Inverted Gear Blog / Marshal D. Carper
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:
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?
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.
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.
- 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.
Last week, I turned 30. That puts me at more than 10 years in the sport, maybe 12 years if you count watching Cesar Gracie DVDs and fighting my friends in the backyard as training.
A lot changes in 10 years. Beyond the normal existential crisis of getting older, aging in jiu-jitsu is a nuanced challenge. I’ve never been a super athlete, but what my body was able to do at 20 is very different from what my body can do at 30. No more rubber guard. Heck, I can’t do a triangle choke without my knees exploding. But accumulating a collection of injuries isn’t the hardest part of aging in jiu-jitsu years.
One of the things the community doesn’t tell you when they throw around quotes like “A black belt is a white belt that never quit” or “How long does it take the average person to get a black belt? The average person won’t get a black belt” is that you have to find a way to cope with a rapidly evolving sport and a revolving door of training partners. Inside the gym—training on the same mats boxed in by the same four walls—the sense of time gets away from you, and then it hits you all at once like a freight train.
Let me give you a concrete example. 9 years ago I moved to Hilo, Hawaii to train at the BJ Penn Academy, and that adventure became the subject of my first book, The Cauliflower Chronicles. Last week, I went back to the Big Island and walked my wife through many of the places and the stories that she had heard me talk about for years. Over sushi, we talked with an old training partner (local Hilo guy) of mine about the gym, the coaches, and mutual jiu-jitsu friends.
If you’ve trained for more than a few years, you know how this conversation goes:
- Yeah, that guy moved away.
- This guy disappeared one day and no one has heard from him.
- This other dude trains sometimes but nowhere near as much as he used to.
- He got a new job.
- He had kids.
- He got hurt and called it quits.
Walking back into the BJ Penn Academy after 9 years and seeing the place where I spent 3 to 4 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week, underscored what has become a powerful truth for me: The physical idea of a gym as a place is mostly irrelevant. What makes a gym feel like home are the people in it. At the BJ Penn Academy, everything was familiar. Sure some equipment had been moved since I was there last and they had gotten a new set of mats, but my experience as a student there is a unique time capsule of a certain set of instructors and a certain set of training partners all existing at a very specific time in the sport.
To me, this is nostalgia at its worst, and it can ruin your enjoyment of jiu-jitsu.
As soon as you start thinking about “the golden age” or “the good ol’ days” you establish an entirely unreasonable expectation of what your current training should be like. You will never be able to recreate the standard for jiu-jitsu perfection—the style of classes, the training partners, the instructors, your own physical ability—that you build up in the Fortress of Solitude in your mind. Life is simply too fluid for that, and jiu-jitsu doubly-so.
You will change. Your gym will change. Your training partners will change. There’s no escaping it, but you also shouldn’t let your love for how things used to be poison your enjoyment of the sport today. In my mind, you have to do the following:
- Take responsibility for your training and structure it in a way that is realistic for your life while also giving you the joy that a hobby should. This will change overtime, so you probably need to check-in with yourself every year or so. Maybe you move away from competing and spend more time teaching and just playing with technique (that was my journey).
- Take your role in your gym environment seriously, especially as you move deeper into veteran status. Yes, it sucks that your original class of training partners is all but gone, but you can make new friends and make the gym feel welcoming so that the latest round of new students can have the same enjoyment that you did.
- Accept change but also be willing to make change. Some changes are good, some bad, and some neutral. It’s on you to be objective in your own evaluation, which means stepping back and deciding if you are judging a situation unfairly or are actually seeing a real problem. If you identify a change as bad (and do so fairly), you have a responsibility to respond or to find a solution so that you don’t end up wallowing in misery. This takes practice because most change in the gym is just generic neutral change—people come; people go.
These are challenges that I’m still learning to handle, and if I come up with some new insights, I’ll be sure to let you know. I also welcome your own insights into aging in the sport and how to keep your love for the art fresh and consistent.
A new year is upon us, and in gyms around the world a new crowd of well-intentioned members are getting memberships and trying to make a change in their life. Jiu-jitsu schools across the country will see an influx as well. While the jokes about how poorly these life changes go for the resolution crowd are painfully accurate, someone trying BJJ for the first time—regardless of the reason—is a huge opportunity for your school and for your team.
Instead of looking down on the resolution crowd, give them the welcome and support they might need to stick with the sport when that new gi smells wears off.
Let’s start with some empathy. Once you’ve training jiu-jitsu for a year or more, you might forget just how hard it is to get started. Walking in the door of a gym is awkward and uncomfortable, especially when everyone on the mat looks at you to size you up. I don’t care how friendly you say your gym is, I’ve never been to a school that doesn’t do this, and even after 10 years in the sport it still makes me want to turn around and leave.
