Is Business Slow In Your Martial Arts School? It May Be Your Image…

Hi Im your new instructor

Hi, I’m your new instructor…

Has your business been slow lately? Don’t blame the economy just yet… it may be time to look in the mirror and take inventory of the image you’re presenting to potential clients.

I had intended to write this article for my business coaching site for martial art school owners, but image is so basic to the topic of martial arts business that I decided to share it for everyone’s benefit.

Now, some people may scoff at the topic of presenting a professional image, especially in today’s business environment where guys with full sleeve tattoos and shaved heads are running multi-million dollar companies (here’s a great article from Entrepreneur about a business that serves the MMA fan market – read it if you get a chance).

I like ink as much as anyone who grew up idolizing outlaw bikers and rebels… but there’s a time, a place, and a market for such things, which I’m going to explain over the course of this article.

But first, let’s start with…

Your School’s Professional Image (Or Lack Thereof)

Now, I’m just going to say it up front – a lot of the stuff I’m going to cover in this article is stuff I’ve been guilty of myself at one time or another. But, I learned the lesson of presenting a professional image through trial, error, and watching other successful business owners, and changed my tune appropriately.

As I explain at length in my book, image is extremely vital to your school’s success, and your school’s image ranks up at the top of the image priority list.

Think about it… if you were a parent, or an executive, or a professional (doctor, lawyer, dentist, etc.) or just someone who is germ-conscious, and you walked into a dark and dreary school where there were dust bunnies floating out from under the chairs in the lobby, the mats were filthy (or obviously about 5 years past due for replacement), it smelled like sweat and feet, the walls were marked and stained (or had holes in them), the bathrooms reeked of urine, and the office looked like a tornado went through it twice –

Would you feel comfortable training there?

I think the answer is clear. It pays to keep a neat, clean, professional-looking school. Failure to do so can mean losing an untold number of potential clients on a daily basis.

And guess what? People talk – especially moms! All it takes is for one person to come into your school when it looks like a pigsty, and before long they’re telling everyone in the PTA that they would never let their child train at that dump you call a dojo.

Trust me – it happens. Clean your school daily, and paint every six months. Your bank account will thank you for it.

Your Marketing Image – Let’s Talk Logos…

Marketing image is just as important as the presentation of your school. This involves the polish and professionalism of your marketing materials, as well as the quality and tone of the marketing copy and images in your ads.

How many times have you seen schools with logos that look like something from a textbook on cult recruitment? Or, they’re so obscure as to be virtually useless for creating any sort of brand recognition at all.

Now, I’ve told you before that “branding” is for the big guys – this is true. But, on the other hand, your business logo should appeal to your market and be easily and readily recognizable for what it is – a visual representation of the services you offer.

Don’t just assume that images and terminology that are familiar to martial artists will be identified by the general populace. More often than not, our images and language create cultural barriers that discourage the uninitiated from exploring what we offer.

So, avoid religious-looking symbology, foreign language or characters, odd looking mythical creatures, and industry-specific terminology in your ads and logos. Save that stuff for the things you use internally in your school… trust me, your black belt club (or whatever you call your diehards) will think it’s cool – and that’s because they understand it (or have been around long enough to want to understand it).

“Man, That’s An Ugly Ad!”

In addition to avoiding cultural barriers, you should also consider the professional presentation of your marketing materials. Considering the fact that printing and graphic design services can be had readily and inexpensively on the internet, there is no reasonable excuse for using lame and amateurish marketing materials.

The same goes for your graphic design. We live in a much smaller world now than we did 20 years ago, and it’s relatively easy to hire a very talented graphic designer at bargain prices online. So, don’t do your own graphic design, when you can find a pro who will work for a reasonable rate online. Hire it out, and elevate your school’s image.

Did You Know… Your Website Is Usually The First, First Impression?

Lastly, let’s talk about websites. And yes, I run a web design company so I’m bound to be biased about this topic.

That being said, I’m here to tell you that most of the clients that come to me have already gone the “free” and “low-cost” route. Those services are fine for schools that are just starting out, or when you’re on a tight budget – but I’d suggest that the first place you spend your marketing budget on is your website.

Why? Well, for starters it’s generally the first thing people see with regards to your school – the virtual equivalent of walking in your front door. And, in the same way that your front lobby should be professional and spotless, your website needs to look sharp and professional as well.

Cluttered websites, sites that load slowly, sites with no consistent visual theme or mismatched fonts and colors… all these mistakes will add up to the same thing – lost customers.

And, if you teach women and children, let me tell you – moms and women in general are the ones who are quickest to click the “back” button when they arrive at an unprofessional business website.

Spend some money on your website. If you need help budgeting it, contact me – I routinely set up payment plans on our web design and search engine ranking services for martial art schools.

And To Wrap It Up – Let’s Talk About You

What’s your professional image? Is it even professional? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with schools owners over the phone that complain about not being able to attract and retain students, then I meet them in person and they’re sloppy, disheveled, and out of shape. (FYI, I’m not perfect by a long shot, and I’m even working on taking a few extra lbs off at the time of this writing. Trust me, I’m just as hard on myself when I get out of shape. No excuses!).

Face it, folks… you MUST look the part if you want to be perceived as a martial arts expert! No one is going to be impressed by a fat, sloppy, out of shape dude in pajamas…

It’s an in-freaking-escapable universal truth – in real life, no one wants to take martial arts from Po the Panda.

