Joined: 23 Feb 2008
Location: Houston, TX
Styles: Shindokan Saitou-ryu [Shuri-te/Okinawa-te based]
|Posted: Wed Sep 21, 2016 1:30 pm Post subject: Running a Dojo is About More Than Martial Arts Knowledge
|There were two issues that I faced when I started my Kyuodan dojo back in 1977. My dojo was located at the corners of Sherman Way and White Oak in Van Nuys, California, just north of Hollywood, within the San Fernando Valley. Both of these issues were, and still are, monumentally important to the continued viability that seemed to constantly ebb on the edge of mortality and immortality; the war torn battle of juggling one responsibility after another, wondering if it'll all just topple over, to never be seen again.
These two hovering vultures can rob one of much needed, restful sleep; worrying about a multitude of delicate decisions that might've been made in haste or made in one last desperate lunge for that proverbial brass ring.
- Business knowledge
- Money management
It's one thing to be a black belt, but it's another thing to have secured the knowledge about how one should manage and operate a business. And not just a business, but a successful business. Understand this: I'm a big proponent that a dojo is, now and forever, a business. Why? Unless you've no overhead of any type, than you're not managing and operating a business. A business, like a dojo, needs that constant care. It can't take care of itself, can't clean up after itself, can't pay its own bills, can't negotiate for itself, can't bank for itself, can't buy supplies for itself, can't market for itself, and it can't do the most simplest task for itself. It's dependant!
In 1977, I was a fledging new sandan. I had been assisting my sensei, as an assistant instructor (one of many), ever since I was a thirteen year old junior black belt in 1970.
When I opened for business in July of 1977, I figured that I had acquired enough business knowledge, during those 7 years, to flawlessly manage and operate the Kyuodan dojo. I figured dead wrong! Observing and doing are two different things altogether. Having hands-on experience in the daily operations, outside of performing assisting teaching duties, would've had a prodigious effect on me.
Being a cogent black belt isn't the same thing as being a cohesive business owner; nor is it a guarantee. Yes, sensei taught me how to teach effectively, as did soke, but I had little, or no clue at all how to be both that solid black belt and that solvent business owner. I was that ingenuous sandan on the floor, sure of himself, though quite naive. But off the floor, I only possessed a basic idea of the business world, that I'd not fully garnered from sensei and soke! In hindsight, that business world was a vast, horrific, dark and desperately somber entity, and it overshadowed me unmercifully.
However, truth being told, the possession of a black belt isn't pertinent to the business world. Being a sandan, while important to teaching the martial arts, doesn't hold the same meaning in the business world. No, my friend, I learned quickly that owning and operating a dojo, a.k.a. a small business, takes more than knowing how to teach kihon, kata and kumite.
My student body numbers were scarce my first six months, so much so that I was living in my dojo, sleeping on one of the couches in my office. When I say scarce, I'm talking about only having twenty-five students at the end of those first six months. I was reaching DEFCON 1, in a business sense, and I wasn't sure what my next move should be in order to remain in business. I kept the smile on, as to not worry my tiny band of students.
Teaching wasn't the problem. That's never been the problem. I'm gifted and blessed in that area. I can teach! No, the problem, as I slowly began to learn through those bleak opening months, was me! My perceived notions about business were being quickly dashed.
My solution seemed simple enough. I needed to expediently learn business 101. I enrolled at Los Angeles Valley College, a stone's throw away from the front door of my Kyuodan dojo. College classes in the day, teaching Shindokan at night. I put in a major academic load of 12 units, with a major of business administration.
College is fine. One can learn a plethora of subjects of interest. However, there's nothing like attending the college of trials and tribulations, a.k.a. the school of hard knocks. That'll put gristle on your business meat quite fast, and it'll take no prisoners.
I learnt a valuable lesson about needs and wants. In both business and in life, one has needs and wants in order to exist fruitfully. However, these are separate desires that must be kept separate, respected and understood. The lines between the two should never be crossed.
I need to pay rent! I need to pay utilities! I need to pay for supplies! Rest and relaxation is a necessary part of balancing the sane with the insanity of the business world. However, the recharging of one's batteries should never cause one to shrug off their responsibilities as a business owner. Pay your bills, all of your bills and when they're due! Then, and only then, can you afford that richly deserved vacation.
Anything that doesn't sustain the dojo's existence is a want. One could overflow a lake with tangible wants. That's part of life. Nonetheless, a business owner needs to learn how to balance their spreadsheet so as to avoid potential potholes, and placing wants over needs isn't anything short of a huge sinkhole.
Business knowledge wasn't my forte, but I knew I was going to learn it, even if it literally killed me to do so. Every idea requires a plan, or at least a list to follow. This might include:
With this general battle plan, I've one small problem: how am I going to pay for all of this?
- Business plan
- Managing people
- Sales and marketing
- Standard operating procedures (SOP)
- What else?
Back in 1977, martial arts schools weren't a ubiquitous feature of the American landscape, unlike they are in today's America.
