If you aspire to make a living off jiu-jitsu – whether as a competitor, gym owner, or some other stripe of entrepreneur – and don’t know who Meg He is, you should. A highly successful CEO and investor, she’s one of the minds behind revolutionary capsule clothing brand Aday and a board member for LilyAna Naturals, one of the largest independent skincare brands on Amazon. She also happens to be the teammate and partner of elite black belt Margot Ciccarelli, as well as a successful jiu-jitsu competitor in her own right. Now, Meg applies her proven business chops to advising both professional grapplers and hobbyists on smart ways to make a sustainable living in the niche – but growing – jiu-jitsu industry.
According to Meg, she began taking a more active interest in the business side of the sport upon noticing a troubling pattern of disconnect between the roles of “business owner” and “jiu-jitsu person” among gym owners, coaches, and athletes. In particular, while appalled by the widespread sexual misconduct scandals that began coming to light in the summer of 2020 throughout the jiu-jitsu community, Meg, as an experienced CEO herself, had an additional takeaway: “Jiu-jitsu could just be better-run,” she tells me bluntly.
The scandals – and the myriad ways she saw them mishandled – drove home an issue she had long observed: most jiu-jitsu athletes, coaches, and gym owners simply had no idea how to effectively manage a business enterprise. After all, effective business ownership is a multifaceted skillset in its own right, necessitating an understanding of marketing, finance, and customer relationships that typically demands significant time and effort to master.
Troubled by the abuses of power she witnessed, Meg wanted to do something that would amount to a net positive for the grappling community. “I realized, ‘Okay, [me posting about these issues so often] is becoming too much, but what else can I do for jiu-jitsu? How do I engage with something less threatening [to my own safety], but still do something positive for jiu-jitsu?”
That “something positive” turned out to be fairly simple, but deeply impactful: educating athletes on basic business skills. “When I took a step back, I realized that one thing that had been a constant struggle in my relationship with Margot was that it seemed as if she had a very bare bones knowledge of finance.” says Meg. Prior to meeting Margot, Meg – who had a strong foundational understanding of good spending habits, even outside of her professional career in venture capital – simply assumed that everyone understood the basics of day-to-day budgeting. Surely, she thought, everyone knew that they were supposed to spend less than they earned. Surely, that much was common knowledge.
Not as common as you might think. Meg grew to realize during the first two years of her relationship with Margot that personal finance and business savvy was something of a “black hole” for her partner. “In our relationship, I’d try to share [knowledge] like how to create a budget, and how to negotiate a contract. I think there have been a number of contracts she has signed, which were very punitive to her,” says Meg. “And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘Maybe I could do this for everyone else, and not just for Margot.’”
In mid-January, a car crash temporarily took Meg out of training. Frustrated by her time off the mats, Meg poured her efforts into social media. “I decided, ‘I’m just going to make reels instead,’ so that’s how I started making reels,” says Meg, with an impish grin.
Meg’s library of Instagram reels and general social media content provide her audience with a quick, accessible education on basic business principles. “The topics I cover are just all the topics I talk to Margot about, in terms of how she could make more money as a black belt,” Meg explains. “And I just share them with everyone.”
“I got messages where people would tell me that [what I posted] was life-changing,” she adds – which meant a lot to her, given her quest to affect positive change in a sport she loves.
It helps that a lot of her advice is inspired by real-life experience. “One of my reels was literally just focused on the idea of telling people how much your rates are [as an instructor], and making it easier for people to book you,” says Meg.
The reason behind the reel? Before she and Margot got together as a romantic pair – back when Margot was still just a purple belt Meg admired – Meg had booked a private with Margot. “Our first private was supposed to be one hour, and it wound up being like three hours, and then she charged me for one hour, so I was really confused.” Meg laughs. “I wondered, ‘Is she just trying to flirt with me?’ I remember trying to send her money, and she told me, ‘Oh, you can just send it for one hour,’ and I thought to myself, ‘How is this going to make sense for any kind of business model? Or is she just giving me a super discounted rate because she likes me?’”
“I really do believe that even if you do want to flirt with someone, and give them a super discount rate or whatever, you still have to charge a set amount – you can’t just make three hours into one hour,” says Meg. “You have to be really explicit with people, and be upfront about how much things cost, so you can set their expectations. And I would say that my biggest problem with jiu-jitsu business practices in general is that people make a lot of assumptions. And I think assumptions are just very bad for people in general.
“In many cases with some of Margot’s contracts, it’s been assumed, ‘Oh, well, we don’t really need a contract, because this is how it’s done in jiu jitsu.’ And, you know, two months later, it turns out, ‘Well, clearly, that’s not how it’s actually done, because you guys didn’t actually talk about this thing, and now you’re really upset.’ So now we’re very, very conversant about everything that she signs, about what her needs are, what she actually means, what the other side needs – and I think that’s just the way that people have to do things.”
In a sense, Meg’s playing the role that a sports agent or manager would, in a more mainstream sport – though that isn’t necessarily where her own desires lie. She does it, more than anything else, out of necessity. Sleek, professional sports management teams are the exception, rather than the norm, for most full-time jiu-jitsu athletes – which leaves the burden on the athletes to manage their own careers, or at least consult with someone who can teach them how. It’s led Meg to reach out to promising athletes on Instagram, and offer advice that often grants tremendous boons in their careers.
