Some of you may know that for years I've done martial arts instructional video reviews. A few years back I became friends with a video instructor who created some great tapes. Prior to becoming a martial arts video instructor, that individual owned several large and financially successful martial arts schools. Eventually he sold them all and cashed-out very nicely with of course a standard non-compete. He had lots of money, yet seemed very unhappy, so one day I asked him why he never seemed completely happy. He told me he could no longer do what he really loved, hands-on teaching, due to his non-compete. I asked him kiddingly if all the money he got made that pain easier to bear, and he said "no, actually it makes me feel even worse".
I asked why and he said "I feel like I sold-out on so many levels, yet it all kind of unexpectedly snuck-up on me, due to the evolving business model and hardcore tactics we slowly adopted, in order to keep up with our growth while chasing a huge pot-of-gold." Paraphrasing, he said "what I initially envisioned, and what it eventually became, were two different things...it became such a huge financial monster....I had employees, employment issues with them, but I couldn't just get rid of them because they had families to feed, and due to the growth and number of students I did need their help....I was no longer able to provide quality hands-on instruction to students...compared to a nice small school, I was pulled into 10x the amount of business issues...I kept thinking if it got a little bigger I could do more hiring to change that, but that never happened...money to keep things going became the priority...and all the while the school just kept growing-and-growing, then into several locations....if I had it to do over again, I would've just run (1) small club instead of a school...if I didn't have the videos I sold to make me feel I was making at least a small contribution to the martial arts, I'd likely go mad".
He further added "you know its funny, in most major cities that same path is the one many commercial schools are heading towards, and either they don't care, or don't see they may end-up just like me, a big stack of money, but banned from doing what you originally loved". Yet the most shocking thing he revealed was this "not only will the school owner eventually lose sight and control of what he's created, but ultimately the student, and quality of instruction they receive for what they're paying, ends up suffering too". I said to him "If you really feel that way, don't you think the world one day needs to know about that, so owners and students don't get stuck in that situation?" He said "someone really should say something, because students end up being charged too much, quality instruction slowly diminishes as time goes by and the school grows, but students are stuck on contract that as school owners, we have to keep them on for the sake of ourselves, our employees, and the overhead costs...and students that want to quit and are on contract should be allowed too, because often they just show-up and go through the motions, making the rest of the school look bad, and taking away from the time instructors could be spending with those who really cared and are trying". I promised him that one day if I ever opened a school, it would be a club and I would do things differently, and that I would love to point this horrible scenario out to as many people as I could, so that owners and students alike didn't get caught up in it. He said "fine, but don't use my name".
Then I said to my friend "Why can't an owner, once he heads down the money-path you've described and sees its a problem, stop or correct it". He said "First he becomes addicted to the money, next he starts buying things with his new found success and that changes his lifestyle, also his business and operations change and he becomes financially committed to maintaining that, its a mess....I have some manuals you should see, and since I can't no longer use this stuff due to my non-compete, I'll send you about 6 different "Karate Business/Sales Seminar" manuals, from the top-notch gurus who charge the most for that info...if you look at it and think about numerous weaknesses in it you and I have discussed, you'll understand why it demands a hardcore business model and extremely aggressive sales tactics...thats what has to be done, if money is the priority...hopefully you'll see how its all tightly and almost ingeniously intertwined." I asked him "then why did you do that?" He replied "I thought I could keep the bad aspect of that business model from happening, but if your goal is aggressive growth and money, it eventually catches up with you, and then its too late".
About a week after that phone call, the manuals my friend said he would send arrived. I studied them over several weeks, and became convinced he was right. Setting ones sites on a pot-of-gold could easily lead to a loss-of-control, and could easily sacrifice hands-on quality instruction by the owner, with every student. The information I had read gave a very clear roadmap of how one could make a lot of money, but as a school grew one could see that so did the business dynamics along with the operations. It became evident that there was no way an owner would be able to spend a significant amount of time in each-and-every class, with each-and-every student. As the class size grew, the amount of time an owner could spend with each student during each class, diminished, thus spreading the attention an owner could give too thin. And then once the 2nd location opened, then the 3rd, and 4th, carrying an owners name, no way he could be in several places all at once, on lets say 6PM on a Monday night! The owner would eventually become more of a manager and businessman, than a hands-on instructor with every student!
