How A Brooklyn Martial Arts School Is Marketing Their Way To Profits and Happy Customers

I had the honor of chatting with Carmen Sognonvi (co-owner Urban Dojo) how she took control of their marketing and is growing sales and delighting customers.

Watch our Google Hangout, below, and learn how YOU can grow your business and leverage online and offline sales and marketing best practices for amazing success!

In our discussion we talk about:

  • How Urban Dojo came to close to moving our business 10 blocks away – and why had they done so, it would have been a disastrous mistake
  • How to charge a premium rate for your product or service without being afraid of losing business
  • Why marketing isn’t about getting your contact info out to your prospects, but rather, getting their contact info into your database
  • How to take control of your business instead of hoping for the phone to ring
(see more interviews of master marketers in our Infusionsoft marketing series here)

Check out Carmen’s blog, full of marketing tips here –

Join our discussion below, or here –

Read the transcript of our conversation Below (thanks Carmen!)

[Brooklyn Karate School Thrives using Tech and Marketing]


Speakers:  Ramon Ray and Carmen Sognonvi


Ramon:  I’m Ramon Ray, a small business evangelist at InfusionSoft, technology evangelist at, and a few other things. I’m happy to talk to my friend and an entrepreneur, a business owner, a mom and a karate person and a Brooklynite and I can go on and on, Carmen. So how are you and welcome to the discussion with me today, thanks.


Carmen:  I’m great, thanks for having me.


Ramon:  You’re welcome. So Carmen, tell us a little bit about yourself personally, whatever you want to let us know about, but specifically about your business. What you do and how it’s running and just a little overview for people who don’t understand exactly what a Brooklyn Dojo or karate school is and I could be getting the words wrong, set us straight on exactly what you are and what you do.


Carmen:  Sure. My husband and I run Urban Martial Arts, which is a martial arts school inBrooklyn,New York. We have classes for kids and then also for adults, so for kids, we do kids karate classes and then for adults we do fitness kick boxing. On top of that, we also have a karate after school program where basically we pick up kids from school, they get daily karate classes with us, they have time to work on their homework, their parents pick them up at 6:00 and then we also do a karate summer camp, which really is a great outlet, again for working families, who really want to make sure that their kids are staying active and having fun all summer long.


Ramon:  Awesome. Carmen, why did you not start a shoe sign business, a pizza shop, why didn’t you start an accounting center, a day care center, any of the billion other things that you could? What’s the story behind you and your husband kind of starting this business? What’s the short story of it, why that business?


Carmen:  Sure. My husband, Serge, he had been studying martial arts for probably like 20 years. He had been doing it ever since he was 10 years old. He really drifted away from training when he got into the working world, he was working a corporate job, both of us were doing that. Basically one night he got into a really bad car accident and the car was totaled. He, amazingly enough, walked away without a single scratch and it was really one of those classic carpe diem moments where it made you rethink your whole life. We realized we were really kind of—it felt like we were on this hamster wheel. We were working really hard, both of us had full-time jobs and had various side hustles going on at the same time, working like 80, 100-hour weeks, but it didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere.


He made a decision to start training again in martial arts and six months later we signed the lease on the space so it all kind of came together pretty quickly after that day.


Ramon:  Good for you. Carmen, would you say you guys are normal? Have you had like challenges and things that have seemed to want to stop you or has it all been just perfect and rose petals? Which one has it been and describe either path and how it’s been for you.


Carmen:  We’ve never had any challenges, Ramon. [Laughs]


No, of course, we’ve definitely had challenges.


Ramon:  Talk about just one or two of them, some things you can think about that have been challenging that you can share and maybe how you’ve overcome them. Let’s talk about that.


