Before You Start Your BJJ Business…

I’m not a giant in the jiu-jitsu industry, but I’ve been writing about and working in the sport for as long as I’ve been training—over 10 years now. I’ve written books with big names. I’ve traveled to cover events, both MMA and jiu-jitsu. I opened and ran a satellite jiu-jitsu gym (and closed it too when it failed). I run Artechoke Media, a jiu-jitsu publishing house, and my business partner Matt Kirtley and I help jiu-jitsu brands with their marketing.

I tell you all of this in the hopes that you take my thoughts on starting a jiu-jitsu business more seriously because I’ve heard lines like this too often (and these are as close to direct quotes as my memory will allow):

“I figure I’ll start a gi company on the side for the easy money.”

“I’m getting mats for my garage so that I can start a competition-focused gym.”

“I started a blog so that I could ask the UFC for press credentials.”

“Running an MMA promotion can’t be that hard.”

I’ve heard these sentiments expressed multiple times and a variety of flavors, and they all seem to harken back to two core assumptions: There is a lot of money in jiu-jitsu, and getting to it isn’t that hard. For an example of how large jiu-jiteiros perceive the jiu-jitsu pie to be, some Reddit users estimated that FloGrappling probably serves “less than 100,000 subscribers.”

Less than 100,000 for a jiu-jitsu membership site? That number, based on the conversations I’ve had with promoters and site owners, should probably be closer to 10,000 if not MUCH lower. There are not as many people buying jiu-jitsu products or watching livestreams as you might think, and some of the biggest names in that end of the industry are fighting through the red mostly out of love rather than business sense. As you might recall, Metamoris went so far into the red that its owner is now trapped in an alternate dimension.

So before you start your BJJ business, whatever it might be, your first step is to dramatically reduce your estimates for potential customers and to recognize that not only are they had to reach, the competition for their attention and their dollars are fierce. Once you’ve completed your preliminary reality check, here are the next steps to take:

  1. Evaluate the investment and the stakes. The old adage goes that over one third of businesses will fail in the first two or three years (exact figures vary, but this estimate persists), and many will fail in the first year. Failure in itself is not a reason to quit, but you should know ahead of time how much your business might cost and whether you can absorb those losses in the event that the business fails. Yes, your shipment of new t-shirts only costs X, but what about fulfilment costs? Web costs? Advertising costs? Customs fees? Yes, rent for your new gym space only costs X, but what about insurance? Membership software? Mats? Utilities?

  2. Accept that you might lose your hobby. Even as a hobby, jiu-jitsu isn’t always fun. When you make it your livelihood, your ability to enjoy it changes dramatically. Yes, teaching the odd afternoon class is enjoyable, but that’s a lot different from managing the entire backend of the gym. You’d be surprised at how little gym owners actually get to train and how much of their time is wrapped up in things that aren’t jiu-jitsu (like sales calls, managing advertising, cleaning the facility, etc). What you love about the sport could very well suffer if you make it a business, so prepare for that.

  3. Be prepared to work multiple jobs. I’ve been to dozens of gyms that appear successful—nice facilities, high attendance rate, talented students—but the owner is still working a “primary” profession to pay the bills or taking side jobs to fill in the gaps. The overhead on maintaining a facility can be surprisingly large—rent alone can be pricey—and some owners would rather work an extra job than find a way to increase their membership dues. Even if your business ultimately succeeds, you will probably need to grind out multiple sources of income for the first few years at least.

  4. Friendships and business rarely mix. When you make your hobby your livelihood, you have to face tough decisions, which often means telling friends no to requests that could negatively impact the income you need to survive. No, you can’t have another free gi. Sorry, I can’t let you train for free. No, I can’t make a product featuring your brand. Nope, I can’t pay for your entry fees. Sorry, I have to do business with this other guy even if you have bad blood with him for whatever reason. It gets complicated, and some friends might hold it against you.

To be clear, my intention is not to deter everyone from starting a jiu-jitsu business. It’s been a weird and wild ride for me, with plenty of downs to go with my ups, but I’m still thankful I work in the sport. However, I walked in blind. For anyone that’s thinking about making that jump themselves, I’d rather that they know ahead of time that it could be dangerous to go alone and that they should pack accordingly. The journey will be hard.