The manuals my friend sent me, combined with what he'd told me over the phone, were shocking. Each martial arts school owner typically markets himself as providing "the best quality instruction", yet if he truly wants to be the one providing hands-on instruction to every student, once he hits a certain student size, or multiple locations, he can't! It relegates him into more of a businessman and operations manager capacity, than hands-on instructor with every student! And the larger he grows, the more he gets pulled into non-hands-on instructional matters!
I believe the best instruction a person can get, comes from the person whose name is on the door! He will always have a more detailed vision of what he wants taught in his school, than anyone else there. If he's not the one constantly teaching you, then how can you not feel a little cheated, and that you're not getting a good amount of attention from whose name is on the door? Heck, I've seen some schools that were so big, the owner didn't even know all the students names! What a shame.
Hopefully you understand up to this point in this article, there are many factors to consider when choosing a school, and because of that, why I wanted to reveal what I learned from my friend to anyone interested in trying martial arts! And for the record, me telling you all this has nothing to do with wanting to sway you into choosing my school (mine's really more like a club). Quite honestly my club is getting rather full, I may go to creating a waiting list soon, because I don't have much room left for more than a small handful of additional students. Whomever your choose, please choose very carefully!
If you're in a major city, I believe in certain ones there may only be 1 out of 100 schools there, that's really a good fit for certain students! My hope is that if one school doesn't work out for you, you don't feel burned afterwards and give up on martial arts forever. If you got this far into all the long winded articles and information I try to provide, chances are you want to choose the best school for you, and you want to be careful about doing so. Good for you! Just realize that even if you try hard to choose the right one, if you don't set for yourself a stringent list of requirements, their hardcore business and sales tactics can disguise what they're truly about, and can pull the wool over your eyes, and you might still end up in the wrong school. Should that happen, don't give up on martial arts forever, keep looking until you find the right style, school, and instructor for you!
Be very careful. Your choice will have you investing thousands of dollars over several years. Choose wisely not impulsively.
The goal of many schools is to charge you as much as they can, and to get you on contract so they can do that as long as they can! Its not a nice game they play with you, once you've seen their business model and sales tactics. Often they have memorized dozens of hardcore and powerful psychological sales tricks, and have them up-their-sleeve, to use on you. Some of their tricks are designed to be so slick they seem sincere and could be unrecognizable. Some even use very personal questions, to breakdown your guard, and to later use the answers you gave them, to make you feel awkward about objecting to their lengthy contracts, astronomical rates, or needing more time to chose or investigate other options Thus, I've designed a few hard questions for them that will hopefully help those I consider the most important (students), have better odds of making the right selection!
A few of the questions you'll see after this section were designed to be answered FULLY. Best advice, ask all questions below word-for-word! If someone is vague or too short with their answers, you might try something like this: "is there anything else you're not telling me about that?...if there is, please tell me now, and here's why...a few years ago i called a health club that wouldn't answer any questions on the phone...they had me go see them in-person, where they finally gave me their outrageous answers, terms and prices...its like they just wanted to get me over-on-their-turf for high-pressure sales tactics...if anyone else puts me through all that, I won't do business with them...so now I've learned its best to get full disclosure about my concerns by phone first, and if that sounds good, then we can meet later...can you be the type of understanding person that has enough character, honesty, and integrity, to do that with me by phone right now?" If they say "no" to that, then you know they don't really care about you, and what game they want to play with you! Bottomline, don't be afraid to state something like the above to them, and put them on the hot seat over-the-phone where you have control. I guarantee you most of them will try to put you on their hot seat in-person in their environment, where they try to establish control! In person they will try to make you squirm and feel uncomfortable, using high-pressure sales tactics (today-only deals). Some of them will even resort to reprehensible sales tactics that make you feel guilty, that in a round-a-bout way asks if you're the type of person that's indecisive about everything you do in life.
