30 – Matt Wickham: Running A Building Business By Day, Martial Arts School Owner And Instructor By Night

Matt Wickham shares his journey of running 2 businesses simultaneously while hosting the world's best martial artists in their small town.

matt wickham

IN THIS EPISODE, YOU WILL LEARN:

  • The benefits of inviting top martial artists from all over the world to come and train with your students
  • The importance of advancing your martial art skills and upgrading your credentials constantly
  • How traveling to various martial art schools helped Matt Wickham learn new techniques in running his martial arts business
  • How he manages to operate two businesses consecutively back to back in a small town
  • Keeping the work and family life balance
  • And more

*Need help growing your martial arts school? Learn More Here.

Download the PDF transcription

TRANSCRIPTION

Hi, this is George Fourie and welcome to another martial arts media business podcast episode and were up to number 30. And today I have with me a kind of a legend in the industry, Matt Wickham, who a lot of people are familiar with, although he operates from a very small town in Victoria. And that's part of the topic, we discuss operating a martial arts school in a very small town, where obviously your marketing reach is a lot smaller then it would be in a big city and how he manages to operate with both of his businesses, side by side. So he's into the building industry and that's a family business, and then he has his passion, his martial arts business.

But even operating in such a small town, he still manages to pull all the big names into his school and he invites people from all over the world to come and train with his students so that he can pass on the knowledge that he's been able to gather throughout his own travels. So great episode and lots of talk about that. I'm going to keep this intro very short today and we're going to jump right into the episode and chat with matt. As always, you can find all the transcripts on the website, so martialartsmedia.com/30, so that's the number 30. And again, if you reading this episode – the podcast players are right on the website, they're also in the app, so if you have a mobile phone, you can just download it and get the episodes delivered straight to you.

So that's it from me, let's jump right into the episode and please welcome to the show, Matt Wickham.

GEORGE: Good day everyone, today I have with me Matt Wickham.

MATT: Good day how you going?

GEORGE: Good good. Let’s start with, where exactly on the map are you? I was attempting to visit you on my recent trip to Melbourne, but you’re just outside of Melbourne is that right?  

MATT: That’s right. I’m situated on the Murray River, on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, it’s about two or three hours from Melbourne, in a small community called Echuca, population is probably, in Echuca I think it’s about 12000, across the river there's an extra couple of thousand, so in the community there are about 20,000 people.

GEORGE: OK, so really small town. So, I guess let’s just start from the beginning and I had a look at your website, there was a whole list of credentials, I couldn’t really get to the end of the website, there was a lot of credentials. In your words, who is Matt Wickham?

MATT: Who is Matt Wickham, all right. Matt Wickham is a country boy that from the age of 12 started learning martial arts and just fell into it. Actually, I probably fell into it, but it was partly because I loved seeing Bruce Lee and from Bruce Lee, then getting a slight bullying sort of thing from school, a mate of mine told me to start doing some martial arts so I started from there. When I got to around about 18, one of my instructors sort of said, “Look, you'd be pretty cool at running a class.” I belonged to a football club in my local area – it’s not actually in Echuca, it was out of it. And the local football club there closed down, so there was a lot of kids that didn't do have a lot, that had to travel into Echuca, which was a half an hour away from where I lived at that stage.

matt wickham

So I thought I would start up in the local hall there in a Zen Do Kai martial arts class. So an 18-year-old, had no idea about teaching anything. I had my instructor come out, run the first class and then he just sort of said – here you go, there's the class. And basically, I just had to learn from there. While that was happening, I also did my apprenticeship in building with my father, it was sort of a family business that kept me going, and once I finished my apprenticeship, probably around about 20 -21, I wanted to branch out and learn a bit more about martial arts. And I moved to Melbourne for about 18 months – didn't have a job, just went down there and just picked up any sort of work I could just to keep going, but every night I wanted to learn any sort of martial art.

So I did classes in Kendo, Ioto, I did Aikido, Muay Thai and also like advanced classes in Zen Do Kai. Tried to travel around different clubs to see what sort of stuff instructors were doing in Zen Do Kai system. And at that time I had no work, pretty broke and wanted to keep training, but I just realized I had to come back to Echuca. And my father was getting a bit older and a bit hard for work, he needed the extra help, so I moved back to Echuca just sort of early, probably 92 I think it was. And then I got back to my old club, and I said, oh this is the things that's going on and I just started to show them all the stuff that I learned over the 18 months in Melbourne.

