We reached out to Lindsay Sutton of Community Karate Center in Saint Charles, MO, to ask her about the founding story of her Karate school.
Tell us about Community Karate Center – What is the story behind opening it?
In 2018, my husband Neil and I, along with our friend Michael, decided to open our own karate dojo. We knew that we could do better than some of the local schools and I loved the idea of having creative freedom to run the business however we wanted; putting the focus on traditional karate values with a strong emphasis on customer service.
We wrote up a business plan and started scouting for locations. We found a space nearby that had been a dog grooming facility for many years, and with a lot of blood, sweat, tears, (and dog hair), we totally gutted it ourselves and built a beautiful and inviting space for the community.
What did you struggle with when you were just getting started? What did you learn and how did you improve?
My biggest struggle was probably creating a website that I was proud of. Without a background in web development, I was starting from scratch with nothing but sheer determination, willpower, and perfectionism.
We didn’t have the funds to hire someone, so I stuck with it until I had a website that made me happy. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a common theme when starting a business but that’s how you grow!
What is involved in the day-to-day operations of running the school?
Besides the actual teaching, there’s a lot of communication between current and prospective students, as well as keeping up with client renewals, payments, gradings, bills, gear, and all the small details it takes to keep the dojo running smoothly.
How are you using Gymdesk to help manage your operations? How was it before and after you started using our software?
Fortunately, we did a lot of research before we chose a platform to use so Gymdesk was our choice from the beginning. I loved the ability to use it for a little while so I could get familiar with how it works and what the functions are. I loved the simplicity of it and the ease of use, and I can only say that Gymdesk has gotten better and better with age!
I use Gymdesk on an almost daily basis and it’s a great way for me to keep track of renewals, ranks, sales, accounting, and day to day billing, all in one convenient app. I really can’t imagine not having Gymdesk, we love it so much.
What other tools do you use to help with managing your operations?
We use our website in combination with Facebook and Instagram and everything seems to flow together nicely. I like to keep things simple and Gymdesk helps us do just that.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your business? How did you adapt?
Like most other businesses, COVID was something that brought a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for us in the beginning. Because our dojo was at the time primarily child-centered, we took no chances and quickly closed our doors in March, opting for 100% remote classes.
Outside-the-box thinking is something I’m really good at, so we kicked into high gear and immediately started implementing creative activities to capture and hold our student’s attention and with the intent to hopefully retain their business.
We figured out what platform worked best for us, and threw in a lot of personal attention including one-on-one FaceTime chats with our sensei and even started a nightly “story time” where our sensei read books to our students live.
In the beginning we held strong and didn’t lose any students but after a while, we ended up at one point being down about 40%. We opened back up after 2 months and have steadily grown to surpass our pre-COVID numbers.
What is your approach for attracting new members? What worked for you and what didn’t?
We are fortunate to live near a large and still-growing mixed-use community development with lots and lots of families. Early on, we secured our reputation within the neighborhood as the go-to for martial arts and have an endless pool of children and adults to cater our services to.
In the beginning we experimented a little with Facebook ads but with our dojo being limited in size, we find that word of mouth alone has been enough so far to keep our classes at maximum capacity.
Unlike many martial arts schools, you advertise your fees online. What’s the reasoning behind it, and would you recommend others to do the same?
This is really important to me, especially as a Mom. Personally, whether I’m looking for an activity for my son, or searching for a yoga or fitness class for myself, I can’t stand when you have to hunt and search and then end up calling or emailing for a price list. People are busy and want instant gratification.
To me, it seems a little disingenuous and makes me feel like there’s a reason the prices aren’t transparent, like maybe it’s unaffordable or unreasonable or they want me to do extra work just to find out.
I want parents and potential students to see right away what they all want to know- the price. And I think we offer our services for a great value so we aren’t afraid to put them right there on our website.
How do you help members succeed and stay motivated through their training?
I have to give all the credit to our instructors on this one. They do a really good job of recognizing what areas each individual student needs work in, and slowly but steadily helping them gain the skill and confidence they need to draw it out of them.
Karate is a journey, and motivation ebbs and flows just like with everything else. When kids seem to be losing their fire, the instructors can see it and know that maybe they might need to teach them a new kata or skill to motivate them, or maybe just a really good pep talk.
What are your plans for the future?
We recently started our first official adult class and are excited to bring karate to a larger audience. Our focus is to continue giving each student the personalized attention that they deserve and to offer an environment that everyone feels comfortable in.
We are about to enter our third year in business and are excited to continue our trajectory and grow our student base and have some hefty goals that I’m confident we can reach!