Saturday, January 21, 2012

Business in BJJ: What keeps a gym open--The Paula Deen Effect

Or maybe the Rachel Ray effect...or Bill Gates...or Gary Vaynerchuk...maybe even Tim Ferris.

So I saw a guy on a forum yesterday, debating if he should move forward with his desk-y career or compete in the Pan Ams this year (mutually exclusive for his situation). He wants to open up his own school one day and was looking toward placing in the competition as a step in building a solid foundation to start a school. Makes sense.


The industry of jiu jitsu is growing in strange ways right now and there's a lot of opportunity out there, just like there is in any highly fragmented market...breeding opportunity is just what fragmented markets do. It's about to grow from a niche art that only the bravest of MMA fans would attempt, peppered with a few oddballs like me and general martial arts enthusiasts. In other words, it's likely about to go mainstream. From MMA gaining more exposure through the UFC airing on Fox, to the increase in school bullying feeding kids' programs, there are a lot of factors feeding the machine.

All that really has me wondering...which students keep schools open, and what gets them in the door? I have theories that kids' programs do a lot of the heavy lifting and professionals are the most reliable sources of income, but I need to do some more watching and get some more exposure to find out if that's true. What I do know though, is that what most "inside" and "high level" practitioners respect isn't always what moves the people that pay the bulk of the bills. If it were, none of the people at the beginning of this post would be recognized names.

I feel like I may be hitting on a path to McDojoism, but I don't think this is the same thing. I think it's simply possible for an instructor to attract dedicated, focused, paying students who are more interested in environment, personal health and quality of instruction than competition record...which means I need to back-track on the title. It should have been, the Bela Karolyi effect...because the skills that build a brash, young, focused competition winning monster are very different from the ones that are necessary to build a well-organized gym with quality instruction that stays around for the duration.

Even looking at my own school and the stellar competition records and pedigree of our instructors, I'd be willing to bet that that's what gets less than 50% of the students in the door and an even lower % of overall income...and then there are people like Roy Dean and John Danaher, known more for the quality of their instruction than for their medals.

Just some thoughts.


Tree Frog said...

Who has Roy Dean produced from his academy that has a winning high level competition record?

Dean is a triumph of marketing. He is a great ambassador for the sport, likely an awesome teacher and his DVDs get solid reviews. However, that hasn't translated yet to the stable of thoroughbred-like black belts the Renzo Gracie and Danaher work with.

Megan said...

None that I know of, but beyond marketing, he's respected for his instructional materials.

That's why I titled the post "what kerps a gym open" as opposed to something about competition or large-scale recognition.

The two (Danaher and Dean) are very different, both flukes, but as the industry grows and changes, I think you'll see their kind more often.

Strive2Shine said...

I think about this, too. Though my MA is Tae Kwon Do, not BJJ, I think it may be similar in concept? Maybe. My dojang is very successful - they've been around for quite awhile, and even started a new location in a neighboring town.

From my observations, I think that the biggest programs are its kids programs - helping to build up kids, teach them good values, etc. Then comes the adults who really only want fun exercise.

Both of these are valuable, I think - both to the students and to the school. I watch both kids and adults grow in confidence and capability, and I think that's awesome. The money from these students helps the school to flourish - and keeps down costs for those who are more serious.

But that's not all the school is. The instructors watch for those students who are more serious - and give them more opportunities, with more specific training. Like competition team training. It's not something that's offered to all students. Nor is it something that all students want; one lady started panicing yesterday while listening to me and another lady discuss comp team training. We had to assure her that it was torture (lol) that we specifically signed up for. ;)

Besides just paying the bills, one big advantage to this tactic is that you get people like me, who start not even sure if they can do basic stuff - and end up becoming very, very serious about training. I would NEVER have gone to a school that emphasized competition - it was hard enough for me to walk into a class as it was! Competition was so far out of my league that I couldn't comprehend it. Ok, I'm still not sure I REALLY comprehend it just yet, lol. ;) But I'm gonna try - and I would never have gotten to that point if the school had emphasized competition. There's no way you could have gotten me into that type of school.

