Why I’m not a martial arts millionaire (yet)

In the last few weeks, a couple things came together and the result is this (long) post. Here’s the list of events:

  • Somebody asked about blogging and I responded. Part of my response was this:

If you really want to make money blogging, you’ll have to work hard and probably go for business models that aren’t always as cool. Not my thing, but to each his own.

  • I had a discussion with another instructor/author about training methodology, cross training and the value of traditional martial arts. It took me a while before I figured out we weren’t talking about the same thing. I think he’s right in what he said. I also think I’m right in what I said.
  • Branimir Tudjan said the following in the interview I did with him

First I would like to thank you for your interest in my MOSS video and for conducting this interview. You know, in the so called martial arts world which is nowadays unfortunately full of big ego “grandmasters” or “guru’s” and where every “expert” perceives others (and their systems) as a potential threat or less “realistic & effective” system then their own, it’s a pleasure to meet a person and a colleague like yourself who is competent, mature, confident and open minded. I am also genuinely impressed with your work with Paladin Press.

  • Somebody got the ball rolling on important life lessons, things that suddenly clicked. I wrote:

Mine was: just because I’m right about something, somebody else isn’t necessarily wrong about the same subject. And vice versa.

All these things combined are what lead up to the title of my post here.

Why I’m not a martial arts millionaire (yet)

The short of it: I don’t want it at any price. The goal doesn’t justify the means.

If you want to succeed in business, you have to work real hard and be willing to make tough moral decisions. I don’t mind the working hard part, that’s not an issue. The moral decisions thing is another can of worms.  I’m not saying you have to be an evil overlord to make a good living in this business (and yes, martial arts is also a business if you do it for a living)  but it can lead you down that road to make a quick buck.  Here’s why:

Regardless of how good you are in your art.

Regardless of how good your books or videos are.

Regardless of how well intentioned you are.

There’s an undeniable truth you’ll run into again and again: Those things are just not enough to ensure financial success.

OK, why not?

Because making a good product is only half the work. You also have to convince people to buy it, which is what marketing is all about.

I’m not a great marketeer. In fact, my ex-wife constantly told me I had to be commercial-minded, promote myself more, etc.  Marketing was the part of my business (personal training) I hated the most and, as a result, neglected a lot. I thought that stuff was against some martial arts code of ethics, it felt like boasting or showing off.  Things I despise.

Fast forward ten years and I figured out she was right. Not only that, but I was dead wrong. There is no reason to equate martial arts teaching with living in poverty or teaching for free. There’s also no reason why I shouldn’t make a lot of money teaching the arts, writing books and making videos. I’m not ripping people off, nor am I lying to them. I can look in the mirror and say “I believe in what I teach. My stuff may not be perfect, but I believe in it.” My conscience is clear.

But that isn’t enough. Just because you have a good product, doesn’t mean you will make money off it.

Here’s a sad story:

A man who was instrumental in creating the audio compact disc sold his idea for a couple thousand to Philips. When he realized his mistake, he tried to negotiate with Philips to get a piece of the pie whenever his invention was used. He failed. Philips used it to develop the compact disc and it made them billions.  The man got zip, nada, nothing.

The same goes for creating martial arts books or videos and teaching these arts: Just because you’re good, doesn’t mean you’ll make money. People won’t just buy your stuff and book you for lessons. That’s just not how it works.  Why? Because most of them don’t know about you. The only way for them to get to know about you is by getting your name out there, which is marketing…

Today’s martial arts industry


In today’s world, this applies in spades. If you don’t market yourself, people won’t know about you. As a result, they won’t buy your stuff and you don’t make a dime. Now I’m exaggerating a little, but not all that much and here’s why:

Even if they have heard about you, the other guy (the one doing all that marketing) is somebody they’ve heard about a whole lot more. Guess who’s products they’re most likely to order?

What I didn’t want to hear when I was younger (and what many beginning martial arts professionals refuse to acknowledge) is that good marketing works. Commercials work. Despite the fact that we’re bombarded with them, they still work. Even if you think they don’t, they still have their effect on you, especially in the long run.

