On September 1, 2023, our dojo celebrated being in business for 19 years. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that approximately 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more. In this blog post, Shihan Robinson and Sensei Yu share their views on the karate dojo as a business. Here are some personal and authentic accounts:
Q. What’s the secret sauce to the dojo?
- Shihan Robinson: Consistency. Just like training karate, consistency in schedule, atmosphere, standards, setting and reaching goals, being open six days a week for 50 weeks of the year kept our dojo open for 19 years.
Q. What was the original vision for Best Karate Dojo?
- Shihan Robinson: A high quality service: traditional karate. In 2004, there were a handful of Korean Tae Kwon Do schools in the Triangle, but not any Japanese traditional karate dojos in retail or public view.
- When we met with ValPak about our first mailing coupon, we coined the tagline “World Class instruction + Local Talent = National Champions” focusing on Robinson’s and Yu’s competition training as members of several U.S. teams that traveled to Panama and Italy.
- New customers did not know what ‘traditional’ meant, what to make of the Japanese terms and values used with their kids, and how the training would feel. We offered a lot of free trial classes, created terminology sheets and put up signs to characterize our service. There was no ‘line of black and brown belts’ yet to help us with making things ‘traditional’. Nowadays, traditional is demonstrated and culture is felt. Occasionally, we still use signs to remind everyone of expected actions, like bowing, cleaning, and being on time.
Q. What is easy and what is hard in operating a dojo business?
- Sensei Yu: Class curriculum and desired atmosphere is easy. Marketing decisions are hard – In our first year, we paid for a lot of print advertising, in Carolina Parent, WCPSS school flyers, and mailbox coupons called Valpak. That brought in the 100+ families we needed to meet our business plan and revenue goals. But after the initial six months, we got calls and received emails with all kinds of marketing techniques: Back-of-register-tape ads, in-theater movie ads, magazine ads, golf directory ads, school folder ads, Groupon Ads, national try-a-new-gym prepaid packages, Yelp highlights, Google SEO, and sales lead generation programs. After lots of pestering, we reluctantly tried all of those marketing channels and most of them did zero – absolutely zero – for new leads! All of them were completely overpriced for customer acquisition.
- What worked? Word of mouth, customer referrals, public festival demonstrations, and school-based discounts were our best ways to meet prospective new students. We know that September, October, and January are months where new students sign up (new goals, new School years, new routines) and the months that students take advantage of the “membership pause” (summer months).
- We are still figuring out the best use of social media. We tend to use IG, FB, to brag about our members’ individual accomplishments and make quick dojo announcements (power outages, testing information). Our firstborn, Asia, talks a lot about Instagram reels, and building our followers through member-generated content and paid ads.
Q. How did the dojo prevail during the COVID pandemic?
- Sensei Yu: We pivoted quickly and kept our community together. When the world was told on March 15 to go home and stay home, our dojo as a non-essential business was shutdown, but we pivoted over one weekend to online instruction. We first started streaming a solo instructor in the dojo onto YouTube five days a week. After 2 weeks, we switched over to Zoom, with one instructor teaching, demonstrating, and counting the kihon, kata, and kumite movements, with at least one, sometimes two or three instructors, giving verbal feedback to each student during the live class time. Even though we saw that technical skills were slipping, we were really enthused by the fact that we didn’t lose any students, and we realized that we were keeping a community together. The kids and adults logged in everyday at 5:30 and we provided physical activity EVERYDAY. Families loved logging on so that a teacher was basically saying to each person “I see you, I hear you.” [A sad note: During the pandemic, it’s estimated that 80% of all martial businesses shut down permanently. ]
Q. How does karate competition help the dojo business?
- Shihan Robinson: Setting new goals, learn new things. As a competitive athlete, I saw a lot of bias and once received a bit of bullying when I was about to perform a kata, from an official who didn’t like my instructor. That day, I vowed to be the best official I could be and to join the referee council to stop that nonsense. I am in charge of the referees in AAU Karate, and serve on a global Referee Commission for World Union of Karate Federations (WUKF.) I set annual, weekly, and daily goals for myself in karate and officiating. By setting new goals, I keep growing, and I challenge all of our instructors not to rest on their achievements but to keep growing and learning as well.
Q. What does it mean to have a dojo family?
- Sensei Yu: Believe in the power to transform lives – Another early business tagline was “Helping men, women, and children achieve their very best through karate.” When we opened the dojo, we had two young children, Asia (age 6) and J.J. (age 2). As parents AND as teachers, we combined karate’s routines, fitness, and respect with our needs and our kids’ needs for friendship and competition. To this day, Shihan Robinson and I are close friends with the adults like Sensei Craig Lawton, Sensei Patrick Rainey, and Sensei Dimple who started training karate and bringing their kids to the dojo in our first 3 years. We created a dojo culture of family-focused values, positive talk, academic achievement (“pen and sword in accord”), leadership, and inclusion. Sometimes, when we see a young student who is super shy or lacks confidence, social graces, or a work ethic. We know that the dojo is a second home for them, where we can transform a young person’s life. Hopefully, they sense a culture of caring, helping, laughing, growing, and “achieving their very best through karate.”
Q. What is planned for the future of the dojo?
- Shihan Robinson: The dojo will most definitely reach the 20th anniversary mark! I still have several personal goals in karate including training many black belts to continue the TBK way of performing, and teaching, shotokan karate. Even if we ever closed the dojo, I would continue training karate. Some former TBK programs may make a comeback the dojo, like personal training, weight training, kickboxing, karate for women only, and afterschool care. I always wanted one of my black belts to take over the dojo, and it looks like J.J. is stepping up.