Thursday, October 4, 2012

Marketing BJJ Against The Machine

I got to interview Nick Albin who is a head instructor at a thriving BJJ academy in Louisville, Kentucky. BJJ isn't just about big names, or moves. BJJ is a growing martial arts business that is easily becoming the dominant force in the martial arts world. Everyone is trying to get in during this boom and get a piece of the action, some succeed and others fail. We see it all the time. Big names opening a school, it fails, they try it again and again. Or partnerships with BJJ schools falling apart, affiliations that don't pay off, investors who won't stay silent, instructor from Brazil who wants get out of the deal from the guy who flew him over.

BJJ politics exist because of money. Period.

Most of the people running the schools have spent thousands of hours on the mat but not a lot of time in business school, so all sorts of tactics, ploys, are being tried but also being bought. Whenever there is a boom, there is another industry trying to make money off of the boomers.

So not only are we in the early days of the BJJ boom still, but we are also still in the early days of business people marketing to BJJ school owners to increase profits. Similar to the early gold rush, when people peddled all types of things and schemes to 49'ers. And in more modern days, people cashing in selling directly to people trying to get into the real estate business or wanting to invest in stocks. The money isn't in real estate, its in teaching people how to buy houses for profit. The money is not in stocks, its being able to speak about stocks and getting paid. Wedding photographers cost a lot of money and make good money. When they start doing seminars to teach other wedding photographers how to generate more money, that's when people become millionaires. Same thing in my industry, fitness. Trainers and gym owners do alright, the guys who teach and sell systems to trainers and gyms on increasing profits make the real money. Was BJJ better than all other styles? Or was Rorion the most brilliant martial arts marketer in recent history?

So I was curious, was it still possible to make your BJJ academy grow on your own without paying for any fancy systems or having big names or being in a big BJJ city? It's like in real estate, can you still strike it rich without buying one of those late night infomercial programs and just sort of use your own common sense and teach yourself? I asked a guy who I knew didn't buy into all of the typical marketing hype.

What belt are you?
I am a black belt under Renato Tavares.

Where do you train?
Derby City Mixed Martial Arts in Louisville, KY.

What do you do there?
Well I do a lot of things, but mainly I am the head Brazilian jiujitsu instructor. I instruct children and adults. I also help our fighters prepare for upcoming matches

How many students does the school have?

That's a lot! We know why BJJ is big in California with so many of the champions opening up schools there, as well in New York, and of course Atlanta has Alliance. How has BJJ grown so big in your area, and other parts of the South and Midwest you think?
I think the sport of MMA is growing like crazy and with it . . . comes BJJ. Every time I hear a UFC hits a new record on buys for a pay-per-view I smile because I know that the sport is doing better and better which means I will have the opportunity to work with more people. Also different states like Indiana and Ohio have solid wrestling programs, so when these guys get out of high school or college they find their outlet in grappling and MMA. In our area not all of the gyms are as successful though. 

We have an incredibly unique atmosphere at Derby City and the gym is full of incredibly tough guys who are amazing people. I’m sure most successful BJJ gyms are the same. All in all, as a whole the sport of bjj is definitely flourishing throughout the Midwest.

What's training like there? Can you get good in Kentucky without all the big name champions teaching at your school?
Training is great! We train hard, try our best to push one another and lift each other up when necessary. I believe you can get good in Kentucky. . . actually let me rephrase that, I know you can. Myself and my students have placed/won in IBJJF tournies, Grapplers Quests, NAGAs, etc. Just this weekend I had a student double gold at the No Gi Pans. 

Are there distractions?
We definitely have plenty of distractions though. . . maybe not as many as California but there are still plenty of bars/clubs, girls/guys to keep a grapplers mind distracted should they let it. 

Are Midwest people different?
I know its seems kind of cliché to say this but I think people from the Midwest are just a little grittier. You were here in 2008 and made a similar comment about the people you met. I think our work ethic is similar to anyone who has a deep burning desire to be successful in the sport.

So what's the secret to making good competitors if having a big name instructor is not the key?
I think it’s a combination of things. Desire, passion and persistence being most important. Without the desire, passion and persistence you will quit because it’s not always easy or you are not progressing fast enough. You have to love what you’re doing when you step on mat. Then you need a good teacher to show you the way and help you develop your technique. Then take those moves that you are working on and drill them. Drilling is the single most effective way to improve your moves and I see many players talk about drilling more than they actually do it. Oh and of course you must compete regularly to be a good competitor.

