Nakapan Phugephorn is a real Renaissance man. Not only is he a highly decorated Pedro Sauer black belt who owns and operates the largest and oldest jiu-jitsu academy in DC, he’s also a certified Muay Thai Kru with a professional MMA record. Off the mats and outside the cage, he’s a certified public accountant with an MBA, and Chairman of the Black Belt Business Union, a DC-based organization dedicated to empowering martial arts academy owners with common-sense financial knowledge and the tools to grow their businesses.
I first met Nak on the local jiu-jitsu tournament circuit here in the Washington, DC area, thanks to my friendship with some of his students over at Nak’s very own BETA Academy – so I was surprised to discover that, although he’s trained in the martial arts since childhood, he hasn’t always walked the path of a gym owner.
“Being the son of an immigrant family here, your family has certain expectations of you – so they put a lot of pressure on the school side,” Nak tells me. “I was raised by my grandparents, and I wanted my grandparents to know that I was pursuing something that had some academic merit, and some validity in their eyes, for what they wanted me to achieve – but really, at the same time, I was doing this kind of underground fighting – which is really what MMA was at the time!” He laughs. “I’d come back with a bloody nose and a black eye, and they’d be like, ‘What’s going on?’”
Those bumps and bruises from his early days in combat sports didn’t prevent Nak from fulfilling his grandparents’ dream – he’d go on to spend his early professional years out of college as an accountant with a respectable nine-to-five office job. Unsurprisingly, however, it didn’t take long for Nak to discover that he was miserable spending most of his waking hours in a cubicle.
“I always found opportunities, where I was trying to learn from somebody who was a small business owner – not working for corporate America, necessarily, in that I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into one area – but really trying to learn how to run a business,” he explains. “I never thought I’d open up a martial arts school. That wasn’t at the top of my mind. But as I went through what was, for me, a drudgery at the office, I couldn’t handle it anymore.”
Nak decided to take matters into his own hands, and made himself a promise: “I said, ‘Okay, by the time I’m thirty years old, I want to quit doing this office work, and really focus on martial arts.’”
Of course, back then, in the late nineties and early aughts, MMA and jiu-jitsu weren’t nearly as popular as they are now. “Back then, if you told somebody this dream you had, it was a joke,” says Nak. “It’s like, ‘Are you going to be able to make a living off this? What are you teaching, karate? You going to do that in your off time?’”
Still, Nak remained stubbornly dedicated to his true professional passions. He built entrepreneurial experience through a variety of small businesses that he opened and ran. “I learned a lot about running a business,” he remembers. “And so, I had to kind of leverage that experience to figure out, ‘Okay, how can I take these lessons and apply them to a martial arts school, and try to build it, so that it can be self-sustaining – and also be a career path for people who want it.’”
“When we were starting this whole thing, it really was a dream – even my teachers were doing this part-time,” Nak points out. “They’d be teaching out of a karate school three days a week, four days a week, something like that. Now, it’s really blossomed, because combat sports have become mainstream now. I think more and more people are getting interested, and want to get involved, so our responsibility as martial arts school owners is to introduce them to this idea of martial arts, get them to become lifelong practitioners, and really get them addicted to training – because we know that this thing can have a really positive impact on our lives.”
Of course, not every aspiring martial arts school owner is a certified public accountant, or an MBA degree holder – so how does the average martial artist gain the necessary financial skills to thrive as a business owner? “I think that’s an issue that’s actually not exclusive to jiu-jitsu or the martial arts community – it can be anything,” says Nak. “You could be like, ‘I want to open up a restaurant, and have no idea how to open up a business.’ You might be a great chef, but get screwed over in a terrible business deal and have to close up. It’s anything.”
“So I think the issue is: you are in the business of doing business,” he continues. “Once you hang that sign up, you really have to educate yourself on the language of the business. It’s a complicated question, but really, it comes down to understanding that you are running a business. The biggest thing that helped with me was understanding accounting. Just basic accounting principles, really simple stuff. Because the world of business functions in this language of zeroes and ones, just like computer science. So if you can understand these principles of money in, money out, you’re going to be better off.
“Part of it is just understanding [finance] from a personal standpoint: ‘What is my budget? What do I need to make? What are my expenses, and what do I have left over for savings?’ You’re living that every day. So you need to take those concepts and apply them to the idea of running a business, and begin to understand the rules of the game – and a lot of that is the tax rules, business law – and it’s not super complicated, but you need to be exposed to them, so you can understand how to navigate them.”
