How to get rich fast teaching martial arts

I often get asked the question of how to get rich fast teaching martial arts and this is as good a time as any to answer it. But first, some background information on what triggered this post:

Jason asked me a question on something I posted on my Facebook Page the other day. It was in response to something Bobbe Edmonds posted on his own page. So first of, here’s what Bobbe said:

There’s a little meme going around about the supposed “big bucks” in teaching martial arts for money. That selling aspects on DVD, or in seminars is somehow “selling out”, and betraying your teachers. There’s a rumor that somewhere, someone is raking in boatloads of cash from students, and living the high life.

Let me bring the room to order and state for the record: People who teach martial arts solely as a means of income are usually the POOREST people on Earth. There are a few exceptions, of course, but the common example is a pauper in pajamas. The ones who make it with a commercial school are predominately day care centers that offer Aerobic-Kickboxing and half a dozen other “peripheral” services just to keep the doors open and the lights on. (nothing wrong with that, by the way.) Most of us, myself included, must hold down actual full-time jobs and juggle out free time with commitments to our students. We have learned that precarious tightrope walk between family, work, and training. We have discovered how misguided our priorities were, and often learned how to correct them the hard way. We have done a hell of a lot more, laid a hell of a lot of groundwork and suffered a hell of a lot of grief for no other reason than to cross hands with another human being who is seeking the same knowledge we once sought.

So, a little free advice for all of you who are the next generation of teachers, the up-and-coming with your eyes on being an instructor of the arts: There is no money to be made in martial arts. None. The top-paid MMA fighter in the world today makes HALF of what I do per year as a computer geek…on his best day, and my worst. The best most of us can do is make some gas money or spare change for this art that we’ve dedicated our lives to learning.

We do this because we love it, period. Any teacher of any subject worth their salt will tell you the same.

Also – there’s nothing wrong with charging for your time and effort. Teaching for free doesn’t make you “noble” in any sense of the word. That’s nothing more than an illusion used to cloud your mind from the sacrifices you must make when you assume the role of a leader. Leadership means accepting responsibility.

If you feel led to teach in the bottom of your heart and the very limits of your soul,
If you love leading people to knowledge, and being a part of their growth,
If you can suffer the backstabs and betrayals of students who lied to your face while plotting your downfall, (and it WILL happen, sooner or later) and retain your dignity and integrity through it all, and STILL want to get up each day and give everything you have to your class,
If you have your student’s best interest at heart, and strive to be the best instructor you can every day,
If you survive your first ten years as an instructor, and you still love your art as much as you did your first year as a beginner…

Congratulations. You’re a teacher, no matter what anyone says.

Here’s what Jason asked me:

Going off the earlier wall post you had concerning how martial arts instructors should not expect to get rich, what is your opinion on organizations like NAPMA? The ones who say that if you don’t have 20-30 students per class, then you are not making enough money / effort to make money. In the book, Running the martial arts school of your dreams, they seem to emphasize quantity over quality teaching. Just curious what your stance is on that sort of thing (which may turn into a long blog post).

 

The surface question of what I think about NAMPA is easy to answer:

Nothing. I hardly know them.

I took a quick look at their site and it doesn’t seem any different from the dozens of other sites I’ve seen that offer “services” to martial artists so they can make more money with their school. It sure looks like they have their internet marketing down, you have to give them that. I have no idea about their prices (though I can’t imagine them being dirt cheap…) or what they offer as far as content goes. All I can go on is what Jason said, so I’ll tackle that first:

If you run a commercial school and you don’t have 20-30 students per class, I don’t know if your trying hard enough or not but I do know you probably won’t make a lot of money.

Running a commercial school, you usually have some pretty substantial recurring costs. The main one being renting the place where you teach. This can be  several thousand dollars a month, or more. That’s a lot of money to cover before you even start making a profit, let alone live comfortably from running your school.

The other thing this implies is that you’re the only one you have to pay for teaching classes. If so, you’ll be teaching all day, every day. Which is fine but what happens if you’re sick or injured? Then you don’t have an income.  Or if you want to take a break by going on holiday? Or take the weekend off? That’s just not gonna happen if you’re the only one teaching. Which means you need help. Help you either pay (the right thing to do) or don’t pay (sometimes the right thing to do).

If you pay the other teachers (or have a partner running the school with you) your costs go up. Which means you need even more students to make enough money to live nicely. So I guess those 20-30 students each class isn’t far from the truth in most cases. And I haven’t even figured in all the other recurring costs (like insurance, promotional material, utilities, etc. BTW, you also have to pay taxes on that income…) so you do the math.

 

This brings us to the quality vs. quantity dilemma.

If you run a commercial school, I don’t think you have a choice: you need to get as many people in there as you can. The more, the better. For the reasons stated above, I don’t think you have much choice. The part many people seem to forget about a commercial school is that it is a business. That means it is a company and companies only survive by growing, like it or not. As a result, you constantly have to be on the look out to generate more business or find new ways of getting more money out of existing students.

