Straying too far from the Path

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Andries Pruim | November 2020

What is Budo into today's fragmented and jaded Martial Arts World?

Lately I have been watching the various consultants trying to convince the hundreds of martial arts school owners via remote ZOOM sessions, webinars and other mediums from throwing in the towel and looking for another career. While the attempts by these successful school owners and consultants are admirable, the changing paradigm that is now the martial arts business is not really conducive to those who’s training did not involve so much marketing, salesmanship and basically babysitting, more so than a true path to martial arts enlightenment.

Once you’ve trained a certain number of years on your personal martial art development, you get somewhat jaded when seeing how superficial the business portion of the industry has become. Some rational aspects of training have been set aside for the sole reason of business.

Kindly remember that I have a substantial business background and have written extensively about treating your martial arts school like a business. Nevertheless, as in any dedicated business model you must remain true to your core competency and try to minimize diversity, especially to businesses you have little or no familiarity with.

This is a common dilemma in corporate business where conglomerates start with a core business and in their attempts to compensate for regular cyclical downturns these conglomerates start buying up diverse businesses. At first, the newly purchased business has some relevancy to the core business, but subsequent purchases tend to diversify to far from the “Core” and this is when issues start arising. This is what I see occurring in the martial arts industry.

The dilemma is how far are you willing to stray “from the path” in order for you to keep your martial arts business viable. When you start bringing in business that has nothing to do with martial arts other than for marketing purposes or for the need of the funds the activity brings in, then you are diverging from your business core, which could ultimately cause (legitimacy) issues down the road.

This new forced paradigm has now moved the industry to a new form of martial arts business which I call “Plug and Play Karate” … (for example)


Plug and Play Budo

To illustrate my point, I will use a new bank (Novo Banks) example, whereby a new Bank entity wishes to initially provide financial services to select niche of online customers. This new bank will leverage existing cloud technology like “AWS”, which can provide a core or base technical platform on which this new bank can start “back office” processing requirements. From here the bank can now decide what “add ons” it needs to be a successful bank.

The Nova Bank will now purchase various functionalities from 3rd party vendors including lending, deposits and or even financial planning. This way the new bank has all the “Plug & Play” components to operate a successful institution. Again, this is how I see the martial arts paradigm developing into.

While most martial artist who wish to make a “career out of their passion”, maintain a “core” discipline, (e.g.: Karate), unfortunately most do not have the many martial arts or teaching skill sets needed to succeed in today’s martial arts business world.

For this reason, we are now seeing “packaged disciplines” that you can purchase in order to supplement your school’s curriculum. For example, if you are not great at dealing with kids under six, and it is a market that you can tap into, then there is the “Pre-Skillz” program that shows you how, what and when to teach this unique clientele.

Alternately if your Karate background didn’t include weapons, then you could purchase the “Flow Systems” program which again teaches you a weapon curriculum including “how to teach” the curriculum. In other word, Martial Arts “plug & play”.

If you don’t have the “feature” you need to sell your service, then you simply buy it. Of course, this could lead to investors who put together a combination of “plug & play” programs and who have no actual background in the martial arts  .…   other than being an avid fan and smart investor!

While I am a supporter of any successful business model, nevertheless, as a martial artist who learned his craft in the 70’s and has traveled a few too many times to Japan, I sometimes wonder if we have strayed a bit too far from “the path”. If we start to promote programs that are basically supervision of non-martial artists for the sole purpose of revenue, then I would compare it to the conglomerate that has lost vision of its core intention and in turn, its core values.

What is your Business?

The question then is, how far from our martial arts “mandate” is it acceptable to go simply to stay in business? While I can understand and accept adding a 4 to 6-year-old tots’ class, as long as the primary purpose is to teach a martial art of some form. Even here there is an acknowledgement of the “baby sitting” aspects to a tot class as most know that conceptual comprehension does not begin until children are approximately eight years old (with some exceptions). Nevertheless, there is some physical benefits that will follow the smaller children as they grow, especially if they stay training in the martial arts.

