From Wreck to Business Success: An Interview With Urban Martial Arts

by Bridgette Austin

7 min read

In 2007, Serge Sognonvi’s life took an unexpected turn when he got into a major car accident. Although his vehicle was totaled, Serge miraculously walked away from the wreck unscathed. The life-changing experience resonated with Serge, who soon quit his full-time job and opened Urban Martial Arts in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park neighborhood.

Since opening their doors over eight years ago, Serge—currently a fifth-degree black belt—and his wife Carmen Sognonvi have built Urban Martial Arts into a studio serving more than 300 students. In addition to karate classes for kids and teens, the school has expanded its martial arts curriculum to include adult kickboxing classes, as well as a karate summer camp and after-school program.

On top of running their brick-and-mortar company, Carmen has started sharing some of the valuable lessons she and Serge have learned by advising other business owners (www.carmensognonvi.com) on marketing and entrepreneurship. Here’s what the husband-and-wife team had to say about their own entrepreneurial success story and the importance of being open to unlimited possibilities.

Seize Your Aha Moment

Serge: Prior to 2007, I’d been working in finance while going to school and holding down a part-time job. I was doing a lot of things, yet nothing seemed to be coming together.

One night while driving home from my shift, I lost control of my car. It ended up being completely totaled. The paramedics and fire department who responded to the crash scene were amazed I walked away without a scratch. I was lucky to be alive.

Afterwards, I walked home and woke up Carmen. I told her I wanted to start training again and open a school. Six months later, Urban Martial Arts began pre-registering students for our first classes.

Carmen: At the time, we were both juggling multiple jobs and getting burned out. I was working at a hedge fund during the day, and blogging and speaking at night. Once Serge made the decision to open a martial arts studio, everything started coming together.

We were convinced that business ownership was right for us due to the new reality of the economy. The old plan—going to school and earning a college degree that guarantees a stable job—no longer works. Serge tried to follow that path, but it wasn’t satisfying or producing tangible results.

Prepare to Take the Leap

Serge: After deciding to become a business owner, I visited real estate firms in our neighborhood to see if there was commercial space available that fit my criteria and monthly budget. I wanted a space that fell between 1000 and 1500 square feet, with a maximum rent of $3,000 per month.

One real estate agent showed us a space that was situated above an H&R Block. The room looked like a former gambling ring that had been raided. Poker chips and broken glasses were strewn across the room. There were tipped over roulette wheels. Not surprisingly, the agent informed us we could take the space ‘as is.’

Needless to say, we declined and eventually found our current space. Initially, it was supposed to be renovated and ready for business within 30 days. Instead, renovations lasted six months.

Carmen: We made a decision to start marketing the school, even while construction was still underway. We posted a ‘Coming Soon’ sign in the window with our school name and logo. In January 2007, we put a mat down and began teaching trial classes.

By the time we officially opened in March, we had already enrolled enough students to cover the monthly rent. Six months after starting our first trial class, we had nearly 100 students. Our high enrollment rate was encouraging, since most martial arts studios in the U.S. tend to plateau around 80 to 100 students.

Take Advantage of Available Funding Sources

Serge: Personal savings was one source of capital for the school. I had saved roughly $10,000 in earnings from my previous job, which was just enough to cover first and last month’s rent, and the security deposit.

We used the remaining $1,000 to launch our website and take professional photos. Additionally, we received a $25,000 business loan from our personal bank.

Carmen: We were really lucky in that regard, since we received our business loan right before the financial crash in 2008. Banks were still liberal in their lending practices when it came to giving out small business loans.

Good credit also played a factor. You have to guarantee business loans with your personal assets. So, even if you dissolve your business, you’re still on the hook for repaying back those loans.

Go Above and Beyond to Bypass Competition

Carmen: We felt it was important to keep two things in mind when we launched the school. First, we wanted to create a warm and family-oriented atmosphere for our customers. Secondly, we felt very strongly about maintaining a high level of professionalism. Both Serge and I have corporate backgrounds, so looking and acting professional, as well as continuously improving, have always been part of our philosophy.

There were certain decisions we made in the beginning that really made a difference. Investing in quality graphic design, creating an impressive company logo and investing in branded, yet unique-looking uniforms are some of the things that separated us from other martial arts schools. People inquired about our school based on the students they would see walking around the neighborhood in Urban Martial Arts uniforms.

We also distribute a weekly email newsletter, which provides useful articles targeted to both parents and prospects. For the students, we create and publish videos that cover our martial arts curriculum.

During belt testing, the kids supplement their training by watching the videos at home. The videos are instrumental, since students can watch them with their parents, who in turn can help guide their children’s at-home practice. It’s those little things that really make us stand out from our competitors.

Serge: With marketing, there isn’t just one thing that works. Otherwise, everyone would be doing it. Our marketing consists of everything from flyering, street events and social media, to building rapport with schools by giving talks on subjects like bullying.

It’s about being consistent with your marketing and teaching excellent classes. You can have a great marketing strategy, but if a parent visits your school and it doesn’t live up to his or her expectations, the customer will leave.

Seek Out Advisors and Mentors in Your Industry

Serge: Investing in yourself is key. Launching a company requires you to change your mindset and grow as an individual. To truly get better at your business, you need to constantly think outside the box.

It’s also important to find a mentor, or at least talk to someone who’s successful in your field. I’m lucky to have friends who own multiple schools throughout the city and who average more than 20 years in the business. Whatever questions I had as a new owner, they were there to answer them and provide help when I needed it.

Speak with individuals who have long and successful track records running their own companies. Likely, those seasoned entrepreneurs have made a lot of mistakes as they climbed their way to the top.

Anyone can receive advice. However, using that advice by applying it to your own business can help you realize real results.

Keep Learning and Never Stop Improving

Carmen: It’s critical to stay aware and be able to evolve when necessary. We see lots of small companies that get stuck doing things the same way. And it’s not just about learning the newest technology. You must pay attention to the community where you do business and how the neighborhood is changing over time.

We’re located in Ditmas Park, which is a gentrifying neighborhood. As business owners, it’s crucial we anticipate our customers’ future needs and how customer demographics will evolve over time.

For instance, what steps are you taking to keep up with customer expectations, tastes and trends? Follow technology and industry trends by looking beyond your business, and try to understand how those different market shifts impact your company.

Serge: We always try to seek out relevant information and learn more about business trends in general. As a service business, we want to ensure our customers have a great experience and want to return.

I’m not the only person who teaches martial arts in Brooklyn. But being consistent in what we do has enabled us to retain customers who’ve been with Urban Martial Arts for seven years and counting.

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