For the record: there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Just like there’s nothing wrong with opening any other business like for instance a grocery store or a bakery. If you choose to teach commercially (meaning, for a living) then you have to treat it like any other job: in a professional manner. If you start off with the ‘If you build it, they will come” mindset, get your Chapter 11 papers ready from day one…

I wish it weren’t true but I’ve seen loads and loads of examples of good martial artists opening a school and failing miserably. Not because of the quality of their classes but because they weren’t good entrepreneurs. Case in point:

A guy I know opened a huge gym in a big city a few years ago. It’s gigantic. It’s also located in the right part of the city when you look at the demographics and potential client base. Then he went and fixed it up so it’s clean and nice to train in. He designed a good website, did some effective marketing and was off to a good start. Then 2008 and the financial crisis started. He anticipated trouble by increasing his efforts to get in more members (and generate more income), which worked to a certain degree. A year later, the financial crisis started hammering European banks and he had trouble getting a new loan. Things started going bad. But what eventually did him in was what I noticed the very first time I saw the building: it was a wide open space and the building was poorly insulated. Add a couple of exceptionally cold winters to electricity and gas prices doubling in a three years and you get the picture: he’s almost bankrupt now.

Here’s the thing: me and pretty much everybody else I know who saw the building mentioned that heating would be expensive. He replied that they had budgeted for it and it wasn’t a problem. If need be, they’d get an additional loan to insulate the whole building if they weren’t profitable enough yet. Which wouldn’t be an issue because “he knew his banker real well and the guy had assured him there wouldn’t be a problem for future loans.” Turns out he totally miscalculated how the financial crisis would force banks to drop clients and is now about to lose his dream.

This miscalculation is a beginner’s error. Any entrepreneur will tell you that. You don’t take a banker’s word for anything. You make up a contract and get it singed. And even then…

 

The point of this sad story: it wasn’t the quality of his teaching that killed the school. It was his business decisions. Those decisions range from minor details to hugely important ones. All of them affect the workings of the school. Get them right and you have a shot at prospering. Get them wrong and you go bankrupt.

The harsh reality of the matter is this that there are only a handful of ways to make a business grow:

  • You get more market share because the market grows. The pie gets bigger so you can get a bigger slice out of it.
  • You take clients away from your competition. Basically, you start nibbling at another person’s pie.

If the market shrinks (like it does in a recession) or if the competition takes away your students, then you start losing money. Lose money for long enough and you go out of business.

If you’re not ready to accept these facts, then you probably shouldn’t open a commercial martial arts school.

If you think I’m exaggerating, go talk to the CEO of any company and ask him if he thinks I’m full of it.

Here’s something I think is a fact, speaking from personal experience: with rare exceptions, the best martial artists I’ve seen were always poor businessmen. They were amazing teachers but as far as running a business, they either couldn’t or wouldn’t do it as needed.

There’s nothing wrong with that either. I’m not a great businessman myself and I can live with that. Not everybody is the next Bill Gates, nor do you need to be, so some perspective is in order. But if you open a commercial venture, you need a minimum of business sense, training or experience (preferably all of these) to succeed. And that’s where a lot of well intentioned martial artists run into trouble: they make good teaching decisions where they should make good business decisions.  I should know because I made plenty of those myself.

Back to the question of quality vs. quantity…

 

In my opinion, it doesn’t have to be either or. You don’t always have to sacrifice quality in an effort to improve quantity. Sometimes you don’t have a choice but other times, you most certainly do. Once again, compare a martial arts school to any other business:

  • You can sell high price, high quality products and services. There’s a market for that, just look at any luxury brand. The margins are great but the market is small.
  • You can sell low price, low quality products and services. Same thing, people with lower budgets will buy it. Not because they think it’s great but because that’s all they can afford. Lots of potential clients here but low margins.
  • You can sell “best bang for buck” products and services. These also have buyers waiting for them, plenty to make a living off.
  • You can sell cheap crap at premium prices or lie to customers and defraud them out of money. There’s a lot of that in every industry. It works to get rich fast but it also has some serious drawbacks. Like ending up in jail and stuff like that…

Before you start trying to get rich teaching martial arts, before you open your commercial school, you need to decide which of these business models you’ll employ. That will invariably decide the quality vs. quantity debate for you. E.g: You can’t sell dirt cheap services and expect to survive with only a handful of clients. Alternatively, it’ll also be hard to right of the bat find tons of clients for luxury services. So there’s good and bad in all options here. To a degree, you can mix them but not always.

Here’s how I do it:

  • I’m a Personal Trainer. I teach one-on-one classes that are tailor-made to each client, getting my full attention each session. This is a luxury service and is expensive. This is the highest quality service I can offer.
  • I sell books and videos. I don’t control the price for most of them but they are affordable enough to be middle-of-the-road prices. Anybody can get them, whenever they want. This is still high quality because I spend a long time on improving each product. It’s not the same as personal training though.
  • I teach public classes and seminars. These are cheap because I rent a room in a rec center and don’t need a lot of students to make rent. But I can only spend so much time on a student in each class. So they pay less but also get much less personal attention than my private clients, which makes it a cheap service.
  • I run my blog for free. You get all this from me for free, there’s no charge. It’s not costless though. The time I spend on my blog is time I don’t earn anything with my other services or creating new products. Which is why I work with sponsoring and advertising. For you, the reader, it doesn’t get cheaper and easier than this. The downside is that you usually get very little personal attention from me. I try to respond to comments and answer mails but once again, that doesn’t pay the bills so I have to limit the time I spend on that in favor of the other services and products that do generate an income for me.