That may esp be important for BJJ now, as it's so new? Don't know, never trained in BJJ... but it's an idea.

Megan said...

I think you just illustrated the most reliable type of school when it comes to income for its owners.

High level competitors are rare, require a lot of time and energy from their coaches/instructors and provide only a small percentage of the gym's income...but...they are the core of the school's and instructor's reputation.

I sometimes think a lot of new/aspiring instructors are looking to recreate the intense environment they came up in, despite the fact that their location might not make that economically sustainable.

I think the long term is about balance, and creating a program that's financially successful and beneficial to students in it, that simultaneously supports more competitive members.

I couldnt tell, have you competed yet? I train at a competition heavy school and haven't yet, but I know I'm an oddball.

slideyfoot said...

Something I've also wondered about, particularly as I'm both interested in running my own school some day, but not a competitor.

I don't think there is much of a comparison to TKD, because taekwondo is not grounded in full-contact sparring and competition. To earn your rank in BJJ at most schools, you have to perform well in sparring over a long period against a range of training partners. As far as I understand it, that is not the case for TKD, where rank comes from formal gradings mostly based around demonstrating technique either against thin air or a compliant training partner (or is that not the case?)

In BJJ, you are almost expected to compete, and people will frequently look down upon instructors who don't: Danaher and Pedro Sauer are the only two highly respected teachers I can think of who are also known for the fact that they don't have a history of competition. Most BJJ instructor profiles will have a long list of competitive accomplishments.

However, it does seem to be true that having a kids program is a proven route to financial success in martial arts. So is hard-sell marketing, of the sort promoted by Lloyd Irvin, or the "BJJ is for everyone" approach Gracie Barra have begun to push over the last couple of years.

None of those are routes I would want to take. The longer I train in BJJ, the more I think that relying on BJJ as your sole income means you have to compromise in order to guarantee you can put food on the table.

I already know I don't like the Lloyd Irvin model, I'm not fond of the Gracie Academy approach either, and I'm also uncertain about Gracie Barra's increasingly TMA franchise style (though that is the team under which I currently train, so perhaps I'll come to appreciate it more in the years to come).

Of all the BJJ business models out there, Roy Dean's is one of the few that has elements which appeal to me. His success seems to be grounded mostly in a great reputation as a teacher, a respectful environment and a solid brand.

I don't know what I could offer once I get to a level where I could run a school on my own, though obviously that isn't something I need to think about seriously for a very long time. I do teach BJJ at the moment as an assistant instructor once a week, which is fun, but I don't have (and therefore don't fully understand) any of the pressures of running a school myself.

Megan said...

"In BJJ, you are almost expected to compete"

This I think will change in the future. I don't think competition will ever go away...I don't think it will even taper back. But I can totally see an untapped market for people like you, Strive and me who want to learn, and spar, but aren't driven to compete.

Of the two, Dean and Danaher, I think Dean is the best example of that. While Danaher doesn't compete, he's known as a coach to the elite...not QUITE the same as running a school and an important distinction. Dean though, is doing the latter quite successfully based almost entirely off of his reputation as an instructor. He's definitely found an untapped niche that supports a school.

slideyfoot said...

I'm a bit conflicted on that. I think you're right in that non-competitors like me will become increasingly common, which will eventually de-emphasise competition's importance in BJJ.

However, I also think that would kill BJJ, or at best split it (arguably already happening with Gracie Uni's attempt to distinguish between 'self defence' GJJ and 'sport' BJJ). Without an emphasis on competition, BJJ would be on a path of devolution that ends with 100% compliant styles like aikido.

So I fervently hope competition retains its pre-eminent place in BJJ, with people like me being an exception. Something I babble about more here.

Megan said...

I'd love to see schools create environments like mine... basically having paths for both types of students. Seeing it more formalized though I think could be a benefit to everyone. Kind of like what you see in universities that have applied and theoretical paths under the same departments.

I think it would be in the best interest of anyone who wants to start a school to be able to work with and understand the goals of both types of students. It would make a gym much more sustainable in the long run.

Anonymous said...

