Earthbound Judo is for anybody, but it’s not for everybody.
That is the best one sentence summation of my martial arts program that I could come up with. I’ve given considerable thought as to how I would “market ” and promote Earthbound Freestyle Judo, the program I launched in June 2016.
Solo instructor, adults-only, non-traditional (no-gi) Judo dojos that rent space from slightly larger (but not that large) schools with limited facilities…don’t exactly sell themselves.
Like any first-time martial arts school owner, I sought advice from the most successful people in the industry on the Judo side. And what they told me makes sense.
“It’s all about the kids classes. That’s where your money is. Adult programs don’t pay the rent.”
“The most important first step – you need a business plan.”
“No-gi classes? Hmm, do gi and no-gi, and sell your own merchandise. Require your students to buy your gis.”
“Talk to your students, figure out their needs, and use the opportunity to up-sell them on the next level of training that can help them attain those needs.”
“What you need to do is charge for an instructor training course and get your instructors to run the program for you, while you focus on the business and marketing aspect.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. Some of my students pay me over $300 a month when you factor in the different classes I offer. Think about it, how much is changing someone’s life worth?”
I can’t argue with any of this logic. These are effective, proven strategies for financial success in the martial arts business. I think if you’re going to take the risk and encumber business loans to purchase a sizable facility in a moderate-to-high income residential area, build out a training center and fill a week’s worth of classes, these are the strategies you’ll have to follow to turn a profit.
There isn’t anything wrong with being a profit-oriented business owner. I admire these folks for their success and the schools they’ve built that have certainly changed many people’s lives.
Here’s my dilemma: I can’t compete with that.
I don’t have 17 stock items with my logo on it to sell you (just one, actually). I don’t have a locker and shower area the size of a two-bedroom apartment, 14 heavy bags, 7,500 sq. ft. of mat space, five assistant instructors, two administrative assistants, three locations, and a 5:00 young tigers’ program with room for 28 children ages 5-10 whose parents want to snap photos of them lining up, sitting down, standing up, yes sir, no sir, and kiyay-ing their way to a junior black belt 14 months and $2,600 later.
Schools like that do serve a purpose. For some people, it meets their needs. Earthbound is not that school.
We’re a program for adults of any age, and young adults in their late teens. Many of the larger facilities that pour considerable resources into their adult programs are excellent for serious athletes who want to spar/roll/randori for 40 mins-1 hour with a team of intense competitors, even at the risk of alienating good athletes who want the intensity but not the feeling of being in a shark tank with no direction or guidance, or on the other end of the spectrum, cater to a room full of three dozen novices and casuals who slow drill for an hour in a $200 uniform or $35 t-shirt, wait for the assistant instructor to spot-check their technique, and leave feeling deflated because they couldn’t quite get it right and didn’t have the nerve to approach anyone at the school because no one felt approachable.
This is an unfortunate byproduct of school growth. There’s nothing wrong with being a big school that occasionally lets a few students fall through the cracks, because again, there’s a definite need for big, sprawling school facilities with sink or swim environments. Earthbound is not that school.
We are also not the type of school that is run by and for regional and world champions, where the trophy room is the first thing you see when you open the front door looking for more information.
And no amount of posturing, marketing hyperbole, motivational book reading, 10-steps-to-profit course taking, social media sharing of memes with lions and spartans and Batman in them, or hashtag proclaiming myself in “Beast Mode” is going to turn Earthbound Freestyle Judo into a five-star full-service martial arts facility that sells and up-sells to everybody.
What I realized quickly was that while there is a place for schools like that, even the ones that provide a legitimately high level of training (note: not all of them do), almost every school is trying to operate on that generic model, or fooling students into believing they are.
So it got me thinking: who are the type of students or prospective students that this model is allowing to fall through the cracks (as no model can service everybody), and how can Earthbound Judo provide them a better alternative?
Before I answer that, I think it’s important to talk about what I believe are the most important aspects of martial arts training, from the perspective of a student.
- The student-teacher relationship. Every great martial arts film, particularly those that plot an individual’s journey to reaching their ultimate goal, prioritizes the student-teacher dynamic from the beginning and reinforces it at key points of the story. These are glorified Hollywood versions of a simple but crucial element of training: a teacher who is invested in the success of their student. The job description of a martial arts instructor boils down to helping students reach their goals. It’s not just a meaningless transactional relationship whereby clients pay for X number of services received. In martial arts, the passing down of knowledge that was once passed onto you is the most important tradition we have. The closer that a teacher can work with their student without the need for associate instructors and senior rank students as surrogates, the better the training.
