Monday, September 6, 2021

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Jiu Jitsu Gym Ownership and How It Changed My Life: A Rambling Tale


tl:dr - I own a jiu jitsu gym. The gym closed. It was a humbling experience that taught me many lessons. If you don't care to read about the back story, scroll down to the "Realities of Ownership" section.

The Back Story

Welp, my wife Shelly and I officially closed the doors of our jiu jitsu gym. We opened our doors, so to speak, almost exactly two years ago. And it's been a hell of a ride. Lots of lessons learned. This post will shed some light on those lessons, and hopefully be useful to others considering opening a jiu jitsu gym.

First, a brief history on our jiu jitsu backgrounds. Shelly and I started jiu jitsu around nine years ago. Shelly started before I did. We had spent the previous six years heavily invested in the long-distance running scene (ultrarunning, for those who are familiar.) We had been traveling around the county teaching people to run barefoot and living the life of hobo mountain running hippies. We temporarily (so we thought) settled east of San Diego. 

Bored of running, Shelly decided to try something new - boxing. She had passed an mma gym (San Diego Fight Club, what we would later learn was the oldest mma gym in San Diego) on her way to Target one day, and decided to stop in an investigate. That's where she met Charlie Kohler, the guy responsible for getting us into this crazy sport. Long story short, Charlie convinced Shelly to try jiu jitsu, and Shelly convinced me. Our temporary stay turned into seven years. Eventually we grew tired of the traffic, crowds, and goofy politics of California, and decided to move to Colorado's Western Slope. Prior to leaving SoCal, I shadowed Charlie for about a year to learn the ins and outs of gym ownership in the event Shelly and I decided to open a gym of our own some day. 

Our Fight Club MMA Team, circa 2016

When we first arrived in Western Colorado,  we were busy settling in. I went back to full-time teaching high school psychology and world geography (I had worked as a substitute teacher and security guard in schools while in SoCal.) We had bought a house. Our kids were starting new schools. Shelly started a new job, too. Basically, we were busy AF all the time. We started training with a group in our small town, but could only make it to weekend open mats. After a few months, they changed their schedule and eliminated the open mat, so we tried a new gym that had opened a few months prior. We were pleasantly surprised to find this gym's culture was almost exacly like our gym culture at Fight Club... basically we dicked around a lot and tortured each other. 

After a few weeks at the new gym, the owner pulled Shelly and I aside after a night class and dropped a hell of a bombshell - he had a family emergency that would require him to move out of town at the end of summer (it was currently January), and asked if we were interested in buying the business. Despite having had some conversations about opening a gym some day, we were totally unprepared. We spend weeks discussing the issue. Weighing pros and cons. running financials. Making projections. And so on. The only guiding principle? Before leaving San Diego, I promised Charlie if we opened a jiu jitsu gym, we'd do it the Fight Club way.

Like most other opportunities that have fallen in our laps, we eventually decided to just take the plunge. We agreed. For the next seven months or so, we worked on making the transition of ownership. At the beginning of September 2019, we officially took over and opened El Diablo Combatives. If you get the joke, yeah, that was intentional. Anyway, things were going fairly well for the first six months. Stressful as Hell, but we were turning a VERY modest profit, expanding our membership, and developing strategic relationships with important groups around our community.

The Original EDC Location, Formerly Gracie Fighter

The COVID hit in march of 2020. We were forced to close for three months. We lost 75% of our membership. Then our building got sold and we were forced to move to a tiny 400 square foot room in a decrepit building. Another 25% of our members quit because this building's manager required everyone to wear masks as they entered the building. Then THAT building got sold and we were forced to move again

The Second Location: Our 400 Square Foot "Gym"

At this point, I was at a serious crossroads. We were losing money, but not much. The group of hard-working, fun people we had remaining was a really great group, and we had a phenomenal coach (Mike Gorski, who I would best describe as John Danaher, except with a personality.) We needed a place to train. Unfortunately, we didn't have many options. Or ANY options, really. Then, with two weeks left before we had to move out of our tiny room, we found a great 3,200 square foot space that reasonably-priced. But still more than we could afford with our current membership. I couldn't bring myself to close our doors at that point, so I threw the hail mary and signed a one year lease. 

