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How to Start Building Your Student Body Before You Officially Open Your School

by Justin Lee Ford

 

Back in 2019, George Smiley, an IT executive, wanted to do something new, so he decided to invest in a franchise. Having coached his son’s soccer team in his younger years, he knew that athletic activities can be great for communities and families, as well as worthy endeavors in which to invest money. Although he’d never trained in the martial arts, his search for a franchise and his interest in improving the community through athletic activity eventually took him to Premier Martial Arts.

If case you haven’t heard, Premier Martial Arts is a franchise with more than 100 locations. Founded in 1998 by Black Belt Hall of Famer Barry Van Over, Premier has grown rapidly in recent years and now spans the United States and Canada and extends into England.

When Smiley met with Premier Martial Arts, he saw it as an opportunity not only to invest in a successful franchise but also to spread the benefits of enhanced focus, improved self-confidence while fostering self-defense skill in the community.

Of course, you and I already knew that. It’s not an exaggeration to say that what we do saves lives. Adults learn skills that enable them to stop criminal attacks, and kids learn how to cultivate healthy habits at home and improve their focus and discipline at school.

With this opportunity comes a great responsibility. We’re taking broken people and repairing them. We’re putting the polish back on those who feel like they lack luster. We give them immediate results and show them what they’re capable of in the future, then provide a means for them to continue to improve. That’s the job of a martial arts teacher.

At the tail end of 2019, I crossed paths with Smiley. He’d received an offer to work for Premier Martial Arts. He had plans for two locations and asked me to head the 1,800-square-foot facility that was coming to Decatur, Georgia.

Before receiving that offer, I worked as head instructor at a martial arts studio that had operated for three decades. From that experience, I learned many lessons about building ties with the community, as well as many lessons about teaching.

Seeing this as an opportunity to grow while giving back, I accepted Smiley’s offer to open and then run one of his schools.

 

Prosperity Despite a Pandemic

Because of delays brought on by the pandemic and the time required to get settled, we did not start introducing ourselves to the public until October 2020. We knew we had a goldmine of a location — it was attached to an apartment complex and a local transit station — but we knew we still had work to do. Rushed success can be failure in disguise. The last thing we wanted was to be ill-equipped to deal with surging interest. You get only one chance to make a first impression, and botching it can lead to a negative reputation that spreads like a disease.

Action Item: The months before you open are when you should focus on building brand awareness in your area. Of course, you want to get leads calling you and, even better, walking in your door — even if you’re not fully operational. Our No. 1 lead source during this phase was digital marketing, which is not surprising because so many people have upped their phone usage during the pandemic.

To maximize public interest in your new studio at this particular time, you need to communicate the efforts you’re taking to promote safety and hygiene. The martial arts industry has adopted numerous COVID precautions, so you should let the public know. New students and their families need to feel that your school will provide a safe environment in which to grow.

Because of our strategic location and our targeted marketing, we were fortunate to have leads pour in. We decided to increase interest in our school by asking for referrals from each new member. In this way, those students not only could be the first people to train at a brand-new facility but also could invite their friends to take advantage of the opportunity with them.

Action Item: It’s important to remember the life cycle of a student’s excitement. There are two times when excitement peaks and interest runs high: When the student signs up and when he or she advances in the curriculum. As such, these are the best moments to ask for referrals — and suggest upgrades and mention merchandise sales. Avoid pressuring the student, though. The better the impression you make during the early days, the more likely the student will be to oblige.

If you ask for a referral and the student’s friend or family member enrolls, there are many incentives and rewards you can provide. If you’re not officially open and revenue isn’t flowing in, perhaps you won’t be able to offer a massive incentive for referrals — but fear not. Instead, emphasize the benefits that come when a student has a training partner in his or her class. A parent who trains can help a child learn at home and better understand the lessons are imparted on the mat. A school friend who trains can be a familiar face in a new environment, which makes everything more fun.

Such connections are incredibly powerful. However, there are at least two other interpersonal dynamics that are essential for your new school to foster so you can have a successful opening.

 

The Dojo Dynamic

Take a moment to envision what success looks like for you. Does it involve having a studio with high-performing students? Having the ability to impact your community? Becoming financial secure while doing what you love?

It’s likely that your vision encompasses all these. Regardless of what it looks like, it’s sure to focus on the students who come in your door. You can have the most comprehensive curriculum and be the most pedagogically advanced teacher, yet this means naught if students aren’t showing up and tuition payments aren’t being made. Opening and then building a successful studio isn’t a solo mission; it requires the proper relations be built — in a meaningful way.

Charisma and connections are the social currency between humans. Cultivating a high level of trust, rapport and interest is instrumental to succeeding in any business. Never forget that we are a service-based industry. Without our connections to the local people, we are unable to sell memberships or pass on the benefits of the martial arts.

Action Item: During your presale phase, focus on nurturing student-student connections, which is the dynamic that students have with one another. Also focus on nurturing staff-student connections, which refers to the dynamic between students and teachers.

To quote a friend, “It’s easy to quit a membership; it’s difficult to quit a relationship.” There’s a reason so many memberships in fitness facilities expire after hardly any usage while many personal relationships go on longer than they perhaps should.

As wonderful as it is to build strong connections between students, it’s difficult to do this in meaningful ways prior to the start of classes. Although deep connections get made more easily once a studio is operating, you can start a Facebook group exclusively for members or set up an event outside your about-to-open studio. Events that allow shared experiences, such as parents-night-out occasions and leadership-team meetings, can be a superb way to build camaraderie.

