The Appeal of the Family-Operated Dojo

Martial Arts School

Have you dreamed of opening your own martial arts school but held back? Maybe it’s because of your other job. Maybe it’s because your spouse doesn’t want you to be gone in the evening. Maybe it’s because you think you don’t have the time. Maybe it’s because you’re not confident you have the business skills. Maybe it’s because you believe there’s already too much competition out there.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article titled “13 Reasons You Should Open a Dojo.” Martial artists who offered feedback cited those reasons for not doing it. Another said he had a successful school that he ran on his own but sold it because he was burned out.

If you harbor any of these uncertainties, perhaps the answer is to join forces with your spouse and/or kids to create a family-operated dojo. It’s a proven martial arts model with limitless possibilities, and having two or more people running the show can solve all the problems mentioned above. Operating such a school is also fulfilling — there’s nothing like being in it together.
I’ll start the discussion by assuming that you or your spouse has earned a black belt or a similar certification and that at least one of you possesses sufficient teaching experience. If both of you have credentials, that’s even better. It means you can function as a team.

You might be saying, “I like the idea, but I couldn’t work with my spouse day in and day out.” My reply is, “Yes, you can!” Because it’s your business, you can divide the responsibilities however you want to. You can run it together every day, or you can split up the week. I run our dojo on Mondays and Tuesdays, my wife Martha runs it on Wednesdays and Thursdays, we run it together on Fridays and assistants run it on Saturdays. That way, I get to watch Thursday Night Football or UFC Fight Night — and so could you once you find your groove.

Do I have your attention now?

Division of labor is a wonderful thing because it keeps you from getting bogged down. You put things you do well on your plate, and your spouse does the same. If you can’t sell but your significant other can, schedule appointments for sign-ups when your spouse is available. If you’re good at merchandising, take that job. Whoever is better at graphic design can have at it with the art you need for your T-shirts and website.

Over time, you both will get better at the things you aren’t good at now. Thinking further out, you’ll eventually have assistants to help run the school. They’ll learn valuable lessons from both of you, and you’ll get to spend more time doing what you enjoy most.

Here’s another bonus: If one of you has a day job that you enjoy, there’s no need to stop. Just limit the days your dojo is open. Having other income means that your school won’t immediately need to be a big moneymaker to support your lifestyle.
Once you decide to open a family-operated dojo, it’s time to get moving. Create or purchase a business plan. Decide what you’ll call your school, then lease or buy your space. Set up a wholesale account with a uniform and equipment distributor and start building your website. When all that’s done, hang up your sign. People will come.

Here are snapshots of four family-operated facilities whose owners discovered that people will come. First is the school my wife and I run in San Diego County. It’s called Trad Am Karate. I operated a dojo by myself for most of the 1980s, then sold the school and went on a yearlong sabbatical. In 1991 Martha and I moved here and opened our current facility. She was a brown belt and held down a full-time job. I worked at the school all day, and she came in after work. Within two years, we made our living entirely from the dojo, and she was able to quit her job. Nowadays, we share the teaching, and Martha does most of the office management. I do all the writing for Black Belt, though.• In Orcutt, California, Jim and Teri Risinger run the Rising Sun Martial Arts Academy. (Clever name, isn’t it?) Jim teaches all the classes, while Teri, who doesn’t train in the martial arts, manages the office. During the day, Jim is a contractor, and Teri is a retired probation officer.• In Dickenson, North Dakota, Dr. Volney and Jenelle Willett operate Willett Martial Arts Academy. They did what many people were afraid to do: They opened their school in the middle of the pandemic. They were confident they could succeed, however, and they did, enrolling more than 40 new students in their first two months. Jenelle, who’s a nutrition coach, runs the office and is learning martial arts. A physician at a local hospital, Volney does much of the teaching. They have a teenager who often steps in to assist.• In Upland, California, Chris and Christine Pellitteri operate the Upland Martial Arts Center. Chris is the founder of the North American Nunchaku Association and the American Kobudo Association. I’ll let him tell you his story.

“I opened my dojo in 1995 and moved to our current location in 1998. I met Christine at the local music store: She was teaching flute, and I was teaching guitar. That would have been in 1998.“After we had been dating, Christine started taking karate, eventually receiving her black belt. We were married in 2001, and she and I have run the school as a family-operated dojo ever since. Christine originally taught classes and private lessons and was part of our tournament and demonstration team until she became pregnant with our son. From that point forward, she became the office manager, what we call the First Lady of the Dojo. She handles paperwork and enrollment and answers the phones and questions from parents.“

Back then, we both had other jobs. I worked at the local martial arts supply store, and we both taught music lessons. Then our class schedule expanded, at which point Christine took over my job at the supply store. Over time, the school became successful enough to support our family.

“I don’t think it is necessary for both owners to be in the martial arts. However, I can see a few advantages to both having a martial arts background — for example, when discussing a student’s progress with parents. We get lots of feedback from parents on how they like that we have a family-friendly feel. Many parents prefer our family-run business to what they would consider a corporate-run martial arts program. I’m confident that we have a greater retention rate than the industry standard because of the personal service and family touch.”

I hope my words and their testimonials have convinced you to seriously consider what can be a great business venture. In nearly every city and county in America, there’s a void with respect to quality martial arts instruction, and you could help fill it.

If you’re ready to take the plunge and need assistance acquiring a business plan, contact the Martial Arts Industry Association at maiahub.com. The organization also can help with curriculum development and teacher training. While you’re at it, make plans to attend the Martial Arts SuperShow, the industry’s premier event for school owners. The next one is scheduled for July 18-20, 2022, in Las Vegas. Details are available at masupershow.com.

Floyd Burk is a San Diego–based 10th-degree black belt with 50 years of experience in the arts. To contact him, visit Independent Karate Schools of America at iksa.com.

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