“I don’t want to be anyone’s agent,” Meg clarifies. “But naturally, that’s kind of the next step – I end up giving [athletes] media training, and help deal with sponsorships, and teach them some social media skills.”
“I don’t know if I’d enjoy it [as a job] – I don’t like being Margot’s manager!” she adds with a laugh. “I just don’t want her to get screwed over. And honestly, the thing that’s most upsetting for me – because I’m a businessperson – is that if I see something where I’m getting screwed over, I’ll fight for it, I’ll lawyer up and such, but often with grapplers, they don’t expect good things to happen. They’re used to being taken advantage of.”
Meg can recount at least one instance where Margot lost out on literally thousands – and possibly tens of thousands – of dollars. “She was just really sad,” Meg remembers. “And what she said was, ‘This is just what happens, and this is just how it goes.’ And it just made me really sad that there wasn’t anyone to really fight for the athletes.”
“I’m very sure that this sort of thing is happening across industries, in all sorts of areas,” says Meg. “And I’m also sure that in some cases, it’s not even intentional. It’s just that, often on the other side of the jiu-jitsu business – whether it’s a gi brand, or an instructional website – they’re not good businesspeople either. So they’re also not great with money, and as a result, it gets passed on to the athlete – but the athlete is the one who gets screwed over the most.”
Meg also has thoughts on other players in the industry – specifically, non-professional athletes in jiu-jitsu looking for other ways to make a living in the sport. Gym ownership, in her opinion, offers the most stable and profitable option – though that too comes with its share of challenges. “Someone should create a better education site, or resources, for understanding how to make really profitable gyms,” says Meg. “I see Keenan [Cornelius] doing a little bit of this more recently.”
The profits in most gyms, according to Meg, are built on white belts, blue belts, and kids’ programs. “You don’t make much money off the advanced belts – it’s really about how many junior belts and kids’ program signups you get in. And some of the smartest business models I’ve seen are where they have a hundred or two hundred kids, and then maybe only fifty adults – and I can tell that’s a profitable gym. And that’s not something that anybody really talks about – even as a brown belt or black belt, you don’t really learn how to grow a thriving kids’ program. And I think the biggest gap here is in how to grow thriving kids’ and juniors’ programs, and then how you build a sales funnel, and really strong recurring pipeline, and how to market to people to really get them in the door.
“I think most gym owners who have created thriving businesses have gotten online resources through other types of gyms and academies – like MasterClass, etcetera – which have been built out for them, in other sports, not so much in jiu-jitsu. But I believe that there’s a lot of money here, because it’s easier to monetize off a gym than to monetize off individual people.”
You don’t necessarily have to be an incredible black belt – or even a gym owner – to make money off jiu-jitsu either. “I see a lot of blue belts and purple belts who have gotten sponsorships because they’re like, ‘I get it, I’m a great content creator, and I’m really funny, and I might even be better at that than I am at jiu-jitsu, but that’s how I’m going to create a platform for myself, and make money through it.’ And now they make at least a few hundred, if not thousands of dollars per month, just from creating content and sponsorship.”
The way Meg see it, building a career in jiu-jitsu – whether you’re an elite athlete, an aspiring gym owner, or a social media maven – is all about understanding your own skillset. She points out, for example, that while some students may love flocking to gyms associated with big name professional athletes, a fancy competitive resume is not a requirement for a successful gym owner. “One thing to keep in mind is that competitive clout is one thing, but branding is another,” explains Meg. “Branding is about what the academy aesthetics look like, and how that presents visually, the vibes, stuff like that.”
“A lot of great gyms actually have horrible branding,” she says, frankly honest. “Because it’s not really cared about – but once you unite those two things, great gyms and good branding, then you unlock so many new revenues, like merchandise, and people who want to drop in just because they like the way the place looks, and how the looks align with how the gym feels.”
“What you win [as a competitor] is not necessarily as important as how you market yourself,” she adds. Marketing and branding aren’t just limited to pure aesthetics, either – Meg knows of a female-owned jiu-jitsu gym in Chicago, for example, that often sees more women training on the mats than men, and is known for being a friendly and inviting space for nonbinary athletes and queer folks. “I said to [the gym owner], that should be what the branding is,” says Meg. “It’s not the sole point of what makes her different – but it is a really important selling point, and being able to explain what makes your gym different, versus another gym, is incredibly important.”
“It’s really just a thoughtfulness thing,” she adds. “Anybody can do that. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t even have to be a really good black belt. If you can explain what makes you different, that’s very powerful.”
If you’re an aspiring jiu-jitsu professional interested in learning more business skills from Meg He, check out the resources on her Snipfeed.
To purchase a Masterclass on Personal Branding taught by Meg, click here.
To purchase a Masterclass on Negotiation taught by Meg, click here.
For additional tips, tricks, and insights on applying good business sense to a career in the jiu-jitsu industry, check out Meg’s Financial Jiu-Jitsu course on BJJ Mental Models Premium.
To keep up with general news and life updates, follow her on Instagram.
This story is the second installment in the Grappler’s Career Corner, a series of informal interviews at the Jiu-Jitsu Times offering insights and advice on building a career in martial arts and combat sports – based on the experiences of successful professionals in the industry.
If you’d like to share questions or thoughts, reach out to us on Instagram.
Previous Installments in the Grappler’s Career Corner: