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The business of karate

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

Recently, I came across an old goju-ryu karate manual that was published in 1982. The author was a Canadian man; a Nidan who had trained for 15 years at the time the book was published. The book is filled with high quality photographs of kata moves. It’s quite thorough; with each kata sequence recorded frame by frame, along with a detailed description of each block and strike. In a time before Youtube, a book like this would be the only way for someone to learn kata moves without direct contact with an instructor.

It’s quite a brilliant piece of marketing, really. Consider the timing – in 1984, the original “Karate Kid” movie was released in theatres. Karate suddenly became mainstream and since the internet didn’t exist, Canadian kids could read all about it at their local library. The author was an astute business man and marketed his dojo concept to others, eventually developing an empire of 30+ dojos. His franchise model was unsustainable and eventually collapsed. It was a meteoric rise and fall, but the fact that this book is still found in used bookstores 35 years later is testament to its place in popular culture.

This theme is familiar in my personal experience and observation of others. Business-savvy sensei may be able to sell their programs on a broader scale, but they struggle to service their members long term. A brilliant martial artist may choose never to teach, due to the high cost of setting up a business. A well-respected instructor may retire without a succession plan, leaving students to find their own way and his own legacy scattered. Often, lineage determines succession, with leadership passed down to the eldest son.

While the traditional ways of succession and mentorship have merit, there are some drawbacks. Not every student wants to be a teacher. Great teachers often don’t have the desire or skill to run a business. Some brilliant business minds are lousy instructors. Those who are suited to running a profitable business while remaining dedicated to the art are very rare.

It’s easy to understand why the balance is so often lost. Problems arise when the focus on profitability takes over the fundamental purpose of the dojo (a place in which to study karate). Practically speaking, dojos are expensive. Commercial spaces large enough to run classes are hard to find and costly to rent. Zoning, taxes, and the cost of insurance adds up. Every responsible adult knows that paying the bills is important, but when the focus becomes revenue above all else, the art can become lost. The business side of the dojo must always serve the art of karate. This is not to say that commercial dojos can’t serve the art. On the contrary, when done properly, a commercial dojo can be a central hub of learning and practice. The trick is in the balance – the dojo must be able to sustain itself financially at the same time as providing a facility and qualified instructors.

All business involves risk and reward. Entrepreneurs take risks by putting their own equity on the line by signing a lease and buying equipment. They spend money on marketing, and they put their name and credentials out into the public sphere. It doesn't make any sense for someone to take on so much personal risk without compensation. But karate, in it’s nature, is an artistic endeavour; its value is subjective.

Not all compensation is monetary, of course. I run my dojo in a break-even model. I appreciate having a nice place to train in, and I genuinely enjoy my students. My employer offers flex-time and pays me a living wage. This means I can run my dojo part-time, focusing on being an effective instructor and less worried about whether I will be able to pay my rent (or feed my family). My business expenses are covered, and I am confident that the business is sustainable for many years to come.

This model doesn’t work for everyone, obviously. Not everyone can afford to volunteer 10 – 15 hours per week on teaching. Nor should they - I believe that qualified instructors should be paid for their work, just like any other professional who has dedicated years to study. There are many options for running a dojo, with different risks and benefits associated with each one. Regardless of whether a dojo is a corporate entity, a non-profit organization, or a sole proprietorship - if the quality of the karate is good and the books are balanced, the structure doesn’t really matter. It’s not just the books that need to be balanced. Membership policies need to be sensible as well. If your members aren’t receiving fair value for their fees, they will leave. Under pricing your service can overflow your space and limit your options for expansion. Operating with integrity is essential.

As founding members of CNGK, most of us came up through the ranks in the shadow of Kyoshi Purdy’s success. He managed to run a profitable dojo for almost 20 years without losing the essence of the art. Many of his students developed into fine instructors; several opening professional dojos of their own. I believe that the strength of CNGK is in its diversity. No two dojos operate the same way; we all approach our business interests differently. The thread that links us together is the CNGK curriculum and our dedication to quality instruction.

Running my own dojo is one of the most rewarding challenges I’ve ever taken on. I’ve learned so much about the art of karate through the process of teaching others. Being responsible for students of all ages as they move through the ranks has taught me a great deal about myself and my relationship with the art. Someday, perhaps a student of mine will travel the same path and open a dojo herself. I sure hope so!

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