Starting a martial arts school is an extremely fulfilling process. It allows you to serve your community, become your very own boss, and practice what you preach within the discipline and specific art.
Like any business though, ownership isn’t a walk in the park. According to recent statistics, there are roughly 163,108 people participating in UK martial arts. Of that number, approximately 6,075 dojos can be found countrywide. Despite the sheer number of schools present, as many as 90% of martial art schools are closed within the first three years and 20% close by the end of their first year.
Success in running a successful martial arts school requires much more than being good at martial arts. It takes endurance, good planning, a strong stomach, and plenty of commitment as well. This guide will help you understand the elements to starting a martial arts school, from finding a building to signing on your first student.
Consider your motivation for starting a school in the first place. Is it your love of the martial arts? The desire to share knowledge with others? A pursuit of financial freedom? In any case, your commitment will be tested at times, and you should ask yourself the following questions before taking the plunge into ownership:
Opening a martial arts school takes long hours, late nights, and an extreme attention to detail. As you get started, it may be difficult to find the additional time or motivation to continue your personal development. Over time, you may even find that you begrudge the work.
Like any other small business, martial art schools can take time to ramp up and become self-sufficient. The uncertainty and long hours can test your commitment and you may find yourself struggling to maintain motivation.
That said, if you’re in it for the right reasons and are prepared for the challenges, a martial arts school can be a very rewarding business - both personally and financially. And the right tools can remove a lot of the growth pressures, so you can focus on the part you really love: teaching!
This guide is going to cover all the steps involved with starting a martial arts school, including:
Controversially, you don’t need a black belt to teach martial arts. Ironically, you don’t need any qualifications from a martial arts governing body to teach (although they can certainly add credibility and make people more likely to trust you!).
What you do need are:
Opening without these could lead to quickly being shut down, setting you back significantly.
If you have not taught martial arts previously, it may be difficult to start up a teaching practice on your own. Being good at a martial art doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to teach others, and you may find you don’t enjoy it. In this case, you should consider either gaining experience as a coach for another school or hiring an instructor for your school - although this will add further costs.
The capital required for your martial arts school will depend on what you plan to offer. Teaching 100 people in a large room in the middle of a city will cost far more than private tuition in your back garden, for example.
You have some options:
If borrowing, bear in mind that failure to repay costs could lead to serious repercussions down the road. There’s also no harm in testing the waters first by acquiring your initial students and turning a profit before putting significant money into the business.
Picking the right option could save countless headaches in the future, and potentially protect you from bankruptcy as well.
Your unique offering is sometimes called a USP (or a unique service proposition). In other words, what can your martial arts studio offer that competitors do not?
Keep these questions in mind:
The best way to answer these questions is to complete a research benchmark of your operating area. Start by using a search engine to find all the martial art studios in the general vicinity and compare the results with elements of your business.
What are the pros and cons? What messaging are the schools using e.g. “self defence”, “fighting system” etc? How would yours stand out?
Benchmarks offer great insights at no cost, if you are willing to perform one yourself.
Picking a business location is one of the most important parts of running a successful martial arts school.
Even if your service is better than what the other schools provide, most people are likely to attend their classes if the location is more convenient.
You’ll also need to decide whether your school’s premises are owned or shared. Both are viable options and if you have your heart set on a specific area, the decision may be made for you by what’s available.
Owned buildings are personalised, dedicated spaces for training students. You don’t necessarily own the building, but you are the sole occupier of the space.
○ Full control over when and how the space is used
○ Can decorate, furnish and equip to taste
○ Could be seen as more legitimate
○ Could potentially sub-let to complementary businesses e.g. bootcamp fitness classes
○ Higher costs
○ More responsibility
○ More extensive cleaning bills
Shared buildings involve renting another organisation’s space to run your business. It could be another martial arts school, a community center, or even a local co-op.
○ Lower costs
○ Cheaper utilities
○ Reduced cleaning bills
○ Won’t always be available when you want and could possibly close down
○ May not be the perfect space for martial arts training
○ Could be seen as less legitimate by potential students
The size of your space will determine the number of students your school can train. Too big, and you’ll be spending too much at the beginning. Too small, and you won’t have any room for growth.
