I’d like to start this by providing a little info about my own journey into academy ownership. As a Purple belt I started teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for free once a week to my old Karate alumni as a way of giving back. This coincided with the BJJ school I was training at moving nearly a 2 hour (four hour round trip) commute away, which sadly made it impossible for me to continue training there as I was already making a 3 hour round trip to begin with. This was when the art was in its infancy here in Washington State, with only 1-2 schools being open at any given time, and not staying that way for more than a year, sometimes less, before shutting down. 

The one night of teaching a closed group (their students who were fighting in MMA) at the Karate school led to several of the regular students asking how much it would cost to attend the class. I distinctly remember pulling the figure of $35 per month out of the air, and without realizing it, took the first steps on my journey towards a full time career. Shortly after all of this, the owner of the Karate school allowed me to utilize space within their larger location, which gave me room to place two 20’x20’ wrestling mats which we had driven up to Canada to purchase. I was allowed to use the space in exchange for just 20% of my profits, which allowed me to build a student base while keeping an incredibly low overhead. 

Things snowballed very quickly and I began teaching two to three days a week, starting with maybe 10 regular students. Shortly after, I quit my other two jobs and began teaching full time back in 2003, and the rest, as they say, is history! Fast forward to the present day I run one of the largest academies solely dedicated to the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the entire Pacific Northwest. On the surface, it was just that easy, however there were many trials and tribulations along the way, which is why I’ve written this to help others who may find themselves on the same path. 

The advice that follows is a culmination of simple “tips” and advice I’ve developed throughout many years of trial, error, and invaluable experience. Think of them as a list of things I wish I would have known when I started this venture 17 years ago. As with anything, this comes from my own experiences, is based on my perspective, and may not pertain to you or your specific situation. However, if a single piece of advice within is able to help someone, it was worth the time I spent writing it. 

I’m going to leave you with an important list to consider before committing to starting an academy. If you cannot answer each of the following questions with an emphatic YES, please consider a different occupation or business venture:

  • Are you prepared to work 10 times harder than you’ve ever worked for anything in your life, often times for 13-14 hours a day, with no days off for the first 1-3 years?
  • Will you be 100% committed to seeing this through when things are going bad, as well as when they’re going well?
  • Can you offer something that’s in some way different, better, or unique in comparison to everyone else in this field? 

Starting an academy:

  1. Take your time, anything worth doing, is worth doing right. Develop an plan of action that includes even the tiniest details. Estimate the initial startup expenses, as well as monthly rent, utilities, and anything else you can plan ahead for.
  2. Start a savings account and save enough to cover a minimum of 6 months of the estimated expenses prior to start up. This will help to avoid accumulating debt and provide you a buffer which allows you to start building your student base without feeling panicked or rushed, often leading to poor decision making and sales gimmicks as a result.
  3. Keep the overhead of your first space as low as possible. Ideally work out a profit share or a way of renting space within an existing business, such as a gym or unrelated traditional martial arts school, so you can grow your base while continuing to save.
  4. If you’re going to rent your own space from the beginning, start small, don’t jump into a space you can’t fill within the first year, or one that’s outside of your budget. Having extra space means nothing if you don’t have the demand or student base to warrant needing it!
  5. Don’t waste money on print advertisement and limit how much you spend on social media ads. Instead, put that money into a strong website presence, both in design and functionality. Pay a professional in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to make sure people who’re searching are seeing your site.
  6. Don’t do something you’re not an expert at, instead, pay one! This applies to everything from bookkeeping to designing your logo, and anything else in between. Even the smallest mistakes in those areas in the short term can have a dramatic negative effect in the long term. In the words of the great Ron Swanson “Don’t half ass two things, when you can whole ass one thing”!
  7. Stop looking at your competition (businesses in the same field) as the enemy, when in reality they’re your greatest ally. There are plenty of potential students to go around and the truth of the matter is, each of them will be drawn to a specific training atmosphere or “vibe”. Instead of worrying about what your competitors or doing, focus that energy on providing the absolute best atmosphere possible, and you will in turn attract students who are best suited for the training environment you’ve worked hard to cultivate.
  8. Don’t undervalue what you offer! More often than not people fall into the trap of trying to offer the best “deal” and a lower cost, as a means of trying to compete with other businesses in their area. In doing so, these individuals often fall prey to the conundrum of “perceived value”. For example, if you saw two red Lamborghinis that were the same year, model, and identical down to the smallest detail, yet one had a price tag reading $250,000 and the other $15,000, what would your reaction be? I can guarantee it wouldn’t be “oh, that’s an amazing deal, I’m going to get the cheaper one!”. I’m certain that you would almost immediately make the assumption that there was something wrong with the one of lesser cost! This is how your business will appear if you undervalue what you offer.
  9. In determining your pricing, it’s important to assess what you offer and what you feel that’s worth. Only charge an amount you’re certain meets and exceeds the value of what you provide your clients. Take into consideration how many classes you offer per week, the quality of instruction, the environment and its potential to help people, etc.
  10. Find a mentor and be willing to learn something from EVERYONE! One of my favorite sayings is “The more you think you know, the less you actually know”. Also, don’t let the fear of failure keep you from trying things and applying advice. If you try something and it doesn’t work, learn from it, make adjustments, and move forward. This is the way 😉