A lot of people nowadays are starting to understand the marketing aspect to influence BJJ enrollment, and there are many people using similar systems. What's your ideas on the business side, on how to run a good BJJ school and the introduction of BJJ marketing?
Marketing has always been a part of BJJ. Start by looking at the early judoka spreading their martial art around the globe and challenging people of different disciplines. Then the Gracies came along and expanded on that idea as well as other things. The Gracie family were and are fantastic marketers of BJJ, as they used the UFC as a springboard into America and have helped create all sorts of law enforcement and military hand to hand programs. However, now you are starting to see a different type of marketing and dynamic in the community. The grappler-business man who aggressively markets his BJJ school through various means.

Do you have to do what everyone else is doing?
You definitely don’t want to always do what everyone else is doing. BJJ is a business and you can’t simply copy someone else’s business model and think it will just work without any sort of tweaking or adjustments. A good business typically mutates and adjusts as it needs to in order to stay relevant in the market. Now you can certainly use good ideas from others, but you should be searching and thinking of new ways to improve your business and build upon it.

Is there a right way to run a school?
As far as running a school I believe there is no single “right” way. Also, I think there are two sides to running a school. I think you have the marketing and then you have the actual gym culture and atmosphere. If you focus solely on marketing alone then you may an initial boom of sign ups and then a bust if your gym culture is not in place. I believe you must also focus on your gym culture and the quality of your classes. I also feel that the instructor needs to be passionate about their students, if they’re not I think they would be wise to keep a day job.

I have seen that a lot as well, schools that do a great job getting lots of students in through the front door, but without a solid BJJ gym culture, they all sneak out the back door to join another school. This brings me to my next questions, what's more important, the name of the instructor or the gym culture? Do you focus on competing with other schools?
My focus goes to my gym and my students. I see different ads or videos about gyms with bigger name instructors and/or fancy marketing plans. I’m sure the big name instructors do a terrific job at teaching their art to their pupils and I’m sure the marketing works. Also I don’t know how big their gyms are or what their revenue and profits actually look like, and I have no idea about their gym culture and the quality of their classes. You could sign up 100 students in a month but if the gym atmosphere isn’t there then why are they going to stay?

How important is the quality of teaching as opposed to the name of the instructor?
I taught a class recently at a gym that was previously taught by a world champion. The world champion had left the gym, I was passing through and they asked if I would teach a class. I taught a class there and after the class they were so thankful. Not just for the technique but for the way I taught and the way I made them feel during the class. The general consensus from the students was that the class was high energy and they were not used to such an attentive instructor. I have also had students of other gyms come to my gym to train for a day and then they end up becoming a student. This has nothing to do with my endless amounts of accolades or any fancy marketing campaign, it is simply has to do with the fact that I love what I do and I love helping any person that walks through my gym doors with an open mind. This attitude is infectious and spreads to the student base.

Have you been competing lately?
This has been my first year as a black belt and I have had a lot of fun. I took 2nd at the Miami Open, 1st at Chicago Open, Won a Grapplers Quest, won a couple of NAGAs and did well in some of the regional tournaments like the O.G.C and the E.G.O. This year has definitely been a learning experience but I’ve never felt out of place. I was actually nervous at first but then after competing I can say that I’ve felt more comfortable competing at black belt than any other level prior.

What then do you need to run a good school?
You need to have a good marketing campaign and a great gym culture. Once that’s in place it comes down to good students. People who will dedicate themselves to your gym, train hard, train consistently, build up the new comers and will help you build that infectious community driven atmosphere that makes someone want to be a part of it. This attitude starts with the people running the gym because you’re students will adopt your attitude, so make sure it’s an attitude worth adopting.

Agreed. Do you have a website or blog?
I do, its currently under construction so its still a little rough. I have a few blog posts up but be sure to check back soon. I have a video series coming up to show case our student base as well as blog posts as well as a few instructional vids. Anyways check it out at


  1. Respect those who came before you and do your's Rorion, not Rorian.

  2. big time respect. Rorion it is.

  3. This was a really good interview, and it was relevant to my interests. I'm glad that I read it.

  4. Good info, thanks.



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