Carmen:  I think that one challenge we had pretty early on is we—and I think this is common to a lot of small business owners, is you get expansion fever. Things are going well and you think, “Oh man, we really need more space because our classes are filling up.” So we really got into this expansion fever mode, very much actually encouraged by one of our business coaches that we were working with at the time. We came very close to moving from our current space into this much larger space and it was a beautiful space, about double the size, beautiful loft ceilings and we got so excited about moving there and we came really close to actually doing the paperwork and right before we did that we decided, “Okay, let’s actually take a step back, let’s drive around that area at night and see what it’s like, in the evening when a lot of our walk-in traffic comes or people will be taking classes.” We realized that this area was completely deserted. The reason it was such a beautiful space is because it was kind of an industrial area, there were a lot of warehouses and this was an empty warehouse space. It would’ve been a beautiful space to our school, but we realized that had we moved there, it would’ve been a disaster. We would’ve lost all our students, we’d get no foot traffic. We decided to stay put and fortunately a couple years down the road an opportunity opened up for us to actually take over the space next door, which was a medical office that actually went out of business. We took over that space next door two years ago, knocked down the wall, more than doubled our space and that’s where we’re at.


I always thank our lucky stars that we didn’t do that expansion, because it would’ve been a disaster.


Ramon:  Have you learned anything from that? I mean, beyond looking for retail space, did that teach you anything? I mean, what comes to mind for me is maybe slow down, wait? But then again, you don’t want to be gun shy and miss an opportunity. Just one or two more minutes about that, have you learned anything in general about that or advice for others who have that same issue. I mean, I have it myself, I work for InfusionSoft, the sales and marketing CRM software company, but I have my own business and things, you know, and sometimes I go through the same issue, maybe I should spend that $5,000 or for some people it could be $50,000 or $500,000 to grow. Any other things you’ve learned from there or guidance you have for us?


Carmen:  I think that one thing that’s really important is to be aware of the unique dynamics of your market and your business. The reason I say that is because this particular coach we’re working with at the time and we love him, we’re still really good friends, but he was based in Maryland in a very suburban area and he had very little understanding of the urban market that we were in, so we’re in Brooklyn, it’s extremely populated and simple things like in Brooklyn, if you move 10 blocks away from where you are, a lot of people aren’t going to go with you, like to them that’s almost like a totally different neighborhood.


Ramon:  And the neighborhood’s different, I grew up inBrooklyn. That could be another thing, too, 10 blocks inBrooklyn, you could be a whole ‘nother type of neighborhood, whole ethnicity different, religious, many factors.


Carmen:  Absolutely. Which was exactly what came in in the space we were talking about. I think it’s important to always, we really have benefited a lot from the advice of mentors and that helped us cut our learning curve, but I think you always want to make sure that you are taking their advice but keeping in mind that they may not 100% grasp the unique dynamics of where you’re at physically, geographically, and then maybe just your industry.


Ramon:  Awesome. Let’s talk about success, Carmen. I mean, you’ve been in business for a couple of years now and I’m sure there’s been success, clearly, or we wouldn’t be talking today. So mention one or two of those, what is the one thing that brings a smile to your face, like you know what? We did this right and sure, why do you think you did it right and what we can all learn from that? What’s one or two success stories you can tell us about?


Carmen:  Sure.


Ramon:  Or something you’re happy about or proud of or whatever it may be.


Carmen:  I think when we celebrated our five year anniversary, that was kind of a milestone and a lot of people really came forward and congratulated us, especially because there’s that famous statistic that a lot of businesses don’t make it past that five year mark. That was exciting for us, but I think what was more exciting was a few months later after that anniversary when we graduated our first ever class of black belts. That was, I think for us, really a realization of what we were there to do. There’s a lot of martial arts schools out there that are not started from scratch. In other words, sometimes very often students will take over their instructor’s school, so it’s like there’s already an established student base and they’re carrying it forward, so it’s pretty rare for a case like ours where we started literally from zero. We opened the door, there were zero students, we had to sign them all up.


So because of that, we never had black belts and when we finally got to that point where we graduated our first class, that was really exciting and actually we made a little mini documentary about that event and one of the things that really made that day extra special was one of our two adult black belt graduates. All of the black belts had to do a speech at the ceremony to talk about what black belt means to them and during his speech, he actually announced right there that he was going to be a father for the first time. It was amazing because he’s fromEnglandand his fiancé actually was Skyping with his parents on the iPad, so they got to see him receive his black belt, even though they were on the other side of the world. That was definitely, I think, one of the highlights so far in what we’ve done.


