Starting a Dojo: Different Models
Information is important, and if you’re thinking of starting a dojo, you will need to read and research. But the true strength of Cuong Nhu is that we have a community of instructors and professionals — real people with wide experience and deep wisdom — willing to share their knowledge, talk things over, and support your work.
Whether you dream of working out in your garage with a small group of friends, or making a living from a large commercial school—or any of several possibilities in between—there are members of the Cuong Nhu community who have been there, and they’re ready to back you up with advice, resources, and moral support.
There are several categories of schools:
- School/University Club
- Garage (or home) Dojo
- Community Dojo (including public or private and community programs)
- Commercial Dojo
Below are insights from instructors from these types of school models.
The University Club
Joseph Cordell, Seihou no Mori Dojo, Western Washington University
“If you're going to start a new University Club, here is something you need to remember: Perseverance. At club showcases there are dozens of people who express interest in your club, maybe 5 percent show up to classes and maybe one percent stay committed. You have to be patient and keep trying each and every quarter or semester. The club might not pick up and get any attendance the first school year, due to lack of publicity and/or lack of public interest. It takes a while to build a foundation that students would be comfortable in joining.”
Darius Jones, Tiger Dojo, Clemson, SC
“If you’re going to start or run a University Club Dojo, one thing to remember is that college students are busy with all sorts of activities.
They are going to form friendships in those activities. The activities where they form the strongest friendships are going to be the ones they stick with. From the first day we get new members, we make sure to reach out to them and make them feel welcome. We try to get them to understand that Cuong Nhu is more than just a class or workout; it’s family. I try to create an environment where students feel safe and wanted. That is usually enough to keep them coming back.”
Donald Williams, Kim Hiep Si Dojo, Orlando FL
“If you’re going to start a University-based Club, here are a few things to have in place. 1. A strong faculty advisor who will be your advocate when dealing with university officials. It makes it easy to get what you need, when the faculty member will go to bat for you. 2. You will have to be very flexible in your training times & locations. University Clubs are usually overseen by Student Government Associations or Sports Clubs. These are students themselves, so the relations you have with them will change each year. You’ll have to maintain and renew those relationships over time. 3. You need a strong Club President. As with most student organizations, the students legally run the show. A dojo on campus has to have a symbiotic relationship between the club officers and Head Instructor. Above all else, remember a University Club is still a Dojo. Respect the Etiquette.”
Robert First, Shiwa Dojo, Raleigh, NC
“Tip 1: If you get a space and at first nobody shows up...work out during the time you have, never just leave. My first student at Boston Cuong Nhu bumped into me in the last five minutes of my workout; I was there alone once again after weeks of nobody coming to my new classes. He saw me working out, we talked, he came back. Two weeks later he showed up with, now this is the truth, he showed up with 27 women from his dorm. That was my first dues-paying class at Boston University.
“Tip 2: Respect any space given to you, no matter its condition. If it is dirty, help to clean it. Get to know the staff, be willing to go an extra step, show your respect. And if there are rules, follow the rules! When Elizabeth and I started our dojo in Boca Raton we got a giant space in the gym, with mats. We loved it. One day word came down that outside groups would no longer be allowed.
We met in the office and they told Wado-kai and Judo—and us—that the free ride was over. After the meeting we were taken aside and given special permission to stay, because we had gone out of our way to stick by the rules.”
The Garage Dojo
Jon Fitzpatrick (retired, formerly of Empire Dojo, Santa Rosa, CA)
“If you are going to run a Garage Dojo, two things I would suggest: 1) Have a good flooring surface. This is essential, as bare concrete is very hard on the feet and joints. Consider investing in some mats. 2) To maximize space and appearance the training area should be mostly empty of the usual garage junk, such as shelves, tools, chemicals, etc.”
Mark Brandenburg, Kim Hiep Si Dojo, Orlando, FL
“If you’re going to start/run a Garage-type Dojo, treat it as if it were a real dojo (because it is!). Set specific times for classes and don’t vary them except for emergencies. Keep the dojo clean and free of distractions. It is easy at home to leave a cell or house phone within reach, or answer if someone knocks on the door—but don’t do it… If you’re casual about dates/times, or take care of personal business while working out, the students will not feel you are giving them your full attention (because you’re not!). While I don’t run regular classes out of my garage anymore, I do have our students from Kim Hiep Si come to workout in the garage when we are on break from campus, so I still keep these rules in mind.”