Because of how easy it is today to make a product, put up a website and sell it, the market has become very crowded. Open up a MA magazine, browse the Internet a bit and you’ll see tons of martial arts products for sale. Usually, the ones who get the most exposure are the ones that sell best.  So if you want to make some money in this business, you have no other choice but to do your own marketing. The only question left is: “what kind of marketing?

Learn ultimate, no touch, gets them every time, no training needed, foolproof, deadly-ultra-mega techniques right here!!!


We’ve all seen ads like that and most people I talk to about this can’t believe anybody falls for them.  The fact of the matter is, people do; every day. This kind of marketing is effective in getting a lot of people to buy your products. They may never buy anything from you again if you’re selling crap but you’ll still have their money from that first buy.

Despite having embraced marketing more than in the past, I refuse to do stuff like that. Simply because I believe it isn’t true. I believe the issues regarding martial arts and self defense are complex. You can’t just dumb them down to whatever you like and then claim your techniques are unbeatable. Sure, it’ll sell your stuff but it’s not true. Things are shades of grey, not black or white.

Which brings me to my blog here and why I put so much time and effort in it:

  • Like I said: just because I’m right about something, somebody else isn’t necessarily wrong about the same subject. And vice versa. Just because I like to do certain techniques and they work for me, that doesn’t mean other people can’t do it differently. That’s why I review other instructor’s products. Because it allows me to learn more about other systems, learn their point of view and perhaps gain new insights into things I already learned. If it doesn’t work for me, no sweat. Maybe it’ll work for you; hence my review. I’m just passing on the word. Here’s the thing: acknowledging another author’s products are good doesn’t invalidate mine. Just because his stuff is good, doesn’t make mine bad. I have an ego like everybody else (my GF says it’s pretty big) but even I can admit this. Also, the reverse is true as well: just because his stuff is bad, doesn’t make mine good.
  • This all means that I don’t feel bad anymore promoting myself and my products. They may not be the best out there, they may not work for everybody, I know that. But I also know that I did the best I could making them. From the feedback I’ve gotten, a lot of people do find them useful. So why shouldn’t I promote them then?
  • The caveat is honesty. I don’t want to sell something for what it’s not. I don’t believe in ultimate systems so I won’t market my stuff as such. I don’t believe in “perfect solutions” so I won’t say that either. All I can do is give it my best shot, tell you what the product is for and then hope you like it and find a use for it. And if I’m really honest, I’ll tell you when I don’t know or when I think somebody else has a good answer. Hence the reviews and interviews I do here.
  • But a trade off is warranted here: If I’m honest and tell you to buy somebody else’s stuff instead of my own, I don’t earn a living. That may be honest, but it doesn’t put food on the table. OK, then I’m going to put up advertising on my blog to pay for the hosting, my time, loss of income, etc. And I’ll also put up those other people’s products with affiliate links so I get a (really, really) small cut if you happen to buy it. It isn’t much but it’s more than the alternative, nothing. Again, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t earn a small fee when I promote other people. Nobody loses here.
  • Of course, I still prefer you buy my stuff too. Why wouldn’t I? If I didn’t want to make money off it, I wouldn’t sell it. And if I’m willing to sell it, my goal is obviously to make lots of money off it. But not at any cost. So I won’t tell bullshit just to make that extra sale.

Conclusion


Because this is the way I see things, I’m not earning as much money as I could. I’m not a millionaire yet.

Not a big deal; most people could have more money if they just went outside and snatched a few purses away from old ladies. Most people don’t do this because they don’t want to be assholes. The same applies here: you can make a lot of money, fast, but not always in an honest way? A few personal examples:

  • I was asked if I wanted to sell this blog here for a lot of money and have somebody else keep writing it under my name. The idea was to turn it into an Internet marketing machine with me as a a brand and I still got a cut of everything. I said no. It would have been flat out deceiving people
  • I’ve been approached repeatedly to promote products and sell them at huge commissions. The products with the highest commissions were really, lame. I said no. This would have been flat out lying.
  • I’ve had the opportunity to set up my Combat Sanshou system as an insanely commercial franchise. I’m talking about a million dollar deal, really big stuff. But I would have had to do some pretty unsavory things, so I said no. The parts of the deal that were cool are things I was planning on doing anyway, so no great loss there.