So just showing up is hard. Now remember what it’s like to be out of shape and have absolutely no context for any of the technique you’re learning. In a few minutes, a new student is likely sucking wind and experiencing that painful sensation of not being good at something. If we’re honest, this is one of the big reasons why new gym sign-ups bail after a few weeks. It’s not just about discipline; it’s about facing and coping with a steady stream of uncomfortable truths. Quitting is just easier sometimes.
You can help though, even if you’re not yet a veteran student yourself. Here’s what to do:
For the love of Helio, smile and say hi. When you train regularly, you get a good sense for who the regulars are. If you think someone is brand new (and it’s typically obvious), get up out of your private little jiu-jitsu clique and introduce yourself. Putting a positive spin on the first few minutes of being in the gym can be a miracle for an unconfident new student.
Introduce a new student to other students. If you’re brave enough to introduce yourself to a new student, be a good ambassador and introduce that student to other people in the class. Super nice training partners are often very shy, but you can help open that door but just creating the opportunity for people to shake hands and exchange names.
Be patient and supportive. Being new sucks, and jiu-jitsu schools are notoriously terrible at teaching decorum and procedure. If your school has specific rules about where students line up or something similar, give the new student a heads up, and give them a friendly heads-up if they are getting something wrong. As long as you are kind about it, the new student will appreciate it very much and will be spared embarrassment.
Tell them about your first day. When you’re the low man on the totem pole, imagining the slick tough purple as someone who was once out of shape and terrible at jiu-jitsu can be impossible. Offer up a casual story about what it was like when you started to give the new student some hope.
- Stop the binge before it starts. A new student will inevitably ask what they should do to get better. Try to help them avoid the pitfall of going too hard too soon. Encourage them to pick up a training schedule that is sustainable, even if they want to train 6 days a week right off the bat. And also suggest that coming to class is the most important thing, more important than instructionals or magic jiu-jitsu-improving workout gimmicks.
Embrace the new student rush, and use it to help jiu-jitsu grow. White belts can be awkward and annoying, but we all started there, and bringing more of them in the door is the only way for your school to survive and for you to have good training partners. Be a part of the effort to keep the sport open and accepting by helping a new student when you can.
The jiu-jitsu world is rich with instructionals, and in the early years, swapping bootleg VHS tapes and tattered magazine techniques—many of which were in Japanese or Portuguese—was the only way schools in remote locations could get new techniques. In those years, remote meant any non-major city that doesn’t have a beach.
Today, instructionals are readily available—books, DVDs, magazines, YouTube, webinars, and subscription sites. At the same time, instruction in schools has vastly improved. Seminars are far more accessible. Most schools are run by black belts. Finding an instructor with a large breadth of knowledge isn’t as hard as it used to be, but the instructional industry is still booming. The formats might be different, but we are still seeing high-level grapplers produce and sell instructionals.
Are they still relevant? Are they still helpful? How should you use an instructional?
White belts ask me these sorts of questions, and here’s the high points of how instructionals fit into a modern jiu-jitsu training routine:
- First-off, nothing is more valuable than in-person instruction from a qualified instructor. This will always be the best way to learn jiu-jitsu, and you shouldn’t do the weird thing of ignoring great learning opportunities down the street to instead try to learn from a DVD. You’ll have a bad time.
- Instructionals are great for troubleshooting and problem-solving. If you are struggling with a specific position, instructionals can give you ideas for what you could try now instead of hoping for the next class to teach exactly what you need. Once you’ve tried solving the problem yourself—a valuable learning opportunity in its own right—you will actually get more out of asking an upper belt or taking a private lesson because you have some context.
- Gyms often develop overall styles based around how an instructor teaches. This isn’t bad; it’s just difficult for a smaller gym especially to expose students to the wide range of jiu-jitsu techniques available. Grabbing a move from an instructional can help to inject some variety into a gym, which ends up being good for everyone.
- Jiu-jitsu is evolving quickly, and instructionals can help you stay on the cutting edge. With digital formats, you can now see a competitor’s latest innovation almost instantly, whether through competition footage or through their own content releases. There’s no way for even the best instructors to stay on top of everything, so instructionals can help on this front as well.
So instructionals are helpful provided that you are still training with legitimate instructors with equally legitimate training partners. That should be extremely clear.
Instructionals can be a powerful tool for your training, but they can also turn into something of a black hole if you don’t approach them correctly. You have probably seen someone fall into this trap, probably a white belt. He has a new favorite move every week, can’t stop talking about the latest thing he saw on YouTube, and seems to improve at a far slower pace than his peers. This is what happens when you dive too deep too quickly.
