How to grow your martial arts school

Learn These Strategies for Multi-School Growth to Expand Your Business!

Whenever I meet aspiring multi-school owners and they find out that I have 14 schools, the questions start to fly: Where do you find the staff to run that many schools? How do you manage them? How much do you pay your instructors?

In most cases, they're really asking me about the best way to scale up their own martial arts business for growth. The answer to that question is, it's not easy. However, there are certain strategies that can help you prepare for growth, sustain growth and continue growth if you're so inclined.

Let's begin with a few simple strategies that can help all school owners, regardless of whether they have one facility or many.

No. 1: Strive to teach great classes that are safe, exciting and impactful.

Obviously, accidents and injuries can and will happen occasionally. Your job as an instructor is to teach with a safety-first mentality during all training activities.

Make sure your classes are exciting, as well. The more fun and energetic your sessions are, the more students will enjoy attending them. Furthermore, it increases the likelihood that your students will keep coming back for more.

Design your classes so they're impactful and educational. Yes, it's great to have fun, but if your students aren't learning and improving in every class, you're doing them a disservice. To that end, get rid of as much fluff as possible. Vow to make every class an educational experience that will take your students one step closer to that next belt.

No. 2: Have a friendly staff that fully engages with students, parents and visitors

All the people who represent your school(s) should be caring and welcoming. They should know everyone by name, greet students and parents when they arrive, and sincerely care about them.

Zig Ziglar famously said, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." I agree 100 percent.

No. 3: Expand your community involvement.

With the advent of click funnels, Facebook advertising, Google ad words and so on, many schools rely on digital marketing methods to attract and recruit new members. I'm not opposed to using these tactics — I certainly take advantage of them — but the success of our schools was built on community events and local relationships.

My staff and I want to be involved in any and every local event. This includes summer camps outside of the martial arts, school functions, community fairs, fall festivals and spring flings. Likewise, setting up booths, conducting demonstrations and giving school talks are paramount if you want to establish yourself within your community.

You should do this for two main reasons. First, it gets you out in the community doing good work, educating citizens and empowering people. That's likely part of your mission statement. Second, it affords you many opportunities to discuss your programs, get to know people and promote your business.

When you combine strong community involvement with modern internet and social media marketing, you get an explosive combination that will improve the growth of your school(s).

You may be thinking, That's all well and good, but I don't have the staff to go to all the community events that take place in my town. I hear you loud and clear because I've been in that position myself. Let me convey a story that will offer a solution.

Back in the mid-1990s, I owned just one school. It had been open for 18 months, and, fortunately for me, things were going well. At the time, I was a one-man show. I was the owner, but I also served as program director, lead instructor, marketing director and janitor — you get the picture. I'm sure many of you have been in that situation, or perhaps still are.

Needless to say, I did my best, but a few things were falling through the cracks because I didn't have the manpower to get them done. I had a part-time instructor who helped me whenever possible, but he also had a full-time job. That job paid him $30,000 a year — remember, it was the '90s — and his employer offered him paid medical insurance, among other benefits. I was considering hiring him full time because I really needed the help.

The problem was it looked like I was going to make only $40,000 that year, and the numbers just didn't match up. I thought, How can I pay this guy $30,000 when I'm making only $40,000? After I hire him, I'll be making $10,000 a year!

That's when I got some of the best advice I've ever received. While I was explaining my predicament to my CPA, she stopped me cold. "John," she said, "you can't afford to not hire him!" She went on to explain that for my business to grow, I needed to bite the bullet and hire the guy full time.

I took her advice. Instead of making $10,000 the next year, I made $70,000. Hiring him gave me the freedom to expand my business. In fact, it worked so well that I decided to do it again, and again, and again. Each time, it's worked out to my benefit. That's why I say to you, "Don't be afraid to hire staff."

No. 4: Engage with parks and rec.

One facet of community involvement that's often overlooked is engaging with your city or county's parks-and-recreation department. Our schools offer beginner classes through two such county programs and two city programs. Here's how it works:

Local government officials advertise the classes on their websites and in a circular that's mailed to everyone in the area. They tout a five-week beginner martial arts program that will take place at one of our facilities. The students who register are treated just like new white belts. They receive official student uniforms and attendance cards, and they participate in our regular beginner classes. Our staff works hard throughout the five-week period to convert them into permanent students. This has been a fantastic feeder system for us for more than 25 years. Each quarter, we typically get more than 100 prospects from this method.

By the way, you don't need to have 14 locations to make this work. I arranged our first city recreation program a couple of months before I even opened my first school. An added benefit of doing this is that the rec departments advertise our program in their community guides. In essence, that gives us an unofficial stamp of approval from the city or county.

Logistics: Acquiring Staff

Three questions I'm asked often are, "Where do you get the staff members?" "How do you train them?" "How do you pay them?" Let's start with the first one.

There are many ways to acquire the right people to help you grow. You can certainly hire black belts from the outside. I've done this on occasion. However, if you're going to take this route, be sure your school has a strong culture into which they can be absorbed.

