If You Run Your Business Like a Hobby, Expect a Punch in the Face

photo - Boxing - copyright Milan Rubio    This post may contain affiliate links. Learn more by reading my    disclosure   .

photo - Boxing - copyright Milan Rubio

This post may contain affiliate links. Learn more by reading my disclosure.

Have you heard people espouse the idea that you can be successful if you turn your hobby into a business?  Or how about the concept that your chances of success are greater if you can turn your passion into a business idea?

It’s a wonderful belief and I one that I fully support.  However, there’s something they’re not telling you.  It’s not that there will be hard work and risk involved.  We all know that.

What I’m about to tell you is a little-known truth that is hardly ever shared and it will hold the key to your success if you want to convert your hobby or passion into a business.

Here’s the simple truth …

When you turn your passion into a business, your only path to success is if you now make the business your passion. 

If your hobby remains the priority, the business is guaranteed to fail.

A Childhood Dream Comes True

Years ago, I left my training in American Kenpo to focus on a new path as a police officer.  It was a great experience and one I’m glad I chose.  However, it took me twelve years to return to the martial arts which I eventually did, though this time partly as a business owner.

Related article:  Everyone has a Journey

One afternoon, I ran into Bryan, a student from a former school who told me that he was now a 3rd Degree Black Belt.  When we trained previously, he had been a brown belt.

“I’m putting together a school,” he said.  “It’s small, but if you want to get back in, now’s the time.”

He had a group of students that he’d been training.  Initially, it had been out of his garage.  That group evolved and grew as he rescued students from a recently closed school.  As his group grew, they were forced to work out in a home of one of the students.  The group continued to grow until Bryan had a dozen students and needed a location to call home.

After some further conversation, my interest was piqued and I joined his group of students.

Initially, the school met at a storage facility owned by the landlord of Bryan’s office building.  It was a quick, temporary solution for us to begin training.  However, it wasn’t going to solve the problem long-term.

The space was too small, the walls weren’t finished, the floors were concrete, etc.  For training, it was old-fashioned and hardcore, but it wouldn’t attract new students.  Also, several of the students made noise about wanting a real school.  Bryan was clear to everyone that if a location was found it would require a commitment of time and money from every student to be successful.  Everyone said they were on board.  There were lots of promises to help and assurances that they would continue training.

Bryan and I met one day to discuss.

He was in a place financially where he didn’t want to commit to a long-term lease.  I could help financially, but as for instructing, I couldn’t assist for some time.  I was a returning blue belt, who had to work my way back up.  However, owning a karate school had been a dream of mine since I was a kid.  Even though I had just returned to the art, the dream was still there. 

Two other black belts expressed interest in partnering to run the school.  Bryan approached them and they agreed to it would be the four of us.  I would provide the financial backing and the others would provide the instructing.

Our goal was simple:  make enough money to keep the doors open so we would have our own place to train.

An interior video of our former school.  This was before the floor mats were added.

A small space was selected and a three-year lease was signed.  We purchased a beautiful sign and hung it above the entry.  Spokane Kenpo Karate was born and soon classes were held three days a week. 

Unfortunately, there were problems almost immediately. 

The students complained from day one about the size of the space, even though it was larger than were we had been.

Most of the initial students who had promised to be there when we committed to a long-term lease, slowly and quietly vanished.

The other two black belts in our partnership hardly participated at all.  Financially, they had little initial contribution so they didn’t have much skin in the game.  Their “buy-in” was given in exchange for teaching classes.

There never was any discussion on why the two slowly checked out.  My belief is some like to teach and some don’t.  When you’re at the front of the room, you have to be ready for class.  You need to prepare a lesson beforehand or it shows.

When the other black belts dropped out, it took its toll on Bryan as he had to teach all the classes.  Bryan’s schedule was already full so adding the extra “beginners” classes as well as a Saturday component was hard on him.

My training took off and I was soon able to take over the beginner classes.  Some of the best learning experience occurs when you teach.  Bryan still taught the adult classes and the two-hour Saturday class.  It doesn’t sound like much, but when you put it on top of your normal day and family, it begins to add up.

For me, it was exactly what I had hoped for.  The financial interest in the school kept my feet to the fire.  I attended every class and was at the school during off days, practicing and cleaning.  I scrubbed the restroom, vacuumed the carpets, washed the windows, etc.  I paid the bills, answered the phones and scheduled the private lessons.

We lucked out about six months later when a black belt from another school walked in.  Keith was a 1st Degree who had been out for a couple years and wanted to get back into the system.  He began training with us and then realized the struggles that Bryan and I were facing.  He offered to be a partner and take off some of the pressure.  We gladly accepted and he jumped in.

Keith even bought new upgraded mats for the studio. 

Our school now had new life.

Hey!  Check Us Out!

We tried to promote our school through various activities.


During Hoopfest (the world’s largest 3-on-3 street basketball tournament), Bryan and I stood outside in our gis (the karate uniform, pronounced “geez” with a hard 'g') with Bob (our punching dummy) and talked to passers-by about Kenpo.  It was almost a hundred degrees.  We were sweating our butts off, but we wanted to make it happen.  We may have talked with ten people that day.

