A Small Business With a Lot of Fight- How a Doctor Established A Mixed Martial Arts Gym in an Unlikely Locale
You wouldn’t normally expect a doctor from Brazil to hang up his stethoscope to pursue an entrepreneurial dream of opening a gym dedicated to professional fighting outside his own country. Yet that’s exactly what Mario Roberto set out to do in 2004 when he began establishing his Mario Roberto Jiu-Jitsu Academy (MRJJA) and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Center—now officially Jiu-Jitsu World Enterprises—headquartered in Rochester, Minn.
Roberto had an extensive martial arts and professional fighting background even before obtaining his medical degree in 2002 from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). While he had an established reputation as a world class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) black belt and as an accomplished fighter, he was nevertheless a virtual unknown in the Northern climates of Minnesota, so opening his own gym was a bit of a gamble.
“The number one challenge for me was starting with a huge amount of overhead and a very small customer base in the beginning with basically only one student signed up,” said Roberto. “The way I tried to overcome that was by sub-leasing from a different business—a local boxing gym—for quite some time instead of having a place of my own, which helped cut down on expenses. Also, I had an unusual lease arrangement in that I paid a percentage based on the number of students I had, which worked out really well and kept us out of the red.”
Also challenging was establishing a professional fighting gym in a relatively conservative community dominated by a two prong economy consisting of a national medical powerhouse—Mayo Clinic—and a business computing giant branch—IBM. Opening a small business within such an economic one-two punch can be difficult enough, but a business that carries with it a stigma of violence and danger such as MMA can be particularly daunting.
Web presence and a guerilla approach
Fortunately, while MMA and BJJ can carry a negative stigma, it also inhabits a niche where people seeking MMA/BJJ training tend to conduct their own research online, thereby drastically reducing the need for traditional—and expensive—hardcopy advertising. Through a combination of a strong Web presence and an almost guerilla approach to online marketing, Roberto was able to gradually grow his customer/student base.
“We found out, for whatever reason, that our type of customers have a very specific demand and typically come through our doors already quite knowledgeable about our business,” said Roberto. “Because of that, more common advertising methods—such as signs, banners, publication advertising, flyers, etc.—don’t necessarily work all that well for our customer base. We rely heavily on a strong Internet presence, but also word of mouth. We also don’t require a flashy outside business façade or huge signs, because customers know where to find us almost exclusively thanks to the Web.”
Reputation and brand
In 2008, Roberto further established his reputation, strengthened his brand and expanded the business’ customer base by releasing sets of instructional BJJ DVDs that have since been positively received both in the U.S. and worldwide. The combined success of his sub-leased BJJ/MMA gym and his instructional DVD libraries laid the financial groundwork for Roberto’s ultimate goal: building his very own MMA gym just across town from the original sub-leased boxing gym.
“I’m somewhat of a risk taker, but I’m also very conservative when it comes to my business, so the goal was to be able to move and create a facility that I wanted the way I wanted,” said Roberto, who also became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2009. “I had a very specific set of demands, but at the same time I wanted to attain my facility goals without borrowing any money or securing a loan. To achieve that, I had to deal with the fact I wouldn’t find a location that would necessarily be ideal. But, again, the location didn’t have to be ideal because most customers/students find us through the Web, which they then use to find our front door. Once they’re in the door, the facility really just speaks for itself.”
Indeed, in February of 2010, Roberto officially opened the doors of the new Jiu-Jitsu World Enterprises headquarters gymnasium, complete with an extensive complement of free weights, exercise equipment, considerable BJJ training floor space and a crown jewel 30 ft. MMA fighting cage. Roberto now estimates he trains between 70 and 100 students locally—including a couple former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competitors—and up to 200 students nationally through affiliated schools, offering a variety of classes ranging from BJJ to MMA to general fitness workouts.
“Not every business can keep costs down like we were able to do in our case,” said Roberto. “However, it’s still a good practice to keep debt and other financial obligations as under control as possible. This is obviously a different type of business, but it has a lot of the same considerations you’ll find across most other small businesses.”
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