And they didn't really seem acceptable about what I wanted to show them and I was a bit put back by that. Because I thought, well, here’s some stuff that I’ve learned from high ranking instructors in Melbourne. Because we’re so isolated, sometimes with isolation, you're afraid to see something new come up. So I decided to open up my own club and I opened up a full-time facility in the centre of Echuca, upstairs above a hairdresser salon. Had no idea how to run a martial art or a business. So I went in, advertised, set it all up with mats and started running kids’ classes to Muay Thai classes and Zen Do Kai classes. I was doing about 2-3 classes at night, morning classes, and working during the day with my father in his building business. And I was really, really, really struggling to keep the business going.

The odd night I would have, when I first started, the Muay Thai was really massive and big, so I had huge classes in this tiny little shop in Echuca and that was the only thing that was keeping me going. And the kids turning up, I had huge kids’ classes, but I had no business idea on how to run a business, or how to keep things moving along. And I just got so busy with building, that I was just burning the stick from each end and just decided I need to pull back. So I pulled back on the teaching and I just hired a hall and I started back into a hall, teaching twice a week in a local church hall and still helping out with the building business.

And suddenly my father, it was getting a bit too much for him, so I ended up taking over the building business and I did a few business coaching classes. Trying to manage both was really hard, really tough. My passion was really the martial arts and teaching and learning myself and weekends, traveling to seminars, trying to learn as much as I can. And I found that from a small community, people do really want to travel, to learn extra stuff, I was keen as mustard, I would travel because I knew that was the only way for me to advance my skills. So I would travel two to three hours, just to do an hour seminar, or a 2-hour seminar, and then come back and keep that motivation going and learning for myself.

Because when you're teaching classes, you don't sometimes get that chance to keep your own skills up. The building business, my father retired and I ended up taking over the building business from then on. And it got pretty heavy, I ended up having about 3-4 guys working full time in the building business. I was working on the tools during the day as well as doing quoting at night time after training and seminars and classes. And today, I'm still even building today, but the struggle of getting things perfect, I wanted things to be perfect in my martial arts training and my coaching, but also in my business.

And then I got married and had kids and you know family life, they want things and I knew that my martial arts was at that stage, it was more just like a hobby and an opportunity came up that I knew one of my instructors bought this business and upstairs, there was a huge area that I thought, well, we’re looking at about 2000 at this stage, huge area. And I said, I’ll hire that out to help out with the rent as well, it’s nice of him to do that, it was in the main street of Echuca. So I opened that up, and again, I went in full steam ahead, pulled down walls and set up. I had a full time boxing ring setup, I had heaps and heaps of people coming in and taking classes and I was running all the classes, doing all the classes myself and not asking for help or coaching any people to becoming instructors.

Again, just doing too much, it’s pretty hard on your family as well, when you're trying to make a dollar. But again, I wasn’t really prepared for running two businesses properly. And I did some more courses to try and get my head around running two businesses and also making sure that I can have a balance between work, my hobby, which is my martial arts, and also my wife. Again, I ended up putting a lot of weight on, because I was just doing stuff, I wasn't doing things properly, I wasn't looking out for myself, I was just keeping things moving along and I just lost track of myself a lot.

And I found that, because I lost track of myself and what I was doing, was reflecting on my passion, my martial arts and classes sort of dropped down a lot. I kept on beating myself up, thinking, what's going on, because I believed that I was teaching great stuff, trying to keep up with the times, with good tuition and stuff like that, but I thought, obviously it was something to do with myself, because I looked overweight. I was probably 30kg overweight, I put on a lot of weight.

Didn't do a lot in the classes myself, I wasn’t demonstrating a lot. And I started to get instructors to help out with classes. They were great, they were doing a fantastic job in the classes, but I wasn’t really structuring, I didn't have any programs set up to help these instructors, I didn't give any clear guidelines on where to go and how to do stuff. I was really just stretching it really thin between both businesses. The building business was going great, I had these guys working, I relied on them a lot to keep things moving along.