That's probably the worst decision I've made in the last twenty years. A few months into the new lease, it became apparent COVID wasn't going away. We were bleeding cash and the gym was turning into an ever-growing time suck. With the help of our uber-talented members, I tried a few desperation moves to diversify our student base, which I documented in the "tribalism" posts that preceded this one. But ultimately, the overhead of the business proved to be too crippling. So here we are - closing the doors of our public gym.

Our Third and Final Location

The Realities of Ownership

If I were to sum up the experience of owning a jiu jitsu gym, I'd say it fundamentally changes your relationship to the art. The one universal I've heard from other gym owners is that jiu jitsu played a particular role in their life before owning their own gym. Afterward, that role died. Always. the MAJORITY of the people I've met who own gyms regretted their decision, but a minority actually loved how ownership changed their relationship to the art. The following discussion might help you figure out which group you're in.

The Good

  • Owning a gym helps you get new people interested in the sport. You get to decide on the marketing and target audiences, which allows you to focus on particular groups who would benefit from this awesome sport. This is one of the most fulfilling aspects of gym ownership.
  • You help people improve. Not only their jiu jitsu games, but their life in general. This sport can be life-changing, and when that happens, it's awesome to see. This is also an incredibly fulfilling aspect of gym ownership.
  • You can make you community safer. The more people who can protect themselves, the more the sheepdogs of the community can focus on those who can't protect themselves. Martial arts in general and jiu jitsu in particular are great for self-defense mostly because it teaches you just how vulnerable you can be. Live rolling destroys that "I can handle my shit if I need to" delusion prevalent in the general population, which makes people make smarter situational decisions. Owning a gym places you in a position to make that happen.
  • It gives you a sandbox to experiment with new innovations. This is MY favorite part of gym ownership. Have a goofy, out-there idea? YOU CAN TRY IT! My love of experimentation is probably a major reason I'm kind of a shitty gym owner... I hate the status quo and the constant tweaking hurts continuity, and a lot of people need consistency and predictability.
  • You get to talk about the business aspect of BJJ. I love this aspect, too. The psychology involved in the history of martial arts businesses, the marketing, the issue of motivation, etc... that's my jam. Mike Gorski and I used to talk about the business of jiu jitsu for hours and hours.
  • You meet amazing people. We started with some phenomenal people, and we added more over time. Just genuinely great human beings. And you get to help those people find a positive, productive role on the team. I loved this part of gym ownership.
  • You get to do jiu jitsu all the time! From the time I started running the gym until COVID closed us down, I rolled for 169 straight days in either morning classes, evening classes, or open mats. That works out to around 650-700 live rolls.