Larger class sizes can have greater income potential, and some potential customers may see bigger classes as proof of a better school. Until your class is big enough for the full space, you could potentially sub-let to complementary businesses for additional income. Just be ready to pay the higher costs that come with big buildings.
In contrast, smaller spaces have cheaper rent and utilities. Although your growth potential may be limited, you will be able to save thousands of dollars in utility and rental costs. You could get around a lower capacity by running more classes, but this is not always a guarantee and could lead to exhaustion or a need to hire an additional instructor.
When it comes time to choose a space, you’ll need to ensure it offers everything you need for your discipline of martial arts.
Answer these questions as you hunt for the perfect location:
○ What is the potential catchment area?
○ What is passing traffic and footfall like?
○ Is there adequate parking nearby?
○ Is the location on public transport routes?
○ Are there competing schools nearby?
Choosing a location could be the most difficult part of the selection process. Getting it right could save you thousands of dollars (and attract more students as well).
Every martial arts school needs equipment for class sessions, student training, and additional certifications.
Ask yourself these questions:
You may be able to repurpose old materials into equipment, for example mats, pads or training dummies could be perfect for your style of martial art. For more specific equipment, like weapons, you will likely need to purchase these outright.
Remember that all equipment costs, including training tools and student gear, should be factored into your overall price model.
Uniforms & Belts
What sort of uniform will you require your students to wear? What will you wear? Will you have a formal curriculum with belt levels?
You will also need to factor in sourcing these items but the good news is that they can also form part of another revenue stream for you as you purchase them wholesale and on-sell them to your students for a profit.
It is vital to ensure all costs are considered when pricing your martial arts classes. This includes not only rent and equipment, but marketing and promotion costs as well.
There are two major pricing structures to choose from: one-off prices and monthly memberships.
One-off models involve paying a flat-fee for attending your school. This one-time payment could be once per year or once per class, depending on the model.
Monthly memberships allow students to pay a monthly fee to maintain access to classes. This can help with your cashflow as it means predictable income each month, although not all students will want to commit.
In either pricing model, it’s important to be sparing with your free trials or student discounts. These can attract less committed students that drop out when prices increase, or refuse to stick with training over time. In addition, long-term price cuts could upset students paying a full price.
You can use either or both of these models, offering students the flexibility pay when they attend or the convenience of a direct debit. You could also consider having the one-off prices slightly more expensive, to encourage more students to pay monthly.
It’s a given that pricing models should fluctuate over time to meet your needs. At the same time, be careful to avoid major changes in price, particularly with established students.
Consider a scaling pricing model as well for families. As they add more members, perhaps the price could come down for the additional members.
Promotion involves the use of marketing and advertising to reach potential customers. Knowing how you intend to promote your offering will help you determine costs.
Here are some of the most commonly used techniques for startup businesses:
Maintain your promotional efforts with excellent follow-up steps:
Promotional efforts can be handled by you or by outsourced professionals. Outsourcing will cost more money, but could also deliver better results and work out as more cost effective. In either case, it’s a good idea to weigh the pros and cons.
Business administration includes some fundamental aspects of running a school, from accounting and customer service to basic marketing needs.
How much business administration are you willing to front on your own? Outsourcing is always a real possibility, helping you gain expertise and free up valuable time.
However, bear in mind that this freedom comes with a price that would need to be factored into your costs.
If you feel unable to run a martial arts school on your own, it could make sense to hire experienced personnel.
As you might imagine, there are pros and cons to both approaches. Having no employees means fewer monthly expenses, but a higher workload for you and possibly reduced capacity for growth. It would be almost impossible to take time off for illnesses and holidays. Hiring personnel would ease a large portion of this burden, but it’s going to cost you.
An important question to ask yourself is what work/life balance are you hoping to achieve? If you’re looking for flexibility, you can’t be the only person working on the business for long.
If you do choose to hire on employees, you will have three options to consider:
Contractors give you the most flexibility and there aren’t legal obligations to offer paid time off, a pension, and other benefits, so it’s an attractive option while first getting the business off the ground.
The last and most important aspect martial art school management includes managing your students.