Action Item: If your classes haven’t begun yet, your students are unlikely to have seen each other in person much, if at all. However, they will have met you and your team. As part of an industry that relies on members’ recurring attendance and interest, you know that having the proper relationship with students and their families is fundamental. From the moment you speak with them on the phone as a lead to the minute they come in to enroll as a member, you need to constantly work to develop a connection.

They’re coming to you because they desire a skill, attribute or opportunity that the martial arts can provide. You must convince them that you’re the best person to give it to them. This starts with communication regarding who you are and what your business does. Discuss with your team what your core values are: honesty, trust, community, leadership and so on. Once everyone knows the mission, it can be communicated more clearly to prospects whether on the phone or in person.

 

The Staff-Student Connection

Time for a little backstory: Growing up, I always wanted to impact lives. My grandparents ran a foster home, and over the years, they took care of 150 kids. I always found that inspirational. When I was in my early 20s, I traveled to China to receive my first dose of overseas training. One of the centers I visited was the largest martial art academy in China: the Shaolin Tagou Wushu School. Located in Henan province, it houses thousands of students and has sent them to perform in numerous events, including the 2008 Olympics.

Seeing them in action reinforced the notion of how far-reaching the impact of the martial arts can be. I knew I wanted to aid as many people as possible through the power of the arts. My goal wasn’t to change the world; it was to change somebody’s world. If one person trains for even a month or if a sibling overhears a mat chat about self-discipline and now feels accountable for his or her home chores, I’m happy. I don’t say this to craft an American Idol–worthy backstory. I say it to communicate the concept that we instructors have a powerful purpose.

Action Item: Especially in your school’s early days, don’t be afraid to communicate your reasons for doing what you do. The clearer the image you paint of who you are, the more trustworthy your business becomes. It’s hard for human eyes to trust a chameleon that never reveals itself.

Anyone who’s been in a relationship, however, will tell you that communication is one thing and comprehension is another. Just because I say “Ni hao!” to you doesn’t mean you’ll understand what I’m trying to communicate. We instructors must ensure that our interpersonal skills are sufficiently developed to help those around us comprehend our words and intentions.

Did you grow up with a PE teacher you hated? Perhaps you disliked him all the more because you thought he disliked you. People aren’t attracted to others who are like them; people are attracted to others who simply like them. Develop a genuine interest in people and they will gather around you. Take care of your students first, and this will lead them to take care of you.

Action Item: In dealing with new students, strive to eradicate “perceived indifference.” The term refers to students’ beliefs that their instructor doesn’t like them. As an instructor, you know how silly this sounds, but it can seem real to some students.

When you speak with students and their families, smile whenever it’s appropriate. Use earnest praise and constructive feedback. Allow your positive energy to permeate the studio even if it’s not open yet. Something as simple as memorizing a student’s name and saying it at least three times during that person’s consultation or initial training sessions will go far.

Remember that you’re crafting the environment in which your clientele will grow. Every action you take and every word you speak help create your school’s culture. Ensure that it’s a place students want to come back to and staff members never want to leave.

To develop such a staff-student dynamic, there are several things an instructor can do. In my case, if a child reveals that he’s a fan of Spider-Man, I’ll do a “superhero trick” — aka a tricking move — so he can get a glimpse of the amazing skills martial arts training can lead to. If you’re not into tricking, simply communicate that you have the skills the child admires and/or desires.

If an adult walks in, looking for tai chi chuan classes, I’ll have a genuine conversation with the person. I’ll explain that what we teach is far from internal Chinese martial arts but that even externally focused exercise can lead to development of coordination and harmonized movement of the limbs, proper breathing and intention-empowered action. If the adult wants these deeper benefits, I reassure the person that we absolutely can help. It isn’t about selling people what they don’t desire; it’s about showing the value of what we offer and how it crosses over into what they want.

Action Item: To sell your new program, you have to believe in its purpose and the fact that you can actually help your members. Never forget that at the end of the day, you’re selling skills to people. If you can’t convey that message to prospects, they won’t sign up. This means investing in your skill set, helping your team continue their education and showing everyone how to build rapport so they can communicate better with the public.

 

The End Is Near

(And It’s a Wonderful Beginning)

When you’re preselling memberships before your studio opens, it’s easy for your motivation to drop. That’s natural because you aren’t able to teach full-size groups, you may be experiencing construction delays and attrition is still happening — especially as you get closer to the first tuition billing date. If you or a staff member begins to feel burned out during this crucial period, it’s time to remember your “why.”

If you started doing this for money, remember that finances fluctuate. Some studios might be raking in the bucks right now, while others might have hit a financial drought. That’s natural.

If you started doing this for community betterment, understand that there will be certain students with whom you have trouble connecting and some parents who are more difficult than others. That, too, is natural.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether you’re chasing success or you’re chasing significance. It isn’t even about why you started. It’s about why you have continued this far and why you’ll keep on keeping on. Although the tough days prior to opening might have you thinking that you’re a long way from your goals, you’re on the right path. If you’re taking steps forward, all you need to do is ensure that it’s in the right direction. You’re seeking progress, not instant perfection.

Once you open your doors, be sure to celebrate with your staff and students. Express your appreciation for what they’ve helped you accomplish. The studio wouldn’t be there without the students and the students wouldn’t have this opportunity to learn martial arts without you and your staff.

You are all on the same team, and you’re off to a great start!

 

Justin Lee Ford has writing credits that span multiple websites and publications. He’s trained in multiple disciplines and taught at numerous martial arts studios. His website is cupofkick.com.

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