As a resident of the Northwest (and Seattle, Washington in particular) it is very difficult not to become immersed in technology. Start working in high-tech, as I have, and you quickly find it impossible not to check out the latest innovations in Web applications and other tools. And with new sites coming online almost daily, keeping up with them can become nearly a full-time hobby! Given all this, it’s no wonder that, when I made the plunge into opening a Kokikai dojo, I began looking at how I could leverage technology to make running and maintaining the dojo as easy as possible. Now that the dojo has been running for a couple of years (meaning that I know that these tools are working at least reasonably well), I thought I’d take a moment to list what technologies our dojo has used successfully.
Important Caveat: I’m going to list several tools here; but just because I use them doesn’t mean I endorse them over other, competing products. The Internet is full of competing applications that reside in the same space; I highly encourage anyone and everyone to research a variety of tools before implementing one.
Billing and Payments
The number one capability I wanted to have when I started Aikido Kokikai South Everett was the ability to process credit and debit cards. My reason for doing this was completely selfish: I hardly ever have cash in my pocket, and having a check around is almost unheard of. I wanted to make sure that, when students and parents of students came to the dojo, they could easily sign-up for classes or pay for their current month’s membership by using the payment method of their choice. Regrettably, normal credit card processing systems (like those found at your average retail store) are pretty expensive.
Fortunately, the dojo found a great solution with online payment system–in our case, PayPal. While PayPal certainly has its faults (the fact that some people quite simply don’t trust them is one), using PayPal has made it very easy for the dojo process a credit cards whenever we need to. Plus, we can move a lot of payments online, which makes things even easier. PayPal does charge for each transaction you make–but then again, so do any other credit card processing systems.
PayPal offered us another very significant advantage, although it is one that was not terribly easy to implement: recurring memberships. Now, allow me to be clear: our dojo has a long-standing policy against contracts. My philosophy is simple: if you don’t want to be on the mat, then I don’t want you to be on the mat! I have heard, first-hand, too many stories about kids who were dragged crying to their martial arts classes (I’ll refrain from naming the style but I’m sure many of you can guess). The child no longer wanted to study that martial art–but the parent had paid a contract, and thus the child had to go or the money would be wasted. Contracts, plain and simple, aren’t necessary.
With that said, I did find it important that we have some program through which a student’s dues are paid automatically. There are a few reasons why this is a good idea. First, students love it. Once students realize that they can cancel their membership at any time, they quickly appreciate the fact that their dues payments aren’t brought up again unless there’s a problem or a change in their membership status. Second, it makes administrative tasks much easier for the dojo. 90 to 95% of all student dues are paid automatically on a specific date. This makes planning the monthly budget for the dojo much easier. Third, while students can cancel whenever they want, they have to actively cancel. Without this program, a student could cancel their membership by simply not showing up. In my opinion, joining a dojo is an active event; consequently, so should leaving a dojo. All it takes is a moment or two on PayPal to end a membership–they don’t even have to talk to me directly. (The few people that do leave, however, do tend to talk to me about it–a fact I appreciate. You can see my post on leaving a dojo if you’d like to learn more.)
The primary challenge surrounding using PayPal is that, to really use it effectively and correctly, you need to have some Web development skills. I won’t go into the details here, but I will say that I was, am, and continue to be deeply appreciative of one of my senior students, who generously has used his coding knowledge to the benefit of the dojo.
Another key area in which we use technology is in communicating with dojo members. Here, we have three tools that we use regularly: ConstantContact, Twitter, and Meebo.
ConstantContact is an e-mail marketing company that makes it very easy to manage e-mail lists and send out newsletters and other information to people. The interface is fairly easy to use, which is important. One of the features of the application is the ability to create multiple e-mail lists. We have so far ended up with two lists: one that contains a list of just about everyone who has visited or currently trains at the dojo. We use this very sparingly, to give information on major schedule changes and class offerings. The other list is for current students. We use this list far more often to talk about news and events, congratulate people on testing, and so on. The nice thing about ConstantContact is that they automate management of the list. I’m very wary of spam, so I was happy to see that they make it very easy for someone to remove themselves from the list. So far, the use of this application has been very well received by everyone.
Most people know about twitter at this point. It’s a new addition to our communication toolset. I was a bit wary of using it at first–I use Facebook for personal communications and I doubted that I’d be interesting in maintaining yet another social network. However, for the dojo, twitter is helpful. They provide their own badges, which are bits of HTML or Flash that we embedded on your site. These badges then let folks see my current twitter status. (I created a Twitter account just for official dojo communications for this purpose.) I’m hopeful that Twitter will become a great way of letting people know of immediate upcoming events or sudden changes in schedules. (The latter became a big issue this past winter, when snow closed the dojo for a few days!) You can see the Twitter widget on the dojo’s Web site. I’ll point out a major downside to Twitter: it’s notoriously unreliable. So sometimes the updates come through…and sometimes they don’t. If there’s a better alternative to Twitter, let me know!
A final communication tool that we use is Meebo. Meebo is an online chat client that links with a variety of instant messaging platforms such as Windows Live. One of the main benefits to Meebo is that they offer what they call Meebo widgets. Like the Twitter badge, we embeded the widget onto our Web site. Folks who visit that page then have the option of chatting with me (provided I’m online and logged in, of course!). They don’t even have to log into their own chat client–instead, they just show up as a Meebo guest. Not many people have used the widget in the past, but those few times have been great, because I can talk to potential or current students on-the-fly.
There are more basic technologies that we use as well. Our Web site, for example, is custom-coded so that it’s easy to maintain and update. I have lost track of how many people have complimented us on our Web site, but the main reason they do is simple: we do our best to provide as much information about the dojo as we can, without over-burdening people with too much text. And I’m actually quite careful about adding new technologies to our toolbox–essentially, I only add something if it makes it easier to accomplish an existing task, like e-mailing students or processing payments. Most importantly, all of these tools, were implemented ourselves, without paying a consultant or other organization a monthly fee or similar. Sure, web site hosting, PayPal, and ConstantContact all have fees associated with their services, but they’re minimal–a few dollars a month, at most. That’s a far cry from many of the so-called “Web services” offers I get in my inbox! Technology shouldn’t be expensive–it should be useful.