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Some thoughts around running a HEMA club

"How can profit and authenticity be reconciled so that one does not destroy the other?" - Ashley Read, Authentic Profits

I'm currently reading this book which is rather good. It's about how to run a Martial Art club in a way that does not compromise your integrity (and still make money if that is a goal that interests you). I have always been rather skeptical of people who run their HEMA club as a business, the main reason for this is that many appear to automatically fall into the ubiquitous "Mcdojo" approach.

To run such a model leads to most of the pitfalls I see in most Martial Arts and is, from what I can see, an ongoing and emerging issue in HEMA:

1. High quantity, low-quality

The club will never turn away anyone because larger groups equal more money for the business owner. It's all about getting as many people as possible in the door and paying fees. This means heavy marketing and appealing to every possible market: this is "street", "spiritual", "sport", etc. In being something for everyone it is, in fact, equally nothing to everyone, i.e. does nothing well and people become quickly disillusioned. The net result is that it attracts lots of people the majority of whom then leave.

2. All filler, no killer

Time = money so the more classes the students have to take the more income for the business owner. Also the higher student to teacher ratio the more profit. This means almost an inevitably slow and tedious progression for any student irrespective of ability or interest. A way many Clubs have to maintain interest despite glacial progression is to have extensive and complex ranking systems, as they are a great way to give the appearance of content without the substance. Finally, it's a good way of selecting the "true believers", because no large club can go it alone and the "Master" needs proven sycophants, er I mean "assistants", and those who have invested the money and time to progress through complex hierarchies are unlikely to rock the boat.

3. The all-knowing and powerful dictator

The Martial Arts "mastery" of the business owner is their unique selling point and nothing must be allowed to happen that would threaten this. Unfortunately, nothing is a bigger threat to this than those pesky students, which means that any dissent or discussion that runs contrary to the teaching of the Leader must be quashed. Even with an essentially well-meaning teacher, the high student to teacher ratio makes dealing with everyone fully and with attention is impossible. It also means, given the stakes that loss of reputation entails, they must treat sparring or competing with extreme caution. The end result being that the teacher builds a wall of authority between themselves and all but a select few trusted students.

4. Everyone else does it wrong

When operated through this business model which tries to be everything to everyone, then naturally every other club out there is a potential threat and most be destroyed! (or even in the most benign club they are all "doing it wrong") This often becomes personal because every other teacher out there is a potential threat to the business owners unique selling point, their "mastery."

So, what's the "other way" to this? Well, to have a rational think about some of the outcomes of the above:

1. Large numbers = high overheads and low quality
2. Trying to be everything to everyone = hard sell and inevitable disappointment with high turnover
3. Relying on your "mastery" = Compromising your training for fear for your own authority from students and your peers

The solution could then be seen as:

1. Small numbers = smaller overheads and better quality teaching
2. Focused on a niche market = higher quality product which can be sold for more money and less need to see everyone as rivals. In fact, it's in your interests to turn away unsuitable students and you can recommend them other places more suited to their interests.
3. Be more like a coach = have a more personal relationship with students (which equals more loyal customers and an ability to charge more money) but makes it Ok for them to progress beyond you.

To put this in business lingo: the end result is a more quality product, with more consistent customers that you can sell your "product" to for more money. 

Which club would I rather train with? I'd go for the smaller, more personal training with direct access to an quality training, at my pace and with a teacher who wasn't afraid to prove themselves. And I pay more money for it and if I didn't want to then there's all those McDojo's out there ready and waiting for me.

Of course most of this goes out the window if you're not running your club as a business. But some of the factors remain constant, do you want the hassle of a larger numbers of students and the resultant higher overheads with lower student-teacher ratios? Well maybe you do, especially if you tweak the model so it looks like this:

1. Large numbers - higher overheads but more paying members
2. Still focused on a niche market - better retention because you've chosen a popular subject, stuck at it and are doing it well
3. Still acting like a coach - because it's not dependant on your personal prestige (and your eye isn't on your personal bottom line) the sky's the limit in terms of instructors which means better teacher-student ratios. 


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