While these days, jiu-jitsu podcasts may seem like a dime a dozen, a few have skyrocketed in popularity in the past few years, retaining a loyal audience of listeners. Among these is Steve Kwan’s BJJ Mental Models, which focuses on the conceptual side of jiu-jitsu. In its five-year tenure, the podcast has hosted a variety of guests, from highly decorated black belt competitors, to experts on psychology, medicine, and more.
“We’ve always been pretty deliberate about our goals – the main change is just that as we grew, and we got more listeners, and we got more feedback from the community as to what they wanted to hear, we kind of pivoted and changed to adapt to that,” Steve tells me. “But the vision has always been the same from day one.
“Things have changed a lot since then – it’s gone from being just a hobby to being something that takes a lot more time to run, and is really a full-fledged product. We also have a wider and more diverse array of guests now, and for our premium content, we go a lot deeper than we did originally in the public podcast.”
Today, BJJ Mental Models has grown so large and so successful that Steve, by his own admission, could make the podcast his sole source of income if he wanted to. For the moment, though, he’s happy to keep his day job, where he works for a Vancouver-based gaming company.
“[Going full-time with the podcast] could be done – and I don’t want to rule it out by any means,” says Steve. “It all comes down to growth. If this thing ever got to the point where it was such a moneymaker that I could justify [quitting my day job], then I would consider that. But the reality is that I love my day job, and I also love the podcast, and I don’t want to give up either of them.”
Keeping his day job instead of going full-time with the podcast has also enabled Steve to build a team around himself – coaches and marketers and designers and jiu-jitsu experts who can grow the BJJ Mental Models brand – while he primarily plays the role of the facilitator. Still, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of becoming a full-time podcaster down the line if the money made sense.
While today, BJJ Mental Models is the gold standard for podcasts in the jiu-jitsu space, the origin story behind the podcast is actually quite humble. Like the plethora of other jiu-jitsu podcasts out there, this one began out of sheer love for the sport – along with the desire to talk about it with like-minded enthusiasts.
“BJJ Mental Models was created by myself and my brother Matt – we’re both black belts with different lineages, and different training goals, where Matt’s a gym owner and a competitor, whereas I’ve always just done jiu-jitsu for fun, as a hobbyist,” explains Steve.
“But being brothers, we talk about jiu-jitsu a lot, and we started to realize from our conversations that despite the fact that we have very different journeys, some of the ways we learn, and a lot of the best practices we’ve adopted are kind of the same – including things I’ve pulled in from my day job, things that I learned at work, some of those decision-making tactics turn out to be quite relevant to jiu-jitsu.”
That sparked the idea for the podcast: the notion of commonality across multiple fields. It didn’t take Steve long to realize that jiu-jitsu could be approached as a multidisciplinary practice, informed not just by athletes and martial artists, but also experts in countless other disciplines.
“A lot of [our success] has stemmed from a willingness to try new things, to stand out and be different,” he tells me.
That willingness to push boundaries and think outside the box is also produced in a very audience-focused package. “We put a lot of thought into how we can look at this thing as a product, and how we can deliver the most value, and the most education, to the people who listen,” says Steve. “Whereas I think for a lot of other podcasts, it’s kind of a ‘hobby cast,’ where they just grab a guest and have an unstructured conversation for an hour. We’re very intentional about the content that we make and the guests that we’ve had on, and I think that’s helped us stand out for sure.”
BJJ Mental Models first began seeing real revenue during the early pandemic era in 2020, when much of the jiu-jitsu world was plagued by fear and uncertainty. Though Steve’s professional career doesn’t lie in grappling, he too was troubled by where the sport was headed – which motivated him to take his podcast to the next level.
For the first time, he and his brother decided to reach out to their audience and see what happened if they tried monetizing their platform. To Steve’s surprise and gratitude, he discovered that listeners were quite happy to pay for his product.
“That was kind of the impetus that told me [the podcast] had grown beyond just being a hobby,” Steve remembers. “It’s been refreshing that people are willing to pay for it because that can fund the content better, we can bring on better coaches, we can pay for better editors and production, and that’s allowed us to really look at this as a product we can sell.”