Bringing in "hired guns" can be an issue. It's not that these black belts are unskilled. In fact, it's actually the opposite. They tend to have high-level skills. The issue is they were taught and trained in a certain culture (not yours) and at a certain school (not yours). They have thoughts and habits that may need to be undone if they're to mesh with your systems, and it can be tough to break those old habits. Many times, they're just looking for a place where they can teach what they know, rather than becoming part of your organization's culture. Be aware of these pitfalls if you go in this direction.

My preference is to find staff members by looking within. For this to work, you must know what type of people you need, and you must be able to recognize their talents and then recruit them.

What characteristics do you want in a staff member? Look for people who are friendly, smile a lot, have a passion for martial arts and enjoy helping others. Once you find a few such individuals, you can train them on all the rest.

A fringe benefit of this approach is that when you hire people who are already part of your program, you're not just hiring off a resume or a conversation. You've had the opportunity to get to know them, observe how they interact with other students and so forth.

Speaking of training, all staff members should get training always — in all ways. Most successful schools have clearly defined systems for all aspects of their business. The relevant training can take place via meetings, videos, books, manuals and even quick mat chats. Often, it's the little reminders that help them learn and improve. It's important that they know not just how to do something but also why they're doing it. As Jhoon Rhee used to say, make "a never-ending correction with a smile."

Logistics: Retaining Staff

Once you acquire employees, how do you keep them? This can be challenging. It's best to start with the realization that you'll never manage to keep all your team members. However, there are things you can do to entice them to stick around.

Treat your staff well. Create a culture in which people enjoy their time at work. Pay them enough so they can afford to live comfortably. Give them benefits such as paid time-off, paid personal days, paid medical insurance and matching contributions toward a retirement plan.

Perhaps the best advice I can give is to put yourself in their shoes. In an ideal world, how would you want to be treated if you were the employee? Forget the way you may have been treated or mistreated as a young instructor and think about how you wish you'd been treated, then design an employment program that makes people want to stay. Give them great benefits and an opportunity for upward mobility within your company.

Here's an example: Many years ago, our staff members worked five and a half days a week. Our schools were open Monday through Friday plus a half-day on Saturday. The full-time employees worked 45 hours a week, which included eight hours a day Monday through Friday plus five hours on Saturday.

Culturally, this caused some unhappiness. Our staff members were off Saturday evening and Sunday, then reported back to work late Monday morning. They wanted more time off, and we actually lost some good people because of the hours. As the owner, I justified this by recalling the days when I arrived at the school every day at 9 a.m. and left at 9 p.m. I needed to get out of that mindset.

We eventually modified our schedule so they worked only 40 hours a week. Although this was a slight improvement, they were still working those 40 hours over six days. Instead of working eight hours a day, they put in seven hours each weekday plus Saturday mornings. It was definitely better, but it wasn't enough.

Another revision needed to happen, so last year we changed it so that full-time employees work a five-day, 40-hour week. Each person gets two full days off per week. That means extra staff members are needed at each location, but our full-timers are much happier. We've evolved into a better workplace for them to enjoy. Remember that employees have choices, too. If you create a great workplace environment, your staff will be more likely to stick around. In addition, you'll be able to recruit more potential employees because you'll have an employment program that candidates will appreciate.

Secret Weapon: Growth Fosters Growth

Finally, I'd like to discuss growth as its own strategy for success. Many years ago when I owned one school, I had only a handful of employees. Today, Kicks Karate has more than 160 employees in 14 locations. All are black belts, and the majority of them are homegrown. Approximately 40 of my staff members work full time, and the rest work part time.

Growth is not just about getting more students or increasing revenues; it's also about creating and exploiting opportunities. You see, when I had just one school, my employees knew there was a ceiling. My business was small, and upward mobility was limited. They knew that I was the owner and head instructor and that they would never rise above the level of my No. 2 assistant.

However, as I opened a second location and then a third, my staff members began to notice the increasing opportunities to grow within the organization. They realized they could move up in rank and perhaps manage their own school. They could become a head instructor or a program director at a different location and so on.

As the organization grew, I realized that I needed not only more managers of schools but also more personnel behind the scenes to run accounting and human resources. This created new openings on the corporate side. Eventually, we were at the level where we had part-time teenage black belts who went away to college with plans to come back after graduation so they could run a school or be an instructor. This was not intentional; it grew out of our systemic growth.

I often liken growing a business to building a campfire. To start a fire, you need a few sticks, some kindling and a flame. Once the fire gets going, you've got a choice to make: You can do nothing and the fire eventually will go out, or you can add just enough wood to keep the fire steady. But there's a third option: If you really want your fire to grow, you can add logs.

Adding staff to your school(s) is like adding logs to a fire in that it will help you reach new levels of success.

John Bussard is the founder of Kicks Karate Inc., which has 14 locations in Maryland. He's also an alumnus of the Harvard Business School, where he completed the prestigious Program for Leadership Development in 2016.

​Learn More Face to Face!

In this article, I've reviewed several strategies designed to assist you in growing your martial arts school. I hope I've also stimulated your thinking about the processes and procedures you currently use to run your program and those you might need to expand. If you like what you've read, join me in Las Vegas at the 2020 Martial Arts SuperShow. At the educational event, which will take place June 29-July 2, I'll speak about and expand on strategies for multi-school growth. I look forward to seeing you there and further assisting you in your quest to build your martial arts business. Register at

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