Ramon:  My guess is that that brings a lot fulfillment, I mean, beyond the transaction of somebody paying you for a service, I mean, as small business owners, I think we feel a great closeness to our clients, to our customers, because clearly you’ve helped this gentleman’s life so I would guess that that’s a sense of fulfillment and pushes you forward the next day and the next day. If you agree with that, maybe you don’t.


Carmen:  No, absolutely. We are a very mission-driven business. We really believe in the transformative power of martial arts, whether it’s, when it comes to kids, just seeing these kids come in—you know we have one kid that when he first started with us, was three years old. His parents would push him in with a stroller and now this December he’s probably going to be testing for his black belt. To go from that little kid, that literally he was like a bouncy ball, he would just bounce, bounce, bounce for like the whole class, until now where he’s become this very mature young man, that’s pretty amazing.


Even on the kick boxing side, even though we do a fitness kick boxing class, it’s not really a martial arts per se, seeing those transformations, people taking that class, losing 20, 40, 60 pounds and not just because they look better but just how they feel and how that’s transformed the way that they approach everything in life, just being able to power through. We have a lot of people that are so addicted to our class that they’ll come and they’ll take actually two classes back to back, so they’ll double up and do that for like 90 minutes. Being able to power through a class like that and then they say when they go to work, whatever challenges they’re facing, to them it’s like, this is nothing compared to what I’ve been through. So yeah, definitely.


Ramon:  I love it. I want to ask you so many questions, Carmen, like about couples and all kinds of things, but I’m going to stop myself after that question.


Let’s switch gears, Carmen, to marketing. Walk us through some of the two or three things you’ve done, that you’ve done best practices and marketing. I know you’re an InfusionSoft customer, we’ll talk about that later, but just overall in marketing, what are some things you’ve done right. This is a broad question, I know, Carmen, so you can pick and choose whatever comes to your mind, but there’s online advertising, there’s Google Adwords, there’s flyers, they’re cold calling, there’s just word of mouth. You’re also a marketing expert in your own right, not just in the business you run. Can you just share with us some best practices specifically that you’ve done and some maybe general advice for other small businesses in marketing their business. I think those who are listening, just remember, Carmen’s business is a retail business so she brings a unique perspective, not just an online business, but a retail storefront business. So share with us, Carmen, some best practices that work for you.


Carmen:  Sure. I would say that the number one thing is you need to make sure you have a good product because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how great of a marketer you are, if you’re great at marketing but then your actual product or service sucks, no amount of marketing can help you. I think the first thing is, I think as a new business starting out, you want to get really good at marketing, but you also want to immediately start really perfecting what it is that you do.


Now we’re on our sixth year in business and I can say hands down, our kids karate classes and our fitness kick boxing classes are among the best inBrooklyn.


Ramon:  Nice, nice.


Carmen:  I would say easily top three, I can say that with complete confidence. Being able to feel confident in what you offer translates to a lot of different things. I’m going to get to marketing in a minute, but I think it translates to you being able to charge a premium price and feeling comfortable in that and really owning that price.


It really also translates into confidence when you’re marketing your program. As you mentioned, we do a lot of online marketing, but we do a lot of old school stuff, too. We’ll go to a street fair and have our promotional booth and I’ll be going up to people saying, “Hey, we’re offering two free weeks, we’d love to have you sign up, put down your info and we’ll get you in.” I feel confident doing that because I know our program is that good.


I think number one is, you want to make sure that what you do is actually really good, so get really good at your craft.


Ramon:  I love it. I love it.


Carmen:  Then I would say in terms of the things that we’ve done, definitely having a strong web presence is of course really important and we’ve been blogging and doing content marketing regularly for at least the last three, four years pretty consistently. Because of that, luckily we rank pretty well in a lot of the typical search terms that people use to find us. So I think the content marketing piece is really important.


Then as you probably know by now, I’m a big believer in direct response marketing. I’m not one of these people that’s like, “Oh, we’ll just pay some company $500 for just exposure,” I’m all about lead generation. I think especially for a small business, especially when you’re starting out, I think it’s really important for you to think in terms of leads, so rather than thinking about, “Okay, I just want to kind of get my message out there and blast my contact info to everyone out there, you want to think the opposite, where you want to collect your prospective customer’s info, contact info, and bring that in and start building your list. So I think building your list is really important and what I mean by that is collecting people’s names, phone numbers, emails, and mailing addresses if you can and then communicating to them regularly. That way you actually have some control over your business as opposed to just opening the door every day and you’ll see who happens to walk in.


