View Full Version : Questions on Starting a New Dojo

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Paul Barrett
06-03-2004, 11:15 AM
I tried to post this on another forum but I don't think it made it due to operator error - mine ;). Anyway, I apologize if you've alrady seen this but I'm still looking for answers.

Iím having a civil, yet important disagreement with the Chief Instructor at my dojo. Iíve been pushing for a regular advance or applied aikido class and the dojo Cho is resisting. Iíve even offered to teach the class however she feels it will split the dojo between the applied aikidoka and the more traditional students. However, This posting is not about that discussion. Itís becoming more and more obvious that itís time to move on, either to another dojo with a new organization or to start my own school.

As Iíve said, the Cho and I we have a fundamental difference of agreement or perhaps philosophy, but we are on good terms. She is encouraging me to form my own school and has offered to help with recognition by our Hombu through our parent organization etc. Iím not sure I want to take this step for a couple of reasons.

First, the path of least resistance may be to simply go to another established dojo in town, there are several. Iíve trained elsewhere in the same organization of at least one of them. That one in particular trains well but in my experience they tend to be a bit insular. They strongly encourage you to train only at their affiliated dojos and do not necessarily encourage attendance at seminars outside of their organization. As you can probably tell, I tend to chafe under authority ;=)

My other option is to start my own school. The problem there is two fold: finances and time.

I have a full time professional career so I donít need to make any profits off of a dojo. However, I donít want to loose my shirt either. I estimate itíll cost me $4,000.00 in mats. Iíll probably need Swain or Zebra grappling mats because most of the space around here is on concrete pads. A lease, utilities, and costs will probably push that to $10,000.00 for six months of operation. Aye Carumba!

I could share the space and know of a Tae Kwon Do instructor that may be interested, but itís still a big cash outlay, particularly since Iíll be the only one using the mats.

I'm also investigating the possibility of establishing a program at a local Community college, or perhaps renting space from a Yoga studio or gym. In the case of the former, they may supply mats. For the two latter, I'm still out the cost of the mats.

As for time, my job takes me out of town a lot. I can probably schedule a couple classes on the weekdays, but my wife is already an aiki-widow and is not thrilled about me having commitments every weekend. Iím not as worried about that aspect because I know a few other Yudansha that may come over quickly and could take a class or two if Iím out of town.

SooooÖ Iíd like any thoughts people have on what is truly involved in setting up a new dojo and any practical advice you may have. Of course the pros and cons of going to and established dojo are also welcome.


06-03-2004, 11:47 AM
I am going through this process now. I have had 3 dojos in the past so I like to think I have acquired some "lessons learned" as well as from others I've observed.
First - it's great that you and the Dojo Cho are on good terms. You leaving shouldn't mean that you ARE leaving. I plan on having my former colleagues as guests and I still visit there occasionally. The last thing we need in aikido is more division.
Second - what I am doing is starting small. I found space in a local health club that doesn't have an art similar to aikido so there is not competition factor. They do have karate but they either meet on different days or there is a good amount of time between the two classes. I found when you share an actual dojo with an incumbent art, there is going to be bad blood. Usually from students, sometimes from instructors.
I don't pay rent. I have a 60/40 split. I set the prices. It's good because I don't have to collect money or keep track of attendance - that's done at the front desk. So it's like I have an admin.
Third - I'm buying mats as needed. I'm starting out enough to cover a 16x16 or 20x20 space. So as students join they basically pay for their mat space.
Fourth - Time. This was the big issue for me. I work, I'm a part time student, have a family, and must still train with my Shihan. You can check my schedule at
to see how I have alloted my time. This seems like it will work for me but time will tell. I also considered just twice a week classes.
I found out from my past experience that having my own place helped my progress tremendously. I get to work closer to home and more often.

Paul Barrett
06-03-2004, 12:22 PM

Domo! That's just the kind of practical advice I was hhoping for.


Jeff Sodeman
06-03-2004, 02:13 PM
If you decide to do this I'd recommend starting at something like a YMCA. The one my dojo started at already had a mat space, and the rent was very reasonable.