Enter Nak’s brainchild: the Black Belt Business Union, an organization that aims to unite martial arts school owners and help them find mutual financial success. “I have a lot of friends in the jiu-jitsu community, I see how things are being done, and I think they could be done differently. I think they could be done in a more professional way, a more productive way, and a more efficient way – especially for the person who is trying to make martial arts their passion.
“The idea was conceived in just bringing a group together – and a lot of this was just friends asking me questions, like ‘Hey, can we do this, can I come to your school and do this or that?’ So we’d walk them through the school, show them how we do different things, different systems, and people are – for lack of a better word – kind of blown away by the things we’re doing. So I thought, ‘You know, maybe I can help more people, instead of just my friends who are coming in. We should open this up a little more.’ Because for every person that we connect with, we get more information. It’s just like a training room – someone comes in with a different skill set, and now the whole room gets better.”
“My attorney friends don’t like the word ‘union,’” Nak admits with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘It’s more of a trade association!’ But I use the word ‘union’ because we’re stuck in this idea of teams and affiliations. A lot of people don’t talk to each other. I think that’s changing – back in the day, if I engaged somebody on another team, people would be like, ‘What are you helping that guy?’”
“There’s this idea that if we’re running a business, and you’re eating my lunch, I won’t have anything left to eat – and I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” says Nak. “I think we’re all just trying to make more food. I wanted to bring more people together, and break down these barriers that we’ve been forced to live with all our lives.”
Much of his work with the Black Belt Business Union was forged in the crucible of the lockdown era during the early COVID-19 days in spring 2020. “[The Black Belt Business Union] really was conceived during the pandemic,” recalls Nak. “Every person that I knew was going through some type of challenge. For business owners, it was a very uncertain time, so I was able to tap into my accounting acumen – and it kind of helped me figure out all these [business assistance] programs that were coming out through legislation. So I called up all my friends, and was like, ‘Okay, let me show you how to get half a million dollars from the government. You won’t even have to pay them back – I can help you get this money.’”
He was inspired, in part, by the examples set by business leaders in other industries: “I reached out to as many people as a I could because I saw that the restaurant union, for example, had representation, and so did transportation – everybody had some sort of voice that was advocating for them. But the martial arts community – even within the broader umbrella of the fitness community – was segregated in that regard. The general fitness community had something, but martial arts had no representation. We had nobody advocating for us. So we were trying to figure out how to keep our business going.”
Nak decided that the answer was strength in numbers, and in a shared community purpose. “I figured out that this was what would be helpful: let’s get all the school members from all across the country together. Let’s connect, and let’s figure out what’s going on where you are, what’s going on with me, and what’s really happening here. So this was also how this idea [for the Black Belt Business Union] came together – the idea that hey, we need to unite, we need to share ideas, and we need to be stronger as an industry.”
While the Black Belt Business Union was born in the DC metropolitan area, Nak has worked to build affiliations and connections throughout the USA, and even some across international borders. The way he sees it, the bigger the community grows, the stronger it’ll be as a whole. “I’m a firm believer that martial arts can connect everybody,” says Nak. “You’ve got this instinctual aggression, or whatever you want to call it – something you need to work out. You can take that, and use martial arts as your canvas for expressing yourself. You understand more about who you are, and can also better connect with other people – and bring this tremendous power to other people.”
To that end, from September 23 to 25, the Black Belt Business Union will be hosting a school owner seminar, designed as an accessible crash course for martial arts gym owners on best practices for business ownership and growth. “It’s going to be a three-day seminar – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” says Nak. “The first day will be focused on marketing and enrollments – how to bring new prospects into the school, how to introduce them to the martial arts, how to walk them through the school, how to get them through their intro class, and making sure that we’re the best ambassadors for martial arts that we can be.
“The second day focuses a lot more on staff training – a lot of the issues with opening up a school is that you wear a lot of hats, and you do a lot of things. And that’s where you’ve got to start, but eventually, you have to figure out what tasks you – the owner – need to focus your attention on, and what other people can do.” Nak laughs. “I’ll clean the bathroom! I think it’s important to clean the bathroom! But I need somebody else to clean the bathroom while I’m negotiating the lease. So the second day is going to be focused on staff training, and staff development. Understanding the value of your time, and really focusing on what matters the most.