The Bad

  • Have to do jiu jitsu all the time. Those 650-700 live rolls over six-plus months took a hell of a toll, both physically and mentally. Because we didn't have many higher belts, I often had to assume all kinds of roles. Sometimes I had to be the practice dummy for lower belts to practice basics. Sometimes I had to people the training partner who fed our blue belts the right defenses so they could work on chaining techniques. Sometimes I had to be the enforcer who smashed the young kid who was too spazzy (it's worth noting I'm 45.) Regardless, you often don't have the option to sit on the sidelines, especially if you don't have many higher belts.
  • It hurts your bjj game. My own personal progress in jiu jitsu slowed to a crawl over the last two years. While I roll all the time, I never really have a chance to work on *my* game because I'm always helping others work on *their* game. The worst part of this, for me, has been the development of bad habits that only become apparent when rolling with people significantly better than me. 
  • It can hurt your bank account. Obviously a financially-successful gym isn't going to have this problem, but far too many jiu jitsu businesses operate in the red. Or fail to turn enough profit to make a living. Gym ownership is a really tough business model, and those who are successful are rare. For me, this was humbling because my other business operates on an extremely high profit margin.
  • You get pretty cynical about people claiming they want to learn jiu jitsu. If I had a dollar for every people who expressed interest in training, and even seemed excited to start, then never showed up, I'd have enough cash to keep the gym open.
  • You become a full-time janitor. Sweeping, dusting, cleaning windows, toilets, and mats... it's shit you need to do ALL. THE. TIME. I used to clean the mats at Fight Club occasionally. I thought I was prepared forA this aspect. I was not. I had no idea ho quickly gyms get *really* dirty and gross. In two years, I'm pretty sure I could knit a dozen sweaters from short curly hairs swept off the mats.
  • You get flooded with solicitations. Every channel you set up to allow potential new students to contact you will be flooded with solicitations from a bazillion people and businesses trying to sell you their shit. Some are legit. Some are scammers. All are annoying. Just be ready for that.
  • You will be contacted by con artists. Shelly used to work in a property crimes division of a major police department in SoCal. As such, she's well-versed in common scams. That was useful because, especially in the beginning, we were contacted by A LOT of con artists who were inquiring about membership. Almost every one followed a similar pattern - they would claim to be interested in signing someone else up for classes, then would offer to send a check or other form of payment. They send too much, then request a refund. The initial payment, of course, was not legitimate. Be ready for this con and others.
  • It's difficult to stay healthy because you roll all the time against everyone. Luckily I've been doing this long enough to be able to have the skill to protect myself from serious injury, but the bumps, bruises, and tweaks add up. At the end of those 169 consecutive days of rolling, I couldn't wash my hair. I couldn't throw a baseball. My left arm was numb about 50% of the time. I couldn't touch my toes or really walk down stairs. I had to shrimp out of bed in the morning. I didn't really realize any of this until I had those three months off when we had to shut down for COVID.

The Ugly

  • You might be unwittingly making criminals more dangerous. Jiu jitsu is great for self-defense because it teaches you to control another person's body. Unfortunately, that skill set can also be used to harm others. Especially rapists. While we've always gone to great lengths to cull anyone who appears to have sociopathic tendencies, sometimes it takes a minute for those traits to come out.
  • It forces you to either sell out or go bankrupt. The McDojo phenomenon happens for a reason - it makes money. The shittier the jiu jitsu you teach, the more you'll appeal to a greater population. Out of principle, I simply cannot do the "jiu jitsu for everyone" thing. This art ISN'T for everyone. Had I taken that approach, I would have been way more successful financially. But peddling a shit product ain't the Fight Club way.
  • Collecting money is a HUGE, frustrating pain in the ass. No matter what systems we put in place, a percentage of the members simply wouldn't pay. Initially, our breakdown was basically this: A third of our students paid on time every time without any issue. Another third had to be reminded often, but not all the time. The final third never paid, had to be hounded every month, and would do anything and everything to avoid paying. Over time, we eliminated the entire last third, and eventually that middle third. The problem, of course, is that initial third wasn't enough to pay the bills.
  • You have to deal with shitty human beings. Jiu jitsu (and mma) attracts some genuinely terrible human beings. Per the point above, we did a pretty good job of culling the worst of the worst immediately, but some people put up good facades and slip through the cracks. Eventually you have to deal with those people. And it's never pleasant.
  • It's hard to avoid the drama of the sport. Like any other endeavor, there are drama queens in this sport. This sport has a decent amount of adults, usually male, who act like middle schoolers. And they bring the exact same sort of drama. And they're a huge pain in the ass.
  • It hurts your family and social life. Running a gym takes A LOT of time. Time you'd normally spend with friends and family. This is even more significant if you also work a day job. For me personally, this was one of the worst parts of gym ownership. 
  • It can kill everything you love about the art. Like I said in the beginning, owning a gym will change your relationship with jiu jitsu. Per the "good" section, there are things I loved about gym ownership. But there were also a lot of things I really did not like. But fundamentally, gym ownership reframed jiu jitsu from something I did an an escape to something that I needed to escape from. That's always a bad place to be.

