An elderly Okinawan karate master made a surprise visit to my karate dojo many years ago when I was first building my school.
At the time, I only had 3 students that showed up for class that day and was embarrassed that he came all the way to see me teach such a small class. (I only had a total of 7 students who were enrolled with me at the time.) He, sensing my embarrassment, came up to me after my students had left and said something I’ll never forget…
“Many students, small mind. Few students, big mind.”
He then explained, that when you grow slowly, focusing on quality vs. quantity you create a strong dojo with those students. Those few students, when nurtured, will develop the mental fortitude to stick it out for the long term. He was right. Cultivating those few students made our karate dojo grow in a very positive way one student and referral at a time.
If you are just starting out on your journey as a karate school owner and instructor, you have two routes you can take. 1. You can get a business loan and invest in a gorgeous martial arts studio, advertising and networking organizations. Or, 2. You can start small on a tight budget with just a few students one at a time as you grow your program.
Obviously, I chose the latter. On thinking back on my humble beginnings, I believe it was the best way to start because it gave me the flexibility to master my way of teaching and not worry so much about the financial aspect of business. It’s stressful enough to begin teaching on your own for the first time, let alone to have massive financial overhead that you have to meet just to stay in business. Today, seven years later, we average 40-50 active students and have never had to close our doors due to lack of funding.
If you are considering growing your own karate dojo, you are welcome to model the system I used to grow the program. Here was my process…
1. Locate a Free or Inexpensive Place to Hold Martial Arts Classes
When I started out in 2010, I found a local sports club that had indoor basketball courts and classrooms. They happened to have one classroom that was already completely covered in puzzle mats that they used for a preschool program they offered. The owners worked out a deal with me where I paid them a percentage of each student I had enrolled. I believe they received 40% of an agreed upon tuition rate that I charged. Each month I gave them a roster of students that were active and a check totaling the percentage I owed the Sports Club owners. It was a win/win situation for me to begin growing my karate program and for the Sports Club to receive some income to help pay some of their costs.
Other ideas for inexpensive locations are, school gyms, churches, community centers, warehouses or even your own garage. Of course, if you live in a warm climate, you may be able to meet at a local park. You also might seek out sports clubs or yoga schools to see if they would be willing to share their space on times in which they aren’t in use and work out a payment plan that works with your budget.
2. Set an Opening Date at Least a Month in Advance for Your Karate Dojo
When I started at the sports club, I worked with the owners to have a pre-registration and grand opening event. We set it up a month in advance. It game me time to plan everything out and market the business. I put together a registration packet containing a health waiver (required!), photography approval form (permitting me to use student photos & videos to promote the business) and emergency contact information form.
I also put together a flier that could be shared with the school system. I met with the main school district office and asked if their schools could have my fliers available for pick up at each main office as well as sending them home as “backpack stuffers.” They agreed and quickly I had the one page fliers created and printed on bright colored paper at the local copy shop. In my flier, I made it look like a coupon and invitation. I invited potential students to come out for our grand opening event, tour the facility, meet the instructor and participate in a free class. Then at the event, any students who signed up and pre-paid for a month of classes would receive a free uniform. The idea was all classes would start at the beginning of the month after the grand opening event. It worked! I instantly had 7 students sign up and several more as I approached the first class. The first month, I took lots of photos of the new students working out and used them to create a press release for our opening. I sent the press release to local newspapers, posted an ad on social media, on our Web site and sent the information to the local chamber of commerce. I also encouraged my new students to invite their friends. I created an incentive program to encourage them. If they got one of their friends to sign up they received a Karate T-shirt. If they got more than one student to sign up, they received a karate gift certificate that they could use for gear, uniforms, weapons or even their karate tuition.
3. Create a Karate Dojo success plan
Failing to plan is planning to fail. One thing I did really well in the beginning was create a welcoming environment for my students and their families. I did this by plan. I made it a point to communicate often with parents and students. I created a monthly newsletter that alerted parents to what was going on, announced birthdays for students and invited them to special events like rank promotions where we all go out and share a meal at a local restaurant. I also, made it a point to save at least 10-20% of every bit of income that came in to purchase equipment for the karate dojo, run paid advertisements and to save for a more permanent location. By the end of my fourth year at the Sports Club, I had saved enough to cover three month’s lease towards a brand new karate dojo space in an excellent location! We moved into our new space in August of 2014.
I also created a success plan for my students. This plan includes printed out rank curriculum, a Web site containing an online database of video tutorials (accessible by rank and passwords) and my use of daily lesson plans that I use for each class. I strive to improve my methods of teaching every day and have learned a lot over the years.
If you are an instructor and have other tips that have helped you to get started and grow a successful karate dojo, feel free to share some of your tips in the comments below.
Photo Credit: Palermo Finestra sul Mondo Flickr via Compfight cc