Even our heroes (especially our heroes) are beholden to this truth. I mean, come on… does anyone take it seriously when they see Steven Seagal’s fat a$$ back-flipping over a sword in his latest direct-to-DVD movie of the month? Yes, we all know he’s very skilled in real life – but it’s a really hard sell when he has 40 pounds of flab hanging over his belt, and more chins than chops.

In the same vein, you must look neat and clean. This should go without saying, but get a haircut, brush your teeth, and shave everyday – twice a day if necessary. Keep a clean uniform and a toilet kit at your school, and use it when you can’t run home to shower after a hard workout.Replace old uniforms with new ones every few months. If they fade, they’re not “broken-in” – they’re broken. Buy new ones!

Dress the part outside of your school as well. Those krav maga people really had it right when they started running around in dark striped track pants and dark t-shirts or golf shirts with their logo on the front and back. A fit, clean, athletic looking image can go a long way to attracting people who want the same thing into your school.

And about the tats… I totally get the desire to be inked up. But, it really depends on your market whether you can afford to present that image. My advice is, if you want to attract more moms and kids in your school, cover them up until the last mom and kid leaves at night.

Then, when it’s just you and the guys, go ahead and show your sleeves if it makes you happy.

In Closing, If I’ve Offended You… Ask Yourself This

Now, if any of this article has offended you, ask yourself this question:

Would you rather be comfortable with failure, or success?


  1. Kurt Schulenburg on April 29, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Great artcle! Our logo, our crazy, decorated “karate” van that’s always around town, our T-shirts with logos and web address on back, our semi-workout, semi-karate uniforms from RevGear – all contribute to our image. I ran into an online guy who claimed his school was the cleanest in America – so I’m giving him a run for his money. (Just put out our monthly newsletter with Swine Flu info – and how we’re requiring ALL students and visitors to our studio to wash their hands at least once per visit!)
    Image is your Best Friend… and Worst Enemy.
    Kurt Schulenburg

  2. Mike Massie on April 29, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Cleanest school in America…

    Wouldn’t be hard considering some of the schools I’ve seen. :)

    I’ll never forget when I had some TKD instructors in to do a guest seminar at my school. They were involved with a large organization with multiple locations in one of the largest cities in the nation.

    One of the instructors walked into my bathroom, then walked right out again with a funny look on her face and exclaimed, “That’s the cleanest bathroom I’ve ever seen in a martial arts school!”

    I was dumbfounded. I thought it was a mess.

    Go figure.

  3. Brent on April 30, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    As always Mike, bang on.
    A good image is a must.
    Here in Japan, in many dojo they actually have cleaning days, where all the students help out with the cleaning. I have heard that a few parents have questioned this but most of the places use this day as a lesson for the students. They teach them about being clean, taking time out at least once a year for refresshing your surroundings, getting rid of stuff you no longer need, etc. They make it into a life lesson. And there is also training before or after.
    If done poorly, this isn’t a good idea. But done well, it gets amazing results. The kids see old trophies, magazines, etc. They learn how to set up the scrolls, the shrines, etc. Stories are told about the old trophy winners, etc.
    Something to consider for some of schools.

  4. Dave Chesser on April 30, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    What you said about the name and avoiding jargon has been a heartbreaker for me. Since my school, Formosa Neijia, opened not ONE person has understood the name, neither Westerners nor Chinese. Including English and Chinese characters didn’t help, either.

    So I’ve decided that the name I love so much must go. in it’s place will hopefully be installed a name that is more conducive to business.

    I can’t describe how painful this feels to me. That name has become a large part of my identity. It feels like a divorce between two people that don’t want to be separated. But the business is too important to ignore. If it isn’t working, no matter how valuable it is to me, then it has to go.

    So I would advise people to take the advice in your post as early as possible and think like a prospective student instead of a die-hard martial artist. The earlier these changes are made, the lass painful they will be.

  5. Mike Massie on May 1, 2009 at 5:13 am

    Brent, I think that’s a great thing…

    It’s funny though – not all people see it that way.

    Several weeks ago I had some irate individual complaining on the site about forced volunteerism, etc. Apparently, she thought it was wrong for her son to have to help out his instructor with cleaning the school. Granted, forcing students to do “chores” borders on illegal child labor, but if a school has a cleaning day when students can volunteer to come in and clean, I can’t see a thing wrong with it.

    Students should have pride in their school, and if a student doesn’t care to help their instructor then something is definitely wrong with that picture. (And personally, my opinion is that if a student doesn’t like a school’s policies, they can vote with their dollars and leave.)

  6. Mike Massie on May 1, 2009 at 5:16 am

    Dave, I’ve been through the same thing. Tried to come up with a name for my school and what we do that was different from the typical stuff.

    All it did was confuse potential clients.

    So, I put the “cool/obscure” name on things that only current students would see, and changed the name of the school to “Massie’s Karate” – suddenly, no more confusion, and my response rates on my marketing magically increased, too. :)

  7. Dave Chesser on May 2, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    Six months ago I would have laughed at what you’re suggesting about the name change. I’m not laughing now. Seeing the puzzled looks every time I hand out my business card has taken care of that. It’s been a painful process learning what I’m doing wrong.

    Reading The E-Myth Revisited has opened my eyes in many ways. It’s an incredibly powerful book. Before I read it, I wouldn’t have contemplated changing the name of my school. But after reading that book, I now realize that’s the kind of mistake that business failures make. And none of us want to fail. Having the guts to make deep changes is very uncomfortable, though.

    I guess that’s why they call it growth. :)

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