I think that's already commonplace. Using another analogy, I think it's akin to kids in an advanced high school math class. No one is there if they (or their parents) aren't motivated to succeed in the class, but not all of them plan to have math-intensive college majors. The teacher holds them all to the same standards in class, but only some of the students are on the math team or do math projects.

I think having the same expectations for everyone's in-class level of effort is important and good for the group.

Brendan @ BJJ Gi Reviews said...

I think that for the longterm success for a school, you need to have the ability to keep the gym open first and foremost. I believe that this ability lies in teaching the hobbyists (like myself). The key is your ability to teach what you know, not just perform it. Teaching is more than a demonstration and competition success. But, sadly, this is what you get at many academies.

I'm really glad your interview with Roy turned me onto your blog because I'm reading back through all of your old articles on branding. Very insightful stuff.

slideyfoot said...

Hmm. Do you mean actually separating out competitors and non-competitors into different classes, with no cross-over? As if so, I definitely wouldn't like that at all.

If you just mean taking into account both types of student, that makes perfect sense (e.g., everyone training together in the group classes, with the option of a competition in the schedule). I find it helpful to roll with people who compete, as that way I'm at least partially connected to the main driving force for the evolution of BJJ.

If that link was cut, then again, the non-competitors would eventually end up with something that wasn't the same jiu jitsu. Again, it could potentially devolve as people made more and more concessions to make training less difficult (e.g., "right, no competing. Hmm: sparring hard isn't fun either, so let's turn down the intensity. Actually, let's just go light all the time. In fact, why bother sparring, we'll just do compliant drills.")

Georgette said...

I think there are two types of students essential for a successful BJJ school (successful being defined as keeps doors open safely/cleanly, is respected in the local community, and if a student desires it, they can compete with some success on the local circuit.)

You need hobbyists and drivers, at all belt levels.

Hobbyists are the ones who are interested in jits for personal fulfillment, physical fitness, and the enjoyment of the sport but are content to come to class, train, and go home-- maybe 2-3 times a week, no seminars, no privates, no obsession.

Drivers are the ones who go above and beyond-- they take seminars, privates, travel to train, travel to compete. They watch instructionals and youtube and are always trying to add more to their game. They bring in occasional new techniques and force their teammates to step up their games in response.

You can be a driver at any belt level. Neither hobbyists nor drivers are "better" than each other.

My theory is, a school with strictly hobbyists will not have the same pace of individual growth or ultimate level of competition success (not even at int'l levels-- but even local stuff) as a school with a couple drivers at every level from blue on up.

But you also need a certain kind of owner/instructor. Too many unprofessional ones out there, who may be able to DO jits fine, but can't teach their way out of a paper bag, and can't run a business.

gracefullysony said...

I taught Tae Kwon Do for a few years and am currently approaching my third year of training BJJ. I do think that the kids' program is the moneymaker at a majority of martial arts schools, including BJJ.

Some schools, however, can be run purely based on the drivers Georgette talked about, and I think she summed it up really well. Essentially, a lot of factors compromise a good school including a good teacher, a kids' program, and both hobbyists and drivers.

Megan said...

Stupid Blogger ate my comment. I'm stealing your terminology Georgette.

Anonymous said...

I think Georgette's missing a level in between hobbyists and drivers. These are the people who go to class every day, every chance they get, are borderline obsessed, but rarely travel to do bjj because the cost-benefit isn't there for them or life gets in the way. I'd say at least half the people at my bjj school fit this description. I think we are common in college towns.

I also agree with slidey that it would be bad if bjj branched into applied and theoretical tracks. It think that's been a bad trend in academia, too. What I see as commonplace is instructors identifying the desires of his students and challenging them accordingly. Depending on the instructor, sometimes I don't like this. That's because I think he should have high expectations of all his students, since if you do jiu jitsu as a hobby, you have still chosen a combat sport as a hobby. Good instructors manage a balancing act of running a one room schoolhouse and meeting the needs of all his students, obviously a challenge.