Ramon:  No, and I think you’re right about that. I mean, as one who’s a geek as you know, Carmen—and you are as well—I mean, it’s easy for us to slide into saying, “Oh, just tweet or get a Facebook page or do something cool,” just talk on that aspect, but as business owners, if people are not buying, it doesn’t mean anything. We can tweet and Facebook and Pinterest all day, but I think when you do it with the mindset of a lead, of a customer, that’s when I think social media, and I’m not afraid, when people say, “Ramon, can you make money from social media?” I’m not one of these that say, “Well, it’s engagement.” That’s all part of it, when you use those buzz words, but you have to make money.


Carmen:  Yeah.


Ramon:  Let’s talk a little bit about InfusionSoft, Carmen. InfusionSoft, for those who may not know, is a CRM sales and marketing software specifically designed for small business owners, it builds email marketing, lead scoring, campaign builder, where you can build customized marketing campaigns, landing pages, and all sorts of things.


So briefly, Carmen, just talk to us a little bit about how you use InfusionSoft and I do think, and I’ll say right at the top, InfusionSoft is probably not for every business. I say build a great website, do email marketing, get that right and when you’re ready, graduate to some CRM system, hopefully it’s InfusionSoft.


Carmen, tell us a little about one or two things, how you’re using it and what you like about it, how it’s helped your business and maybe advice for others who are considering, is CRM for me or maybe should I wait? Those two questions.

Carmen:  Yeah, for us, InfusionSoft was a real lifesaver and the reason that I signed up for it in the first place is because we had five different systems that were not talking to each other. So we had our contact info of our members in one place, we were doing our billing in another place, we were doing email marketing in another place. None of these systems were working together, so every time I had to do something it involved a lot of exporting to Excel and manipulating stuff and it was really a nightmare.


I’m a huge fan of InfusionSoft, I’ll just put that out there, I’m an unabashed fan, and for us, it’s really been transformative. We do all of our billing, our tuition billing through there so people are in monthly membership programs at our school and so all of their billing runs through there. We do all of our email marketing, so all our email newsletters, all our email announcements, we do everything through there. We use the campaign builder that you mentioned, extensively and particularly all the specific landing pages that you do. The reason that that is really helpful is that it allows me to track in immense detail the ROI of every single marketing that we do.


You and I have talked before about how we really like to link our old school marketing stuff, flyers, street fairs, promotional booths, signage, and I actually link that to InfusionSoft. If I hand out a flyer, it will have a custom URL on there so that if you opt-in through that URL, I know, oh, this person got this specific flyer and so I know that this works.


Being able to really marry that old school and that new school for us has been really, really helpful.


I wish, Carmen, and I did an event a few weeks ago about old school marketing and actually I wrote an article about it, as you may know, Carmen, in ClickZ, so those of you who want to Google Carmen’s name and go to the ClickZ website, you can see some of my overview on it. I may have put it on as well.


Carmen, let’s talk about, for those who are wondering if they should have CRM or not, any guidance for them? Again, just to repeat, I think email marketing is great, some people, that maybe just fine for some. What is your guidance for those who are deciding when to make that jump to CRM, which is a bit bigger investment, it could cost you $5,000 or so a year, a couple hundred a month for many of the good systems, the higher-end systems out there, which InfusionSoft is. How do you guide small business owners who are trying to decide, “When do I go from say a Constant Contact, a MailChimp, direct response, which are great email products, but to a more higher-end products such as InfusionSoft. You mentioned one thing, it has all in one, but can you tell us how you would guide someone, when CRM is for them or not?


Carmen:  I think that if you are finding yourself really frustrated by having all these separate systems that are not talking to each other, that might be a sign that you’re ready for a better solution.


