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Surviving and Thriving as a “One-Man Show:” How One School Did It — Even Through the Pandemic!

by Tu Le

 

In May 2018, my team at InCourage Martial Arts and I were preparing to open a brand-new martial arts studio in Fairfax, Virginia.

This studio was going to be in a new location, starting completely from scratch with no existing students. On top of that, as the owner, I would be off-site. We would need someone to handle the onsite operations.

Considering all these factors, I concluded that resources were limited and costs needed to be kept as low as possible.

The existing business model in most martial arts studios requires both a program director and an instructor to keep things running smoothly. For this new studio, however, our goal was to do it with just one full-time staff member.

Of course, running anything with just one person (at least, one full-time person) is challenging because there are so many things that need to be done: marketing for new students, keeping current students, coming up with fun and engaging class plans, recruiting and hiring part-time staff, designing operations for afterschool and camp programs, planning and then marketing special events, etc. efficiently — all while teaching great classes and providing great customer service.

Realizing that there was no possible way all this could be done effectively by one person, our management team at InCourage Martial Arts considered a very important question: What are the essential tasks that must be done by the operator, and what can be outsourced?

The answer to this question became the ultimate foundation of our new business plan, and that foundation proved even more essential when COVID hit in 2020.

We didn’t know it at the time, but some of the decisions that we made back in 2018 — along with some good luck that we stumbled upon along the way — allowed us not only to survive during the course of the pandemic but also to thrive. We had a record year in 2020.

 

The New Business Plan

1          Simplify membership offerings.

2          Fully digitize and automate the registration process for new and current members.

3          Maximize mat space. No offices, no front desk.

4          Outsource all strategic operational planning, marketing, staff recruiting, bookkeeping, equipment ordering and administrative tasks.

This plan allows our on-site operator to focus 100 percent of his time and energy on executing martial arts programs, organizing events and providing the best customer service to the students and their families.

This also allows us to keep to a 45-hour work week for the operator so he is more effective and does not experience burnout. We believe that “we work to live, not live to work,” and this set schedule really allows our operator to have a life outside the studio.

The key to realizing these goals, and achieving profitability for this particular “one-man-show,” was finding the best possible tools to help run the studio without adding any additional work or incurring any high costs.

 

Our Simple Membership Offering

Time on our mats is what students are paying for. We got rid of our leadership programs, weapons programs and tournament team — pretty much anything that needed an explanation — and came up with a simple, basic set of plans that all our incoming students could understand:

1 class per week: $125/month

2 classes per week: $175/month

3 classes per week: $199/month

All these programs have a 14-day cancellation policy. No further explanations are needed, no hard sales pitch is required and the members can choose for themselves what fits their budget and time. Easy.

 

Fully Digitize and Automate the Registration Process (www.mystudio.io)

Every single trial, membership, event registration and retail order for the Fairfax InCourage Martial Arts location has been purchased by the members online, at their convenience (either through a URL, the studio’s website, the MyStudio app or the point-of-sale iPad kiosk in the studio), and no physical paperwork or contracts have been made since we opened the doors to this studio.

This brand-new school became accessible to everyone, 24/7, no matter where they were. Our team has never had to spend any of its precious time in long enrollment appointments.

Instead of using many different, disjointed software platforms, we have been able to run the school with just one — MyStudio — which costs $79 for a website, member app and student-management platform. The platform not only saved costs on technology, but it also saved costs on payroll because customers could serve themselves and purchase anything, anytime, anywhere. No one needed to help them.

Once word-of-mouth began to spread and more and more students started to join, this 24/7 access allowed everyone to register quickly and easily for new trials, classes, memberships, events and camps. We literally were making money while we slept.

In addition to automating the registration process, we also automated the following essential communications (via email and text) and management tasks through the MyStudio platform:

  • Welcome and educational communications for new trials
  • Membership enrollment and details after a trial attends four classes with us
  • Automated referral-ask after a trial registers for a membership
  • Belt-graduation scheduling when a student meets attendance and skill requirements
  • Website updates with the latest offerings, sales and information because it’s directly connected to our member app and management system

 

Maximize Mat Space: No Offices, No Front Desk.

Since we already knew that all the registrations were going to be done by the members wherever they were and at whatever time was convenient for them, we did not need an office or a front desk for our new school.

We designed the space to be fully open and bright, with plenty of seating for parents and one wall where we would have our iPad point-of-sale kiosk, our advertisement flyers and a coffee/water station.

Not only was this easier to design and build but it also saved us more than 50 percent in build-out costs compared to a more traditional martial arts school design. Our total build out cost was $22,000 — a very modest amount in our metropolitan area.

 

Outsource All Operational Planning and Marketing

The instructor that the InCourage management team chose to lead the onsite operations of this new school was an extremely talented martial artist and teacher. We did not want him to worry about all the details of creating new games for the students to play, planning new special events, making monthly class plans and themes and generating any afterschool or camp operations plans.

Additionally, we wanted to outsource the time-consuming tasks of recruiting staff, calling suppliers when we ran out of uniforms or T-shirts, and managing vendors that service the studios — because these were not our top priorities, either.