It primarily includes:
Although this is a task that could be managed on your own, automated systems could save hundreds of hours by minimising management needs.
Martialytics is one such tool, offering a powerful system for startup and established martial art schools. Start a free trial today and see how automated billing, student booking, and event management can be streamlined for your martial arts school.
Being able to answer the questions above will enable you to develop a winning business plan long before you open your martial arts school. This plan will help you navigate potential pitfalls, and it could protect against costly mistakes as well. With a plan in place, lasting success can also be helped by understanding the relevant terms and using powerful tools designed to help you grow and retain students effortlessly.
From my experience I would say the following;
Research, research, research
If you’re going to offer monthly subscriptions look at what other groups/gyms charge and use that as a basis. No point charging £50 a month if everyone else is around the £30 mark. You can always find ways to increase subscriptions later on.
When we set up the new dojo we partnered with a fitness group who wanted a studio 24/7 but couldn’t afford to rent space on their own, so we made a deal and built them an exclusive studio which means we both get the space we want.
Do you really need changing rooms, kitchen space? It all sounds great on paper, but in our new dojo we’ve made the individual toilets big enough to double as changing rooms and we’ll provide some coffee making facilities but the whole place is dedicated to training.
We didn’t go straight to our own dojo, we built up the clubs hiring schools/sport centres etc until we were confident we could support our own dojo.
It’s also worth considering how you set yourself up. We decided very early on to become a limited company. There are pros & cons, in the UK limited companies can’t get access to sports grants but during the covid pandemic we could access the business support grants to keep the dojo afloat.
And delegate, for me it’s been the hardest thing to do but I’m slowly getting used to it. Martialytics makes this easy, instructors can access the dashboard to administer their own clubs, we have people who progress leads. We can push information out using study, and we use the waiver system to get parents and students to acknowledge our child protection policies.
And we absolutely live by the quote ‘The most dangerous phrase in the language is we’ve always done it this way.’ Don’t be scared to take a long hard look at what you’re doing and if it isn’t working change it, making the hard choices is how a good business thrives.
Last year we celebrated our 20th anniversary as a club, something we are incredibly proud of, especially when we think back to where we started. One of the key elements to our success is that we allowed the club to grow organically. Like many martial arts clubs we started with a few classes in local church halls. We allowed these classes to grow our community, which wasn't always easy and often meant lugging around mats and gear to our various venues. But it meant that by the time we took on our full time centre we had a substantial student base and knew that we could afford to make the leap. Something we are very proud of is the fact that we have never taken out a loan or been in debt, so we have always grown the club within our means.
When building your club it's important to consider what your values are, as this will shape your offering within your community and determine the members you will attract. For us we wanted our club to be a space where everyone is welcome and anyone can come and train. Our diverse community of members is something we take pride in and is something we really focus on. Our classes are accessible for all ages and backgrounds, people with disabilities, refugees and asylum seekers, everyone is welcome. We are even the UK's first and only Martial Arts Club of Sanctuary for our work with refugees and asylum seekers. Many of our students and families are on lower incomes which is something we specifically provide for, we want to make martial arts attainable for everyone. This year plans are in motion to become a registered charity so we can start looking at funding opportunities to support the work we already do in our local community.
As with any business it's important to start with what you can realistically manage and if you're fortunate like we are to have your members actively involved as directors and decision makers it means you can build your community with the support of your club members. Members who are your biggest champions when it comes to promoting your organisation and who see training not just as a great way to keep fit physically but also as an opportunity to be part of a great community of people from all walks of life. After what we've all lived through with Covid community is more important than ever if we want to build ourselves back up again. Our success is not only down to our wonderful instructors but our amazing members who see Nam Yang as their family.
One of the best business moves we recently made was joining Martialytics. We were keen to stay away from the usual large scale corporate platforms where you're just a number and Martialytics ticks all the boxes for us. They're a friendly and responsive team and are always happy to help. I love how user friendly it is and most importantly I love how Martialytics frees me up to focus on other aspects of the business. It's been a total game changer for us!
If you are an existing school owner and you have some advice for the next generation, please send it through to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be happy to feature it here!
Best of luck with starting your new adventure in Martial Arts, you won't regret it!