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Saturday, December 31, 2016

One Year of Running a Martial Arts School

In a few hours Martial Journeys LLC will be a year old.  I have more than usual to think about this New Year's Eve while reflecting on the past year and anticipating the new one. Today I went through some of the things I've written about starting and running a school. They are stories of happiness, minutiae, exhaustion, pride and especially gratitude.  Here are some highlights that I hope are interesting to read.
Day 11:  Tomorrow Martial Journeys of Madison holds its first class and I'll be doing my very best to grow it into a prosperous traditional martial arts school run with integrity. I don't expect it to be easy, but I know it will be worth it.  It's the first follower who makes a leader and it's the first student who makes a teacher. E made me the head instructor of Martial Journeys of Madison.
Day 35:  Class today, a comparative analysis of different styles of sparring, went really well. The website is almost done, but I need a chunk of time to sit down and write some things for it. I have come up with a subject rotation including sparring/forms/technique and so forth, but I have one subject that needs a better name because "The Carlson Grab Bag of Doom" doesn't look good on a calendar. I finally took pictures of the new mats from our anonymous donor, and those will get posted tomorrow. I don't have storage for the mats, so they get piled up in the computer room of my apartment, which so far has been a pretty good workout for me. Getting the word out about the class continues to be tough, as does keeping up with everything on top of a full time job. 
Thanks to our anonymous donor!
Day 60:  I'm tired. Really, really tired. Stuff isn't getting done fast enough. On the plus side, I'm very proud of the classes I've been teaching. I've got some great mentors. And I've got some of the best students an instructor could ask for. The folks at the community center have been awesome. I've had surprise visits (and planned visits) from people I haven't seen in ages who just stopped by class to show their support, and that is greatly appreciated. Trekking on.
Day 79:  I spent some time on the technical side of the website, enough for it to occur to me that I don't miss being a professional programmer. I also retrieved my USB drive, which thankfully did not make it all the way to the same stash where the kitten has taken all the dry erase markers, as I still have not been able to find those. I'm still working on outreach, trying to get the word out to prospective students. It is very strange to me that my adult program is growing easier and faster than my kids program. I have a ton more experience teaching kids than teaching adults, and I find myself now teaching at a consistently more advanced level than I ever have before, especially for the black belts. They're at times challenging classes to teach because of the caliber of the students, but I'm proud of the results, and moreover incredibly honored that people like these have chosen to forward their martial education with me. When I think about that, it leaves me inspired to be a better instructor, and to build a school worthy of them and all they can be.
Although the adults seem to be doing okay so far.
Day 118:  I took the day off today. Today is the first day when I didn't do either job. It's scary, with the slow summer months coming up, and it feels like I'm being incredibly lazy to just take a whole day to just take care of myself and relax. But if I'm only doing that once every 118 days, it will probably be okay.
Day 131: Equipment order came in just in time, as I have a new student starting today. Despite the printer's determination to die its slow, sputtering death, I did get all my forms printed and should be good to go for the week at least. There is never enough coffee. The bags I haul the mats in are disintegrating, which is much more fun for the kitten than it is for me. My reading list is getting longer instead of shorter, but I did finally order a copy of A Killing Art, which has been recommended to me repeatedly. I read a little bit of Word of Mouth Marketing and got an idea for my web page, and I read a little bit of a sparring book and got an idea for a drill to try sometime. Tonight is forms, though. I didn't get any training in today, which is par for the course on a Tuesday, but maybe it's just as well since I'm still recovering from how hard I kicked my own butt on Sunday. I still just plain need more hours in a day, but for all my complaining, it has been a long time since I have been this happy.
I wasn't very happy with the original mat storage situation.
Day 142:  What is the opposite of a well-oiled machine? A disaster of gears and springs? That's my life right now, except instead of gears and springs, it's caffeine and productivity. This week has been particularly rough, with 2 new students, three walk-ins, my first time running a public demonstration, a last minute performer change, and also a couple days of being pretty sure that one of my cats was going to die. But for all my complaining, things are really going great. The demo went well and doubled nicely as a lesson for some of my more advanced students about the confluence of nervousness and readiness, which I really should write up into a blog post at some point. 
