Can You Earn a Living Teaching Martial Arts for Free?

Banner image teaching martial arts for free

Q: Do you think you could make a living teaching martial arts for free?

The obvious answer is, of course not. Sure, you can attract students with free trial offers, and many school owners do.

But there has to be a limit, or else you’ll go broke giving away your time and expertise to people who have no intentions of becoming paying students.

We’ll get back to the topic of giving away free lessons and charging what you’re worth in a minute.

But before I address that topic in full, here’s another question for you…

If you expect consumers to invest their hard-earned dollars in learning your style or system, shouldn’t you also be willing to invest in learning how to run a profitable studio?

How I Learned The Business of Teaching Martial Arts

When I was first getting started as a school owner, I paid other established, successful school owners significant sums to spend time with me, sharing details on how they ran their businesses, how they attracted students, and so on.

I didn’t have a ton of cash flow back then. My studio was brand new, and I needed every red cent to keep it going.

Putting consulting fees on credit cards wasn’t an option either. After I left the service, my old job was supposed to be waiting for me. And I didn’t know it at the time, but it was mandated by law that my former employer give me my job back.

Instead, they broke the law, saying they had filled my position while I was serving during Desert Storm. For six months I remained unemployed while I waited for a new position to open.

During that time, I had to take government assistance to survive, and I fell behind on all my bills. Because I was making near-minimum wage as an ER tech, I never was able to catch up on those bills. By the time I opened my first studio a few years later, my credit was absolutely trashed.

As well, taking out a personal loan with a family member was out of the question. I grew up in a very poor family, and anything I had, I earned. When I started my first studio, I had to do it all on my own.

That’s why I developed the Small Dojo Big Profits system for starting schools. Out of necessity, I had no choice but to learn how to bootstrap my dojo.

Knowledge Is An Investment In Your Future

Yet, I still spent everything I could spare on my own education as a school owner. That was because I respected other school owners who were willing to share their time and expertise with me.

Also, I believed that I was investing in my future by doing so.

I paid for it dearly. Not just in coaching fees, but in endless 12-16 hour work days, and years spent living in dorm rooms, garage apartments, and even the studio office, just so I could make rent on the studio.

It’s not that I regret any of it—not at all. But I clearly remember those very early days when I’d work a ten hour shift in healthcare, then drive forty minutes to my studio to teach for three hours, drive back to my 12 x 20 dorm room, eat some cold cereal or ramen, and then crash out so I could do it all again the next day.

To be honest, I actually look back on those days fondly. Even the months I spent living in a back room behind my studio office. There’s nothing that will motivate you more to succeed than sleeping on a cot and showering at the local gym or YMCA.

But, it paid off. Sacrificing my own personal comfort for the sake of keeping the studio doors open was the right call. Within a year, I had over 100 students and I was making more money than I’d ever made in my life.

Yet, I didn’t make decent profits in my dojo until after I started charging what I was worth. It was only after I raised my rates to a national standard—even though no one in my area was charging nearly as much—that I was able to pay myself a comfortable salary each and every month.

Why Teaching Martial Arts For Free Is A Losing Business Model

You’ll never make a living by giving away free martial arts lessons. It’s okay to provide a free trial to new students, and it’s a great way to get people through your doors in the hopes that they’ll like it and enroll.

But eventually you need to collect that first tuition check, or else you’ll go broke.

I’ve seen it happen, so many times. School owners feel guilty about asking for money, so they let students extend their free trial, sometimes indefinitely.

Or worse, they never learn the skills they need to turn trial members into enrollments. Because they lack basic negotiation skills, they let students guilt them into giving them discounts.

Before you know it, most of their students are paying reduced rates for tuition, and some are even training for free.

Then, when it’s time to pay the bills the school owner wonders why they don’t have enough in the bank to cover their expenses. And let me tell you, there is nothing more frustrating than having a full training floor and an empty bank account.

Free Advice Is Never Really Free…

Likewise, I learned a long time ago that I have to charge what I’m worth as a business coach. After all, I can only give away so much info for free.

It’s because I remember those lean years that I try to provide so much free and low-cost information, via this blog, the podcast episodes, my books, and the martial arts business tips videos I’ve been producing recently.

To his day I still provide tons of accessible business information for martial arts instructors and school owners. I don’t mind answering simple questions about Small Dojo Big Profits and clarifying concepts that are in the book. Yet I have to draw the line somewhere, or else I’ll spend all my time answering questions online for free.

That’s why, when one of my social media followers asks a question that requires more than a one or two sentence answer, I suggest they book a coaching session with me.

Of course, my services aren’t cheap. But as they say, free advice is never really free. Usually, it costs more in the long run, both in the time it costs to figure out if the free advice you got was worth it, and in the money it’ll cost you when you take poor advice.

Look, I don’t care who you go to for business coaching. But eventually, if you want your dojo to grow you need to get solid advice from someone.

Be willing to invest in yourself, just like I did. I’d never have launched, grown, and sold three studios over a thirty-year career teaching martial arts if I hadn’t.


P.S. – By the same token, I encourage you to respect your own time and expertise by charging what you’re worth and running your dojo business like a business. Don’t sell yourself short. Charge what you’re worth. People who have guilt issues about making a decent income will always be broke. Don’t fall into that trap.

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