Having enough cash to cover the bills is a must for any business, but it is also a must for every individual. Whether it is your business or your life, one will likely emerge as a capital drain that puts pressure on the other. In order to head off this problem, small business owners must either be heavily capitalized or be able to pick up extra income to shore up cash reserves when needed. This is why many small businesses start out with the founders working a job and building a business simultaneously. While this split focus can make it difficult to grow a business, running out of cash makes growing a business impossible.
I didn't have any other employment, nor did I want any other employment, other than the Kyuodan dojo! The Kyuodan dojo was my realized dream, and I wasn't going to let it become my realized nightmare, not if I could prevent it.
Many times, dojo owners earn no reportable income because their cash reserves are tied up with operational costs. But that's a good thing.
Dojo taken care of? Check! Family taken care of? Check! Student body taken care of? Check! Then the owner, as well as the chief instructor, which normally are the same person, are taken care of, too.
Against the pleas of my family, friends and students, at the end of my first year of college, I terminated my continuing education. Even though the dojo was desperate for more cash reserves, I plugged through that first year with my integrity and passion still intact. Despite the naysayers, I was still in the black, and my student body was slowly creeping upwards.
After saying my farewells to college life, I put my plan in motion to ever increasing my depleting cash revenue. I went full-time, and that meant that the Kyuodan dojo would be open from 10am to 10pm, Monday through Friday and 10am – 5pm on Saturday. My first year, I only taught during the evening hours when the majority of potential students were at home. Schools let out at 3pm, and most business ended their daily operations at 5pm. My Kyuodan dojo had been birthed on that notion, missing out on an untapped well of opportunities.
That was about to change!
I literally blanketed the entire San Fernando Valley in colorful flyers with the help of family, students, and to my surprise, the Hombu's chipped in to help as well. We covered vehicle windshields, telephone poles and the occasional business bulletin board.
Tournament participation remained quite lucrative to me in more ways than one. Not only did I compete and win my share of events, I also gave demonstrations. This was the bread and butter for my soke promoting Shindokan in the early years of the Hombu. Any time a tournament promoter would allow a demonstration, per a rotating schedule that was shared with many other styles of the martial arts in the San Fernando Valley, I gave my all.
Those who were permitted to conduct a demonstration were also allowed, by the tournament promoter, to have a sign-up table in the foyer of the lobby. This created an opportunity to speak with the potential student at the dojo. I gave out free lessons like candy because I knew that once a potential student had been on the floor with me, I'd earn them as my student.
As the cash reserves were increasing, I had to remain true to the lessons of the needs and the wants. Addressing one's business responsibilities, first and foremost, over any petty want, without any ambiguity and/or reservations, is critically important. I'm quite proud that I've never ever had a late payment notice ever discovered inside of my mail box. The lessons, as hard as they were, were rewarding and worth it.
Executing the Plan
With a better understanding of business and how to manage the money-side of the operation, here is how I went about accomplishing the plan mentioned above:
Bookkeeping: I had to hire a bookkeeper, but I couldn't budget it into my annual budget. Thankfully, and to the Hombu's credit, I had a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), paid for by the Hombu.
Business plan: This is one of the most important documents a business should have because it frames the foundation either on muddy ground or on solid ground. I had to assess my skills and expertise outside of the martial arts. If I'm not qualified or willing to handle all that's going to be required, and which aspects will necessitate either more learning on my part or calling in the cavalry for help, then I've no business being in business, at all.
Managing people: I believe that this skill set requires one to be a great listener over being an affable speaker. Acquire delegation skills as well, unless you want to do it all Most business owners want to do it all because they're afraid! For me, managing people has always been an easy thing to learn and to apply. It's not personal, it's business. That's a hard pill to swallow, depending on which side of the conversation you're on.
Sales and marketing: I had to learn about my competitors: the other martial arts schools, which are slowly becoming sprinkled like a fine dust throughout the Valley. What are they offering? What are their prices?
Standard operating procedures (SOP): What are my processes for handling tasks that are recurring? For example, filling out orders for uniforms, belts, patches, supplies, etc. Do I understand the basic principles and practices of controlling inventory? What's my refund policy? Who do I call when I need something repaired? The SOP is the playbook for situations that might arise from time to time, or quite often.
What else?: Problems occur, and I need to solve them. Owning and operating a business is akin to being a firefighter. You have to fight one fire at a time. Trust me, each and every situation is a fire, and it needs to be identified and addressed in a timely manner. My biggest fire was, and still is, customer service. If not handled properly, it can become a raging fire, burning out of control, consuming everything in its path. My dojo wasn't an exception, and if I didn't properly conduct my affairs, then my dojo will eventually deserve to be closed.
These six areas of business knowledge certainly have a lot to do with money management, as well. No money, no business.
I have fond memories of my first year as the owner and chief instructor of the Kyuodan dojo. I was quickly concerned with many issues that weren't related to karate-do, but were tied to the management and operation of the dojo itself.
As you grow your business knowledge and your understanding of money management, you will increase the hopes that your own dojo can survive the haunting truth will define your own business sensibility: the final bottom line on your dojo's profit and loss statement.
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