Part of our first public demonstration.
Day 150:  I printed a bunch of stuff, cut a bunch of papers, ordered some more clipboards, and fretted over the bank account. Who ever said running a business wasn't glamorous? Computer work is especially cumbersome today due to a dying mouse. I'm still finding it difficult to achieve any kind of work/life balance, but at least I have lots of practice with that from my video game industry days. 
Day 168:  Thursday is my weekend, which is to say that once a week I have 27 consecutive hours that I don't need to be at either job, and most of them fall on Thursday. I do often have to spend much of that time on the business, but this time I'm spending most of it on personal development. Last night was for study, (keeping up on taekwondo news, business podcasts, a couple short taekwondo documentaries, reading articles and opinion pieces about martial arts, and the like) because I was just too physically drained from the week to do any physical training. Today I'm meeting a training partner and hitting the gym, though--something that doesn't happen nearly often enough.
I find myself saying "Someday I'm going to have..." a lot. "Someday I'm going to have my own space with mirrors and it will be easier for you to learn this," or "Someday I'll be able to quit the day job and I can train every morning," or "Someday I'll be able to offer more classes per week," or "Someday I'll have a ton of assistant instructors and everyone can get more one-on-one attention in class." All that is true, but I also worry about things like "Someday I'm going to have to raise my prices," or "Someday this school will be so different that the people who love it now won't recognize it, and I wonder if they'll still love it." I've always hated losing people, even before it was linked to the health of my business.
I'm doing a better job of taking things one day at a time. Now that the business can cover its own expenses, I no longer feel like I'm in a race against the clock to build the school up before the money runs out. I have the luxury of spending an evening on my own development instead of on the school, like I did last night. I can even take an evening and play video games without too much guilt. It will be a long time before I can take home a paycheck, though. Any money coming in has to go right back into the business. I'm okay with that. I'm still working too many hours, but it's no longer unsustainable.
Day 183:  The vehicle and driver I've been relying on to haul the mats from my apartment to the community center are no longer available. So I need a van pretty much right now. The mats don't fit in my car, so it has to be a larger vehicle. But since I wasn't anticipating this expense just yet, I don't exactly have money set aside for it. 
Day 194:  Today was an impressive barrage of awful. I called in sick from the day job to try to take care of some business things that needed the extra attention. Last week my credit union outright refused to work with a business that has been around for only 6 1/2 months, but today BMO Harris came to the rescue and offered to do an auto loan with a scant 40% interest rate. I'm not so sure they're going to be my bank anymore.
I took a pretty hard gut punch in my kids class today when I announced some upcoming changes to the program. Most of it was good news, but the bad news was that I have to raise my rates to go with it. It's all going to happen later--I just figured it was fair to give everyone as much advance warning as possible. And I don't expect anyone to be happy about paying an extra $20/month, but I was surprised at the push-back, and I took it harder than I expected. I've taught martial arts for over a decade, and in that time, no one has ever been my students like these students are. I have done my very best for them, and the thought that I might lose them over a small rate increase, especially when I am still so far below the industry average, was pretty rough.
I also had someone suggest they might not sign up at the end of their intro--which just hasn't happened to me before. I have been so proud that every single person who has given this school a try has decided to stay, and I was saddened that someone is lukewarm.
It wasn't all bad, though. I ran into a student from years ago, and caught up with him a bit. I also met a business mentor for lunch and had some really good Indian food, before taking a break to get roflstomped by zerg. I miss being able to train away my troubles like I did when I was taking 17 classes a week, but milkshake and StarCraft breaks are almost as effective even if not nearly so good for my figure.