About competition: The field of competition is huge in bjj. Since anyone can compete on the international level, I'd definitely be suspicious of someone who runs a school who hasn't competed at his latest belt level. If he isn't a champ that's okay, but he has to have been the man in the arena. He won't be as good an instructor if he hasn't. (Acknowledging that competition doesn't make him a great instructor in itself.) Likewise, if he is always competing, that's a huge turnoff too. I decided against a school that advertised it was run by a top level competitor because he was never there to teach. Marcelo Garcia and Roger Gracie are big names who balance this well by showing up only to big tournaments but dedicating themselves to teaching most of the time.

Georgette said...

I disagree. I think if the only thing those people are lacking is "traveling to do BJJ" then they're still drivers. If they're watching youtube, watching instructionals, taking privates, attending seminars (don't tell me there aren't seminars at your academy plus the other academies in the same city?) and training every day, they're almost certainly introducing new techniques that aren't the meat-and-potatoes being taught daily by their academy's instruction. That's why the drivers help the school-- they're fertilizing it with input from outside.

But if the peeps you're talking about are obsessed and training every day but not injecting new material outside of what the instructor is teaching-- they'd categorize as "hobbyist" in my framework, with no disrespect intended.

Asia Morela said...

A very interesting post! I have to agree with you and strive2shine. For having worked in a dojo and talked with many people about it, kids' classes and making the school welcome to non-competitive, "hobbyists" types seems to be the thing. Unfortunate as it may seem, a business has to worry about attracting people who can pay, and not just the most dedicated or talented ones.

On this note, I have to agree with the previous comment. Though I find Georgette's distinction between hobbyists and drivers relevant, the way she describes each type is too categoric. I believe most people fall somewhere in between. My boyfriend doesn't train more than 3 times a week and he's stopped competing long ago, but he'll never miss a seminar and regularly buys books and DVD's. Conversely, I can't imagine how a regular student, no matter how passionate about jiu jitsu and competition, could afford anything more than paying for the courses... It does get pretty expensive.

slideyfoot said...

" I'd definitely be suspicious of someone who runs a school who hasn't competed at his latest belt level. If he isn't a champ that's okay, but he has to have been the man in the arena. He won't be as good an instructor if he hasn't."

Although they're unusual, if you believe the above, does that mean you wouldn't learn from John Danaher or Pedro Sauer?

Not to mention that you aren't only discounting the unusual two cases above, but a quite large number of black belts: I am sure there are loads of black belts who haven't competed at either brown or black. For a representative sample, you can take a look at this awesome thread from The Underground: many who now teach did compete at all levels, but many didn't. You'd be ruling out a lot of potentially great learning experiences.

Then again, you did just say you'd be suspicious, not that you would refuse to attend their class. ;)

Anonymous said...

@Georgette. Yes, we do inject new material into the open mat, but it's not necessarily beneficial, and not necessary even if you want to become a good competitor. We learn so much in class that it's plenty of work to learn to correctly time and apply everything we are taught. Not that too many techniques are taught in one class, but over the course of months, it adds up and gets fairly sophisticated. I also think time spent rolling benefits me more than a private class or seminar. I consider bjj as just a hobby, but I'm not satisfied with a gym where you just roll around for your health and enjoyment. When we do competition rounds, I want to burn the house down, and I'm willing to put in the effort to get there.

@Slidey. No, I wouldn't rule it out. I'd take it into consideration as part of the whole package. Quality of training partners is also huge. I think a competitor's advantage is that he knows tiny details that make the difference between winning and not winning. Sure, some people are focused and observant enough to notice these details without competing, but most of us learn the hard way through experience. A competitor is more likely to know these things because he is put in scenarios while competing that are rarely encountered in training.

Liam H Wandi said...

Thanks for a great post and discussion Megan. This is my opinion.

You have to follow your bliss. Teach those you want to teach in the way you want to teach it, preserving full mutual respect, and all will be well (as long as you market that honestly).

Don't lie. If you want to teach pro athletes and only pro-athletes, don't open a gym that advertises BJJ is for everyone, or at least, have instructors that teach those sessions who really want to teach those sessions. Likewise if you want to teach hobbyists then teach that and make it very clear that that's who you want to teach.

There are enough people who fit any category so as long as you are honest in your passion and very very driven then you will do well. It might mean you will become more of a consultant to a number of fighters rather than run a gym. It might mean that you have a hobbyist academy with lots of solid students but none of them achieve any medals but that's ok as long as you follow your bliss.

