Posted by: aikithoughts | October 13, 2006

The Next Step, Part II: Location

One of the biggest challenges to any business is choosing the right location. At least, that’s what everyone says. I don’t know very much about marketing, so I can’t list any statistics that demonstrate how important location is. However, common sense seems to say that: if people can’t find the dojo, they sure can’t train with you.

Finding a new space to train has meant that I’ve had to look very hard at different locations. In my previous post, I allude to this. As I mentioned, there are many spaces near where I live; however, most of these spaces are either extremely expensive or extremely remote. In the case of the former, the financial risk becomes almost unsustainable; in the case of the latter, I risk years of struggling with getting people in the door.

This issue is even more complicated when you consider that, while I want the dojo to be profitable, I do not want profit to be my primary goal. The balance is delicate: martial arts schools that place profit over training tend to have less interest in ensuring the purity and effectiveness of their art. They also seriously risk taking constant advantage of their students in the form of test fees, “special” seminars, “blackbelt” training tracks, and so on. Not every instructor falls into this trap, but the temptation is hard to resist. On the other hand, schools that pay no attention to profitabity tend to restrict themselves to hard-to-find, out of the way dojos, where rent is cheap. They tend to remain small and just on the edge of blinking out of existence. For some instructors, this is just what they want, and I for one see nothing wrong with that.

The challenge then is this: how does one select a location that serves the dojo as a business, as well as its members as a community?

Obviously, I do not have a definitive answer, but I do have some thoughts that address this issue. Whether these thoughts are correct will become very apparent in the next few months.

Choose a space that serves the needs of your art.

Your art, be it Aikido, Kung Fu, Karate, or something else, is the reason why you are training and teaching in the first place. Any location you select must be able to amply meet the needs of your art. In the case of Aikido, this means a facility with at least 700 square feet of open space, with a ceiling height of 12 ft to accommodate weapons practice. It means a bathroom on-site, not only for convenience but in case someone gets hurt. It means rooms in which students can change into their gis and store their weapons. It means having a foyer so people can take off their shoes, and places in which people can observe class comfortably.

Choose a space that serves your community.

We must not teach to satisfy our own egos; we teach because we want to share our art with others, so that they might gain the same benefits in physical fitness, mental preparedness, and overall well-being that we have experienced. Therefore, choosing a space that is difficult to find can be disadvantageous. It means that the person who most needs this art may never get the chance to experience it. As I said, there are instructors who have no problem with making their dojos hard to find; these instructors have different goals than I do. Personally, I -love- aikido, and I find that I’m very happy when I see other people enjoy it as well. That means that, when we find a new space, it needs to be somewhere that people can easily see and find.

Choose a space that serves your students.

This is a trickier prospect. Most people want to train close to home. Moving to a different location results in more travel time, which means more inconvenience. If, as in my case, you cannot find a location that is close to your original one, then I think offering some sort of compensation is not out of place. For example, I’m considering offering a “founders membership” rate. Essentially, students that currently train with me would be able to train at the new facility at significant discount. This is in part to say thanks for their continued support of the dojo; it is also an attempt to mitigate the inconvenience that driving to a new facility might cause. I should point out that I’m not sure this is the right solution, but it is an idea that I’m considering.

Choose a space that suits you.

Few of us, if any, will ever become full-time martial arts instructors. Let’s face it–this is not a career path in which many get rich. As a result, it is very important that you select a space that you can manage. For example, I could find many spaces close to my house that fit the needs of my art, my community, and my students, but would end up with me taking out a second mortgage on my house. That, as you can imagine, is not acceptable. There’s dying for your art, and then there’s going into financial ruin for your art. I might consider the former, but not the latter!

Ultimately, the choice is yours.

This last point, actually, is very hard for me. I would really like to think that the dojo is a democratic community, in which everyone has a say. While that is true, I often have to remind myself that, at this point: (1) I’m applying for any loans, and thus it is my financial security that is on the line, (2) I’m the one that will be writing the marketing materials and handling other aspects of running the school, (3) I’m the one that will be at the dojo nearly every evening, taking time away from my family. When you add all that up, it’s pretty clear that I have an obligation to myself to choose a space that I think works best. As I mentioned to one of my students: if someone wanted to chip in half of the money I need to get started, then I’d be more than happy to let them have an equal say in what space we choose. I hate making statements like that, but I think it’s the truth.

It’s also not lost on me that this contradicts my earlier statement: “Ultimately, the decision will be made by the dojo.” I think it is more accurate to say: “Ultimately, the decision will be made by me, with a great deal of input from the dojo.” Is that how I want things to be? No, but I think it is how things must be.

I think that if I keep these four ideas in mind, I will ultimately end up selecting the right space. We’ll soon find out.

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