As you can see, I offer something in all segments. This allows me to teach the way I want to, when and where I want to. I view each of these as different services because, well, they are different. So I don’t try to teach a public class like I teach a private class. That just doesn’t work, it can’t be done. It’s the same thing as trying to sell a luxury product at cheap prices: you go bankrupt that way.

This also covers something else that Bobbe mentioned in his post: I don’t think I’m selling out. I offer something for everybody.

I’ll always try to give the best value possible but, as with everything in life, you get what you pay for. If you want more from me, then you’ll just have to pay more. That’s how professionals work in any sector and field. It’s also the basis of any economical system. If you disagree, knock yourself out in trying it differently. Let me know how it goes…

For those of you who feel offended by that, I’m sorry you feel that way but answer me this: Where does it say that I have to live like a pauper because I teach martial arts professionally?

I never signed that contract, nor have my teachers ever asked me to sign such a thing. And they’re also fully aware of what I do. I’m still waiting for them to tell me I’ve betrayed the arts and their traditions by teaching the way I do. So if they’re cool with it, why not you?

 

All that said, is it possible to get rich fast teaching martial arts? Yes, I think it is. Just like it is possible to get rich fast with any other business. There are a couple conditions though:

  • You need to offer a service that is in demand. If nobody’s interested, forget about it.
  • You need to be a good businessman. That means studying economics, marketing, etc.
  • You need to work real hard and then get lucky. I could go on and on about this but you’d be better off reading this book: Outliers: The Story of Success It’ll give you all the information you need and explain the reasons why hard work alone (“build it and they will come…”) isn’t enough.

 

Another question: is it possible to run a commercial martial arts school without compromising quality? Yes, I think it is. I know people who do just that. However, it is a lot more difficult than running a Mac Dojo and chances are you won’t get rich as fast as with those. So the real question is:

What kind of business do you want to run?

When you answer that question, you’re halfway there.

 

There are other ways to get rich fast with martial arts but that’s beyond the scope of this post. If you’re interested in those, drop me a line in the comments section and I’ll work on a follow-up article.

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Comments

  1. Wim,

    Spot on post. After sharing the Facebook thread with a friend last night, I thought a lot, and was all prepared to write a lengthy comment this morning. I thought I should check out this blog post first. Glad I did. I think you covered everything, plus, that I was going to write.

    As a marketing and entrepreneurial consultant and trainer, I can say you hit the nail on the head. Business is business, teaching is teaching.

    It is critical to have a plan before you go into any business, and a good idea to have a consultant help you with that plan. The whole forest and trees thing applies when it is your plan.

    Something else that I have seen, if you truly want to be successful, you need a team. Going it alone makes it incredibly hard as you mentioned.

  2. Well organized essay. Thanks. It clearly states topics I have been considering. I appreciate it.

  3. Don’t the top MMA fighters in the world have base salaries that are at least 100k per annum? Throw in endorsements and the like and they usually make seven figures fairly easily.

    • They do now but Bobbe’s comment was talking about the early days of the UFC. Still, I think his point is valid. How many of the fighters make the amounts the top 10 in the UFC do? How many of those who never make it big end up with comparatively little money when you look at a well-paying IT job like Bobbe mentions? Not every fighter will be GSP with million-dollar deal, sponsoring, advertising campaigns, merchandising, etc; In fact, those guys are the exception and not the rule. So despite needing some adjustments for today’s pay-outs in the cage, I believe Bobbe’s point is still valid.

  4. Weyland Billingsley says:

    Wim, I think that in the 70s and 80s there were teachers in the larger cities who had successful schools that provided a excellent living. My first instructor, Jhoon Rhee is a good example. Their students were mostly adults, it wasn’t hard to attract students, and they had high quality classes. Something happened in the late 80s and everything changed. Maybe too many schools opening up by instructors with minimum qualifications.

    I read an article in a MA marketing magazine in the early 90s by a Shaolin Instructor in Atlanta. He argued against having more than one school. His business plan was to have one school with a certain number of students and teach great classes to adults…knowing how many students he needed to make to pay himself a decent salary. He developed a group of senior students who helped teach in exchange for advanced classes and discounted rates. This freed him up to continue to develop his knowledge and skills by practice and returning to study in China. The advantage he had over most school owners is that he had a degree in business and a number of years in business before opening his school.

    • I remember some examples of certain teachers (whom I won’t name) teaching with franchises already back in those days. Some of them offered quality, others offered crap. So I don’t think it’s new phenomenon, though this decade has seen a definite increase in overly commercial schemes.
      That Shaolin teachers seems to have found a good system. Sounds like something that could work.

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