But then, the quality of the building started to collapse a little bit, because I wasn't watching what was going on in the building business, because I wasn't on site as much, I was quoting and keeping these gentlemen going for work, but my timbers let me down a little bit. It was getting to a stage that I had to do something about it, so ended up contacting, I did a course, and they were talking about business coaching, and I thought, well, I think I need to do this to get myself back on track. I had no idea, most of the stuff I was doing was very self-taught, in regards to business and marketing and done courses from here to there and in the building industry, they have courses all the time and I just did a few of those, but not really understanding.

I just sort of did them and just did a bare minimum of each area, not really focusing a 100%. And I think to myself when I look back, I should have really just focused a 100% on one business, because I could have made it a lot better than what it is. And also for me I think, being in my father’s building business, I didn't want to let him down. As a martial artist, you don't want to let you coach or your instructor down and my father was very passionate about his business and I didn't really want to let him down and I didn't really want to see that his business had failed if I stopped.

And I still do today think about that and part of that is what I wanted the business coach to understand is and he showed me that I should be able to run both businesses very successfully, so that was a line that we wanted to take in that direction, trying to keep both businesses running successfully, but manage them in a way that you have control in what you're doing. Also, some things, flaws in my personality that I needed to sort out as well. I had to work out, I was overweight, and he said Matt, you need to look after yourself, the number one person is yourself, I was letting my family down and everybody else down because I wasn't looking after myself.

GEORGE: Two things: sorry to interrupt you there. I just want to go back: firstly, you mentioned when you started traveling and you started to get out of your comfort zone – I wouldn't say comfort zone, but out of your town and having a look at what other martial arts schools were doing and you mentioned the people in your town weren’t really open to that. Can you recall what were the biggest takeaways that you wanted to implement in the martial arts arena in your town that wasn't being done already?

MATT: There were a few things. When I did the traveling around, for me it was quite easy to go and travel. At that stage, I was only looking at what the classes and the teaching process was, so I was learning off the instructors on how they teach and the drills and the techniques on how they teach a particular way and the techniques that they do. I love doing that, I love watching instructors and watching them how they communicate and how they demonstrate, I was learning off those guys. But something that I wanted to bring back to Echuca was – and that I'm really passionate about as well, when I first started my training, no one was willing to travel to do a seminar.

I don’t know if they were just frightened, the fear of getting to a seminar and going, I'm not good enough to be here, I'm not sure what it was. But I still do this today, I try and bring the expertise to Echuca, I know it’s only a very small town, but I want the people, my students to get that opportunity that I went out and got beforehand. So I try and bring people to Echuca to say, hey, these guys have done this, they've become real champions, they're fantastic instructors. So I try, sometimes it’s cost me a lot of money to ring people in, but I want my students to experience more than just what's in my own club.

For example, just in the last day or so, I've just locked in Robert Drysdale to come to our club. And it’s in a small town, we've got 20,000 in Echuca, we're 2-3 hours away from Melbourne and we've got a UFC fighter, 6-time world jiu-jitsu champion coming to Echuca. So I've had a lot of opportunities, where I've asked these people, would you be interested coming to Echuca, I want to expose my students to these professionals, these legends, these mentors. I just want people to see these people and say, hey, we can be there, we can have the opportunity to be as good as these guys.

GEORGE: And how do you go about that, to get a big name like that out to you, to your town?

MATT: George, I'm just very lucky.

GEORGE: It’s got to be some magic dude!

MATT: I've had some great mentors and great coaches over the years, and my Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach at the moment, I started doing jiu-jitsu in the late 90s and I got onto this great coach and he's given me these opportunities and I just see these guys and I think, I want to train with these guys. And they themselves have this opportunity and I just tap into it. So I was very fortunate that my coach had Robert coming to Australia and I said, he actually said, why don't you have him to Echuca – we will, we’ll have him here in Echuca.

Also we've got coming up Dave Kovar coming up to do an instructor boot camp and instructor college. And again, instructors around this northern area that I live in Echuca don't get that opportunity and I'm trying to help the martial arts community around here to give them the opportunity to come and learn from these professionals. And Dave’s helped me a lot over the years and how I got to Dave Kovar was from Sean Allen, and Phil and Graham from Perth. These guys were talking about Dave Kovar, and I was fortunate that he came to a club in Bendigo, which is about an hour away from Echuca and Melbourne and he was there and I just sort of said to him, is anyone interested in a seminar sort of thing and that where we got hooked up with Dave.

