David M. Valadez
Reflections on Operating An Aikido Dojo: How to Be Financially Stable With A Dojo True To The Way.
Part 1: General Context and Market Strategy
The maintaining of students and the increasing of one’s overall membership is an important issue for dojo, especially traditional dojo, as traditional dojo can today find this to be a difficult task for many reasons. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that popular media outlets frequented by the masses currently are not commercially assisting the traditional arts. For dojo that have relied, knowingly or unknowingly, upon such resources, these may be dark days. It has been many years since Above the Law came out or since Tom Cruise was a samurai.
Additionally, the traditional arts are not being assisted by today’s social trends regarding such apparently disparate things as notions of masculinity, concepts of self-defense, the Wellness Industry, the Happiness Industry, etc. Most of these venues have usurped the discourses and pedagogies of the traditional arts but have done so while disparaging their sources, noting them to be wasteful, and able to be dissected without issue - all in the name of modern efficiency. In the face of these challenges, without a steady and increasingly growing membership, traditional dojo face financial risk and arts such as Aikido face degeneration and possible extinction.
While it may appear to a dojocho that the traditional arts today offer low returns and exchanges in potential cultural or social capital compared to MMA or BJJ, the mistake to avoid is trying to make one’s dojo and one’s art more MMA/BJJ-like. Aikido Journal, when it adopts this position, is wrong in this regard. This is a mistake for two very important reasons: First, it is a mistake because the abovementioned only describes one market, a market that is already saturated, a market that is increasingly and rapidly producing lower and lower returns across the board: lower quality of practice, lower quality of art, lower student populations per school – all common effects of any mass appeal. These are all things that Tae Kwon Do also experienced in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Like TKD eventually experienced, we are also beginning to see an increase in school closures in this over-saturated market as many owner/operators have poorly decided to overextend themselves with second or third schools or by adopting larger facilities under the ideas that “the sea has an infinite amount of fish” and “wells never dry up.”
The traditional dojocho needs to understand that other markets are available and that these markets should be sought out instead since doing so always makes more sense businesswise than coming late to a game that is commencing its ending. It is also a mistake because the traditional arts’ market viability actually rests in the quality of its practice and in the quality of its transmission and not directly in the almost antithetical concern with the quantity of its practitioners.
Relatedly, the aforementioned market, through its mass appeal, leads to an accumulation of dabbler practitioners by default. And, as with all mass appeals, this market, like all markets, comes to be driven by said masses. As such, slowly this mass market comes to prioritize meaningless and material things over things of real value, etc. The traditional dojo cannot survive by appealing to the mass market.
Instead, the traditional dojocho should avoid this market and almost everything about this market. Rather than trying to make one’s dojo less traditional, one should make it more traditional. By doing so, the traditional dojo thereby enters into another untapped but resourcefully sufficient market, one also conducive to training in a Budo.
Do not try and jump on the MMA/BJJ mass appeal bandwagon. Let the MMA/BJJ mass market do its thing, and you do your thing. While some portions of the MMA/BJJ are able to take advantage of the lucrative crowds of young males that are indirectly addressing insecurity issues with fantasies of violence and fame, or while it seems there is lots of money to be made in meeting the immature and commonly held need to address ego-duels, the Aikido dojocho should instead seek out all people that have seen through or that want to see through the superficiality of modern society, that are seeking the wellness of spiritual maturity, and that want something as real as it is lasting.
Stop attempting to cater to the segment of the population that is by its very nature only starting an art to quit said art. Instead, seek out and cater to those individuals that can develop and keep a life-practice. Your market is not the average 18-28 year old male share of the population. Your target population is this: those individuals who want to cultivate their spirit and their body interdependently, those individuals who want to learn how to address reconciling their fears and self-attachment for the sake of performance enhancement across all segments of their lives, those individuals who see the benefit of and want the benefit of having a sacred space in their lives, those individuals who are seeking a weapon-based and size-irrelevant self-defense system, those individuals who want a channel for self-cultivation through craft perfection, and those individuals who want to build their “tribe” up with these kinds of people.
The market that common commercial martial arts schools seek to tap into should have as much to do with your dojo as banking, or fishing, or making hamburgers – nothing. As you likely do not follow the market pertaining to the “burger war” for determining your dojo’s path and destiny, so should you not follow trends in the commercial martial arts market for determining your dojo’s path. The two population pools are completely different, and more than that the mass-market pool does not lend itself to the market strategy needed by the traditional arts.
A dojo membership strategy is primarily addressed by two means: one, a dojo membership strategy can be based on getting more new students, or, two, a dojo membership strategy can be based on keeping existing students. Naturally, there is some possibility to do both but in actual practice you will see that traditional dojo should prioritize keeping existing students and allow getting more new students to happen coincidentally of this prioritization. Why prioritize one’s efforts this way? Here’s an example: it is the keeping of existing students that allows them to develop a life practice of Budo, and this in turn keeps the art thriving on the mat and as a tradition. Prioritizing the maintaining of students increases the quality of transmission, and the quality of transmission lends itself to the commercial thriving of the traditional dojo. This thriving is made visible to the prospective student drawn from the aforementioned population pool. Meaning, when they look on the mat at your dojo, they will see highly-skilled practitioners doing powerful and sophisticated movements. This in turn attracts the right people to join the dojo while the dabbler intuitively realizes that he or she in the wrong place for doing “martial art-lite.”
In short, here are my recommendations:
- Be more traditional.
- Know your population market pool and cater to that one (see above).
- Prioritize keeping students over gaining new students.
- Separate yourself from current commercial trends.
Now, I’m sure that every Aikido dojocho already believes him/herself to be doing these things, but, often such is not the case. This is because most dojocho are relying on a certain number of fallacies that actually keep them from being a truly traditional dojo, and keep them from catering to the right population market pool, prevent them from not prioritizing keeping students over getting new students, and that have them following popular commercial trends rather than historically and scientifically validated pedagogies for artistic transmission.
I will cover these fallacies one by one in Part II of this blog series.