“I think that’s kind of one of the differences between what we do and what a lot of other podcasters do in this space,” he adds. “We take this just as seriously as people making an instructional would.”
One of BJJ Mental Models’ distinguishing features is that – unlike most other profitable podcasts – Steve doesn’t rely on advertisers or sponsors for its income. “When you monetize a podcast, there’s a lot of different ways you can do it – and the classical way is that you run advertisements and you get sponsorships,” he explains. “But when we looked at the numbers there, I found that there just wasn’t enough return going for things like basic advertisements or sponsorships. It just wasn’t the best way to monetize.”
“We’ve always wanted to sell direct-to-consumer, and to make products directly for the consumer,” he elaborates. “And the nice thing about selling directly to consumers is that we don’t have any other audience to satisfy. I don’t have to worry about things like sponsorship reads, or diluting the quality of our product to satisfy advertisers. For us, everything we do comes at the behest of our community.”
Ultimately, Steve’s focus and passion is on selling high-quality educational material to the jiu-jitsu community at large. Over the years, the BJJ Mental Models team has experimented with a few different ways to do that – but where they have settled is on the creation of BJJ Mental Models Premium.
The pitch is pretty simple: “Basically, BJJ Mental Models Premium is a subscription service with three pieces: content, coaching, community,” Steve tells me.
“On the content front, we try to find really fascinating athletes and experts, and give them a much larger and deeper forum to share their information. If you get someone on a podcast for an hour, you can get a sampler of their ideas, but you can’t really dig in – whereas if you have a series of discussions, maybe five to ten hours, you can start actually really digging into their philosophy, and almost course-like structure can emerge for their knowledge.”
As if that wasn’t enough to tempt paying subscribers, BJJ Mental Models Premium also provides a virtual coaching service. Its coaching team includes the likes of Brianna Ste-Marie, Margot Ciccarelli, and more. Premium subscribers can connect directly with these world-class athletes, who provide bespoke feedback and analysis of subscribers’ BJJ video footage.
“That’s a massive benefit that no other service can provide: connecting you with some of the best coaches in the world for just a very marginal fee,” Steve points out.
The third factor, community, is one that’s been painstakingly constructed. “We’ve been very deliberate about building our community,” says Steve. “Keeping out toxicity, keeping it supportive, and keeping it productive. The one thing that I always hear people say is that when they’re in our private community, it is just worlds apart from going to other social media places and trying to get information. So that, to us, has become one of the main value-adds.”
So what’s the most important piece of wisdom for aspiring jiu-jitsu podcasters hoping to turn their platform into their profession? According to Steve, doing his gig comes down to cultivating sustainability. After all, running a podcast on a scale that turns a true profit is hard work – which means that podcasters need to make sure that they’re actually seeing returns that will make their efforts worth it, even when the going gets rough.
“All I would say to anyone else who wants to do this – whether it’s a podcast, or really, any business in the jiu-jitsu space, it’s to make sure that you have a model where you can actually make real money,” he explains. “Not a few bucks; real money. Money you could use to feed your family. If you’re just making enough money to pay for your coffee, you’re not going to be motivated to do this long term, and making any product is all about long term motivation.
“You need to be motivated to do this for five, ten, fifteen years, and being properly compensated for that is the best motivation you can get.”
Want to give BJJ Mental Models a listen? Find the full library of publicly available episodes on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, and Amazon Music – or directly on your browser.
Ready to take things to the next level? Consider subscribing to Premium.
To keep up with BJJ Mental Models news, follow the podcast on Instagram.
This story is the sixth 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:
Meet Sebastian Brosche, Creator of Yoga for BJJ
Meet Fabiano Scherner, Owner of American Top Team Portland
Meet Nick “Chewjitsu” Albin, YouTuber, BJJ Coach, and Gym Owner
Meet Meg He, CEO, Investor, and Competitive Jiu-Jitsu Athlete
Meet Nakapan Phungephorn, Chairman of the Black Belt Business Union