I know a few other Yudansha that may come over quickly

Don't make any plans based on what others say they might do, expect to be the one and only person doing everything. If help comes along you'll be happy about it rather than disappointed by those that don't follow up on what they say, and you'll already have a plan for dealing with things yourself.

I think wanting a place to train the way you want is a good reason to start a dojo. Even better would be finding a dojo that's open to letting you explore your aikido with other like-minded students. You'll probably find in opening a school, especially one of limited hours, that you're spending more time teaching basics to new students than getting your own applied aikido training in.

06-04-2004, 12:54 AM
I'd check out the local colleges. I wandered into the fitness center at our little community college and found two 4' stacks of brand new mats sitting in the corner. It didn't look like they'd been used much and it broke my heart to see them sitting there not doing anything :D

Check with the college activities office to see about the possiblity of starting an aikido club...especially if the have space and mats you could use for free.

I have a friend who teaches tai chi at a University. He has it set up so Uni. students get credit and non-Uni. people pay some ridiculously low fee....something like $15/month.

Gymnastics schools will have mats and may have some open time in there schedule they are looking to fill.

I would definitely start small. The place I teach at started at the local Y and moved later. When my sensei started teaching it was through the local Community Continuing Education program. If there's a way you can gather a student base while keeping the outlay of cash low I'd go for that first. Once you have a solid core of students you can start looking for your own place....or stay if you like it.


Greg Jennings
06-04-2004, 06:05 AM
I think the $4k for mats is too much outlay to get started.

I trained with a group at a health club in Park City, UT. They just have 2" thick foam that they put out each class and cover the whole deal with a thin canvas tarp that has fitted-sheet kind of pockets on each corner. It wasn't the Ritz, but it was sufficient and seemed like a good way to get started.

If you eventually have a space that you can have a semi-permanent mat in, there are much less expensive ways to get started than the Swain or Zebra. Our mat is 18'x42' and the whole deal cost me about $1,200.


06-04-2004, 11:44 AM
Important things to keep in mind.
* To set a new oImportant things to have in mind.

∑ To set a new dojo is not an easy task, sometimes there will be 2 or 3 students at the beginning, don’t worry if this happens, keep going to class.
∑ Don’t Donīt and Don’t loose contact with an Aikido Organization or your sensei and keep training. Maybe you can become a satellite dojo of your organization and it doesn’t means you have to do every thin in the same way it is in the main Dojo
∑ Go gradually with the setting up you can start in a college group and latte you can rent a place, buy mats contract a secretary, etc. If you push the existence of the group to a finance result from fees maybe you will have some trouble at the beginning.
∑ Go ahead make posters, go to your friends and tell them to help you in getting new students for you,.. Osensei is with you!!!
∑ Tell us how is it going

Fred Little
06-04-2004, 01:11 PM
Paul --

Without knowing anything in the way of specifics about your situation that might condition my remarks -- and there may well be something -- based on my experience, I would counsel you to think very, very carefully about what you are considering and the long-term costs and benefits.

In brief, if there are already a number of dojo in your town, what do you have to offer as a new addition to the scene? And just as importantly, is your current income high enough that an annual loss for the first five to ten years of operation is no problem?

As a community college instructor, you would be running a beginners' feeder program for other dojo in the area and the few serious students you develop are likely to shift to a dojo with more regular practice with more senior practitioners on the mat than are found in the cc class. That doesn't seem to address the nub of your current disagreement. You will get less, not more, "advanced practice."

If you set up regular classes in another space, who will cover classes when you are sick, or have a deadline project, or have to go out of town on business? Will you have enough depth of teaching staff to run classes six days a week? If so, is that a result of taking a number of people with you when you leave your current dojo?

I could go on and on. The long and the short of it is this: If I were in a situation where I was dissatisfied with my dojo for any reason, I would make multiple visits to every alternative in the area. Whether you are looking for another dojo to join, or you are thinking of opening your own place, it's critical that you are fully aware of the local situation, and if you make a move, it's critical that you be able to simply and honestly answer questions about why you made the move you did.