Then we had a video made for the school, promoting us and what we did.  It came out great but we never used it to really promote ourselves.  We didn’t know how to use it to our advantage.

We had a Facebook Page and a Twitter account.  We messed around with them a bit, not really knowing how to market or attract followers.

I had a variety of t-shirts made at my expense.  I handed them out to the students and asked them to wear them around town to promote the school.  Instead, they just wore them in the school as work out shirts underneath their gis.

I hired a design firm to develop a logo for us, thinking that would help with some branding.  Again, money out of pocket but it seemed like a good idea.  The logo came out super cool and we were excited.  Once again, however, we never capitalized on it.

We were too busy focusing on our own training.

Where are the Rooftops?

One component continued to be missing from our school and it was easy to see: student growth.

We had a core group of about ten adult students and four kids.  We just couldn’t get over that hump.  New students would come in and train with us for a bit and then leave.

This was frustrating and after a while we realized we picked the wrong location.

The school’s location was in downtown Spokane.  There were no rooftops (aka households) around.  We had plenty of homeless folks who would venture by, but no families came at night on their way to the grocery store or to a fast food eatery.  At 5 P.M. every night, moms and dads left work and returned home to their respective households and families.  Most of them didn’t want to turn around and come back downtown to practice karate.

I was embarrassed as I should have seen it quicker.   However, Bryan and I picked the site out of convenience – its proximity to our offices and homes was perfect – and the rent was affordable.  The problem was we didn’t pick the location for our customer - the student.

When we figured out the problem behind student growth, it took the wind out of our sails at that site and we eventually split the school into locations.

Keith and Bryan found a new location in Spokane Valley for a satellite school.  The Hub, a local youth activity center, was interested in adding karate instruction.  They would allow us to hold classes there without paying rent up front.  The plan was they would collect the students’ dues, taking a percentage and then pass the remaining on to us.  There would be no payment of utilities, cleaning of restrooms, etc.  Financially, it was a great deal except we still had a year left on our lease downtown.

It was determined that Keith would start teaching kids classes at the The Hub location.  He was a master at teaching those classes.  Kids always listened to him better than Bryan or me.

Bryan would bounce between schools and I would lead the adult classes at the downtown school.  Kids classes were cancelled at the downtown location.

Things changed quickly when adult classes were added in the Valley and most of our students attended that location due to their proximity.  Suddenly, it was only me and two students downtown.  It didn’t make sense to split the school in this fashion so we combined everyone back together in the Valley.

Luckily, I found someone to sub-lease our space and we were out from the other lease.

The move was a mixed blessing.

We saved money each month and I eventually bought a house closer to our new location.  We attracted a few new kids, but lost some others due to the relocation.  However, we were inside a large event facility and never had our own branding. 

At times, it could get as noisy as being inside a high school gym during a basketball tournament.  We had to be very clear and loud in our instruction. 

For me, it was worse than the downtown location as we’d lost control of our identity.

We were a cog in a larger wheel.  It really wasn’t our school anymore.

Now, when classes ended and we left for the day, kids who were there for basketball or volleyball would eventually make their way on to our mats and dirty them up with their shoes.  They’d kick our practice dummy, leaving shoe marks on him.

It was disrespectful and really bothered all of us.

The Beginning of the End

Shortly after the move, there was a change in Bryan’s instructor.  He now felt a need to step up his own training.  He would drive 5 ½ hours across the state to train for a couple hours and then turn around and drive home.  He increased the time he spent reading and developing lesson plans along with new material.  His home and work life began to suffer.

We were out there for a couple years before I tested for my black belt.  Once I had achieved my personal dream, the school started to wobble. 

Bryan was burned out and it had shown for some time.  He’d hung in long enough for me to get to the next level, but it was time for him to step back.  He stopped by class occasionally to check on our progress, but it wasn’t with the same fire inside him.   He’d reached a point where he no longer needed to be on the mat.  

Keith had some health issues and he had to quit completely.  That left me to run the school on my own.  Unfortunately, I was burned out as well and I no longer looked forward to karate nights.  I dreaded them.  Just a short period before, I spent every day at the downtown school working to perfect my art.  Now, I was looking for reasons to spend as little time on the mat as possible. 

I was fortunate that a new 3rd Degree black belt, Kurt, arrived about that time to train with his kids.  He was a great guy who helped keep the school pointed in the right direction. 

My dream hadn’t turned out the way I had hoped.

Eventually, I announced I was going to close the school.

Kurt rescued a few of the students and I turned over the business to him.

Looking Back

The school never grew under our partnership and that was frustrating.  What could we expect, though?  We never wrote a business plan.

We never researched how to truly market a karate school.  Nor did we ever truly put plans into place to recruit students.  There were lots of discussions on things to do, but the execution never occurred.

There were plenty of “could haves” and “should haves” that I can list, none of which were done.

My training was fantastic and I’m forever thankful for everything I learned.  However, we treated the business side of it as a hobby and it cost us.

