My interview on the martial arts industry

17 Apr

I just finished an interview about my martial arts business philosophy. This is a raw transcript I thought I’d share with you.


Q: First question. In your view what makes a successful Martial arts gym?

Ny San Da
First, you have to define “success”. A lot of people say success is money. I’d say that money is one of THREE things that make success. The other two are achievement and happiness. Different people have different ideas of achievement; getting students to black belt, winning tournaments, or just helping people achieve a goal like weight loss. But finally, you have to be happy. Do you do what you love? Do you love what you do?

Q: So what was it that made you first start up your martial arts gym?

Ny San Da
I was diagnosed with Leukemia at age 6. I was a very sick kid. I was pronounced cured at age 10, martial arts then rebuilt my body. But it also was my “world”, my friends, my social life. The only thing that “clicked” with me was martial arts. It has been an integral part of my life forever. I wanted to share that all with people. I know that martial arts can change lives, heal/save lives. I am a bit of a “fanatic.”

Q: I see, but has that fanaticism about martial arts helped you in what you do?

Ny San Da
I strongly believe that one element of success is vision, and dedication to that vision. People start a business, a few months in it is a struggle and they give up, they have a “Plan B.” No great story ever had “well I failed so I just did my “Plan B.” I am where I am today because no matter what, I refused to ever change my vision.

For years the “industry” preached you have to water down your classes, do not teach real martial arts, do not have a really hard class. I refused to believe that and today everyone is talking about “extreme workouts” but I’ve been doing them for 25 years. I have over 1000 students in the New York area, most are regular people, yet ALL of them have basic martial arts skills, not watered down made up stuff.

I see people today, who told me years ago I was crazy. Now they want to be the “guru” and are trying to sell what they told me was impossible.

Q: So were there any difficulties you had to overcome or barriers you faced whilst running the Martial arts gym?

Ny San Da
Practically, you need three things to be a success in the martial arts industry.

The first is to teach a great class and have a great program. I always had that. The other two are marketing and customer service, and for years those were my weak points. Successful people learn to ask for help. Successful people acknowledge they don’t know everything and learn new things. I learned marketing and customer service and that is when my business became huge

Q: So for you would you say you are still learning?

Ny San Da
ALWAYS! How can you not? Technology and social media changes every day. Trends and demographics change. I am close to 50. Do you think my experiences relate to a 20 something? I grew up with vinyl records, and print ads, and yellow pages. You may not even know what those things are!

I know “business owners” who are not on Facebook, can you imagine that? They don’t know what twitter is.

Q: So the internet plays a big role in your success?

Ny San Da
5 years ago, I didn’t know anything about that sort of stuff. I am on the 4th floor, I have no signs in my windows (no one could see them anyway). YET I get over 100 intros a month and sign up around 60% of them. I sign up more people in a week than most schools do in a month. ALL internet.

What is “amazing” is that ANYONE could do this, but they don’t. They are too busy being “right” and not admitting their problems and asking for help.

Q: So what is the best advice you can give to someone who is starting up their own martial arts gym?

Ny San Da
If you want to do this, ask yourself if you really want a BUSINESS. Martial arts types often have dreams, not business plans. A lot of them have the “starving artist” mentality, they think if you make money it’s wrong. It’s all very silly

Step one: acknowledge it is a business. And if you don’t want that, just stop right there.

Step two: if you want to be a business, realize you have to sell a product that people want, not what YOU WANT. Do you know how many schools the guy is teaching what he wants to teach, he is inflexible, he has no one in class, but he won’t even consider change.

Step three: ASK FOR HELP, seek out help, and keep an open mind. I know guys who are failing, about a month away from shutting their doors. They have no students, and when you offer them advice they argue with you.

Q: Would you say many people pass step one?

Ny San Da
Say I want to open a vinyl record store, I want to sell vinyl records, what are my chances I’ll have a huge profitable business? What about a CD store? Who goes out and buys music cd these days? So opening a CD store because you love them is not a business decision.

You know, I say to people, today no one wants to wear uniforms, learn forms, learn Asian languages, they aren’t interested in your “art.” They want self-defense (MAYBE), they want to lose weight (DEFINITELY), they want to be healthy and feel good. Are you going to offer them weight loss, health, feeling good? Or are you going to make them wear a badly fitting uniform they feel uncomfortable in and start off their experience with you by having them do awkward movements with strange names?

