But Really, It's a Business
Tuesday, 10 September 2019
A question came up on social media recently that I answered but thought it was important enough to expand on that answer in a different forum. The question was lengthy but essentially boiled down to, ‘Why are most aikido dojo’s run poorly, what is the solution to prevent them from closing?’
This prompted an interesting discussion in many ways. Naturally I have my own opinions on this and none of the arguments made against it were, to me, convincing.
As I see the problem the reason is, actually, pretty simple. Martial artists are bad at advertising. Very few of them can run a successful business. To be fair, very few people in general can run a successful business (only 10% of start-ups make it to year three). To be clear, this isn’t just aikidoka, this is martial artist’s regardless of style.
Part of the problem is that most martial artists do not want to think of their dojo as a business, because that wouldn't be pure, or ethical, or some other bullshit. That's exactly what it is though, a business. The result is that most dojos are run poorly and eventually close. As one commentator put it, "The […] problem is that many teachers equate financial failure with integrity.
Another commentator made a point that, in my opinion, perfectly demonstrates the entirety of mine. The exact attitude to which I’m referring in this post.
“Aikido is not a business. Most, if not all, sincere legitimate dojo keep the doors open because the chief instructor pays the shortfall out of his/her personal pocket. It's actually better that way. If you rely on students for your income your ranking and grading is compromised.”
This attitude actually astounds and in some ways deeply angers me. To start with it essentially claims that any dojo which tries to break even on expenses is not legitimate. That part, right there, is the complete failure to separate the concept that a dojo has expenses that must be covered from the activity that takes place inside it.
It then goes further and says that the instructor should pay the shortfall. A noble sentiment but highly exclusive. What if the instructor has only a modest income? Should they be excluded from teaching or having a dojo because they personally cannot afford to run it? This sentiment essentially says that only the rich should be allowed to teach aikido. At its core I consider this statement the worst form of elitism. To then say it’s better that way is, to me, appalling. To exclude the best from teaching simply because they are not wealthy is a step backwards in our societal constructs (in most places).
The last part, that if you manage to break even you’re completely compromised is insulting in the extreme. The argument here is that because you need the students to cover the bills you have no integrity and therefore will hand out belts like candy. It essentially states that it is completely impossible to be successful and honest. The logic appears to be that if you have a successful dojo you are automatically a bad person.
Consider that against the fact that the Gracie's have proven to be phenomenal at advertising. BJJ, MMA and UFC are virtual synonyms to a lot of people despite being 3 very different things. Whether you like it or not you cannot deny the popularity of what they do. The fact that I don’t have to tell you who the Gracie’s are should tell you everything you need to know about this topic. Ultimately, you don't have to have the best product, but you do have to have the best marketing. Aikido has very poor advertising.
Imagine watching a television advert from the 1970's, it would look bad. It would be dated, the language would be stale, the whole thing would be off. Even the quality of the video is poor. Compare it to any advert you would see on television today. It's modern, flashy, hi-def, relevant. Aikido is advertised in the same way as it was in the 1970's.
One of the most amazing things I discovered recently is that when you run a keyword analysis for search engine optimisation the term 'self-defence' comes up below other terms like fitness, health, or flexibility when looking at martial arts. Yet almost every poster and advert has 'self-defence' somewhere on it. What's the point of advertising something that people don't actually want to know about? That doesn't mean you can't teach it, just that it's not smart marketing to use up time advertising that angle.
Aikido is positioned as a martial art but the demonstrations that people see are not convincing. They used to be, but they haven't changed so people aren't interested. The demonstrations are the advert and it is old, stale, dated, and in some ways off-putting.
We don't help ourselves here either. Put a hundred different aikidoka in a room and ask them 'What is aikido', and you'll get a hundred different answers. That scales by the way, put a thousand in that room and you get the same result. What that leads to is an epic and embarrassing amount of infighting and snide comments (e.g. the appalling rise of the term 'aiki-dancer'). Think about that for a moment. If you saw two large groups of people on opposite sides of the same street yelling abuse at each other would you go and join one of those sides? Of course not, you wouldn't even walk down the street, you'd find an alternative route. In our case that means students go to a different dojo and a different art. We all lose out as a result of this.
None of this means that 'aikido needs to modernise', all it means is that we should seriously consider how we position ourselves when trying to get new students through the doors (and keep them). It also means that we should run our dojo's like they were a business, and businesses need to make money. The product is aikido but the salesman is the sensei. If they can't sell then the product will sit on the shelf and nobody will buy it.
It’s really important to note here that this in no way means you can’t be ethical, or pure or something else. What it means is that you have to make a mental division between what you do in the dojo, and how you continue the existence of the dojo.
It doesn’t mean that you have to make profit either. All it means is that you have to acknowledge there are costs associated with running a dojo. The most basic of these is rent. You have to pay for the training space. Sure, there are guys out there teaching two or three students in their garage and they don’t have rent (though arguably there are knock effects of that such as a rise in car insurance premium because the car isn’t kept in it), but they still have an electricity bill to pay to turn the lights on. Mats need cleaned and that means cleaning products, insurance must be paid for in case of injury. There are a great many costs in running the dojo and these need to be covered.
Running a dojo that covers its own costs is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. It means you can actually have a place to teach.
Addendum: Randy King has written an excellent book on this topic that I would highly recommend people read. It's called 'Selling out to your level of comfort'. Randy runs a full time dojo and does not teach children. Most people say you cannot do that, yet he does.