The Next Step?

Many of my students know about this already, but it is, and will remain, a topic that is very much on my mind at the moment: What is the next step for our dojo?

When I began teaching Aikido, my needs and wants were modest. I simply wanted a location in which I could share my practice. At the time, I lived across the street from a YMCA; after some convincing, they allowed me to try out an Aikido class. That was nearly 5 years ago. Today, we have anywhere between 12 and 16 students. That’s a relatively small number, but when you consider that we get little to no advertising and street traffic, I find that we have done rather well.

There have been problems, however. Our space is not suited for training with bokken or jo; in fact, the use of these tools is met with some trepidation from the YMCA staff members. I can understand their concern; these items look like weapons. The fact that we train in them more to learn better how to apply Kokikai principles is hard to get across unless you are actually on the mat. We are also limited in the number of classes we can offer. At present, we offer three classes a week, with most people participating in two. Due to other YMCA classes, we can’t add a class later in the evening, nor can we add classes during other days of the week.

There is also the matter of cost. For the past five years, the YMCA has charged its members $3 per class and non-members $5 per class. For students training twice a week, that amounts to $24 per month or $40. This is indeed a great value. However, Y members are also paying their membership dues, which is around $40 per month, and many of my students are members of the YMCA solely because of our dojo. Even so, this is a pretty good value.

Starting in October, however, the fees are changing. For Y members, the cost will be $4 a class, or $32 per month. For non-members, the cost is $10 a class, or $80 a month for two days a week. Now the perceived value of the class is harder to discern. I could play the “Training in our art is worth any price!” card, but that concept is hard to convey to new students; especially when they could join a full-time dojo for the same amount. As the chief instructor, I now have two concerns:

  • Will I lose students because they cannot afford or do not want to afford these new fees? If so, the dojo will quickly collapse.
  • Will I fail to gain new students because it is too hard to illustrate the value of membership? If so, the dojo will die slowly, as a constant stream (or, at least, trickle) of new students is important to any dojo.

When I combine these concerns with the fact that our class schedule is limited, I have been forced to wonder what our next step is. My instincts tell me that it is time for our dojo to step out and truly become it’s own entity. There are two ways we can do this:

  1. Find another space that we can rent on a per-hour basis, such as a community center or church facility.
  2. Find a space that we rent full-time as a dojo.

In the first scenario, we would potentially gain more class time, and practice in an improved facility that would allow us to expand our curriculum. Because we’d be renting by the hour, there would be minimal risk to me financially if the dojo were to disperse. We would also be able to fully take ownership of our advertising. The downsides include the fact that we’d still have to set up and take down the mats at every class, and that we’d still be at the mercy of the given center’s schedule. That said, I’m sure I could find a space like this that would allow us to charge $80/month for classes; which is a reasonable rate compared to other stand-alone martial arts schools.

In the second scenario, we would definitely gain more class time, and also practice in an improved space (although the overall environment might be less asthetically pleasing). We would have access to the space 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, which would give us complete freedom to have a full Kokikai curriculum. As the space would be ours, we could set up the mats and leave them down which would be a very nice benefit. We’d also be fully responsible for our advertising and other costs. The major downsides include that we’d have to move the dojo at least 15 minutes away from its current location; I would also be putting myself at a much greater financial risk should things fall apart.

In either case, I would still need to set up the dojo as a business and get liability insurance. I worry less about that, because I certainly wouldn’t mind being able to write off training expenses as business expenses, and liability insurance seems to be pretty straightforward. Dojos smaller than mine can support it, at any rate. But, I must admit, both cases are big enough changes in the dojo that my heart pounds at all of the possibilities that exist.

That said, I am strongly leaning towards finding our own space that we can use as a dojo full-time. The financial risks and responsibilities will be overcome a thousandfold if it means that my current students can train more effectively and enjoyably, and we are able to attract and retain new students because we have a broader and more accomodating schedule. I have even found a space that has a great deal of potential: it is a small, older warehouse. The space is relatively small (about 1100 square feet), but it has high ceilings, windows, ample parking, and a secure door. The rent is extremely reasonable; reasonable enough that were things to go wrong I would not be in dire straits. (Of course, I wouldn’t be happy! But I wouldn’t be facing years of debt either).

In the end, the final decision will be made of by the dojo. I could simply tell my students: “We’re moving. Let’s go.” But that is not the way I would like to lead. Hopefully, I can either show my students that this move is best for our training and for the growth of our dojo, or they will convince me that our interests are better served elsewhere.

It is very exciting, to say the least!

3 thoughts on “The Next Step?

  1. The warehouse locale sounds good. A high ceiling is obviously a must when you’re whirling weapons around. Okinawan bo’s are 6′ long, and I’ve clipped my share of low hanging lights in dojos. Anyway, this move will probably end up being the best thing for you and your people. If you get a good location (this is key with any business), those 12-16 students will grow overnight.

  2. John: Yes, high ceilings are a must! There are many apartments in the Seattle area that have divots from my early jo work. πŸ™‚

    I’m convinced this move is the best thing. The warehouse space seems great, but it has poor visibility. Other than that, it is near-perfect. I’ll be keeping my eye out, however–you never know what may turn up.

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