The Community Dojo/Non-profit Dojo
Victoria Johnson and Russ Eggleston, San Diego Cuong Nhu Academy, CA
“You can have a Community-based Dojo even if you are busy and have a job. If you can connect with a location such as a YMCA/YWCA, Boys and Girls Club, or Salvation Army Kroc Center (which is where we are), then you don't have to worry about things such as insurance, rent, or even collecting payments. We do not get paid, so all the funds the Kroc Center collects from our students go to them. All we do is walk in, teach, and leave. Since we both have full time jobs, this works best for us.”
Danny Pietrodangelo, Pyramid Dojo, Tallahassee, FL
“I have kind of an unusual Community dojo: it’s part of a non-profit program, Pyramid Studios, that provides services to adults with developmental disabilities. The students include adults with mental retardation, autism, seizure disorders (controlled) and non-specific disabilities.
“It’s free to the students. Pyramid has bought us a little equipment. However, I’ve also been able to call on some of my friends for support. The response has been incredible (and tax deductible). So if you have a community school, don’t be shy asking for support. When we have demos at the program’s “Friends and Family Night” we get small donations as well.
“Our workout space is minuscule, but we make it work.
You have to remember, even though you’re helping the students, you are still a guest when you’re in someone else’s facility space. Make friends with the director and staff, respect the facility’s rules and help out where you can.”
Joe Varady, Satori Dojo, Phoenixville, PA
“Take time to consider how much of a time and financial commitment you are able to make. As a full-time dad, running a community-based non-profit, teaching at a public facility, has offered me all the rewards of teaching Cuong Nhu, without feeling I have over-extended myself. Although my program started small, over the years it has grown to over 50 regular students. To begin a similar program,I would recommend contacting your local recreation department or school district to see what help and advice they can offer.“
Richard “Bud” Place, Northern Lights Martial Arts Center, Marquette, MI
If you are concerned about being able to afford a space for your dojo, consider sharing the expenses with another group. For example, Northern Lights is a small town, Community Non-Profit. We are all volunteer; instructors pay dues like everybody else. We share the dojo and the corporation with Marquette TaeKwonDo, in order to afford the facility. There are many friendly interactions between the two schools.
“Also, you can start small and start cheap—at a church, school, or community hall. When I started Cuong Nhu, class was in a city park. Buy essential equipment with your own funds.
“Most important, though, remember that the students make the dojo. Talk with them; pay attention to what attracts them and keeps them coming. Our students cite things like the pleasant, family-like atmosphere; friendly, enthusiastic instructors (no mean “drill sergeants”); high-quality instruction and style; and the instructors’ dedication. Remember those points and take them seriously.”
Ron Thomas, Tallest Tree Dojo, Gainesville, FL
“Tallest Tree is both a community dojo and a non-profit (one might say negative profit). I would say a couple of things. It is useful to have a critical mass of students for people to see when they come in the door. I would put this number at 10 to 20. This figure creates energy in the dojo and allows for several activities to be featured at once, thus making things interesting for prospective students. The second point concerns marketing. We have tried a number of methods to attract students, including various means of advertising, community demos, websites and so forth. The only thing that has really worked for us (besides the occasional serendipitous walk-in) is word of mouth from current and former students and instructors. So maintain your good reputation!”
Didi Goodman, Redwood Dojo, Oakland, CA
“A Community Dojo doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t make a living. When I started out 25 years ago, I worked by day and offered evening classes two days a week, one hour for kids, one for adults. But those classes grew crowded and I had to expand, until I had full classes five to six days a week. At some point I was able to drop my other work to focus on Redwood Dojo. In fact, I practically had to drop my other work in order to do a good job. I have made a modest but satisfying living all these years. How the fees and expenses work will depend on your city’s rules, and specific arrangements with the center.
“If you’re going to start classes at a Community Center, first of all foster good relations with the staff and other programs. Be helpful; be flexible; take care of your own messes, and if necessary, everyone else’s! Don’t be the person complaining and making demands.
“Second, be professional. Run the dojo as if your life and income depend on it, even if they don’t. Don’t be late for class unless your neighborhood is on fire (true story)! Don’t cancel class unless you’re in the hospital and can’t find a sub (almost true story).”
Gordon Eilen, Sung Ming Shu Dojo, Atlanta, GA
“Sung Ming Shu Dojo is incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit entity. We have a Head of School and an Executive Committee that meets regularly to provide advice and direction. Ours is a long-standing, large school. Keep in mind that if you’re going to run a similar school, you’ll need help; it’s practically impossible for one person alone. A strong team of dedicated, volunteer leaders is essential. And relying on volunteers can at times be a challenge. But when things come together, and dozens of students are training and sweating and laughing together, then it’s all worth it!”