Heck, some of these vultures even contract-out with the absolute best ex-Health Club Sales Pros, and ex-Used Car Sales Pros, who were top notch at getting people on-contract for overpriced services/products, to get you on-contract with their overpriced classes! They call them their "Program Director" (their closer). Some school owners will even set the appointment themselves, but you actually meet one of those kind of contract salesmen! Remember, many have the goal of getting you on contract for as long as they can, and for as much as they can. To get past all your objections to their lengthy terms and overpriced classes, they'll bring in outside sales specialists who have a solid track record of getting that done! If they have the courage to either pay-and-learn top notch sales pitches its very hard to say no too, or bring in expert salesmen to get you on a lengthy contract thats 1.5-3x what other schools charge, then don't be afraid to have the courage to get the answers you want, WHEN and WHERE you want them (over the phone and right now)! Many of them are playing a major game with you, where they have seriously stacked the deck in their favor. I say if they're bold enough to treat you as "just another sale", you have just as much right to play your game right back at them and treat them as "just another school". Fairs, fair! Have courage, be bold and brave, because they are coming after you with the mindset of a lion stalking its prey (getting you on contract). I guarantee you they won't even blink an eye or wince, when they slide across the table to you, their multi-year contract that charges 1.5-3x what other schools do, nor when they hand you a pen silently implying "sign it now" using another pressure-cooker tactic they've been taught called the "assumptive close"!
1: What do you charge for classes? If they won't tell you, hang-up. They are likely withholding this so they can bait you into coming-in for a sales appointment. Lots of them have spent $2K-$5K to fly somewhere on the weekend, and learn a sales pitch and business plan that promises they can make a $20K/month income with their school, if they stick with the following : charge 2-3x the cost of other schools (creating a perceived higher value), only use contracts, only give certain info face-to-face, never answer certain questions by phone, and use the appointment to give you a slick sales pitch that has over a 50% chance of getting you on CONTRACT! If you fall for going to see them to get info they withhold, they claim there's over a 50% chance you fit their psychological profile of those who can't resist their memorized high-pressure sales pitch, nor leave without having signed an overpriced lengthy contract for lessons. Why set yourself up for paying 2-3x what you should for classes, or for a lengthy contract? There's 100 schools in most major cities, and enough choices that you don't have to fall for those kind of tricks nor games. It's a buyers market when it comes to lessons! You have the money, you have what they want, you can dictate the rules about how and when they get your money! Just think, if they want to play games with you over the phone, and they don't have the integrity to fully disclose their business practices over the phone, no telling what else they don't reveal until they get you signed on their dotted line. End the call right then and keep calling around until you find someone that does have the integrity to tell you everything about their "prices and contracts" and business practices over the phone.
2: Do you have more than one price for your classes? This is a red flag if they say "yes" and won't thoroughly explain why over the phone. The next question/answer will explain why.
3: What are those different prices and how does a student get them? I say if there are too many options, too many games are being played, to likely try and get your money as long as possible...more than one option usually means a huge lump sum pre-payment for years of classes, or lengthy contract options.
4: Do I have to sign a contract at any point prior or during my training? say "NO" to contracts. Why expose yourself to the possibility of collection agencies, negative remarks on your credit report, or lawsuits/judgements? Just think, what if things don't work out with that school, or if after a month or two you realize their expectations are unrealistic for your age, or you find out you don't like the instructor, or you feel you aren't getting skilled 6-12 months into their 24-60 month contract? We've all heard stories of health clubs resorting to collection agencies, bad credit reports, and even lawsuits/judgements with their "clients"! If they won't tell you over the phone if they use contracts, that's because they likely DO require contracts, otherwise the answer is a simple "no we don't". Not telling you is also a trick to withhold certain info, so that you HAVE TO go in-person to get that answer from their closer. This is done by design, so they can use a powerful sales pitch that plays-down your risk of signing a contract, when contracts most often state your committed or else! If they won't tell you about contracts over-the-phone, best bet to avoid having your arm twisted into signing one you might want out of later, is to hang-up the phone. They are likely withholding telling you they offer them so they can turn-the-tables and bait you into coming-in for a sales appointment that will lead to you signing one! Don't be fooled into that, nor environments in which an overpriced lengthy contract for lessons charges you 2-3x the price of lessons somewhere else. Train where people don't have to play games to get-and-keep students, and they have the integrity to tell you all their business practices over-the-phone. If they won't tell you everything over-the-phone, good chance there's other things, including future hidden costs outside of the contractual class fee, you won't find out about until after you've signed their contract.