- School culture. When students are following the positive example set by an instructor who has prioritized mutual respect, honor, enjoyment, and learning, their school will become the type of environment where everybody feels like a crucial part of the team; where no matter what is happening in your personal life, you can stop by, train, and have a great time. Plainly said, people should want to be at their martial arts school, and looking forward to that 1-2 hours of training, as opposed to dreading it because of a frustrated instructor, cliquish students, or a general feeling that people are injuring each other out of a lack of respect and care for one another. You know it’s a great school culture when people are laughing, having fun, hustling, wanting to partner up with different faces each time for drills, and showing respect not only to each other and their instructor, but to the mat space itself.
- System-based learning. The idea that martial arts is not about learning a list of techniques whereby quality of student is determined by quantity of moves retained. Curriculum matters. Instead, we define martial arts as systems of foundational, principle-based lessons that express themselves through effective techniques. Instructors should have lesson plans that gradually improve students’ abilities to understand and operate within these systems. It is the difference between having one entrance to execute 10 different moves, and having 10 entrances to execute one move. Learning a system means attaining multiple pathways to achieving a singular goal. Of course, it is important to note the balance that an instructor must tread between a harsh rigid system, and a whimsically free-flowing system. Good systems build in flexibility, so that they can adapt to new and better information. But good systems also contain rigid, unchanging principles that anchor down the curriculum and prevent it from always being at the superficial mercy of what is recent.
All good martial arts schools should succeed on these three fronts. If you could only offer three good aspects to your students, these would be the three that you would pick.
And it is in these three areas that Earthbound Judo provides unmatched value on a small-group basis.
What we offer to the community, then, is this:
- Small group classes led by a head instructor that works closely with each individual during practice.
- An open, friendly environment where having fun, learning Judo, and showing respect to one another and the art that we practice is of paramount importance.
- A system-based curriculum unlike any other, a style of Judo (no-gi) that is barely taught anywhere else, designed to get the most out of the individual, with the understanding that no two people learn the same exact way.
Earthbound Judo is a program of developmental excellence. And I believe that we fill a growing void in the martial arts community. I think about the great masters that almost every school has on their wall: Jigoro Kano (founder of Judo), Mistuyo Maeda (godfather of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), Helio and Carlos Gracie (direct founders of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), and Bruce Lee (TV and film legend who helped popularize martial arts in the US and around the world – of course!).
What do all of these legendary individuals have in common? None of them started out teaching in a major facility, charging ungodly tuition rates. Their method was not “build it and they will come”. Instead, it was about proselytizing the art to introduce it to as many new people as possible, demonstrating to a general audience, and having an affordable, accessible, comfortable space for people to train in. Before Jigoro Kano grew the Kodokan to its current size as a massive building in Tokyo, it began as a small workshop where anybody could train. Bruce Lee started doing demonstrations and running classes on college campuses for all to attend.
In the years to follow, many different clubs and schools followed suit, providing low cost, open training to people off the street at the community level. But I think today, what you have is an environment where people build out from medium to large spaces, purchase large ad buys, and hire a support staff, all of which requires an expensive tuition to be levied upon students. And of course, to keep the facility paid for, these schools need to fill those classes with 20 or more students on the mat at the time.
And you know what? That’s a beautiful thing. I want to reiterate that this is not a criticism of such a school. Some of the best schools I ever trained in and continue to train in are of this variety.
But there is a problem when every new school aspires to provide this type of experience immediately. You get a situation where communities are filled with “Big Box” style martial arts schools without an option for low cost, single instructor, small group classes where the point of the program is to serve the students, as opposed to some schools where the students exist to serve a giant facility.
Earthbound Judo is a school for those whose needs cannot be adequately met by the big schools. Every individual who enrolls in our program deals with me on a non-contractual basis. The school’s number is my number. I make myself available to answer e-mails and texts regarding our lesson plans and curriculum at all hours of the day. I am never not thinking about ways to personalize instruction to get the most out of my students.
We are developmental, in every sense of the word.
Part of our developmental approach includes an important secondary function: we have an excellent cross-training for people from other programs who want to incorporate Judo into their game, but don’t have 5 years to commit as full-time Judoka. These athletes can train with us and sensibly blend Judo into their grappling for competition or MMA strategies.
To that end, I work with people individually, get a sense of their tendencies and skill-set, and develop curriculum plans specifically for them based on the amount of classes they can realistically commit to, as each individual is different.
As we grow and add more classes, my goal is for Earthbound Judo to build a solid reputation for developing talent, where non-Judoka can work on Judo fundamentals, and most importantly, serving as a model for turning ordinary citizens of little-to-no athletic background into competent martial artists at a low cost.
That, I believe, is in the spirit of what made martial arts so wildly popular in the first place. Earthbound may not be the program for everybody, but it’s a program for anybody.
If Earthbound Freestyle Judo sounds like the type of martial arts program you would like to be a part of, we have class spots available. Just fill out the form below, and I will contact you about scheduling a class-time, free of charge.