Here’s the better way to do it:
- Understand the difference between mental awareness and skill acquisition. If you watch an entire DVD from beginning to end, you likely won’t be able to execute much of what you saw, but your general awareness for what techniques exist increases, which is actually helpful from a big picture point of view. To actually apply what you watched, you need to dedicate serious time to practice and drilling.
- Drilling techniques is essential. Follow the same path that you follow in normal classes, ramping up from drilling against a non-resisting partner to experimenting with the technique in live training. The key here is to only drill one or two techniques from your instructional of choice. Expect to do that for at least a month for the techniques to really sink in.
- Notes and reviews are helpful. As you watch an instructional, take notes on what you need to remember so you have a reference point when you are in the gym. Once you drill the technique a bit, re-watch the instructional to make sure you are doing it correctly. You are likely to pick up on an additional nuance once you’ve tried the move a few times.
- Working with a buddy is more effective. If you have a training partner watching the same material to drill with, you will have better open mat experiences and are more likely to uncover insights into the technique (two heads are better than one). If you go solo, you can still get the job done, but it takes more work and probably won’t be as much fun.
- You don’t need to master an entire instructional for it to be valuable. If you walk away from a book or DVD with even just one new tip that you can actually apply, it’s worth it. As you progress on your journey, these insights will be harder to come by, so get used to working hard to find them.
Instructionals are a great supplement to your training, but please please please don’t forget that your instructors and training partners are there to help you too. If you make the most out of your gym time and your off time, you will see significant improvements in your game.
When jiu-jitsu tourism was sort of my job, I was in Hawaii training at the BJ Penn Academy. I was still new to the sport, working on getting a blue belt, which meant that I was simply too fresh to understand some of the sport’s biggest challenges. As a white belt, I thought that the hardest parts of jiu-jitsu were things like training consistently, or getting in shape, or having to get used to upper belts beating up on you.
Then I met Sam (not his real name). Sam was a local, late 30s, and barely taller than five feet. He was comically round and almost always laughed, mostly at himself. Technically, Sam was a blue belt, but he had stepped away from the sport for six years to take care of his family. In that time, he said he always thought about jiu-jitsu. Even though he was out of shape and out of practice, he was happy to be back.
But it wasn’t easy for Sam. If he was a normal white belt starting from the beginning, being out of shape and out of practice would probably have been easier to take. When someone made a joke like, “Brah, you sweat pork grease!” he laughed, but I could catch the faintest glimmer in his eyes that seemed to say “I didn’t use to.”
And that’s one of jiu-jitsu’s greatest hidden challenges. Eventually, for some reason or another, you will have to step away from the mat and make the choice to come back. You might be gone for a month, a few months, a year, or even longer. In almost every case, coming back is hard. You lose that sharpness and that awareness that comes with consistent training, but losing those things is not the worst part.
The worst part is feeling that they used to be there, like an amputated limb that still tingles like it’s there but is just not, no matter how much you might wish it to be.
I’ve written a lot about my long list of injuries, so I’ll spare you the re-run. The short version is that I’ve gone through a truncated version of Sam’s story half a dozen times over, never that long, but I’ve had to come back from an injury or a family issue on multiple occasions. And it sucks every time. Your training partners keep getting better while you’re gone. The younger guys are improving as well. You just can’t catch your breath sometimes. You put on a little bit of weight. You can’t move that joint the way you used to. The doctors stop describing you as a “young athlete” and instead start talking about pain management and joint replacements.
When you love the art, it’s hard not to get angry and frustrated when you go through this.
But that’s where Sam taught me an important lesson. He struggled through warm ups. Fought to remember techniques. Got mopped by white belts who were more than happy to beat up on a blue belt. Sam never yelled. He never punched the mat, and he never sulked. Any frustration he experienced was mostly invisible, just those quick glimmers of a passing memory of what he used to be, but then he was back smiling.
Sam had endured enough off the mat, had been away so long coping with issues far more serious than a young buck white belt coming after you that being on the mat was nothing but a blessing for him. No matter how out of shape or out of practice he was, he knew that he was fortunate every time he stepped through the door to train.
I don’t have a top five steps or a list of tips to give you on how to be like Sam because I’m still working on it myself. What I can say is that it appears that the first step is humbling yourself to the point where you can imagine your life with or without jiu-jitsu.
Even though starting over is hard, it’s not as hard as walking away from the joy that training can bring you.
Photo credit to Ricardo's Photography https://flic.kr/p/a9Nie5