Alan “Gumby” Marques is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Ralph Gracie, and the owner of Heroes Martial Arts in San Jose. He is also the co-founder of the OTM (OnTheMat) brand. Gumby was also my (Eran) instructor and Jiu-Jitsu mentor for close to 4 years, and the person who awarded me my brown belt back in 2015. I talked to Gumby about his school and how he’s been dealing with the COVID situation.
Eran Galperin (Martial Arts on Rails founder): Tell us about Heroes Martial Arts – What is the story behind opening it?
Alan “Gumby” Marques (Heroes Martial Arts): I’ll make the story short in that I had developed a following and had been teaching a few people on the side, but I quickly outgrew that situation. With my mestre Ralph Gracie’s blessing, I opened up Heroes in downtown San Jose.
I wouldn’t say things were about luck, but I didn’t really know what I was looking for in a location at the time (other than a place to lay mats down) and now the choice turned out to be iconic. I know the name was important as well (I was going for a sort of comic book vibe) but originally it was a throwaway from a tournament I had hosted earlier.
Some readers of this may know I am the co-founder of OntheMat.com and travelled for years covering and promoting Jiu Jitsu. It was wonderful but I really found I loved being on the mat and teaching for both the instantaneous response as well as the prospect of bringing up some people in this art. So opening up Heroes was a natural path for me.
Eran: What did you struggle with when you were just getting started? What did you learn and how did you improve?
Gumby: I’ve been in the workforce for a long time, but running a brick and mortar is something different for sure. You’re first and foremost a customer based service and learning how to mitigate that took an adjustment.
At the same time this is a martial arts studio so there are certain things to uphold in terms of traditions and standards – the customer isn’t always right. It’s actually the balance between old school mentality that I came up with, and how the student base and situations are right now that have always been the biggest balancing act.
I don’t think a school could exist in the way I came up and I understand that, but at the same time I want to make sure elements (the “toughness”) isn’t lost either.
Eran: What is involved in the day-to-day operations of running the school?
Gumby: I would say there are three elements to running a successful academy.
First is running the classes and making sure that people get what they need and the instruction and environment meets their needs. Honestly that part comes easily at this point.
Second is the basic maintenance and the like that needs to be done. Bills paid and bathrooms cleaned. Not the most fun part but completely necessary.
Third is what I’ll lump together as marketing, expansion, reaching new students, etc. It’s the part which I’m constantly trying to learn more about and it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me. Ignore any of those functions and you’re not going to have an academy, let alone a successful one.
Eran: How are you using Martial Arts on Rails to help manage your operations? How was it before and after you started using our software?
Gumby: I used a few other billing solutions before Martial Arts on Rails and without too many details I wasn’t very happy with the product and the service. On a second note, the service has been remarkable from MAonRails, inquiries are responded to very quickly and they have implemented a few of my suggestions. It’s very easy to use for beginners, customizable for advanced users and has nothing else you wouldn’t need.
Eran: What other tools do you use to help with managing your operations?
Gumby: I am reasonably tech savvy, so I built and maintain our own websites largely using WordPress. I also have some marketing automation tools which I find useful and I recently adopted a phone answering service which even with the shut downs I don’t know how I got along without now.
Eran: How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your business? How did you adapt?
Gumby: Santa Clara County in California has some of the most strict lockdown in the county, legally we’ve been forced to shut down over 200 days of 2020. Without the support of our longtime students we definitely would not be here still.
We moved what we could online and kept the communication flowing with our members and let each other know we would make it through one way or the other.
Eran: What is your approach for attracting new members? What worked for you and what didn’t?
Gumby: I think creating a great environment and word of mouth has been the biggest thing. Also I think being heavily involved in the community both to our students, other businesses and the local government is extremely important as well.
You don’t necessarily have to be at every meeting but you need to be visible, especially important in times of crisis like we’re going through now. I don’t think there is a set formula that attracts students, even if you discover something that works for you once or twice there is no guarantee that it will work the next time you so you have to be involved and innovative.
Eran: How do you help members succeed and stay motivated through their training?
Gumby: I care a lot. I have high standards for everyone but I let them know those goals are achievable ones.
At the same time I try to be realistic with everyone, if their goals are unrealistic or they aren’t putting in the work I am definitely going to let you know that as well.
I think in martial arts, Jiu Jitsu in particular, people have this tendency to look for external sources of motivation, when the truth is I am just trying to give you the tools to bring out the best in yourself.
Eran: What are your plans for the future?
Gumby: I had just opened up the second location of Heroes and was looking forward to expanding our youth programs, particularly working with at risk youth.
Furthermore, I was backing off of my hectic teaching schedule and empowering the guys (Eastside and Trevor) to take more responsibility and ownership in running Heroes. COVID just delayed things a bit, but we’ll make those plans happen soon.