I still train, albeit alone in my garage, but I’m not interested in training with others or teaching anymore. Maybe that will change some day, but for right now, I don't need it.  

There were fascinating lunch discussions during this time with Bryan about Kenpo, the martial arts in general and the struggle with running a school. 

By the time it was over, neither of us really wanted to talk about Kenpo anymore.


Your Business Model is Important

We ran our business the way we always wanted to be treated as students.  Therefore, we didn’t hold our students to any time-based contracts.  We gave them three introductory private lessons to give them a taste of the system before they joined a group class.  If they didn’t like the training, they could quit after one day.

It’s foolish not to hold a student to a contract.  They have no reason to stick it out when it gets hard or maybe a little boring while they wait for the next belt test.  Martial arts are not learned fast.  A student needs to train for a few months before they start to see where the system is going.  I totally understand gym contracts now and no longer fault them for it.

When a student was late with tuition, we said “that’s cool” and let them pay mid-month.  When a student walked in and said they were poor and couldn’t afford our price, we would work with them and give them a discount.

We were the lowest price school in the city at $75/month for adults and $60/month for kids.  We didn’t value ourselves or our time.  Therefore, students and/or their parents felt free to walk out any time.

We were nonchalant on how students dressed for class.  Again, it’s how we wanted to be treated.  Uniforms were always in various stages.  Gi bottoms and t-shirts on one guy, another would be dressed correctly, while the third would be a blank gi with no insignia.  We didn’t care because we were there to train.  It was like a frat house and it showed in training discipline, school attendance and our bottom line.

Bryan, Keith and I had regular day jobs so the karate school was not what put food on the table.  However, it certainly took food off the table (so to speak) when we had to pull money out of our pockets to cover expenses each month.

Are You Learning the Right Things?

In the past several months, I’ve done more research on how to run a successful blog than I ever did on how to run a successful karate school.  I’ve researched how to properly use a social media platform and how to develop a strategy for it.  I’m actively promoting my brand every day.  This is what I should have been doing during my time with the karate school.

I’m learning from that mistake.

While we ran the school, we attended seminars and conferences about the actual art.  None of them were how to grow a business, particularly a karate school

We read books about how to train, not how to run a successful business.

Our business was a hobby and we treated it as such.

Who’s In Control?

In other partnerships, I would have been an equal since I was the money man.  Investors in partnerships don’t always have control, but they usually have some say since they have the most at stake.

However, in this partnership, there was a belt rank structure that made it tough to act when I wanted to.  Bryan was the highest-ranking belt and leader of the school.

When there were times that conflicting opinions arose, I believed my vote was less due to my belt rank.  This was my perception of things.

An interesting thing was discovered after talking with Bryan for this article. He said he deferred to me in business matters because I was paying for everything.  Our communication regarding the business aspect was terrible while communication on training was awesome.   However, only one paid the rent.

I didn’t like the move to The Hub.  I liked that it would save us money, but it was stressful splitting the school.  When we reformed in the event center, we lost our individual branding. 

I also lost the fire for the actual business when we moved there.  It was no longer our school nor our business.  We were a subsidiary of some other organization.

If you have partners, a clear line of communication needs to be established so confusion can be avoided.

Who’s Responsible?

Bryan and Keith are my closest friends, both through and after this process.  However, there were days when each of us were agitated because one of the others didn’t show to teach a class, leaving the other high and dry.  Sometimes it was work or health related, but sometimes it was a case of “I don’t really feel like it.”

Early on, I rarely missed a class.  I wanted to be inside the school.  It was my happy place.  There were days I just hung out in the school to be there.  I loved it!  Near the end, when my burn-out was at its highest, there were several classes I missed due to “not being in the mood.”

Each of us took advantage of the situation due to the structure of the partnership. 

Part of this attitude was caused from our treating the business like a hobby.  It wasn’t our full-time job.  It was a “passion project” which is okay when the passion is there.  Once the fire faded, it turned into work without pay and something we all eventually resented.

There was no will to succeed as a business.

It had no choice but to fall apart.

It’s About Going After Your Dreams

“Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.” – Bruce Lee.

When we started the business, we said, “We don’t care if we make a profit.  We just want enough to keep the school open so we have someplace to train.”

That was a guaranteed recipe for failure.  We set our sights so low that all we could hit was the ground.

Running a karate school was my childhood dream and the best goal I attached to it was ‘we hope we can keep the doors open.”  That was lame and inexcusable.

I should have set goals like, “I want 100 students by year’s end” or “I want to grow the school to six days a week” and then listed out measurable steps to get there.

There was never a vision of success applied to our school.  I applied a vision of success to my training every single day.  I saw myself with that black belt and I saw myself leading a school.  However, I never visualized the school growing nor making a profit.

If you’re going to start a business, whether it be a karate school, a laundromat or a blog, you better darn well set your goals high.

Setting them low is not going to get you anywhere.


What do you think?
Do you have a hobby or passion
you've thought about turning into a business?
Or have you?  How did it turn out?
I'd love to hear from you.