he doesn’t market the gym. The gym stops being a pleasure to run because of the sheer amount of problems to solve on a daily basis.

This routine is repeated day after day, week after week, month after month and the process starts becoming exhausting. It was never meant to be so wearing, especially working with something you love.

What I just described above is a job instead of a business, but with all the risks of being an entrepreneur. The outcome of this story is often not good — let’s explore some possible scenarios.

In the first scenario, the teacher closes his academy and goes back to teaching in a place where there are fewer problems; he can do what he knows and likes and receives a guaranteed salary.

In the second scenario he keeps going and bankrupts the business.

Finally, perhaps the most dramatic of all the scenarios — he survives and keeps going, but at the end of that path nothing has actually been built and the teacher’s energy is depleted. He is tired, his classes are perhaps technically outdated, and he can see the end approaching. Unfortunately, this can happen when there isn’t enough time for reinvention, meaning the future of this teacher will probably not be in Jiu Jitsu. This is a common story of many teachers who went through Jiu Jitsu, who are in it now, and will probably continue to happen if we don’t understand where the error is.

I also went through this. I set up my gym in São Paulo and because of lack of experience and knowledge (I was 25 years old and had been a black belt for 6 years) I was broke. I had to move to a gym where I could continue developing my work, with more time to study and learn how to do it the right way. I was lucky, I had failed early at the age of 27, in the same year that I became 2X world champion. I closed my gym with more than 200 students because I couldn’t pay the bills. I was lucky because I had the time, and because I studied, I was prepared to take advantage of the next opportunity that appeared 8 years later.

Martial arts academies require careful planning — it’s an endeavour that requires understanding the numbers, investment, financial control, management of people, and above all it requires a system that encompasses all of this. This is the remedy for the problem that has removed many great masters from building a legacy in business, becoming just memories in time.

I am proof that it is possible to have a good Jiu Jitsu business and that it is possible to fix the process in the midst of it.  I really believe that martial arts academies will change in the same way that fitness gyms did back in the 80s. We just need to educate our teachers, and find out if they have that entrepreneurial streak or if they prefer to move forward as coaches — the two functions are important and will be valued in a market that has a huge space for growth, but they are different and this needs to be understood.

A big hug

Fabio Gurgel

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