Growing Your Martial Arts Business Ethically

Younger brother Dave acknowledging that “I would still be teaching thirty students now if it wasn’t for my brother’s aptitude for combining core business principles with the simple but often forgotten rule of putting the student first.”

With Tim’s work on the marketing and sales side of the business, the Satori Academy quickly grew to 450 students. “Before long we were opening our second, third and then fourth locations in the local neighbourhood.” For the Kovars this was a key period in getting the fundamental basics right. “You have to make sure the people you are putting into your organization are going to help make it bigger and stronger.” Indeed a key element for Tim was hiring individuals who “love what you hate rather than love what you do.” For example, if you dislike the administration side of things, don’t recruit someone simply because they share your passion for the martial arts, simply employ someone who can take care of the crucial role of administration – “they have to demonstrate strengths where you have weaknesses.” Dave is also keen to emphasize that putting training into your instructors is another key area of “getting the basics right.” Evidence of this was clear in the recent Satori Academy black belt grading where junior students were going for their first, second and third degree black belts. “I would definitely say that the quality now was better than when I had three students going for black belt in 1989.” This ‘quality’, in terms of students performing to the best of their individual ability, is down to having instructors who have a passion for the martial arts, but also as Tim is keen to point out, “your instructors need to have compassion for their students. It’s all about giving top quality tuition.’

‘Being a martial arts instructor is a profession in its own right. It is a career and it is how I make my living’ Dave Kovar ‘Being a martial arts instructor is a profession in its own right. It is a career and it is how I make my living’

Dave Kovar

The idea of expanding your martial arts school and at the same time providing quality tuition is a controversial area in the world of martial arts. In recent years, certain commentators of the martial way have expressed concerns at instructors operating their school as a business. Indeed, one published author recently claimed that the relationship between student and instructor had become a “mere commercial transaction.” It was an idea that I was keen to discuss with the Kovars, who certainly have strong opinions on the subject. “A martial arts instructor is a profession in its own right. It is a career and it is how I make my living. I can relate to the perception but to be perfectly honest I think those kinds of statements are a kop out. I would be curious to see how many students that particular individual has in his school. If I had twenty million dollars I would still teach, who is anyone to judge?” Tim agrees with this. “You will always have guys slinging mud over student numbers. But as a student, would you rather go to a school that is financially solvent, rather than a school that is going to disappear in 12 months time? I know what I would choose.’

‘If you have what I call a Hollywood approach where you believe in hard punishing training every session you teach, that the white belts must clean the dojo before and after class, and wearing protective equipment is for wimps then quite frankly you are failing your students.’ Tim Kovar

The question of how to grow your martial arts business without losing the core values that the martial arts is based on is something that Dave experiences a lot of through his teaching in PROMAC. ‘Instructors ask me all the time how they can grow their business without looking like they are in it for the money. My answer to this is simple – do you think you would be a better instructor if you worked a six to three job on a construction site and then started class? I don’t think so. Put aside the fact that I have the Satori Academies and PROMAC, at the end of the day I am a martial artist first, a teacher second, and a businessman third. It is that simple.” Dave is a strong believer in maintaining his own training, starting the day at 5:30 am with a gym workout followed by meditation and sparring with senior grades. “You must never forget that you can employ all the best marketing tools and sales techniques available on the market but if you are not doing the job on the mat then none of that will matter. I like to keep training because I love to do it and it is my passion in life. If I step into that training hall and I cannot do the business I will be failing my students.” This is something Tim also feels strongly about. “On the idea of quality teaching I like to use the analogy of hurting the student. What I mean is if a student gets hurt they will always associate martial arts with that pain and they will not come back. If you have what I call a Hollywood approach where you believe in hard punishing training every session you teach, that the white belts must clean the dojo before and after class, and wearing protective equipment is for wimps then quite frankly you are failing your students.” As Dave emphasizes, “as an instructor you have a duty to motivate your students and get the best out of them. Junior grades need protection and they need to be nurtured. Otherwise, if they get hurt early on in their training they will be put off martial arts for life and that is a crime!”

The long-term goal for the Kovars is to gradually increase the Satori Academy so that by 2010 they have 70 fully operational schools. They also plan to build on the initial success of PROMAC. “Right now we are building the infrastructure that is making this target possible,” says Dave. Yet this number will not be reached by sacrificing any of the values that the Kovars have built with their existing framework so far. For Tim, “what it all boils down to is that our success is only measured by the relationship between instructor and student. The instructor is there to serve and they should never lose sight of that. It’s a message I am constantly communicating to our team of instructors.” Dave is equally vocal on this. “When I walk into my local store or if I’m walking down the street, I want to be able to hold my head high, knowing that what I am doing with the martial arts is really making a difference in the community – its keeping kids out of trouble and helping people lose weight and keep fit, whatever it may be, rather than ripping people off.’

After spending time with the Kovars it was clear that from the way they conducted business in their academies and with PROMAC, their ethos has been built on the very principles that were first introduced to them as students of the martial arts, proving that you can “get big” without “selling out.” They have embraced modern business principles, which remains a key component in their success, but they have never lost sight of the basic rule when growing their business – the importance of the student/instructor relationship. As Tim Kovar summed up: ‘As a martial arts school owner you have a duty to make the connection between passion and humanity, to ensure what you are doing is making a real difference. Do it for the students first and foremost, and the money and the growth of your business will follow. Do it for the money and you can forget about it.” A message that we can all understand.