Here are some thoughts I have had over the years concerning the nuances to running a martial arts school or club. All too often we talk about the student and how to get them but we rarely talk about the owner. These few ideas address the owner and how they impact the school.
I have taught at a school that had 200+ students and have now moved to my own club based classes. The lessons learned at the big schools are the same lessons for the small schools. Business is business and you must find your competitive advantage. This will be different for everyone as we have different skills at which we excel. But some basics truths exist in this kind of service industry.
How you dress and behave
Dress and behave like the customers you want to attract. If you desire the school to have a large child population the parent’s ability to pay is directly tied to their income level. Hence the owner and instructors must be able to appear as the same class of income, social status, and mannerisms. If you want to attract Trailer Trash then behave as Trailer Trash. If it is the Nouveau Rich you want, then learn to behave as the Nouveau Rich.
The same practice holds true for adult students. If you want to attract those that train hard and are driven by hard work and see bruises as a badge of honor, you need to get on the mat and get bruised with them. You can’t shy away from your behavior on the mat and what you expect the students to emulate.
This is not to say that you fake who you are but if your school is populated with income levels that can barely afford the class then it is time to decide if that is the target customer you want to have. We all allow certain students to train for free or at a reduced rate, it goes with the business model. Where we need to be careful is do we only want to attract this type of student. That in and of itself is not such a bad thing; many times these struggling students are the heart and soul of a strong program and work twice as hard due to their commitment and the gift of free training.
It barely matters what the curriculum is to sign new children students. Some exceptions to this are true but what parents are really looking for is a place they feel their child will be safe and happy. What matters is the personality of the owner/instructors. They are the public face of the school and how they behave and present themselves to prospective customers will make the deal, not the curriculum. The owner must dress to mimic the target customer they wish to attract.
The owner/instructor must be personable and be seen as a leader, not one of the chums. Parents send their children to the school to learn how to be model children, not to learn to fight. The fighting/self defense is second, third, and I would say somewhere around tenth on the list. The parents must like you before they will sign up the child and the child must like you in order to want to stay in the classes. Like does not mean a pushover. We all respect that school teacher from our early days that made us work hard but kept a smile on her face.
However, the curriculum becomes part of the long term school culture and will build the school reputation as the student population grows. You can’t slack on having a good curriculum and teaching good skills. Word will get around that your school teaches junk and you have lost a valuable part of your reputation.
Be a Salesperson
You need to learn to communicate with people and sell. Yes, selling is a part of the business model and if you plan to take money for your time you had better learn to sell. A myriad of books and video classes are available to help teach you to sell. Accept the fact that you probably need training in these softer side business skills and approach them the same as you would with your martial arts training. Be the professional.
School culture is the most important thing a prospective student will see when they first visit. If we take a school that runs in tandem with a church it is easy to see how this school culture develops. The school has a cause and that is its foundation in its religious beliefs. New students will follow the same religious cause.
As the owner/instructor you need a cause to identify with. Not a marketing tagline but something that builds your brand and allows you to be excited about your teaching and your work. The desire to build a big school is not the type of cause I am talking about, that is a goal.
As an example, one school I know that has several hundred students has no apparent cause. But if you look closely you will see that the cause is the family. The school is run by husband and wife with their sons and wives. This family relationship is their cause and it spills over to the families that bring their children. When prospective parents come in, they immediately on a subconscious level recognize this.
In moving to the Business financial side, I have noticed that the formality of collecting payment helps drive the school. If one treats the collection of class dues with the same professional commitment in which one teaches it helps build the business. The culture we live in everyday respects the transaction of business and money. Program your students to also respect this transaction with you. Don’t be lackadaisical about collecting money.
Being focused on the money also helps align cash flow models to match student enrolment. In simple terms, “No Pay No Play.” We all have had students that we comp for one reason or another but the life-blood of keeping the doors open is the ability to pay the bills. Those that shy away from being responsible for payment collection tend to also be lacking in other areas of cash management.