Q: So what have been your biggest successes?

Ny San Da
Right now, my school is one of the top schools in the US as far as billing check (money people pay on contract per month) BUT, money isn’t the only thing I care about. I could make MORE money if I did some things differently. But I am comfortable.

So since I am making ok money, I can have other interests, I can still “play”. I train fighters. They don’t really make you money, but it is fun. Since I am not starving, I can train them. I have had a lot of success doing that, and it has proved my martial art, my teacher’s martial art.

I am happy. That is really important. I like all my students. I like teaching classes. I love going to the school. I love getting on the mat and teaching. NEVER FORGET, it is hard to be happy when you can’t pay your bills and wonder how you are going to survive every day.

Q: So if you could change anything, what would it be?

Ny San Da
People have a false sense of what martial arts are about. It isn’t about uniforms. It was never meant to be static and unchanging. When the Japanese learned Chinese martial arts, they didn’t use Chinese language, they used Japanese language! We speak English. We workout in workout clothing.

To me “forms” are like outhouses. We have modern plumbing now. We used to use leeches, now we have modern medicine.

Every martial arts instructor has the ability to teach an amazing class, and help people achieve their goals, but they can’t get past the “tradition”. There is a saying that you can’t solve the problems of today with the same thinking that got you into that problem.

Q: When you first started, what did you look for in terms of starting up?

NY San Da
I had been part of a school, and had already helped run it, so I had ideas already. It was a Taekwondo school and the Koreans were the first people to develop the idea of martial arts as business
I knew about class structures, and collecting tuition, etc. I had a leg up so to speak

In college, because I had already sold Taekwondo memberships, I got a job doing health club sales. Then they made me manager. My martial arts school was doing OK for quite a while but even I had to realize I wasn’t going where I wanted, and things were changing.

By 2007 or 2008, media was changing and the market was changing. I didn’t understand technology and social media. But I got help. I put my ego in check, duck taped my mouth and listened. Ironically, from someone who had once been my martial arts student. Martial arts guys would be like “you are my student, I am senior, I am a master” blah blah. I more than TRIPLED my business in two years because I shut my mouth and learned new stuff. And like all new technology, it made it EASIER.

Martial arts people must like making everything hard. The typical martial arts person makes everything hard. The old “industry idea” was set aside an hour to hard sell a person into joining. Dear lord, an HOUR? It was artificial. No one wanted to buy your kung fu fantasy, and especially not at the inflated price of your memberships. So you had to lock them in a room and try to manipulate them into doing it. We learned all our “business practices” and ethics from used car salesmen and time shares.

Q: do you think price has a great deal with people joining up?

Ny San Da
Go back to CD’s. How many people are going to buy a CD these days? I’d be Iucky if one person a day buys one? So I’d better get $100 from that one guy. How many people download from the iTunes store? So at US $1.49, it seems so cheap, but 10 million people buy a song.

In this industry, we’re all selling hot dogs. If my hot dog is $1 why would you want to buy the same hot dog from my competitor at $25? He has to convince you his “hot dog” isn’t a hot dog, it’s a “secret shaolin meat pie.”

The other thing is, most martial arts schools have nothing to “sell.” What is the motivation to buy? “I will teach you tiger kung fu”? Why do I want to learn tiger kung fu?

Q: Would you say location is also a factor?

Ny San Da
Location is a factor in business, never fool yourself. Martial arts people get dungeons in the middle of nowhere because the rent is cheap, but their business becomes hard to find, hard to get to and the place is a hole. Also, the days when you paint the walls all white, put a mirror on the wall and a carpet on the floor and call it a school are way over. Your place has to look great, it has to smell great, it has to be awe inspiring. The average martial arts school often looks like a “man cave,” it’s all random. Women are very sensitive to details, how clean, the smell, etc.

Q: How many people do you normal have per class?

Ny San Da
35 classes per week, peak classes have 25 to 35 people on average.

Q: Thank you for letting me interview you

NY San Da
I am glad I was useful to you!

Please forgive my typos!


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