“The third day is focused on finances – so, the advice I would give to someone who wants to start a jiu-jitsu business, or a business in general. It’ll give you a basic foundation for finances – particularly from the perspective of running a gym – and we’re also going to talk about different ways to understand tax law from a very simplistic standpoint. You can get very easily overwhelmed [by tax code], but once you understand [the basics], you’re going to see that it’s more empowering than anything. From a basic standpoint, it’s all about how you can minimize your tax liability, and maximize the vehicle of a business that you’ve created for yourself.”
“I want to make sure that we arm our community – the jiu-jitsu community – with these [financial] tools,” Nak emphasizes. “Because no one’s looking out for us, so we need to look out for ourselves.”
Seminar spots aren’t just limited to existing school owners, either – Nak is more than happy to teach his financial skills to relative industry newcomers who might not yet own a business, but want the tools to launch one successfully. “Just like any martial arts school, you’ve got white belts through black belts,” he says with a grin. “For somebody who’s just thinking about starting a school, we want to help you do that, set you up right. If you’re already running a school, flying the plane, and need to fix the plane you’re flying, no problem, we’ve got a lot of things we can do for you. And if you’re a really established gym owner – maybe you’ve got multiple schools, maybe you’ve got a franchise – then we can also talk about different tax strategies and different wealth building strategies to make sure that you can maximize these opportunities.”
What general advice does Nak have for the starry-eyed white or blue belt looking to launch a career in jiu-jitsu? His biggest tip is to get involved at your current academy. “One of the things we have to introduce people to it with Black Belt Business Union is the Black Belt Business Checklist,” he says. “A couple things to think about for business, and also a business method: a path that you can take.”
He likens the path of the aspiring martial arts entrepreneur to the path of an ordinary jiu-jitsu practitioner climbing the ranks from white to black belt: “You’ve got to start small. I think that’s really important. Instead of buying $30,000 worth of mats and signing a five-year lease to start your own academy, ask yourself: ‘Okay, how can I get more involved with my school right now? If that’s something I really want to do, what opportunities do I have? Can I be an intern?’ That’s actually where we get a lot of our best team members [at BETA Academy].”
Nak chuckles. “We call them ‘Shaolin’ – you’ve got to clean the temple, you know? If you’re willing to show up eight hours, ten hours a week, on time, for your shift, and clean the place, then maybe you can start working the front desk, and talking to people about martial arts and answering the phones. Next thing: maybe you can start teaching people on their first day – go through our instructor training program, and walk people through their first day. Now, you start assisting at classes. Now, you start teaching private lessons. Now, you start leading group classes. After that, you start coordinating the curriculums. Then you start running meetings for more junior instructors. There is a path, and I think that for the last fifteen years at BETA Academy, we’ve kind of grown to understand that path, and we can help people cut through the kind of mistakes we’ve made in the past.”
“If anybody wants to get involved in the jiu-jitsu industry, ask yourself first how you can get more involved at your own school,” Nak emphasizes. “And as you start to walk this path, you’re going to see more and more of what everybody begins to deal with. So as you come up, and take on more responsibilities, you start to get a window into all these tasks, challenges, and obstacles. So running an enterprise – be it a jiu-jitsu school, or another business – can be very stressful. It can be very challenging. But it can also be very rewarding. As long as you see the path, understand where you want to go, and make the adjustments as you go along.”
“I think that martial arts is an amazing power,” says Nak. “And we want to connect more people to it. And if you don’t do it already, I hope you go sign up at your local school. And if you’re a school owner already, I hope you connect more people to it, and that you represent it the best way you can. Just like with anything, there’s a light side and a dark side, and you want to represent the light. And if you need help connecting to more people, growing your school and your enterprise, definitely connect with us at the Black Belt Business Union – we’d love to help spread this wonderful, wonderful art.”
If you’d like a spot in the Black Belt Business Union’s school owner seminar this week from September 23 to 25, you still have time to sign up here.
To learn more about the Black Belt Business Union, follow them on Instagram or explore the website.
To learn more about Nakapan Phungephorn, follow him on Instagram and check out BETA Academy.
This story is the first installment in the Grappler’s Career Corner, a series of informal interviews at the Jiu-Jitsu Times offering insights and advice on career development in martial arts and combat sports – based on the experiences of successful professionals in the industry.
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