Lessons Learned: Aim High Academy Kicks its Way Back from Failure

Fighting your way back from the brink of failure is no small feat. Aim High owner Dan Sikkens saved his company and shares what he learned.
Writer and Public Speaker, Freelance
March 22, 2013

Aim High Academy of Martial Arts is one of the most successful martial arts studios in the Portland, Ore., metro area. In an industry where most schools struggle to attract students, Aim High runs three training areas simultaneously and has well over 500 students in 12 different programs. It has won local and national recognition for its quality of instruction, green environmental policies and treatment of employees. 

But it wasn't always that way. Like most success stories, Aim High at one time was on the brink of failure. Owner Dan Sikkens says that low point happened when they first moved to a larger facility. A combination of errors led to the school being out of money, low on students and without a home. Finding himself in that situation—and being able to navigate out of it—helped Sikkens learn three lessons he won't soon forget.

Lesson One: Know Your Location

Aim High moved into its first large location because it needed to grow and required more space to make that happen. Sikkens chose a location based on its size—big enough to hold the number of students he wanted, not just what he had. To attract the clients he hoped for, Sikkens poured nearly $100,000 into a renovation that turned the location into what other dojo owners called a "Taj Mahal of martial arts." It was professionally painted, subdivided with multiple training spaces, and even had a coffee bar serviced by a nearby restaurant. 

But the location didn't justify the improvements. It was situated on a major road, but access to the mall was tricky from all but one direction. Worse, the year Aim High moved, that road was in the middle of an extensive renovation that made locals avoid the whole street. Area demographics compounded the tricky access. Although one affluent neighborhood was nestled nearby, most of the local neighborhoods ran toward single-parent families and low-income housing—not the population that typically has time or money for karate lessons. 

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Lesson Two: Protect Your Reserves

As the renovations drew to a close, Aim High's landlord presented Sikkens with a bill that was much higher than the agreement he had negotiated upon moving in and committing to the renovations. Because Sikkens had blown through his reserve money, he had no funds to hire a lawyer to fight the bill. 

Having extra money would have helped Aim High in two ways. Money for a lawyer to enforce the agreement would have helped get some relief from the six-figure loss. Before that, though, Sikkens had opted to save money by having one of the dojo's students look over the contract. That student, who was a divorce lawyer rather than a contract or real estate specialist, missed a handful of common dirty tricks. "If I were to do it over," Sikkens says, "I would have spent the thousand dollars to have an expert make sure the contract said what we were told it said. Having some money not earmarked for the renovation would have allowed that."


Photo courtesy of Aim High Academy 

Lesson Three: Have a Strong Team

Faced with no reserves and the search for a new home, Dan seriously considered closing up shop and finding something else to do with his life. Only his team kept him on track. "I was responsible for three careers at that point. Those guys counting on me kept me moving forward." 

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A strong team is a two-way street, of course. It wasn't only Sikken's loyalty to his team that motivated him to keep the doors open. That team earned his loyalty with professionalism, competence and excellent service to their existing customer base. Without him, they would have lost their jobs. Without them, Sikkens wouldn't have been able to focus his attention on solving his business problems. 

Aim High is now in a larger location at half the rent, at one of the busiest intersections in the area. But that success came after plenty of sleepless nights and some big lessons learned.

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Photo: Courtesy of Aim High Academy

Jason has contributed over 2,000 blog and magazine articles to publications local, regional and national. He speaks regularly at writing and business conferences. Jason blogs via Contently.com.