Throughout this article series exploring the regional scene of Northern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, I’ve looked at schools that were in some way “pioneers.” That is to say, they were the first schools, or the first schools of their kind in their area. But what’s it like to enter a market chock full of well established academies? I had an opportunity to chat with John Lawrence of Hurricane Jiu Jitsu, perhaps the newest academy in Northeastern Ohio.
I think an important question to ask someone like John who has built something from nothing is what struggles were encountered along the way of starting his own school?
“From a business standpoint, the hardest part was getting through the first several months. Class sizes were small, my Google advertising campaign wasn’t yet running, and the beginning seemed very slow. Psychologically it was taxing, but the fear of failing drove me to work hard every day. Eventually momentum took over, and the team grew into what it is today. Physically, keeping the training/instructing balance was a new challenge; I’ve never been totally in charge of running a school. Pair that with the grind of constant competition preparation, and there’s a real balance that needs to be struck. I roll with my students everyday, do strength and conditioning three times per week, and watch my kids every day.”
John founded his gym in 2014, making Hurricane by far the newest jiu jitsu academy in this market. With dozens of existing academies who have loyal customer bases, I was curious to learn about John’s experience interacting with other gyms.
“The little interaction I’ve had with other schools in the area has been positive. One academy in particular allowed me to train there while I was building my school. I’ve had invitations to train at several other gyms. The only minor resistance I’ve ever encountered is students at a particular school being discouraged from cross training at my school, and essentially all other schools. I’ve always been very open about the importance of cross training at other schools, and I will always encourage my students to do so.”
One would expect a myriad of difficulties and challenges to arise, but John has been fortunate.
“Man, between you and me, it’s been pretty ******* easy. I have put insane hours into my school. I’ve personally painted, built subfloor, installed laminate, built my website, designed my merch, you name it. But it is my passion, and it’s fun. So maybe it only feels easy. If you put the hours in and you have the qualifications, you can make it happen. The number one challenge I’ve faced by far is continuing to compete at a professional (adult black belt) level while running a school.”
John’s long term goals for his academy are very much in line with everything t hat he is doing.
“My goal is pretty simple. I want to keep a small boutique feel to my school. I want to build a team of moderate size and tremendous technical ability. Those who wish to compete will be given the proper facility and preparation to do so. Those who train more casually will always have a varied class schedule to pick from. In 5 years I would like to have roughly 80 memberships, continue to improve the facility, and win titles personally, individually, and as a team.”
In closing, John had these thoughts to share with us.
“My school is unique because I reject the traditional hierarchy of Brazilian jiu jitsu. I am not ‘the professor’ high on a pedestal above the students. I am on the mats sweating and bleeding with my students every day. When I show technique, it is not a list of irrefutable steps. It is open to improvement and interpretation. The mat is our laboratory, and my higher ranks and I are constantly looking for the next breakthrough detail.”
John Lawrence has done an excellent job breaking into a well established and competitive market and making a name for himself. It will be very interesting to see what the future holds for him and his students.