All these tasks are now handled by the management team at InCourage Systems (www.incouragesystems.com), and our main operator can simply focus on the actual day-to-day operations and running the generated plans in the most awesome way possible.

Of course, it’s important to remember that axiom “work smarter, not harder” if you want to run a successful business — especially with limited team members and resources.

Part of working smarter is having the courage to admit that you can’t always do everything alone and it’s OK to rely on others — whether that’s real people or software.

By keeping costs extremely low, delegating management tasks, outsourcing planning material and utilizing software that can do much of the heavy lifting, our InCourage Fairfax studio grew extremely quickly — even in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.

The success of the studio also proved to us that not only was it possible to operate a brand-new school with a one-man team using MyStudio but it also was possible to be prosperous with it. Since then, InCourage has opened two more schools, for a total of five studios in 2021.

But you don’t have to just take my word for it. I also think that it’s best to see it from the viewpoint of our operator, who has been our partner at InCourage Fairfax since the start. Below is a Q&A session with master Taehwan “Tay” An, the one full-time team member at the InCourage Fairfax school.

 

Q&A With Tay

Can you tell us about when you started with InCourage Martial Arts? What was your background before InCourage?

I was born and raised in South Korea, and I was part of a competitive taekwondo athlete team, specializing in sparring, all throughout my school years.

In 2009, I immigrated to the United States with the hope of becoming an international taekwondo educator. I worked with different studios in Ohio and Virginia before I joined InCourage Martial Arts in 2018.

 

How did you feel when you were tapped to be the lead instructor at a new InCourage location? Did you feel prepared? How long had you been with InCourage?

I was offered the job just six months after I joined InCourage. It was a very exciting opportunity for me, and I was ready to jump in! Not only did I have strong confidence in my teaching skills and experience, but I also trusted that the InCourage team would support me whenever I needed it.

 

What do you think are some of the “keys to your success” at InCourage Fairfax?

Referrals from members has been a big one for us. As a new location, word of mouth was our most effective advertisement so every special event — like birthday parties and PTA fundraiser events — allows members to bring their friends and have fun together.

Keeping our members happy made them eager to refer us. Combine that with the MyStudio app and system that lets anyone sign up anytime, and this lets us scale quickly with little legwork.

A big key factor for those happy members has also been all the monthly themes that InCourage Systems provides to us — like the holidays, famous books, movies, and even video games! The kids are always super excited to see the new decorations every month, and the class lesson plans are integrated with stories and characters. It makes everything so much more fun!

 

How have you been able to increase revenue year-over-year from 2019 to 2020 and now to 2021?

First, it’s critical to understand the wants and needs of the community that you serve. If we wanted to make a profit, we needed to keep our community in mind no matter what.

We started the studio thinking we would have our main revenue drivers as our traditional martial arts program, a big afterschool offering and summer camps. We were right about two of them, but we found out we needed to change our assumptions around afterschool when we learned about the actual needs of our community.

For example, the public schools near us get out relatively late, so it didn’t make sense for us to run a big afterschool program because there just isn’t time. Because of this, we renovated our school to have a smaller activity room and added extra workout space so we could have two different evening classes at the same time. This allowed us to expand capacity and grow revenues where the demand was — for traditional martial arts and summer camp, allowing us to continue to grow membership year over year.

In 2020, COVID-19 hit hard. Students no longer went to school or really anywhere in person, and we had to adapt to the changes based on our community and our members’ needs.

We’re located in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area, so there are a lot of working parents. If these parents needed to work from home or go to work in-person, then they needed a program where children could maximize their learning experience during the new virtual school day.

Knowing all this, we started a distance-learning camp for our members, and we truly made the best of our situation — and made great revenue, as well!

Being flexible and meeting the real needs of the community have been key to our growth and survival as a business.

 

How is InCourage Fairfax set up? Do you feel the need for an office? What technology products do you use?

InCourage Fairfax is very open with two workout floors, an activity room and a lobby — all with very few walls. The front windows are also wide and clear, making the studio more welcoming and inviting to people who pass by because they can really easily see us.

Not having a dedicated office has worked out great for us, as it gives a more welcoming space for members. We just have a couple of iPads set up so students can register for trials and memberships or put in a request for more information.

For making payments, signing up, asking about attendance, hours and all the other questions, the members just use the MyStudio app on their preferred devices, so that makes it easy!

 

How are you able to manage a school without any other full-time employees?

First, I have to admit that I cannot do this alone. There are so many big and little tasks needed to run the entire studio.

Most of the planning for our programs, events, parties, themes and everything is done by our InCourage Systems team, and this helps me tremendously. My job then becomes delegating the remaining tasks to myself and our small team — and to make sure that we execute it well.

With those other responsibilities off my shoulder, I can really focus on running the classes and everything really well.

 

For information about the software InCourage uses, visit www.mystudio.io. For more information about the InCourage Systems team and their offerings for other studios, visit www.incouragesystems.com.

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