Day 196:  One kid learned her first punch and had a great time doing it. Another kid's side kick improved by leaps and bounds. Another did the same for front kick. One kid made huge strides in focus. One adult got better at spin crescent kick today. Another complained of tight hips on side kick and learned a drill to help the problem. One adult learned a new kick and is already doing it like he's had a month of practice. Another adult expressed some concern about his back leg roundhouse kick, and ended the class with a thunderous clap against a body shield. There is something immensely satisfying about a small class, where you can be certain that every single student got exactly what they need. And I did too. After how rough things have been lately, nothing could have done me better than a great class highlighting all the reasons I'm doing this.
Day 210:  A few years ago, I had someone very bluntly suggest that I had no business sense and could not be taught. Well two weeks ago I had a family say they wanted to quit, but today they signed up and brought three referrals. I clearly should give up now. To paraphrase A and D, haters can go step on a Lego. I also taught what was probably Wisconsin's first ever taekyun class, which sounds pretty cool on paper at least.
Wisconsin's first ever taekyun class?  We think so, but don't know how to fact-check it.
Day 217:  I had to have a talk with a couple black belts today. Yes, I'm the owner and head instructor and all that, but they can't underestimate their role here. They are pillars of this school, and they always will be. They're here from this school's infancy, every day helping to build it and let it grow. Even if they quit today and never came back, they would still have left their mark here. In fact, anyone who's here from the beginning like this is helping to define what the school's community will be for years to come. I can't let them ever think they don't matter here.
Day 224:  I love my tiny school, and I'm proud of my students and how far they've come in the short time that we've been around. Earlier today I was thinking about how happy I am, and how seeing misfortune in my friends' Facebook feeds is just so unfair. I've never before felt like I had an obscene surplus of happiness that I wish I could siphon off to friends who are not so lucky. Tomorrow we're running our first belt test, and we are so ready. The students have worked hard to hone their skills and I have spent an absurd number of hours on logistics, and I'm confident that it will all come together.
Martial Journeys of Madison's first belt test.
Day 238:  When a school is this new, there are going to be many firsts. Most of them are happy things, like the first class, first signup, first belt testing, and so on. But today's first was not so great. Today Martial Journeys of Madison lost a student for the first time. He's been my student longer than this school has even been around, and now he's grown up and going to college. It takes a pretty lousy instructor to not call that a win, but I'm sure gonna miss him.
Day 263:  I have finally achieved one of my longest-standing goals, which was to cut back my day job hours to make room for more dojang hours. I now go to Captel only five days a week, and we're now holding classes three days a week. Our first Saturday class didn't go terribly smoothly. There were no major problems, but enough minor ones to be an annoyance. The next one should go better. Also, there was a lot of interest from people who didn't know we were there until we showed up during their Saturday events, so I hope to be signing up a few more intros as a result. Today we had our second belt test, which was a bit underwhelming as only one student was ready to test. He did great, though, and I'm very happy to finally see a yellow belt on him. It's getting near October, and I'm cooking up schemes for a Halloween event. Ahem--because I am a shrewd businessperson, and not because I'm a giant kid who loves Halloween. I will not publicly admit to thinking an adult zombie-themed tai chi class would be awesome. (Tai chi is generally performed slow, making it ideal for fending off zombie attacks. Har har.) The school is growing slowly but steadily, and it is still a balancing act between coffee-fueled productivity and not dying of caffeine overdose. I feel awfully naive for ever having thought it would be about teaching good classes and running an ethical business. Those things now seem very secondary to seeing how much caffeine I can get into my system.
The actual owner and operator of Martial Journeys of Madison.
Day 266:  I pulled the veil back a little bit for my students today into the behind-the-scenes. I never said anything before because I didn't think they'd be interested. But today one of the kids noted with surprise and delight that I had more kicking targets than before. I told him that's because the school could afford them. I explained that when his parents (and everyone else) paid for classes, all of that money goes back into the school, to make it a better school. I listed a few things I've spent the school's money on, and another kid added, "And a little bit for you!" He was shocked when I told him no. There are so many things I'd rather buy for the school than my own paycheck. I want more classes per week, our own facility, more mats, more advertising, storage, visits and seminars from my instructors in Korea and elsewhere, and a hundred other things.