Shawn “Smack” McElroy, Gin Kyo Dojo, Athens, GA
“Atlanta Karate is a non-profit organization, and teaches over 220 students in after-school programs at eight schools. Keep in mind that the program started out with just a few students at a single school, and grew over a period of years. We now have two full-time and four part-time paid instructors. If you want to start an after-school program, you’ll need to be persistent. Most schools have a person in charge of after school activities, but finding that person is sometimes a challenge. Once you make contact be sure to have all your important info ready—for example, you’ll need insurance. If you are a non-profit, that will help; and most schools require background checks and fingerprints from the local police department. While this list seems daunting, it is much easier than you think.
“Once you’re in, you are still ‘low man on the totem pole’ when schedule conflicts arise. Be flexible and work with the school. Bring flowers to the staff; volunteer at career day; donate to the PTA; buy an ad in the school flyer; sponsor the baseball team. The more you give to the school, the more they will see you as part of the family. Finally, give the kids great classes.”
Doug Storm, Atlanta Karate, Atlanta, GA
“Are you wondering whether it’s worth all the effort, persistence and hard work to start and run a children’s program? I’ll just share a story. Gabriella started in our after-school program when she was in kindergarten. She is now in 5th grade. Not long ago she came to class with a piece of paper in her hand. She ran to me with a big smile on her face, and handed me the piece of paper saying she had drawn me a picture. I looked at her artwork; it was a cat, and it was very nicely done. She then explained ‘The kitty’s name is Golden Spotts! I drew you a cat because I know how much you like them. Its eyes are blue because yours are, too. And it has golden spots because that is what you are made of on the inside.’
“It’s moments like this that make working with children rewarding and very special to me.”
The Commercial Dojo
John Kay, Komoku-ten Dojo (Fairwood Martial Arts), Renton, WA
“I suggest anyone who thinks they might want to teach martial arts, first offer their services as sempai at an established dojo or university club. Find out if you really want to commit that much effort, that many hours, long-term. If you pass that test, then begin looking for a suitable space to open your own dojo. Start out in a public facility with minimum commitment. If it’s meant to be, you may grow into a commercial operation. But whatever type and size of dojo you establish, remember: You are making a commitment to your students. Don’t start if you are just going to walk away.”
Ricki Kay, Komoku-ten Dojo (Fairwood Martial Arts), Renton, WA
“If you are going to start a commercial dojo, make sure you are truly 100 percent committed. You will be your own boss, but you will wear many hats. You will be the janitor, the window washer and the accountant. You will have to learn to do your own advertising, your own retail sales set-up, and still teach all the classes. You will be mom to some and a psychologist to others. You might not get rich monetarily, but you will live a full life touching many people.
“On the business side: Do your homework before signing a lease. Get a demographic study done of the area. Check it out at different times of day. Check out the crime patterns, if any. Never accept a first time lease offer. Stay on top of your accounting and all business transactions. The business is yours 24/7. Make the most of it!”
Tanner Critz, Gouitsu Dojo, Little Rock, AR
“If you'd like to start a commercial school from scratch (rent a space, market and start a school in a new area), write a full business plan to get a start-up loan, even if you don't need one. This is a great exercise that will force you to think over your budget, plan for the future, create tools to measure your progress, and confront any weaknesses in your plan. Have a business person or experienced investor look it over and tell you what they see. While the strength of your school will eventually arise from your teaching and leadership, its hard to do those things well when you're struggling with the business side.”
Terri Giamartino, Hoa Sen Dojo, Emeryville, CA
“The main reason I prefer running a commercial school is the control it gives me over managing my business and turning my love and passion for my art into a profitable venture. I can grow and expand as needed. I get to create the kind of environment I want for my students without restriction.
“My number one piece of advice for others is this: Try to spend at least 15 minutes every day doing something that directly focuses on getting students. You can easily get buried in busy work, but constant marketing for new students is imperative if you want to not only survive, but grow!”
John Burns, Rohai Dojo, Berkeley, CA
“Always remember that old saying, ‘The person who says it can’t be done should not interrupt the person doing it.’ You might encounter critics and skeptics, but if your passion is for martial arts and you want to make your living sharing it with others, pursue it and give it everything you have. Those of us who have lived it are happy to share what we know. I’m available to talk any time, and so are many of my successful and accomplished colleagues.”