by Dave Kovar
Forty years ago this November, I opened up my first school in North Highlands, CA, a suburb of Sacramento. It was a tiny school in a mediocre area, and I had no idea what I was doing. What I did have was cheap rent and a lot of enthusiasm.
The school grew relatively quickly in the first year. But I couldn’t tell you how many students I had because I didn’t keep any stats. Based on my memory, I’d say I had between 80 and 100. At the time, very few children were training in the program. As a matter fact, I only offered kid’s classes Monday and Wednesday nights at 5 o’clock. I think I had the largest youth program in the area and I only had about 12 kids enrolled!
Over time, I successfully identified lots of things that didn’t work and I struggled a lot up into the mid-1980s. Then, something interesting happened.
There was this movie, let me see if I can remember the name? Oh, yeah! It was The Karate Kid and in 1984 it transformed our industry overnight!
At the time of its release, I was still working a day job painting apartments. I would work from seven until three, then quickly go home to shower and be at the school by 4:00 p.m. Many days, I would show up at the school to see a line of parents waiting by the door, wanting to enroll their children in the program.
I’m not making this up; it really happened that way. You old-timers that had a school back then can vouch for me. Quickly, it became very apparent to me that this could be a real business, but I knew I needed help. So, after several months of negotiations, I talked my older brother, Tim, into becoming my partner.
The results? We blew up! By the early ‘90s, we had over 900 members in one location!
I’d like to say that the reason we were so successful was due to how good we were and how hard we worked. We certainly worked hard and did a decent job for that time. But the real secret to our success was because the demand for youth martial arts was so high.
In fact, we had so many new members coming in that we could hardly process them into the system. In 1993, we enrolled 547 members. That’s an average of about 46 new members per month. The challenge we faced was that our retention was still really bad. We probably lost about 500 members that same year.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that we didn’t try to keep students. It’s just that it didn’t really matter if they stayed or not, because there were others waiting to fill their spots.
Over time, more schools opened and the demand leveled out to what it is today. It is still an excellent time to be in the martial arts industry. But, if you want to be successful nowadays, your retention has to be excellent. Gone are the times that you could run a mediocre program and still do more than just survive.
I believe that great retention begins on the mat. Today’s instructor has to be outstanding. Today’s classes have to be excellent. Anything less will end in mediocrity, struggle and then slow death. In my opinion, today’s instructor has to be better than the average academic school teacher.
Don’t get me wrong here, either. I have the utmost respect for teachers. Both of my kids had several amazing teachers that poured their heart and soul into their students. The difference is this, however: if your child doesn’t like his or her academic school teacher, they go to school anyway. If you yourself don’t particularly care for your child’s teacher, he or she goes to school anyway.
In our business, if the child doesn’t like the instructor, eventually he or she will talk their parents into letting them quit. If the parent doesn’t like the instructor, he or she will let their child quit even sooner. This forces us to have to be the very best instructors we can be. Our parents have to like us and see the benefit of our program. Our kids have to like us and enjoy our classes as well. Anything less, they quit.
So, I challenge you, to double down on keeping your instructors, and the quality of your classes, to the highest level. If you do that, and I do that, we all will win. Most important, our students win.
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