The Qualifier

 It's important to understand this list isn't universal; it merely represents MY experience with gym ownership. I've met a few people who absolutely LOVE running a jiu jitsu gym. Their personality is well-suited to deal with the social aspect, and they have just the right business acumen to attract and retain the right students. 

My advice? If you want to open a jiu jitsu gym because you think it'll just be more of what you get as a student, you're going to be disappointed. And probably overwhelmed. And the experience might ruin jiu jitsu for you.

But if you understand that a jiu jitsu gym is a completely different, unique experience with a lot of novel challenges, and those challenges excite you, odds are good you're going to love gym ownership.

What I've Learned About Myself

Owning a gym has also taught me a great deal about myself. And how jiu jitsu fits into my life. Here are a few of those lessons:

  • I get too much joy out of antagonizing the people who make jiu jitsu their identity. Which includes making fun of the Brazilian/ Gracie family worship. For those who know me well, they know I have an antagonistic, trollish aspect to my personality. In this sport, I get an irrational amount of joy poking fun at the culture of the sport for the people who are ***really*** into jiu jitsu. Especially the people who worship all things Brazil and/or all things Gracie. I don't wear my gi jacket casually. I don't bow to pictures of old, dead men. I don't eat acai bowls. I don't say "oss". And I tend to make fun of the people who do. <shrug>
  • I don't like teaching classes. For me, this was a... disappointing... revelation. I've been a teacher for two decades. Burnout aside, I'm pretty good at it. But I've discovered I really don't like teaching jiu jitsu classes. I'd much rather be a student in this setting. This probably has something to do with jiu jitsu being my escape, and probably part of the reason I really didn't enjoy the gym ownership experience as much as I thought I would.
  • I love working with individuals. Even though I really don't like teaching classes, I love working one-on-one or with small groups. Especially in Q&A sessions. This'll probably lead me to teaching private lessons at some point in the future.
  • I love *talking* about jiu jitsu. Philosophy, strategy, tactics, history, business, concepts versus techniques... I love talking about all of it! I love talking about jiu jitsu as much as I love doing jiu jitsu.
  • I don't really care to follow competitive jiu jitsu. This isn't a surprise; I've played a lot of sports I don't really follow. I don't know many of the top competitors. I don't know the results of the latest IBJJF World Championships or ADCC tournament. But I also don't know who won the last Superbowl or who won whatever the hell they call the winner of the NBA championship.
  • I really hate drilling. Yes, drilling makes you better. A LOT better. But I still hate it. It feels too much like eating salad without copious amounts of cheese, dressing, and bacon.
  • I don't like watching instructionals. Mike Gorski had a superhuman ability to watch, break down, and apply information from A LOT of instructionals in a disturbingly short period of time. I tried his strategies. And I just couldn't get into it. While I find the breadth of the sport interesting, I'm just not very motivated to learn a lot of different techniques from a lot of different sources. It took a while for me to figure out why, but eventually I concluded...
  • ... I don't care about improvement as much as I should. Of all the things I've discussed in this post, this might be the idea that sounds the most ridiculous. At some point in the past, somewhere around the early purp days, I realized improvement in jiu jitsu occurs as a function of time on mat. Of course, every black belt with their salt says the secret to improvement is to just keep training, so this shouldn't have been much of a revelation. But it forced me to realize something else - the key to "keep training" is to really understand what motivates you to train in the first place. And I learned discovery is a HUGE motivator for me. I love viewing jiu jitsu as a problem, and I love solving that problem. And the pace at which I solve that problem doesn't matter. I'm motivated by the process of the problem-solving, not the end results. I don't give a shit if I beat someone. I don't give a shit about winning tournaments. I don't give a shit about getting that next stripe or belt. All that stuff will happen as a natural byproduct of what really motivates me - solving problems.
  • But I'm competitive AF. I ***love*** hard, intense rolls. I love bringing out the best in my training partners. I have a competitiveness that relentlessly drives me... though the goal isn't to win, per se. The goal is to make my training partners the best they can be. Or just to make them work harder than they thought they could. I love making people suffer to beat me, then celebrate when they successfully overcome that suffering. In that sense, I'm competitive AF.
  • My preferred method of improvement is solving the puzzle of training partners. I've known this for a long time, but running a gym has really highlighted just how important this is to my intrinsic motivation to keep doing jiu jitsu. Back in the Fight Club days, I always had at least a few training partners who could kick my ass. Or the training partners closer to my level would go to different classes. There was always something new about my training partners' games. As a gym owner, you're responsible for all of your students' progress. As such, you know what improvements they're making. So there's no real mystery to their game as they develop, which means there's never much of a puzzle to solve. I loved it when my students would watch Youtube vids and implement something new and different in their games; it gave me a new puzzle to solve. 
  • I really miss our San Diego Fight Club team. A year after moving to Colorado, Shelly and I went back to San Diego for a week and got in A LOT of rolls with our old training partners. Then, a few months back, Nick Oliver, one of Fight Club's black belts and a long-time friend and training partner, came to Colorado to hold a seminar. Shelly and I spent hours talking jiu jitsu and learning technique. It was a powerful reminder of the kind of jiu jitsu we did at Fight Club (grinding, technically sound), how we learned it, and how we rolled (hard, technically-sound, and a playfully sadistic.)
  • My real motivation to keep doing jiu jitsu is a love of actually doing jiu jitsu. In terms of jiu jitsu, what would it take to continue to make this art fulfilling? I've concluded if I did nothing but open mats, I'd be happy. While I like learning and I like teaching, it's the actual live rolling that I truly love. 