5: Is there a different price for signing a contract vs not?
6: Do you use Finance or Billing Companies? I say either is unacceptable, because they've been known to charge additional finance fees, or heavy APR's, above the cost of the class fee!...and some of those companies offer an additional kick-back to the school, for putting them on a contract with an APR/finance fee. The other thing about contracts is similar to factoring receivables. Some owners will sell that contract to a company at a discounted price to get all the cash today, especially if he needs cash for his next location, add more staff/instructors, he's hit a slow time of the year, etc. The owner will even sometimes mark-up your monthly rate higher than the cash price, to offset the percentage the finance, billing, contract, factoring company gets.
7: Do you try to sell "upgrades" packages and contract plans, halfway through a students existing plan, or before that plan is over?...that is done more often than you can imagine, to make sure you stay with them forever....often this will be done right before an important belt/rank test, so that psychologically you're thinking they might grade you as highly on that test, if you don't renew!
8: Do you charge a registration fee, enrollment fee, or administrative fee?.......if they say "yes" ask how much. Personally, I wouldn't sign-up with a place that required either, because to me, if they want that, they are likely all about trying to think of every way possible to get money out of you! in my opinion, those fees aren't really paying for anything tangible that provides you additional value. i've heard its just another way to figure out how a school owner get a few more bucks out of students, or that fee is paying his salesman a huge commission for either getting you on contract, or your multi-thousand dollar lump sum payment for years of classes he was able to convince you of paying for upfront! if you've got money to throw away, please, give it to a charity
9: What are the class dates and times?....I've had students tell me that about 50% of the time they visited inexpensive places, adults trained with kids, and they didn't like that...be sure to ask if they have a adults-only beginner class.
10: How many Kids vs Adults?
11: How many adults do you see that are 5, 10, 20 yrs older than you?...if you don't see very many, where will you be at that age if you choose them?...what do you think happens to all that time, effort and money you've invested?
12: What is their ratio of adults over 30 yrs old to those under 30 yrs old?....i hope you will look for a place that has a 50-50 ratio, or you may very well be picking a style that doesn't last long!
13: What percentage of your adult students are over 40 yrs old?...i'd suggest you pick a place that has at least 20% over that age, if you want an indicator of something that will likely last you many years...if you don't see many adults over 40 hanging around, its likely because what they teach isn't realistic for them, and doesn't make them want to stay
14: Do the techniques taught look unrealistic for adults or like Hollywood stunt work?...when you try your first class, or you go visit, do you see beginners over 30 yrs old trying to do athletic 4 foot off the ground jumps, with crazy spins in the air added to those jumps...til what age do you think an adult can do that kind of crazy stuff.
15: Can you picture yourself doing those techniques? (when visiting)
16: Do they mainly do kicking or only grappling? (when visiting)
17: Do you see them practicing "pulled" punches to the head?...look for this when visiting..."pulled" punches are those that barely touch the head or can at times come within an inch or two of touching a persons head, but don't...2 very large TKD associations DO NOT allow you to even practice "pulled" punches to the head with others during sparring, and they emphasize nearly 100% kicking...favorite saying I like "how you practice is how it will come out in the street"...why's that a big deal?...do you want to train in something that typically only lasts most students til their 30 yrs old, or that can be adapted as you age, and can last til you last days?....what percentage of beginning adult students between 30-70 yrs old do you think can do crazy head-high aerial kicks?....how many students between 30-70 yrs old do you see at a place that doesn't allow "pulled" punches?...i bet you'd be very hard pressed to find even 10 percent of their adults over 30 yrs old in kicking-only environments!...and you want to know what's crazy?...with the answer starring them right in the face, those kind of places still can't figure out why they can't attract-and-keep adult students over 30 yrs old!
18: Are uniforms optional or mandatory?
19: Is attendance mandatory?
