Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dojo vs Dojo part 2 - The Mom & Pop

Analysis of the second of the two main types of karate school

Yesterday, I wrote about the karate school where my family's been training for the last several months. We like a lot of things about the school - the large, well-equipped, convenient facility, plus the nice, friendly people who run it. But they're driving us away with a 3-year contract and a generally high cost to train that's simply outside our budget. But the whole question of what to do next and where to train got me thinking about the business of operating a martial arts school. I concluded that there are two types - the Supercenter model and what I'll call the Mom & Pop model. My current school is a Supercenter. Now I mostly seem to be looking at Mom & Pop schools, and I'll cover those today.

The Mom & Pop dojo

The other end of the spectrum from the "Supercenter" dojo is the smaller, more traditional school. There's no reason that a school couldn't combine small size with the glitz and glam of the Supercenter's marketing model, but in my experience that doesn't seem to happen. The marketing fireworks seem to come later, when the school's proprietor has made a decision to not only turn their school into a steady source of income, but to turn their school into a business that can both grow over time and make them actually wealthy. In my experience, the Mom & Pop school doesn't display a lot of interest in the business aspects of the school. Sometimes business is clearly just a means to an end - the owner of the school needs to make enough money to pay for equipment and to pay the lease on the facility, but any money they make beyond that isn't a priority. In fact, it seems to me that often the business part of running the school is an annoyance and an inconvenience that the owner would completely avoid if they could.

They want to train - that's their focus. They're excited about the martial arts, excited to run their school, and they're looking forward to sharing their knowledge with, and learning from, their students. Contracts, exchanging money, paying the rent, insurance, and all of that other stuff is at best a distraction for them, and at worst makes them feel as if they're dirtying the purity and traditions of their art. These are the folks who really put the artistry in the Martial Arts - they seem to see themselves as part of a long chain of people going back many years (sometimes centuries) to the beginnings of their style of hand-to-hand combat. It's a spiritual journey for them, one they'd prefer not to sully with business considerations.

There's a trade-off, though. In the movies, Mr. Miyagi can have a gorgeous Japanese garden with a koi pond and nice landscaping on just a handyman's salary. In the real world, if you want to operate a Martial Arts school, you need to pay for the facility, the utilities, the insurance, taxes, fees in various governing bodies and organizations, and for equipment like mats, body shields, hand targets, and so forth. To grow into a "supercenter" costs even more, since they tend to have a paid, professional training staff and people "working the front desk" throughout the day.

So the Martial Arts traditionalist, the one with so much enthusiasm and excitement for their discipline and a spiritual connection to all of the masters and teachers who have come before them, has to make some decisions about the extent to which business will be allowed to factor into their school's operation. For many, their preference will be to treat the commercial aspects of the business as a necessary evil, doing as much as they minimally have to and then washing the filth from their hands and getting back to training. They may even contract with an outside service to manage things like dues and bookkeeping so they can focus on their art.

There's a benefit to this approach. While the facility may not be as luxurious as at a "supercenter," the Mom & Pop dojo gets the minimum equipment that they need to operate and then stops. These approach costs less, which lets them keep dues down. Also, the instructor may not be operating the school as a full-time job, so they're not trying to draw a salary from the school's operation that pays for their own personal bills. It's a labor of love, and that attitude will tend to rub off on the students.

An advantage of the spiritualist, "the art is more important than the business" approach is that students are often inclined to feel this way as well. They're more likely to volunteer to help with things like the upkeep of the school, saving on expenses for repair, improvements and cleaning. As some students become senior members of the school's community, the owner may be able to expand their class schedule by drawing on the knowledge and experience of those senior students and having them teach classes on the owner's behalf. Unlike a paid, professional staff, this instruction both costs the owner nothing AND benefits everyone. The senior student learns and perfects their art by teaching others, which has long been recognized as an optimal way to gain mastery and expertise. The junior students benefit through an expanded, more convenient class schedule. And still, costs are kept low.

The Mom & Pop school offers other advantages to the Martial Artist as well. They tend to have smaller class sizes, for more personalized instruction. One big complaint I've had about my current school is the number of mid-level students I've seen repeatedly making rookie mistakes and not being corrected. I suspect this is a function of class-size - the instructor just can't stop and work with one student when there are a dozen others who need attention, too. In a Mom & Pop dojo, the master instructor has more opportunity to impart their expertise directly to even novice students.

On the other hand, I have yet to find a Mom & Pop dojo that perfectly fits my schedule. This is a natural by-product of having fewer instructors - it's hard for a single teacher to run 4-5 classes in a single day, covering all of the different student levels and training styles (such as kata, sparring, weapons, cardio-fitness, and so on).

As I noted at the end of Monday's article, there's one place where the analogy between Martial Arts schools and retailers breaks down. In retail, the "supercenter" tends to be the "low-cost leader," using volume to drive down costs. In the Martial Arts, the "supercenters" rely on high volume, but it doesn't seem to translate to low costs. Instead, it's the Mom & Pop operations that seem to be the least expensive and to eschew long-term contracts that might tend to drive up the overall cost of the training (by charging you for services you didn't end up wanting or needing).

I do suspect, however, that there could be (or will be) a middle-ground. I believe that a traditionalist, spiritualist karate school probably could borrow some savvy practices from the business world (and thus from the supercenter dojos) without necessarily violating their moral sense of what's appropriate for their school. I'm don't think I've seen this in practice, but if somebody, somewhere isn't doing it, I'd be shocked. For instance, there are lots of ways to build a brand without packaging and productizing your art. Just having a slogan can build brand awareness in potential students, even if the slogan reflects the traditionalist nature of the dojo. For instance, a Korean Tan Soo Do school's slogan might read "A Thousand-Year Tradition of Korean Martial Arts." That's a pretty impressive (and, to my understanding, not inaccurate) claim that might entice potential students who are interested in a style both for exercise as well as for its ties to ancient history, yet it still emphasizes that this is a school rooted and grounded in tradition that's going to take their discipline very seriously and cut no corners.

Likewise, while a traditionalist instructor might (understandably) balk at using pizza parties and buddy training to turn their youthful students into junior recruiters, there's nothing unseemly in reminding their students (both young and old) that if they like the training at the school and would like to help the school to grow, they can and should recommend the dojo to their friends. Moreover, assuming that the addition of more students would be a long-term benefit to the school (allowing it to afford a nicer facility, better equipment, a more flexible schedule, etc.), then the owner might be well-served by offering incentives because it will ultimately benefit their whole community. Even more, I'm baffled at the number of martial arts schools that either don't have a website or have a really crummy one. It's one of the cheapest, easiest ways to advertise, yet it's often either under-utilized or poorly implemented.

I suspect that this middle-ground is likely going to become more prevalent in the future as more people think about ways to match their desire to teach Martial Arts with tried-and-true business practices that have been successful at other business enterprises. The challenge for prospective students will be to identify whether a school meets all of their needs, from the instructional philosophy to the physical operation to the total cost of training. The challenge for the owners will be to match their business and financial capabilities and preferences against the realities of their expenses and the demands of the marketplace. I also wouldn't be surprised if there are or soon will be consulting services available to dojo operators that help with the business and marketing (such as bookkeeping, dues tracking, website content creation, and other key functions), thus freeing the instructor up to focus on their school.

Meanwhile, my family's got some options and we're making sure to explore a variety of training venues before we make a final selection by the end of July.

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