Growing a Business


Professor Christopher N. Geary with Shihan Shawn M. Steiner.During the night of June 25, 2005, I had a dream about my stepdad, Eric Barntsen. In my dream he looked about the same as he does today, with the same big, solid build, but he was mumbling and trembling. I thought it was because of his MS. He was trying to say something to me but I couldn't make out the words. We both felt frustrated, but the frustration soon disappeared when we realized that we didn't have to communicate through words. Because of the love, time, and experiences (good and bad) that we had shared over the years, just being together made everything all right. This feeling went deeper than words could explain. I was definitely getting the impression that he was dying, and the last thing that I remember was putting my arms around him and saying, "I don't know what I'll do if you leave me."

This dream made me think about the people who have played important roles in my life. I believe that eventually we all have to find our own inner peace and our safety net. No man achieves greatness alone, because each one of us is influenced by the people who have been part of our lives, just as our actions affect the lives of others. I have made many mistakes over the years, but I believe they have made me a better teacher because I am able to teach my students what not to do. Making mistakes throughout the years has definitely made me a much stronger, more understanding, and more compassionate person. Recognizing my mistakes has allowed me to break free of the past and move forward to achieve my highest potential. In fact, I would not be the kind of man that I am today if there had not been any detours along the way. I would have not become one of the highest ranking legitimate martial arts masters in the world at such a young age if it were not for making the mistakes that I have made. The things that we do in our lives, good and bad, leave permanent impressions on us, and we must come to realize what we are about and we want to become. There is a big difference between greed and success, and the line between the two has helped me develop the moral code that I try to live by today.

Looking back at the years from 1995 to 1998, I remember that this was a time of rapid growth for my school and for me as a martial arts instructor and business owner. My student count got up to about 130, but I found that many of the people who were on the class schedule did not come to class or pay their tuition. Learning how to handle the financial side of things was an important part of my development. I think many of the students who were coming to me wanted a handout. Their attitude was, "I'm coming to class and paying my bill every month, so how come I'm not getting promoted?" or "I've been here for a year, so why am I not a black belt yet? You just want my money." I have never believed that promotions should come automatically because someone has put in time or paid a certain amount of money. I promote students when they are ready to be promoted, and just showing up for class doesn't mean that a student has been learning and practicing and deserves to be promoted.

I think that in the early days of American martial arts schools in the United States, people like the late Grandmaster Ed Parker created a belt ranking system with many belts and stripes as a way to keep students motivated to develop their skills. The ultimate goal in the martial arts for most people is getting their black belt. Having the different colored belts below first-degree black belt just breaks the process of obtaining that goal into smaller pieces so students can measure their progress and stay motivated along the way. That's how it worked for me. The belt ranking system also strengthens the long-term stability of the school. When students stay motivated, they keep coming to class and paying their tuition, which allows the school to remain open for all who are willing to go the distance.

As the owner of a business, I found that advertising was the hardest thing for me to deal with. The advertising sales reps would talk to me about the advantages of making a commitment to a long-term ad contract to keep my name in front of the public, but I noticed that these same reps never seemed to keep their jobs for long. So much for commitment! Advertising sometimes brought in new students, but when people found out there was work involved they would leave and I would be stuck with the advertising bill and no income from the student to pay for it. To this day I really don't do much advertising beyond phone book ads and web sites, because ads don't seem to attract students who are willing to make a long-term commitment to martial arts training.

In the spring of 1996 I decided to straighten out my financial situation and start fresh. I made the decision to continue teaching but also to file for bankruptcy to write off all of the bad business debt and personal debt that had carried over from my time in the Marine Corps. I had a lot of bills to deal with and nobody seemed to care. Many of my students seemed to drop in and out instead of making a commitment to their training, and the parents of my younger students did not seem to be teaching their kids the value of working hard to achieve goals.