It’s been about 3-4 years that we've been associated with Dave and he's sort of helped our business grow by his guidance, it’s fantastic. So going back to what you're saying, those are the things I took away from those clubs. But the only thing I regret now, I wish I knew how they marketed those clubs back then. Marketing now is a huge thing for a martial art cub to keep going. And I wish that I took more notice of how they ran, what sort of programs or teaching to more detail, that's what I’m finding interesting nowadays. I’m trying to get people through the door, because you know that the hardest step for someone to start martial arts is to get them through that door.

And that's what we find that, at our club at the moment, that that first step is the hardest. And also first time, first time stepping in the club – am I going to get hurt, am I going to get kicked, am I going to get punched, what's going to happen? So over probably the last, it was in 2010 I started up a new gym, started up a new full time facility, and this time I wanted to make sure I set up, so with the help of Phil and Graham and Sean Allen and Dave Kovar, I put in a program, a teaching program in place and then I just started to set up, tried to make up a community, a community spirit within my club.

Using Facebook – now I use Facebook a fair bit to market my club, to try to create a community within my club that people are having fun, it’s a family friendly club, that's how I promote it. So if someone's coming in for the first time, they know that it’s a family friendly club, they're going to feel comfortable coming through that door. We set up with our marketing stuff, it’s more about the community spirit in the club. People are training together, smiling, having fun and learning, and then you see them also training hard, competing in kickboxing, jiu-jitsu tournaments, showing the different levels that we can take them.

That's where we're on at the moment in regards to our marketing, we're focusing more on trying to create a culture or a community spirit within our club. Not trying to push advertising so much, I don't try and push that we've got free sessions coming on, or this and that. It’s just small marketing on the community spirit type of thing. Get people involved in our community, it’s a friendly place, everybody’s friendly sort of thing.

GEORGE: For sure. It sparks a conversation I had earlier with Brannon Beliso from America. And this is really my question to you, the leading question: we were looking at how – it’s a discussion that keeps on coming up, how the same marketing doesn't work in two different locations. So you can't have the same marketing message and think it’s going to work in location A and location B, depending of course on the dynamics.

And this is something that we've been finding and we’ve been talking about his two locations that, what works in San Francisco doesn’t work in Millbrae. And it’s something we've been seeing a lot with Facebook marketing as well. So my question to you is, what have you seen that people are doing in Melbourne and in the bigger cities from a marketing perspective that you've tried to implement where you are, which is a smaller town, that simply just doesn't work with the people and the community?

MATT: That's a really good question, because what we see in Melbourne – I know in Echuca, my fees aren't as much as Melbourne and we're trying to educate people. For me, I had to educate people around the town because some people don't know where we are and what we do, and in Melbourne, there's a lot more people there and I see that they're putting up special deals and stuff like that and I tried them here, putting up a special deal from even something that Matt was working on the five, beginner classes sort of thing, we tried that for a short while. It worked in some classes, but we couldn't retain them. That was probably because of our following up and stuff like that, but we found this community sort of spirit thing working better for us, we're trying to get people educated about it, in the area what we actually do at the club, instead pushing the hard push: come in and get your free lesson, or there is a special deal on.

We’re working on that at this stage and we tried heaps and heaps, you know what it looks like, it’s all trial and error. And I still don't think I've actually hit the nail on the head yet, we're still trying to work it out, what works for us in Echuca. Because I know other guys have different marketing programs and I’ve tried some of that, and as you said, does not work for us, or I tried it but I had the wrong recipe. I think that you have to have the right recipe to set that up and if you don't understand it properly, I think that's when you sort of lose, if you don't know how to do it properly.

GEORGE: And here's the thing with that – sorry to cut you off there again: these deals and paid trials as we like to call them, it’s something we've had great success with our clients doing paid trials, but then sometimes, we also don't. And the reasoning, my reasoning behind that is, when you put up a great offer is, you're putting an offer out to someone who is already sold on the idea that martial arts is going to work for them or their child. So you're more than likely talking to a person that's already done some research and they're ready to take their credit card out.