As the school grows, someday the limiting factor will be my time and energy, and that's when I'll give myself a paycheck. Even then, it will be just enough to quit the day job so I can put my time into the school. I don't need a giant pile of money. And until the school is everything I want it to be, my paycheck is the least of my concerns.
Coincidentally, it came up in conversation after the adult class that only a small percentage of my business time is spent teaching. I only spend 4 1/2 hours a week teaching right now, and the rest is not glamorous. Setting up before class, packing up after class, filing, organizing, managing the money, making sure things are ordered when they need to be, talking to students, talking to parents, coordinating with the community center, and so forth.
I guess my students thought this was a much cushier gig than it actually is! Not that I'm complaining. Even on the worst days of exhaustion and frustration over any aspect of running this school, I am still very, very glad I did this.
Day 297:  I've come to a sort of holding pattern, where I am semi-comfortable in that the business can fund itself for the foreseeable future, but I'm not unsustainably burning the candle at both ends. The downside is that the school is not growing. I have been dreading putting myself back into that insane crunch mode, but it has to happen if the school is going to grow again, and if it's ever going to become what I want it to be. So I jumped back in a few weeks ago. I'm paying for it, as expected, but it is also paying off, as expected.
I've been saving up vacation time for a stop on my 50 States Challenge, but getting away seems impossible. My life sure would be easier if I had an assistant instructor, but it will be a long time before I can afford to pay one.
There are some fun things happening with the school, though. I'm adding a tai chi class in November, and an all-ages class on Saturdays so parents can train with their kids if they want to, and we're attending our first tournament next month. We're also getting a mention in the upcoming issue of Taekwondo Life Magazine.
But mostly the work has been far less than glamorous. I spent some of the school's money on a windshield scraper for the school's van, for example. Winter is coming, and the Winter Is Coming jokes are coming.
Day 318:  Today we went to our first tournament. It ended up being just myself and one student. I haven't been to a tournament in years, and I had forgotten how exhausting they are. This one wiped me out, and I didn't even compete. I saw a lot more familiar faces than I expected, which was cool. I am so happy with my single student's performance. He took first in forms. He lost his first sparring match by a single point, but soundly won after that for 3rd place. Running a tiny school has its challenges, and one of them is that the pool of sparring partners is not deep, so this was a very valuable experience for him and also for me to see how his skills stack up against a different kind of opponent, and how I need to adjust his training accordingly. I'm not sure when the next tournament will be, but I hope to take a bigger group. I also got just a little bit of a bug to compete again myself, but that is not realistic right now. 
First competitor, first tournament, first place.  Go B!
Day 357:  Today was the last class of the year. The kids class was small but went very well, with everyone making great progress on their forms. The adult class also went really well, though attendance was sparse there, too.
Even though I absolutely love my school and my students, I have to say I am looking forward to only having one job for a few days. I've only had two days off all year when I didn't do any work for either job, and that is no way to live in the long term, but it's going to continue for a little while at least. I'm excited for what the new year will bring for the school, though. It will all be worth it!
I'm so proud of my students. In the past year, they have each started their martial journeys and every single one of them has come such a long way. It has been incredible to see, and even better to be a part of. I am so happy.
Day 365:  Today I'm writing a blog post and doing a lot of reflecting. I have omitted names from this post, which has had the unfortunate side effect of removing a lot of the stories of how much gratitude I feel toward so many people. I have done a huge amount of work for this school, but it's the people around me who have made it possible for me to do that work. Students who feel that what I teach has value and is worth showing up and paying for, students who volunteer their time to make the school a little better, students who have worked hard to gain skill and prove that this school is a good one, people in my personal life who have supported me, friends who have helped me smile on the most exhausting days, instructors who taught me everything I know, readers who support this blog and the other one, mentors who have helped me learn and improve at every aspect of this. You guys are awesome.
Martial Journeys of Madison is one year old!