As an example of this lack of serious purpose, I remember something that happened during the time when I was moving my classes from the basement of the house on Pine Street to my first rented space at 30th & Harney. Because I was making this big move and taking on new responsibilities as a business owner, I decided to go to memberships to give the school more stability. (I had been talking with Professor Cerio about ways to strengthen my school, and I believe this was one of the recommendations he gave me, based on his 40 years of martial arts experience.) I passed out membership agreements to all of my students with the understanding that the person who paid the tuition would review and sign the membership agreement. Two of my students had attorneys for parents, and these people actually had their kids sign the membership agreement and bring it back to me. They must have thought that I was stupid. I couldn't believe that they were not teaching their children good ethics at an early age.

After making the decision to start a membership program at my school, I remember calling some attorneys and asking how to get membership agreements made up. I learned that it would be expensive to create a new format, and of course there were no promises, so I ended up using a format that was almost identical to the membership agreement used by the Park Avenue Health Club down the street. I just inserted my name and the school's name. What I didn't realize was that the health club and my school operated on different systems. Health clubs typically have huge dropout rates, but it doesn't matter because they collect most of their money upfront in the form of down payments and initiation fees. They count on having a huge volume of incoming members, and they didn't need to worry about collecting money that people owed them. By contrast, the strength and stability of my school depended on people fulfilling their membership agreements. When I went to court to collect money for delinquent memberships so I could pay the bills for my school, the judge told me that my membership agreement was pretty much worthless. I ended up throwing all the contracts into the dumpster next to my building and drawing up new, lengthier contracts that would hold up in court. I remember thinking that when people signed up from that point on, they would make their monthly payments. It was tough to balance my dual roles as martial arts instructor and business owner, but I was learning to do what was needed to provide long-term stability for my school.

In 1998, the Year of the Tiger, the second Christopher N. Geary's Shaolin Kempo Karate School opened. I had thought about opening a second school for some time. I remember sitting at a Godfather's Pizza in Omaha one night and looking at the brightly lit signs of businesses like McDonald's scattered throughout the neighborhood. I was thinking how great it would be to have a lot of schools throughout Omaha and beyond. From that moment onward, my new mission was to open a second location.

In choosing the right person to run the second school, I was keeping my eye on one individual who had been a student of mine for a couple of years. He had come into the school on the referral of two of his friends who were in the Air Force. This student was a good martial artist and he had not been taught by anyone else. As I remember, he was also one of the first students that I had double tested and promoted to the rank of orange belt (seventh kyu), something that happened rarely. I remember him saying when he had first come into the school to sign up that he was interested in this art because he had seen a Kenpo movie called "The Perfect Weapon" starring Jeff Speakman. From time to time I would tell him, "You should open up a school. I think it would be something that you would really like to do." He was about ready to get out of the Air Force and was interested in opening his own school, despite the fact that some of his friends, including his girlfriend, had told him that it would be too much work and responsibility to open a martial arts school. (Also, I got the feeling that they didn't like me much.) When it was time to sign the License Agreement, my student had asked his girlfriend to be by his side as a sign of support, but everybody had to wait around about 45 minutes until she finally showed up. He signed the agreement, and Shawn M. Steiner became my first black belt and the first student to receive the title of Sensei. (Seven years later, in 2005, he would be the first person I had ever promoted to Shihan.)

After Shihan Steiner's school opened in the fall of 1998, it became much easier to sell the license agreement and have others make the commitment to open a school. A number of people were eager to jump on the bandwagon and go through the instructor's training program that I developed. They were willing to pay for the training, but they didn't have the type of commitment that Shihan Steiner did. I got the feeling that they were mainly interested in getting rich quick instead of investing time and effort in building a school.

I had a hard time understanding this type of attitude. After all, I had started with nothing and built a school from the ground up. These people had steady incomes and savings accounts, yet they couldn't make a commitment and follow through with it. Opening a business is a big step that takes courage and vision, and Shihan Steiner has shown that he has everything it takes to be successful. The last time I checked, in the spring of 2005, he had more than 100 students in his school at 13808 W. Maple Road, #116. In March 2006 he moved his school to a larger location about a half block north at 3908 North 138th Street. Shihan Steiner is a very honorable man who does exactly what he says he will do and finishes what he starts. He's been by my side over the years, through good times and bad. I'm very proud of him, and in some ways he has become the man that I wish I could be. In recognition for his high integrity and outstanding achievements, I made him the Vice President of my corporation.

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