But then, there are five different conversations happening, five different type of people, because there’s a person that is just completely unaware of martial arts and what the benefits are, so they're not even looking for martial arts. And then, you're going to find a person that, maybe there's a problem: their child is getting bullied, they're lacking in confidence or something. They know they've got a problem, but they haven't linked martial arts yet as the actual solution. And then there's one step up that may be the person that sees, all right: martial arts is the solution, but where do I do it?  And then maybe they know and you can go and level up and go, OK, this person know martial arts is the reason and the answer, and they know about you, Wickham’s Martial Arts, but they still don't know if you're the right fit for what they are doing.

So if you look at marketing that way, it’s not really as easy as putting an offer up and especially I think in an area like where you are, because you've only got so many people to work with. So just putting up an offer all the time, you could eliminate four different types of people that are not yet aware of martial arts, or interested yet, or it's not engaged, it’s not in their radar whatsoever. And with those type of people, you've got to market completely differently, because you've really got to educate them and pinpoint the need, or create the need before they would even look at the offer.

So yeah, I really think this is a bigger play in smaller areas, because, in a place like where you are, where there are 20,000 people, for you to run things like Google ads and things like that, it wouldn’t really bring much results, because there’s not that many people actually looking. And I could be wrong, but just statistically: we looked at running ads for someone in Darwin, and we kind of said, look, it’s probably not the best way to go, because there's just not enough people searching for martial arts training through Google. So there's got to be those different ways, and I like your way of community, because community is trust and community can get people to talk, and that's the thing, it’s probably going to work the best for you in the smaller type area.

MATT: Yeah, yeah, exactly. That's right. Cause people in a local community, there's so much other things going on, but we want people to feel part of the group, and people do, at the end of the day, they want to feel part of the club, they want to feel part of the gym that helps them and also that can be contributing in some ways. So yeah, definitely, that's what we’re working on, the community approach. We hit the nail on the head, we tried marketing deals, but it just hasn't worked as much, hardly at all really. So that's what we’re working on, that community spirit, to show that we have people learning and having fun and they're progressing along and kicking some goals in their personal lives.

GEORGE: Awesome. And on the goals, I see on your website, you've got a list of 15 school rules – can you elaborate a bit more on that? Is that something that you're very strict on?

MATT: That's basically about the Dojo rules when I first started, that was one of my instructor’s basic rules at the gym. He actually gave them to me a long time ago and we actually put that on the website I think by mistake, but I like keeping it there and just setting some rules for the club that everybody can read and say, OK, these are the basic rules in their classes: that everybody has to work, some basic guidelines at the club. Showing a bit of discipline, respect, so that's what the rules are basically up there for.

GEORGE: OK, awesome. So back to running two businesses: you were saying that you discovered a few things and so forth, but I'm going to guess that at the end of the day, it’s gotta be, you in the building industry, that's a whole project by itself, I guess it creates a big time commitment as is. And then you've got the martial arts school. How do you go about juggling both businesses, side by side, by night, affecting your family life completely and so forth?

MATT: I have a great support family; my wife is fantastic. And her parents were in the building industry as well, so she has a bit of an idea of what the building industry is like. She's very supportive of me, and she gives me lots of time to keep on these things. But usually, when she says she needs help, she needs some support, I'm there 100%, I just drop everything. For my family I just drop everything, for them. But I'm very fortunate to have great support. I've got three kids, Melvis is 17 and I've got twins, Mitch and Chloe, they're 15. Mitchell now does, he trains every night, does martial arts, or both of them do martial arts – Chloe actually now teaches our 6-10-year-old kick boxing classes and Mitchell competes regularly in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so we travel all around the place doing competitions and stuff now.

And I really love seeing these guys being involved in the club. My family is sort of involved with martial arts, which makes a huge help with me. And I know down the track, building now is getting very competitive, I'm competing against the larger building contractors and I've always done houses and renovation, stuff like that. It’s getting to a point now that even the trends that I’m looking at now for work is the renovation, so a lot of it change the direction of the building business over the years so I don't get too busy and I don't want to be traveling out of town, because I won’t be able to get back in time for classes.