Some of you might think I’m an idiot for turning these people down. I understand, that’s cool. We all have to live with our decisions.

Others will think I’m a “good guy” for not doing so. I’m not, though. I didn’t act out of some sort of martial ethic or moral superiority. I refused those deals because I don’t believe they are good for me in the long run, they’re bad business decisions. The fact that they’re morally on shaky grounds and that I would have to go against things I believe to be true, is just another part of that decision.

I also won’t fault others who do accept these kinds of offers. I’m not in their shoes so I can’t comment. They may have valid reasons for their actions, who knows? All I can say is that it doesn’t work for me

All that said, one of my goals for 2011 is to earn a better income so I can spend more time with my kids, train with my teachers and travel abroad. My books and videos, this blog and my job are what will allow me to do those things. The more of my own stuff I sell, the more I can achieve those goals. It might take me longer than others by doing it in my own way, but I won’t have to be ashamed of myself.

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Comments

  1. Wim,
    I think you’ve made the right decisions. Marketing is key – but there is no need to need to be a sleazy marketer.

    I spend a lot of time reading Copyblogger and Problogger and on both sites it is stressed how important it is that, as a blogger, you both remain both ethical and genuine. If you don’t people will see right through you.

    I think it is very important that this blog receives regular doses of your “voice” – it’s the whole reason people are here in the first place. I don’t think your blog would be a popular as it is if you had someone ghost-writing it for you.
    I would like to see a few things though:

    1. I wish you had an Affiliate Program – Currently, I promote some of your products (among others) on my blog. However, I have to use Amazon to do so. I think Amazon is a great affiliate platform for a blog like mine because I’m inspired by many different authors, coaches, and instructors. I’m just not sure how much of a cut Amazon takes out your share of the sale.

    2. I really want to see an expansion of the “Combat Sanshou” brand. It’s a great series and I want more. Hell, I think it would be awesome if you offered seminars or a certification process for the system (along the lines of Gracie Combatives, for example). I’d be on the first flight to Europe :)

    Anyway, keep up the good work and thanks for all you do.

    • Josh,

      I agree, being genuine is the key. I don’t write anything here that I wouldn’t say to somebody in person.

      The ghostwriting thing sucked. It would have given me a steady income, but it was lke selling your soul to the devil. No thanks.

      Having an affiliate program is technically difficult because I live in Belgium. Because of our import taxes and legislation, I can’t even sell my own products on a regular basis here. Which makes supplying them for affiliates real hard.
      The best thing you can do is contact Paladin Press and Turtle press about this. The more people ask about such a program, the more likely they’ll implement one.
      As for Amazon, you’d crap your pants if I told you how little authors get via them. That’s why I refer people to my publisher’s sites to buy my stuff. At least there I get a fairer shake.

      The next videos in the Combat Sanshou series should have been filmed two years ago. For reasons outside of my control, the shoot was delayed several times and is now set for Summer 2011. Fingers crossed it’ll work out. There are a bunch more videos that I have planned for this series and I’m considering self-producing. Not sure yet as that is expensive and technically challenging. We’ll see.
      There will be a Combat Sanshou certification system. I had planned to have it go live a long time ago but the delays for the videos have prevented that. I’m now working on solutions for this. It takes some time, but I’ll get there. So stay tuned! ;-)

  2. Wim If it’s any consolation, You always come across as transparent and like your making a point to be real with people -and it’s made the blog great!
    I’ll keep recommending it to people because I think you got the balance right between funny, attractive, and relative.
    Thanks for the great content man!

  3. Don’t sell your soul, it’ s a nice one ;)

  4. personally, i would take the quickest buck first, once im rich, then id focus on doing quality work.

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