I think for a lot of folks, just a basic email marketing software like some of those services you mentioned is sufficient, but if you want in addition to just a bunch of names and email address in a database, if you want to be able to click on that person’s name and see what’s their purchase history, what’s your history of your correspondence with that person and you want the ability to be able to segment your list in different ways, maybe tag them based on how did they join your list in the first place, you met them at an event or maybe they heard about you through a flyer, maybe they just found you online. If you feel like you’re getting to the point where you need more detail and that kind of information, maybe your sales are being held because you don’t have that, then I think it might be a good time to switch. But like you know, InfusionSoft, it’s not for everyone, there’s definitely a learning curve for sure and you do have to invest time, either time into learning it yourself or money into maybe getting a little bit of a help with it so you can get on a quicker learning curve.


Ramon:  Sure, this has been awesome. Anything else, Carmen, that I didn’t ask  you that you want to share? I mean, you have a wealth of knowledge to share and I could be on here for hours with you, but I know we covered a little bit about marketing and you gave some ideas there. We covered a little bit about business growth, we talked about not rushing in and kind of mentorship is important, and advisors, but you have to kind of take their advice with what you know as well. We just touched on CRM, how it’s important for growing small businesses, I think, who are having 10 different silos of information and you’re just going crazy. You need to have it in one central place, that’s where CRM is excellent for you, InfusionSoft has an awesome platform for that.


Anything else that’s on your mind that you want to talk about that we didn’t specifically mention?


Carmen:  I think I really want to hammer home the importance of building your own list. I blog about small business as well so through that I speak to a lot of small business owners out there and I find that a lot of people are still not in that mindset of having to have their own database, they’re still kind of relying on whatever happens to come through the door, whatever phone calls happen to come in. You can run your business pretty well for a while like that, but at a certain point you want to be able to have a little more control so if there’s something you want to push out there, you have someone to push it to, because if you don’t have a list, who are you going to tell? Yeah, you could put a sign on your window, but then you’re just attracting whoever happens to be walking by at that time. I really think that whether you’re using a CRM system like InfusionSoft or not, whether you’re using email marketing or not, even if it’s as simple as literally just an Excel spreadsheet with names and phone numbers and email addresses on there, you definitely want to start building a list and communicating to them regularly so that you can really build that relationship and that’s what leads to sales.


Ramon:  No, and you’re right and I think that’s one thing we talk about. InfusionSoft, as you know, probably better than I do, our life cycle marketing. I mean, that’s the email, it’s the fourth step in the process. Some people may think it’s just a cute little saying or a cute little diagram, but I think it’s so true because small businesses spend so much time trying to make the sale and I think instead they should stop and wait and build that list and nurture it, especially those who’ve already just, like in your case, “Maybe I want my kid to take karate or kick boxing or not,” you don’t have to sell them yet. Just keep sending them information, touch them as we say, multiple times, nurture them, when they’re ready to buy, they’re going to buy. I think you’re right because if you’re building a list of 100 names or 10,000 name, whatever is the metric for your business, if you’re nurturing that list, all you need is X-percent to buy from you to be in business over 5 years like Carmen and her husband are with their studio in Brooklyn, with their karate school in Brooklyn.


Did I say that right, Carmen or did I mess up what you just said, did I say it right?


Carmen:  No, no, absolutely. Just to put some numbers on that for those of you who are curious.


Ramon:  Please.


Carmen:  In our business, any given month, let’s say out of however many enrollments we get that month, a good 20% of them are always people that have been on our list for 6 months or longer. So if we were not nurturing our list and we were just relying on new leads coming in, we’d be leaving 20% of our business on the table. This is not just, like you said, some people might be a little skeptical and like, “Oh, this seems like so touchy-feely, whatever, this is the new fad, buzz word,” it’s not, it really translates into dollars. It’s something that if you’re not already doing, you should definitely be doing.


Ramon:  And only CRM can do that, I mean, you know, the other products, the single unit products are great, but they cannot do this nurture like a CRM product can.


Carmen, this has been awesome! Thank you for taking the time to discuss with me. I guess you have to go back and kick some butt now or train somebody or throw somebody on the floor or something, but I hope we can do it again, I know we’ll do it again and we’ll talk about more business growth things and other things that piqued my interest as you were talking. But thank you so much.


Carmen:  Thank you.


[End of Audio]



Transcription by bethfys


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