20: Is participation in tournaments mandatory?...whether-or-not you're interested in tournaments, the following answer might indicate whether or not you're considering a McDojo: "are your tournaments "open" to other styles or "closed" to them?"..."closed" typically means "we don't want our students exposed to schools that do things differently than we do"...you need to really think hard about the financial ramifications as to why a school wouldn't want you exposed to the way other styles and schools, outside of their own, do things...hint, what if you saw that and it looked better to you, or you saw and mentally compared other students close to you own rank/age from another style/school, and felt they consistently performed better than you?...how long do you think a student who figured that out would continue training at a school that hadn't made them that good yet?...as a school owner or association of schools, how do you minimize student fallout from that?....binding contracts and closed tournaments sounds like a good start to me!
21: Is belt testing mandatory?
22: Are their forms, one-steps, techniques, or style name copyrighted?...definitely ask this...2 very large martial arts chains/associations have copyrighted everything they teach...you can't ever legally teach to others their material, should you decide after blackbelt you no longer want to be with them...why would you not want to stay with them for 2nd degree on up...because of the hundreds/thousands of free-labor teaching hours required for your next rank...once they have a blackbelt doing lots of teaching-for-the-next-rank, this is when owners often stop showing up to do as much hands-on instruction....and get this, often these blackbelts are still paying $120-$200 month to be a member of that school, while putting-in hundreds or thousands of teaching hours for the next few years til they're due for their next rank!...to me, this is plain-and-simple taking advantage of blackbelts, and reeks of being a business ploy for free-labor/instruction, so the owner can kick-back and work on starting that whole scenario at his next school/McDojo!...did you know lots of organizations don't charge blackbelts to attend class, if they are "occasionally" helping teach...i personally feel once someone makes blackbelt with one of those places, this free-labor angle makes many a blackbelt decide to quit martial arts forever...be careful about getting stuck in one of those places.
23: Who owns the school?
24: How often does the OWNER teach class to beginners?
25: Does the school owner teach martial arts full-time or part-time?....at many "commercial schools", and what some call McDojo's, running a school is the only thing the instructor does for a living! why is that important? if that's the only thing he does for a living, he's got to make as much money at it as he can, right? most often in those type of places students end up paying 2-3x what other schools charge, and get nickeled-and-dimed for every penny in their pocket, because the owner is trying to make a full-time living out of it!
26: What hours is the owner there?...another McDojo clue, or, does the owner even hardly ever come around. if he doesn't, and he's likely the head instructor, why doesn't he want to teach classes more often?...could it be he wants to be more of a businessman (profiteer) than a hands-on instructor with all his students, and that he's focused more on the financial aspects of multiple schools he might own?...i am convinced that once an instructor gets the taste for a lot of money, a lot is never enough, and it becomes like a disease where he obligates himself to the complex business issues of maintaining that...i'm also convinced that once he falls into that trap, he focuses more on money to keep things going, than on himself providing hands-on instruction with every student...how does the saying go "money is the root of all evil?"
27: Will you provide me the OWNERS home phone number once I start?....not cell, home number, the difference tells how much he really cares about you...if they say no, he either doesn't want a truly personal connection with his students, or he's all about money...simply, if they say "no" to this, then you're very likely "all business" to him...and what's the goal of business by IRS definition...making money first, everything else comes second to that, including you it seems, if an owner won't allow you to call him at home outside of school hours!
28: Is sparring gear/uniform prices charged at retail, above retail, or below retail?....I try to consistently charge my students 20% less than the catalog and online prices for Century, AWMA, and Masterline...unlike most schools, we're more like a club, and I don't believe in reaching as deep as I can into a students pockets, every chance I get!
29: Do most of the students seem to know one another, or is it an impersonal environment where everyone goes their own way afterwards?....watch for this when visiting...if they don't know one another, likely the instructor is mainly about money.
