At first I wanted to write only one article that would cover some frequent questions about how to start your own HEMA club and turning it into a job. As I researched the topic more, I noticed that there is no way to put it all together as there is so much useful information that needs to be said but does not fit into the article structure. So, I shall make a two parter of this topic. The first part will cover some general ideas on starting a business. The second part will give an insight into the lives of HEMA coaches through an interview.
I wouldn't consider myself to be very knowledgeable of the HEMA community or how to run a business. However, I'm sure that I'm not the only one who hadn't, at some point of his training, thought „Hey, what if swordsmanship was my job?“. Still, let's back away from the dream and try to analyze the possibility of maintaining such a business. Take note that these are just my thoughts and the possibility of missing some steps in business development is high. But what kind of writer would I be if I hadn't consulted with people that actually do HEMA as a full time job. These people are Guy Windsor and Keith Farrell. I would like to thank them in advance for their time and making this article possible.
I will base the article on three factors: the business structure, the service you provide and the PR and marketing factors.
The business structure
First off you need to understand that owning your own business is a tough choice but a rewarding one at that. You can set your own working hours and prices. However, you can never slack off. If you slack off, the market engulfs you and in return you cease to exist i.e. lose your business due to lack of funds. Farrell stated that he started his business because he graduated in the middle of an economic crisis which made him make his own business. Windsor, on the other hand, just felt that the time is right to start such a club. As he stated „I was at a crossroads in my life and went to meditate on a mountain until the way became clear. A voice in my head told me to “go to Helsinki and open a school of swordsmanship”. So I did.“ There are numerous reasons why one should open a HEMA club. Whatever they be, get ready for a bumpy ride. Farrell suggests that by no means should you quit your day job when starting a HEMA club. Work on it during evenings and eventually you will feel that you have enough students to make a living of the club. At that point, you should take the plunge. Still, as Windsor put it;
...if you need encouragement to start, then don’t. It’s a great way to lose money, turn a hobby you love into hard work, and generally ruin things. If your heart tells you “this is what I must do” then do it, but be prepared to have to learn a whole lot of non-swordsmanship skills.
How much time do I want to devote to this business?
Is it an 8 hours a day thing or a 24 hour service depending on your clients wishes? Take note that what business model you chose will generally get stuck with you. If you change it for the worst to your clients, let’s say from the 24h model to the 8h model, they will feel they are not getting their money’s worth. Whatever model you chose, stay with it but be careful as it might take up too much of your time.
What should be the price for the classes I give?
Depending on what you feel is the right price of the program you teach. The initial price must not be too low. Let's say you wish to give your service for 50$ a month. As the school gets more popular you believe that you should raise the price to 60$. This will not reflect well on your students because they will believe it is overpriced. If it was 50$ before, why should the price be raised? You are not doing anything different right? Try to compare your theoretical prices to those of similar clubs such as martial arts dojos or fencing clubs. Even though HEMA is different, it should hold a high standard as most other activates do.
Legal issues. What does my legal system allow in terms of owning a school that does not teach an official sports discipline?
How should you classify your school? Is it a business or an association? Carefully check the restrictions each classification allows you, such as the taxes you need to pay on each transaction or quality control of your service. Luckily, no one can really check the quality of your service since there is no official HEMA sports coalition. Another factor you should consider is that you could get donations if your club is presented as a non-profit organization. If you are non-profit that doesn't mean you can't personally make a profit of it. Only the organization itself cannot make a profit at the end of the year. So basically, you can set up a club that gets financial aid from students as well as donations. Still, learn how to handle the books as they will surely help you run a successful business.
Should I buy or rent a certain space where practice will take place?
It depends on your overall costs and income. If you have relatively small groups I think renting space would be a more viable option. If business starts booming you should probably get your own space or get a lease on a place. Not only will you be able to have a controlled environment but the space where training is performed can be adapted to the needs of HEMA students. Not to mention you will reduce transport costs of the school's equipment such as masks and swords.
Keith Farrell stated that he started in the University of Glasgow for free. Seems that HEMA can be ran inside a university since it can be represented as research by itself. This has its ups and downs. On the plus side, the space you are using is either free or low cost. On the bad side, you share the space with other organizations and that could make scheduling hard.
Whatever the case may be, try to minimize your risk. Start with small groups and as your club gets bigger transition into buying or leasing a certain space for your club.