And at some point while visiting, you might as well speak openly but discreetly with the other instructors in the area about your circumstances and the alternatives you're considering. Aside from not leaving them feeling like you may have visited under false pretenses, one or more of them may give you exactly the kind of information you've asked for here, and more.

My general bottom line is that unless you have a burning need to train in a particular way that won't be satisfied by anything other than opening your own place, you are far better off strengthening an existing dojo than attempting to stand alone.

But that's just my two cents.

Hope this helps,

Fred Little

Sharon Seymour
06-04-2004, 01:30 PM
I strongly second Mr. Little's wise advice. Our dojo is breaking even after 7 years of careful nurturing and strong personal commitment. We are one of 2 schools in our area, each a different Aikido organization, and have gradually built adult and children's programs in a rented space. We undertook months of fundraising projects to raise money for new mats.

From your description, it doesn't seem that you have the time needed to get a business going ... and you will be starting a small business, with all its challenges. Exhaust all other options before undertaking this very demanding task.

Speaking from experience,

Jim Saba
07-30-2004, 05:32 PM
I have been teaching classes at a facility here in Deland Fl for one year. I too have been given some thought to opening school, but I do not have the enrollment for that. So I will have to keep offering the classes at there present location until I am in a better position.

When I decided to start the classes here , I received some advice that was useful from my instructor. He made some good points.
1. Don't use your own money unless you are rich.
2. There is quite a bit of over-head with a facility.
3. You will have to have a good enrollment to maintain the school.
4. Make sure that you have adequate insurance so that someone doesn't get you in legal trouble.

It's good that you have some help. That will make a difference.

My instructor stared classes some years ago and it failed. He started them again later and it seems to be holding its own

People are very difficult to manage and to motivate. So its a constant struggle to get people going and stay that way. People talk a good game , but when it comes to action, well that's a different story. If I had all the people who I have encountered that said that they were interested in the classes IN MY class, I could have enough enrollment to open a school.

Good Luck!

Devon Natario
07-31-2004, 06:06 PM
I am deciding to do the same thing as you are. I started training people in my garage. I have read somewhere this quote, "The Dojo is where your body is." I guess this means you could teach people in your backyard if you want to.

After you have a good base or possible a couple senior students, then go as planned. This way your job may take you out of town, however, you will have some students that can teach for you. Anyways- good luck with your dojo. I hope it all works out.

Jorge Garcia
07-31-2004, 08:32 PM
I "third" what Fred said. It may be that you aren't a good candidate to do this if you have a job that takes you out of town a lot and if you have a wife that isn't "thrilled" about weekend commitments, etc.
We started our program in new YMCA and they bought all the equipment and let me advertise in their publications and sit in their lobby and meet thousands of their members soliciting them for my program. Things have gone great but having said that, I have taught for 5 months without missing a class and I have paid for all the printing, the website, and all the extra stuff that no one thinks about. I also have a wife that has supported me in my Aikido for ten years without a complaint and still, it has been challenging.
You can do whatever you are determined and motivated to do but those are the factors that will come into play not counting the obstacles. It's easier being a student. I am doing this because I came to the end of the road and it was this or stop doing aikido so I chose to teach and I was blessed to have this great situation.
We all wish you the best,

Lyle Laizure
08-01-2004, 05:46 PM
I was given permission to start an affiliated dojo in 1998. At the time I didn't have a space to work out of and it varried drastically. From local colleges, for about 6 months, (which in my opinion required too much red tape) local parks, off and on for about 3 years (my preference though at the mercy of the weather) my apartment for 2 years (very small space 5X10ft). During all of this time I was not insured (dangerous I know) and it was difficult to keep students due to the varried locations and weather situations in the midwest. In Jan. 2004 I obtained a space in a local recreation center. They provided everything I needed to begin. (though I already had a couple of mats) this includes insurance.

All of that being said, I would say that a recreation center or ymca would be the best way to go initially starting out. If you are required to travel though you have to make arrangements for practice while you are away simply because you owe that to your students. This is where,if you open a dojo affiliated with your current sensei would be very handy as you could have senior students visit and teach in your absence.