The front of my gym right as the explosive growth was happening

My gym in Richmond, VA - Revolution BJJ
Credit: Self

From 35 to 125 in 14 months

In 2011, my gym (Revolution BJJ in Richmond, VA), which I co-own with Trey Martin, was plodding along.  We had 35 very tough, dedicated students, mostly BJJ (although we had a modest Muay Thai program with one or two students who just wanted to train Thai Boxing).  Just a little over a year later, we had 125 students on the books.  How did we get to where we ended up, why did we decide to grow in the first place, and what did we learn from all of this crazy growth?  I'm here to share this story with you so that you can help make your own Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym grow considerably this year, and also so that you can avoid making some of the same mistakes we made along the way.  Let's get started.

Why grow in the first place?

For me, running a BJJ gym was never about "blowing up" and creating lots of "bling", or whatever other financial motivation many other gym owners seem to begin with.  I've always been fairly fortunate with money, having been raised with a good work ethic, not having any kids or very expensive habits (well, dogs), and generally making ends meet whenever necessary just by hustling a little bit more.  It was nice to be able to garner a modest paycheck from my gym, but the main focus was always to make the gym a much better place to train in.  After all, I was going to be enjoying training there as well, and as such, I didn't see much motivation in doing a tremendous amount of marketing, or trying to grow, because that time and energy would take away from the time I was training and teaching.  Since teaching and training were the only two things I really cared about with regard to BJJ, and more or less an ideal for me would consist of doing those two things, eating a bunch of really good food, then sleeping, I just wasn't motivated to try to grow.

Then one day, I had an epiphany.  It was simple and sudden, and it's one of those flashes that comes to you every 2 or 3 years that is genuine inspiration for you for the next 10 years or so, and sometimes longer.  There were two major components to this revelation:

  • Having more students at the gym was actually a better thing for the gym.  For example, suppose you're like me, 165-170 pounds, six feet tall.  It's really great to have 5 super tough training partners who are around your size and each have a different game, but what is the likelihood of that happening if we only have 2 or 3 students showing up for one of our classes?  What about the students who are 130 pounds, or 225 pounds, or women?  What about those looking to compete at a high level?  They'd need people around their weight and belt level in order to prepare for competition adequately.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized we needed more bodies on the mats every night.
  • I didn't have to market forever in order to have the gym grow to a point where the business was sustainable.  This was crucial for me, because I could not see myself becoming "that guy" who comes in and goes in to the back of the gym, handles the paperwork, and then doesn't roll with his students.  In fact, I was the opposite:  I trained anywhere between 9 and 15 times a week at that point, rolling for at least an hour each time I trained.  Yes, I was kind of nuts back then, but it was the life I had chosen.  Anyway, realizing that the time I spent marketing like crazy didn't have to last forever, but could be finite, say until we grew to over 100 students, really made a giant difference. 

From that moment forward, I vowed to help the gym grow in any ethical way that I could (after all, ethics never took a back seat, and never will).  I started learning about marketing online, even purchasing a book called "Facebook Marketing for Dummies" and reading blogs online as much as I could.  I was ready to get started growing the gym. 

A closer look at the window tinting we used

Window tinting at Revolution BJJ Richmond VA
Credit: Self

Getting to work

I should give full disclosure and say that the explosive growth we had actually closely coincided with a very shrewd move we made to a much better location in terms of both visibility (see the image of the outside of the gym) and area (the previous location was a little on the sketchy side).  Nevertheless, I finally felt like I had something to tell people about other than just the training partners and students, so I did. 

I already had a Facebook page for my gym set up, which was super easy to do.  However, there were some things I needed to change.  Here are the five things that made the most difference with marketing, and why each thing worked:

  1. Using the Facebook page as a "hub."  This concept is a very simple one, but it's one of the most effective ideas of online marketing, especially as it pertains to Facebook.  All announcements are made first from the gym's page.  After that, any instructors or students would be welcome to share the status, but the initial announcement itself- seminar, schedule change, whatever- would come from the gym's page.  This meant that, as our online presence grew, we'd show up more in people's news feed, as we had regular content.  It also meant that any time a status was shared, people who weren't already friends with me or hadn't already "liked" the gym could go check out the gym's page and do so.
  2. Geo-tagging all the pictures we took, and taking tons of them.  This was another fairly simple tweak, one which just required me (the manager of the page) to get into the habit of "geo-tagging" Revolution BJJ in each and every photo.  This just tells everyone where the picture was taken, and - more importantly- lets them click on the link to the gym's page attached to every photo (so and so was "at Revolution BJJ").
  3. Tagging students in all the pictures.  I started out being a little concerned about this one due to the students' privacy concerns and the idea that it might somehow come across as "spammy", but after trying it out for a few days, the verdict was actually the opposite:  the students loved it.  They were motivated to see themselves in images on Facebook and to kind of tell their friends (without really telling them) that they were, in fact, training at the gym the other night.  Training BJJ and Muay Thai is a mark of pride for students, so it's no surprise that they enjoyed seeing themselves in pics.  Of course, coupling with the geo-tagging from earlier, this meant that people were "at" the gym on Facebook as well, which helped raise awareness a great deal.
  4. Making events.  Another  very effective maneuver that didn't cost any money (unless we decided to pay to promote a particular event, which we occasionally did).  The events we most often promoted were our 8 week intro programs (very affordable pricing, no equipment needed, and a definite start and end time; but no obligation to sign up).  Students could then invite their friends to the events once they were "attending" (of course, I would invite the students first).  This worked extremely well to raise awareness of all of the events we had going on at the gym.
  5. Personally sharing the important announcements (and photos).  You have to be careful with this one, because you certainly don't want to share every single thing your gym's page puts out there.  First of all, you want the gym to announce exclusive content, and second, every time you share something, the volume per post gets turned down just a little bit.  However, once I found the balance, I was able to share certain posts and really attract some attention to key events and great, content-rich photos. 


3 times the students, then 3 times the mat space

A huge seminar in our newly expanded gym space

The result

After all that work, the end result was two-fold.  First, our gym now has:

  • a front desk area
  • a sales room
  • a separate office for Trey and me
  • 4 bathrooms
  • 3 changing areas 
  • a ring
  • a receptionist on staff
  • 8 BJJ black belts training every week
  • nearly 200 students total
  • 4500 square feet (up from 1500 just last year!)

Second, and perhaps most important, I've learned that I must always be educating myself as to how to run a business.  We are no longer "the little gym that could", but instead, a powerhouse gym that is still growing at an alarming rate.  As such, has been paramount that I pick up necessary business skills, like leadership, administrative, and project management skills.  None of these were easy for me to learn, but I've continued to learn and evolve (mostly by reading and listening to books).  

The improvement process is never ending for us, and that is the way any great gym should be run.  It is necessary to become big, though, in order to learn how to run a big gym.  One thing that I would do differently would be to throttle the bandwidth of the growth, so to speak, so that the same growth could happen over 2 years instead of just over one.  That way we could gradually get used to running a much bigger gym (another story for another day!).  Another thing that would really have helped, had I known it then, would be to start an operations manual much, much earlier in the process.  

Nevertheless, the experience I gained helping our gym triple in size (both in number of students and in physical size) have proven invaluable, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.  I hope this article both inspires and grounds you so that you know what you might be able to expect.  Nothing is going to happen overnight, but with incredible persistence and constant learning, you can make a huge impact on a smaller gym.