How do I know if the idea for a school is even viable? How do I know if I will even have students?
Two words, market research. Do not go into a business with the idea that „It would be fun. My friends or current HEMA members would join in“. They possibly would, but they are not your whole market and probably are not enough to finance you. Research what types of people would be interested in HEMA. What demographics, what are the key spots where they live/work/study? What are their financial possibilities? These are just some of the questions you need to ask yourself before getting into the business.
I would strongly advise anyone of thinking of starting up a HEMA club to do something what’s called a SWOT analysis. Don't worry, it's nothing but a fancy term for identifying the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of your endeavor. You just write them down. Example, my Strength is that we are the only HEMA club in the region but my weakness is that rarely anybody knows what HEMA is. My opportunity is to gain a large amount of students but my threat is the media, other martial arts clubs and renaissance fairs as they could all, depending on your relation with them, disfigure the public perception of what HEMA is.
How do I get my initial capital?
Try to either contact a start-up agency or try to get funds from the government. HEMA is a sport as well as a cultural discipline, meaning it can be funded by various foundations that want to promote culture. If the presentation of your activates are attractive enough, meaning if you pitch the idea well, you will probably get some funding. If all else fails you could borrow some money.
What about competition?
There is probably next to none competition in your area if you are thinking of setting up a HEMA school. The sport/martial art is still unknown and exotic in most areas of the world. This means that YOU get to dictate the price and quality of your service. Still, at the same time the consumers get to dictate the price of the service as they have no comparative context i.e. no other HEMA schools to compare yours too. They will probably compare your school to similar activates such as eastern martial arts or fencing. Try to ask around those organizations of how their costs fluctuate or how do they recruit new members. They can probably give you a lot of useful information.
The program - service
So let’s say you think you have enough experience to start a certain HEMA school. You have some ideas on which you want to capitalize such as doing a beginner’s long sword program for the first year. How big will your group be? What is the amount of people you can successfully manage? What is the minimal number of people you need in order to maintain your service as well as your living costs? How creative do your sessions need to be?
You could also get the younger audience to join in on the club. Lots of parents want to give their children some form of activity, so why not expand your services to children as well? Of course, if you believe you can teach them in a safe and fun manner.
One other thing that could help you is if you have some sort of credentials. Since HEMA, as I stated before, does not have any official tests or certifications it is not a must to have any. Of course, it wouldn't hurt if you were at other martial arts clubs for several years or that you have a certificate for a fitness trainer.
The PR and marketing
The first question should be what kind of image you want present to the public with your HEMA club? Do you want to go with a historical theme? Maybe something that is more oriented to sports as in more of a recreational activity than a historical one? There are numerous ways you could sell your service. Of course, it depends on your focused group of consumers.
Another part of constructing an image of your club would be how much you take yourself seriously. This doesn't mean that your work is sloppy. It is focused more on the type of person you present yourself to be. Would you be a strong leader with strict rules or maybe a laid back trainer that has no problems with cracking a few jokes during training?
Of course, do not forget that you need channels to get your message across. As most of you already do, use Facebook and YouTube or similar services. Still, don't forget other conventional media such as newspapers, TV or magazines. Contact the reporters and tell them what you do. There is a great chance that they will be interested in such an activity.
Windsor says that he used minimal online advertising that generated an initial attendance at his first free demo class of over 70 potential students. Farrell, on the other hand, had to not only make an online presence but also advertise his services at the university. He suggests that one should not go into a grand advertisement campaign if you do not possess a full time venue. If you are working form a free public space, concentrate your money on things that you need for the club. One thing that is always recommended, and is practically free, is to make yearly demonstrations at fairs, public squares, universities etc. Maybe you will not attract a certain audience, but you will get recognized by the public.
These are some basic ideas that should give you insight on what would you need in order to start a HEMA business. In part 2 of my research on doing HEMA as a job I shall post the full interview with Keith Farrell and Guy Windsor in order to give a more detailed insight into how hard (or easy) it is to be a HEMA instructor.
Don't forget to check out Windsor's website at http://guywindsor.net. Also, check out Keith Farrell's www.historical-academy.co.uk. Both sites are marvelous. Again, I must give my gratitude to these HEMA instructors for taking the time and making this article possible.