The problem arises when martial arts school try to supplement their revenue streams with “outside” business, including using your instructors to supervise children in activities that are not related martial arts in any way. The inherent risks involved cannot be understated!

Not only insurance liabilities but an issue that may arise will bring into question, especially in a court of law, your (or your instructors) credentials in supervising activities not related to your expertise. It would be safer to simply sub-let or rent out your premises to those who do have the qualifications!

It has been all these attempts to supplement income that has started me thinking! In fact, my Banker’s hat appeared which made me question the viability of these “non-core” enterprises. I would (as a Banker) start researching the competitive structure of this newly implemented line of business to see how it relates to your normal day to day business.

In other words, should you be entering into businesses for the so purpose of revenue with only a slight possibility of student lead generation? If you feel it appropriate then I feel you have moved from being a martial artist to a full fledge business investor. Your school is now purely your place of business. It should not be called a Dojo but rather a “Child Enhancement Center” (or something similar). Your Martial Arts Path or Way is now Business Main Street, which is not a bad thing, but it is not “the path” of traditional Martial Arts instructors… (e.g.: Sensei).

Truth be told, while I was originally trained by a quality Shotokan black belt, he was from the Midwest (Prairies) so my Asian influence was nominal, other than being totally enamored by Bruce Lee and all he represented. On the other hand, my instructor’s school was only marginally successful and together with my trips to Japan, my business philosophy on martial arts remained a bit conservative in that I felt the martial arts (or karate in my case) was a lifelong path that we had to be honest to.

In most things I do, I will always involve what I call the “cringe factor”. If what I see makes me cringe, I tend to steer clear of it. Whether it be the various supreme grand masters who show no real martial arts skills to those who’s Karate “uniforms” actually contained epaulettes. This cringe “meter” is what I use when I examine new “martial arts” programs that espouse the latest and greatest way to generate revenue for your business.  I will carefully examine the pedagogy demonstrated and try to determine its value as a conveyor of the martial principles that are the core (or Mission Statement in business vernacular) of all combat-based disciplines. We should not devalue or deviate from the passion that made us startup our schools in the first place.

I acknowledge the dreadful times we are living through, even so we must still be true to our Martial Arts (Budo) ideals. This means that if we find ourselves diluting the essence of our martial art simply to keep the bills paid, then we should examine our “raison d’etre” carefully. If your school is a pure investment play, then the martial arts segment would be simply one of a myriad of activities which comprise your business. It would be no different than hiring independent teachers for your private (academic) school.

As a Banker, I had a private school as a client, that taught grades K to 12, but was not part of the public-school system. The school owner (CEO) was not an ex-teacher but a smart businessman who saw a niche and worked to fill that niche. This person would hire the teaching expertise needed, whether mathematics, science or any other “specialist” to ensure the success of his school/business.

If this is your business then all the power to you. As long as you hire properly and have established a well-defined training regime, you should be successful. Even during the COVID-19 crisis you can hire the right skill sets in order to supplement revenue lost due to a lack of actual martial arts classes and attendees.

On the other hand, if you started your school as part of your journey down the martial arts road to some type of self-perfection, then some personal reflection is required. If your path, your school, your students, and your personal growth are all because of your passion for martial arts, then your business must also be true to your passion.

As a Commercial Banker, I saw a lot of small businesses closed their doors for a number of reasons. We never saw it as a failure, just another attempt by an entrepreneur whose circumstances didn’t lead to success. We would work with this valued client as the passion was there and we know they will be back.

The business entrepreneurial spirit like the martial artist passion cannot lay still long, so review your options and just remember to “not stray too far from the path”!  ....   It is what got you this far. If you must pick yourself up again, like the many times we did in the dojo during our martial art career, then stay true to yourself, regroup and wait for the next opportunity to share your passion with others. I’m just saying…...!!!