30: Minimum time to black belt?...McDojo's will often cut the time in half for this, compared to other places. why? i believe its because they likely know that will attract more students and lead to a higher retention. problem, those type of 1st degree blackbelts often perform no better than "intermediate rank" green-or-blue belt students at a quality school that takes twice as long! Most common acceptable number for blackbelt is 3-4 yrs...the most questionable number most quality schools complain about is 1.5-2 yrs...how does this become a problem for you?...when you become a blackbelt and they try then to upgrade you to a new 3-5 yr contract and you decide you don't want it, yet you want to stay involved in martial arts....so you think you'll start checking on other schools....you call another school and tell them you're a McDojo blackbelt who wants to keep training, and they of course want to see your skill, before allowing you to be accepted as a blackbelt amongst their students...90% of the time I've seen this scenario play-out, an 18 month blackbelt does end up performing like a green-or-blue belt at a 4 years to blackbelt quality school...so guess what often happens...that instructor in a higher quality program decides "i can't let that guy come to my school and wear that belt, if I did, all of a sudden I've lowered my standard in my school as to what I accept as a blackbelt here"...this will very likely happen to you over-and-over again, until guess what?...you either retire forever from martial arts, or you go back to the McDojo and sign that new 3-5 yr contract...i think there's a good chance that the 18 months to blackbelt is designed by the McDojo's corporate structure, to create a scenario of you-stay-with-us-or-face-retirement... you can't tell me the McDojo corporate decision makers aren't smart enough to know acceptance of your 18-24 month blackbelt elsewhere would likely be denied at many 4-yr-to-blackbelt-schools...personally, i believe you can't cheat time when it comes to obtaining skill, and they likely know that, and likely play that up to their advantage on many levels.
Closing thoughts - if you forgo this advice, and go see a school anyway that charges 2x-3x more than other places, has contracts, uses memorized/slick rebuttals on all your objections that you can't refuse, or uses 3-5 uncomfortable trial closes on you before you leave....here's some things below to say so you leave with your shirt-on....hey, if they can memorize their high-pressure sales pitches, rebuttals to your every objection, and their numerous trial closes, why can't you use a mix of the excuses below on them word-for-word:
1. I need some time to think about it, give me a day or two
2. I want to check with some other schools
3. I need to go home and study my household budget
4. I want to compare your price with that of other places
5. I'll let you know
6. I want to check with the Better Business Bureau about you
7. I need to talk with my doctor about my physical condition!
8. I have a family member that's an attorney, and I'd like him to review your contract first, let me take one home
9. I have a personal matter that needs to be addressed first, I'll get back with you
10. My work schedule conflicts with your class time.
11. I'm about to start taking some college classes, lets wait on that schedule
12. I need to check with my (wife, girlfriend, etc) first, I'll let you know
13. Please, can you just back-off and tone-it-down a bit, I'm feeling very pressured, that's making me feel this place might be a very BAD DECISION for me!
14. "I'm not interested"...they'll always ask why you feel that way...when they do say "I don't feel like explaining my reasons why, I don't have too...I know your game is to use that excuse as something to work from to try and overcome it and get a yes from me, there's no reason for you to try and get into my head, because I certainly don't know what's going on inside of yours"
15. I don't think I really care for your sales tactics
16. Pressure me one more time, and I will walk out that door and you'll never see me again
17. Sorry, but we're out of time, I need to be somewhere else right now, I'll call you
18. Sorry, I'm feeling sick, nauseous, and have a bad headache, I can't think clear, I need to go
19. I didn't know our meeting would take this long, I need to go pick someone up
20. I'm sorry but I need to leave now!
"Your best bet is to start standing up when you say one of the above, either the 1st, 2nd or 3rd time, that lets them know you are ready to leave! This will make them VERY uncomfortable, because they now picture you walking out their door and becoming a "lost sales opportunity", meaning no steak dinner for them tonight while you're eating hamburger! If they say "please sit down" or "please wait a minute", say to them "sorry, but I really need to go", and then just start walking! Remember, if they are bold enough to make you uncomfortable and make you feel pressured, then be bold enough to leave!
If they say "well this deal is only good today", they are likely arm-twisting you with used-car salesman type tactics! Don't fall for it! Should though you slip-up and sign a contract, and that day or the next have 2nd thoughts, in many states there is a 3 Day law that allows you to get out of the contract, if you provide them notice in writing. I suggest you overnight or hand deliver that notice to them, or at least get it postmarked with certified mail! Also, beware that there are places that give you a month or two free, to get you to drop-your-guard, and then reel-you-in with a mandatory lengthy contract! Find another place, there are lots of them out there!