As for "learning" BJJ, I said it before and got criticised for it. You have to compete in order to achieve your potential in BJJ. You don't have to win much, but you need to compete. If you think there are exceptions, just think how much better these exceptions would be if they had competed.

Stepping onto a comp mat means many things that cannot be experienced truely with any other method and IMO you'd be learning less than all you could be if you never compete.

Megan said...

Liam, I was initially going to disagree with your post because I've seen talented, driven, passionate, honest people not have things turn out alright.

I think though, it's important to define success in any venture before you set out. I may want to decide I want to open a school and teach gi only grappling in my home town as my primary source of income. I may be a decorated competitor and skilled instructor, but if there is no demand, or everyone is already happy training TKD, or the economy has left most of the city with little disposable income, or if I'm in an area that's nuts for no-gi, I won't achieve my original goal. It may be time to redefine success.

I think what you're saying about competition brings up an important point. I agree that competition helps bring one closer to their "fullest potential", but we live in a world of limited resources. Time, money and effort spent competing could be used teaching, or building business skills or any other combination. That's where good goal setting comes in. Its essential because, well, not everyone is a natural Saulo Ribeiro. Most need to focus on an area to make real impact (and who's to say even he wouldnt be a better competitor or teacher if he focused on just one).

If a jiu jitsu practitioner's goal is to become a great instructor, I think there comes a point where they have to ask some pointed questions about what kind of instructor they want to be, who they want to teach, and what part they want instruction to play in their lives and income.

The two exceptions I cited, I can't say they'd be better instructors for competing, though they'd likely be better competitors. Take Roy Dean for example...if he'd spent six weeks training for a competition instead of six weeks studying forward rolls, he'd be a better competitor but not a better teacher. I think that's why, in addition to goal setting, it's important to recognize individual abilities and experience.

If the goal is to start a school, the guy at my school who's a gym teacher with a degree in education would likely see only small increment in progress toward his overall goal by taking classes in instruction...because he's already a good teacher. He should likely compete. But a guy who has a stellar competition record could likely use some time learning instruction. And you could argue that neither needs time learning competition/education, but both could use business classes.

I think starting a school requires the examination of multiple factors, both internal and external.

Strive2Shine said...

Megan - I haven't competed yet; I've just started the additional training for it. Not sure when my first competition will be yet... Nervous. And excited. :D

What's it like being at a competition heavy school and not competing? Do you ever plan to compete?

Isn't BJJ good for self defense? I'd see that as a third type of people that would be interested in the school. They'd be more driven than hobbyists, but with no desire to actually compete. I know that my school gets some women interested in hapkido for that purpose...

gracefullysony said...

I am just getting into the competition aspect of BJJ, somewhat because I need to do it at some point, but primarily because I know it's going to help define who I am as far as my level of training goes. Where do I stand among other women at my level? It's going to help me grow as a BJJ practitioner. Competition is a really important aspect of training BJJ and unless injured, I feel that a lot of school owners have competed in their prime.

Strive2Shine - self-defense from what I've seen is a primary marketing tool to get women into training. A lot of schools offer BJJ as 'self-defense.' My school doesn't offer that so I can't say anything for sure, but I feel that you'd have a split between hobbyists and drivers if you go that route.

This is a really great thread guys :) Great post as well.

Megan said...

@Strive...Good luck!

The self defensers...I've been thinking about them. I feel like they're more likely to train for a few months then fall off...though they could shift into either the driver or hobbyist category.

Not competing at a competition heavy school...well, I think my school is a good mix. There are a few people that don't compete and that's totally accepted. Competition classes are held separately from "regular" classes. The only thing is people always ask if you're competing and I'm not gonna lie, I feel a bit left out when I say no.

The Absurdist said...

Awesome post and comments, looking to open a gym an nd this helped me narrow my niche market which is hobbyist

Megan said...

Thanks Absurdist! I just finished a piece for Jiu Jitsu Style magazine that discusses it further. You'll be glad to know that all 4 of the black belts I interviewed cited the hobbyist as one of their largest income groups.