Nick Oliver, Charlie Kohler, myself, and Dave Hisquerdo: My Three Mentors


The Future

El Diablo Combatives the public gym is closed, probably permanently. But I'm keeping the business entity alive. As I move forward, there's two realms I plan on exploring:

Private lessons for law enforcement. I've recently entered the law enforcement profession, and I'm absolutely loving it! I kinda wish I would have gotten into this field years ago. Better late than never, though. One of the most valuable assets I bring to our local agencies is an expertise of jiu jitsu in general and experience with the practical application of jiu jitsu in a security setting in particular. Basically, I plan on teaching bjj to cops in a way that supplements their current arrest and control procedures. 

This will be done in a private law enforcement-only setting to alleviate some of the issues that prevent many cops from training at a public gym. The two greatest concerns I've encountered is a) fear of injury, and b) fear of training with people they may encounter while on duty, or people they may have arrested in the past.

Writing. Back in the day, blogging was one of my favorite pass times. Since moving to Colorado and running the gym, I haven't had the time or mental energy to write anything more than the occasional blog post. Specifically, I want to write much more about jiu jitsu. I've been doing this for close to a decade now, and I've learned a great deal from people significantly smarter than myself. Their wisdom needs to be shared with the world. I'm a bit rusty, though, as evident by this post. :-)

Like pretty much anything I've experienced in life, this has been a great learning experience. Yes, I ultimately failed. But I'm okay with that. When I'm lying on my death bed, I will be able to take comfort in the fact that I wasn't afraid to give this gym ownership thing a shot. And I gave that shot everything I had for two years. It just wasn't my thing and I wasn't especially good at it. And that's okay. I'm coming out of it with some great friends, a shit-ton of cool and interesting experiences, and a newfound understanding and appreciation for what jiu jitsu means to me.


Just kidding. Fuck that shit.





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