So it's restricted me on how far I can go with my building business, so I don't take on as much when I could take on and also, having the martial arts at night time restricts me from going out and having meetings with clients as well. There is some good points and bad points. For the bad points, I don’t get the opportunity to push my building business more by talking with clients after work, or show them around houses and jobs, stuff like that, spending the quality time and the one on one time that I really want to, without employing someone else to do that. It’s getting to the point now as I get older as well and because it’s so competitive in the building industry, it is making it a lot harder nowadays to keep motivated for me, especially keep me motivated to keep the business going, when my passion is still much for martial arts.

And I love just teaching and learning and I'm not quite there in regards to the martial arts business as well, I've got so much more to learn: setting up programs and setting up certain things to keep going, so I have a legacy setup, that's what I really want, that legacy that it’s still there when my kids get in their twenties and they can start running more classes if they want to. There’s an opportunity for them to take over the business. I don't think Mitchell wants to take over the building business, I'm not really sure, but you never know, we don't know what direction our kids will take. But it’s definitely getting harder for me now as I get older, running two businesses, more so running out of steam, running out of motivation. You've got to try and advertise both businesses, I find it really hard.

The goal was, in 2010 when I started up this new martial arts centre that I wanted to get to a place that we have enough members that I would probably fold back and just do small jobs on the building, small renovation jobs and focus more on the martial arts business, so I can put a 100% into that business. Because I see myself, there's opportunities there to grow that business and I think for me, I feel like I'm letting myself down not pushing 100%. But on the other side, I don't want to let my father down by letting his business just vanish, because he's worked so hard over the years. That's probably something inside of me that I have to sort of work out and in time, it will sort itself out I reckon.

GEORGE: For sure. What would you say the next step is for you with your martial arts business and moving forward?

MATT: Next step would be – George, for me, over the years, I’ve been trying to set up, trying to focus on my coaching with instructors, instructing students to take the next level. I want people to, as I said before – a legacy. I want to set the gym up to a point that people can actually have a job in martial arts. Have a job in teaching martial arts. When I first started martial arts, people would go, oh, is that your hobby? And I would go, yes, that’s a hobby. But even now, they ask me the question, is that a business, or is it a hobby? What am I doing? Now I say it’s my business: I've got two businesses that I run, it’s not a hobby, it’s a business.

And I think back 20 years ago, martial arts were looked at as a hobby and it wasn't looked at as a martial arts business. And last year I was happy enough to travel up with Matt Ball to America to see Dave Kovar's business over in America and then sort of resonated with me in saying, yes, we can do this. This guy has done it. And I think that's what I want to do. I want to set my focus on setting up Wickham’s martial art as more of a full time business, instead of a part time business. So that's sort of the direction I think I would like to take it in the future.

GEORGE: Awesome. Well Matt, it’s been great chatting to you, and if anybody wants to know more about you and your school and the town you live and so forth, where can they find out more about you?

MATT: Probably on our website, www.wickhamsmartialarts.com. That's probably the best idea to get all that. On Facebook as well, were very heavily in Facebook community as well, so you can find the Wickham’s Martial Arts page on Facebook.

GEORGE: Cool, well link to that. And I also see mattwickham.com.au. A personal one.

MATT: Yeah, that’s mattwickham.com.au.

GEORGE: Here we go, cool, two websites to check out. Awesome Matt, thanks a lot, I hope to chat to you soon.

MATT: All right, thanks George.

GEORGE: Thanks.

MATT: Thank you.

GEORGE: Cheers.

And there you have it – thank you very much, Matt, for coming to the show and sharing your story with us. If you want the see notes, you can download that from martialartsmedia.com/30, and if you're enjoying these podcasts and you like to learn more or have any suggestions for any shows or so forth, you can contact us on martialartsmedia.com, but also you can head to Facebook and if you want to leave us a bit of a review, that would be awesome.

I know it's very hard to leave reviews on the podcast apps like in iTunes and in stutter, so you can find us Martial Arts Media on Facebook if you go to the direct URL, it's facebook.com/martialartmedia, not with the s, somebody, unfortunately, already took that. But if you just type in the search box Martial Arts Media, you should be able to find us there.

Thanks again, thanks for listening and we're going to be back again next week for another great episode and I will chat with you soon. Thanks, cheers.

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George Fourie

Hi I'm George Fourie, the founder of MartialArtsMedia.com. When I'm not doing dad duties or training on the mats (which I manage to combine when my son is willing! :), I'm helping Martial Arts Gym owners grow their business through the power of online media.

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